Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, December 24, 2010

Kubera, the king of Yakshas, is the treasurer of the gods. One day, he paid a visit to Kailasa, the abode of Shiva, the hermit-god, where he met Shiva’s elephant-headed son, the corpulent Ganesha. He thought to himself, “Ganesha clearly loves food and Shiva can clearly not afford to feed him to his heart’s content.” So as a favor to Shiva, Kubera offered to feed Ganesha one meal. When Ganesha accepted the invitation and entered Kubera’s kitchen, the Yaksha-king said, “Eat to your heart’s content.”

Kubera regretted these words. Ganesha’s appetite was insatiable. He ate everything that was in the kitchen and still asked for more. Food had to be bought from the larder and then from the market. But Ganesha was still hungry. “More please,” he said raising his trunk. Kubera had to spend all the money in his treasury and buy all the food in the world to feed Ganesha but still Ganesha was not happy. Finally, Kubera fell at Ganesha’s feet and begged him to stop, “I don’t have enough food to satisfy your hunger. Forgive me.”

To this Ganesha said, “You really think food will satisfy hunger! The difference between you and my father is that you seek to provide more food while he seeks to reduce hunger. That is why I sit in his house and not in your kitchen.”

The corporate world is all about increasing availability of food, not reducing hunger. It happens at all levels. Tanmay is a team leader in a BPO. His boss pulled him up after receiving complaints from his team members that he was overworking them. When asked why, Tanmay said, “I need to stretch my bonus.” Why? “Because I want to buy a car.” Other team leaders had bought cars without overworking their teams. The average bonus was clearly enough. “I know that, but I want an SUV.” When asked why he could not be happy with a smaller car that was easily affordable he replied cockily, “It does not suit my status. Besides, if the company can have stretch targets why can’t I?”

The only way to go up in the corporate world is by generating more food. It begins with B-schools where success of both the B-school and its students is measured by the value of the placement offers. It continues as rainmakers get faster promotions and the demands of shareholders keep rising. A good company is ultimately measured on the basis of its balance sheet and its market capitalization, and by the cash it generates to the satisfaction of the shareholder. Naturally, every executive who works in such an organization believes his paycheck should have the same growth rate. Talent retention often involves paying more money and offering ESOPs. It is only a question of time before greed and growth become synonymous.

But food only fuels hunger. We want more and more because there is always a greener pasture out there. We want more and more because our peers in other organizations, our batch mates in other companies, are earning more. It is through wealth we value organizations. It is through wealth we value individuals. Modern industry has created a world where hunger is celebrated, which is why no compensation will ever be fair or adequate, and no revenue or profit or valuation will ever be good enough.

Tanmay’s desire for an SUV cannot be explained or controlled rationally. His killer instinct, his demand for more, will sooner or later be rewarded and encouraged, because that is the value that we are imparting across organizations. Contentment remains a dangerous anti-growth concept in the corporate world; it is seen as complacency. Management wants employees to be content with the compensation that is doled out but management is never content with the revenue earned: next year, we always want more.  This is why, unless the leader takes a firm stand, no matter what Ganesha says, organizations will continue to invest in Kubera’s kitchens and no one will seek the wisdom of Shiva.