On the Job Teachers

File:Photograph of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan presented to First Lady  Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962.jpg - Wikimedia Commons 

Today is observed as teacher’s day in India - in the memory of Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's second president who was known to be an eminent scholar. It is a day we pay tribute to our various teachers. We send our thoughts back down the memory lane and take a moment to remember our teachers from school and college. If we happen to be in touch with them, we probably even call them up and wish them. All that is fine and dandy you may say. But what the hell does it have to do with my corporate experiences? Isn’t that what this blog all about? Don’t I have 2 other blogs for writing about life, the universe and everything else?

Patience, my friend! Patience! I am getting there. You know I have a penchant for not getting straight to the point. Which by the way is not a great thing to do while communicating in the corporate world. But this is my blog and that gives me a certain amount of creative license to take my readers along circuitous routes. You know, take the garden path and stop to smell the roses, listen to the thrushes singing and stuff before getting to one’s destination. Anyways what I wanted to talk about was teachers in the corporate world. No. I am not talking about corporate trainers. They are of course there. But with due respect to them, somehow one tends to think of them more as service providers than as teachers. One doesn’t feel the kind of reverence one feels for the teachers at school and college. So, who are the teachers in the corporate world? You don’t have to look far. Just observe the recent fad among the human resources fraternity. Have you heard the word ‘coach’ being thrown around a lot?  Ah! Yes. Indeed. What are they talking about? Railway coaches? Talking of which I am reminded of this managing director who used to refer to the company as a speeding train and the employees as passengers. The employee moves ahead with the company and at some point, employees who are no longer aligned with the pace or direction of the train would get off and new passengers who are aligned would board the train. It made sense and all, but I was not sure what was the takeaway. But come on. He was a managing director. So obviously there was a deeper meaning that I must somehow have missed. Like the punchlines that I fail to catch in the jokes cracked by some of the senior leaders.

Anyways coming back to coaching – the recent HR paradigm is to encourage supervisors to act as coaches to their subordinates. This has always been the case in certain cultures. For example, when I was interacting with Japanese colleagues, I noticed they use the honorific ‘Sensei’ for their bosses rather than the usual ‘San’.  The word ‘Sensei’ usually refers to the teachers – non-Japanese folks might be familiar with the term from the martial arts movies. Also, in pre-industrialization era, one usually went for apprenticeships where one served under a master of a trade as an employee to learn the trade. Usually that was how practical on hands learning took place. Somehow that got lost out in the post-industrial age, which the new age HR is probably trying to revive.

I do not know how successful the HR departments of the world will be  in their endeavor. What I have observed is generally any HR initiative is met with a degree of skepticism not just by the rank and file but even the leaders themselves. Often you find them offering support in formal channels. But on the ground, day to day order of business takes priority over these kind of HR initiatives. But here is where I would like to offer an interest insight I got from a colleague at one of my jobs. I used to find him going out of the way to do not just his job but things beyond his regular responsibilities for his superiors – sometimes even helping them in non-professional matters. I know what you are thinking – the garden variety toady who lurks around in every office, eh? Now, wait. Have you ever spoken to people who indulge in such behaviors? What is there to speak to them about you may retort. Isn’t it obvious? Suck up to your bosses and you will get all the increments, promotions et al.

But I have always had a keen interest in human psychology and the motivations for people's actions. So, I thought I should find out. After all this person had joined the company along with me and we had a reasonably good rapport. This is what he told me, “See, Karthik. We are new to the job and we need to learn the tricks of the trade from the people more experienced than us. Their job however is not to teach us things but to get the job done by us giving us the minimum inputs needed to do the job. Also, they are usually so busy with their own work that they can hardly find time to mentor their juniors even if they wanted to. So as a junior, I see it as my responsibility to do whatever I can to reduce his workload to free up some of my superior’s time so that they can spend the time to mentor me.”

Now that puts a wholly different spin to things , doesn’t it? 

How successful have I been in implementing my friend’s advice? I would say it has been a mixed bag of sorts. The greatest of ideas can go haywire when the rubber hits the road. There are all kinds of people in the world – not every supervisor is going to reciprocate your gesture – some may just take your extra services and use the time freed up for something else. Then there is the problem of lemons. There are those who see things the way my friend saw them and others who do these extra things to just gain competitive advantage over their colleagues in the matter of promotions, increments etc. It is not always easy for a supervisor to differentiate between these 2 kinds of people. And then as it often happened to me in my initial few years of work, one may never get sufficient interaction opportunity to offer one's services beyond the normal line of duty to one's supervisor. And then it is possible that your supervisor just does not like your mug. I mean it is a free world. One if free to just like or dislike anyone. As long as one covers one’s tracks effectively and does not make it all too out in the open for the employee to raise a complain with the HR department, everything goes. 

But still the idea is a pretty good one and one can keep a look out for opportunities even if one gets to strike gold one in three or one in four times only - you may find the teacher who leads you from the darkness of the corporate labyrinths towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  

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