As you go through life and your career, every once in a while you will encounter some setbacks. They could set you back in your personal life, career, business and even health. Some are complicated and require a lot of courage and determination to overcome.
My magical ability – balancing the cash-book
When I worked in State Bank of India (mid 90′s), one of the final activities of the work day was balancing the cash-book. Unless the cash-book was balanced, we could not close the business for that day. This was no small task since it involved a few hundred entries all hand-written by various clerks . These had to be balanced with the entries made by the officer (also by hand) in a separate register. A typical day’s transaction in a small branch would involve about six to eight hundred entries made by eight to ten clerks during the course of the day’s business. All these had to be totaled manually and then re-totaled after making adjustments. We had the luxury of calculators. All sorts of errors would surface. Some would miss the decimal point, some entries would be smudged or even reversed (i.e. 79 written as 97), total mistakes, one side of the double-entry missing, a sticky key on the calculator and some would simply make incorrect postings.
About two to three officers and a clerk or two would stay back for the balancing each day and this would be a real exercise in investigation. In the beginning it would be incomplete entries, but as you got into the third iteration or so, it would narrow down to one (and if you had a bad day, a few) entry. That’s when we would deploy some techniques such as multiple of 9 which would indicate transposition of numbers, matching the difference with any voucher entry (to indicate a missing entry), etc. As a last resort, on some days we would have to painstakingly re-construct each entry, following it through the books.
This balancing task was not only challenging, it would help uncover fraud and most importantly we had to get it done as soon as possible so that we could go home for the day.
After six months or so, into my first assignment, I started getting really good at it. During the day itself I would recognize potential balancing issues and take care of them right away. A slow and careful first attempt at totaling would filter out most of the elementary errors and we’d just have to deal with one or a few tricky errors. I got so good at this that about 10-20% of the time the books would balance at the first attempt. This was something that not many could claim to achieve.
As the banking sector in India got privatized, I realized that the time had come for me to move out of State Bank of India. After all my understanding of a typical retail branch was second to none. I got interview calls from a leading private sector bank which I was keen on joining.
The first question I was asked at the interview was about my biggest strength or area of expertise.
Without batting an eyelid I responded that I could balance a cash-book faster than anyone else, no matter how many transactions. That on average, I could balance the books at first attempt, 25% of the time. I wanted to make an impression and I was ready to back it up with all the techniques that I had conceived and mastered.
The response from the interviewer took the wind out of my sails. She said, “Then we do not need you. All our vouchers go into our centralized computer system balanced from the start. The system will not accept an unbalanced entry. None of it is manual”.
I was shocked. The rest of the interview was a blur. The balancing thing had set the tone for the interview and my grasp of retail banking did not even come up for discussion. The interview panel made some small talk, assured me that I was talented and had a good future, etc. and let me out.
Over the next few days I went through the S.A.R.A. syndrome (Shock, Anger, Rejection and Acceptance). The skill that I had meticulously and painstakingly honed over the past few years was irrelevant. I was irrelevant. What would become of me, did I even have a future? I pondered over such thoughts.
As I imagined myself with my back to the wall, I decided the only way out was to fight back. First I did a gap analysis. I talked to a few people, some seniors in my own bank and others colleagues who successfully made it to the new private banks. I realized that I had to build technology skills. I set myself some goals, gave myself a realistic timeline to achieve those, balanced my other activities and budget and started executing my plan.
Today I am managing a global project at a top pharmaceutical company to implement a technology solution for our supply chain. This would not have been possible if I had not bounced back from that interview setback years ago.
The following are some lessons I learnt during the process:
a. Setbacks will occur. You have to bounce back. Do it strategically, not simply as a reaction.
b. Practice the ability of setting a goal, properly planning for it and clinically executing it to the finish. Control the controllables.
c. Be willing to change. Change management is of utmost importance. If you cannot change, you will become irrelevant. This is true for people, careers and businesses. Even your own lifestyle and habits will have to change if you wish to overcome a serious health setback.
d. Always look to the future and see how you can improve what you are doing today, what skills would be required in the future and equip yourself accordingly. Make this a part of your value system.
e. Back yourself to deliver. Once you set yourself a goal, give it the required time and know in your inner self that you will be able to achieve it.
Build a willingness to change into your own value system. It could be your biggest insurance against becoming irrelevant.
As the quote goes, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road ….. unless you fail to make the turn”.