Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

The splendid victory of South Africa against Australia set my mind thinking about their leader, Graeme Smith, and how he led from the front. And about his leadership career, as South Africa’s cricket captain.

When he took over as SA captain, he was young and almost brash. There were other seniors who were still in the team, and yet, they gave the reins of captaincy to this young cricketer, who had not been in international cricket for very long.

He came with new ideas. He rubbed the seniors like Jonty, Allan Donald, Pollock, Kluesner and others, the wrong way. He also did not win enough, amidst all this friction. There were talks of him being an incorrect choice, criticism of his hot temper, and what not.

But he learnt. And he learnt fast. And he was fundamentally the right choice, which the South African selectors pursued with. And the persistence paid off. As he became more acceptable as a leader among his teammates. And as he led from the front, with an aggressive, winning approach. And started delivering far better results. And today, he is considered one of the better captains in the cricket world.

A very different background is that of Ratan Tata. As a young entrant in the Tata fold, he took over reins of companies like Tata Textiles and Nelco, and had disastrous results.

Then, when he took over the group, after JRD Tata, he seemed to be going after senior pros like Russi Mody (Tata Steel), Ajit Kerkar (Indian Hotels) and Darbari Seth (Tata Chemicals). At that time, it looked like his insecurity to work with these giants, and he took the route of seeing them off. As later events proved, these people had created virtual fiefdoms, out of their companies, and the decisions to replace them, were extremely brave and bold ones, taken by Ratan Tata.

Over the years now, Ratan Tata has become a fanstastic leader of the group, driving them to unprecedented growth, with very high ambition, and proved to be a real champion.

Another young leader who has quickly worked his way up, and grown by leaps and bounds, has been Kumar Mangalam Birla. Never easy to follow an icon like Aditya Birla, and at a young age too. But he grabbed the opportunity well, and has created brilliant new growth opportunities for the group now.

Not so successful has been his cousin, Yash Birla, who was also thrust into the hot seat, at a very young age, on account of the sudden demise of Ashok Birla. Yash however, has found the good life more to his liking, and running the business, just one of the many things that he does in life.

Rajiv Gandhi was also thrust into the seat of power without much notice, due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. As a young and unspoilt (by corruption and power) clean leader that time, he promised a lot. And his early years were akin to the Kennedy years, for the US. Held out a lot of promise and the youth of the nation, especially looked up to him, for providing a new direction of growth for the country. However the phase did not last too long, as he got caugh in the political web of deceit and corruption. So the hopes were belied. And ultimately, it all came to an early end, due to his also being assassinated.

Coming back to cricket, it appears as if Australia almost always have the right leader waiting in the wings. After Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor, it looked like Ponting had already been primed up, to take over the reins. And he led by strong example, and providing exemplary leadership, from the outset. And at this time, it appears clear that Michael Clarke is being groomed for the opportunity, and will be all set to take over when his time comes.

There has been a lot of talk, rumors if you will, about how India is ready to take battle into the boundaries of Pakistan. How, if necessary, we are ready to wage war also.

As long as it is rhetoric, it is fine. But could it actually move from talk to action? Should Pakistan call India’s bluff, do we have it in us, to press the W button? I have my serious doubts.

I have no doubts on the capabilities of our armed forces. Irrespective of corruption charges in the Defense purchases, I still believe that we have enough fire power, guts and numbers, to take on Pakistan in battle, if we had to.

But for any war, there is one most crucial element, and which is the Commander in Chief. You need a strong person at the top, to commandeer and army into war. Someone who is aggressive and smart, someone who can motivate, someone who does not worry about petty politics and votebanks, but has a clear eye on the best interests of the country. Someone who, if required, can go and stand with the jawans, in the trenches, and without his Z+ security tagging along!

Do we have anyone of that stature at this time? Do we even have a Commander-in-Chief?

I can trust Dr. Manmohan Singh, our PM, to go and battle in the boardrooms of the World Bank, or position India at Davos, or pitch for investments to heads of states of G8 countries. But can he command our forces in a war?? I don’t think so, really.

Defense Minister A K Anthony who has been meeting the Defense heads? External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who has been making the loudest official noise regarding war? Nah..! These guys are politicians to the core. Also they are not politicians with charisma that can make the country follow them. I cannot imagine either of them coming on TV or at the Red Fort, and goading the country and countrymen, with anything like a “jai jawaan, jai kisaan”, or a “ask what you can do for the country…”, or a “har har mahadev”.. ! Nah.. these chappies can negotiate with Sharad Pawar or Mamata Banerjee or Jyoti Basu, for poll alliances and the like, but commanding the forces in war.. no, I will not put my money on these characters.

The official designated commander-in-chief, the President of India, Mrs. Pratibha Patil? As someone who could lead us in war?? Ho..ho.. ho.. ho.. Laughable to even think about it, right? On the other hand, a scary thought, that if we are pushed into war today, she would actually be the commander in chief! Oh My God.. ! We have a LOT to be worried about. Until this is resolved, I pray that there is no war..

One of the commanders of the defense forces? The Army or Navy or the Air Force? I am not sure how well the Chief of Integrated Defense Staff has been working in India now. But the potential of this Chief, being the commander-in-chief at wartime, appears to be the best option for India. The hiccup to this being the fact that in India, politics has always been supreme over the Defense forces, and it is unlikely to change in a hurry. So getting the Chief of Defense Staff to take over the overall reins of decision making and leading the country in war, looks like a remote possibility.

We had stronger leaders during war time in the past. Indira Gandhi, whatever be her other problems, was a strong woman, and one who could lead from the front. One who could fire the public imagination, and motivate the armed forces, with a strong speech from the Red Fort. The country was behind her in the 1971 Bangladesh Freedom war.

War was thrust on India, during the Kargil confrontation. It was still a conflict that was restricted to the location there, and did not become an open war, with no holds barred. Still war it was. Again, the Defense Minster then, George Fernandes, with all his other faults, was a courageous man. A union leader, he could again fire up the people, did not hesitate to go to the trenches when required, and was a suitable commander of sorts, at that time.

But at this time, we lack a serious commander in chief! No, this is not the right time to go to war – if only for this one reason!!

A summary of few recent management learnings, unfortunately out of experience!

  1. An IIT tag does not assure a good manager or a good technologist or a good leader. Sad but true.
  2. An IIM tag does not assure a good manager or a good leader or a good business head. Sadder but true again.
  3. A good project manager does not necessarily graduate to becoming a good business head. Its truly shocking how clueless about business realities, cost heads, urgency on revenues, urgency on cash flow management, even a good project manager can be!
  4. A good sales and marketing person does not necessarily become a good business head. Here too, there may be an understanding of how to go and get new business. But managing P&L, managing a larger team, managing timelines.. all of these can be alien concepts to the person. Unbelievable, right? But it happens! Ask me!
  5. Boom times have generated some slick talkers, who are otherwise shallow in capabilities, to have added a lot of corporate tags on their CVs. Can you believe that one such person who had worked in some heavyweight corporations in India and outside India, and headed business development efforts in these organizations, could not put together a page of formal correspondence, lacked email etiquette, did not know how to create a decent spreadsheet?!
  6. Can someone with 20+ years of experience, including a few years in the Internet business, someone with management education background, not know how to use Excel? How in the world are you expected to evaluate this? Would you subject senior management candidates to such fundamental testing?? Okay, by the way, the Excel part was the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in the larger problem statement!
  7. That niceties are not guaranteed in this world, so don’t expect them. Someone with 5+ years of association, being treated as extended family, part of the innermost circle, can also walk out with 3 days notice and not feel an inch of guilt in doing so! That is the state of affairs of the day.

So there are the problems. Do I have any solutions? Any real answers? I guess, no easy ones.

Apart from the fact that I now appreciate the words of a couple of VCs. One of them had said that between the time that they meet an entrepreneur to the point when they actually make the investment, could be as long as a year’s time. And the other one had said that they would meet an entrepreneur, in formal and informal settings at least 15-20 times, before they take a call on investment.

I am seeing that hiring senior management is almost as critical for a company, as an investment is for a VC. Much as we are pressed with our growth ambitions and schedules, and which tempt us to go for a candidate over a few interactions, that is really not a good thing to do. The potential gain that we could get in getting a senior manager into the company sooner, is far offset by the risk of hiring a wrong person. The damage that a decision of that kind can do, takes up so much time and money for the company, to recover, not to speak of the opportunity cost that is lost! A senior hiring MUST go through long and extended interactions, whether the candidate likes it or not. That is the only way. Formally and informally, figure out if the person is really the one you want to take up a critical responsibility in your organization.