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Creating Flow

The Freedom To Be

Tag Archives: Honesty

To

Dattaram Waghmare,

Procurement Manager

Jefferson Spice Extract Plant

Khopoli Industrial Estate,

Khopoli, Maharashtra

India

From

Arvind Dasgupta,

The HR Director

Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd

Head Office, 95, Kamla Mills Compound,

Mumbai, Maharashtra

India

Dear Dattaram,

I have received your letter dated August 30, 2012. I have used my discretion to keep your heartfelt expression off the record.

I have noted that you are concerned about the lack of effectiveness of testing and training to bring sustainable change in human behaviour and relations. You have made a creative suggestion that we explore honest conversations among employees to build a meaningful and effective work culture.

Your letter made me ponder, as the concerns that you have raised are some of the issues (among others) that I have been reflecting upon throughout my HR career. In particular this question:

What is the freedom available to corporate employees to be creative and honest?

Therefore, Dattaram, my response here, is as much to myself, than just to you.

Given my position as the HR Director of Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd., I was wondering what would be the most appropriate way to respond to your observations. As you may be well aware that being in HR, there is always a matter of propriety (being appropriate). Nevertheless, I was keen to respond to your letter since the points you raised triggered in me a prolonged self-inquiry, particularly your question:

“Why is it so difficult to be simple?”

Keeping all of this in mind, I am writing this letter to you, in my personal capacity as Arvind Dasgupta and not as the HR Director. I believe that only when a person is free of role restrictions can he be truly honest. I am therefore sending you this letter from my personal email address.

After giving it due thought, I have come to the conclusion, that in order to respond to your question at the very root, I will need to share with you something about my life, before I became an HR Director. Like all inquiries that seek to go to the root of the problem, this inquiry also begins with a story.

Arvind Dasgupta’s story.

I was born in a traditional Bengali family. My father, Soumendranath Dasgupta migrated from East Bengal in 1947 when he was 15 years old, along with my grandparents. After much movement and hardships, the family set base in the town of Siliguri, in West Bengal. Siliguri, located on the banks of the Mahananda river and on the foothills of the Himalayas is known for its tea and tourism. Baba through much of his own efforts educated himself, by working part-time at the reception desk of a small hotel and financing his own education. A significant part of his salary would go in running the house consisting of my grandparents and my Bua, his sister. After his graduation he gave the government exams and joined the Indian Railway. His first job was as railway guard on a train. Soon after, he married my mother Rukmini, who was five years younger to him and hailed from a nearby village called SaktigarhMa had studied upto the 10th standard, which was an exception for a girl of her background. Their’s was an arranged marriage. Even though Baba insisted on seeing Ma before the alliance was fixed, which was an exception, as it was not the custom for boys and girls to see each other before the marriage was finalised. I am told, he was finally allowed to enter the room where mother was knitting a sweater, stole a quick glance at her, came out satisfied. Three months later, they were married in a traditional Bengali wedding, spanning many days. Baba was 23. Ma was 18.

Dattaram, you must be wondering why I am sharing about Baba and Ma with you and how is this related to HR and training effectiveness in Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) Pvt. Ltd?  I request your patience. Eventually you will see  how these two, seemingly distant aspects, of my family background and corporate effectiveness are related.

Baba and Ma had dreamed of having their own house after marriage. Their dream came true when Baba was allotted a small railway quarter near Siliguri Junction station. Ma told me that it was a small room and a kitchen. The room and the kitchen were separated by a curtain. The left portion of the kitchen would be used as a washing and bathing space and loft was used to store items not in immediate use. Baba had an erratic schedule, depending on which train he was deputed for guard duty. Ma would spend most of her time cooking, cleaning and sometimes talking to the women next door. Of course I was still not born, so whatever I am sharing with you is based on what I have heard from them.

I was born five years after marriage. Ma had two miscarriages before I was born. She was anxious that a normal pregnancy may never occur. Both Baba and Ma went to the Sevokeshwari Kali Mandir to pray for a normal delivery. When Ma was pregnant a third time with me, she recited the Gayatri  mantra 108 times every day till the day I was born. Baba made adjustments to his duty schedule to be present at the time I was born.

I am told that I was born on a Poornima, on a full moon night.

I received a warm reception from Thakur-da, Thakur-ma, Dadu, Dida, Bua and ofcourse Baba and Ma at the railway hospital where I was born. Everyone wanted to hold me and see who I resembled in the family.  After two days of my birth Ma returned home. On the first night of my arrival at home, Baba held me in his strong arms, looked at me for a long time and promised me something. Something that he had to struggle all through his life to achieve.

Education.

He told Ma “Ruku, no matter what hardships we have to go through, we will provide the best education to our son”. Ma smiled back and nodded her head silently. It was a pact that would have a significant affect on how my life would unfold. Even though neither of them said it, they instinctively knew at that moment that I would be their only child and henceforth their lives would have a singular purpose. Me.

“Aurobindo” said Thakur-da, my paternal grandfather. They were discussing what would be my name. Sri Aurobindo was a Bengali freedom fighter, philosopher, poet and yogi. Baba wanted a shorter name that sounded more Indian. They settled for Arvind.

“Arvind Dasgupta” announced Ma, holding me up,as though formalizing the decision.

Starting from the alphabet ‘A’ I was usually the third person on the roll call list of my class at school. The teacher would call out “Amit”, “Arijit”, “Arvind”…. There were around 35 to 40 students in the class. St. Josephs Convent and one of the best English medium schools, run by Christian missionary fathers. It was not easy to get admission there, especially not for a Station Master’s son. Baba had gradually been promoted through his dedicated hard-work and held the post of the Station Master of Siliguri Junction, seven years after my birth. Given the promise he had made to me, he wanted to admit me in the best English medium school. After much pleading with the school principal (and using some of his railway connections) he finally managed to get me admitted to a school, the expenses of which he definitely could not afford from his meagre salary. But, that was the last thing on his mind. All he could see at that moment was, Arvind Dasgupta, his son, completing school with flying colours as a “smart-English-speaking-convent-educated-boy” many years later.

St. Joseph’s Convent was a school mostly for the affluent. The school had hostel facility and children from well-to-do families came from various parts of India, and a few even from abroad. A few of us were locals from Siliguri mostly from middle class families like mine. While my grey sweaters were hand-made, most of my classmates were ready-made. I always made some excuse not to accompany them to the school canteen for Campa Cola and samosas. They wore imported shoes, mine were from the local brand. Even though I was aware of this class distinction, between me and them, I never complained.

Baba and Ma always provided for me, the best they could.

Till this day I do not know how they managed to pay my fees and take care of other school expenses. Ma had started a tiffin service where she cooked meals and snacks for a local eatery from home. There were compromises on all kinds of expenses – food, clothing, festivals, social-functions, holidays – except one.

My education.

Neither Baba or Ma, ever mentioned the difficulties they underwent  to provide me a premium education. Their only expectation was that I study hard and get good marks.

Whenever I used to get 60 marks, Baba would ask me “Why not 70?” When I got 70, he would ask “Why not 80?” and on the rare occasion I managed a 80, the question was “Why not 90?” So I was always competing with my classmates for getting the maximum marks. I once managed get 2nd rank in class and Baba asked “Why not 1st?” That was his way of encouraging me to work harder. And I kept studying hard to get more marks….and his love and approval.

The problem, as I see it now, was just that.

We had bound each other.

He had bound himself by providing me with an education way beyond his means and I had bound myself by wanting to meet all his expectations.  Of course we did it because of our love for each other. However, the love that binded us, also blinded us.

Dattaram, you may wonder how can love blind us?

You will say “After all children must meet the expectations of their parents, who give up their own comforts to provide for the best upbringing for their children.It is the natural thing to do for both parents and children.”

But as I see it now, that my friend, is exactly where the root of the problem lies.

Baba like all parents provided me the best education, so that I could excel in life and create name, fame and money for myself. So that I did not have to go through the same drudgery that he had to go through. He therefore admitted me to a system, a school, where I entered the race to excel and beat my fellow classmates. The gaping hole in this process was that no one ever checked with me, whether I wanted to run that race. And when I was made to run a race that I had not chosen to run:

I stopped thinking for myself.

My thinking became automated. I simply followed what I was told. I never stopped to think what I wanted for myself. Where did my own happiness lie?

Did I really want to get 90 marks in mathematics? Was it my dream to come 1st in class? Did I really want to study Chemistry? Did I want to follow the school time-table? Did I want to give exam? Did I want to struggle for more marks?

I had a poetic and philosophical bent of mind, just like my namesake Sri Aurobindo. As a nine-year old, you could find me writing something in my small blue diary which I carried with me all the time. I would often sit under the large banyan tree at the outskirts of the school campus and watch the sparrows and the squirrels play with each other on its old drooping branches. Other times I would visit the bank of the Mahananda river and watch the waters gushing against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayan peaks. Sometimes I would simply lie on a grassy patch of our football field and gaze at the white fluffy clouds, shaped like balls of cotton drift lazily across the blue canvas of the sky. And, I would write in my small blue diary, with my red and black striped Camlin pencil.

Once Baba saw me writing and asked “What do u keep writing in that diary of yours?”

I immediately became self-conscious and after a pause I said “Poems.”

“Hmmm…very good. All our Bengali freedom fighters have been poets.” He said.

After a moment’s silence, he added.

“But remember poems cannot get you a job. Only a good degree can. And for that you need good marks.”

“Yes Baba.” And I put my diary away.

In that moment, for the first time I felt guilty.

I was reminded of the difficulties Baba and Ma were undergoing to educate me. I felt torn between my love for poetry and my love for Baba and Ma. I felt ashamed for indulging myself in a pursuit that would not translate into anything practical. A bigger house, new clothes or more food at the table. I said to myself “How can I be so selfish, when Baba and Ma are sacrificing so much for me.”

You see Dattaram, my future was more or less charted for me, very much like the future of most men born in a Middle Class Family.

“Degree-Job-Marriage”

Later when I was to join College, I made one last attempt at being selfish.  I considered taking up Arts and pursue psychology and literature. I was always good at writing and thought maybe I could consider being a journalist or a writer. I still remember the time I shared this with Baba and Ma and the grave look on their face.

“Will psychology and literature get you a job?” said Baba.

“I think you should give it some thought?” said Ma

“Why don’t you take up Commerce. You could get a good bank job?” said Baba

“You are bright, you should give the Civil Services exam” said Ma

I realized then, as I had always known, but did not want to believe.

Education was not about learning. It was about earning.

After all, for The Middle Class education is an investment. An important investment. And like every investment, it is expected to give a good return. You see, investments are of two kinds. Financial and emotional. The financial can be repaid, but the emotional investment has no measure. And repayment can last a lifetime.

You know Dattaram, you may see me as “The HR Director”. But below this black business suit of mine I am not very different from you. What is common between us, is our love for our families. For our parents who have done so much for us. For our children who mean the world to us. But sometimes Dattaram, we use love unknowingly, to enslave ourselves and others.

I have learnt from my experience, when we are not allowed as children to be loyal to our own happiness, we give up our freedom. To think and question radically, as you have. We become followers of The Existing System, pursuing what everybody else does. Seeking happiness in a degree, designation, salary, house, car and what others say about us. It becomes irrelevant whether we enjoy what we do. It is of no consequence whether we believe in what we do. And some of us even fool ourselves into believing that all of this normal. We believe that this is how life is meant to be lived.  And it is easy to fool ourselves, because everyone else is doing the same thing. As though the only criteria for assessing what is normal is what the majority does. We rationalize it by saying “Let us be practical”.

I believe if there is a root of corruption in the world, then it is:

“Not allowing children the freedom, to be true to their own happiness”.

I eventually did, what most of the other students were doing. Graduated in commerce and did my Masters in Business Administration, from a reputed business college renowned for its Human Resource specialization.

“Which business college?” you ask

You see Dattaram, from here on the details of my life do not matter.

“Why?” you ask.

Because from here on, as you will see, my life takes the predictable pattern of most educated men and women belonging to the Middle Class. Degree-Job-Marriage.

The Middle Class calls this process “settle down in life”.

The business college was a heady experience in more ways than one.

Gradually, I began to believe, like most of my batch mates, that we were on our way to make a difference to the world and fulfill The Great Indian Middle Class Dream. Buy a house in the city. Just like my Baba and Ma dreamed of having their own house, when they got married. Only in my dreams it was a bigger house, than our humble railway quarters.  And instead of the blue scooter on which Baba would take us shopping on Sunday, with me sitting in the front and Ma behind with her big pale red shopping bag, I dreamed of a big car. When I shared my dreams with Baba and Ma they smiled with satisfaction. They felt that their hard work was paying off. I was on the right track. So what if I did not want to work in a bank or take up the civil services, I was now thinking of “settling down”, the sole parameter used by The Middle Class to consider that all is well.

The other “headiness” at the business school was of concepts and ideas. We discussed and debated theory after theory. Applied psychology, organizational behaviour, management  principles, labour laws, systemic thinking, training methodologies, psychometric instruments, recruitment processes, performance and evaluation systems. Everything and anything related to managing human beings in organizations. Human Resources we called them. As though we were talking of a large mass or an impersonal force of nature that was to be used in the most effective manner to produce goods and services.

I have realized that one can find great joy in debating concepts and theories. Creating intellectual delight! Yet life is an experience, that no theory can capture.

I realized this in my very first job.

It was with a reputed Indian Company. I was responsible for recruitment. To arrange for the right candidate to fill the vacant job position. It mostly required co-ordination between manager, placement agency and the candidate. I also took interviews. At times, I wondered when will I get a chance to use all the HR theories and concepts that I had learnt in my reputed Management College. After a year of experience, I realized one fine day, that the world of theories is different from the real world. The real world wants fast results and measurable outcomes. And if I had to survive, leave alone grow, I had to show a Return On Investment. The Company was investing in me. And, I had to prove to them that I was a good investment.  You see at the end of it all, everything boils down to investment and return.

I got lucky in my next job as Head of the HR function of a newly set up engineering multinational company. There, I learnt the ropes of managing the management on one hand and the employees on the other. It is a tight balancing act, that cannot be taught at any business school. But, balancing is a natural skill of The Middle Class. We are always to trying to find a balance between our growing needs and the limited resources available to meet them. It did not take me long to apply “balancing” at work, with good results. It was during this time that I got married. It was an arranged Bengali marriage, and even though she is not convent educated (a pre-requisite for all good middle-class Indian brides), she is slim and fair, as Ma insisted upon it. She wanted her grand children to be fair. And by God’s grace (and Ma’s sincere prayers) they are fair. Two of them, a girl and a boy.

Thereafter life has been a blur of activity. Late working hours, children’s education, meeting social obligations and two more jobs. Jefferson Spice Extracts (India) is my fifth job. I am 52 now and the HR Director of a big multinational Company. I am an example of what it means to be a successful.  Once a year I make it a point to visit Baba and Ma at Siliguri, during Durga puja.  Baba spends most of his time managing his fixed deposits and pension. He uses a stick to walk now and Ma has arthritis in her knees, but they are remarkably active even in their old age. They are immensely happy that I have fulfilled the Great Indian Middle Class Dream of settling down. They share with pride about their son’s meteoric rise in the corporate sector with whoever cares to listen. You see Dattaram, among all the Gods The Middle Class family prays to, there is only one that it truly worships.

The God of Success.

Both my children are now in America. My daughter Indrani, is pursuing medicine and son Abhijit, is doing his management in one the most reputed college there. They are the love of my life! Just like my Baba and Ma did for me, I too am offering them an education that stretches my financial resources. I have taken an education loan to pay for their college fees. And just like my Baba and Ma wanted to see me settled down, I would like to see them successfully settled in their lives. Both Indrani and Abhijit, tell me (now in their American accented English) that they would like to look for jobs in America after they complete their studies. Pursue the The Great American Dream, just as so many Indians before them have and found success. They are both intelligent children and I am sure they have a bright future ahead of them.

When I reflect on the three generations, I see the progress our family has made each generation. From Baba and Ma being middle class, me moving to upper middle class and now Indrani and Abhijit likely to become Non-Resident Indians. I sometimes wonder, what will be the fate of my grand children, if  they are born in a foreign country, with abundant resources available to them. Will they educate themselves for learning or earning? Will they be allowed to pursue what gives them happiness? Will there parents pressurize them to become successful? Or will they be confused about who they are and come back to India in search of their roots?

Of course I will come to know in time to come. Even though the mind tends to wander into the future as I come to the end of My Story, Dattaram.

Now let me share with you how the story of Arvind Dasgupta, a simple middle class Indian boy coming from a traditional Bengali family, is linked to corporate effectiveness.

But before I do that let me address your observation.

On the lack of effectiveness of testing and training to bring sustainable change in organizations?  

This may come as a surprise to you, but what you say is not new to me.

I myself have questioned many times the effectiveness of what happens in organizations, leave alone testing and training.  In my experience of working in various organizations I have often seen (and been a part of) a variety of activities that in my view were a waste of time and resources for the intent they were meant to achieve. And often, people do not always mean what they say.

I have heard about the “open door policy” where I was told that I could walk into any cabin and freely discuss whatever I wanted. Only to know that I actually had no say when it came to making decisions.

I have spent hours working on a “presentation” that was filled with colourful graphs and pie charts detailing the company vision, that left me and the audience unmoved.

I have attended “meetings” where the real issue was never discussed, because none of us wanted to risk being the one to ask difficult questions.

I have attended “training” programs in the most exotic locations, when what was really needed was to budget expenses and make important decisions.

I have created “developmental frameworks” because they looked good on paper and were easy to present, but often these did not result in any development or change at the ground level.

I have hired “branded consultants” because they offered the latest popular management concept and it was safe for me to hire them.

And sometimes I have asked people “to leave” not because they were bad at what they did, but because the Company needed to cut costs.

All of this is part of the work I do.

I see all this. We see all see this. Sometimes I speak up, sometimes I choose not to. Sometimes others speak up, sometimes they choose not to. You see it is all about “maintaining a balance”. In every organization there is something called the “mandate”. It means an authorization to act in a certain way, given by a superior authority to a lower one. There are different kind of mandates. Global mandate, Management mandate, HR mandate. In other words we all, including me, have somebody controlling our actions from above. One of the unspoken laws of the corporate world is that “one should speak only as much as the mandate he has”. Speaking beyond your given mandate mostly creates trouble for the person who breaks this unspoken law.

And no matter what happens we rationalize and find explanations to justify our decisions and actions, as long as we have the “buy-in” of the person on top. And if your boss were to pull the rug away from your feet, then no amount of explanation or rationalization works.

Let me share a secret with you.

Among all the competencies you listed for your job in your letter, there is an important competency that you missed out. Even though it is not listed, it has been a requirement in all organizations I have worked.

Conformity.

Organizations want individuals to be proactive and innovative. But within the “defined framework”. At the end of the day we have to do our task and show results. Including HR. Which means “recruit, train, evaluate, engage etc.” Keeping in mind what “recruit, train, evaluate, engage etc.” means for the top boss or the set culture. We have to follow The System that we are a part of. It changes from company to company. Management to management. And with every new job we have to adapt and maintain this fine balancing act. We do not decide how The System functions, we just maintain it.

It is not difficult for The Middle Class to demonstrate conformity. Just like balancing, it is something that comes naturally to us. In fact after a while it makes us comfortable. That we do not need to decide, and someone else can decide for us. Just as I did not have a choice in what I studied at school, we have limited choice and freedom at work. Other times we are limited by our own inability to think beyond what The System wants us to think. I like to believe I am free, but deep down I know that:

I am a part of a larger wheel.

The wheel can survive without me, even though it is doubtful whether I can survive without the wheel.

Dattaram, you speak of the need to have real conversations.  Being honest with each other to resolve our problems and achieve our goals.

For honest conversations to happen we need freedom. And the question if there is one to ask is:

What binds us?

You and me Dattaram, we may have different roles and backgrounds yet we have something in common that binds us.It is the same thing that binds every corporate employee, from the MBA educated Director at the top, to the office boy who gets tea for us, at the bottom.

Our sentimentalism.

After a while the reports, the trainings, the power points, the assessments, the meetings and the management jargon stop making sense. Jobs gradually lose their meaning. We learn to go through the motions. Or we make ourselves believe that this is how life is meant to be and seek meaning within our circle of engagement. After all happiness is a subjective transitory experience and our ability to seek happiness is restricted by the boundaries of our limited knowledge. What is real though, are the EMIs we have to pay for the loans we have taken to meet our responsibility, to the only people who truly matter to us in the world.

Our children.

We live for them and we are willing to die for them. In fact we die a thousand times for them without their knowledge. Just to see them happy and comfortable. We give away our freedom for the love of our children. Unfortunately, we take away theirs too.

They say The Buddha was a free man. He left his sleeping wife and child to earn his freedom. I do not think it is possible for you or me to do that. I rather be a sentimental slave, than a heartless free man. Infact, it is not choice I make. The choice was made for me, when as a child I noticed the sacrifices Baba and Ma made to give me a Convent education. When Baba reminded me that poems do not get jobs. When I decided to fulfill the Great Indian Middle Class Dream, to buy a house in the city and have a big car.

When I stopped thinking for myself.  

That is the story behind why I, as HR Director, does as much as I do and cannot do more than I am asked to do. I have to work within a mandate. And, I have to show results that can be seen and are recognised, like reports and trainings, even though you may find them confusing and their effects temporary. After all, honest conversations cannot fill the training calendar.

Dattaram, you ask me why is it difficult to be simple?

I do not have an answer for that, but I have other questions for us to explore.

Is honesty possible without freedom?

Is freedom given or is it taken?

What does it mean to be free?

I do not have answers to these questions either, but I feel for the first time as Arvind Dasgupta, I am beginning to ask questions that really matter. They may not impact my immediate corporate goals as HR Director. They may not even have any practical use, just like my childhood poems didn’t. But, I have now learnt through life experience, that practical solutions often result in practical problems and we keep running in circles fixing problems that would have never arisen if we had chosen to be “impractical” to begin with.

You say “Can we start being impractical now?”

I don’t know Dattaram.

Perhaps, we could.

Perhaps the time has come to experiment with impracticality to achieve practical results. Perhaps the invitation was always there. I was not ready to take it.

This letter to you is my first step towards having an honest conversation.

I hope it is not the last.

Yours sincerely,

Arvind Dasgupta

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