Extract from ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’
Finally a word about people skills; the ability to build and run high performance teams. This is what spells the difference between commercial success and failure. No matter how skilled and talented an entrepreneur may be, no matter whether he has the funding or not, in the end what decides his fate and that of his organization is his ability to take people along with him. Who is inspired by you? Who wants to work for you? Who is ready to take a bullet for you? The members of the US Secret Service, the elite force that guards the President of the United States are trained to put themselves in the line of fire to save the life of the President, if need be.
In 1993 a movie called ‘Dave’ starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver was released. The storyline of the movie was about the affable owner of an employment agency who had an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. President. He found himself forced to replace the real President in an attempt by the White House staff to avoid a potentially explosive scandal. In the movie there was one scene where Dave, the President’s ‘double’ has the following conversation with Duane the secret service agent.
Dave: You know, I’ve always wondered about you guys. You know, about how you’re trained to take a bullet for the president?
Duane: What about it?
Dave: Is that really true? I mean, would you really let yourself get killed to save his life?
Dave: So now that means you’d get killed for me too?
Duane did not answer this question immediately, but it was so obvious that he felt its heaviness. Later on towards the end of the movie when Duane discovers the real character of Dave he finally answers the question: “I would have taken a bullet for you.”
It is this ability to inspire followership that is critical.
I am very fortunate that there have been people in my life for whom I would have taken the bullet and those who I know would have done the same for me. That to me is the essence of leadership that an entrepreneur must be able to provide. Ask yourself, ‘Who will take a bullet for me?
One of the finest teams I ever built was the one I had when I was the Manager of New Ambadi Estates in Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India. I have written in detail about that in my book, ‘Hills of the Elephants’, but would like to share an extract here about that team.
Reflecting on what went into building that team I can identify 6 factors:
1. Mutual Respect
We treated each other with respect. That may sound like a small or an obvious thing, but respect is not merely seen in how you address each other, but in whether you trust one another to do what is promised and if you deliver on that promise when it is your turn. We never laughed at one another, we did not talk behind each other’s backs and we delivered on promises. A respectful atmosphere makes for comfort and people like to work together with those who respect them. This does not mean we did not have fun. We did. Lots of it. It just means that we took our work seriously. It means that we did not need to watch our backs because we knew that one of the others was doing that for us. So we were free to concentrate on our own task.
2. Build a common history
I love trekking and so did my assistants in Ambadi. So we used to go on treks together. On two occasions we did the big one; Arun, Roshan and I, climbed up from the plains of Kanyakumari to the top of the ridge of the Western Ghats to Manjolai Estate (4000 feet), much to the surprise of our friends who lived there. One day we walked into the Club and discovered that (Ricky) M. C. Muthanna who was the General Manager and a personal friend was visiting. They were all at a lunch party in their club and were amazed when we walked in. When Ricky heard that we had climbed the Ghat all the way from the plains he was very impressed and happy, as he was a very outdoors person himself and everyone there got a lecture on the importance of doing such things. We got a lovely lunch in the bargain.
There are many benefits of these shared experiences which are different from merely having a party. On a trek, you get to see the behavior of each other; who leads, how they lead, do they help, do they simply forge ahead and leave the others behind in order to show their own fitness or strength, do they show concern for others, do they volunteer for responsibility or try to dodge it, do they build and live up to trust, how it feels to be cared for by others and how it feels to take care of others and so on. There is nothing like travel together to test the mettle of a companion and to build bonds. Climbing also underlines the whole message of great effort and the resultant gains, better than anything else that I know. This climb in particular did that with great power.
Kanyakumari is a hot place. So even if you start out very early, which we did, it soon gets very hot and sultry. During the initial stages you are in some shade as you climb through the forested foothills, but very soon you come out onto the mountainside and then it is bare all the way to the top. As you walk there are nettles and grass with sharp leaf edges and thorny bushes that you have to cut through or find a way around. The going is slow and it is up at a sharp angle all the way.
So you are constantly climbing and the sun is looking down on your insane activity with great glee. The result is that very soon you are bathed in sweat and your leg muscles start to ache. But you keep climbing as you have a deadline to meet. You don’t take breaks because the more breaks you take, the tougher it becomes. You don’t drink water because it gives you a stomach ache. You keep climbing. All talk stops after a while. It just takes too much energy and nothing is that important or urgent that it must be said. You keep climbing.
Then a small breeze blows. The sweat becomes a blessing as it cools you down. The feel of the breeze on your face and the back of your neck is heavenly. As you continue to climb, your arms and legs are scratched (like all good planters we wore shorts) and the sweat dripping in the small cuts and abrasions, stings. Your legs ache. Your back more than your legs. You are seriously questioning your sanity in undertaking the task and then you reach the halfway point. There you stop for a breather, drink some water and look back at the climb that you have done – and what do you see?
The mountain rising out of the forest, far below you with the green blanket of vegetation around its shoulders. The patchwork quilt of rice paddies in multiple shades of green spread at the feet of the mountain like a carpet that it’s standing on. Patches of blue water; tanks and lakes that dot the landscape of Kanyakumari. And in the distance, the Indian Ocean. You look up and the mountain still towers over you but it no longer looks so intimidating. You breathe in the cool breeze. The sun is much kinder at this elevation and so it is much cooler than it was when you began. You take a deep breath and start climbing once again with new energy.
3. Celebrate Success
Very often it is the failures which get the most attention. Nothing wrong with that. One needs to learn from failure. But one needs to and can learn from success as well. We celebrated successes not simply by partying but by also asking some clear questions: What did we do right? How did we take those decisions; were they active choices or lucky accidents? What could we have done differently? What is the best thing about this win? How can we leverage that? We gathered data and insisted that all our conclusions must be backed by clear data. We ensured that we were not simply telling stories to please ourselves and that what we thought of as the reasons we succeeded were actually measurable facts. While we partied we also talked about these things. One part of celebration was also that I ensured that whoever on my team had done something critical to success got the limelight. This built credibility and inspired further effort.
4. Be completely candid
This is a very critical principle of team building; as much openness, transparency and candid communication as possible. Say it like it is. No beating about the bush. No mincing words. No false pretences at politeness. If something is great, say it. If someone is fooling around, say it equally frankly and clearly, not behind his back but to his face.
I used the same policy of candid communication with the unions in Ambadi, which initially they found disconcerting but later accepted and appreciated. One of them said to me, “We don’t always agree with you but we always know where we stand.” I have had many people say this to me in different situations and I feel good about that. Teams also like leaders who they don’t have to second guess. So tell it like it is. The key thing of course is to be willing to listen to others telling it like it is to you. Now that is more easily said than done, but if you don’t shut up and listen and instead start justifying your stance or actions and becoming defensive then you will destroy your own credibility and damage all the good work you did building transparency.
5. Allow, even encourage genuine mistakes
I managed to convince my team of the ‘importance of making mistakes’. I remember the looks of puzzled surprise at this term when I first mentioned it. Their experience until then was that mistakes were things you tried to avoid. If ever you did make one you tried to hide it or to blame it on someone else. And eventually if all else failed you resigned yourself to bearing whatever punishment that mistake attracted. But here was Mr. Baig, saying that it was actually important to make mistakes. Obviously this was a trap. So do what all sensible people do: silently wait and watch. For my part, once I had announced the importance of making mistakes I watched for the first person who made a mistake. Naturally everyone being human, it happened sooner or later.
Then I called the person and told him to give me a written statement of what happened, why he believed it happened and what must be done to prevent that particular thing from ever happening again. This statement was then discussed in the next weekly staff meeting and others added their ideas to it. It was treated as a regular case study. Not as something bad that one of them had done. Then once the lessons were clear to all, the matter was closed. Nothing more to be done on the issue, except that I would silently monitor it and the individual for a while to ensure compliance with whatever had been agreed.
No punishment. Not even a verbal reprimand. Actually if the analysis was particularly well done and the solution was a good one, the maker of the mistake would be applauded. Sometimes I would pull his leg and ask him what he had done with all this intelligence at the time of making the mistake. Or I would say something like, “Thanks very much for teaching us this lesson.” The person would look a little sheepish but that was all. The lesson would have been learnt and not only by the one who did the action but by everyone. So the learning was actually very cheap as the same mistake need not be done multiple times for others to learn. The only caveat was that you could not repeat a mistake. If that happened then there would be a reprimand, because it meant that you had not learnt from the previous mistake. And that was not acceptable.
As time passed people started seeing for themselves that making a mistake was not necessarily bad, as long as it was a genuine mistake and not a deliberate misdemeanor, and as long as you could demonstrate your learning and create a system where it would not be repeated, there was no pain associated with the learning. People then rapidly became risk takers. I encouraged other good practices like writing down a plan of action before you actually take action so that if something goes wrong you know exactly what happened and are not trying to recall what you had done or intended to do. Prior planning as well as documentation encourages deeper thought and reflection which can only be beneficial. To ensure that we did not get bogged down by too many planners, I made a rule that you had to put a deadline to everything.
So any time anyone submitted a plan we asked for a deadline. We also made the weekly meeting, the place to initiate all these actions. The idea being that before you went and launched off something you brought it before an assembly of peers who helped you to evaluate your plan. This also ensured more rigor in the whole exercise because people knew that if they submitted something that was half-baked it would be pulled apart in the meeting.
My role in all these meetings was mostly to listen and watch and sometimes to ask questions. Once people grew comfortable with speaking before others and asking and answering questions there was no holding them back. Sometimes I had difficulty getting my own point across; there would be so much participation. I was very happy to see all this enthusiasm. When your subordinates start to override your ideas and challenge your conclusions and give you measured responses, you can be sure that leadership is developing.
It is when you get too much agreement that you need to worry. Too much agreement and too little conflict are often signs that people are coasting along and there is a shortfall of commitment. One of the most reliable signs of commitment is conflict. Unfortunately many leaders fear conflict and go to great lengths to suppress it instead of encouraging it and channeling it so that really positive results can ensue. That is why it is important to understand that conflict resolution and conflict management are not the same thing. Conflicts, if managed properly resolve themselves and in the process yield very valuable learnings.
Another process that started happening was that individuals who intended to present something at the staff meeting would do a little pre-show to some of their colleagues who had some specialized knowledge. For example they would run some of the numbers by the accountant to make sure they had done their sums right. I encouraged all this informal communication and collaboration because it is a wonderful team building process. The whole essence of team building is to help people see how they need one another in order to succeed. And so when this started happening I knew we were on the right track.
Having said all of the above let me also say that the most difficult part for a high energy, action oriented person like me, was to sit in silence and see a mistake happen. All because you want to turn it into a learning situation. But there is no alternative to this patience. Naturally one does not need to self-destruct in the process and it is possible to contain the magnitude of the mistakes so that the learning takes place but not at a huge cost. However the crux of the matter is that you need to allow the subordinate to make the mistake and then guide the learning. This anxiety is compensated by the pleasure of seeing fewer and fewer mistakes happen over time as people get more and more proficient in their roles.
The practice of sharing learnings and Best Practices ensures that the learning gets maximum leverage. Also people are not ashamed or afraid of making mistakes as they know that there is no punishment provided they use their heads and can share their learning. Further because of this people generally exercise more care and the number of mistakes decreases.
The biggest benefit is the exposure and appreciation that people get when they share their learnings and best practices and have a platform to talk about their gains. They also get some ribbing and leg pulling which serves to make the point about being more careful in the future and the humor in it softens the pain of learning and builds relationships among team members. Finally this encourages them to share information and creates organizational learning as distinct from individual learning. In my view this one benefit, is worth more than anything else.
6. Continuously develop people
As mentioned earlier entrepreneurs are usually so engrossed in the here & now that they ignore the future until it is either too late or until it becomes a problem. For most, succession is a mystery which is ‘solved’ by doing nothing and letting biology take its course. Their children enter the business at the level of Directors without having had the benefit of learning the business from the ground up with predictable results. Many treat the business like a candy store whose responsibility is to keep them supplied with candy; their focus on consumption instead of contribution.
They look only at what they can get out of the business instead of what they need to do to grow the business. Predictably this results in the business being broken up to everyone’s detriment. All because the founder did nothing to develop his successors. What amazes me is how many times this story is repeated all over the world. We don’t seem to learn from experience at all, neither our own nor anyone else’s.
Today (2008/9) we are in a situation where it is entrepreneurship especially the establishment and flourishing of small and medium businesses which will signal our recovery from global financial collapse. It is all the more reason to think seriously about these matters.