Thin LInes

This article was published in Economic Times Corporate Dossier on 12 Sep 2014.

RV Raman, former head of KPMG’s Consulting Practice, tells five stories from his formative years.

1. Grab your chances.

The battery of tests and campus interviews had finally ended, and I had my first job offer from Tata Motors, a coveted prize for mechanical engineers in the early 80s. Just as I rose and shook hands with the panel, they popped me a question. Did I want to be a mainstream shop floor Graduate Engineer Trainees like many before me, or did I want to join the new Management Services Division (MSD)? The folks at MSD, they said, did computer programming; a new area where the waters were yet untested.

It was in an era when ‘computer science’ and ‘information technology’ hadn’t entered the Indian lexicon. I had a snap decision to make. I could take the tried and tested route to the shop floor, and take the well-treaded path up the organisational ladder. Or, I could risk striking into a new territory.

The thrill of telling a machine what to do was irresistible. I chose MSD. It was a decision I never regretted; a choice that took me into software, and then into management consulting.

Unexpected chances were thrown my way twice more in my career. I grabbed them. I’m happy I did.

2. Never stop adding skills. Reinvent yourself.

“Don’t rest on your laurels,” we were told at Tata Motors. “Opportunities will be endless if you continuously add skills.”

It was advice I took literally. Only, I didn’t limit it to software. Two years later, I realised that learning more software languages was incremental and insufficient. I got myself an MBA from IIM Bangalore and entered management consulting, where we advised clients on IT choices they needed to make. Software was a tool that made operations efficient, but to do that you had to understand all manner of processes – a whole new set of skills for me to acquire.

Gradually, I figured that process improvement was not an end in itself. Clients wanted to maximise shareholder wealth. For that, IT and processes had to blend with people, strategy and M&A. To my technical skills, I now had to add an array of soft skills. It was not easy, but the rewards were disproportionate to the effort.

In search of that elusive meaningfulness in life, I am now reinventing myself as a part-time writer and a teacher. Only time will tell how rewarding this iteration will be.

3. Culture is set at the top

When we merged Arthur Andersen’s consulting practice with KPMG’s, we figured that organisational culture was the key to our continued success. Meritocracy was one of the cornerstones. People had to be rewarded for their contribution, and not for their proximity to leaders, or to the optics of working late hours. But no amount of saying so had the required impact.

We therefore introduced a mechanism for promotions that is now an industry standard. Every six months, Partners and Managers (i.e. the people running the practice) locked ourselves away for two days, where the performance of every consultant was discussed threadbare before promotions and ratings were decided.

There were two instances where my view of a consultant’s performance was diametrically opposite to the view of their managers. Despite several iterations, the gaps couldn’t be narrowed. I was faced with a choice. I could overrule the group’s decision as Partners often do, or I could let the process I had created determine the outcome.

I chose the latter. The consultants in question – both brilliant guys – were not promoted, and left the firm. But the culture of meritocracy was firmly established.

4. The importance of humility

“The day you lose your humility, you lose your soul,” my father had said early in my life. It was philosophical advice that meant little to a young boy then, but it was to come back strongly in later years.

It is easy to let success go to the head when bright young consultants begin addressing CEOs and Boards before they hit thirty years of age. It becomes even easier at 35, when you call industry captains by their first name. It’s a heady cocktail that makes you think that you know all there is to know. You have arrived!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once hubris sets in, you stop seeing and listening. Your glasses become coloured, and your ability to understand your client’s problems gets impaired. You can no longer advise dispassionately, and you fail as an advisor. Humility is your insurance.

Once every year, I stand in a corner at Mumbai airport’s arrival area and watch the young and the middle-aged hurrying about, wrapped in their self-importance. It helps me keep my feet on the ground.

5. There is a thin line between ambition and greed

Consulting attracts not only some of the brightest people, but some of the most ambitious ones too. Sometimes, ambition can turn into something ugly. Not very long back, a successful and respected consulting Partner crossed the line. It began with a small confidential document being shared with an outsider. One thing led to another, and soon, the Partner’s name was on the slippery slope.

While the breach was not illegal, it was unethical nevertheless. What was shocking is how the Partner, with so many years behind him, convinced himself that he was doing nothing wrong. He wanted to add a zero or two to his wealth.

This was shockingly similar to the Galleon Hedge Fund case, where highly respected executives couldn’t resist temptation. They deluded themselves into doing things that interns in their office would have no trouble seeing as illegal. They have paid a steep price.

The original article (pdf) from Economic Times

About RV Raman

Novelist | Advisor | Teacher

Posted on September 12, 2014, in Author Post and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. With due regards , most rude-mentary way of determining promotions at Consulting Organisations and you are taking credit of institutionalising it !! How can it be based on Merit ? It is completely politically motivated and institutionalises organisational politics. If merit was to be seen then allocation of resources to various consulting projects should be based on experience and skills and not preferences of project managers. There should be transparency in resource allocation. Further, there is no mechanism to resolve conflict at KPMG. The only mechanism is Thank you. If you are not in good books of your manager – there is no other way.

    Managers always recommend promotion of near and dear ones – how do you ensure that managers follow merit while recommending a person. In the end it becomes a dog fight and machhi bazaar with Managers taking out animosities and preferences for 2 days. This system promotes non merit to its core and believe me everyone hates to be in that meeting.

    In the end it all boils down to the Manager asking its junior – Why should I recommend you ? I do not care for all the work you did but first lick my ass then I will recommend you. Managers abuse their position and authority. This system makes the middle layer more powerful than bottom as well as top layer. The result is middle layer does not need to work and senior layer is too busy to work. Poor juniors. Partners have no clue or option but to rely on managers decision in fear of going against its support layer whom it relies upon.

    It is clearly against democratic principles where people vote and elect their representatives, it seems the other way around where representatives ( managers) elect their voters and votes. If the same system was followed by Indian Politicians in appointing government officers then KPMG would be first to call for reforms and make money in the process (over and under the table) ……..Do you find merit in this argument ???

  2. Dear Mr Agarwal

    Thank you for your comment.

    I am indeed sorry to hear this. I can’t comment on the current state of affairs, as it’s been several years since I left the firm.

    In my view, Partners ought to be aware of their consultants’ true contribution, and not rely solely on managers’s views. If they aren’t, the system collapses. This is one of the reasons why the partner to non-partner ratio is capped at 1:15 in most global consulting firms. Further, a Manager is evaluated on how s/he treats her team and demonstrates leadership. 360 degree feedback therefore becomes crucial.

    If you think it’ll help, I can forward your feedback (without your name) to an appropriate person in the firm. Please let me know.


  3. If I may add, culture is set at the top, just as you’ve said in #3. If a bad culture has been fostered, it is the leaders (ie. partners) who are responsible for it.

    In response to Ashish’s question, democracy as an institution cannot be blamed if politicians hijack it. Same is the case inside organizations. No system is perfect.

  4. Hi nicce reading your blog

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