Published on 27-6-05
(Slide 1) It is a pleasure for me to be able to speak to young communications management students today. Management has become the most sought after profession in the country today. I would like to share some reflections about management: the value of a formal management education, how do you become a top manager, how come a successful manager is well-regarded one day and considered ineffective on another day and many other similar questions
(Slide 2) Management is not a science; the outcomes are not the same each time; yet, a manager tends to repeat methods that worked earlier, either from his own experience or from others’ experience. That can be a valid approach when the factors are ‘technical’ in nature (how to improve machine performance in a factory, or how to calculate the present value of a business with cash flows). Where ‘human’ factors are involved, the adoption of an earlier successful model may not work. Managers often do not consciously separate the problem faced into these ‘technical’ and ‘human’ categories.
As managers implement their solutions, they receive masses of unclear data about the consequences or outcomes of their actions. These may or may not be read accurately. In any case, managers rely on intuition, which is their shorthand way of interpreting that mass of unclear data. In that interpretation, they rely on past lessons learned, which flash through their minds in a narrative and anecdotal manner. It is this flash of a story, an anecdote that influences the way they move forward. Hence, there is a great value in telling stories which can get embedded in the human mind.
The Value of Stories
(Slide 3) Think of the best lessons you have learnt about soft subjects like character, self-esteem, honesty, etc. Almost always, the lesson is associated with an anecdote from your own experiences or an interaction with somebody you respect or a story told by somebody. There are traditions of story telling in India that have evolved over the centuries e.g. the jatra in rural Bengal, the upanyasam in Tamilnadu, the harikathaa in the North are regional expressions of education and entertainment rolled in one. Your memory invariably carries a narrative, in which some idea is interlocked with an emotion.
(Slide 4) The drama of human emotion is a great preservative for ideas, because both the idea and the drama get indelibly etched in your mind – the selflessness of Hanuman, the righteousness of Yudhisthira, Aesop’s hare and tortoise, the love of Heer and Ranjha and so on. So, there is a strong connection between learning on the one hand and examples, anecdotes and stories on the other, because they unite an idea with an emotion. That is why stories are a very important way of teaching and imparting knowledge, especially on more fuzzy and complex subjects. When it comes to ethical and religious studies, subjects such as good character, good citizenry, and good social values and so on, story telling is effective.
(Slide 5) A big part of a CEO’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is a story. And successful CEO’s know that they cannot thrive by selling pipe dreams or by communicating via spin doctors. They must engage with their managers, looking them eyeball to eyeball and say, “We’ll be lucky as hell if we get through this, but here is what I think we should do.” And they will listen to him.
(Slide 6) It struck me that stories from nature—the animals, plants, insects—could be very memorable. The world of animals has an evolutionary linkage to man anyway; nature has always been inspiring and emotional.
I wish to tell you a couple of stories and anecdotes today with the hope that lodging intuitional skills into the mind of the manager in a memorable way has a lot of value. This is what they do not teach at the B Schools.
(Slide 7) Story 1: The Snail and Crayfish
The training of managers makes them view threats and obstacles as items to be eliminated if possible, otherwise to be avoided. Management literature is copious on how to annihilate the competition and make a unique strategy which helps “to create an uncontested market space.” There is nothing wrong with these ideas except that when slightly overdone, they become counter-productive. A good manager must learn to consider such threats as actually desirable because it is these threats that keep managers on their toes and constantly renewed. They are part of the firm’s ecological balance. In fact, if you look at what happens in nature, threats to survival are a daily occurrence.
There was a report in Science magazine that the growth patterns of a particular variety of snail were significantly altered by the presence of predatory crayfish. When the snail grew in an environment free of the predator, it began to reproduce when the shell size was just 4 mm. Its life span was about four months. Then the experimenter introduced the crayfish predator. The snail had to have some response to this threat because life could not carry on as normal any longer. First, it had to use some method to avoid the crayfish and second, it had to prepare how to respond if it did encounter the enemy. The snails now postponed reproduction till they were twice their size (8 mm instead of 4 mm) and their longevity increased to 12 months from 4 months earlier. The threat actually improved all growth parameters. The scientists hypothesized that when faced with the threat, the snail reallocated its resources away from early reproduction towards growth and community survival.
(Slide 8) Story 2: Fresh Fish for the Japanese
The Japanese have always loved fresh fish, but the waters close to Japan have not held much fish for decades. To feed the population, the fishing boats got bigger and went farther than ever. The farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring in the fish. If the return trip took more than a few days, the fish were not fresh. The Japanese did not like the taste. To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats. They would catch the fish and freeze them at sea. Unfortunately, the consumer could taste the difference between fresh and frozen fish. The frozen fish brought a lower price. So fishing companies installed fish tanks on the ship. They would catch the fish and stuff them in the tanks. After a little thrashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were dull and tired, but alive. Unfortunately, the Japanese could still taste the difference. They liked the taste of lively, fresh fish, not sluggish fish! Finally, they hit upon an idea. They added a small shark to each tank. The shark did eat a few fish, but the rest of them were challenged and kept on the move by the shark. The Japanese consumer got his freshest possible fish.
(Slide 9) Story 3: Crocodile Meat for the Chinese
There is a third anecdote which suggests that the converse also is true i.e. that in the absence of any significant threat or problem, complacency sets in and even ‘normal’ behaviors fail to manifest themselves. The International Herald Tribune reported on 25th October, 2004 a story about crocodiles imported into China from Thailand. Crocodile meat is valuable for eating in China. So the Chinese Forestry Department eliminated the steep duties on imported breeder crocodiles in the mid 1990s. Crocopark Guangzhou bought nearly 40,000 crocodiles from Thailand in 1997 and 1998, entirely filling the holds of five chartered Boeing 747 cargo jets. It was an attractive commercial deal for the Chinese; the Asian financial crisis had made the Thai sellers panicky and crocodile prices had collapsed. The hope was that low wages and highly skilled farmers in China, as well as the well developed road and port infrastructure in the country would rapidly convert China into a competitive producer of crocodile meat, purses and other goods. The logic must have seemed impeccable. What happened thereafter was that these crocodiles experienced some difficulty in adapting to the cooler climate of China compared to Thailand. The male crocodiles started eating more in late autumn and early winter than they did in Thailand. They became so plump that they lost their sex drive when the mating season arrived in spring! Impotence, obesity, runny noses all conspired to make the Chinese dream difficult to realize.
These things happen to great institutions around us, unfortunately quite often. Robert R Updegraff wrote this very well by saying,
“Be thankful for the troubles of your job. They provide about half your income. Because if it were not for the things that go wrong, the difficult people that you have to deal with, and the problems and unpleasantness of your working day, someone could be found to handle your job for half of what you are paid.….. It is a fact that there are plenty of big jobs waiting for men and women who aren’t afraid of the troubles connected with them.”
Story 4: The Bonsai Crocodile
(Slide 10) In the early nineties, I attended a Unilever conference in Zimbabwe. The host company had arranged a boat trip down the Zambezi River, a wonderful experience. One of the stops was to see a crocodile farm, where crocodiles were being bred in captive farms. Perhaps because I am a vegetarian, I did not find the farm visit appealing, though I did find it instructive. Later, I read a report that the growth of a crocodile could be stunted by confining the animal to a small enclosure soon after it has emerged from the egg. I was a bit nonplussed. After all, the physical growth of a young child raised in a one room tenement in Mumbai would not be stunted as compared to the growth of a child raised on a sprawling farm in the countryside. So why would it happen to a crocodile? I asked my friend, Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary. He dismissed the idea, but sent an e-mail to his friend at the Madras Crocodile Farm. The subject name mentioned on his e-mail reflected his disbelief, ‘Strange Verification Required.’ Within three hours, back came the reply, “Bonsai crocs are well known and they are created just as you mention, in enclosures too small for them! (Slide 11) Rom Whitaker knew of a mugger reared at the Madras zoo for possibly 15-20 years and it was a little over a metre long. It should have been closer to 3 metres.” A stunned Bittu Sahgal forwarded me the e-mail with the comment, “It seems you were right, though why anyone would want to do that is absolutely beyond me.” This correspondence set me on a new trail of enquiry. It there can be bonsai crocodiles, could organizations create bonsai managers?
(Slide 12) Story 5: The Bonsai Manager
Just as growth of the crocodile depends on the diet and the space available, growth of managers also is influenced by their ‘mental’ food (reading, training and so on) as well as the experiential space (new experiences, tough assignments and so on). Nobody sets out to develop a bonsai manager. But through inadequate real challenge and inadequate learning arising out of work at the grassroots of company operations, young managers too can get stunted in their growth. The truly big and successful managers are set amidst problem after problem – they are constantly challenged to swim upstream against the tide so that they learn and grow fast.
Like many senior managers, I have sometimes had to counsel an aggrieved manager who felt sensitive about being passed over for a promotion. Indeed, on one or two occasions, I myself have needed counsel from a superior or mentor during my own career. Once, I had to meet a manager who had spent twenty five successful years, all in the foundry. He felt slighted because the company had decided to promote a colleague to be the next general manager. So far as the aggrieved manager was concerned, the colleague was much junior and not even a peer. “Why is that so?” I enquired. “He was five years my junior at the engineering college,” came the reply, crisply logical and beyond debate as far as he was concerned. “But that was twenty five years ago! Surely it is not relevant any more,” I persisted. So far as he was concerned, the company had done him great injustice. I have found that if exposure has been limited for too long, it is often difficult for a manager to reach general manager potential later.
(Slide 13) Young managers like you should seek out early in their careers experiences in multiple functions, multiple geographies, and multiple domains. It should not be overdone either, as one can then become a rolling stone. But a solid 3-4 year stint in each role, and doing 5 or 6 roles within the first twenty years would be a good guideline for the person aspiring to be a general manager.
(Slide 14) Story 6: The Global Manager
My experience suggests that the global manager of the future must have five characteristics.
Choose employees who are both enthusiastic and extroverted in conversation, not afraid to try out their language skills, and who will go out of their way to communicate with local people. I once greeted my Saudi partner in my newly-learnt and well-rehearsed Arabic. He was stunned, then burst out laughing. “You’re Arabic is perfect but archaic,” he explained. It is like stopping somebody on Oxford Street, London and saying “How are thou and whither must I go to reach Paddington?”
Expats have a tendency to stick together. Successful global managers establish social ties with locals and other nationalities as it provides fresh and new insights. My Board in Arabia had a Dutch technical director, a French finance director, two Britishers as marketing director and personnel director, two Indians are marketing director and as sales director. My social circle had mostly Pakistanis. My insightful conversations were with Tunisian, Sudanese and Syrian managers on Arabs, on Islam, on role of women, etc. Most memorable is my Tunisian sales manager’s advice on the Ballad at Jeddah, “Sir, never walk on the street with another man’s wife. If you are laughing and enjoying the conversation with a woman on the streets, the muttawa police immediately know that the woman cannot be your wife!”
Expats who add most value to their companies are those who are willing to experiment with local customs and allow those to influence them. Though a vegetarian, I discovered the pleasures of falafal and tabouli in gastronomy. My wife actually took private lessons on belly-dancing for the heck of it. She also learnt the rakhas in namaz. We were fortunate to be able to travel from Casablanca to Damascus and Muscat, savouring the rich history of those geographies.
Companies that send the right people abroad have identified individuals who respect diverse viewpoints, they live and let live. Every manager recruited into Saudi Arabia was told, “Though liquor is unofficially available here, the company cannot and will not protect you if you are caught with alcohol. So you are advised against consumption of alcohol here.” I myself avoided alcohol completely while in Saudi, but made up in Doha or Dubai! The employment of women managers was possible in Dubai and Oman, but their travel into Saudi posed special challenges. A future Unilever chairman, Niall Fitzgerald, inadvertently made my motivational task difficult by mentioning in London his view that Saudi society was retrograde. He was perhaps right in some ways, but if such a mindset were to infiltrate and influence the orientation of my expatriate managers in Saudi, it would be problematic for the firm!
This is most important. Each society has its own way of deal-making, expats tend to do it their own way. My Saudi partner, Wahib Binzagr, always said, “I prefer to negotiate with you because Indians think and behave in our kind of deal-making mode i.e. go round and round a bit, and then get to the point gradually. These Englishmen want to get to the point straight away!” And I should recall that, Wahib was educated in England and was married to a Brazilian lady!
I could continue with many more such stories, but that would be out of place. The life and career that is about to open up ahead of you is vastly more exciting and challenging compared to the one that I faced when I was your age. That is most appropriate because my father had lesser opportunities than I did. Your generation is likely to witness the transition of our country from the poverty of thousands of years to at least the abolition of abject poverty. Managers have a tremendous role in this national task. Remember your privileges as well as your obligations as you develop your professional career. May God be with you and all the very best.
I have great pleasure in inaugurating this programme.
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