Pin the medal on the soldier, not the commander

After reading this post on LinkedIn, I was reminded of my own experience.

At Citi, in early 2008, one of the bigwigs sent everyone e-mail about an ambitious project called “Team Challenge”. The purpose was to enlist the help of about 20 people in Asia, to streamline the data we were getting out of various systems—they had been resulting in inaccurate reports and furious customers. I was not at all surprised, because I too had found many of these inconsistencies in the course of my reviews. [Some examples of the inconsistencies are at the bottom of this post.*]

Therefore, the moment I read this message about Team Challenge, I got excited. I told my then boss, SB**, that I would love to participate in it, in addition to my existing tasks. He agreed that I would be a great candidate, and he promised to speak with his bosses in New York.

The next day, he walked in and triumphantly told the team, “I have some good news. FJ** is going to nominate me for Team Challenge.” [FJ was SB’s boss’ boss—a flamboyant, egotistic, level-conscious guy.]

Russian Medal_small2

I gasped. SB, a big-picture person, took pride [justifiably] in his golfing ability, but he also took near-pride in his sloppiness and poor attention to detail; he even openly admitted he did not know the difference between hardware and software. He was being nominated?

He read my mind. He said, “As you know, I don’t understand a word of this stuff. Of course, I’ll have to attend all the briefings and status meetings. But don’t worry, Nandita; you’ll get to work on it. It’s all yours.”

I looked crestfallen. He asked me, “Why, I thought you really wanted to work on it?”

After a moment, he gave me an exasperated look. “Oh, come on, Nandita. You just don’t know how to play these games; you’re such a misfit in this industry. We can’t possibly nominate you; they need senior people handling this thing. We’ll manage the whole thing quietly.”

Quietly? Were we embezzling funds? Were we having an affair? Or were they actually ashamed of me, that they did not want to say I was working on it? Why quietly?

Then, I got suspicious. I asked him, “Surely, FJ knows that I’m the one who’ll work on it?”

His silence and lack of eye contact spoke volumes.

Then, to justify his action, he said, “Anyway, you’re a difficult person to work with.” [With slimy people,  sure. There’s a background to this, which I shall cover in another post.]

I immediately lost interest in the project for three reasons. One, I would have to work on this surreptitiously and get zero credit. Two, nobody would give me the time of day because I was not the one officially nominated for the task. Three, I knew that SB was very political, apart from being none too bright. If he did not understand some part, or if he felt some finding might upset the system owner, he would censor the background info or my findings—defeating the entire purpose of the exercise.

Of course, given the culture at Citi, the reality would have been more like this: Every department would have nominated a senior person, and a bunch of us “shadow warriors” would have actually worked on it. Most of these backroom boys would have been hapless contract workers at the bottom rung of the ladder in the tech support team [this is what a senior guy in Operations & Technology  himself told me]. Being already overworked and under-appreciated, and having to do this analysis in addition to their usual firefighting, they could not possibly have been passionate about this project. After all, this was a culture where FJ—a person at the level of Managing Directorhad wangled a “star award” for himself!

Epilogue: I did not even need to tell SB that I was no longer interested in participating. The bigwigs, who had announced this with so much fanfare, just dropped the project—no updates. Perhaps they were fretting over whom they would upset with this exercise. Or perhaps they got busy drawing up lists of whom to fire so they could keep their own jobs and bonuses—it was 2008, after all.


* The organization had over 3000 systems, and the problems went a bit like this: Address correct in system A but country of domicile inaccurate or missing; country of domicile correct in system B but relationship details inaccurate or missing—you get the picture. As a result, only a handful of people knew how to work such arcane data.

It was so complicated: At a meeting where I was present, the bankers and relationship managers were told, “If a customer asks you the current position in his or her account, please do not give the figure from your system, because it may not be accurate. Just say that you will e-mail it. Then contact the Report Generation Unit, and the unit will generate it from the correct sources and send it after 2-3 days.” Naturally, the bankers protested, saying that they could not possibly give their high-net-worth customers such a ridiculous answer.

** Names have been changed to reflect their nature rather than their names: Slime ball and Fig jam.

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