In my professional career, I have worked in organizations ranging from tiny mom-and-pop stores, to gargantuan multinationals. Each organization has its pros and cons, and irrespective of the size, there is always some inevitable office politics and obsequiousness between employers and employees. With each experience I have gained something positive, while consciously trying to stay away from the negative. Having also worked abroad gave me a global perspective of how the western world views India and its denizens, at times providing some perspicacity, and at others presenting some unintentional humour.
By far my best experience has been with the Taj Group of hotels, owned by the reputable Tata Group. I have always believed that anyone who is part of the Indian hotel industry should work for either the Taj or The Oberoi groups, to get a grass-root level understanding of how the Indian hospitality scene works. It gives you first-hand experience of the human resource dynamics and a front-row view of how tiny cogs in the wheels of a giant machine mesh together to make the behemoth work. The four years that I worked there, were nearly cathartic, and also gave me the confidence to take on greater challenges later on in life. The first two years were spent in the setup and opening of their apartment hotel – Taj Wellington Mews in Colaba. I had opened hotels for other groups earlier, but here I witnessed how the sweat and grime put in by all members of a perfectly gelled team bring results that are not just gratifying, but also mind-boggling. This was Taj’s first foray into the apartment-hotel space, so in-room technology played a major role in ensuring comfort to the families that would make this place their temporary abodes. My seniors were extremely supportive and played perfect foil to my frequent bouts of avoidable over-enthusiasm – they corrected, guided and espoused my decisions, while chiding me when the occasion demanded. Of course, there were roadblocks, but they were smoothened out as we moved ahead as a team. I was later posted in the original Taj (opposite the Gateway of India), a veritable hotbed of office politics and self-aggrandizement. Balancing the laidback posturing of veterans (some had been with the hotel for close to thirty years!), against the implacable forcefulness of the youth brigade, gave me invaluable insights. One of the lessons I gleaned was that if you scratch off the surface grime and dust away the outer obduracy, there is genuine humanness in most people.
The Tata Group is now going through a turmoil, unprecedented in its close to sesquicentennial history. I am too insignificant a person to pass judgment on the boardroom battles and the dirty linen laundering that is currently being played as well as splayed across newspaper headlines. I have not worked under Mr Cyrus Mistry and so can neither comment on his style of working nor on his righteousness in the whole matter, but I once had a fleeting encounter with Mr Ratan Tata, who was then heading the group. I had heard a lot about Mr Tata’s humility, down-to-earth attitude and friendliness with the staff, from various colleagues who had experienced it first-hand. One day, I was on the porch of Wellington Mews, and was moving towards the lobby of the hotel, when I saw this dignified-looking gentleman striding towards the lobby entrance. To my utter surprise it was Mr Tata himself! Since the hotel was still under construction, there was no doorman to hold the door open, so out of respect I did the honours by holding it open for him. Mr Tata left me flabbergasted when he stopped me from opening the door – he wished me a good morning, opened the door himself and with a smile, even held it open for me! For someone who was used to the highhandedness of managers in Taj, this was not just a humbling experience, but one of life’s greatest lessons. Here was a gentleman, who irrespective of his enviable stature in life, had not given up the core values of compassion and humanity. I do not think he would even recollect this incident, but for me this one gesture will remain etched in my memory forever! Even when he would attend the annual awards show of the Taj, Mr Tata would narrate amusing incidents from his various passages across the world, all the time co-relating the narrative to the greatness of Indian hospitality, and how proud he was that “his people” were raising the bar to make Taj one of the most sought-after hotels in the world.
I cannot predict the outcome of the battle that is now setting new standards in vindictiveness, but I can vouch for the fact that Mr Ratan Tata is a man with his heart in the right place. I feel C.S Lewis’ quote would be apt for him – Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but of yourself less.