Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mission impossible II

Lately, I haven’t been able to find the impetus to update my blog. I compose posts in my head all the time but they never get written.

It’s more than a year now since I’ve had to write for a living. I spend my time among Excel sheets and Powerpoint presentations. I find myself using management speak more and more, without making the effort to replace those words with some that actually mean something. If I’m not careful I will turn into Dilbert’s pointy haired manager who has no knowledge of his team’s “ground realities”. And today, when I’ve sat down to write, the muscles are rather stiff.

Anyway, I hereby return once more to updating my blog regularly, if only as an attempt to ignore a weird erosion of my self that seems to be out of my control.

I paused there for a bit because the cafĂ© changed the music and after the years of Middle Eastern conditioning, it’s still a bit of a shock to hear a remix of Hava Nageela in a public place, both that it’s being played at all – over a muezzin’s call, incidentally – and that it can be turned into something you can dance to.

Perhaps that's a new post, coming soon to a blog near you.

Travelling light

Different management exercises over the years have returned the unanimous, ironically unchanging, verdict that I’m an "excellent change agent", the ideal person for drumming up enthusiasm in the office about something new. This is because I have a high level of indiscriminate curiosity and a crawling restlessness that plagues me and mine when things have been the same for too long.

It also means that I am unperturbed at arbitrary changes of desk and other crises of convenience and filled with unholy energy when things go wrong in the middle of critical events. It is almost solely responsible for my reputation for being good-natured under pressure. It's hard to see how all this would help or hinder the people who report to me, but I definitely recognize it early enough in others to divert to productive things, so some good must come of it.

My last job needed me to fly away now and then to meet another team, do the same work in a new place, a ritual which kept the demons quiet for an unprecedented six years. Fortunately, my current job also offers some opportunity for change of air; I was told apologetically at the start that a portion of my team sat in another city. And so I recently went on my first business trip to Chennai: I took the fast train at dawn, an auto rickshaw from the station to the office and returned by the night mail the same day.

It was an inspiring departure from the style of travel to which I'd no business getting accustomed, but in many ways also exactly the same. The step by step releasing of latches and bolts as I approached the point of departure and the complete letting go of the soul as the train pulled out. The sudden, comprehensive frizzing or flattening of the hair when I arrived, no matter how prepared I was. The group dynamics in the visitee office. The way my time was efficiently disposed to the last second. It was all familiar.

As was the almost tangible urge to just get off at some other station and keep going for a while. I used to stand for a moment below the airport departure boards before a journey, like some people do at altars or idols, silently seeing myself on that flight to Amsterdam or Sao Paolo, Turin, Almaty or Baku.

Looking out of the train window, thinking of lounges and limousines, I was glad that I had had my fling with the bling when I did, because the corporate world’s generous days must be over now. Sales conferences in exotic locales, brainstorming at beach resorts, unlimited-hospitality office parties… these are all gone, if not for good, then definitely for a long time.

I voluntarily got off that business-class gravy train, but on some days it’s hard remember why. There's a sizeable difference between being the omniscient, omnipotent creative director of a revered global account and just another manager among many in a company that has 400 employees on my floor alone. The difference is especially keen in times of client wrangles – time was when my mere presence was enough to effect a truce; now all the words I speak are not enough unless endorsed by someone else. Then I remember that I had had to earn that status. And it needs only a few seconds' thought to bring the swings and roundabouts into focus, a deep sense of grateful relief that helps the heart drag the ego of the ex-god out of bed the next morning.

At 11 pm, I walked into Chennai Central, only slightly under the influence of the almost mandatory farewell drink, and my coach was at the other end of what seemed like the longest train in the world. As my high heels started to feel like needles I realized that I loved this gritty commute that my business travel had become.

As always, the "excellent change agent" trumps the ex-god ego. That is the secret of my success – or lack of it, according to some (widely discredited) sources.

Travelling Light, Cliff Richards, 1974

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