One Among The Four Horsemen

For some time now, we have been hearing a lot about the forces that are transforming the workplace and affecting individual careers. Three of these are somewhat global, and then, there is one that is uniquely Indian.

 

First, acquisitions and mergers in many sectors (E.g. Telecom) are leading to waves of workforce reviews that will eventually leave some people out of their jobs. Often, these are middle-management or senior-management jobs of the type where only one will suffice in place of the two that were there earlier e.g. territory heads and function heads. Second, the relentless push of IT deployment, through automation, digitalization, and now through AI, is making some roles irrelevant. Often, these are middle-management roles too, which mediate between senior management and the front line. Third, especially in mature industries, sluggish demand and pricing pressures are leading to severe cost containment, elimination of long-standing roles, and, outsourcing of work. While outsourcing may not significantly reduce the number of people on‑premises, it reduces the number on-rolls. The agency that picks up the outsourced work may or may not retain the people whose jobs have been outsourced. If it does so, it is usually at reduced compensation levels, often on time-bound contracts.

 

The fourth force threatening jobs is unique to India. Rising non-performing assets in the banking system, coupled with the new insolvency and bankruptcy management provisions in place, are leading to operational shut-downs and extensive staffing reviews. While some high-profile cases have made it into the daily news cycle, the size and spread of NPAs suggest that we are likely to see significant blood-letting. Of course, these forces are somewhat interdependent. Cost pressures can lead to mergers and acquisitions. Turnaround planning for bankrupt firms may involve extensive IT deployment. And so on. Taken together, there are potential implications for job volatility.

 

In a growing economy, job loss is accompanied by job creation. In the aggregate, society may not lose out with job turbulence, but particular individuals would have to manage the disruption of extended job search, modified lifestyle, physical relocation and extensive reskilling. This can be difficult because over time one gets lulled into believing that good times will continue forever, that income will increase year on year, and, that one is so valuable to the organization that one will always be retained, even if many others are let go. As a result, one does not do critical self‑appraisal or invest in skill enhancement. The unstated logic is that if the organization has been promoting me at regular intervals, I must be acquiring useful skills, and, if my compensation has been increasing, it must be because I am becoming more valuable. There is, as always, a germ of truth in this belief, but it is also true that in many large companies salary increases and promotions follow a law that many students of school physics would call inertia of motion. When it does come, Disruption can become hard to handle. Young people at the start of their careers have fewer commitments, and often, a family to take care of them in an emergency. Senior staff is vulnerable in an entirely different way.  Let us consider a real case, with some identifying details deliberately fudged to protect privacy.

 

K was a high-performing student at a respected engineering college and maintained his track record at a good management school. After starting work, he changed jobs at two-year intervals to land up in a big, reputed, MNC and prospered there for almost two decades, with regular double-digit percentage increases in salary and generous stock allotments. One of his children is finishing a professional post-graduate course and the other is starting a similar undergraduate program. His spouse works part-time off and on in areas that interest her from time to time. He lives in his own home in a nice part of a metro city. He has investments across real estate, equity, and bank deposits and would be considered well-placed by all standards. His company has periodically acquired others, and in turn, has been acquired by others, and, he has seen each transition accompanied by exits. He was anxious when the first such event happened, but, since he himself was not touched, he had settled into the comfortable belief that he was special. So, he was surprised when after a recent such acquisition, he was asked to leave. There was scant comfort in the fact that many of his colleagues faced the same fate. The few days between the announcement and exit passed in a blur and soon he was spending entire working days at home.

 

He did his calculations and figured out that he could gradually liquidate his savings to carry on living as before for five or six years, maybe even ten with some cost-cutting. That was a huge relief. He had time to look for work. He started reaching out to his extensive network of friends, former colleagues, and business associates asking for leads to jobs in his current geography. He also sent his CV to placement consultants recommended by some of his contacts. Each person he contacted promised to get back when something suitable came up. After three months of sitting at home operating email and the phone, he relaxed his specifications and made it known to all that he was willing to relocate anywhere in India. He got some inquiries and the telephonic interviews went well, but he was told that senior positions take time to get finalized. Nobody got back. After six months, he got in touch with some of his close friends to say that money was not a constraint and that he would be happy to work at compensation and designation lower than what he last enjoyed. Some of them got back saying this was not a good approach as the hiring company would see him as potentially unstable. K was surprised at how long things were taking. When he was working he seemed to be besieged by job offers. Paradoxically, there were none now when he was out of a job.

 

After another two months, K started toying with the idea of teaching at professional colleges, to keep busy, and, also to keep in touch with what he thought was his special area of competence. In meetings at these colleges, he discovered that he would have to stick to a curriculum that included many more topics, beyond his interest. He would, therefore, have to study to brush up his knowledge. The colleges also told him politely that fresh graduates would be equally good at covering the curriculum as teachers. The institutes were looking at him to help place their graduates using his industry connections. He felt completely unprepared and inadequate for this role and withdrew.

 

Nine months on, K decided to make a list of startup companies in his area and approach them directly. His selling pitch was that he had skills that they valued but could not afford, and, that he would be able to offer his services at a discount. They asked why would he under-sell himself. He answered that he believed in their vision and wanted a part of it. He figured that in the later job interviews with bigger companies, he would be able to defend this position. One Start‑up took him on, and, he was relieved to be getting out of the house during working hours. However, he found that these working hours were long and uncertain, and, often involved working from home even on weekends. He also found that the long period of holding first-level and second-level supervisory responsibilities had left him out of touch with front-line work that he had to do from time to time in the understaffed startup. It was doubly embarrassing as he was uncomfortable doing what he saw as a lower role and was not particularly good at it either.

 

Every now and then, he keeps renewing inquiries with his network for openings for jobs like the one he formerly had. Many of his contacts have started responding that he should now focus on the work he already has in hand, and, allow more time for his dream job to come up. K is slowly settling into this new routine and hoping that the start-up does not run out of funding. Everyone else in that company is looking forward to being acquired, but K is apprehensive that that could lead to another transition for him. He considers himself blessed that he owns his house and has adequate savings, with only one child to be funded through college, but feels diminished in social events when people ask him what he is doing, especially when former colleagues are around. He often toys with the idea of starting something of his own but feels timid about the responsibility and potential risk.

 

Since this is a real story there is no perfect ending. Hopefully, K will muddle through and eventually succeed in an entirely new way. What is important is that this could be just about anyone around us, and, all of them may not own their homes or have extensive savings. Peter Drucker always advised that one should plan for a second career while deep in one’s first career. Maybe K should have done brutal self-assessment to identify those skills that he would need in his second career, developed them through disciplined study, tested them through volunteering and checked his lifestyle from changing exactly in step with rising income. It is always easy to advise others. Managers should look within to see how much of this advice they are following themselves. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are out for a hunt and everyone must prepare to face them.

Gautam Brahma is a management consultant advising start-ups and SMEs, on strategy & operations including sales, HR & IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors, in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and has been a monthly columnist on HR issues for close to two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]

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