A business corporation is a living, dynamic organism, and it sustains itself on periodic injections of excitement through acquisition of new technologies, assets and so on, writes R. P. Singh in ‘Grids of Change: Managing power games and power lines’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com). This is the equivalent of consuming vital nutrients for enhancing blood circulation in the human body, he likens. “At PowerGrid, we kept the excitement alive through diversification into telecom and consultancy and incorporation of new technologies in transmission, load management and so on.”
A key lesson for CEOs that Singh lays down is to manage people loosely, but to manage performance tightly. Give co-workers space to perform, and functional autonomy, so that they are ‘driven to deliver their best, to stretch stated goals, to push every envelope.’ Yet, leeway is not licence, he clarifies. “Recurrent recalcitrance cannot go unpunished. If it requires harsh admonition or transfers and suspensions, so be it.”
Dismissing as a cliché the statement that ‘people are an organisation’s best assets,’ the author says that the right people in the right places are assets. It is not training alone, but putting the right people in appropriate positions through a process of differentiation and an assessment of their aptitude, energy levels and other parameters that works, he explains. “Seniority cannot become the benchmark of differentiation in a corporate ecosystem.”
Also, it is orthodoxy to believe that all wisdom belongs to the corporation, as if effacing the role of the individual, Singh notes. He urges companies to envision themselves as knowledge universities, and to invest in employees who want to go back to the classroom, earn diplomas and degrees at top universities and come back and share what they had learnt with the corporation.
Lessons from Tata Steel, NTPC
In the opening chapter of the book, the author acknowledges that he took his baby steps in Tata Steel and NTPC. “Tata Steel taught me basic lessons that I can never forget – the importance of time, efficient use of money, good housekeeping and accounts, man management that inculcates discipline, demands accountability but redresses grievances fairly and honourably,” recounts Singh.
Among the numerous anecdotes in the book is one about a challenging situation that the author encountered in NTPC, in 1984 – to commission the first 500 mw unit of the corporation’s Singrauli plant in a year, even while engineering work was not progressing satisfactorily. Poor coordination and personality clashes were the principal culprits, he found.
Thankfully, Singh also found that the problems were fairly straightforward actually and required robust common sense. “For example, about half a dozen agencies – review consultants; detailed engineering consultants; contractors and their consultants; the NTPC engineering department, and so on – were involved in the finalisation of the engineering work. The number of agencies and the obvious divergence of views was in itself a major contributor to the delay.”
His solution was simple: Bring the agencies on a common platform and expedite clearances. “The gamble paid off. In three months the pending work had been cleared and the project was back on rails.”
A Gordian knot
It was perhaps a similar approach that worked in PowerGrid, where Singh was dismayed to see employees owing allegiance to labour unions in their original PSUs protesting over minor issues such as differential payment of incentives, rather than perceiving PowerGrid as an integrated entity. “I decided to cut the Gordian knot and called an all-India meeting on the issue,” he narrates.
“There was a heated and spirited discussion when, suddenly, the leader of an employee union made a derogatory remark. This was clearly unparliamentary. I grabbed the chance and admonished him, and used the high moral ground – which I had fortuitously gained – to make a few other points as well.”
Did it work? Yes, like magic, reports Singh. The tables were turned, and the unions became more subdued, he adds. For, they realised they could pursue their legitimate demands but not push the management unreasonably. “It was the day PowerGrid was reborn as an entity in its own right.”
A read that can charge you up.