Can handle millions, but needs approval for a cab charge!

In the movie pk the protagonist who is an alien named pk, is always trying to make sense of things on planet Earth. He notices anomalies everywhere. On my way out of the movie hall my mind went to many of the contradictions that exist on the Corporate Planet. Behaviours and practices that I have experienced or observed that would confuse anyone.

I list a few here.

1.     Trusted to handle millions in revenue but needs approval for “cab charges”.

Recently I was talking to a senior executive of a multinational company. During the conversation I came to know that he manages multiple businesses and a very important internal taskforce. The businesses that he managed amounted to over 750million US$ in revenue. There were a number of people reporting to him in many parts of the world and a large team under them. He was very proud that he had grown the business significantly over the last few years.

During the conversation he discussed about the need for his own growth and development. So I naturally said “why don’t you think through what you want, invest some time and money to make it happen”. He looked at me and said “it’s easier said than done. I need to get an approval to spend that money”.

I was very struck by that. Here is a senior executive who manages over 750 MUS$ business but needs an approval to spend some money on his own growth and development. Upon reflection, I realised I should not have been surprised by that response. I have seen executives who are trusted to manage large teams, big budgets, take care of difficult customer issues, do whatever it takes to turn around failing projects, negotiate complex deals with vendors- but when it comes to spending some money on travel, learning, hotel or telephone, cab charges, they need to get all sorts of approvals. One is trusted to handle the “big things” but need an approval for the “small things”

2.     We want passion and energy but we hire the “certificates”

During one of my mentoring sessions with a senior executive, he expressed his frustration about the senior hires in his company not having a “cultural fit”. One senior person had left within months of joining. Couple of them, he thought should be asked to leave. He concluded that the recruiting team was inept. He wanted to know what to do.

I asked him to get all the recruiters together, including him, and create a list of attributes they want to see in every senior hire. Then create a short list of top 5 attributes. Put them in an order of priority. Discuss why. I was told that the long list included: team spirit, ability to learn quickly, flexibility, great attitude, passion and energy, technical expertise, values centric, customer focus, good communication, commitment, determination, vision, business knowledge etc. The top 5 on the short list emerged as: Passion and energy, team spirit, good communication, open to learn, technical and business competence.

Then they were to look at how the resumes were screened to short list candidates for interviews, where most of the time was spent during an interview process, what were the frequently asked questions, the form which captured the interview feedback, who conducted the interviews and most importantly what factors influenced the last 6 months hires.

It was a no brainer. The process was geared to assess and capture mostly technical expertise. There was no mechanism to capture the desired attributes in a potential hire.

3.   We seek open culture behind closed rooms

Another area that is discussed quite a bit on corporate planet is openness and flexibility. That means easy access to people and ideas, where information is shared willingly and openly with who needs it to make decisions and succeed in their task. It means seamless flow of learning and breakthroughs.

However there exists a great contradiction. The organisation structure and the physical architecture in most companies do not in any way reflect openness and flexibility. Senior executives sit behind closed doors guarded by executive assistants who make access to the managers difficult and intimidating. Departments are structured and organised such that there is very little flow across. In the name of growth many layers are added (manager level 1, manager level 2 and manager level 3 etc…) and stacked on top of each other, slowly making the people structure complex and intricate. Meeting rooms reflect rigid seating and board room type rooms almost have invisible name plates as to who sits where. Floors dedicated to executives and special dining rooms for the chosen few, away from the “masses”, are not an uncommon feature in many companies.

Closed and rigid physical architecture and the organisation structures give what they are designed for and sustain that behaviour.

4.   We value team players but promote the money spinner

It is a common practice in organisations to have a competency map based on the roles. There are also clear guidelines for promoting individuals to higher roles and/or levels. They typically include: technical/functional ability, people management skills, operational skills, customer focus, etc. And more recently many have added the attributes of emotional intelligence – such as empathy, interpersonal and social skills, self-awareness, self-control etc… as critical for senior leadership roles. Managers get into lengthy discussions and present their case to promote their team members based on the promotion guidelines and the laid out criteria. The intent is to ensure the promotion is not just a recognition of what one has achieved but the presence of critical leadership competencies that one needs for the long haul and an individual’s ability to play a higher role.

But it’s not that straight forward.  There will always be some people who would score fairly low on people management skills, low on almost all the attributes of the emotional intelligence (which of course every company would say are important for leadership) but they will be on the list for a promotion. Why? Because a senior executive would put their names on the list. When the discussion about such an individual begins, managers would say, “We can’t promote him. He is quite arrogant. No one in the team wants to work with him. He had 20% more attrition in his team than other teams. He hasn’t grown any second line “. But there will be a senior executive who would say (along with a few who would tag that line) “Yes, that’s all true. But look at it this way. He is able to somehow farm the account. Money counts”. Managers would say, “But generating revenue is not the sole criteria for a promotion”.

I am sure you can guess the outcome.

5.   We have plenty of money but no budget

Recently my colleague and I facilitated a leadership development program for a group of 30 mid-level women managers. The focus was on expanding their horizons, equipping them with leadership concepts, frameworks and tools so that they can lead and not just manage. The program was considered a big success. We were very pleased with the way the participants integrated their learnings and made them part of their being. They were able to handle difficult and complex leadership situations, which in the past they would have avoided.

We thought we should acknowledge and celebrate their achievement in some way during the last session. We brainstormed some ideas: conduct the last session at an offsite location instead of the training room at the campus, have a nice sit down meal instead of the usual canteen fare, give everyone a good book, have some sweets or chocolates. May be some nice flowers. To our utter amazement and disappointment, we were told there is “no budget” for any of the above. We pushed the idea a bit more but gave up after running into the same “no budget” wall. Not only that, the nice space that was used for all the earlier sessions was also not available for the last session. We were shunted off to a smaller not so convenient meeting room.

On the day of the last session we arrived at the company to conduct the session. The place looked different. Entire campus was spruced up. The security staff was dressed like they were in a Republic day parade. Shiny shoes, tassels and plumes, crisp uniform, stiff salutes. There were large bouquets of flowers. We walked by the training room that we had used previously, the foyer was set up for special catering for lunch and snacks. The house keeping staff was white gloved. We thought – wow, looks like they changed their mind after all about having a small celebration. We were happy that they somehow managed to go beyond the “no budget” song.

Only to discover that couple of the board members were visiting from overseas. The set up and the grandeur was for them. The leadership program success celebration still had “no budget”.

These are some of the contradictions that came to my mind. I am sure you have observed others. So what is on your pk list?

4 thoughts on “Can handle millions, but needs approval for a cab charge!”

  1. Wonderful write-up Cyprian!
    I agree with your pk list and would like to share my personal experience on your second point “We want passion and energy but we hire the “certificates”.
    I have graduated from one of the country’s premium college/univ (Engineering & Management) and have been among the top performer throughout my professional career. I recollect the day I wrote my aptitude test for a potential opportunity with India’s top IT company post my graduation. I was among the top scorers but little later did they realize that I did not have 70% in my tenth standard and I was eliminated. I was bit disturbed, but was fortunate to work with better organizations that valued my talent.
    The irony is that another top Indian IT company approached me recently for a job opportunity. This time I informed them about tenth score to ensure that there is no ambiguity. I was surprised to hear that they could not proceed with my candidature even though I have proven expertise over the last 15 years of my professional experience.
    That is probably a testimony of the fact that most organizations do not really walk the talk – “We want passion and energy but we hire the “certificates”.

  2. Cyprian,

    This is good article, which highlights the typical INDIAN IT sector policies and procedures. I personally observed most of IT companies are in the same mind set.
    They are expecting diverging technology from the the talented youth,however not interested to inverst/ recruit in their companies.

  3. Venktraman

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. I am shocked 10th standard certificate out weighs all the achievements post high school!

    In our paradigm , symbols of learning and growth are certificates. Not ones ability. Certificates are visible. They are tangible. So we trust them more. Looking at certificate is easy work. Can quickly check the box.

    Competencies are abstract. They become real only when we experience the results of that ability. We need to cultivate ways to assess and measure one’s ability, passion, attitude etc. That’s hard work. That in itself is a leadership ability.

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