Ethics again

A very invigorating discussion on ethics triggered in me a wish to begin a regular thing on ethics here. I know of late the whole realm of ethics has been grossly overrated, with enough and more scandals coming out by the minute. People have blamed B schools, capitalism, and anyone possible for everything wrong with the moral code. There was a time when we had just WorldCom and Enron to contend with and now we have the whole collapse of the financial system with the role played by rating agencies who condoned BBB bonds in AAA tranches, over zealous investment banks worried more about profits and bottom lines, people who chose to bite waaaay more than they could chew and many many more.

But when we think of the word ethics, we immediately think of huge corporations going bust, policy makers drafting bills and laws to prevent transgressions, or CEOs going to jail. But honestly ethics, in my opinion, begin at home. And what is right for me, may be grievously wrong for someone else, and vice versa. So, it is a completely personal code of conduct that one builds for oneself. And the points that go into that mental docket are built over years of gleaning values from school, work, friends, acquaintances and so on. One interesting point though is that many-a-time a CEO’s personal code defines the code of ethics in an organization. Now, that is why, several times, large firms grow talent to lead the firm, since the ethical code is ingrained in them and impressing the same code on fellow employees wouldn’t be tough. And that also could be one reason why small, growing firms prefer veteran CEOs of industry behemoths who have a very credible tag associated with them.

It has been a long time since I wrote in here, and so, the motivation to keep a regular column on ethics – the big, the small, the ugly, the wrong, the condoned – examples and viewpoints, was the idea.

So, read on…

Attention to detail

Here is a typical project. It involves going to the client’s offices and taking an inventory of the various assets and sprucing up their processes as such. You have a whole team of people working under you, and you send groups of people to each office to carry out this data collection task. As a manager, you have 0 incentive to actually get in there and get your hands dirty. Now, this, I have noticed is a very Indian characteristic. And my belief was bolstered more by an observation made by a senior director at a large construction firm, that has recently initiated operations in India. He said that the typical Indian managerial method is to sit in an office, get your tea or coffee delivered at your desk, pull out research reports, and get status updates from your subordinates. Which for a very great extent is actually true.

But how good a practice is this? Don’t you think that early on, a manager must actually know all about all aspects of his projects? Delegation is the key to getting work done. But consider this. If at a review meeting of the project I’d described earlier, if your boss’ boss needs some input on the way the data collection was done. She intends to spruce up our data collection activities, since she feels that we are losing too many man-days on this aspect. If I have never ever conducted such an activity myself, I for one will perhaps never be able to understand/ appreciate the issues faced on the job!

Like someone has said, ‘the devil lies in the detail’. B school churns out the next league of managers, armed and equipped with the latest management tools and techniques. But unless the mentality to do a thorough job without an elitist view towards work, is developed, we would never be able to go from good to great…

Work and Ethics

Given the number of frauds being committed throughout the world, ethics is now the new buzzword of business. All of a sudden, innovation, market share are no longer the deciding parameters of a firm’s success. Rather sustained ethical behavior is what is expected of the new crop of managers – senior and junior.

The question is – Why? And aren’t ethics more personal and subjective? A couple of statements by my professor at B School stand out. He said that at B School, we are taught a value system, and how we interpret and internalize these values forms our code of ethics. Having said that, we also know the difference between right and wrong – we are after all rational human beings. But at what level will we draw the line between what is wrong and what can be condoned? In the world of business, one knows that things are never all black or white. And to achieve the desired growth, one must necessarily cut some corners here and there, one is forced to contend with the system and not fight it all levels. So at what stage do decisions cross over from being white to becoming black? And where does a decision linger around gray? Does being 100% ethical at all time stand you in good stead? Does it make sense to be an oak tree when the whole world is swept by winds of corruption?

In the world of business, say in a field like real estate or heavy industries, the stake holders are many and scattered. Also, the stakes are very high. If the scattered stake holders are all appeased, projects move fast. At the same time, it never takes too long for these scattered stake holders to hold up projects and erode gains, if they remain unhappy. At this time, should one look at a quick and dirty fix to the problem, and just get the monkey off one’s shoulders? Some may argue ‘BIG PICTURE’. A few millions pumped into the system wouldn’t hurt, especially if these few millions wouldn’t hinder the inflow of many billions, once the project takes off. But what is the guarantee that the monkey won’t keep returning on to your shoulders. And how long would it take unsavory elements to up the demands from a few millions to a few percent of profits?

The answer is never clear. But a firm’s philosophy Continue Reading »

On Women’s Day this year, I wrote a post on my blog asking whether a woman really needs to feel happy that it was Women’s Day! Here is the link – ‘Happy Women’s Day… Really???‘ Women’s liberation is an oft discussed topic. It is also a delicate topic, which people stay away from, for fear of affecting sentiments. The allegiance towards the ‘feminist cause’ is two pronged actually. Some women take feminism to the level of activism. They take the belligerent stance when it comes to asking for opportunities. Some others, who by dint of their efforts and hard work, manage to reach somewhere in their careers, look upon the tag of being ‘feminist’ with disdain. They do not wish to be associated with the feminist tag, for fear of appearing to be one of ‘them’. But the issue at hand is the fact that there still remain a number of challenges that face women at work.

One key issue, that affects women, no matter which field of work they may be in, is that of the lopsided work-life balance. A friend of mine, the other day, gave me a grim statistic. Of 30 women picked up for consulting jobs at a prestigious B school in India, 27 ended up divorced! I cannot comment on the veracity of the stat, but I can certainly say that it is indeed a scary one. On the one hand, social thinkers advocate equal opportunity for women, and say that women must strive to achieve greatness in life. On the other hand, support systems decide how successful a woman can get in the corporate life. What triggered my line of thought was a statement by my maid the other day. She happens Continue Reading »

Camaraderie at work

This post has been long overdue, but tremendous work pressures actually made me lose my way in the maze of the workplace.

Ok, now, let me ask you a question. What makes you want to get up at 6 am, take a train/ bus/ drive to work everyday? The typical answer given to colleagues during office parties is “You, know, I love every bit of the work I do and that drives me to work everyday!” Annnnnd, this statement is made when the boss is standing very near, and can hear you clearlllllly.

But let’s be honest. I know I didn’t enjoy every minute, every second of what I did at work. There were periods when I wanted to just relax on a beach maybe. But still I went to work. I am sure all of us have had such moments. So why? Why did you or I go to the office the next day?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the workplace contains PEOPLE. Our colleagues, our peers, who with the fun atmosphere they weave, create in us the wish to go to work. Think about the chitchats, the aimless peer-to-peer meetings, the coffee breaks. Yes, they don’t define the work day, but add that zing to work. But then again, the whole concept is intrinsic to the work culture. Some places encourage a quasi – informal work culture, wherein the workplace is more than just that – it also is a place to hang out in. In such places, you not only build teams, you build friendships too. In such places, a crucial cricket match – (India Pak or the Ashes) are seen in the cabin of the CEO, or any such biggie with a cabin and a TV. And such a camaraderie at the workplace is one major puller as you fight the early morning blues.

And then again, there are places that are not as ‘free’. Here, matches are followed surreptitiously on a ticker or by refreshing the news page. But then again, the lack of freedom is never a deterrent, since the whole team chats ‘Yippeeee’ in unison, when all their surreptitious tickers announce a victory. Yet again – the camaraderie rules!

There was this time, when I happened to meet a gentleman while on project at a client site. He was an Indian, working with a huge consulting firm and I was into project implementations. While we sat talking, he said that prior to joining the consulting firm, he was into implementations in a mid size IT firm in India. We got to talking on account of the similarities in background – Implementations, IT, etc etc. So he started to talk about the vast differences in the manner of operations of the two lines of business. Consulting is essentially related to providing solutions, analyses and the like, while implementation in IT is all to do with handlng day to day issues, setting deadlines, and pushing a team to achieve those deadlines. So team dynamics, camaraderie between varied people, clashes between people are rather commonplace in implementation teams. All those words were actually being experienced by me at the time. In terms of consulting, he said, that it is extremely knowledge intensive and although the depth of knowledge in a specific field or technology may not be as much as one might achieve in implementation tasks, the area or breadth of knowledge is vast. You actually get a bigger pool to swim in, he said. But in terms of team cohesiveness or relationships, implementation projects are more conducive, he said. The primary reason is the fact that disparate people are thrown together to fend for themselves in an alien country with a bleak client, and even bleaker chances of exit. “So we’d hang out together, look out for one another, work together, eat together – we were real thick friends. In fact I am in touch with them even now, and we meet for drinks every now and then, long after I have left that firm”, he said.

So I asked him, ” What do you like more?” And he said, ” Each is…. different. But I had a lovely time in implementation.”

That brings me to my question today – How important is ‘people culture’? Clearly collaboration and team dynamics are of paramount importance. Many minds, varied solutions. But does building a cohesive, informal team – almost to the degree of friends really matter so much? Many people have told me that at work, life is purely business, and friends are incidental. So does that mean that the chance of befriending people at work is to be taken as a bonus? There is no scope for friendship in a professional relationship. In that case, why is it that people like those jobs better where they had a chance to actually work in an informal, friendly atmosphere, as against the pin-striped business suit atmosphere elsewhere? If the final goal is to work, make money and keep relationships at home, why do people dig jobs at informal places like Google?

So key questions –

Does work culture (different from work ethic) really matter to the quality of work output?

Do people generally prefer a friendly, atmosphere, where one can work without worrying about who will pull one down next?

Do people perform better in situations where they can be ‘friendly’ and I mean backslapping, ‘Let’s get a beer’ type friendship?

Let’s discuss this out…………….

Well this I guess generally applies only to the Indian workplace. But I am talking of people talking on the phone! There was once this chap who was working with us, who used to have continuous calls with vendors. Getting prices for equipment, negoiating bla bla bla. Till we were on the usual analog phone, life was cool, calm and noise-free. We  switched to VoIP, and these instruments had a built-in speaker phone! The nightmare that ensued, is difficult to be forgotten even now.

He fell in love with the speaker phone! He’d speak on speaker to a vendor, to his boss, to a colleague. Thank God, not to a sweetheart! Those calls would have been answered on his cell phone. Nevertheless, the noise started getting to us. He’d scream at recalcitrant vendors, push for new prices, pull up people, speak in a regional dialect and what not! Once I was on a long distance conference call with a customer, who was a tad too soft spoken for comfort. He was giving very pointed inputs on a projects and the line was rather weak. It was an effort to hear him, let alone understand what he was saying. Since the call had started before Monseiur Speaker phone could come in, I continued the call at my cubicle. Besides, since it was late at night for the client, I couldn’t ask him to call back after I found a free conference room. Soon Mr Speaker phone arrived, and he started his usual vendor bashing. They were negotiating for something to be given at x price. There was a heated exchange of words, and all along, I tried to signal to him that I was unable to hear my conversation. But so smitted was this chap with the speaker phone, that he refused to relent. The client on the other side of my call said, ” Sindhu, who is that vendor? Maybe I could pull some strings and get that thing for you at x price. That will perhaps allow us to continue our talk!!!”

Something then ‘suddenly’ went wrong with Mr Speaker Phone’s instrument, and on account of a sudden shortage in new IP phones, Mr SP was quietly moved back to the old analog phone!

Moral of the story – my conversations are solely and wholely mine… Nobody is even remotely interested in overhearing them!!!!