Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest Post: "Gee! I'm the boss now!"

Author: Vidooshak

Talking to some younger cousins the other day, I was impressed by their desire to become a ‘team lead’ before the age of 25. Another spoke of how she wanted to quit because of office-politics and harassment at work. On further probing, the said harassment was described as being overlooked for promotion despite a lofty work experience spanning 9 months, and a manager expecting her to resolve customer issues even if it meant staying late at work.

For some reason, the definition of having ‘arrived’ includes becoming a manager—the earlier the better. Unless you have a whole bunch of people reporting to you, unless you can just pick up the phone and delegate, unless you can spend the day “in meetings” or on the BlackBerry there is just no satisfaction to all that hard-work. Whether in a call-center or technical field support, a software development firm or a sales organization, moving up (or away?) from being the first in the line of fire to a more responsible (a.k.a people-management) role seems to be an over-riding goal. In many cases, 5 years seem to be the maximum a person is willing to sacrifice doing the so-called grunt work.

While attending customer calls as a network engineer in other countries, I would often need to collaborate with much older people-- also there as network engineers. These were people getting their hands dirty unclogging the Internet drains, even through late 30’s or early 40’s, while here I am barely out of college, wondering what I did wrong to be stuck with a field job. They were not only happy to roll up their sleeves and get cracking; some of them consciously ‘avoided’ a managerial role. That got me thinking about our obsession with becoming a manager, especially in the Indian context.

I often hear about the frustrating ‘culture’ at top Indian service companies. Despite making billion dollar revenues, people complain about the bureaucracy at these companies and how stepping-up to a task can be suicidal. Everyone has many managers and everyone is probably managing many. The focus is on following process and looking over your back, rather than looking forward to a personal achievement.

A system with good managers that know how to get things done is an obvious asset. You will see excellent compliance but rare (if any) new ideas and better ways to do the same thing. When more of the ones that can think, imagine and innovate decide instead to delegate, it leads to process stagnation. That could be one reason why despite our IT success, we are still waiting to see a successful software product or true MNC born out of India, 20 years after the technology boom started.

Global MNC’s often expect us to design or service for a competitive market. Ironically, this privilege comes when you are in a managerial role, without the luxury of interfacing closely with that market as in the field-engineer days. Being isolated by layers of staff, one relies upon the experiences of a past life to spend fruitful time in this ‘ivory tower’. This can get difficult unless you’ve spent a substantial number of years in the trenches, facing enemy fire and honing survival instincts for just such a day.

In the old days, public sector units had a long and structured path to middle-management. In a career spanning 40 years, it could take 15 to 20 years before you got your first charge. Such organizations had their own flaws but the subject-matter expertise and depth of these individuals had few peers. A testimony to this is the plethora of retired oil and telecom PSU executives that have led India’s largest private oil and telecom firms to worldwide glory. Their mettle was forged in the slow fire of uncertainty, lack of resources and a life of research before Google. Today’s ‘flat organizations’ and smaller headcounts tend to reward you with this responsibility before you know it.

The more varied, wicked and vicious the early years, the better prepared one gets for handling monsters creeping at us when we occupy the hot seat. Until then, any ‘office politics’ is all in the mind; the so-called harassment is nothing more than rich experience. As for the manager ‘status symbol’, that obsession won’t die easy. India does not yet have a culture where patents and published research fetch you respect. So, college kids will continue to book their Honda Civic using the first paycheck. And hope they can delegate the driving to a junior, in a few years time.

About the Author:
Vidooshak (blog name) writes his blog over at Baingan-lores. According to his blog, he's a fond Papa who vents politically incorrect awe at India Shining inspite of Bangalore Whining.