Happy Ramadan!

Ramadan Pic

It’s 4:15am in Dubai. Sehri time for the 7th day of Ramadan has just finished. Farah and I are at a level of sleeplessness matched only by that of a murder suspect after a 48 hour grilling at the local precinct. No words are exchanged because speech is an unlearned skill at this moment. The dining table surface looks like a bed of lovingly nurtured, individually picked, fully bloomed roses with built in memory foam – tantalizing our heavy heads unashamedly.

With an effort that would put the Battle of Plassey to shame, we haul ourselves up from the table, wearily chuck everything into the sink, and start preparing ourselves for fajr and for reuniting the broken threads of our sleep.

“Daddy, Mommy!!”

Shehrezad comes bounding in, hair bobbing with abandon, all smiles, sleep a gazillion miles away.

“Is it Sehri time? I am ready!”

In all fairness, as per our promise, we did try to wake her up before we started eating but she was an immovable object at the time. And now…!!!

I make a sound that is stuck somewhere between a question and a whimper for mercy.

“B…b…b…baby would you like to wake up at breakfast and start your fast then?”

“No, I am up and it’s Sehri time. Let’s eat!”

Farah and I look at each other for a split second – long enough to reach a consensus.

“Sure Gurya, what would you like?”

“Egg Please”

So we fry her an egg and watch her eat, all smiles and frowns, a grand total of one plate lying on an otherwise empty table, sound of her eating the only sound – a bunny munching away at its food, oblivious to the world.

Sleep can wait.

Ramadan Mubarak. What a month.

Setting Goals Like Nobody’s Business

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Seasoned corporate executives such as yours truly have tremendous advantage over ordinary mortals when the inevitable urge to ‘do my own thing’ comes calling.  Years spent structuring our thought processes, identifying SMART goals, establishing milestones and then poring over every bit of execution detail sets us apart from those who have nothing but vague dreams, $5 as starting capital and an imaam zaamin from their trusting moms as the only insurance.

It is no surprise then that my last 3 months have been superbly well spent and I have managed to finally get my company name figured out…ish. There are a couple of steps to go to formalize it but hey… Rome wasn’t built in less than 3 months either.

I have also clearly set some Bold Goals that any CEO worth his salt would start out with:

  1. A culture of ‘can do’ness… even if it trumps all realism. So far, doing great on both counts.
  2. All for One and One For All. It helps that I am the only employee at the moment.
  3. Net Sales – $1 million a year by the time I am 42. I have refrained from putting an upper limit to this number because it might discourage creative risk taking in my team – which as I said earlier constitutes me.
  4. Have a proper office by year 3. Starbucks doesn’t offer printing facilities.

Some minor details need to be buttoned up. Those being:

  1. What exactly will the company do
  2. Who will be willing to buy its offerings

In the great tradition of an empowering corporate culture, I have left these questions to my upcoming first hire to figure out. Currently she is busy taking out cereal from her hair, but I know in due time she will get to the matter at hand. If not, my back-up plan is to hire a promising external consultant. I have just the person in mind too. However to get my business, he will eventually need to stop putting cereal in his potential client’s hair.

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My new company is a conglomerate of various potentially successful ventures, and that makes it hard for me to put my finger on exactly what business of ours actually butters our toast each morning. However, it is probably wise to assume that the only income my company is currently generating is from a limited time consultancy contract I have signed recently with a business run by my ex-colleagues.

This being the case, I need to diversify and therefore am pitching my considerable talent, experience and mixed track record to many other potential clients. Yesterday, the count reached 1.

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The potential client in question is a company based in Abu Dhabi looking to start a new business. The challenge they threw to me was simple enough – help us develop a market entry plan for a new fast food business – an undertaking I have done my entire work life. All I had to do was turn up, set some initial targets, figure out ensuing scenarios, give some ‘strictly on the fence’ recommendation on their likely success, and then collect my well deserved loot and leave quietly through the back door.

A course of action any normal service provider would take.

Easy I said.

I emerged an hour later having delivered a passionate discourse on topics ranging from how to go about setting up a fast food business to how they should get their thought processes right before engaging a consultant to the virtues of thinking small. In the end, they were so shaken it was hard to distinguish who was the client and who the agency – and worse, what exactly were they doing with their lives.

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I have added a new goal to my list – Get the owner to think like a service provider, not a bloody CEO.

My years of solid grounding are helping me see clearly the bottlenecks to business success – namely me.

What a fascinating new challenge. Bring it on!

Why Are So Many Corporate Cowboys Jumping Ship?

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I talk to a lot of people nowadays – some pretty far down the food chain and some pretty far up. When you are establishing your business, they are all equal to you – as long as both parties can get something of value from the interaction. Sometimes that value is money but not always. It may very well be a referral, a recommendation or sometimes just a word of wisdom, a pat on the back or a slap on the wrist.

I used to talk to a lot of people before as well, when I was a corporate cowboy. Back then, people higher up the hierarchy mattered much more than those lower down and the exchange was always measured in some mutually agreed common currency – generally top or bottom line.

The other day, I was talking to this person whom I have interacted with in both my previous and current lives. This individual’s last job was heading a large division of a successful multinational bank’s Asia business. Today, he is working in Dubai in a small office with 3 persons crammed in on makeshift desks.

Guess where he is happier?

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He and I discussed many things – topmost being the possibility of working together. But like it does in support groups, the discussion on non-corporatization of our lives also came up.

The conclusion for both was similar. Humanity.

Specifically, companies around the world used to be more humane a few years ago than they are today. While the pursuit of profits was paramount even then, it would not require trampling over dead bodies to get there.

Something changed at the end of the last decade. Whether it was the financial crisis or the blurring of international borders, or the fact that the common man can now displace specialists because of easy access to technology, things were no longer the same. Customers became scarce, free flow of profits dried up, pounds became pennies, pennies became dust and dogs began to eat dogs.

Take for example the most gifted of companies with the most gifted of leaders – Microsoft. In emulating another such company – GE – it ended up with its now notorious Employee Stack Ranking system – a system which forced supervisors to rank employees from 1-5 (like you would rank products on a production line) and then fire the lowest ranked one’s each year (like you would discard products on the production line.) Microsoft has since abandoned this curve grading practice (prevalent in business schools) once Ballmer left.

Corporate Cowboys

But it’s not just Microsoft. Last decade, even companies most benevolent at heart were forced into putting their best resource – their people – in this performance-reward spiral once the gravy train left the station. While the ranking systems may always have been there, they never had been so punishing or menacing.

It also led to the canonization of the Short Term Results Manager.

The signs are all around us. You see the ruthlessness, the lack of humanity in individuals – be it bosses, peers, subordinates – whose values coincide with that of their organizations.

It also leaves people with a different set of values at a fork in the road – play the game or quit.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t for whatever reason, these are the unhappy people you see at work everyday – playing the game they don’t like and sometime winning it.

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Fact is, neither my friend nor I have it all figured out. We are also establishing our companies and may have to make hard choices when similar times hit us. Or we may have to get back to our former corporate lives if things do not work out here.

Here’s to hoping that in either case, we do not trample human lines to get to our bottom lines.

Some Thoughts At A Sabbatical Pitstop

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The Internet Monster

“Daddy, you are an internet monster!”

In my posts, I have often outlined my desire to use the sabbatical as a means to spending more time with my family. So far, it has delivered what it said on the tin – especially the time spent on the road in constant, non-stop togetherness.

But as we have come back to Dubai and gone on with our respective projects, I realize I am at a risk to fritter away a large portion of that togetherness capital for very little returns!

The finger of blame, bless its soul, is itching to point at many different directions (all away from me.) But really it’s just one thing – my constant desire to be connected.

I have become inseparable from my phone and laptop.

I have always marveled at people who leave work at the office and home life at home. They have designated work times and family times and it’s just that simple. Bloody Superhumans!

I have never been like that – my mind is a swirl of intermingled thoughts until the moment I sleep. That the smart phone is just an arm’s length away just brings strange, yet familiar  feelings of euphoria, stimulation and action to the surface. I can recognize their seduction from a mile away.

“Just one more time!” they seem to say in a husky voice.

In short, I could be one Whatsapp message away from joining the internet equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous.

So here is an idea to overcome this addiction. Why stay anonymous? Make a bold proclamation!!

Starting now, I will not answer that alluring chime from my phone when talking/listening to someone.

As for last month – CTRL+Z.

 Mother’s Day

Parents are an anomaly – you get to know them more when they are gone.

It’s like the sun or the moon – except the sun and the moon never really go away.

One has more time to think about things when work isn’t a constant distraction.  I think about my mom from time to time and have gotten to know her a lot more in her absence.

I feel some of my life decisions are that way because my mom was like that. Who can deny DNA in any person’s life decisions anyway? That realization has brought us closer than ever before.

I also think my wife has a bit of my mother in that respect.

So Ammi, this mother’s day, I am putting it all on your shoulders – like always. I know you will handle it for me.

Like always.

Being Pakistani

Being Pakistani Pic

5402 is under investigation at Window 3. I am 5404. That’s 5404-5402 = 2 more to go.

Good. Mind is still sharp.

Beads of sweat…my turn is almost here.

Don’t want to go to Window 3. That’s where it is most merciless – the guy looks like a WW2 vet with a score to settle.

Window 1 lady looks nicer, more humane. Or Window 2. But not 3.

Time for one final flip through the mercy petition.

  • Passports. Check.
  • Bank statements. Check.
  • Company letter. Check.
  • Travel bookings. Check.
  • Parking fines payment stubs. Check.
  • Apology letter for not joining Boy Scouts when was eligible. Check.
  • Psychologist report corroborating the above mentioned deep regret. Check.
  • Kindergarten teacher note clarifying paint spill was not an act of terrorism. Check.

I am ready as can be.

Time to put game face on.

What could that face be? Scores of situations like this and still don’t know the best expression.

Must look confident, that’s for sure….not too confident…not applying for a bouncer’s job!

Must tone it down some. Mix some humility there…

Oops, that has gone entirely the other way! Now I am a beggar in nice clothes!!! Gaaaaah!!

5404! Window 3!

What?

Rush, rush. Hurry to the window!

Game face is stuck somewhere between bouncer and beggar – I look as if I am about to assault the gentleman’s wife while simultaneously pleading for a second bowl of gruel.

I shove all my documents in his face at once…like a frazzled munshi presenting a poor crops report to the zamindar. He ignores them completely. Asks my name.

Mind blank!

The trial has begun.

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A Pakistani in a Visa Application or an Airport Immigration line is a pretty wretched sight. Shoulders hunched, eyes dropped, hope mixed with acceptance mixed with loss write large on the face. All because when he was dropped from the sky, the earth’s rotation at the time meant he would land somewhere in this beautiful country. Our guy has learnt to live with stacks of documents, testimonials and mug shots as a matter of norm. He even celebrates the acceptance of a visa with mithai distributed to the entire neighborhood. The world has done everything it can to deny him and he has prevailed. What more could it possibly dish out?

Enter Polio drops.

Those shoulders are going to stay hunched for a long time….

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The Ali family are proud Pakistanis. Like all Pakistanis, we love our mitti and hold it in the highest esteem. Like many Pakistanis, we live and travel outside Pakistan, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for work.

The world is getting narrower for a Pakistani. Fact. Maybe not so much for readers of this blog, but for most ordinary Pakistanis.

When I was younger, and some would say wiser, I used to rail at the injustice. I even had loud arguments at many airports around the world each time I felt singled out. Imagine being the only one asked out of a boarding gate line, you being the only South Asian looking chap, and standing with your arms wide open and searched, while 200 others go through the gate uninhibited. I would not let it go at that time, to the consternation of the security staff. Even now, sometimes Farah and I have to issue a firm ‘please be polite’ calls to immigration people and we are generally not shy about it. We are no martyrs, but equally, we are not cattle either.

Yet, the situation now is far worse. You could understand Europe and America being at odds, but Kuwait? Come on!

Now that we have a little 3 year old American with us (he would have a Pakistani passport too were it not for the extreme competence of the Pakistan consulate in Chicago. A story for another time), the contrast has never been more vivid. Sometimes I feel, during some future trip, Zaraar would be the only one allowed out of an airport and would use his powers of persuasion (which I might add are considerable) and diplomacy (pretty  deplorable) to get us through immigration.

Never do I think visa issues are bigger than the issues facing ordinary Pakistanis everyday.  In fact it just enhances the context in which we live.

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The guy at the window looks at me obliquely.  Then commands me to close my eyes and open my mouth? 

Wha… ? I am incredulous.  My mouth is half open in amazement. 

In a flash,  he puts some polio drops on my tongue and says… “Welcome to my country Mr Ali.” 

A trip to Rehmate Shireen is in order. 

Those Who Love Their Jobs

Suit Picture

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a friend I dearly love. He is a success at work like you won’t believe, is devoted to his family, and has friends who would gladly give their right arm for him. In my humble moments (I do occasionally stray, damn it!), I do believe he is dog’s b*******’s.

Yet, just before meeting him, I had added a thick layer of the finest fang polish to my er…fangs.

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You see, either side of the 1st leg of our trip, Farah and I have been on the stand quite a bit to explain this sabbatical business. You add ‘homeschooling’ to the mix and it’s pretty much equal to a conviction for a presumed serial killer caught at the scene of the crime with a dripping dagger in one hand and his calling card of a cat’s ear in the other, even before he can open his defense.

Parents and siblings can be especially brutal in their kindness.

Fact is, these kinds of things are not easily explained, and not just in our culture, but especially not in our culture. You have to be a little crazy to take this on. So how coherent a response would you want from the crazy one’s?

So like a warrior living on reputation alone, and who has left his sword at home, I leap to a sort of see-how-it-goes counter-aggression strategy. It’s just one life…and so forth, you know the arguments. And in no time, we have either descended to armed conflict or worse, some polite talk about the weather.

I braced for the same from my friend.

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Knowing him, I need not have worried.

He was neither judgmental nor especially convicted on this issue. His points were simple – who if anyone, is ever truly happy at his or her work? Who is so in love with his job that it becomes his life? And who does not want to chuck it all look for true meaning in his life? Fact is, people are willing to live with their work because they all have a present – with all its many struggles – to protect and a somewhat assured promise of a bright future to go after. This is not to say that the current job does not have moments of real stimulation or any real meaning for the wider community, but that is rarely the uppermost inspiration.

My response to him was just as simple. Everyone has to choose his own path of life and I have chosen mine, or if I am brutally honest, am in the process of defining mine.

Later on, upon deeper reflection (I do occasionally stray, as I said), I did what any self respecting corporate type would do when evaluating progress of a project – I traffic lighted it.

Given below is the itemized Q1 progress on the 6 KPIs for our Sabbatical initiative for your kind perusal and action:

Travel The World, Live Like Natives 

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Of all the goals, this one is probably the easiest to achieve, insofar as the dictates of willpower and money allow. Living long stretches in each place, especially those away from city lights, has revitalized us and is now our new road map for the upcoming leg.

A solid Green in my book.

Consultancy

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I dithered on this one between green and Amber. Ultimately it’s a green because the first step has been taken. My first ever consultancy project is now ongoing, which is not only intellectually stimulating but it also pays for our time in Dubai. I don’t know where this is going yet and if this is the future, but as long as I am on it, I am determined to do justice to it

Blogging and Website

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Blog writing has not been easy – to be readable, you really have to give something of yourself to the world – which does not come easy to a someone who has always hidden his heart behind starched Cotton and Cotton shirts. Besides, our programs evolve quite a bit on the fly which means the Beliebers would take their pound of flesh before they engage with you.

On the other hand, the website work is only just beginning – I found taking time out for it during the trip way tougher than I thought – but I am determined to see it through.

Amber it is.

Children’s Story

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Children’s story, what children’s story. Leave me alone.

Family

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Times…they will not come back. So while I can, I’ll grab on to them and them to me, with frequent sanity breaks in between.

The future

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A well wisher once told me: Plan your sabbatical so you do not waste it.

I shot him.

This year is all about chaos. I have done my time on the other side.

I cannot promise you that I am not racked with self doubts. I cannot promise you I know when it will end. I cannot promise you I have options when it does end. I cannot promise you I sleep easy each night.

All I can promise you is this – I wake up each morning with a smile on my face.

The world is not to be missed…

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