Er. R C Mathew: Effective Management Experiences

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[ Managing self and others is a very important aspect to have a successful and enjoyable life. Individuals and organizations fail and make life miserable to them and to others because they do not really understand and appreciate the fundamentals of good management. Here I would share some management case studies from my personal experiences]
1. Managing the Hostel Mess

Our engineering college was a very reputed government institution. Nearly 70 % of the students in this college used to stay in the hostels in the campus in the early Nineteen Seventies when I had just completed my first year in the campus.

There were three hostels for gents and one for the ladies. The ladies’ hostel, being the practice in India, was a bit away and secluded.

There were three separate halls for the gents hostels, for dining, called Mess-A, B and C. The cooks, helpers and the office clerks used to be regular government employees and unionized to the core.

But the overall management of the dining halls with regard to the purchases, menu, quality and the deployment of the dining hall employees etc were handled by an elected representative of the students on a monthly basis and this student representative enjoyed full powers to manage the catering activities of the gents hostels in the manner he liked best.

The arrangement used to be something like this. The designated student representative used to get his authorization to manage the dining halls for a month by a letter of authority issued by the Head of the College [ Principal] a few days ahead of the first of that month. On that authority, he could make a demand to the hostel office to advance him any amount of money to run the show. The money as demanded by him would be drawn by the office from the government treasury and handed over to him.

With the money in hand, the student representative used to buy all provisions needed for catering for the whole month and used to direct the dining hall employees for the menu and the like. At the end of the month the representative submitted the accounts of money spent to the hostel office, who in turn worked out the daily average food bill for each hosteller and prepared their monthly bill and collected the same from the students to be remitted in the treasury.  

Such an arrangement, naturally was very convenient to some students with muscle power, to involve in corrupt practices and such elements interested in this used to fight to get this representative post. The lure of money soon created a situation, wherein the student representative and his followers in a hand in glove mode or antagonistic mode with the hostel employees in matters concerned with sharing the booty.

The situation at the time when I became a hosteller was worse. The food was horrible and the costs were extremely high. The matter had become a headache for the Principal and the college administration. They were in the look out for some student leader with principles and courage to set the things right.

In the first year of my engineering college days, I had been instrumental in organizing a junior students’ movement which fought the unethical high handed ragging practice that used to be the way of life in engineering and medical colleges in general and in our college in particular. We could succeed to a great extent in this. The leaders of this movement, including me became known and friendly with some of the senior faculty members in the college administration.

Then at that time the emergency rule was imposed in India by the late Prime Minister of India- Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This gave the government authorities more powers for doing good and bad.

Our Pricipal, Prof.Dr P J George was an eminent and practical academician. He was unmarried and used stay in a posh private lodge in the city, rather than in the campus. The emergency rule enhanced his powers too. He was different and wanted to do something good for the college. He was one who supported us in our efforts to eliminate brutal ragging in the college.

So in my third semester beginning, he decided to set the hostel catering management right by trying out a new manager of his choice. He now had the powers to nominate the hostel representative to manage the hostel catering services. So, he nominated me to do this with a request to set the things right.

I accepted this honorary part-time, but responsible task.

The first thing I did was to do a detailed survey of the things to understand the ground realities. I used all methods, formal and informal to gather information.

What I found was that the hostel employees, especially the cooks and helpers were highly de-motivated to do their work. Whether they work or not, they would be getting their pay as they were government employees. Moreover, they hardly respected the student representatives whom they considered as ‘unprincipled and spoilt young fellows from affluent families’ interested in making quick bucks rather than supervising and leading the work entrusted honestly. Such a perception made them to do the work with least devotion and attention. Besides, for some of them it was a good excuse to justify rampant thefts of material from the stores, which they had been indulging in with impunity.

I also noticed that most of these hostel employees listened and obeyed to the commands of some of their seniors as they considered the latter professionally superior with more knowledge and experience, though these seniors themselves were no good to the hostel as it existed. One of these senior employee was even notorious in that he had in some years ago had made and served poisoned food to the hostellers, to avenge his animosity to the then student representative and his supporters.

Soon I realized that my task would not be going to be easy. But, nevertheless, I made up my action plan.

So a day before taking over the actual charge, I met the senior cook and a leader of the cooks and talked to him. He, as usual was unfriendly initially. The ice had to be broken. I by the time, knew the interest of these people in drinking country-made intoxicants that were commonly available in government licensed liquor shops. In Kerala, these are called ‘toddy’ which is a fermented liquor originating from coconut palm tree and ‘ arrack’ which was a diluted form of raw alcohol.

So with I persuaded him to be my guest in such a shop. There were only we two from the college in that shop which was a half an hour walking distance from the college hostel on that day evening, the others being poor class laborers from the vicinity.

My guest, obviously, was not a stranger there. Deep in mind, I realized the reason why he accepted to accompany me to that infamous place for people like me from good families. He wanted to gauge me rather than enjoy his drink!

Though I was a teenager, with little experience in such a set up, I made up mind to be brave and leading. I wanted him to accept my leadership. So I proceeded with calculated approach.

With no expressions of disgust or fear, I ordered and sipped the first drink with him in that peculiar country liquor shop atmosphere in the night, encouraging him to talk and open his heart to me. Slowly, his hard masculine heart melted out and he began to talk openly with me and I listened, encouraging him to talk. He talked about his family, his despairs, his ambitions, his animosities, his likings, and much more. That talking was so effective for him that he even forgot to order for more sips.

At the end of it, I gained his confidence and I was feeling his acceptance of me as his leader and mentor. I motivated him to feel proud of his noble profession and got his promise and assurance to do all things for me to make the hostel catering the best ever at the lowest costs. I could feel his inner honesty in his assurance and I assured him professional independence in his working with his team.

Every one noticed the marked difference in the dining halls from the first day itself, with the quality of food and the services continuously improving to the best possible levels in no time. There was nothing big that I had to do, except that I was the guiding force behind the change. I honestly encouraged, empowered and appreciated the real people executing the work . Negative controls were seldom used, except that the activities were kept under unseen and minimal observation.

My hostel mates including the resident faculty members feared for a hefty food bill in the next month. But to their surprise, and to my surprise too, the average food bill came very low, lower than one-third that used to be in the preceding so many months.

The principal and the leading faculty members were all praise to me. They all wanted to know the secret of my management and the details of my efforts. How could I make them understand that there was no big tiring physical exercise that I had to resort to achieve this ? I learnt the first lessons of effective management leadership. I realized that honesty of the manager in his objective, mission, empowerment, delegation and human relationships are all important aspects in managerial success.



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