Maverick marketeer Harit Nagpal midwifed the magnificent Zoozoos for Vodafone, and they have been hugely popular ever since. In their latest sizzling avatar—faster, smarter, better—the Zoozoos encapsulate the qualities that every human resource manager seeks in prospective recruits.

Organizations would like to claim that they are populated with champion Zoozoos (I doubt if I am one of them). Had that been true, I wonder why Lehman Brothers collapsed, or why Satyam cooked its books, or Fannie Mae dug its own grave. This is the tale of a different kind of people, at a different nook in time.

In 1982, I was dispatched to Hyderabad to be Sallu sir’s assistant. On arriving at Begumpet airport, I was received with a large cardamom and sandalwood garland. (I learnt later that the garland was kept in the office manager’s room and used every time a visitor called. The chain broke only if someone took the ritual seriously and decided to keep it. In any case, it was a nice drill to welcome a team member.) I was whisked away to the Secunderabad Club and introduced to team members and customers at the club’s Collonade Bar. That’s where I met Sulaiman Akhtar Ansari.

That night Sallu sir took me to his home for dinner and introduced me to his wife, three daughters and son. Afterwards, he drove me to the guesthouse where I was to stay, and ensured that I was comfortable. Sallu sir had a kind and smiling face, a humble disposition, and impeccable manners. He came back in the morning—this time to take me to work on my first day at the branch. In less than 24 hours, he had adopted me into his family and his team.

Sallu sir is one among a number of bosses that I have worked with who have taught me “tehzeeb" at work and beyond. They were coaches, mentors, tutors and colleagues, and are now friends. We even had a bosses’ club called “the survivors", simply because they had survived us.

Sallu sir trained in the course of work. He took me along on his travels, and drilled me to fluency. It was no doubt a lot of hard work for him. He narrated incidents, anecdotes, personal foibles of senior managers; he weaved ITC into me as we sold cigarettes in Telangana, Rayalaseema and the city of Hyderabad.

He demonstrated the importance of the integrated play of manufacturing, working capital management, distribution and marketing, and my role as a cog to keep the wheel moving.

A rookie also needed to be tutored in the fine art of negotiating with customers and colleagues— understanding their problems and getting them to deliver. Sallu sir showed me how he did it.

We had a tracker to determine the return that customers made on their investment in the business. The lifeblood of our work was to ensure they got a competitive dividend, he insisted. In turn, Sallu sir demanded availability, fresh goods on the shelves, strong cash flows, spiffy merchandising and quality execution. Today, companies such as ITC and Hindustan Unilever distribute to over 30,000 outlets in a city like Mumbai, meeting these diverse requirements. That has its challenges.

Back then, work at the branch was fun; there were lots to do. Since TV was out of bounds for cigarettes, advertisement was done through the local press, billboards and regular events—the Wills Made for Each Other contests, Bristol soccer tournaments, Classic Derby and Wills Cricket. There were no event managers, so we learnt by doing. And we learnt well: Kurush Grant went on to execute the first Wills ICC Cricket World Cup in India, and Mehmood Ahmed became adept at the art of romancing brands.

Added to all this were frequent visits by senior managers, and the nightmare of all minions—presentations. These were followed by the “servants’ ball" where the juniors got to rub shoulders with bosses and get a worm’s eye view of the company’s senior brass. Other lessons were also learnt in the course of the evening—holding one’s drink, and acquiring that subtle talent for inane conversation, or what is euphemistically called social chatter. And after a late night, one learnt to get back to work before warehouses opened the next morning.

Over the years, I discovered that the things Sallu sir had then effortlessly taught me (including the art of managing a servants’ ball) worked well as I went along.

Whenever I botched things up (which was quite often) Sallu sir would take the blame on himself. It was the hallmark of a good leader. He also introduced me to having fun at work: we would go to watch movies and cricket matches, attend mushairas, and have kebabs in the back alleys of Begumpet. But amid all this, the wheels continued to move at work.

Sallu played a good game of cricket, and he knew his trade marketing, products, customers, consumers and people management. When he didn’t know something, he would rely on others. He would trust you and back you when you goofed up. And he always wrote a kind word about you to people who mattered.

Sulaiman Akhtar Ansari, of Central Provinces and Berar, passed away a year ago. He, and the august members of the survivors’ club, weren’t the sought-after super Zoozoos of today. Nonetheless, they were superbosses, and more importantly, officers and gentlemen.

Subroto Chattopadhyay,incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies

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