Games Egos Play
Arjun Bhaskar was utterly confused. Last evening he had left the media planning meeting in a huff. He had been very upset over Robin Kamat’s stance on the bubblegum advertising where he had easily agreed to cancel Rs 1.5 crore worth of plans, and this after Arjun had painstakingly explained to Robin that it was ‘not a feasible idea’.
To recap the events until now, recently Coral India, an MNC, where Arjun was a media manager, had entered into an agreement with Ahora India, a family managed company, to buy off its candy business. Part of this complicated arrangement included seconding Robin Kamat, its vice-president, to Ahora as general manager (GM), and Arjun, too, to jointly enable the integration of the brands. For both men, the nemesis at Ahora, it turned out startlingly, was its CEO Kaviraj who was not just hard as nails, but acerbic too. Robin had, over time, developed the knack to handle Kaviraj and his own ego. Or so it seemed. But Arjun had found the whole situation unnecessary and beyond logic.
As far as Arjun could see, it was a buying arrangement between the two companies and Kaviraj being domineering was really out of place. Kaviraj continued to assert and act as CEO of Ahora, but his utterly overbearing attitude in the face of the sale, rankled. Kaviraj continued to call the shots and Robin was ‘allowing’ that. I really don’t care how Robin chooses to manage his career and Kaviraj, but it comes in the way of my work and the media strategy, which is finally Coral’s now! mused Arjun.
On a few occasions when he had tried to express his displeasure, Robin had calmed him and said, “Be patient, Arjun, no point rubbing him the wrong way… .” But now it seemed clear to Arjun that it was not just with Kaviraj, but he was on an uncertain plane with Robin, too.
Driving to work this morning, Arjun was not sure of his destination. If he went back to Ahora, he would face Kaviraj who would look triumphant. And for some reason, he did not want Kaviraj to get away with all this. Their interactions had no professional logic. If he went back to Coral, he would need to explain coherently to Saxena without sounding like a whiner. Saxena did need to understand what they had to endure at Ahora and recast the relationships, he felt. But he also knew it was going to be difficult to state the interactions in professional language!
The phone rang. Arjun pulled up by the side to take the call. It was a colleague calling to say that the meeting with a large supermarket was fixed for 3 p.m… and on the way back it would be a good idea to stop at Churchgate station to glance at the new danglers and POP material. Arjun was uneasy. By this time, he had missed his position in the morning traffic.
Twenty minutes later, on Marine Drive just opposite the health club, Arjun was on lane 3 and just as the lights turned in his favour, the car next to him on lane 2, beeped loudly and cut from the left to take a U-turn, thus blocking Arjun completely and pushing him into a new signal wait… Arjun was hopping mad, he yelled at the guy, called him names, but the chap had gone long ago. Two little urchin boys who were watching, smiled through their grime and said,“Saab, woh to chala gaya!” Arjun was even more annoyed. He said, “Mereko kya, dikhta nahi kya?!”
All too suddenly Arjun was furious. Everybody is controlling my life… my day has not even begun but one after another people are deciding what I should be doing and when! He was tired of being controlled. Tired of life taking its own course when he should know what to do next, like last evening’s meeting, where Robin had sprung a surprise, after all the effort Arjun had put in. It had annoyed him so much he had walked out of the meeting. Going back to Ahora was futile… Kaviraj had made sure his way won.
The background to what had happened until now: The bubblegum media estimates face off with Kaviraj started last week, when Kaviraj summoned Arjun ‘to discuss’. On a Monday morning when Arjun had so much to cope with, this was too much. Arjun had clucked in his head. He had a hundred different things to get done to start the day; he needed the morning, but Kaviraj’s summons was sacred. So, he had grabbed all the papers and reached his room.
The third quarter estimates were amounting to Rs. 4.5 crore over six weeks, starting in the third month of the second quarter. When Arjun met him, Kaviraj said, “You have barely been here and you already have a plan for me! This MNC style of knee jerk responses won’t work here. What have you understood of our markets, tell me? In four months, you have a plan for spending Rs 4 crore. And that too to be consumed in six weeks. Where is Robin?”
Arjun was taken aback. He could not understand what the issue was. Media planning and spending was old hat for him — he had been doing that all the time at Coral. So now, what was the issue? He tried explaining but Kaviraj busied himself indicating ‘the meeting is over until Robin is here’.
Arjun sought Robin. Robin pacified him. “Give him a few months. Our innings is long, and we have to accomplish all this over three years. Don’t force the pace. Come, let us meet him.” Together they had returned to Kaviraj’s cabin. “Any specific problem with these media estimates, Kavi?” asked Robin. “We need to approve them immediately since the deadline to book spots on some of the popular and busy TV channels is running out. We will not get any air time at good rates if we delay any more!” Kaviraj did not share the enthusiasm and said, “First of all, Robin, where is my approval? You cannot spend all this money together in month 1 and month 2.”
Robin was surprised; “But why not? I don’t understand. The theme advertising has been agreed at the beginning of the year and you have agreed to the overall Q3 advertising spending. So then?” Kaviraj clucked and said, “Ya, ya, Q3 spends are OK, but the first month of this campaign is the last month of Q2. The profits for Q2 are already looking bleak… And this is the third month of Q2; you will have to cut spends for the first month of this campaign by at least Rs 75 lakh–85 lakh. If not, Q2 will end on a bad note. And that is not acceptable to me.”
Robin was frustrated. He said, “We cannot do that, Kavi. This is a new film campaign, with a new message and it needs a heavily front-loaded plan for better notice ability and build-up. If we begin on a thin note, the whole campaign build-up will be low and, consequently, the campaign effectiveness will be LOW. We need to begin with a bang and thin down after three weeks.” Kaviraj waved it all away with a gesture of his hand. “I do not understand all this. All I am saying is instead of spending more in month 1, you spend it in month 2. How is that difficult? Same year after all! Anyway, you should send me the month-wise media and advertising spends for approval before actually spending it. This sort of independence on big monies is not allowed.”
Robin breathed deeply, then said, “But once we agree on an annual budget and the quarterly breakup, then you will have to allow us to spend it during the months in a fashion that best suits the marketing needs. For example, sometimes it is necessary to do press and TV together along with lots of retail activity in a short span of one month to get high visibility. Any spreading thin of such expenditure will be sub-optimal. Please try and understand how media works.”
Kaviraj flared. “If I didn’t understand media you would not be buying a successful candy business, young man. Maybe you need to understand from me how media works. Rather, how business works. Business is not mere media spending. Media is not the pivot from which business runs. Business rules media. And I rule the business. Let that be clear!” Then after a pause, he said, “You optimise using the models and intelligence of your agencies Robin. Every month you will have to send me the forecast for the next four months ad expenditure and you will commit to every month only if I approve it. We will agree to not cancel the current month since it would have been committed to the TV channels or press, but the rest is subject to change… the change of bottom line.”
Arjun who had held his peace until now, spoke, “Robin, media cannot be planned and bought like that. You know that better than I do. We have been through this before. You need to plan in advance, do annual deals to get the best rates and keep up commitments within some limits. If we keep cutting and chopping like that we cannot make firm commitments to the TV channels or press and we will not get the best rates, thus affecting our efficiency of spending.”
At this point, Kaviraj stood up in a manner of declaring the meeting over. And Robin was now completely exhausted with this body language talk. “So, what is the point Kavi?” he asked. “We cannot build brands with such short-term view. Brands are not built on shifting sands but a firm foundation.” Not looking at him, Kaviraj said, “But that is the way it is in this tough world. This is the way I want it done. I have said this before, I shall repeat: I am the CEO, I will have nothing less than unequivocal concurrence to my diktats.”
Robin stood up. His face was deeply lined with controlled hopeless embarrassment and despair. He wanted to have a few moments to speak. But Kaviraj in his feudal manner had stood up to open the door. Robin too decided that it was better to leave. Kaviraj was not receptive anymore. Arjun found this whole situation dramatic. On his left was Kaviraj walking back to his desk. On his right was the receding figure of Robin.
Arjun was frustrated… everybody was controlling him, even Robin… he felt blocked… a bit like the dot game he played with his daughter where you connect dots and mark your territory… and the smart one in the game blocks you in such a way that one slip in this maze and you virtually hand over all your property to the opponent…
Returning to his room, Arjun stared at the fish tank in the corner; it certainly was the most idiotic piece of décor anyone could think up, he felt. He was sure it was Kaviraj’s idea, the whole idea of putting people into cages… For a brief surreal moment, he felt he was in a tank and the fish were watching him. He had been a mute witness to the exchanges between Kaviraj and Robin and was alarmed. Why was Robin so passive? At Coral, they had three annual spend meetings and that was it. No pointless meanderings. And that was because marketing drove the business. How could advertising be effective if they had to have monthly approvals?
Four months in Ahora had drained him completely. The feeling of being controlled and pushed was now reaching a crescendo. This life at Ahora was not a test, it was torture. He had tried to protest but Robin had said simply, “Yes, this is how Kavi orders his life. We have to work around it.”
“You are saying this, Robin?” Arjun had asked. “What has come over you? They have defanged you completely! Look, I am trying. I am here to do a job and that is being blocked. I am perfectly sensitive to orders that make sense. But this is beyond all logic!”
Robin nodded, “That logic which you bank on belongs to planet Coral. In planet Ahora you operate on a different dimension. You need to drop some of the Coral comforts and allow yourself to learn another way of achieving the same success. I am not suggesting you shift your goal post. It remains the same, on the same spot. Only you are playing with a different team. Your defence, your mid-fielders are all different people with different strengths. Find what those are. You need them.”
Arjun was surprised; he said, “But the game rules don’t change Robin!”
“No, they don’t, I agree,” said Robin, “but the players are using a different strategy, you have to play with that. Your strategy will clash, be out of tune and what you think you can achieve cannot be achieved because there is no harmony in thought. So, reformat your process, copy their strategy and work with those variables.”
Arjun stuck his ground, “I cannot do this, not when it does not make sense. And talking your language, even if I reformat and adapt, face it, the media is the same. The TV channels, the publications, are the same people. I have dealt with them wearing the Coral hat. How am I to talk differently to them now? They know what I know and understand — should I now tell them I am denying some of that knowledge of how things work? I will be inconsistent!” Robin was quick to reply, “But then so is the profit line, no? That is where we have to recast our thinking. You are assuming Coral’s profitability and constraints. Ahora’s is different.”
Arjun had kept his calm. He needed to so that Robin would make the right decision at the final review meeting two days later. So he said, “I understand profits and costs Robin, and I know what I am doing. All I ask for now is simple — at next week’s review meeting be firm that we cannot waver and vacillate on media. I have a lot at stake and have gone through agony to get those ad spots.” And Robin had agreed, saying, “I assure you, I will do my best for everyone.”
A week later, that is, yesterday, that ‘best’ had been handing back the Rs 1.5 crore budget and cancelling the media plans. Today, Arjun recalled all this with an increasing sense of hopelessness. Both meetings had shown him that he had not a chance to win. He was utterly confused. Sitting in his car he battled his mind: either go back to Coral and tell Saxena or go to Ahora and take it up with Robin. But he recalled Robin’s passivity and Kaviraj’s ego wars and decided it was a waste of his time. “Enough… I am going back to Coral!” he thought and did just that.
Sitting with Abhay Saxena at Coral’s office, Arjun said, “I don’t think my job is about how to handle Kaviraj. The problem we have concerns two very senior and mature people, not two 20-year olds in a BPO! If Kaviraj wants to behave like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum, the solution may not be to humour him or understand his psychology but ignore him. Let him know where he gets off! And Robin should go about his restructuring plans/ recommendations without Kaviraj. Coral’s job is to focus on the integration process, not to manage conflict and egos. And what learning? What do you all have in mind? I am not learning anything, not strategy, not management… all I am doing is being the punching bag for a man with the most complex mind!”
Saxena sighed. As it happened, Arjun was his blue-eyed boy, precocious but brilliant. He said, “Arjun, strategy, management and all that you learnt at B-school. These are the practicals. You don’t become an efficient manager without either. Who told you that you were sent there to learn strategy? Oh, no! The most critical part of strategy is managing resistance, destruction, attack. Finding a solution is easy; they teach you that at B-school. But it is during implementation that these little emotional goblins jump up! That is what you are learning at Ahora… Arjun, as you grow in the hierarchy, the soft issues matter more. What separates success from failure is these soft issues. The rest of the hard stuff: strategy, structure, systems, can come from two intense readings of Kotler, Drucker etc. Go back to Ahora. Don’t react.”
A little confused, Arjun went back. Sitting with Robin in his room he said, “I am not designed for this, Robin. I cannot be a ‘yes man’. That is not how I build my career.” Robin was not surprised. He said, “You are right. But you are blocking your career by saying ‘no’ too early in the relationship. And you think this does not happen at Coral? There too we have Kavis who sustain on ‘yes’. Maybe at your level you have not encountered them intensely. Here, you are in a senior job that brings with it such encounters. The higher you rise the more the anxiety for approval and being accepted, so a greater need for ‘yes’. The complexities continue except they become more sophisticated; which actually makes it worse because you have to introspect a lot about people’s intentions.
“And yes, by going back to Coral, you are ensuring a return to comfort for yourself and, strangely, a life away from those people who are not saying ‘yes’ to you. You are being paid to deliver results for the business, not run away. ”
Arjun fought back, “I have to have some comfort level to deliver, Robin! This is not what I expected!”
“Sure!” said Robin, “Sometimes the expected and the real are at variance. That is expected too. When you came here, you knew the planet was going to be different, the rules, goal posts, the system and reporting lines. Then, why are you assuming the path to success would be the same as on planet Coral? You are stuck with a given definition of success. Everything that is contrary or contradictory to that path seems like resistance, attack and punishment to you. Because you are seeing it thus, you are unable to step out of the Coral box. So, you experience control and defeat.
“You forget that you are at the foot of a completely different staircase. The steps here are different, Arjun, understand what I am saying. The process of climbing is the same, only you need to hark back to the basics that you learnt at B-school, which is examine the path, mark the potholes, and strategise bypassing them and overcoming the bumps and roadblocks.
At Coral, too, these roadblocks are there, except they have been mapped and colour coded; but don’t be annoyed, they have to be overcome. There is no way out. You don’t have to learn how. That you already know. You just have to apply same knowledge to different variables. Stay with the purpose. Define it clearly. Then flow.”
Arjun knew all this was talk. It could not be walked. There was too much ‘sir’ and ‘ji’ happening here and the big bosses’ views always prevailed. Yes, it was a valid management style for Ahora, but individuals like Arjun could not flourish. “What do I do then? Watch him destroy me?” asked Arjun.
“Not at all,” said Robin. “Kaviraj’s ego just can’t be challenged, it thrives on yes men, on approval. You manage that with restraint and introspection; restraining your own ego to an extent. And teaching his yes men to say ‘no’. Corporate life teaches us to become a bit emotionless, ego-less and strong!”
“Nonsense!” said Arjun, “We are taught to curb egos not because it is nice to do so, but because it is safe!” Robin smiled, “Then stop playing safe, Arjun. Start experiencing. My good friend would have said, ‘Enjoy every experience. You never know if they will come again.’ And let me add, Kavi is playing this round to cause a little strife between us. A man like him enjoys these little crow fights. He derives some power from them. Don’t feed him.”
Arjun never felt more lost. As far as he saw these were all games. But Saxena was playing it too, worse, he wanted Arjun to play along as well. Was Robin right? What Arjun called ‘games’, Robin called ‘management’. Was this management? So was he to eat his pride and give in to mindless ploys? Why were organisations so high on egos? Yet, Robin himself had said that organisations cause the sublimation of the ego, but this did not look like that at all! How did Robin manage to be so calm? Or, was it calm or the lull before the storm? Was he playing safe even if he denied just that? How would he ever know? Who was right?
Robin had said that corporate life teaches us to curb the ego and become stronger… yet none of this made sense. Nothing did… Why can’t we be simple folks?
Analysis 1: Achal Bhagat
Last time when I was trying to understand the situation at the new Coral haunt I had used many lenses to view the situation: the lens of change gone wrong, the lens of differing perceptions of time, the lens of clash of cultures and difference in the way people think. I had tried to see the situation from each person’s standpoint without being judgemental in my thought. I will try to continue to remain neutral in this conflict and understand it further, though this time around I will take the organisational objective as a focal point. The question that needs to be explored is different and that is, “Who is resisting what and why?”
The objective of a decision-making process in an organisation is to arrive at the best method forward. When the players stay with this objective, it is quite possible to resolve the most difficult of problems. However, if the personal objectives of the players in the decision- making process take precedence over the organisational objective, then each player uses strategies to resist the other. All the players then become resistors to change.
The reason they are able to continue to resist so vehemently is because each person continues to see himself or herself as the champion of the change and paint the other person as the resistor to change. The objective is, then, to sustain the conflict because it gives each person a special identity in his or her mind, the identity that has the romance of valour, the smell of victory and the strength of personal validation. So, from where I stand, everyone at Ahora is lost in strengthening their personal identities and they have lost sight of the organisational objective. All players, Robin, Kavi, Arjun and associates are resisting change, but in their minds they are the champions of change.
How do each of these players get the energy to renew his battle every morning? What do they say to themselves? What is the image of work that they create for themselves? What is it that will be lost if they do not fight? It is answers to these questions that will help us understand their identities better.
Kavi, you see yourself as the protector of values and culture of an organisation that has been successful. You protect in your mind not only the past but also what is the essence for future. You accepted the association with Coral thinking that they were interested in the secrets of success of Ahora. However, you believe that they do not understand the secret of success and will destroy Ahora in their restlessness to get ahead of the field. In your view, you are the protector. You protect by slowing down. You slow down by being inflexible and not change.
Robin, you see yourself as the strategist. A strategist who can overcome everything. You want to feel the glow of the sun soon when you can say to yourself, “It worked. It had to. I knew it.” Your image of yourself is of the person who can unravel everything. Your strategy right now is to help Kavi tie himself in as many knots as possible. Once he loses his sheen you will come in and say, “I told you so… now let us do it my way… the Coral way.” You will win. The win will mean going back to what you knew and not what you have learned about Ahora from Ahora. So, your strategy is also to be inflexible and not change.
Arjun, you are the strapped up warrior. You are tall and rippling, proud of the weapons that you have. You want to immediately try all the techniques of buying media and pushing the brand. You have the skill and want to display it, the restless Abhimanyu who does not mind walking into a chakravyuh. With a slash here and a cut there you see victory. You want to be victorious but not understand the battle. The battle has to be played according to the rules you have learned, and that may happen in board games but not boardroom games. You too then resist change in your need for victory.
So, what could all of the players do differently? In my view, the best way to manage the conflict around change is questioning oneself. All players in a change process must sit down and ask themselves two questions. One, what is the similarity between the others, who I am seemingly in conflict with, and myself? The similarity between people is the foundation of success. It is the foundation of a non-threatening discourse.
Robin, Kavi and Arjun, all of you think similarly in that you are passionate about what you do and all of you want Ahora brands to succeed. Perhaps all of you also do not want the workforce at Ahora to be impacted negatively by the present conflict.
Let us start again with these similarities and ask the second question. How will my different way of thinking impact others in the process and what benefit will it bring to the objective that we started with? Here, we define the objective as the primary objective, that is the objective of the association between Coral and Ahora, and not the objective of making sure that ad spend budget is not slashed. So, what value does my different way of thinking bring to the completion of the objective? If the difference in thinking helps the organisation reach its objectives then let me emphasise it and not relent. But if it only helps me validate that I am brilliant then let me stop right now and accept that I need to change.
If images and metaphors in boardrooms stop being those of a battle and change to those of building a road, we may have less crises of personal identity and derive more strength from each other. Take care!
Analysis 2: Matangi Gowrishankar
My heart goes out to Arjun and Robin. What a struggle they face emotionally and physically. It is a struggle that they face alone, for they do not seem to be getting much support from either the folks at Ahora or Coral. Every time they reach out to the leaders, they are told to buck up, grin and bear it — and words to that effect. Is it because these leaders do not want to address the underlying issues, or do they think that people who work in their organisations are robots without feelings? I find that leaders are divided on the matter. Some believe that if you want to succeed in the corporate world, there is no place for emotions, ‘softy/touchy’ issues and, above all, it is a sign of weakness to be stressed by these issues. But with my numerous years of experience in watching and managing human resources, I can say with conviction: strategy and all that can be taught by B-schools, but in the net analysis, what tips the scales towards success or failure as a manager is one’s ability to both cope with and manage emotions in the organisational process.
Somewhere at the heart of this situation is a denial of the basic respect and dignity of the individual. It seems to be guided by a belief that people who want to be successful do not have the need to feel personally valued and work in a safe environment. An organisation that allows for an unsafe work environment can never make the transition to a world-class successful organisation, because sooner or later the best will leave, not as ambassadors but as disillusioned employees. I believe that people are a package deal; they bring all facets of their personalities to their roles and have a serious impact on the success or failure of the organisation. I don’t believe that managers ‘learn’ to be level V leaders; there is a definite personal inclination that makes them so. Equally, a theory X manager operates from a sense of deep insecurity either because he/she is being managed that way or there is a deep sense of insecurity that drives them.
So, the struggle that Robin and Arjun face are real and must be owned not only by them but by the leadership team of both Ahora and Coral. It is painfully obvious from the narration that Coral and Ahora have not even begun to consider a formal process of integration. It is not even clear as to what the conditions of the takeover are and, of course, there is even less clarity around Robin and Arjun’s roles in Ahora
The top leaders at both organisations seem to have left it to Robin and Arjun to figure it all out, which is grossly unfair. Organisations must have the crucial conversations around the ways of working and set the context for individuals to make a success of the business imperative early on. In fact, these conversations need to be an integral part of the business deal.
World class companies rightly call this a process of cultural integration because it is in fact a meeting of the hearts and minds of people that will ultimately make a successful business venture. Resistance will exist but a well-thought-out process of understanding processes around delegation of authority, decision making and communication will go a long way in helping the cause of people in both organisations.
On the face of it, Robin seems to be working things out for himself and trying to motivate himself with his vision of getting a new experience. But for how long? He seems to be withdrawing and making compromises that are affecting Arjun and others around him. If this pressure continues, Robin will either become a part of the problem or will leave. Either way, the organisation will lose a highly valuable resource whose falling from grace or departure will ring the death knell for other aspiring leaders. The buzz would be “If that could happen to them, it could happen to me!” Robin will be another one of those who will prove that people do not leave organisations, they leave managers — managers who have scant respect for the dignity of a human being making them feel less than they are.
Arjun seems to be in an even more precarious situation. The stress of being unsuccessful at work is taking its toll on his whole persona — into road rage and argumentative behaviour. No system or organisation has the right to break the spirit of an individual. Arjun is already thinking: “Is this worth it?”. Soon, he will make choices. If he stays, he may end up becoming sub-optimal with a feeling of resignation. If he leaves, then the organisation has once again lost a highly valuable resource.
One organisation I was a part of made it mandatory for all leaders to watch Love And Profit. It was a film on organisations that focused on capturing the hearts and minds of their people; the profits came automatically. I would urge the leaders at Ahora and Coral to watch it, they may learn something.
I appreciate that leaders at all levels today have an unenviable task of managing the ever-rising bar of performance. But the reality is that they are not going to reach it by themselves. They need the last man and woman in the organisation to work assiduously in a safe environment where they are valued for who they are as much as what they bring to the table. Leaders have to understand what makes people tick and they HAVE to have organisation support systems that create an environment that fosters success. Forget the programming that business is as tough as nails. They have to learn and accept that it is ‘the entire person’ that counts.