May 26, 2007

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #16

Posted by Bizaholic | 10:15 AM | with 0 comments »

Buying time is an old tactic. Never let your people delay things by buying time every now and then on one pretext or the other.

Working with senior management is pure delight at times as you get to learn wisdom gathered over years of experience in classic one-liners. A few days back, a President, with over 30 years of management experience, reprimanded a senior manager, who was asking for more time than necessary to implement a new initiative, by saying "buying time is an old tactic."

Later, when I pondered over this, I realized that we often avoid doing certain things that are beyond our comfort levels. And we do it in the politically correct way of "buying time". Procrastination is a bad habit and "buying time syndrome" only legitimates it. But this does no good to anyone. It only results in inordinate delay in getting things done and situations spiraling out of control.

So the lesson to be learnt is simple: First, don't buy time yourself. Second, don't allow others to buy time. Corollary of the lesson is – Just Do It!

May 17, 2007

Nuggets of Management Wisdom #15

Posted by Bizaholic | 11:20 PM | with 0 comments »

Leadership is all about inspiration, persuasion, trust, fairness, and transformation of ordinary to extra-ordinary.

Leadership can at times seem very simple yet at other times abstract. I often ask myself – what makes great leaders? Having observed some remarkable leaders in my life and also having read about many great leaders, I feel that despite the difference in leadership style there is a common thread running in between the methods and madness of all great leaders.

All great leaders inspire people to action, they have amazing powers to persuade people, they have immense trust in their people, they are fair when dealing with their people, and they are driven by a desire to transform anything ordinary to extraordinary.

I feel anyone can become a great leader if one practices to live these five virtues of great leadership everyday of one’s life.

May 13, 2007

Armchair Strategists

Posted by Bizaholic | 12:03 PM | with 1 comments »

There is a unique species in corporate world. Its name is “Armchair Strategists”. These are frequently found at higher levels of corporate hierarchy. Their specialty is that they tend to think that they know everything that’s happening around even without venturing out of their cozy and spacious offices! So confident they are of their ability to read things without venturing out that they keep imposing upon others decisions that reinforce their grand views about everything. It’s another matter that what they think is often wrong and way apart from reality. The reason is simple – unless you roll up your sleeves and go out and poke your ears and eyes around, reality is not bound to enter your head, however experienced you may be!

There is a Chinese proverb that goes like “Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once.” This is attributed to a veteran Chinese general, Zhou Chongguo, who, when asked by Emperor Xuandi about the number of troops he would require to defeat the invasion from the North, replied –

“Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once. Warfare is not a matter of guesswork. I will have to go to the front to see for myself how the land lies before I can formulate my strategy.”
Perhaps, our “armchair strategists” from the corporate world need a lesson from General Zhou Chongguo on the importance of moving out of their cozy offices to visit their markets and talk to their customers more often so that they can see what is happening around and not rely solely on their experience or what their people tell them about what is happening around.

May 7, 2007

Frog Mentality and Competition

Posted by Bizaholic | 10:17 PM | , with 0 comments »

There is an old frog parable. It says that if you put frog in boiling water it will immediately jump out with all its energy to save his life. But if you put a frog in cold water and then slowly heat the water, the frog will eventually die as the water becomes hot.

This is the frog mentality, a mentality that blinds us to the changes happening around us. In corporate world, this frog mentality is widespread, particularly in handling competition. If the competition hits hard with all its might in one go, people react like a frog thrown in boiling water and do all they can to save themselves. But if the competition attacks slowly and gradually, they fail to notice the changing environment and end up dying a slow death. Since smaller but serious competitors often attack slowly and gradually instead of hitting their bigger counterparts with a big bang, the second scenario of a slow death due to inability to read the environment is all too common in corporate world.

The problem is acute in companies having big brands with big market share. They have a tendency to wallow in their arrogance and laugh at the covert and overt moves made by competitors. MNC giants like Unilever learnt it the hard way when Nirma gradually ate away their market share in detergents with some smart maneuvers. By the time Unilever realized that its tail was on fire, it was too late to use fire extinguisher! In Indian context, similar were the stories of CavinKare's attack in the shampoo and the fairness cream segments where Unilever again found itself at the receiving end; and the attack by Priya Biscuits on Britannia's stranglehold of cookies segment. In international context, slow and gradual onslaught of Japanese car makers led by Toyota is a historic example. Other examples could be gradual dominance of Korean and Japanese appliances manufactures to the detriment of giant American appliances manufactures. If looked beyond surface, it would emerge that the common thread running between all these examples is the frog mentality on part of the incumbent and a nimble-footed, flexible, and consistent strategy of the challengers.

This frog mentality is bound to make many giants tumble if they don’t learn to recognize the changes in competitive environment. At least in India, I can see that days of many a big brand might be numbered due to complacency on their part to recognize the existence of competition. Non-acknowledgement of a reality is the easiest way to move towards a disaster.

I have seen very senior managers trying to hide the fact that competition exists; at least they underplay the impact of competition. Instead of accepting the presence of an aggressive competition and chalking out a strategy to minimize their impact, senior managers discard it as not worth attention. If anyone brings to their attention the growing menace of competition, they dismiss it as mere panicky behaviour. They consider themselves too big to get hit by competition. In the process, they forget that some time back they too were small and only gradually became big! Their competitor too can become big.

It’s high time for business leaders to shun frog mentality and wake up to the realities of their environment before it is too late.

May 6, 2007

Adoption of best practices, borrowed from national or international organizations, is a much abused concept in business organizations. There is a widespread feeling that once you have adopted a best practice, things would change for the better. Nothing could be more wrong. Behind every best practice, there are many underlying variables which made the best practice a success in the first place.

The problem with adoption of best practices is that people adopt best practices without giving much thought to the variables that influence the success or failure of a best practice in context to a particular organization. Best practices don’t work on their own. They have to be driven through multiple other initiatives all going on simultaneously. This is one area where organizational mandarins err. They focus on the best practice but forget or don’t give much thought to the drivers of best practice.

Take technology for instance. Yes, it’s true that technology works wonders and it has almost become a necessity for every business. But very often, companies make a mess of adopting technological best practices and end up with confusion all around, not because of technology but because of variables that drive effectiveness of technology. Say, a company decides to become information driven throughout its hierarchy. It gets some good technological platforms installed in its quest to become information driven. It gets centrally connected as far as various information regarding operations is concerned. Next, it decides to automate various operational and non-operational activities, say, online approval of various exceptions related to sales, meetings and minutes management, tasks and actions, online secondary sales tracking, online competition tracking, online scheme management and gift disbursal system, online sales portal, online claim settlement, and the list goes on. It sounds very impressive, isn’t it? Well, the reality generally is quite different. Let me elaborate why it is so –

In this particular example, what are the drivers of this proposed transformation of the company into information driven organization. Following are some of the drivers that come to my mind;

- Software vendors who develop the technology
- People who run the technology
- People who champion the adoption of technology
- People who ultimately use the technology

Now assuming that the technology best practice you are going to adopt is very relevant and appears great for your company, how will the actual implementation turn up if you hire software vendors who lack experience and expertise but come cheap; or the people who will run that technology are not competent enough to handle it; or the champions of technology fail to drive down the objectives and benefits of the technology to the people across organization; or the people who are supposed to use it are not capable of using it. It results into a concoction that tastes bitter and is also bad for organization’s health! So you end up with too many initiatives; none of them works as desired, and they consume enormous amount of managerial time without any productivity enhancement. Definitely all the drivers of best practice must be aligned properly to reap benefits. If they are not, disasters are bound to happen.

This was an example of technology. Other best practices work similarly. To make a best practice work, the drivers need to be identified, bolstered, and aligned properly with one another. Why a best practice worked in some organization is not always obvious from surface unless you scratch and look deeper.

It all boils down to the fact that best practices are not like panacea. Blindly following best practices is a recipe for disaster. To make a best practice work, you have to understand how it is going to fit into your organization. What worked somewhere will most likely not work somewhere else unless it is adapted to align it with realities of the organizations as well as with the drivers that are going to make a success out of it. Any best practice is as good as the people and processes that are going to adopt and implement it.

May 5, 2007

Bench-strength is the availability of people in your organization who can easily move to fill the shoes of people who decide to part ways with the organization. Strong bench-strength is a sign of healthy organization as well as effective people management practices. Low bench-strength on the other hand is a clear sign of troubles ahead. Yet a large number of companies fail to address the issue of bench-strength. Often, these companies rely on outside consultants to hire for a position that fell vacant. Frequently, this takes months to complete. I know of a company which remained without a category manager for almost a year before the replacement came. And the category was worth in excess of Rs 300 crores at that time! I also know of a company which remained without a brand manager of a Rs 250 crore brand for more than 6 months! This is not fictional; this is real.

Not only a poor bench-strength indicative of future trouble, it also gives an impression to the mind of star performers that they are irreplaceable. And this is nothing less than onset of cancerous lump in the organization. Once the star performers get a feeling that they are irreplaceable, they start throwing their tantrums that not only demotivates scores of people but also dents the values of the organization in long run. Hence, it’s in the interest of everyone if organization, as a strategy, decides to develop a strong bench-strength in its rank and file.

Following are some of the factors that can adversely affect the bench-strength of any organization –
  1. Management’s obsession with short term – Managers and leaders who are able to balance the long-term as well as short-term generally do very well. Problem starts when they become too obsessed with quarterly numbers to the extent that every other important thing they are supposed to do, including development of people, is relegated down the priority list. Once the organization’s mandarins get myopic vision of their roles and responsibilities, they start focusing on what someone can do at present rather than what the potential of a person is. They start living too much in ‘present’ without an iota of thought about future. This hampers the allocation of time and effort to develop people for future roles. It’s like driving a car and looking at hood rather than the long road in front! No surprises that they often meet with accidents unaware of what hit them so hard.

  2. Insecurity among leaders and managers – Most effective leaders and managers are people who love to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. Yet, they are a scarce commodity in the corporate ecosystem. Very often a sense of insecurity feeling is there among managers and leaders that alienates them with people who they think can outsmart them. Due to this, they tend to gravitate towards mediocre people who they think are their alter ego but at the same time who can’t outsmart them. In the process, people with potential get lost in the organizational jungle or move on to other company.

  3. Hero worship – When you have too few heroes in your organization and they are worshipped like God, they get an ego bigger than the organization. Once heroes develop a big ego, they start feeling that they are the start and end of everything while others only an army of clerks to support them. This is when development of people takes a back seat.

  4. Poor performance appraisal processes and systems – When you have vague and hazy appraisals, true potential and developmental areas of people never emerge. Well, talking of appraisals, I have seen a few appraisal forms that have the total score pre-filled by the boss while the details remained to be filled! And these were for people who were given promotion. So if you have an appraisal system that is a perfunctory exercise to display subjective judgment of the boss, your bench-strength would always be poor.

  5. An administrative HR rather than a strategic HR – HR has a habit of getting stuck in the administration rather than development of people. They get so preoccupied with administrative aspects of people management that they forget that their primary job is to help people reach their true potential. So instead of spending time with people, they end up spending time amid excel sheet analyzing weekly attrition rate! Due to this they are unable to drive the importance of having a strong bench-strength to the people throughout the organization. Instead of exhorting people to be ready with their successors and discussing training and developmental needs of people, they end up interacting with outside consultants in their search for replacements.

  6. Centralized organization structure – More control means less trust in people. More control also means less authority for people. In a highly centralized organizations majority of people start feeling like pawns that are expected to follow orders from top rather than think on their feet to decide the best course of action. In such scenarios, who does what is also dictated by the people who control most of the things in an organization. As such, hardly any development of people takes place in a centralized environment where everything is dependent on the whims and fancies of people who control things.

  7. Low priority issue on top leadership’s agenda list – Ensuring a strong bench-strength is a major initiative that needs to be driven down the organization from the top till it gets into the head and heart of people throughout the organization. Sadly, many CEOs don’t even think about it, let alone drive it!
It is important to build a people centric organization which is bigger than any individual and is independent of the coming and going of any individual. You can do this only if you have enough arms and ammunition in form of competent people, ever ready to don new responsibilities. So, perk up your bench-strength.

May 1, 2007

If I Were The CEO...

Posted by Bizaholic | 2:31 PM | with 7 comments »

CEOs are considered powerful people in any organization. They are the head honchos whom everyone fears. The general perception among people is that whatever the CEOs says is the final word on wisdom and it must not be questioned, not atleast in CEO's presence! They are considered the Godfather!

But I have a contrary view. I believe that a CEO must be a follower first if he wants to truely lead his organization and people. He must be a follower of his people, who is always on the look out for what his people are thinking and feeling. He must be a follower of the pulse of his organization and his people. I am not yet a CEO but someday soon I will become a CEO. Following are a few things I would love to do as a CEO;
  1. Eat lunch in the common cafeteria. For me a common lunch with common people is more fruitful and satisfying than a power lunch.

  2. Spend at least 2 hours every week meeting my people from every level - from vice president to the sweeper.

  3. Keep an open door policy with a big board engraved with “You are welcome, always!”

  4. Weekly tea meeting in an informal setup with a group of 10 people randomly picked to discuss anything they wish to discuss.

  5. Everyday give bear-hug to at least five of my people randomly intercepted.

  6. Send a small 'good morning email' with a 'thought of the day' to all employees.

  7. Go around the cubicles saying ‘hi’ to some of the people everyday when in office.

  8. Paint the office with “If you are working late in evening, you are definitely not working hard enough during day.”

  9. Tea bonding – everyday have one cup of tea with an employee at his/her desk.

  10. Personally drive communication of major initiative or strategy though the rank and file of the organization.

  11. Write a lot of small hand written notes to people appreciating their work and how that is helping the organization evolve and grow.

  12. Spend a lot of time talking to young people in the organization and begging for ideas and suggestions from them.

  13. Explain organizational goals and objective through stories.

  14. Appreciate publicly, reprimand privately.

  15. Put suggestion box all around the place and reward the employee with the highest number of suggestions every month.

  16. Celebrate small victories of people.

  17. Throw surprise office parties.

  18. Spend 30% of my time meeting customers and trade partners.

  19. Talk more about the picture rather than the road map.

  20. Keep the performance metrics to a maximum of 5 across all levels because I believe that the more clutter you have, the less focused your people are, and more is the scope for fudging performance.

  21. Practice “leadership by walking around.”