* The ChemTech Exhibition was an occasion when the secretarial folks felt they were an integral part of business operations

* Members directly engaged on the ground — designing a programme or implementing it, nursing it to maturity, measuring its impact, documenting experiences — maintain their motivation as they look forward to each new day

* All hands to the deck, in these situations is more than a rallying cry; it is an expression of strategic and cultural intent


It was February 1980 and we were preparing for the ChemTech Exhibition, the marquee event where companies like mine could display their latest equipment, strengthen relationships with customers and land new clients. It had taken months of planning and preparation to get everything ready and ensure our site would get its share of attention amidst the many organisations at the expo. The backbone of all offices in those days was the battery of typists on their trusty Remington typewriters. In the weeks leading to the event, ours had tirelessly typed and posted invitations to hundreds of potential customers. They also cheerfully worked the phone lines — fingers numb by end of day — reminding people to visit our stall. As D-Day came, we were all set and one could sense the atmosphere of a carnival.

I still do not know what triggered the idea but the evening before the exhibition, I asked our Regional Head to allow me to gather all our secretarial colleagues in the small foyer of the office. I did not merely thank them but invited each of them to be present at our stall for at least a day during the week-long event. They would perhaps meet some of the key clients whom they had invited. They could be with these clients as our engineers explained the equipment to them. They were delighted at the suggestion. The story does not end here. Some months later, when we landed a big contract arising from a demo at ChemTech, the sales team took the secretary who had helped them through all the work to the customer’s office. Flory, the secretary, was beaming ear to ear that day.

Contributions from all

Our office was always an inclusive, fun-loving place. Invariably, the entire office would invade the cinema hall to watch the latest Amitabh Bachchan movie or descend on Gorai beach for a weekend. But this was the first occasion that the secretarial folks felt they were an integral part of business operations. They realised how much the business depended on their back-office support — to make good proposals, patiently rework revised offers and meet challenging deadlines. If anyone asks me to list five things that I am happy I did in my career, this ChemTech story will be one of them.

Times may have changed, and these days, instead of the large pool of typists supporting business operations, there are newer supporting roles and functions. However, the essence of the story is as relevant now as it was then. The recognition, respect and involvement of every member of every enabling function, will always be a visible indicator of the culture and happiness quotient of an organisation.

The complexity in achieving this, may perhaps be more in not-for-profit organisations. A number of young as well as experienced professionals, inspired by the vision and social purpose of such organisations, join them in various roles and functions. The key difference here is that these members do not see their role in the organisation as merely employment but as an opportunity to contribute actively to social change. Their resonance with the vision is certain but we must have the sensitivity to understand that they are asking themselves all the time, “Am I contributing the way I imagined I would when I joined the social sector’?”

Social organisations are always abuzz with passion and a sense of purpose. Thus, the members directly engaged on the ground — designing a programme or implementing it, nursing it to maturity, measuring its impact, documenting experiences — maintain their motivation as they look forward to each new day, hoping they can move the hillock a little. Their ownership and initiative comes from not just their resonance with the vision but the thrill of being directly engaged with the work.

The challenge before the leaders of these organisations is — how do we ensure that the various enabling functions who are not directly engaged with work on the ground also feel equally involved, and excited with our work. Not easy. Imagine the accountant reviewing and managing the operations budget of the team doing work in a district in Chhattisgarh. How differently would we want him/her to approach the finance function in this organisation as opposed to in a business organisation? Similarly, visualise the scenarios for a member of say the Procurement or Facilities or Logistics Function and one will see the same existential question. How should these professionals look at their work in social organisations differently? What must the leaders do to make these people feel as integral and engaged as their front-line troops?

Breaking the silos

Solutions like job rotation or location change are temporary or trivial solutions. The only answer is for the leaders to invest time in the members of these functions to make them feel wanted and valued. Find opportunities to include them in meetings, decision-making, projects and areas in the work where they can contribute actively. I extend this to academic institutions too. How many of us remember people in our alma mater who were not our teachers? Yes, the centre of attention will be on the teachers but the task of the leadership in academic institutions is to build a culture where there are no imagined hierarchical separations. Boundaries between administrators and academics are obvious structural and functional requisites but these ought to be invisible. Illustratively, the decisions on admissions, student support, discipline (and that includes freedom!) on campus, the annual convocations, field practice projects would be jointly held by both teachers and other functional executives in the University. This is not utopian but very hard. The good thing is some of us in the country are already trying.

I began with a story in 1980 but let me conclude with stories from my recent times with a not-for-profit organisation. When our Foundation was a few years old, we held our first ever national conference on public education. Dileep Ranjekar, our CEO, and I planned this event with great care. At each step, from planning to execution, to the time the curtain came down, we ensured every member of the organisation — in any function or any location — would have a role to play. And so, a colleague from Vidisha was in the group to welcome delegates at the airport; our systems administrator joined the communication team to contribute to venue preparation. All hands to the deck, in these situations is more than a rallying cry; it is an expression of strategic and cultural intent. President Kalam inaugurated the conference and the two-day event went flawlessly. If there were any issues, they were resolved, and one never even came to know. But the abiding memory for me is of two middle-aged colleagues, who were school teachers in their earlier avatar, coming up to me at the end of the event. Holding my hands, they took a full minute and said, “This is why we love our organisation.”

We brought what we learnt in the Foundation’s education conference into the way we do convocations at our University. It is an event where every member of the university — we prefer calling everyone a member and not differentiate as faculty or staff — conducts the programme. At our first convocation in 2013, when the foyer of the convention hall was teeming with joyous students, they were being greeted and ushered into the hall by various members of the university. If you were present, you would not have been able to say who was their teacher, their placement officer, the librarian or simply the person who had issued them the hostel room on their first day at the university. The convocation belonged to each one of them. In 2021, despite the convocation being conducted online, the group conveyed that same energy and fulfilment. It is not easy. The leadership has to work all the time to ensure that each member experiences a sense of belonging and fulfilment, however far he or she may be from the field of action.

The author is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University