The title of R Gopalakrishnan's new book What the CEO Really Wants From You – The 4As of Managerial Success, a book on tips to be a good subordinate, comes as a surprise at a time when books on leadership and how to lead abound. What should an employee do to make the boss a partner rather than perceive her as an extractor of work or an adversary? That sets the book apart from his other best selling books, The Case of the Bonsai Manager: Lessons for Managers on Intuition (2007) and When the Penny Drops: Learning What is Not Taught (2010). The business environment is one of change and ambiguity, says Gopalakrishnan, and it is no easy task for any manager to negotiate the journey to success. As Paul Polman, Unilever's CEO, points out in his foreword to the book, partnerships with others, but above all your direct boss and organisation, are more important than before. Gopalakrishnan, backed by 45 years of corporate experience—31 in Unilever and 14 in Tata (he's now a director with Tata Sons)—summarises the wisdom in the four As, Accomplishment, Affability, Advocacy and Authenticity, and illustrates them with real-life examples in a talk with MG Arun. Excerpts:
Accepting to follow a middle path forms an underlying tone of your new book – like, how to get a work done without upsetting the employees much, or how to speak the truth without offending your senior and so on. How challenging is it to put this into practice?
The outcome of any endeavour must be to change things according to the capacity of the object that needs to be changed. Unless there is an emergency, the appreciation of the problem lies in the middle of the so-called 'bell curve' (mid-way between the two extremes) or at its end. Most of us plan our life so that most of the time we are at the middle of the bell curve. To be at the middle, where you are allowed the time to think over the various aspects of a problem, is the middle path.
Is middle path a virtue that defines you in your managerial life?
It defines not just me. None of us wants to lead a life that is reckless. The middle of the bell curve is the natural outcome of the way the human evolution happens. The surgeon in the emergency department will have a different approach than one who plans his operations.
You have started off with the story of Arup, an executive who is a brash and overtly aggressive. However, at the end of the day, he is successful. Is his an example that subordinates can emulate?
I am not using Arup's story to illustrate what is right and what is wrong, but how we can still draw our lessons out of common things. Most of us think we need to have a hero. Although we do learn from even those far away from us, we learn much better from people whom we can reach and touch. I have learnt more from my father than from Gandhiji. That doesn't make Gandhiji a lesser person.
You have stated in your book that one needs to be a good subordinate first in order to become a good boss...
I have been doing an exercise in the Tata Management Training Centre. I ask people as to what they expect from their bosses. They have a long list—boss must be fair, must pay properly, give facilities to do work, and so on. Then I aggregate them into nine heads. Then I ask ‘What do you owe your boss?’ The list then is very small. There is an asymmetry in the relationship. The question to be asked is, are the subordinates fair?
You have illustrated that employees would prefer Mr Warm over Mr Clever as boss...
You need not have a high IQ to run an organisation. The human skills become more important. In cricket, the best captains are not necessarily the best batsmen.The quality of warmth that a leader requires comes out of an understanding of the irrationality of the human being.
How does a corporate keep its whistle-blowers' policy intact, yet encourage employees to keep the company's interest ahead of their own?
The whistle blowers' policy has to do with maintaining an ethical standard. Mere disagreement with your boss sometimes causes unhappiness. But, it is not appropriate for an employee to bring up things against the company and boss at the time of leaving the firm, which should have been raised earlier.