Senior Assistants

A year or two before I was born, my parents both took and passed this exam called “SAS” (no clue what it stands for), following which they were both promoted to officer grade (they used to work for the erstwhile Karnataka Electricity Board (KEB) back then).

Many of their colleagues elected to not take up this exam (or perhaps took and flunked it) and didn’t get promoted for the rest of their careers, remaining “senior assistants”. While they didn’t “progress” in their careers, they didn’t do all that badly financially, with their pay scale growing more or less at the same rate as it would have had they become officers.

This examination-based division into officers and “staff” was not limited to KEB, of course. It was (and is) prevalent across all public sector units. If you passed the exam, you had a chance at career progression, though that also typically meant harder work and longer hours. It wasn’t necessary for everyone to be ambitious, though, since they could choose to remain at a non-officer grade where things were chiller.

While there might have been noble intentions for this bifurcation (making the pyramid thin at a low enough level, for example, and also addressing lumpy/bursty recruitment), the problem with the practice was that it created a rather large cadre of rather unambitious workers.

Given that it is not easy to sack someone from a PSU job (unless there has been gross misbehaviour), the only way to incentivise PSU employees to work is by showing them carrots. While tenure or seniority based promotions have put paid to such incentives, it is still reason enough to keep a section of the officers motivated. For Senior Assistants who have hit a wall on that front, it is simply not available.

Given the shape of the pyramid and the lack of carrots for Senior Assistants (and equivalent) what this policy has created is a large army of government/PSU officials who lack any motivation or incentive to do their job effectively.

With most government departments being monopolies, this is a problem only for the taxpayers and public (and not so much for the departments themselves). Where this hits PSUs hardest is where they compete with the private sectors, in banks, for example.

I’ve maintained that one of the advantages of PSU banks is that the staff there are much more experienced, so if you have a non-standard thing to do, you would rather go there than to a private bank that might throw the rule book at you.

The problem, though, is that while some staff might be motivated enough to use their experience and help you out, not all of them might be that way, for most of the clerical staff belong to the aforementioned “Senior Assistant” category, with no explicit incentive to keep them going. The same is the case with non-customer facing staff as well.

I understand that various other careers can also have “career-limiting moves” (after which you don’t get promoted) but the problem with the Indian PSU system is that such moves happen pretty early on in the career, which creates a lot of deadweight for the system to carry.

GMail and Unsolicited Emails

About a year and a half back, GMail moved to this tabbed inbox format, where “promotional” and “social” mails were filtered out and delivered to separate tabs. This meant that most of the promotional mail and mail from social networks you got never hit the main inbox, which meant that your phone wouldn’t buzz for those and that you need not read all of to keep that “inbox zero” count (I know a lot of people apart from me who are obsessed about that).

What this meant was that we didn’t really bother about all that unsolicited mail – it would sit somewhere in the inbox away from where you saw, and all you did occasionally was to click on the “social” and “promotions” tabs so that nothing would be seen in the tab headers (for the OCD includes making sure those headers are empty).

In fact, now that all these promotional mail was hidden away, you didn’t mind getting more of that. And when more social networks and advertisers started approaching you, you didn’t mind. It was easy to ignore them. And once in a while you would click through, resulting in a payment somewhere, which made sense to the advertisers.

The new Inbox that google has pioneered in the last one month, though, has changed all that. Now, while there are several more tags which are automatically added to mails and they don’t hit your inbox directly (“updates”, “finance” and “forums” are examples), these tags are now treated no differently from the “social” or “promotions” tags.

Also, the way the mails under these tags are shown is interesting. Every time there is at least one unread mail under a tag, the tag shows up near the top of your inbox. And when you click on it, all “undone” mails under that tag are shown. So if there was a promo which I simply ignored and clicked “done” on the tag (rather than on the promo mail itself) it would show up again the next time something landed in the tag. And that is an irritant.

To put it differently, when a promo or social mail lands in my inbox, I now have this compulsion to open it and mark it as “done”. And over the last few days I’ve found myself doing this way too many times.

As a consequence I’m now making a conscious effort to track down and unsubscribe from any unsolicited mails I was getting. LinkedIn sends me a daily digest of some groups. I’ve unsubscribed from all of them. Amazon and Flipkart used to hit me often with promotions. That has stopped. Livejournal birthday reminders are gone, too. Over the last few days, I’ve been hunting down the “unsubscribe” button on all promotional mail and actively unsubscribing from unsolicited mail.

I’m now going to extend from my one data point and assume that others are behaving similarly. Based on this, I think GMail’s tabbed inbox format was great for promoters – by keeping the promos away in one tab, it meant people didn’t mind getting those, and they would click through once in a while.

In the Inbox, though, since promos are almost treated similar to “normal” mail, the annoyance factor has increased, and thus people are unsubscribing. And it is not good news for advertisers.

On Running a Consulting Firm

So most of the consulting firms are run as partnerships (as you might have already figured out). There was an experiment in the late 90s where a then leading firm was bought over by an IT company, and that saw stagnation for the next few years until the consultants did a “management buy out” in order to rid themselves of the IT company’s controls. By then, though, valuable time was lost, and last I heard this company was severely lagging its peers in terms of reputation, among other things.

As I had mentioned in the earlier post, the rut sets in once partners reach “steady state”, where they have an established set of relationships that they milk to get more business. And as I mentioned, it’s hard to get out of this rut, until employees start leaving protesting the poor quality of work, and lack of opportunities to make it big. And that starts sending the firm into a downward spiral. So what is it that the firms must do, in order to keep themselves dynamic, and not get into this kind of a rut?

The answer is something that is practiced by most leading consulting firms. Every few months or a year, these firms add to the partnership pool, mostly by promoting from within their ranks. Once thus promoted, it is the new partner’s responsibility to expand and generate new business for the firm, and he is not able to piggyback on the relationships established by the established partners. And thus, in his process to expand and get himself established, he has an incentive to take more risks. And take on projects with long-out-of-the-money option kind of payoffs.

Regular promotions to the partnership level means that there is always a bunch of partners who are thus taking risks, and that keeps the firm dynamic. I don’t know how well this works in practice, but in theory at least, this helps firms from getting into stagnation. That this is the model followed by most leading management consulting firms indicates that this is probably an appropriate approach.

So, if you think your consulting partnership is stagnating, get in more partners. Promote. Or make way. And keep the group dynamic and a great place to work.