Tuesday, July 04, 2006

ON MY BOSSES - The Bully, The Brilliant, The Blase'

"O Cromwell, Cromwell..
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, He would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies"

Henry VIII

After five years of articles (accountancy) with a prestigious international firm of Chartered Accountants in Sri Lanka ( Ceylon), working in three continents, in over a dozen companies, serving as many bosses and bossing over many for over four decades, looking after other people's money like a well paid security guard, emerging with a clear conscience, clean hands and fingers unburned, hired, fired and fried in my job just to keep the home fires burning - I have earned the right and am now ready to submit a report card on my bosses.

Since I believe many of my bosses continue to inhale globally polluted air - in spite of Al Gore and his much vaunted " An Inconvenient Truth" - I have pulled back from using real names.

Sri Lanka ( Ceylon)


My first boss. Courteous regardless of rank and file. Sat in the front seat with the chauffeur. His " bed side manners" were by the book. Called a "sod" by a client staff in London while studying accountancy. What Arnold Schwarzenegger would call " girly boy". Stood by his staff at all times earning their respect and gratitude. If a subordinate slighted him, would move on and have nothing more to do with him. Period. End of story.
Not a bone of prejudice in his frail body. I remember him more for his kindness and concern for little people than for his intellect.


A veteran from the the second World War, a Scotsman, ran the company like a platoon. " Yes Sir", " No Sir". A micro manager par excellence. First man at work and last to depart. His instructions were precise in brief typed notes - e-mails, what are they? Rifled through staff desks and left notes. The only time he took time off from smoking was to light up one more. Believed in one on one dialogue with his executive staff. Did not give a damn for staff meetings or consensus. You have your orders , you click your boots and march lock-step...if you know what is good for you. The place ticked like a Swiss watch. The company paid dividends twice a year to the stock holders and two generous bonuses a year to the staff. You could borrow in advance banking on it. Valued loyalty and integrity to brilliance. A bachelor. Died like Rock Hudson.

Sierra Leone.


Don't worry be happy kind of guy. This puts the fear of the ghost into you for, should something go amiss you only have yourself to complain to. Women in his office, women in the waiting room, women on the 'phone singing his praises...how do you find time time to talk serious work.
As chairman the way he conducted board meetings was something to marvel at. A technique that never failed him. The agenda was inversely arranged. The most important were at the bottom. The meeting was to start at 10.30 A.M. and lunch at one P.M. Until eleven, eleven fifteen while waiting for the directors to trickle in he would indulge in small talk and friendly banter. Then the meeting is called to order. Until twelve thirty trivial matters are discussed at length and in excruciating detail. It's twelve thirty now. The directors are restless and hungry. He pulls out the big items which are unanimously passed with barely a discussion.



His family was living outside the country. Until four in the evening he is out of the office ostensibly at the bank or with the lawyers. Comes in at four, opens the mail and begins to dish out assignments with " stickies" marked, " URGENT", "V. URGENT", "V.V URGENT", " IMPT", "V.IMPT". All one has to do is to remove the stickies and they cease to be V.V.URGENT and V.V.IMPT. The staff at all levels should stay on until he leaves which is around eight. Saturday is a normal working day and as for Sundays he feels a surge of compassion and is agreeable to the staff coming in at ten in the morning and working until four in the evening. Labor laws? You are kidding aren't you?

This story is recounted by the staff to every new recruit. An accountant from the Indian sub continent - let's call him Shah. Shah newly married, straight from the tall grass and fresh off the boat could no longer put up with these hours. So one day he decided to throw in the towel. He walked out of the office at eight in the night without bidding " Good Night" to Soos, a polite way of seeking permission to go home . Soos sees him ( his office door is kept open to catch such errant behavior) and calls out, " Mr. Shah.. Mr. Shah come here. Where do you think you are going?"
And Shah replies, " I am going home to bring my bed" and continued with his exit strategy.
Shah was never seen again. It was certainly Good Night and Good Luck for him.


Five foot two with a twelve foot personality. An alumni of Sorbonne university and the London School of Economics. Fluent in English and French and could dictate reports in either one. Had full grasp of the corporation's many projects. Had in view at all times the big picture, the grand scheme of things. He knew where he wanted to take the corporation and he enlisted the cooperation of his staff to go along with him on the journey. He put into practice precisely what Alan Kay believed: " The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

On one occasion he formed a committee of departmental heads to come up with the annual report. After weeks of writing and revising it was finalized and Sb was informed. At a specially summoned meeting the report was handed over with departmental heads grinning from ear to ear, proud and satisfied. Sb thumbed through it.. turned it over left to right .. his face grew dark and dangerous by the passing minute.. did not look up .. threw it in the out tray .. summoned his secretary and dictated the report from stem to stern, from soup to nuts except for numbers and percentages which the accountant was to fill in. All present were dumbfounded in awe. He was familiar with every project and at what stage it was in. When he finished the dictation he got up and walked out. ..while all this time daughter Gaitri was seated alone at Hilton Van EE school for a ride home - well over two hours over due.


" You have to treat yourself to the best there is. No one else will do it for you." was the guiding principle in his life. And so he flew by " Concord" to look up his girl friend in New Jersey for the week - end, drank the best scotch, changed his air conditioned Ford pick-up every two years, customized for his convenience and personally supervised by him in the United States. A fire hydrant comes to mind when you first set eyes on him.

Sri Lanka ( Ceylon) Return.


Driven to extremes to impress the board of directors that under his watch the company was prospering, he would devise devious ways to inflate profits. Enjoyed meetings, minutes, mainly about himself, an all too common phenomenon in the ego centric world of bosses.

His admonition to departmental heads: " If I know more than you about your job, then you are not doing your job"

Sierra Leone. Return.


Tall and heavily set, self confidence oozed out of every pore of his body. A bear with a laser like mind. An intellectual bonanza to watch him dribble like Pele' around the minds of the members of the international Monetary Fund from Washington. And he enjoyed it.



Little guy - in intellect a Lilliput, in hauteur a Gulliver. Very insecure in his position. Bullied staff into submission. A bachelor with no other interest, lived with his mother, came in late and worked till around eight in the night when dinner would be ready.


A lion to his staff, a lamb to all who handed jobs to his company, was at the feet of the powerful and at the throat of the weak. Came in a foul mood Monday mornings and wary of going home on Friday evenings. Talks work and very little else. " Why do you need to see a movie when you can be doing office work" was his way of thinking. Could never understand how people can have fun.. they should be reading about the work at hand. He had the charm of an undertaker and the charisma of a corpse. An excellent memory, could remember numbers to two decimal places. Never misses an opportunity to brag about the small beginnings of his company of which he was now chairman with the staff "oohing" and " aahing" and drooling in chorus.


Quintessential salesman with a perennial smile that is disarming. As Pedro said in " Much Ado About Nothing ".. " from the crown of his head to the soul of his foot he is all mirth." He could jolly any one out of his ( or her) blues. The kind of companion you would want to have in your car on a cross country journey. Even when he harms you he can do it with such finesse you feel he has done you a great favor. Have witnessed many a cashiered staff give him an affectionate parting hug. A blue beard easily bored with the routine and responsibilities of family life, the current spouses never suspecting that he had an excess exes.

Was able to at the same time talk serious business on the telephone, read an important memo making corrections, compulsively moving things around on his desk, flash smiles at all those ambling in and out of his office and observing everything going on around him.

The visceral need, the pathological imperative to please all his staff all the time compounded by his affliction with the Clara Bow syndrome - the inability to say NO - made him a lousy manager which, not surprisingly led to the early demise of his career and the collapse of the institution he dearly loved.

**What then one may ask should be the attributes of a good boss - good for the corporation and good for the staff.

Honed on the wheel of personal experience stretched over four decades (as victor and vanquished, you catch some you miss some) here in random order and open to suggestions:

Never shift the blame for any failure to your subordinate. You are the boss.

Never take credit for your subordinate's good work. Send the
word round, "it was Charlie who did it all."

Defend your staff against outsider's complaints but tell them forcefully where they have gone wrong and what future consequences would be.

Be one jump ahead about their annual increments. Do not wait for your staff to remind you. They love their families too.

Recognize good work.

Observe all the rules yourself.

Delegate and monitor progress. Do not be needling over trifles.

Let the staff know you are firm but fair with no favorites.

If a member of the staff wishes to discuss something personal -give them an earnest hearing. Do not shoo them away.

Let your instructions be precise, brief, devoid of double - entendre.

Should you make a mistake admit it. Do not gloss over. Do not under estimate their intelligence.

Get along well with your own boss. Else, those below you will by-pass you and you will be reduced to irrelevancy.

Perform in a way when you leave your office, you will be leaving it better than when you arrived. Even though with the passage of time this too will pass.

If you have to convey bad news do it yourself without assigning it to your deputy.

Be able to say NO when the demands are out of bounds. You are not running for the office of the president of the United States.

A story worth recounting in context.

A sales manager- let's call him John - was fired and was ordered to hand over to his successor Tomas. After the preliminaries were over the new sales manager asked John, " Do you have any suggestions for me ?" and John answered yes I have: Here is what he said.

I have placed in the safe three envelopes marked 1 - 2 - 3 . When you have your first crisis with the board open the envelope marked 1. and so on to number 3.

Did not take long for the first crisis. Tomas remembered the envelopes and opened the envelope marked 1. It read, " blame it all on me" He did so and got away with it.

Time went by and crisis number 2 appeared. Tomas with a smile opened envelope marked 2. Read: " Admit your mistake to the board and they will go along." It worked.

And now it was time for crisis number three. Very worried Tomas grabbed and tore wide open envelope marked 3.

It read - " prepare three envelopes."

" By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may ultimately get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day" Robert Frost.

And remember to:

" be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet them on your way down." Katherine

By K.B. Chandra Raj