This story is a true event, but I have changed the real names and places in the story for the sake of the characters’ privacy.
In 1975, I was working as a young chemical engineer in chemical process plants. My then- Project Chief deploys a somewhat unpleasant strategy to train me— one of his favourite engineers. In hindsight, I see it as practical training in leadership and troubleshooting!
I was a part of a project team of 20 engineers from various functional disciplines. We were handling a turn-key chemical project in western India. There were also around 30 plant operators, 20 office staff, and approximately 80 contract workmen. The entire project team consisted of 150 people who were being headed by our Project Chief. I shall address him as PC for the story.
PC was a renowned professional with over 4 decades of rich experience in project execution, plant operations, troubleshooting, and general management. His general management and administrative skills were extraordinary, and he was often a sought-after person for counsel and advice by many. Although he loved all his team members immensely, he was a hard taskmaster at the same time! He knew the art of practising a creative fusion of aggression and affection – or practising “tough love” if I may say so.
On this particular night, I was on project duty managing a 12-hour shift (from 8 PM to 8 AM) as a Shift In-Charge. Undoubtedly, it was a big responsibility but then I was well trained and had several years of experience in similar roles.
Everything was running smoothly from 8 PM to 12.30 AM but then suddenly after 12.40 AM or so, we noticed some abnormality in the plant. Certain operating conditions and control parameters were showing abnormal deviations. We felt as if the entire plant was getting out of our control! We experienced abnormal vibrations and sounds coming out from the Control Room floor. You could say it was similar to what one would hear during a bumpy ride or turbulent flight. Clearly, it was indicative of some major issues brewing that needed to be identified. I felt anxious, worried, and somewhat helpless! I was handling dangerous chemicals, for god sake!
I consulted my team members, pooled their opinions but I could sense that everyone was looking at me for help and advice. They were right in doing so. After all, I was their boss, and it was my responsibility to ensure that the plant gives an optimal performance during my shift. At a personal level too, I tried to analyse the problem and thought of several turn-around strategies but then I was not able to pinpoint the problem; forget finding the solution!
Frustrated and perplexed, I dialled the residential number of PC, my boss. It was the last step to take. I was hoping that he would give me an instant solution. But then the way our conversation unfolded compounded my problem!
These conversations are etched in my mind because of the night unravelled. I will list the series of brief conversations we had.
THE FIRST CALL AT 1:10 AM:
Anxiously, I called him and despite the unusual hour, he was typically calm.
PC – Hello! Tell me, Tandon… What I can do for you?
KT – Sir, there is a serious problem in the plant! (I narrate the problem to him.) I am not able to fix the same… What do you suggest we do, Sir?
PC – Sorry Tandon…I cannot help you! This is your job!
To my shock, he did not even let me protest. He had abruptly disconnected the call. I went back to work trying to work out something to report!
THE SECOND CALL AT 1.30 AM
After a few futile efforts to set right the plant’s condition, I again called PC with growing anxiety. But this time his tone had changed. He was mildly annoyed.
PC – Hello, PC speaking.
KT – Sir, I am not able to fix the problem!
I am sure he could read the desperation in my voice, but before I could say anything more, he cut me off…
PC – I was under the impression that you were a first-class Chemical Engineer!
He disconnected the call again. I kept wondering about how he could reprimand me at such a crucial juncture! I needed a solution urgently!
THE THIRD CALL AT 1:45 am.
You could imagine how totally helpless I was to keep calling him for within the hour. I swallowed my pride and called PC again. Hoping to get through him, before the problem worsened.
PC – Sorry Tandon! I have no help to give you.
And before I could put in a word, he disconnected the call again.
I was at my wit’s end! This was not training! This was a real-life problem with real consequences! How could he take the matter so lightly! How much longer should I play along with being insulted and ridiculed? I was looking up to him for help, and he kept refusing me so callously!
For the very first time, I was feeling terribly annoyed at PC. I was seething with rage but then there was nothing I could do! I thought of this popular quip: “The boss may not always be right, but he always is the boss.”
PUSHED TO A “DO OR DIE” SITUATION
It was 2.10 am and the problem stared at me. I decided not to call PC again and thought of the predicament before me. It seemed like it was a do or die situation.
I called my Assistant and told him to get me a large cup of steaming hot coffee and requested him to leave me alone in my cabin. He promptly obeyed my instructions, closed the glass door behind him and left.
For a few minutes, I closed my eyes, tried to analyse the situation with a cool mind, and gave full focus to the problem as if I were an Einstein or a Newton! Soon, before the coffee cup was empty, I had clearly thought of 3 specific remedial actions.
I jotted these points of action on a piece of paper, called the main plant operator and handed over these directives to him. I told him to initiate the action plan. After that, there was nothing left to do but the whole team to wait and watch. In the next ten minutes, he did exactly what I told him to.
It took 30 more minutes, and to our utter surprise, the plant was returning to normalcy. Indeed, it was a great moment for all of us! We cheered!
Around this time, my phone began to ring. It was none other than PC calling me back!
THE FOURTH CALL AT 2.50 am:
I received the call with confidence and joy.
PC – How is the plant now, Mr Tandon?
KT – Plant is perfectly normal, Sir!
PC – I knew it!
He spoke these three words, and he cut the call again. But this time, my fury had melted. Clearly, PC had been awake at this hour and worried too! He trusted me and pushed me so that I could rise to the occasion!
CASE ANALYSIS: LEADERSHIP PIPELINE
Let us look back and pick out important learnings from this experience.
First, it was “a calculated move”:
While I was feeling furious on him for not helping (spoon-feeding) me – he was looking at a much bigger picture! He was busy thinking as to how to use the crisis at hand to create another competent leader and problem solver in his team.
All the drama he played during those three telephonic chats was an intentional act on his part to pull me out of my comfort zone and position me as the smart leader/manager who leads from the front and sets an example to his team members.
Second, IT was “leAding by example”:
He was not acting out in anger as I initially thought. While I was tensed under pressure, struggling to solve the plant problem, PC was also not sleeping!
The stakes were high! If I had failed the chemical slurry would have to be thrown out and the plant would have suffered a colossal loss in both production material and costs!
He still did not buckle under the pressure and resort to micro-managing my actions. He put faith in my intelligence and was ready to check-in with me within an hour. His appreciation in the end, not only made me forget my anger but I also gained respect for him as he unlocked my inner potential!