We are taught lessons in schools and colleges, and even though we forget most of them, they lurk somewhere, in some mysterious corners of our subconscious, only to emerge when we are faced with situations where we are unable to find solutions.
The same happens in the work environment, but we rarely see them as lessons because sometimes they are too subtle to register and at other times they are so much in your face that the brain shuts off. However, they get put away in our subconscious and emerge just as the lessons learnt in schools and colleges do.
But it is seldom that any one lesson emerges as a final solution. Instead, the bits and pieces of several lessons learnt finally emerge as solutions to problems we encounter in management.
As a child, I was non-confrontational and had a natural tendency to be helpful to others, particularly to those who came from less fortunate backgrounds. It gave me the greatest satisfaction and pleasure, and I counted the sons and daughters of the workers in my father's business as those who were among my best friends.
Strangely, it was a trait I came to regret over time because it put me at a considerable disadvantage to those who wished to take advantage of this inclination of mine, particularly in school.
When you are young, you can be comfortable in your skin, but not that comfortable to accept with equanimity when others take it to be a weakness. A school environment can be quite brutal, and insensitivity prevails in abundance. Kids can be quite hurtful without meaning to be so, particularly older kids who tend to exercise their authority over the younger lot. Many people call it bullying. It led to my burying both the good and the bad experiences of my childhood into my subconscious. But I did start to ape the aggression of the bullies to compensate for what they did to us, the juniors. The aggression, fortunately, did not turn me into a bully but emerged in the form of a determination to excel in whatever I did. Mostly, I guess, to show the bullies up.
Those experiences, I now suspect, turned me into a bit of an enigma at work. I became a very aggressive and determined young man who rarely showed the soft, helpful side of my character because I think I had buried it too deep in the far corners of my subconscious. And yet, that side of me emerged in my interactions with my juniors who I befriended and treated more like pals than colleagues. I came to be wary of people in authority and attributed many of my self-inflicted problems to them.
Paradoxically, I was seen by my bosses as some unusually talented young man, and I graduated very fast into positions of authority. But it also set up an unusual dilemma. I subconsciously hated people in authority, and when I found myself in that position, I shunned it despite all the corner office benefits it offered me. Fortunately, in the new management environment where matrix management was being encouraged, I found myself in important jobs where horizontal management was being practised across verticals. It was when something unusual occurred.
I finally found myself in the ultimate job that required me to work across countries that were run by highly aggressive country managers who simply did not want me around as they saw nothing in my job description that could be of benefit to them. I was simply an overhead to them. I had no authority over them, but my success depended on getting them to see the benefits of working with me and growing our business together. It was getting to be very tough.
That was when our regional head (one of the few bosses I liked) called me in one day and said something that changed the way I viewed myself. He said, "I have observed you for a few years now. You have the makings of someone who can take my job now and run with it. But you appear to hate anything that gives you authority over others. You like to take the difficult route of working as an equal with others, and yet you make things happen. That is why I have given you this horizontal job. You are one of the most helpful and influential persons in the organisation, but you do not seem to realise it. Those country managers have the authority to run their countries in their way, but I know you can wield a great deal of influence over them if you try."
That shook me up. Something woke up in the far corners of my subconscious and came to the fore. That non-confrontational, helpful self started to impinge on my conscious being. I realised that my success so far had less to do with my aggressive side and more to do with my helpful nature, of which I was unaware. My aggression was a put- on. It was not me.
That realisation led me to develop my greatest strength - the natural ability to help others without expecting anything in return. It helped develop an influence over others that no amount of authority could give me. It is like building brownie points with others until they start feeling they owe you. It requires patience and it takes time, but it finally gives you a powerful tool to manage your expectations of others and for them to do your bidding. It is more powerful than the authority bosses are given to manage people and businesses. Because authority is merely given or assumed, it could be used well or abused. Influence, on the other hand, is earned. So is respect.
Finally, I did accept a corner office job as Chairman of Ogilvy India, but I distributed my authority across my creative and finance partners. We were a trio holding equal authority. I likened it to the three legs of a stool - well-balanced and steady. I empowered people in various positions, and I worked with them as a colleague, not as a boss. The influence I wielded was far greater than the authority that came with the job, and it carried love and respect with it, the two most cherished attributes a boss craves. Ogilvy became a perfectly balanced powerhouse and the most celebrated agency in the country.
And the greatest management lesson I learnt was a simple one: You do not need authority to influence people.
By Ranjan Kapur, Chairman, WPP India