The large European company where I started life had two layers of incompetence. The top English bosses understood nothing of India, neither its markets nor its direction, and did not care to. Their underlings, the top Indian bosses, were picked up, usually at elite clubs, from other large organizations, on criteria that had little to do with competence. The ability to drink, to wear smart clothes, to play golf or tennis, and to have known other bosses were what mattered most. To think, to analyze, to articulate a vision was of no concern. No surprise, duds as executives were a common hazard. If you had one as your boss, you could only pray for him to burst a blood vessel.
One memorable one I got was Apte. He could collect his four officers the first day and honestly say: I know nothing of this company and this job, please help me do it. We would have told him a few things, so that he could go to his bosses and tell them a few things and look good; and we would have kept the wheels running as before. No, he had to pretend he knew and understood everything, ask a myriad irrelevant questions, suggest ridiculous alternatives, and show us who was the boss. Now we had to do our work and carry the additional burden of a silly pretentious boss.
Apte had the cunning of an ignoramus and knew just how to cover up his ignorance. If there was a major problem, he would call me or another subordinate to his office and ask, with a great show of affability, “What do you think of this?” After picking our brain, he would write it up in a memo and take it triumphantly to his boss. Periodically, he cut his work short and asked us to write him a memo charting our ideas to solve the problem. We found out from his secretary that he would then get her to retype the memo, inserting his name for ours, and send it to the director.
Apte loved not only displaying his position and power, but also diminishing the status of his subordinates. The moment he saw me negotiating with the President of a Japanese trading company or the Vice President of an American manufacturer, he had to barge in and say, “Let us meet for a couple of minutes before you leave.” The real purpose of those minutes would be to alert the person that he was the big boss and the subordinate really did not matter. When I now read management texts that pontificate that the superior’s mission is to ‘empower’ his subordinates, I remember the reality that Apte represented: most bosses labor valiantly to emasculate their juniors.
Apte ran into problems with other departments, when they found that the information or analysis he supplied them was dubious. His confidence in his judgment, he found, was no more shared by other executives than by his subordinates. They would refuse to consult him and barred him from their departmental powwows. The supreme example was the training program the human resources people ran for junior officers. I had spoken in the program a number of times, but Apte insisted with the organizers that, as a senior executive, he should be invited to take a crack. The new generation, however, had less patience with the trite homilies that Apte had culled from some book, and pointedly asked if he had ever discussed with millenials their problems and expectations. When the next cycle of the program came along, I again received an invitation and Apte’s interest was rebuffed.
I never found out with whom Apte got along, but I knew several business associates who were peeved by his abruptness and exasperated by his egotism. They complained he was eager to lecture and not to listen, and wanted his way at the expense of long-term mutual interest. In the months we worked together he never called the staff together to discuss how we could work better as a team. Certainly, I never heard him say to me or any colleague, “That is an excellent idea” or “Your suggestion is imaginative and I commend your ingenuity.”
I left the company eventually and joined a larger corporation as a senior executive.
In a few years, the company that had been one of the largest and most prosperous of companies, commanding half the national market, steadily lost its market and reputation over a decade. It fell on its face from sheer waste and incompetence, and unbelievably went into liquidation. Tragically, ten thousand people lost their jobs. The only silver lining I could see was that Apte lost the well-paid job he should not have had in the first place.