Journeys into new learning grounds!

It was August 2000. Eight months earlier the computers had not crashed, planes had not fallen from the sky and banks had definitely not collapsed. Y2K demon had been exorcized. Things were looking up and amidst all this I stepped into Thermax as a GET, full of hope and confidence.

“You will have to report to Hyderabad office for service module of your training”, said my training manager. Hope gone, confidence draining out, I looked at him perplexed. It had been less than a month since I had joined Pune office in PHD (now Heating Division) and here I was – being asked to move to a different city! My tryst with mobility, albeit in terms of physical movement, had begun almost immediately upon joining Thermax. Little did I know that I will have to prefix ‘begun’ with ‘just’ -considering six location and as many role changes that I have had.

As destiny would have it, I continued to be in Hyderabad for the next three years in services function. I was lucky to have some excellent mentors during this time – people who transformed me from a carefree young graduate into a professional. It is this period that I regard as the most enriching phase of my career. The product knowledge which I gained during this tenure help me later in my sales stint to correctly position products, gain customer’s confidence and crack many deals. It taught me the importance of sound technical knowledge as I moved on to handle products of other divisions. My experiences during this period defined me and even today continue to influence the way I think. Even now, be it review of a new product or a customer complaint, the service engineer between my ears exercises its control.

It was in the summer of 2003 when I got a call to join the then-infant channel group at Chennai as a Channel Manager. I was beginning to get settled but the prospect of being in sales plus the thought of having the word “Manager” in my designation forced me to unsettle myself. And unsettled I was. It was a time when the ground level strategy of the channel was still being deployed, channel partner territory realignment was still being worked out, product wise sales initiatives were still being chalked out, loads of data was being crunched, excel sheets and word forms being filled on daily basis, all of us were undergoing a mindset change from selling products of one division to those of multiple divisions and somewhere amidst all that was a sales budget that had to be delivered. I went into another learning curve. While I learnt a lot by observing my managers during sales calls, the real learning came in post call debriefs, follow-ups and weekly reviews which we had religiously. What I learnt on sales and sales call planning is something I would reserve for a different blog but what I would like to lay emphasis upon is the insight I got on the use of data, to simplify information, to get meaningful insights, to conclude on actionable points and to have stringent review on those actions. It was something I had never done before and something I would do frequently in future. Years later when I would be in Hyderabad and would have a tough year in sales, it was data and stringent reviews that I would draw into for a course correction.

In 2007 I moved to Bangalore as Zonal Manager – Channel. I became a “Manager” for real as I had two Territory Managers reporting into me. My strategy was a cut copy paste of what I had experienced in my previous role, demonstrate sales to TMs, use data and have stringent reviews. It worked for my entire duration of stay in Bangalore. By 2009 I was asked to take additional responsibility of Area Manager. While it meant a dotted line reporting with entire office, in front of customer, the dots disappear and you are, to put it simply – responsible. Cross divisional nuances had to be addressed locally. I quickly realised that neither requests nor commands were going to help. The only way I can handle the additional responsibility was by making the team shake away their divisional skin which I theorized, could be achieved only if they had a strong interpersonal bonding. With the help of some senior colleagues, we did end up building a great bond. From power division colleague supporting a water treatment sale, to a service engineer going for sale of spare, to a steam engineering person selling a boiler the examples of success are galore.

Settled again the next move to Hyderabad was a painful one for two reasons, one I did not want a change and two because of what happened when I did move. I was once again happily settled – this time in Bangalore – when I was asked to move to Hyderabad. My wife had a steady job, daughter going to arguably one of the best schools and an extended family which had just moved to Bangalore. There was no incentive on personal front for a change. To add to it, my role was to remain the same, dual responsibility of ZM Channel and Area Manager. Only addition was that the business volume both in terms of value and number of transactions was double to that of Bangalore. Realizing the fact, that for my growth I needed to handle higher transaction volumes, I decided to move, and I must admit the support of my family here because a simple no from them could have meant that this blog would not have existed.

This brings me to the second reason of why the move was painful. I landed in Hyderabad and set out to implement exactly what I had done in Bangalore -demonstrate to TMs (read ‘try to be in every case’), review, and build a good team bonding in the Area office. A few months in and the business was a complete opposite of what I had expected, the harder I worked and the more I travelled around with the TMs the lower was the order intake. The move to Hyderabad was looking like a gamble gone awry. With my learnings from Chennai during channel’s initial days, I drew back into data for insight and found that the premise of business had changed. Sponge iron, cement, and edible oil, three of the top four industries of the zone were down. First, I cursed myself for missing a market trend at such a macro level. Then I dived deeper into data, bounced it off with number of colleagues in Hyderabad office. Using it they pointed out to several opportunities which were hiding in plain sight, most of the suggestions I must admit, coming from my own TMs. This brought me to another learning, do not just demonstrate to your subordinates on how to work, learn from them as well and give them a free hand. It is a learning I would have to use extensively when I would move on to become the PU head of Steam Engineering.

Next came a change which possibly is the aspiration of any regional employee. It was also a watershed opportunity. In 2015 I was asked to move back to Chennai as Corporate Regional Manager (CRM). It is one of the few roles where one wears a single hat – that of Thermax. No division no department. Just Thermax. My experience as an Area Manager which in a way was miniature version of a CRMs role helped me slip under this hat effortlessly. Added to that, having handled almost all the zones of South proved to be a blessing as I was not only able to establish connect with clients but also connect with the issues faced by colleagues and support them better. Multiple teams and spread-out geography meant that I could not be present everywhere. To overcome this, I banked on something which I had learnt earlier, a strong review process. It helped me stay on top of work be it commercial, sales or services. With insight that I got from reviews I was able to pre-empt issues and take corrective action in advance. A big team with multiple dotted line reporting structure meant I had my experiences with conflict management but more importantly, I understood the power of leading by influencing, thus in a way, preparing me for my next role as PU Head of Steam Engineering.

When I shifted to Steam PU, I underwent a paradigm shift. I had never experienced operations from a back-end perspective. As a front-end person, I had taken many of the back-end activities for granted, things which should happen. What any back-end person will vouch for is that things just don’t happen, people make them happen-against all odds. Leading teams from Manufacturing, Materials, Engineering, Audits, about which I had no experience and each of which was being led by domain experts was overwhelming to say the least. My experience of Hyderabad came handy. I learnt from each of the teams – not how to do their jobs but how to tie up each of their work for a smooth order to cash cycle. With a shared aspiration, teams suggested the changes and improvements we need to make to smoothen our execution and increase our business. Many of the suggestions have been implemented. The result has been a good increase in turnover with a very healthy profitability. My front-end experiences, I believe, helped make the back end more adaptable to the needs of the front end. It is a journey I am currently undertaking in which the learnings of data handling, listening to the team, customer facing approach, the salesmanship I learnt and most of all the service engineer between my ears have been my guide.

Benefit of hindsight is that it makes us wiser. In hindsight, I have made many a mistake that I would like to correct but the one thing that I would not change is the mobility I have had. Each change was a journey into a new learning ground and a steppingstone towards the next one. It is important to realise that change doesn’t come easy, but its benefits far outweigh its challenges. While we are a part of a great organization that encourages and hand holds us through such changes, we need to be aware of what stops us from taking the plunge and what support systems we need. Many times, we get into our comfort zones unwilling to chance upon opportunities that beckon us. The needs and compulsions of day-to-day lives bind us to where we are. It has happened with me before every single move, and I cannot but thank my mentors, colleagues, and my family who have supported and encouraged me to move on and to the managers who have nudged me to take on newer journeys.

– Manjul Patlia
PU Head – Steam Engineering in C&H Heating division

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