I’m super excited about today’s story. I am writing a new short story series called “Level Up,” season 1 consisting of 10 chapters. Today, I’ll share the first chapter and over the next 10 weeks, I’ll publish one chapter each week.
Managers at a company have one of the most interesting roles. They don’t do any of the actual “work,” but are still responsible for delivering on goals. When something goes well, the credit goes to the team, but when things go wrong, managers are blamed.
Their life, in the true sense, is Easy But Hard - it seems easy on the outside, but on the inside, things are hard.
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Without any delay, let’s get started!
Level up #1 - The making of a manager
“Okay, what if we give you a 25% raise?” Sriharsha asked Ajit. “Actually, you decide what you want. I can negotiate for a raise here.”
Ajit nodded sidewise.
Sitting inside a conference room at the office, Sriharsha was facing one of the biggest challenges of her life. If Ajit left the company right now, she would lose her right-hand man for building new teams. Building teams was always a tricky game – one wrong person hired on the team could ruin the output of everyone else. And likewise, this principle went the other way round too. Hire one high performer and they would boost the entire team to perform better.
Ajit had developed the art of creating high-performing teams for his employers and make sure they delivered on lofty goals.
But having worked for 6 years at the bank now, Ajit was tired. He was recently assigned a new project at the bank and was not interested in spending the taxing hours that would be needed to execute it. He had already had his fair share of success at the bank and needed a break.
The project was the boldest initiative in his work experience – building a neo-bank – a bank that worked only on tech. There would be no branches and no “relationship managers.”
To complicate things for Ajit, this was the CEO’s pet project. This meant that he would have all the visibility in the company he needed, but that came with its own tensions.
Over the last few years, the growth in fin-tech startups getting funded for creating neo-banks was just too many and the CEO of the bank wanted to lead this market from the front. In terms of market share, PIC bank sat well behind the giants, claiming the 17th spot in terms of market share. But by having a tech-first approach, the CEO of the bank, Surabhi Mukherjee, wanted to change this. She had researched the space extensively and was convinced that if they were able to build a good neo-bank, they could serve far more people.
With the increasing pressure from her board to grow the bank, Surabhi decided to use this as the main tactic for growth. This was her “once in a CEO’s career” big bet. The one that would either make her name synonymous with innovation or one that would get her fired.
She already had a place to start.
Unlike most banks that outsourced their tech needs to other companies, PIC bank’s leadership had always believed that technology was central to their operations. Thus, they had built an in-house technology team. Sure, initially they had relied on consulting companies, but that relationship was gradually phased out in favour of an in-house team.
Surabhi had appointed Sriharsha as the head of this new organization – which she was quite simply calling Neo. Sriharsha, the CTO of the company, was well-suited to lead his new initiative. Her experience with building technical organizations within companies of varying sizes was exactly what was required.
Over the last three months, Sriharsha had recruited more people to the Neo team, trained several internal folks around the neo-banking initiative, and figured out what they exactly had to build. It was now time to get started executing. The team consisted of 9 people at this point, with a few more positions open.
Sriharsha was relying heavily on Ajit for leading the team’s day-to-day execution activities.
His quitting the bank right now was not favourable to the bank. They had an aggressive timeline of releasing the first beta version in four months. The marketing team had started lining up users who were willing to participate in a beta launch and give feedback on the app.
As such, the development kick-off was scheduled to start in a week’s time.
“Okay, wait a sec, let me call Surabhi,” Sri said to Ajit.
“Call anyone, Sri. I am convinced that this is the right decision for me.” Ajit looked into Sri’s eyes.
Ajit had already started seeing the stress related to this project and was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to sustain it. He decided to move on from the bank and take a short break from work before finding a job that allowed him to spend more time with his daughter.
It was time to live his life first, work later.
“Wait…” Sri called Surabhi, who was in the conference room within ten minutes. She left a meeting with her marketing team midway to meet Sri and Ajit.
Surabhi and Sri tried to offer Ajit more money, lesser working hours, lesser stress, everything; but Ajit had made up his mind.
The next morning, the neo team was refining the changes they wanted to implement and was working through a list of conflicting suggestions.
Sri walked in with Ajit with a broad smile on her face.
“Hey team, can I have a few minutes?” she asked.
Everyone turned around to face her.
“So, I have some bad news to announce.” She looked into the eyes of everyone. A few faces had raised eyebrows, while others remained placid.
She delivered the news.
When they heard it, the team started wondering if all was well at the leadership level. A high-profile exit was enough to spark rumours of whether the leadership’s demands were not met and whether more exits were coming, but Sri articulated that no such thing was happening. Ajit’s exit was his own, with nothing to do with the team.
“We’ve already started looking for someone to lead this engineering team. If you have anyone in mind that could help us, do let me know! Very important that we hire someone good here. We'll miss you, Ajit,” she smiled before letting Ajit say his farewell speech.
The team organized a farewell later that night to celebrate all the amazing work they had done with Ajit. The team genuinely liked the way Ajit led them. He had always pushed them to perform better, but not at the cost of health and wellbeing. Even when he gave them bad news too, like no increments, he made sure he brought a smile to their faces. The team was now rightly worried about their future.
Sandeep Tiwari was not affected too much by the news of his exit. He was self-driven and felt that life without a manager wouldn’t be very different. As such, he drank too much at the party.
When his chance to say good words about Ajit came, he couldn’t. He was the team’s star performer for the last two years, continuously exceeding all expectations set by his managers. Ajit had never needed to instruct Sandeep to do something – Sandeep had always shown willingness and ownership to decide what to do.
As such, Ajit had given always him a free hand.
Right when Sandeep looked like he was going to puke, Sri tapped on his shoulders. Sri guided Ajit to a chair and pulled two more chairs around him. She took one and Surabhi sat in the other.
“Sandeep, why do you drink so much?” she asked.
“Sri, why do you drink only one glass?” Sandeep replied, smiling. He was talking fine, and gauging his response, Sri concluded that he would receive the news well.
“Look, Sandeep. What I am going to tell you is very important for this team. You understand?”
“Arre, stop talking about the fluff... tell me what you need to deliver, I will deliver it. Just make sure I get a good bonus, ha-ah." He chuckled.
“Yeah, right. While we are looking for someone else to lead the team, I think you should step up to the challenge. We want to promote you to be the interim manager of the team.”
Sandeep stayed silent. Expressionless.
“Yeah, I heard you the first time. I am thinking...” his face was blank and his eyes were half-closing.
“Don’t rush. Sleep on it, we’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll send you a meeting invitation for tomorrow morning. We can talk in more detail at that time.”
Sri and Surabhi left, wishing Ajit good luck before heading out.
Sandeep’s high was gone as soon as he heard the news. He could no longer party, so he decided to leave as well. He didn’t even realize when he booked the cab and sat in one.
From a career standpoint, Sandeep was at least a few years away from being a manager. Sure, he was the senior-most member on the team, but that was because the team was young in general.
He had always hated managerial jobs. You had to rely too much on other people to do work that you could yourself do, there was a lot of politics that you had to deal with, manage the irrational demands of your direct reports and stakeholders, and continuing to tell the team that all was going well even when it was not.
No. He wasn’t made for this role.
But the interesting part was that Sri and Surabhi both thought he was qualified for the role. Why would they think so? He had no training in being a manager. He had no understanding of how to judge people to adjust their pay. He had no training on how to deal with people. He could create technologies that changed the world, but not this.
But, as stated, the role was a temporary one. Sri had stated that they were looking for someone and it would take some time. So...
Sandeep went to sleep in the cab. He woke up only when the driver was hitting the horn hard and staring into the rear-view mirror at Sandeep’s face. Sandeep paid him and went home. He didn’t have any brainpower to think about the offer. Heck, he didn’t have any brainpower to even take off his socks. He dozed off again.
The next morning, he was in the office at his normal time, still thinking about the same questions he had last night.
“Howdy, Sandy?” Amita, one of his coworkers asked as he put down his backpack on his desk. “You look constipated,” she chuckled.
Sandeep smiled. “Naah, it’s just...”
“What is it?”
“Nothing, re. Don’t worry about it. Let's get to work?”
“What? Without having coffee? How does that even work? Something is terribly wrong with you, man.”
“No, no. Yeah, let’s go get coffee.”
At the coffee machine, the mug filled up and coffee spilled over it while Sandeep was staring at a distant wall. He realized that the mug was full only when his hand accidentally went to the mug and the dripping hot coffee burnt his fingers.
“What is wrong with you, Sandy?” Amita screamed.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, pressing his fingers into his mouth. “You know what, let me get this done right away,” Sandeep said and kept his coffee mug down. “I need to meet Sri right away,” he said.
“Oh, are you quitting?” Amita asked furrowing her eyebrows. Sandeep didn’t respond and walked towards Sri’s office.
“So, what you’re saying is, all I need to do is continue to execute on the plan that Ajit and you put together. And how long do you think you’ll need to recruit someone new?” Sandeep sat opposite Sri in her office.
“Look, sometimes it can take 3 weeks, other times it could take 3 months. I really don’t know, but I want to get it done as soon as possible,” Sri replied. “And don’t worry too much about what we want to execute on. I think that part is easier. I can also help. Right now, your biggest role would be to ensure the team sticks together. A high-profile manager exit could lead to a tumult within the team, so it is important to ensure continuity in the team. Also, we don’t know how the new person will turn out to be, so you have a big role to play here.”
“Which is what I am worried about the most. I don’t want to be a typical manager. Heck, I don’t want to be a manager at all,” Sandeep responded.
“Yeah, that’s fair. But remember, this is temporary. I would recommend trying it out. This could be a good way for you to experience the other side of managing. If you don’t like it, you can always avoid it in the future.” Sri remained silent for a few seconds. “Plus, there’s added salary and bonuses, but I know that won’t be a big motivator for a person like you.”
Sandeep continued to ask more questions for about half an hour, before responding that he was interested. The opportunity was too good to miss.
What do you think happens next in Sandeep’s life? Would he be able to handle the pressure that Ajit wasn’t willing to?
Let’s find out in the rest of the series.
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