Monday, October 1, 2012


“Hello, is that Mr. Srivastava?” asked the lady’s voice on the other end of the telephone. “Mr. Chopra will speak to you.” A pause and an interminable hold for 2 full minutes before Mr. Chopra decided to address me. This tiresome telephonic power play is common enough. Important people don’t dial numbers (or press the keys on the mobile, for that matter), and the lesser mortals are required to wait to be spoken to.

What was different about this call last Friday was that this gentleman was not even important to me. He wanted to invite me to address a gathering of senior managers at a workshop he was organizing. Even if there was a half a percent chance that I would have accepted his invitation, after this brief encounter I declined.

Later that day I went out to meet the chief executive of a Gurgaon based company where I had a prefixed appointment for 3:15 PM (his secretary had sternly warned me not to be late for the meeting). I turned up at the office at 3:10 and announced myself at the reception. I was asked to wait, which I did. And then waited some more. After an interval long enough for the CEO to perhaps have had a con-call, written a couple of mails, made a phone call, and gone to the rest room, he made his appearance looking neither apologetic nor hurried. He too was playing “I am more important than you,” and once again I seemed to be holding the losing hand.

For the rest of the week I decided to consciously look for power games being played by people. Academic in me having got activated I realized that rules of the game broadly fall into two categories: Those which people use to make them feel big, and those which they deploy to make others feel small. For your benefit, dear reader, I outline them below.

First, listen only callously. Actually try to monopolize all the opportunity to talk; don’t allow the other person to speak, especially when he is narrating events from his own life. It is fine to ask inane question: “How’s your family?” But the moment an answer is forthcoming start looking over his shoulder or peer into the screen of your ultrabook which may at that moment might actually be displaying the picture of Snoopy, your pet dog. Second rule is about e-mails. Actually there are three sub rules here. Get other people to send your e-mails for you. Do not reply to anything except ofcourse those messages which if unattended may put your job at stake. And, finally, if you do choose to respond, don’t bother checking whether your response addresses the issues raised in the other person’s mail. Third, your alter ego, the latest Blackberry handset. Always keep it on and use it often to interrupt conversations by taking calls and read e-mails. This will establish how hardpressed for time you are; without multitasking you could not have accomplished what all you already have. Fourth, your office. While a corner office with sleek leather bound furniture and your pictures with P.Chidambaram and U.S. Ambassador would be nice, there is a lot you can do with something less too. In a smaller cubbyhole put the visitor at a disadvantage by seating him on that squidgy sofa that is hard to get in and get out. Actually, even if you have no office at all, make sure that your junior answers your phone and starts off: “K. K. Srivastava’s office.” As regards your mobile number, ideally don’t hand out your number even if someone asks for it. Or if you receive a call on your number choose to ignore it. Finally, while talking, choose one of three options. Talk almost in whispers so that the other person has to strain to hear. Or, talk incredibly loudly so that people have to listen whether they wish to or not. Finally (perhaps most appropriately), talk aggressively slowly so that you waste the listener’s time and leave him with an uncomfortable feeling that you think he is too daft to understand normal speech.

I am sure you have not taken the above advice seriously unless you have already built a comfortable nest-egg and wish to retire early! Actually, there is a different, more advanced version of the game too that you must learn about. I recently met the Director, H.R. – a Japanese - of a multinational consumer durables company. When I reached the reception area the gentleman promptly came to receive me and escorted me into his office. On conclusion of the meeting he came out yet again upto the foyer to see me off. While for Japanese this is a part of their cultural fabric, if an Indian high up does this, you can be sure that he is playing, even if subconsciously, a top level game called, “Let’s pretend I am not more important than you.” If you play this well, the world is your oyster. Be warned, however. To be a master of this game, you really have to be dead important already. Else, for example, if I start playing this game, being the editor of a niche magazine, I will sound rather phoney.

There exist definitely superior ways to establish your power. For example, achieve excellence in your chosen field (like Tendulkar or Aamir Khan), create high value (like Naresh Trehan and Yash Raj films), convert potential into possible (like E. Sreedharan and Capt. Gopinath), make human service part of your mission (like Dr. Devi Shetty and late Dr. Kurien), and invent future (like Bill Gates and Mahatma Gandhi) Power is equated with success in all walks of life. If Salman can give five hits in a row, Sachin can decimate the other nation’s team single handedly, and Sonia Gandhi can decide the path that Indian polity and economy should tread, you could be anointed with success too. Only that what works for one does not necessarily work for the other. The ‘real’ you may cringe at the prospect of adapting to the stereotype that you may have originally decided to don to climb the ladders of success. So why should you emulate? The essential thing is to know oneself fully well – the strengths and the weaknesses – to fly high in the cut and thrust world of today. Zero in on your strengths and never wear chinks in your armour on your sleeves. Even if you are street -wise, assertive and blunt, remember it also pays to be sensitive and diplomatic. And before everything else, harbor ambition. Then chart out a plan of action and execute it to taste power and success.

Ambition is essential. Else, how will you become a high flier? But there is one proviso-your ambition should not be of the personal, self centered, conceited type that pays no heed to others’ wellbeing. Acceptable ambition is one where you have awareness of your own good qualities and therefore know that you can do a high-level job well. This should be followed by taking an inventory of your strengths and consciously playing to them – utilize them to the full. You should know equally well what your weaknesses are and try to remedy them, avoid situations which crucially expose these weaknesses, and attempt to get ‘cover’ (Say by asking someone for advice) in situations where you are weak.

This shall be the real power play!

It is for you to choose how you opt to succeed at success, by conning others or by fawning them with your inherent power.

P.S: This issue carries 7 case studies covering a wide palette. 4 of them are long ones which would need multiple readings to arrive at resolution of issues raised therein. Rest 3 are shorter caselets which can be deployed to provoke an immediate discussion among the participants in a workshop/class/ brainstorming session. We at Theory i are of firm conviction that management cases don’t admit of one single ideal solution; depending on the context multiple – and equally potent – approaches may be perfectly justified. Hence your magazine does not append ‘solutions’ to these cases.