The inside story of how Tata strategy leader Nirmalya Kumar got fired
Globally respected professor of marketing says he was sacked in a minute.Cyrus Mistry Exit Updated: Nov 05, 2016 14:54 IST
Nirmalya Kumar, who almost opted to become a professional disc jockey, says his song of the year is Love and Hate by Michael Kiwanuka. This is how its lyrics go:
“Calling all the people here to see the show
Calling for my demons now to let me go
I need something, give me something wonderful”
The choice of song may have something to do with what happened on October 24.
That day Kumar, a globally respected professor of marketing, was on a panel in front of more than 100 young students and managers who were participating in a competition sponsored by the Tata Group. Kumar had led this initiative, having joined the group three years ago as a strategy thought leader and a member of its group executive council (GEC).
The participants were quizzing Kumar on the potential of data analytics when a colleague came up to him and whispered in his ear that Cyrus Mistry had been sacked as the chairman of the group holding company, Tata Sons.
“My head jerks--what?” recounts Kumar in a post on his website on Saturday. “But I am on a panel, so keep answering the questions but signal to the facilitator that we need to wrap this up early. I let the organisers know that I will skip the dinner that follows.”
He could have stayed on for the dinner. Back in his apartment, he had little success getting more information from the company. At nine in the evening, he got a call from a colleague who said: “It is my unpleasant duty to say your services are no longer required.” And that was that.
Kumar asked this colleague if that meant he need not show up at work the next morning. The colleague said he need not.
“It’s all over in a minute,” writes Kumar.
This, he says, happens all the time. There are reality television shows built around the theme, “You are fired.”
Still, nothing had prepared Kumar for it. “I realise that I am unemployed for the first time since the age of 18.”
He thought about the more than 70 people he had accumulated in the Big Data team over the past year. They had joined on Kumar’s word that data was going to be a core capability of the group. Quickly, he shot off a text message to a colleague with a plea to take charge of this venture.
The following morning, Kumar, a bit lost, headed for his morning Starbucks coffee – incidentally, the coffee chain is in India in a joint venture with the Tata Group. For the first time, Kumar realises that Starbucks is also a place for unemployed managers, all dressed in suits, with nowhere to go.
Kumar’s blog post presents an interesting picture of the way colleagues treat you once you lose your job. “The people at the “bottom” of the pyramid treated me with the same respect and affection as always... Those in the middle, like my team, were sincerely sad to see me go... The reaction at the top of the pyramid was interesting. With three exceptions, the many CEOs and top executives I worked with closely for three years went silent.”
Still, Kumar says he has nothing negative to say about the Tata Group. He remains in awe of the the kind of person that Tata attracts – unpretentious and dedicated. “Yes, they really drink, as we would say in America, the ‘koolaid’ of Tata. But I observed how hard they work, and how committed they are to the group and its values. They deserve a great chairman.”
The final thoughts in the blog post are about how much Kumar loved his job.
It gave him, an academic, a ringside seat to a group worth more than $100 billion. He ends with saying that only three persons in his career of three decades inspired him. The first was his PhD advisor at Northwestern University in the United States, the second his dean at the London Business School, and the third the ousted Tata Sons chairman.
“Thank you, Cyrus,” says Kumar, and ends with the lines from Bruce Springsteen that were plastered on his walls as a teenager:
“Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run”
Kumar says he is done running.