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Bonsai manager: How a manager becomes stunted

Last updated on: May 21, 2007 13:18 IST

R Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, has been a professional manager for forty years. His book The Case of The Bonsai Manager is about nature, management and intuitive leadership.

Gopalakrishnan says his book is not a 30-day guide to solve management problems. After the required analysis is done, gut instinct should take over as intuition will be a key differentiator for excellence in the future, he says, in his book which is a must for every practicing and aspiring manager. Excerpts from the book:

How a manager becomes stunted

A stunted manager is one who is operating and working at a level which is well below his potential. He himself is the best judge of this, because he can sense such a condition better than anyone else. He would probably exhibit certain characteristics and attitudes which would indicate to other people that he is working in this manner.

He may, for example, come through as a person who is not very involved or very happy with his work. Worse, he may have given up trying to change this position and may have reconciled to it. This would make him look like a 'tired' manager who does not have the motivation to do something about his situation for many possible reasons.

The disinclination to change the environment around him could be because he is more concerned with security than with satisfaction. It could be that he finds it too much of a bother to seek change. It may be that he is lo on self-esteem and is worried about the consequences of trying to alter his situation. Reasons such as these cause him to continue with his unsatisfying predicament to the stage when this very situation becomes normal for him.

At some point of time, his characteristics and attitude become somewhat irreversible. Reviving his managerial learning and motivation becomes very difficult, or not worth the effort on the part of the organization.

This is when he can be considered to have become a permanently stunted manager -- it is the stage beyond which it is difficult to make him 'grow' again in a managerial sense. Such managers can be seen in large as well as small companies, multinationals and the public sector, almost everywhere.

The message is that the 'space' in which a manager grows is extremely important. This space around his job is defined by the manager by four perceptions.

  • The nature of his industry and company;
  • The type of work he does and his role within his organization;
  • The people relationships he is involved with; and
  • The threats or obstacles he faces and has to overcome.

If the space in which the manger operates and grows is limited, if his emotional and mental exertion are low, then his developments gets stunted. If he stays in this stultifying situation for long and does nothing to change his circumstance, then he can become a permanently stunted manager!

Just as the growth of the crocodile depends on the diet and the space available, the growth of a manager too is influenced by his 'mental' food (reading, training, and people challenges) as well as the experimental space (new experience and tough assignments that disturb him from his comfort zone). Nobody sets out to become a stunted manager. Yet stunted managers do exist, in large numbers.

Because of inadequate challenge and learning arising from working at the grassroots of company operations, young managers can get stunted in their growth at a very early stage of their career. The truly big and successful managers are set to solve problem after problem, they are constantly challenged to swim upstream against the tide so that they learn and grow fast.

Like many senior managers, I have sometimes had to counsel an aggrieved manager who felt sensitive about being passed over for a promotion. Indeed, on several occasions, I myself have needed counsel from a superior or mentor during my own career.

Once, I had to meet a manager who had spent twenty-five successful years, all in the foundry. He felt slighted because the company had decided to promote a colleague to be the next general manager. As far as the aggrieved manager was concerned, the colleague was not even a peer.

'Why is that so?' I inquired.

'He was five years my junior at the engineering college,' came the reply, crisply logical and beyond debate as far as he was concerned.

'But that was twenty-five years ago! Surely it is not relevant any more,' I persisted.

'It is,' he shot back. 'Even in the IAS and the Army, they recognize seniority throughout the career. They recognize not just the batch number, but also the rank in the examination for initial entry into the service. Thus a person with third rank can get promoted to Chief Secretary ahead of a person with thirty-third rank, even thirty years after the IAS examination,' he pointed out.

So far as he was concerned, the company had done him great injustice. What did he lack?

These are very difficult conversations to have.

I tried to minimize the importance of seniority in such decision within the company. It is a socio-cultural thing in India whereby managers continue to think of seniority in a somewhat absolute sense, perhaps because society equates age and seniority with wisdom and competence -- completely wrongly!

I explained the broader exposure of the other person and how it had prepared him for the new role as a general manager. He had rotated through several function such as purchasing manufacturing, planning and so on during his fifteen years' service. The manager, however, was unconvinced because it was not his fault that he had not been rotated.

I told him that he too had a career, he could be the competent head of the foundry but he as determined to be a general manager. I failed to persuade him.

The question is, how should one think of varied experiences that add value? My observation is that mobility for the sake of mobility or changing jobs and companies merely because that is perceived to be a faster route to the top are quite counter-productive. The aspiring manager needs to think through how each varied experience actually adds value.

There is no formula, experience is unique to each individual and his aspiration. Basically, he must be willing to find the zone of his calling.

Excerpted with permission of Penguin Books India from

The Case of the Bonsai Manager: Lessons from Nature on Growing

by R. Gopalakrishnan

Foreword by Ratan N. Tata

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Portfolio: Rs 450

R. Gopalakrishnan has been a professional manager for forty years. He has a wealth of practical managerial experience, initially in Unilever and more recently in the Tata Group. Currently he is the executive director of Tata Sons based in Mumbai. He has lived and worked in India, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and has travelled extenseively all over the world. He is an IIT Kharagpur alumnus.

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R Gopalakrishnan