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The Opportunity Lost

Sitting in his armchair, the stout, balding, principal-like ex-banker was watching his favourite programme on television: the nine ‘o’ clock news. His face had a grave expression.


At 65, Mukul was filled with remorse. At the age that people want to look back at their lives and feel a sense of fulfilment, Mukul, despite his many achievements, felt a disdain for himself. Though he had everything to enjoy a well-earned retirement, his mind was far from peaceful. His soul carried a burden that refused to go away. He had committed a mistake twenty years ago and the memory of it haunted him.


Thoughtful and caring, he had been his parents’ darling. As a child, Mukul had a special affection towards street dogs. If he ever found a limping dog, he would promptly bring it to his physician father for treatment.


‘Okay’ was all his father would say, looking at his son with pride. A reputed doctor in Lucknow, Dr Vajpai went far beyond prescribing just medicines to his patients; he gave them succour and comfort. 


He really liked to see this compassion in Mukul too. In fact, the only complaint that Mukul’s mother had against him was the daily evening congregation of street dogs outside her gate. He would happily feed them milk and bread, while his exasperated mother looked on helplessly.


Despite these uncommon habits, Mukul was an excellent student, who consistently stood amongst the top students of the class. Not just in academics, he actively took part and did well in other activities in school, treating them as another opportunity to show his mettle. Almost all high school awards were won by either him or Pranav, his best friend and only rival.


After graduating from school, they joined the same college, Imperial School of Technology, the top engineering college of India. They had prepared together for the gruelling entrance exam that admitted less than one per cent of the students who applied.


Each drove the other to greater excellence. While they wanted to outshine the other, most of all they wanted to be together. Ultimately, their friendship helped both of them in a symbiotic way. Mukul and Pranav were firmly set on the path of a promising career and a vastly superior lifestyle than they were accustomed to. There was no doubt that they were going to live the Indian dream.


Soon after finishing college they were both interviewed and, later, accepted for an excellent starting position at one of the largest foreign banks eager to enter India.

That was the first big step to realise their dreams. They had gained a foothold on a ladder that seemed endless. If the opportunities were infinite, the commitment of these two friends was indefatigable too. It was a potent mixture.


The list of their combined achievements was becoming legendary in the bank. Together, they succeeded in delivering the spoils of the huge Indian market to the bank, making it the most profitable foreign bank in the country. Within ten years of the bank setting a foothold in India, it had a commanding presence in almost all the segments of the banking markets. No one could deny that this was in large part due to the tireless efforts of the Mukul and Pranav duo.


After an eventful two-decade long career, the bank dangled in front of them the ultimate reward: the opportunity to head the entire Indian operations. If ever they dreamt of something, it was this. This was the culmination of a long journey with just one problem: it was by invitation only, and there was room only for one.


This new development had made Mukul a little nervous. The lure of this ultimate prize was also straining his friendship with Pranav. They couldn’t find within them the strength to wish well for the other. Competitiveness had overpowered their friendship for the first time in their lives. This was no longer companionship during the journey, this was a fight for the destination.


Feeling a bit lonely, Mukul thought about his parents in Lucknow. He hadn’t visited them in five years. He felt a pang of guilt. ‘Work hard and party harder’ was the motto at his workplace. There was no time left for anything else after that. Time was flying, literally, he thought, as he saw his reflection in the window of his business-class seat.


Just last week he had pulled aside the head of human resources, Krishna, and asked her what his chances looked like. ‘Good, Mukul,’ was all that she would say.


Not everyone got to head one of the biggest banks of India, much less the Indian operations of one of the largest banks in the world. It was clear from the screening process. A dozen interviews, volumes of assessment questionnaires, and countless other evaluating methods were employed. Getting the wrong guy, or overlooking the right guy, would both be a nightmare for the global team in New York.


After the series of interviews and assessments were completed over three months, the time came for the decision.


It was the 23rd of August, and Tim Adams was scheduled to land in Mumbai for a brief stopover before heading to Jakarta, the epicentre of the Indonesia operations. Other people, who had interviewed Mukul and Pranav, had given their inputs to Tim. He had also carefully reviewed the report on both these candidates. He wanted to meet each of them separately and form his own opinion. He wanted to give them both a chance to voice their ideas before arriving at the final decision.


Mukul and Pranav had finished head-to-head in every department. There was no tangible criteria for the bank to choose one over the other. Left with no choice, the board decided that Tim should have the final say. He would choose the head of the Indian subsidiary.


A little over 55, a slim treadmill-maniac, Tim Adams was the global chief executive officer of the bank. Behind the simple friendly name was a person who knew how to get his work done. Through reward, punishment, encouragement, intimidation, admiration and rebuke, he would get his way. He oversaw operations in thirty-nine countries, sometimes travelling for weeks on end. He had a million air miles, which meant a dozen family vacations to exotic locations, but no family.


Anxiety was getting the better of both Mukul and Pranav. There was only one person who stood between them and the crown.


As the armchair rocked slowly, Mukul still remembered that fateful day clearly. How could he forget? He had relived that day again and again a million times in his head. He would give anything to find out what happened to the small boy that night.


He had finished work at nine pm and rushed to his place for a quick shower before heading out to the hotel for the meeting with Tim. Ordinarily, the meeting would have taken place in the office. However, Tim’s flight was delayed by bad weather, and he had to leave for Jakarta the next morning. The only option was a rather late-night meeting at the hotel.


In fact, tongue-in-cheek, Tim had suggested to both Mukul and Pranav that ‘we could do this another time’ upon which both had responded in a chorus, ‘Late night is good’, and Tim had nodded. Even when he wanted something, he would make it look like he was doing a favour. He collected these favours. It enabled him to extract a price later.

Mukul’s driver had called in sick at the last moment. This had made him even more anxious.  . He was scheduled to meet Tim at the hotel lobby at eleven-thirty pm. He wanted to be on time. Tim was unforgiving, and he didn’t want to do anything that could disturb the fine balance between him and Pranav.


The good thing was that the streets were empty. There was an India-Pakistan cricket match on at Wankhede Stadium, and whoever was not in there was glued to their television to watch the epic battle.


Mukul drove through a slight drizzle, humming a song to relax himself. But who was he kidding?


It was one of the biggest tests of his life. In the next two hours, he would get to know whether he had been able to reach the highest pinnacle of his career. This was it.

After crossing the Babulnath temple near chowpatty, he looked at his watch. Not happy, he took a shortcut through one of the alleys. He didn’t want Tim to be waiting for him.


As he turned, he saw a small boy, dressed in a red checked shirt, blue shorts, and shining black shoes, standing at one side of the street, soaking in the drizzle, crying inconsolably, looking for his parents. Hands on either side, squirming with fear, the boy, looked as if he was about six years old. He seemed to belong to a well-to-do family. Trembling and shaking with fear, the boy looked around frantically to see a familiar face. Even his head wouldn’t turn much. He just stood there, frozen with fear.


Concerned, Mukul looked around to find the entire street deserted except for a few people on the other side of the road. They looked dubious. They were sitting in a group gambling, drinking, and smoking from a swollen clay pipe, the kind drug addicts used.


They looked evil. Mukul saw one of them pointing to the boy across the street, and all of them turned their attention to him. Chills ran down Mukul’s spine as he imagined the kind of horror these people could unleash on the little boy. He had heard many terrible stories. Children kidnapped and sold to human traffickers. Children who were kidnapped, had their limbs mutilated and were pushed into the beggars’ mafia that was so active on Mumbai streets.


He could not believe his eyes. He looked around to see if he could spot a gentler face. His eyes moistened as he saw the boy sobbing hard, his head hung low. As the possible consequences formed pictures in his mind, Mukul cringed with horror. Involuntarily, his car slowed down. Mukul looked towards the left, where these rogues were eyeing the child. Then, towards the right, where the child, stood alone in the alley, while the rain washed him.


Battling his indecision, he looked closely at the child. He noticed something he perhaps feared. The child was looking in his direction too, almost pleading with his eyes. After all, his was the only car on the road at that time.


‘If I stop and help the young boy, I will most certainly miss the meeting with Tim,’ he thought. Tim was very particular about time, and the competition between Mukul and Pranav was so evenly placed that even a slightest deviation could tilt the balance in Pranav’s favour.


‘Why do parents not take care of their children? Isn’t it the parents’ fault that they lost the child? Why should I pay for it? Why should I have to suffer for it?’ he thought angrily, trying to rationalise his actions. That night Mukul’s car picked up speed as he passed the boy he could have helped. He looked the other way, conscious that the child was looking in his direction.


A little ruffled, he, nevertheless, reached on time. He had no problems entertaining Tim with ideas on what the bank should do in the next five years.


Seven days later, he was crowned the head of the bank in a glitzy award ceremony attended by the entire bank. Congratulations and bouquets poured in from all quarters. Newspapers splashed his achievements over the front page. He was on the cover of ‘Business Guru’, the most widely read business magazine in India.


Yet, the image of that solitary child stranded in the middle of a deserted street in Mumbai was going to haunt him forever. Even today, 20 years later, his heart shuddered at the thought of what became of that child that day. His conscience asked him questions to which he had no answers.


He couldn’t forgive himself. As he sat on the armchair looking at the sunset, once again, he wondered what had happened to that little child.


Once again, he made a silent apology to the child he didn’t help. He knew that, on that fateful day, while he had won as a banker, he had failed miserably as a human being.


POSTSCRIPT


Ethics is one of the most important issues that ties into the value creation of a business.


Any investor would, upon enquiry and due diligence, highly value a company with high ethical standards. To him, ethics represent business practices that create social and community goodwill, enabling the company to build a solid reputation, and consequently, greater probability of sustainable cash flows.


The question of ethics could also be viewed with reference to the debate about profit maximisation and value creation. Ethical behaviour can generate long-term value creation, while the lure of unethical behaviour can maximise profits in the short term.


So how do we think about ethics?


Organisations are not unethical, people working in them are. Investing in goals beyond our capacity for critical judgement is, in the words of Immanuel Kant, ‘treating the self as a means and not an end’. Instead of the person owning the goal, the goal owns the person. There is a critical difference between management by objectives and being managed by one’s objectives. In the former, we have a balanced pursuit towards our objectives, and in the latter, we have an unhealthy, isolated-from-moral-responsibility, pursuit of our objectives.


People need goals. They guide us. They show us the way. They motivate us to outperform ourselves. In fact, goals are an integral part of life. A range of human emotions would remain hidden were it not for the trials and tribulations of our journey towards our goals. We must each own a goal. However, must we let the goal own us?


As the world glorifies the, supposedly, ‘new-age’ virtues like ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘jungle spirit’, it sets off many to aspire to adopt them. Perhaps, these words are not principles. Perhaps, they are reckless taglines. When we internalise them, we objectify ourselves.


A balanced pursuit of goals could be based on the time-tested principle of determination. However, we sometimes confuse determination with its evil twin: fixation. There is a fine line dividing determination and fixation. Determination is our ability to overcome challenges and stand our ground, while pursuing our goals.


Fixation, on the other hand, is an unhealthy attachment to an aim.  


The definition of ethics is, to some extent, subjective. There are no universal standards. Bribe, paid to influence decisions, is unethical. What about a company executive taking his client out for dinner? Can’t that be called unethical, since it is mainly done to influence purchase decisions?


Ethics cannot be universally implemented. They may vary from individual to individual, organisation to organisation. Ethics may also vary in each country within which the corporation is operating. In many countries, like Malaysia, gifting could be perceived as unethical behaviour. In others, like Japan, it could be an integral part of the business practices.  


Each individual, each organisation, can formulate their own code of ethics. After all, they deal with a rather imperfect, real world and therefore a rigid, idealistic definition of ethics is neither implementable nor pragmatic.


There is an easy-to-use test if no formal code of ethics exists in an organisation. When in doubt about one’s conduct, one can try a quick test[1]. Ask yourself three critical questions. First, can you sleep easy after doing what you are about to do? Second, can you tell children what you are about to do and not feel ashamed? Third, can you look at yourself in the mirror and not feel ashamed?


Ethical dilemmas can sometimes extend far beyond the universally accepted norms and local regulations of the countries in which the organisation operates. In such cases, people need to formulate their own ethical standards and the questions just mentioned can perhaps go a long way in clearing the fog.


[1] As mentioned by Professor Henri Claude de Bettignies, INSEAD chaired professor, during orientation week.

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