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May 22 2012

On the edge of the ‘BENCH’

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I am writing to share an incident that has made me think about the way we manage organizations today. I am associated with IT Industry since early days of my career. Being the head of the function that takes care of hiring the talent (I prefer TALENT over RESOURCE or CANDIDATE), it was a part of my profile to interview people and determine the fitment in the organization. I must have interviewed hundreds on them in last few years of my career. As a part of process, we interview, give feedback, candidate is offered for the employment and if everything goes well the talent joins the organization. Owing to the busy schedules, we seldom do a follow up after the talent joins the organization as to how he/she is fairing and finding the organization (that is HR’s job, right!). In fact, in bigger organization, that is more of an automated mechanical process.

But, it was a bit different for me in particular since as per my work profile I was supposed to hire as well as keep track of a talent till he/she is in the organization. Assigning projects to them, seeking feedback from the project managers about their performance, manage their aspirations etc. were a part of my function. In the same process, management of BENCH (The bench refers to people who currently do not have any projects on hand – more relevant to IT industry) was completely my responsibility.

The story goes as below:

It is about this one particular talent, let’s call him John. John had been in IT industry for past year and a half (1 yr 5 months) and had changed 2 jobs before applying for my organization. Third job in 2 years!! Didn’t impress me at all as an interviewer! I had (kind of) made my mind already that this person would be no good, though it was against the principles of effective interviewing (I know!). Anyhow, as we got into discussion and the interview progressed, I realized that he had great passion for technology and wanted to make big on technical front in next 5-7 years.

I liked his enthusiasm and decided to give him an opportunity. Anyhow, we do not expect a 2 year (professional age) old kid to build a rocket for us – do we? So I decided to go ahead and hire him.

While I was giving my positive feedback (more of a final decision since I was the one to take the final call) I had this thought in my mind that John has never worked on a live project in both of his last jobs. He was put on BENCH in both of his earlier jobs! However, I overruled my apprehensions solely for the reason that his last 2 organizations were real big BRANDS.

Anyway, John was hired and he joined us after a month. He was very happy to join a growing organization since he could see huge potential for growth and learning for himself. More than that, he was happy to be working on a live project for the first time.

Like other organizations, we too have people on BENCH for some time before they are allocated live projects and John was informed about the same at the time of selection process. He had accepted that and was ready to wait for some time before he gets a project as per our instructions.

But I guess John’s destiny had other plans! The very next day of John’s joining; we received a project requirement which was matching John’s profile. I asked my colleague to call up John and give him the news of his allocation plan. John was happy, we were happy, everyone was happy!! Indeed it was a happy moment. Someone getting a project in a day’s time is wonderful. Finally, John was allotted the project and the meeting with the manager was fixed. He started working on the project with all the good feelings and dedication, clueless of the fact what time had in its store for him.

After just about a week, I got a call from John’s manager. He had called to express his dissatisfaction with John’s performance since as per him John didn’t have the required experience to work on a live project. He cited reasons like lack of exposure, lack of confidence and more lead time to gear up for the poor performance of John. Although John was working as the most junior member in the project; still it was not possible to continue with him as it was affecting the profitability of the project. Looking at the business criticality, we had to remove John from the project.

All hell broke loose on John! He was shattered, disturbed and disheartened. He was on the BENCH again. The fascination that he had felt around him in life vanished in a moment! Whole world came to a halt for him. But then, he was a strong guy! He gathered his thoughts and prepared himself to fight. To fight along with other 110 people on bench; waiting to be allotted a live project.

Days became weeks, but things didn’t change for John. We were not getting rightly matched project requirements for John. The world was moving ahead swiftly and John was feeling as if he was being left far behind in the race of success. But still he held his nerves. He kept calling, writing and probing frequently about any movement on his allocation.

One bright morning, I again got an opportunity where I could put John on a live project. I got a mail with a requirement from one of the projects, suiting John’s profile. John was informed, meeting was fixed and everyone was waiting for the results of the meeting eagerly. John looked very calm this time. He did not show any strong signs of joy or delight. I guess time had made him strong enough to take things as they come in life J.

Anyway, the meeting got over but the manager left us wandering for the result. He wanted some time to decide.

“Fair enough” we all thought! “Let’s give him some time.”

Next day, I got a call from the same manager early in the morning (10AM is the early morning as per office hours). He had called to inform that he cannot add John in his project team quoting a reason that he does not have valid experience. I immediately recalled what John had told me last evening about the meeting that there was no discussion on project experience as such in the meeting.

My inquisitive part promptly asked the question – “But how do you know that he does not have relevant experience?”

“I spoke to his last manager whom he worked with for a week!” he responded immediately.

He shared that the last manager had given the feedback about John after which it was decided that he could not be included in the team. I was surprised and equally annoyed too. How can one take a call based on someone else’s feedback, that too when the other person didn’t work with the guy long enough to comment? But, duty calls! Amid all these thoughts I called John to share the news with him. He calmly heard everything, thanked me for the information in the end and hung up the phone.

Process was completed! Another opportunity was closed for John.

Days passed by and I got busy with other things at work. John never called back or wrote for a new project. He used to come to office every day, spend the 8 hours of his quota doing things and go back. I could see him going out with friends for tea, chatting over lunch and I looked like he was having a good time. One day, suddenly I got a mail from John asking for a meeting to discuss something. Since he was writing to me after many days, I promptly accepted the request and fixed up a time to meet him.

We met in a meeting room. He greeted me and pulled a chair but this time he looked very uneasy. Red eyes, fumbling hands and shaking voice! He sat on the chair out in front of me, quiet, sobbing. I was surprised to see a grown up guy crying in front of me and that too at the workplace. It was a strange sight! I softly asked him as to what was wrong. He would not answer initially but then he looked at me and plainly asked me a question, hitting the nail on the head: “How will I gain experience if I am not given a live project?”

John had stimulated a never ending debate going on since ever in the corporate world – How would you get experience unless you are put on actual work?  Sounds similar to the Chicken-or-the-egg dilemma!

Somehow, this problem has become an inseparable part of our industry these days. John was the victim of the same mindset. We, as an industry could not nurture him in the early days of his career (made him sit on BENCH) and when he got old enough sitting there, we declared him unfit to be a part of the team! We are tagging talent based on their age in the industry without giving any heed to the passion for the work. We talk a lot about Training & Development, Mentoring, Coaching, Career Path, and Competency Development – but when it comes applying these basic practices like grooming talent things like Margins, Profits, Productivity come in the way.

We do not want to make conscious efforts to groom passionate young people who can make big in the field claiming that this will incur COSTas well as TIME – both being very critical for organizations these days.

No project manager wants a slow runner in his team since he believes that it would make his project suffer. He will have to put efforts in grooming the person and he finds it as an overhead. He wants all STARS in our team, but he does not want to groom any STAR.

Are we doing justice to the young people who enter the industry with high hopes and almost no understanding of its functioning?

People grow not by their passion and talent but just by being in the industry. In the rat-race of making more money by doing more projects delivered in time, organizations have naively given an upper seat to SKILL as compared to PASSION & TALENT. As organization, we preferred SKILLED people over TALENTED ones who might be really passionate about the work. This mindset has developed deep roots in operative of most of the corporate functions. A programmer will routinely become a project Manager after he has spent 10 years in the job; least that he has to do is KEEP WORKING!

There is no harm in this concept of career development but is this the only way of doing things?

I leave it for you to decide and if you get some answers, please share with me as well.

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1 comment

  1. Manav Lalotra

    Thanks for the wonderful comment!!

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