At the beginning of one’s career, either as an employee or even as an entrepreneur, we spend considerable time reading files / memo’s and other forms of communication with focus, in addition to doing the actual assigned tasks. This allows the understanding of the many dimensions of the organisation we serve. Most get to know its business dynamics, its ethos and culture.
Since the first rung of the corporate or any organisation ladder does not bestow upon us the army of slaves / assistants, hence most or even entirely the whole assignment has to be done by oneself. From end to end of the given task, you are the CEO and janitor, rolled into one. Life at the first rung teaches us so many aspects of human behaviour and the type of responses, we must give and the type of responses we get. With no regrets, but with pride, I have in the first years of my career, off and on, besides having to give quality work output, was expected, mostly for being the youngest in the team, to make and serve tea / coffee to my supervisor(s). I enjoyed the task and the compliments for brewing good coffee!
In the initial years, from writing official communiques to handling day to day issues (transactions) on a hands-on basis; from preparing schedule of daily activities to understanding the rise and fall in figures relating to revenue and expenditure, we learn the basics of our task/ assignments at hand.
Pushing the pencil implies that you don’t delegate what you need to read, write or do. All temptation to delegate must be avoided. We must do our work and let others do theirs; you can cooperate but not delegate, entirely, either the work or the responsibility.
Each time upon return from an attachment with a branch (a unit outside the place of posting) I would as a matter of routine ask, “management trainees”, what skills have they acquired? The invariable response was, “I wasn’t made to do the work; I was told to either stand behind or sit next to the ‘worker’ and merely watch how transactions / papers are processed; I wasn’t allowed to ‘touch’ the papers, barring when they had to be either photocopied or filed!” This is a common dilemma in all organisations. Such practices emerge out of the many insecurities a manager / supervisor or co-worker suffers from, and feels threatened to teach their work to anyone else; they remain unwilling to share knowledge or experience, and end up being stationary assets with only loads of moss upon themselves.
Does this attitude help the new entrant? The first and foremost significance, as I see it, is that with such practice nobody learns anything new by merely “watching” others do it; learning is only achieved when the work is done by oneself.
Every single menial or even sometimes important work, if the manager is an emancipated professional, existing or emerging gets delegated to the new kid on the block - who is asked to “do it”. This assignment of one’s work is not within the noble domain of delegating to teach, but in abdication from making the toil. Just as the buck (responsibility) stops at the desk of the managing director / CEO of any entity, so does all “work” land on the table of the starter or the young Turks. Here the manager doesn’t wish to do his / her work. The youngster who has no room for sharing the workload has the only option to do the work. Some make this negative approach of the supervisor to their advantage by learning all facets of the work. They convert the fallout to a positive gain for themselves; however in this process, the manager without realisation, begins to loose, his / her control over the work... demise!
As one progresses in career, the horizon of knowledge expands, which requires both retention and application. As experience begins to pile in our memory bank, the storage increases, and unless one practices with ruthless regularity to recall often, the skill and knowledge so gathered would begin to be consigned to the limbo of fading memory.
It is for these reasons we encounter seniors who do display focus or exhibit their listening skills. They are essentially practicing recall. Those who abandon such traits generally talk more and do less. That explains how each of us tends “to do” a little less every time we are pushed up the hierarchy. The reduction in the quantum of work done is camouflaged by lending respect to time wasters like attending high profile strategic meetings; where invariably there is no definitive profile for emulation and for certain the contents are hardly “strategic”! The only strategic aspect is whether the coffee should be black or white; or a discussion on the many benefits of “black chocolates”! Such attitudes, seriously damages ability to push pencil.
Many managers upon promotion to a higher grade or on being given a new assignment tend to use the same skill set, as they are used to. There is therefore hardly any quality improvement with progress of the individual. Experience is the bitterest foe to fresh learning. The over-dosage of self-deception gets the better of those managers whose guiding pronouncements are, “I know it all”.
Pushing the pencil or punching keys on your laptop, Ipads, etc has many benefits; it allows you to recall before recording the proceeding of, say a meeting; creates focus on the subject at hand and permits to clear any cob-webs of confusion. Writing brings clarity to thought.
Most of us as part of assignment have prepared feasibilities, market research reports, management updates, etc on behalf of our supervisors. Once these are presented, after the toil and drudgery, the supervisor in pretension that he / she is extremely busy, tends to react and say words of such similar imports, like “brief me in five minutes” ; “give me only the salient points” etc. They are unwilling to read reports, whereby they overlook the significance of the dictum that the devil is in details. They hence gather only superficial knowledge, which is insufficient for sound decision-making. Politicians, especially those occupying high offices must necessarily read full reports and not merely the summaries presented by various ministries / bureaucracy. Statesman like Lincoln, Churchill, De-gaulle, Chou-en-Lai, ZAB, etc are known for their meticulous study of all files presented to their offices. Churchill and ZAB, wrote many cutting remarks, in hand (pushed the pencil) on the margins, which helped to have better judgment. For the purposes of concentration, Jinnah, our Quaid would normally keep doodling on the pad, while attending the working session of the party.
What is an “executive summary”? It is the reduction to a few major points from an otherwise exhaustive report, for the “executive” who is presumed to be short of time! Taking decisions based upon only the reading of the executive summaries in my view is suicidal. The nitty-gritty must be fully understood of the issue(s) at hand, before handing down the judgment / decision. An overview of the problem is insufficient reason for decision-making.
With the progress in technology, where information is now shared globally in nanoseconds, the toll of this speed of information deluge has been on the span of attention - this quality of attention today of nanoseconds, is available to colleagues from their supervisors. Multitasking is a good facade. Firstly, it was management by e-mails, which by its inherent nature has to be reduced in writing, hence requires clear and deep thinking before one starts hitting the keys; then came management by SMS (Short Message Service), where instructions and decision-making are conveyed in less than ten words; this has been quickly followed by management by WhatsApp! Each format requiring lesser and lesser of concentration. I have witnessed many who believe they have arrived at a stage where they call and ask the sender of the email, “… listen; in two minutes tell me what you have written in your email to me!” Attention span- zero! Reminds of the once famous politician (but known today mostly for more infamous reasons), whose attention span could split the nanoseconds.
To remain relevant to the times and vocations you are engaged in: never stop in doing what you ought to do, in the minimum. No hierarchical level in any type of organisation gives us a license to “stop pushing the pencil”… keep it moving…
The writer is a banker and freelance columnist