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31 October 2013

Meeting my Ex-boss...

I just met my Ex-boss at the airport. He was my boss for about 5 years at a key point in my career.

I had just got into IT (Information Technology) career after about 10 years in manufacturing and 2 years in Academia. I was into an area called ERP (Enterprise-wide Resources Planning) and was implementing ERP solutions across multiple companies across South India.

He became my boss after about one year into my IT career and was my boss for about 5 years covering two phases. The first phase lasted for about 3 years in company 1. In this phase, our relationship was excellent. We had very good rapport and understanding. May be it was because my interactions with him were few and far between. He used to work out of our Company HQ and I used to be at various customer sites for up to three to six months at a stretch implementing ERP.

He used to respect me for my knowledge. I used to respect him for his fairness and the effort that he was putting in despite his limitations. 

Ours was a small company. I think in the end, his limitations became highly visible to the management and he decided to leave. I think the feeling was mutual between him and the company on the need for him to leave.

From a small company, he joined a very big company. I think his new role was a letdown for him but he valiantly soldiered on. While he was a delivery head in the previous company, in the new company he was asked to join as a Project Manager (which is one level lower in the IT management hierarchy) for a large ERP Implementation for one of the most prestigious companies in India. 

He had a requirement for a competent consultant in his project. He asked me to join his team. And I did.

This was the beginning of second phase of our relationship.

Since the project was prestigious and big, it was also stressful. Any minor issue was escalated into the highest levels of our company management and every two days some top shot or other from our company visited our site to 'Review' the project and discuss with the Project Manager. Every one of such ‘Reviews’ started with the assumption that the Project Manager was not doing a good job. So these reviews invariably were stressful for my boss. In addition to this, the project was very complex with lots of customizations to the application. 

Coupled with the fact that my boss was not technically equipped to manage such complex projects and you had a recipe for disaster. Throughout his career, he had been a people manager and had not spent time developing his skill-set in the technical area.

Finally, when you consider that we had one or two very difficult people in our team, who were filled with hubris about their knowledge of the application and were arrogant to the point of being offensive,  you can imagine how any boss could have shot his bolt.

There was always a suppressed element of short temper in my boss. The stress in the project made it explicit. 

Initially the relationship between me and my boss was very cordial, in fact very friendly in a personal sort of way. Over the course of time the stress took its toll and the relationship deteriorated. 

I couldn't understand my boss's inability to see the big picture. He couldn't understand why I was taking decisions related to my area without informing him. To be fair, I felt that I was taking technical decisions in my domain and within my purview and my boss felt that I was trying to upstage him.

I was also under a lot of stress. In addition to my key role in this very complex project, I was also handling a solution which was not tested, implementing an area (costing) that I had never done in my life, and was also leading the team implementing the Financial Solution part in the implementation. I was also pursuing a two year Management Program at a prestigious management institute in Bangalore. The course load was very high and the demands were tough.

As mentioned earlier, over a period of time, our relationship deteriorated. I am also not perfect and was prone to my share of temper and irritation. And normally an ERP implementation adds to the stress by its constant and invasive demands on your intellect. In addition an ERP consultant also has to handle some recalcitrant team members from the client side, who are afraid that ERP implementation will make them redundant.

So I was stressful, my boss was stressful and both of us had short temper.

Classic recipe for disastrous relationship.

Gradually we stopped exchanging pleasantries. Our communication simply became formal and official. I used to send him the status report. He used to send me formal mails.

The customer team quickly started taking advantage of this conflict. They started complaining about me to my boss and about my boss to me. By this time I had also established my position in the project and it was widely known that I will take over this project once my boss leaves.

Things reached a crescendo one day. We were planning to go for UAT (User Acceptance Test). It was a Friday. I had classes to attend.

The previous day, I had modified a configuration to meet a specific requirement from the customer. It was done late in the evening and my configuration change had to be followed up with some changes to a custom code. The team which was supposed to make the code changes took their time.

UAT was to start in the morning. The delay in code change ensured that the start of UAT was delayed.

When my boss heard that the UAT is delayed, he lost his temper. And he can be nasty when he lost his temper. Months and months of stress had taken their toll and he was extremely nasty that day.

I was not there in the office when my boss lost his temper and started shouting at the team. The team couldn't take the stress and informed him that I had made the changes which led to the change in code.

He called me over the phone and shouted at me while I was still in class. I told him that I will talk to him once I am in office.

When I reached office, I saw a very stressed out team and a very angry boss. Even before I kept my bag in my seat, my boss started shouting at me with everyone in the office - our team, customers, clerks, peons- in hearing distance.

I couldn't take it any longer. I asked him for a personal meeting.

In this meeting I gave him a piece of my mind. I told him that as a boss it is his responsibility to understand what changes I had done and why this was important for the project. I told him that in an ERP implementation, it is expected that the PM has technical knowledge. I basically told him that he did not know what he was talking about and if he did not know the technology, he should not be talking to a technical consultant.

He also gave me his piece of mind. He told me that he was aware for some time that I was trying to take his place (which I wasn’t) and that he was sorry that he brought me into his team.

We had a mutually satisfactory meeting, both of us having spoken our minds.
Today I met him at the airport. The old rancor still lingered. The communication was affected and the smile was artificial. The effect of a year of stressful relationship was not going to go away in one casual meeting at the airport.

After leaving him, I started thinking as to why the rancor remained. Was I guilty? Of course, our relationship had become formal. May be I was still holding a grudge for all the stress that he gave me in the project. Was it worth holding the grudge? Wasn't it time for me to move on? He had moved on out of my life, I had moved on out of his. So why this casual meeting was affecting me like this? Why was I uncomfortable after this two minute meeting?

Was I still living in the ‘Psychological Time’ of my project days? Or did seeing him now bring back all the bad memories and the associated feelings and emotions? I don’t have an answer.

More importantly, knowing what I know now, how would I have handled the situation differently?

I would have done differently in two areas. Communication and escalation.

1. I would have communicated more regularly. I would have discussed my decision and got his buy in before I decided some of the things I decided. Of course, this is me speaking in retrospect, so I can only generalize.

2. I would have escalated my risks higher in the organization. I remember that I had written multiple mails to my boss's boss and kept the same in my draft folder without sending. This is an area where I have improved over the years. I don't keep my frustrations to myself now. I escalate the same to the right people in the organization. Of course, now I am in a role where I have to handle other's frustrations, but it doesn't mean I don't have any.

One lives and learns, doesn't one?


Suren K said...

Nice Articulation of the problem, failures let people learn!!

Ramaswamy V K said...

Totally agree...
Another thing is that the issues become more clear and irrelevant over time.