The reluctant chartered accountant — Snooty, arrogant, ignored…successful?
It was 7.30 AM as I walked into the office that I had left a few years back. The security guard squinted at me suspiciously as he asked me what I wanted. I told him I worked there. He stared back at me and asked for my office ID. I hadn’t yet been issued one, so I told him that I was new. He asked me to wait for HR to come in. After a few minutes of gentle persuasion, he agreed to let me in and I walked inside to find that an office had my name engraved on the door. I was chuffed. I learnt later that my most efficient secretary had taken every trouble to ensure that my first day at work would be comfortable — from having an office ready, replete with bottles of drinking water, to having my computer set up — a kindness that I will never forget.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As I slowly acclimatized to a new culture, I realized that many things were still the same. I was told that my American habits of coming in early and leaving early (notwithstanding that I had done this through my career), would soon wear off. I had no team, no clients, no standing in the market. I had become unknown in the years that I was away, stories of my success being mere fairy tales that people were told, but had never believed to be true. Hardly anyone who was in the organization when I had left for the US remained.
Each day brought with it, its own set of challenges. Work was a hard grind. My habits were scoffed at as foreign and I found myself having to re-establish my credentials each day. And as I sought some strength, my mind went back to New York.
It had been a bitterly cold morning, the snow coming down in a flurry. It was still dark as I walked into work at 6.30 in the morning, my $1 coffee cup in hand. I had befriended an Egyptian street vendor outside office and my morning ritual involved getting a cup of hot coffee (with milk and sugar, Indian style) from him along with a cold, stale, tasteless croissant to help him on his way. We had talked about the upheavals in Africa and Turkey, the creation of various countries, dictatorships and democracies, peoples and cultures, and exchanged notes about our home lands, our eyes misting over with our memories when we spoke. I took a few moments to gather myself that morning. My life had been sheer hell in the past weeks. With no team to support me, the stress of working late hours every day and having to take difficult decisions was showing.
That day had been particularly stressful. It had involved my representing multiple parties on a single transaction (all of them had waived conflict for me to represent them) with a view to arrive at an amicable understanding amongst them. It had involved heated negotiations with multiple legal counsel, advisors and company personnel. But as I steadily argued my points through the day, making allowances in some cases and standing firm on others, a consensus began to emerge. By 9 PM, the deal was on and I had succeeded in getting three parties to come to a landing. The trial by fire had given me tremendous confidence.
I had realized that being a Partner abroad had not been easy — while I had gained acceptance for my work there, I still had to prove that I belonged with the “big boys.” That had meant putting myself well outside my comfort zone — dining at steakhouses (while I was a pure vegetarian) and going to ballgames to support the Mets or Yankees. It had meant contributing meaningfully at internal meetings involving decisions to be taken for the practice and sharing my perspective on things which I may not have fully understood. Slowly and steadily, I learnt to belong. As I made thoughtful contributions (in my own style), I began to gain acceptance, with my Partners beginning to nod assent when I dissented with the majority, or take me aside to tell me they appreciated my viewpoint. I had to do the same thing now — learn to belong.
As my mind came back to the present day in office, I knew that I had to start hiring people. I started with people that I knew, whom I could trust, and who wouldn’t mind rolling up their sleeves and doing even the basic stuff themselves. A team of four, we would take turns working late, with any two of us often working till 6 AM, going home just to shower, and returning a couple of hours later to resume where we had left off. Slowly and surely, we built out our clients. With every small win, our confidence grew. We celebrated the smallest of victories enthusiastically. We often took risks, trying to propose an approach to a client which was different than they had followed thus far. Some of the risks paid off, many backfired. But we went on, undaunted. We had to lose many in order to win.
And while we were successful in our work, one has to steel oneself when one is laughed at for errors made due to their rustiness, scorned at for their ways, and constantly questioned. I lasted a year, but then found myself crying in anger and frustration to my reporting Partner on the 8th floor, telling him that he had taken every bit of motivation, hunger and enthusiasm that I had, and shred it by bringing me back.
To be continued…