Work

Never waste a crisis

S Giridhar | Updated on February 10, 2021

Victory Down Under: No-hopers after the first Test, the India team came together to offer a performance that will be counted among the finest turnarounds in cricket history   -  PTI

Adversity at work can make teams come closer and go the extra mile

* Over the next 12 months, we, the core group of this defunct JV, got together to forge a completely new identity for our business

* We made space for a small workshop in the head office for the service engineers, but the sales chaps had to share tables and often it would be a game of musical chairs

* The team crossed its annual target in three quarters and, within two years, was by far the most profitable among regional business units

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A title like this would perhaps make readers connect it with India’s recent cricket tour of Australia. One would not fault that for it was India’s greatest ever back-from-the-dead triumph. No-hopers after the first Test, the team came together to offer the world a performance that will be recalled even decades later as among the finest in cricket history.

The manner in which the Indian team overcame adversity made a deep connect with sports lovers. Many friends recalled events from their own lives where they found the courage to literally pull themselves up from the cusp of a disaster and forge fresh beginnings and even great turnarounds. I cannot share their stories but here are a couple of mine.

Over 30 years ago, I joined a well-known corporation that had announced a joint venture (JV) with a US company for life science research equipment. It seemed like a great place to contribute to and create something of value. My colleagues were also bright, young people who had taken this plunge. But on my first exploratory visit to the JV partner, I realised that the game was a non-starter. There was nothing that we would manufacture, assemble or export together.

The report that I sent to the CEO was a painful one, each word wrung out of despair and a growing realisation that my career would now have a different trajectory. The chairman, though, was very supportive and just asked us to focus on how we would get this new business unit back into the game. Over the next 12 months, we, the core group of this defunct JV, got together to forge a completely new identity for our business. We cherry-picked the world’s best, cutting-edge life science and diagnostic equipment manufacturers and brought them under one roof with us as their exclusive representatives for India. Our strong suit was our corporation’s reputation for integrity, customer service and commitment to quality. We built applications support, customer service and marketing into features that could not be easily replicated. Over the next 10 years, our business unit was like a one-stop-shop for such equipment. It was a niche domain so the volumes could never be spectacular but the unit gained a reputation that was much more than mere turnover.

Some years later, our business faced such a sustained downturn in the North Zone that we were on the verge of closing down. Jobs were on the line, many among us had parents and children to support. Sleepless with anxiety, we came together to decide how to continue running the business on a shoestring budget.

One of the things we could do, which would bring significant savings, was to give up our wonderful regional office space. We made space for a small workshop in the head office for the service engineers, but the sales chaps, though mostly in the field, had to share tables and often it would be a game of musical chairs. Food would be shared among those who were in the office standing around a table; a daily bulletin was pinned up and even orders worth ₹10,000 would be celebrated; if somebody collected receivables from customers, samosas were shared. What was actually being shared, was the crisis and the small successes that were like oxygen cylinders.

They were always a good team but the adversity brought them closer together. No one had to tell them what ‘the extra mile’ meant. Product lines blurred in a ‘one for all and all for one’ spirit and so, for example, the diagnostic equipment specialist visiting hospitals in Lucknow would also visit research institutes on behalf of his life science colleague — after taking the effort to learn about those products. As a leader watching this, my joy was indescribable. It was not merely because the team had found ways to maximise effectiveness and minimise costs; it was because they were demonstrating an elevated level of human understanding and endeavour.

Angels watch over good people. Our business recovered in a spectacular manner. The team crossed its annual target in three quarters and, within two years, was by far the most profitable among regional business units. They were still working from shared tables, still eating together, still helping each other and so we asked them, “Do you want to move to your own regional office?” To this, they almost answered in chorus, “Hum paagal hain kya (are we crazy or what)?”

If I can recall such episodes from my ordinary life, one can understand why the nation is still basking in the afterglow of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. But life goes on for us and so it also will for the most courageous cricketers to have ever toured Australia. The English cricket team is already here and has won the first of four Test matches. But the lessons from the Australian tour? I bet people will hug them happily forever.

S Giridhar is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University and has co-authored books on cricket and also written a book on India’s extraordinary teachers

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Published on February 10, 2021
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