Anil K. Khandelwal’s book CEO – Chess Master or Gardener is an outstanding piece of scholarly work that blends theory and practice of industrial relations and human resource development in a business. In the marketplace, one finds several books authored by eminent business leaders giving detailed account of their strategies and drive toward development of the business. However, one hardly comes across books that integrate theory and practice in the field of IR/HR, authored by the CEO himself. Management strategies in IR are often shrouded in the veils of secrecy. This book explodes many myths about industrial relations and how it is impacted by the business leaders and not by unions alone who often remain in the limelight by the media.
In this book, the author gives unique and exhaustive account of how in Bank of Baroda, industrial relations evolved over the years based on changes in business climate, CEOs’ belief system, their personal aspirations, management politics, and the role of personnel and industrial relation specialists in the organization. The author has also integrated these developments with theories in IR field. I have not come across such unique longitudinal piece of work which is both scholarly as well as complete with very detailed narratives of what actually happened in Bank of Baroda during the period from 1956 to 1988. The research is unique in as much as there is hardly any research in the domain of CEO strategies where the researcher himself becomes CEO and undertakes game-changing transformation. Using insights received during his tenure with the Bank, the author carried out this research under a former Director of IIM Ahmedabad, a doyen in the field of IR and HR. The unique thing about the book is that its author was an insider with access to all the substantive material and was a curious observer of the events unfolding in the Bank, which fulfills a great gap that exists between management theory and practice.
The book is divided into three sections. Section 1, Researching IR , gives detailed account of the IR strategies of the six CEOs and how they were shaped by the factors mentioned above. The overwhelming inference, one gets is that IR strategies were mainly shaped to somehow combat labor militancy by either cozying up with the top union leaders or indulging in bitter conflict to isolate leaders of the unions. The focus of IR being on the leaders and not on the employees! Section 2, describes the period when the author moves from HR to operational roles and experiences impact of managerial strategies on IR on the ground. And Section3 is ‘Towards a new paradigm’, which is about the tension and trauma of moving from union leaders-focused strategies to employee-focused strategies. This is a remarkable section which demonstrates how the author in his Executive Director and CEO roles undertakes a bold reform leading to an eventual transformation of the bank through pathbreaking reforms in HR. This is a very gripping narration in terms of tensions and trauma of the change process.
While the book runs very systematically through 14 chapters, Chapter 13 about ‘Inferences and Insights’ deserves special mention. To quote some major findings from author’s research cited in this section: CEO is the key designer and strategist in IR and not the HR chief; exclusive focus on union leaders leads to several dysfunctional consequences including poor union-member connect and weak connect between the top management and the operating managers; IR based on informal arrangements are inherently unstable; ambiguous role of HR specialist can lead to major dysfunctionalities in managing HR function etc.
In a scintillating subsection, the author also raises an important issue: Is Integration of IR and HRD possible and if this is a proposition practical for a corporate CEO? The final chapter lucidly argues that managing IR/HR is not about designing strategies to win and lose (which research demonstrated that it was more akin to Chess Masters role) but that of engaging and building the passion of employees (Gardening). The author goes to mention that Gardening is a 4 step process that involves Weeding, Preparing the Soil, Planting the seedlings, and Nurturance.
Author is very articulate and has storytelling style which makes reading very easy. Each Chapter is sequenced chronologically and gives an account of industrial relations during the tenure of a specific CEO. The summary at the end of each chapter reminds the reader about the key message of the chapter so that reader is not lost in the narrative.
The book should interest HR chiefs more particularly because here is a story of an HR professional who demonstrated that HR can in fact change the culture of an organization in a significant way and facilitate major business transformation. It is also a reminder that employee relations are not esoteric with ever-evolving new jargons and techniques but fundamental to firm performance.
The book is a refreshing addition to the writings in the Human Resource Management field, which should be found useful by all CEOs, Union leaders, HR functionaries, other management professionals, academics and scholars who are passionate about building high performing organizations, in India as well as overseas market.