Being Legal or Moral

The rain lashed on the windscreen of my car as my driver steered it clear of Ikeja chaos as we headed for the main Ibadan highway.

Lagos had seen a lot of rain this month, but today was different. The road was fortunately clear and we hoped to reach our meeting place within quarter of an hour.

This meeting was a top priority for us. A federal government funded initiative needed a full automation solution and we had approached them at the right time with the right concept. We had to showcase the concept today, the success of which could ideally take us to closure. My colleague sat grimly besides me; probably with a mix of nervousness and anxiety. I was sure that he knew that the closure discussion today was to test our sense of morality within the legal framework!

The concept of this meeting did not make sense to me. Though being a federal government funded initiative, no federal representative was expected to attend the meeting. Secondly; the expected panel did not have any technical person on board. Thirdly; the solution offered by us was by no way a small solution. It simply did not jell. There was something that I was missing! I had quizzed my colleague thoroughly on this and he could not provide me any clue. I was in half mind to deny him my help for the meeting unless he did his homework well. But this was Nigeria; a land yet to acquire skills and aggression in business. I let it be.

Our car entered the client’s premise. We hurried across to the reception, trying to shield ourselves from the rain, which showed no signs of stopping. The young lady at the reception awarded a very warm welcome as she guided us to the main conference room.
She knew that we were expected. This baffled me more, because it meant that the client was dead serious! We thanked her as she helped us to set up our projector and demo equipment. My mind was still racing.

The chain of my thoughts broke as a deep hoarse voice cut across the room. “Good Afternoon, Mr. Wagh; you are welcome!” I turned around behind me to face a burly figure, possibly double my size but of my height. I was shocked! He knew my name even though this was my first meeting with him! This case was almost single-handedly driven by my colleague and this was my first interface!

I gathered myself hurriedly and knew that he had noticed my reaction. He smiled and waved me to sit down as he settled himself in the main chair. His body language was obvious. He was steering the project and made no bones to emphasize this. “I am Kalo and I own this business initiative. Thanks for coming. Let us get on with the demo!”

With exchange of a few niceties and intros with his team members (there were five in all), we progressed with the demo and ended up with the Q&A session. All questions were targeted to understand two things. Will this solution deliver at least 70% of promises? and  Does this solution allow for more extensions and upgrades after a year or so?

“Thanks everybody! Please excuse us now and allow me to discuss the commercials with Mr. Wagh!” Kalo’s voice boomed in the conference room and the team members almost scampered off their seats to leave. Kalo’s authority was not to be denied!

We were now alone in the room and the next statement almost shook me. “Mr. Wagh, we need this solution for under $50,000 since the actual end-customer is willing to pay not more than $70000. Hope you understand me and let me know your thoughts on this”.

The mist over the intention of this meeting cleared and for a moment I stood paralyzed. The end-customer had wanted us to strike a deal with their ‘confidante’ and conclude subsequently! The composition of members for the meeting; the eagerness for interaction; the type of questions asked and above all the swiftness of the actual business proposition was now all clear and mesmerizing.

With over two decades of such experiences; this was not shocking, but the bluntness was unlike experienced anywhere before.

“Sir, I am not averse to your overall proposition, but it is unlikely that we can reduce our price to the levels that you want because we are dealing with licensing and there are constraints. You have our commercials and perhaps we can look at some reasonable discounts on that!”

“Mr. Wagh, I am willing to look at a solution without the license constraints, but our requirements need to be met. We have no time.”

His mandate to us was very clear. Price, margins and timelines were non-negotiable. Everything else was!

“Mr. Kalo, Let me work on this and see what best fitment I can possibly offer to you. Allow me to revert back to you by tomorrow latest”.

With the next steps mutually discussed and agreed upon; we set out back to our office. The rain had subsided, but a storm of thoughts had engulfed my mind.

Respect to the quality of software and the long term perspective on return on investment was not a priority in this marketplace. The situation was baffling and triggered a moral debate in my mind. On one side; the government honchos were keen to push Nigeria into the next century with double digit progress and were keen to make it an economic powerhouse in Africa. But on ground; the plans of the honchos were being challenged with greed and myopic views on the future. The technical experts and consultants were only to show to the galleries and accord legal status to ‘agreements’.

[em]What role had businesses like ours to play – To make unscrupulous profits or to drive and feed the dreams of the government honchos? Should corruption be viewed as a legal issue or a moral issue?[/em]

Given that anticorruption laws are passed sometimes by people who are themselves at least partially corrupt and enforced by institutions which may not always be fully independent and often staffed by people who are nominated by the same corrupt politicians, we cannot rely on the law to effectively deal with corruption. There will always be loopholes in the law. In many countries political party financing by large corporations is not considered a bribe and is considered legal. And yet we know that this practice
is often at the root of a lot of corrupt practices. This brings us back to the question of who writes the law. We are potentially in a ‘conflict of interest’ situation. Thus, I would argue that corruption should first and foremost be considered a moral issue.

Mr. Kalo was pushing me to compromise on my moral/ethical obligations to the government honchos of delivering them a sound workable solution which would meet their business needs for many years. He could have taken a more moral path by making some money without compromising on the deliverables.

I could never succumb to this. I had made up my mind. Our car veered into the main Surulere Street. The clouds appeared to have cleared. My mind was now calm. Staying morally upright was all that mattered!

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Milind Wagh

Milind has been providing P&L leadership to MNCs, mid-stage businesses and new ventures over the last two decades and is credited for nurturing great teams for driving new self-funded initiatives from portfolio of ideas. 'Think Inward' attempts to explore matters of the mind that spur individuals and teams in addressing challenging situations and markets. It advocates the need to 'Think Inward' within ourselves. An Organization is all about human behaviour at work. The people; their mind-sets; their motivation and their emotions determine the nature of their 'emotional hooks' in that organization. 'Think Inward' attempts to decode these hooks and understand human behaviour at work.

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