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How to avoid rookie mistakes

Vikram Johri 

When I received the packet containing this book in the mail, I was mildly surprised. on corporate gyaan are generally slim but this one was, if not a doorstopper, close to one. At 500-plus pages and covered in light blue tones, it could easily pass off as another of my here-today-gone-tomorrow MBA that are picked up with alacrity at the start of the term but vanish in the thickets of the hostel room soon after. With a line graph on the front and a professorial picture of the author on the back cover, this book was suspiciously similar to a textbook. What was I going to do with Navneet Dhawan’s preachy-sounding Don’t Regret Later?

Plenty, it turns out. The book, belying its appearances, is a charming read that enquires into why and how some people seem to have all the success while others toil without reward. In bite-sized chapters, Dhawan picks stories from the ground: bossy seniors, vituperative colleagues, demanding juniors — and cautions us against avoidable corporate behaviour.

Dhawan has an eye for office politics and has stacks to say on navigating its mind-frying labyrinths. In “A Tale of Two Colleagues”, he recounts the different paths two of his former workmates followed. One, let’s call him A, was brilliant at his work but did not have the requisite qualifications. Every few years, a new boss would be thrust on him and he had to take orders from someone much less in the know of things. It got to a point at which he stopped applying himself to the job and only waited to execute orders. When he finally left, everyone was glad. His contribution, whatever it had been, was forgotten.

The other colleague from the same organisation, B, was not half as skilled as A but was a man about town. He networked, spent time on the field, and actively sought assignments. He made sure he was there to grab plum postings. He received special allowances and often travelled abroad. In other words, he was a darling of the bosses. Dhawan’s self-evident message: it’s not enough to know, you must also show to know.

Dhawan addresses such knotty issues as trust in office. The easy camaraderie between colleagues can often blind one into assuming that everything is in order when checks and balances have clearly been overlooked. Dhawan, as elsewhere, advocates caution. He relates the case of an acquaintance – again, let’s address him as Z – who went on leave after delegating his work to a “friend”. When Z returned, he found his work in disarray and no follow-up done. When Z confronted (too strong a word) his friend, he joked he was too busy and tried his best. It was left to Z to draw flak from his seniors and realise the need to maintain distance in professional relationships.

There are hundreds of such examples strewn through the book and most are nicely readable. However, every now and then, Dhawan’s enquiry turns slippery. “Avoid Such ‘Destructive Chorus’” is not really about corporate success but is more of a stupid man’s guide to behave oneself. Dhawan recounts the time when he, as a fresher, attended an HR orientation programme on a new performance appraisal system. No sooner had the meeting begun than the other, relatively senior managers started raising their voices against the bad HR practices followed in the organisation in general, and the iniquity of the appraisal system in particular. Emboldened, Dhawan, too, joined the chorus. No wonder the next day, he was rapped on the knuckles by his boss. Wait, this is not the takeaway. The real takeaway is he was stumped by his boss’s disapproval. Seriously! Dhawan alerts the reader against such excesses. Play safe politics, he warns, and don’t play if you are new. Yes, DUH!

We have had such wisdom-spewing stuff in the past. Jack Welch’s bestselling Straight from the Gut is a masterly study into corporate dos and don’ts. J R D Tata’s biography by R M Lala, Beyond the Last Blue Mountain, carefully constructs the origins of the Tata behemoth. But most such take a macro-view of business and offer grand strategies that boost profitability and offer a sustainable path in the face of adversity.

The thing about Dhawan’s book is its accessibility. Tens of thousands of MBAs come out of India’s B-schools every year and while they know their derivatives from their mutual funds, they are deplorably ill-informed about what it takes to make things work. The thrust on engineering in our system (over 90 per cent of MBAs have an engineering background) ensures that they are very good at nuts and bolts but at sea with softer aspects of work. Dhawan targets exactly such people by presenting short, crisp stories that will resonate with their experiences.

Navneet Dhawan
513 pages; Rs 800

First Published: Thu, March 01 2012. 00:59 IST