This morning I got an instigating call. “Remember that letter you had written for me? Maybe you should send a version of that to the new President. He would love to hear from his illustrious predecessor.”
He was still laughing when I cut the call. Advise the new President? No way! There is enough out there to see and read about both, the one who has come in and the one who is gone. Everyone seems to be asking both the same question, “Why, oh why?”
Neither needs advice from the 16th in their line. But, some years ago, my friend did. Yes, the same friend who called me this morning.
Enter the fighter CEO
My friend used to be the chairman of a company that was fighting for survival. He was keen to appoint a strong CEO to lead the battle and win.
There was a candidate within the company. He spoke his mind and cared two hoots about the outcome. He frequently quarreled with his bosses. He did his best to overthrow two CEOs. His juniors hated him. About what he thought of the women in the company and, in turn, what they thought of him, the less said the better. But if your life depended on fighting, he was your go-to man. He was obnoxious; his performance was towering.
My friend, the chairman, wanted my help to write a formal letter of appointment on behalf of the Board of Directors. In that letter, he wanted to welcome the new CEO, and subtly, very subtly, admonish and caution him.
Why all that in a letter? Why not have a chat in private? The Board wants it in writing, my friend said. “You know how it is. If things go wrong and we have to remove him in a hurry and the media asks questions ….” I applauded my friend for being very prescient.
I hoped Google would throw up some inspiration. It did. A letter from Abraham Lincoln!
If Abe were to write
I have placed you at the head of this organization. Of course, I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.
I believe you to be a brave and a skilful executive, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during the reign of the previous CEO, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the company, and to a most meritorious and honorable colleague.
I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the company and the Board needed a Dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those executives, who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is corporate success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
The Board will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all CEOs. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the company, of criticizing the CEO, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. You could not get any good out of an organization, while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
The Presidential original
With apologies to President Lincoln, what you just read is an adapted version of the letter he wrote more than 150 years ago, on January 26, 1863, to be precise. It was addressed to Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who was being appointed to head the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. The website of the California Military Department begins the section on Major General Hooker by describing him as “One of the most immodest and immoral of the high Union commanders ….”
I did try to humour my friend with this adapted letter and a staider corporate version, but my friend rejected both. And now he wants me to send a new version to the President!
Going back a century and a half, this is what Major General Joseph Hooker told reporter Noah Brooks about the letter from President Lincoln: “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
Hmm! The CEO never got to read it, but does that sound like how the President would respond if Lincoln were to rise and give him such a letter this January 26?
On the second Saturday of 2017 (just four days away as I write this) about 100 ex-employees of a company will meet for a reunion dinner. They were brought together by WhatsApp. And the name they chose for the group was born long before phones turned mobile and smart. When I was invited to join the group, what struck me was the name they had chosen for the group. It was the name of a beloved house magazine, synonymous with the people who worked in and loved that company.
The last time this house magazine figured in a conversation was when a new friend called me from my old company. Once upon a time, they had recruited me to launch and edit their house magazine. Now, after nearly three decades, my friend had been asked to revive the same magazine.
Same? I began writing for the magazine hammering away, two-fingered, at a borrowed typewriter. Now, he was trying to figure out how to use social media and the company’s intranet to bring the magazine digitally alive on laptops and smartphones.
We used to send each copy by first class mail to every employee’s home, I told him. He could hardly suppress a chuckle. “Mail? You mean as in post office?” He tried to explain it to me, speaking slowly, “We are talking of some 20,000 employees.”
I was fortunate that the number was just a little over 1000 then. Made it easier for me to know almost every name and face I communicated with.
I had joined as a proud writer, confident of bowling them all over with my clever writing. And they taught me that communication was not about English but about listening and sharing—sharing experiences, memories and moments.
Fish for cats
Ekvir remembered a day of torrential rain when he had to wade through waist-high water to reach office. Why? The magazine revealed the answer. “There were six cats in the pharmacology department, surviving solely on fish. With the floods, the poor creatures faced starvation. Therefore, Ekvir waded all the way to the market and floated back with the fish. Whatever the cats thought of this, he did win the admiration of a group of boys, who had followed him during the journey.”
The cycle walker
For the sake of getting the job, Rao lied to the manager that he could ride a bicycle. For several days, he suffered the ignominy of walking beside his cycle. At nights, he practised. Soon, he was delivering the company’s products to every nook and corner of the city. Yes, on the bicycle!
The dancer in stores
And who would have thought that the shy, silent Sudeep from stores was an accomplished dancer, until the day he agreed to a graceful lunchtime performance for the magazine’s camera!
The serious scientist in the lab transformed into a garrulent numismatist in his apartment.
The flautist and the violinist staged impromptu concerts at home, with the family joining in.
It was all for the sake of the magazine that belonged to all.
Made quarterly, retained forever
There were also people like Prakash who ensured my ego did not get mixed up with my job. “You may be the editor. But it is our magazine,” he would remind me every time he disagreed with something in the magazine.
Yes, the quarterly did carry plenty of corporate reports. But, the employees made the magazine home to some unforgettable moments of their lives. They truly took the house magazine home.
Some months ago, I ran into Usha, who, at that time, was still working with the same company. “Do you remember me?” I asked her. She looked at me for a few minutes, her face blank. Then she screamed the name. No, not my name, but the magazine’s.
I felt honoured.