Getting to Know The Boss

Rama Bijapurkar Posted online: Sunday, Jan 12, 2014 at 0000 hrs
I recommend that all top management do their hiring interviews on flights that have to be diverted from their original destinations due to bad weather. Forget about top management team dynamics assessment studies with expensive consultants.

I was on one such plane some years ago, when the monsoons caused the plane from Delhi to Mumbai to get diverted to Ahmedabad, not once but twice. It was in business class, full of CIPs that are typical of this sector, that this tableau unfolded. (CIP is that charming word we see in the Kolkota airport lounge, reminding us that CIPs are not VIPs, they are merely commercially important people). CIP 1 kept haranguing the air hostess, once the captain announced his decision, about the next steps. How long would the wait be? What facilitation would be done? Would it be the same aircraft or a different one? She said she didn’t know. He kept asking the same questions, alternated by more harangue. “How come you don’t know?” “Why can’t you ask the captain?” “Exactly, what did the weather report say?”

CIP 2 wanted to know if he could get frequent flier mileage points for all the additional miles that we were clocking. In the M&A advisory business, I thought, or maybe with a management consulting firm. Never mind where you are going, where you set out to go, how much confusion there is in the middle — can we have clarity on whether I get paid for the extra time this is taking?

CIP 3 was a hindsight nagger. The poor air hostess was

asked: “How come you didn’t know the weather was bad when you took off?” “Shouldn’t you have discovered this closer to Delhi?” “Why did you get past the point of no return?” “Did ATC

(air traffic control) not inform you earlier?” I remember thinking that if I was married to this one, he would ask me on my child’s wedding day: “Didn’t you know that he/she would marry

someone unsuitable, and all those years you spent with the children while I was working hard and travelling, why didn’t you influence them better?”

CIP 4 was a foreign diplomat, a very senior one. He just watched all the noise and arguments for a while and then went quietly to the air hostess, turned on millions of watts of quiet charm and told her that she should persuade the captain to take the plane back to Delhi, since most people on it were from there, and the day would be pretty much wasted after all this detouring. He said he would be happy to talk to the captain himself, and did not comprehend the standard “sorry sir, that’s not allowed” reply.

Thinking about this on a diverted flight yesterday, I also remembered the time I went to Kathmandu for a conference, as a rookie branch manager in a market research firm, and watched my three head office bosses in action at the casino. I used to report to all three. The company being a start-up, everyone did everything, and together they functioned as the Holy Trinity. One of them, the most difficult to deal with, gave me a clue on

why it was so hard to argue with him over business plans. He favoured roulette and his strategy was to bet large sums on odds-or-evens and blacks-or-reds, for no apparent reason other than his gut. And the more he lost, the more stubborn he became. Another was the best researcher there ever was, but was not particularly interested in whether your branch’s cash flows could pay your salaries that month and whether you needed help. He stayed away from games of chance and played what he thought were games of skill like pontoon or black jack. Even when gambling, he was an intellectual first and a gambler later. And the third one, whom I found most reasonable to do business with, also favoured roulette. But his system was very different from the odds-and-evens boss. He would start small and put increasing amounts of money on the same number over time, and actually be disappointed if the number he was betting on came too early. After that, I knew who to go to for what, and it worked quite well!

Of course, not everyone is that predictable or in an identifiable mould. Some are, what a friend of mine describes as, “perfect random variables”. But fortunately, most people aren’t that way. So it’s worth watching people at work.

Rama Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only and A Never-Before World: Tracking the evolution of Consumer India