Monday, April 24, 2017
Most of us have read the 3 envelope parable on corporate challenges and careers; for those who have not, an abridged version. A newbie leader is given 3 envelopes by the outgoing incumbent to be opened only in cases of dire trouble. He opens the first one when challenged in a management meeting and confronts the wisdom: Blame predecessor ! A year passes when again he is in trouble; the second envelope ? Restructure, create new strategy. Survive ! Final envelope’s turn comes after a gap which reads: Create three envelopes !
Corporate world is full of pseudo professionals who survive and at times thrive with their mastery of jargon, leaning on others, taking away credit from own team, agreeing to their immediate managers, sucking up to those who matter and finally using vendors to give them dope that makes them look good. The malaise is a lot more in the technology world that invents acronyms, jargon, and new fads with regularity confusing even technophiles; tech vendors are happy to provide spinal support in return for business.
The masqueraders can be seen at most conferences and seminars nodding intelligently at speakers and asking questions; they flock together and stay away from the intellectuals. They are not to be confused with the incompetent who shy away from any public appearance who only focus on internal politics and their survival depends on the first or second envelopes at different times with different folks within the company; their survival is also reliant on finding a godfather or some capable team members.
Pareto’s principle applies here too but inversely; the majority are able to get away with their pretenses and a small segment gets caught often shunted out by bell curve distribution. At senior levels the collateral damage is high to the enterprise, setback in business or industry at times difficult to overcome; weeding out such ineffectives takes time and effort which most companies are reluctant to invest. It also reflects badly on their ability to hire talented good people or separate cheese from chalk !
Take the case of this large enterprise which hired – let’s call her Suzy – to a senior position; she had come through the interviews well with help from an insider who coached her on what to say. Nothing wrong with that, everyone seeks whatever help they can to ace an interview for a position that they want badly enough. Such was the situation for Suzy too as she had been force exited from her past company post restructuring, a fact that remains undisclosed. She chatted her way through to securing the position.
Her inherited team compared her behavior, expertise, skills, knowledge, connects in the industry, understanding of the industry, personal traits, leadership qualities, desire to connect with them, essentially sizing her up as a leader who will influence their future. The comparison by the team with the earlier person was obvious and natural, the results however not in her favor; she recognized the fact and created an impregnable veil shutting off any discussion. The team knew the disadvantageous position thus prevailing.
The team toiled harder only to be cut off from credits scored by their work, giving them no visibility nor allowing any of them to interact with decision makers lest they expose the insecurities of their leader. Any attempts to bypass the straightjacketed process were met with reprimands and promise of future retributions. The iron lady brushed aside her rusty demeanor allowing those who made up her coterie to gain favors at the expense of the others with resultant attrition in the inherited team as collateral damage.
It was a matter of time that Suzy will reach the third envelope stage, except that she had been able to demonstrate progress for now with the first (envelope) being pulled out like a trump card whenever something was not as expected. It was a matter of time that management took cognizance of the fact that the past was distant and she had had enough time to change it. It was a matter of time that the Board recognized there has been no significant initiatives from her stable despite the rising costs and industry moving at a faster clip.
Different enterprises wake up to eventualities at different stages of their progression; when growth and profitability is above target, no one really cares for the deadwood, they are too busy celebrating. Search for termites starts when everything is not hunky dory or when a new leader takes over reins and has no history, baggage or axe to grind. Eventually the overdue surgery takes place cleansing the system to restart; then there are companies who are reluctant to take tough decisions, they embrace mediocrity for long.
Monday, April 17, 2017
Midlife crisis hits in many ways; the feelings it brings include and not limited to – confidence crisis, loss of direction or drifting, introspection and wallowing in self-pity on opportunities not captured and mistakes made, jealousy of more successful peers and younger generation, withdrawal into a shell, overtly aggressive behavior, and a feeling of loneliness to name some. At times like this there is a tendency to reach out to friends and family to seek their opinion which normally results in more confusion and inaction.
He had faced a similar situation almost a decade back, a little early to be called midlife crisis but that is how he described it. A life event triggered him to leave a well settled corporate life and move to another location closer to the family elders who needed the support. Not financially wanting, he took his time to evaluate options and took a leadership role in a small company which was beginning to gain traction with customers thus shedding the label of a startup and moving to being a growth phase company.
He (let’s call him X) fitted in well into the ecosystem and took up the challenge with vigor of a younger man; the team he built loved him for the fact that he had grown from the trenches and was ready to walk with them whenever they wanted his support. He balanced professionalism with human touch, customer friendliness and the ability to support the team when they needed. They revered him for the guidance and insights that helped them grow too in their individual roles as the company gained momentum.
Growth brought management changes, fresh investors, geographical expansion, global aspirations, and associated trials and tribulations. The new leadership team had different goals, objectives, and aspirations for the company and people; they brought in excitement of potential glory the company should aim for, stretch required by the team, a new culture that divided the teams into those who loved the new vision and those skeptical of the direction. Neither had a choice but to follow the new and hope it succeeds.
In the restructuring of the company few decided to find alternative pastures aligned to their shade of green; those who stayed back did so in the anticipation of a better future. Promises were made across the board, go-to-market strategies changed, product vision altered, and customers informed of a better future with the glory the company planned to achieve. X empathized with the founding team with whom he had grown the company, but found the new roadmap clearer and better than the existence of the past.
The new energy kept the team going for a while; quarters passed by, visions of peaks of achievement started fading and murmurs of discomfort could be heard in hushed voices. Timelines for promises made were extended as they attempted to build some euphoria with news of potentially fresh investments and high value customers. Closer to the top, X though uncomfortable did not feel the need to ring alarm bells and kept going. He kept the business afloat with a steady trickle which was earlier frowned upon as irrelevant.
Quarters transitioned into years with natural attrition shrinking the company a little more than natural; the morale of the team reached new ebbs as the powers that be kept the charade going – happy days will be here again soon ! X was in a quandary on own stretched patience and the lack of outcomes and not much to pacify the team. The growth never came, the money remained elusive, and soon it was evident that the golden era was a grand illusion, the new leadership team had failed the company and its believers.
Frustrated and a decade older, X ruminated over the lost years which he had invested; while he had enjoyed the early years contributing, he was unable to breakthrough the maze created as a result of leadership changes. He sought advice on next steps and career moves from a few he trusted and respected; one such conversation was candid and hard hitting, necessary to break the impasse waiting for good times to come. At the end of the mentoring session, X was free of negativity and clear about the future.
Milestones have shifted every time, outcomes have been mysteriously missing; the new leadership team has no credibility to promise or deliver. Cut your losses, stay focused on what matters to you and move on. The world has a lot to offer to high professionals who know what they can achieve; break out and find a new world which you deserve. Cut the emotional bond and take a rationale decision, go and create a better future for yourself and family. The Mentor had seen X struggle in the last few years and wished him well.
The future belongs to those who dare.
Monday, April 10, 2017
The company had faced challenges due to change in leadership positions often due to bad hires across positions; decisions were made based on bravado and far-fetched stories that even the naïve would find hard to believe. The pseudo leaders in turn hired a coterie that would make them look good in meetings and talk about the glorious past that remained unverified. The rot at the top soon started bringing results commensurate to the collective intelligence applied to the problems and opportunities at hand.
In a growing market loss of market share and dive in profitability for a steady business could not remain unexplained for too long; the growth agenda and strategy that was outlined with help of big management consultants was quickly challenged by equity analysts while the shareholders listened to the stories with unease. Nepotism running rife through the ranks led to collapse of meritocracy – some becoming victims of their high professionalism and others weeded out as they individually threatened the collective brainpower.
The stock price which had tasted peaks with the induction of the new team started a slow and steady slide shaking up the promoters and the Board, to sit up, take notice and do something about it. Failure of cronyism resulted in tumbling one after another like ninepins but not before they had shaken the foundations of a company that had withstood market uncertainty and thrived in the long history of the industry. Few of the inept skillfully hid themselves from scrutiny and survived the expungement of undesirables.
One such survivor was the CIO who successfully portrayed herself as a critical resource and managed to save her band of followers too. She misrepresented past ties distancing herself from those out of favor; those under her patronage followed the leader saving their skin as the rest of the team watched in amazement. They rode on hard work of few good people, quick to claim credit while ensuring that no voice was raised or heard against their tribe as they strengthened their feeble position step by step.
Taking control of the situation the Patriarch emerged out of retirement and hired fresh management team to take over the shambles, revive and restore the rightful place in the market. Staying out of sight during the initial reviews and analysis, she slowly emerged from the shadows to stay out of the limelight lest her highest level of competency fall short of the rising baseline. The enterprise trundled along recovering some lost territory but struggling in the absence of accurate and timely information from the transactional and reporting systems.
Under the spotlight she promised to create business intelligence strategy to help the company in taking better and effective decisions. The task being beyond her intellectual capacity, she felt prudent to hire a big name consulting company to formulate a plan that would save her skin and earn some brownie points. Budget for the exercise was sanctioned and the consultant brought on board; as they got started an unaligned team mate who was the mainstay of existing business and financial reporting quit.
A specialist was brought in by the consulting company who understood the industry as well as the technology adoption curve for similar enterprises. Within no time he had captured the current state of transactional, financial, sales, and other functional reporting, which was quite basic. He evaluated the tools and technologies, inventory of licenses available, and called a meeting with the CIO and her team to discuss the future roadmap, vision and direction, and get an insider view of the challenges and opportunities.
She started off well, but…: I want to outsource the entire analytics and operations while my team can focus on what matters to the business. My team lead has quit recently and due to that there is a void that needs to be filled. You know we implemented this new ERP system last year and then we also invested in this big name BI tool, the implementation of which is still going on, and my BI lead has quit. I want a strategy for which report should be served from the ERP system and which one should come from the BI system.
The consultant did not know whether to repeat the question or accept the answer at face value; as he mulled over the response, the silence was broken by the CIO again: Why are you confused ? We developed over 200 reports in the ERP system, but hardly any are in use; most users want a data dump and then use it in spreadsheets. The management is upset as the inability of the investments to deliver; which is why I need your help to understand which reports we should retain and which we can move to the new system !
The next day the consulting company withdrew from the engagement !
Monday, April 03, 2017
The fine balance between managing growth and profitability and differences between enterprise and startups
Established enterprises are mostly like sloths who move at their own pace when reacting to any kind of market or environmental changes (there are exceptions to every rule and there are some to this one too). Many get there eventually due to the resilience in the business and the sheer size that keeps the momentum going in their favor. Some suffer short-term impact and brush it aside as a learning; in rare cases if the company loses direction or has a significant impact, they become prey to the opportunist predator or break into pieces.
We grew 15% last year, the market grew 12%, so we are doing good; this year the forecast for the industry is 13%, let’s target 16% growth. Our profitability is good and in line with industry numbers, we benchmark favorably. Enterprises are predominantly organized in silos, each chasing respective targets on profitability and growth which are derived from past performance. Rarely a division or Business Unit thinks of breakthrough performance; the entrepreneurial spirit is rarely seen amongst enterprise managers.
Checks and Balances matter a lot to the Board, Management and Leadership of enterprises; they live and swear by ratios and manage balance sheets. Targets are set, budgets managed, numbers scrutinized, long weekly and monthly reviews held to make sure that everything is working as expected, no surprises. Staid growth married to acceptable profitability ensures that numbers match quarter on quarter. Aberrations if any require painful explanations and root cause analysis only to be repeated ever so often.
Despite the world having seen many black swan events in the last decade or so, enterprises continue to live in their world consciously immune to potential threats. So when disruption occurs from unknown sources not factored into annual operating plans and strategic business plans Management teams scurry into offsite meetings to evaluate, synthesize the information, and arrive at counterstrategies. Alternately a big name consultant is hired to review the impact of disruptive forces and advise the management on recourse.
On the other hand startups enjoy the advantage of no historical data and thus they dream audacious and hairy goals; they want to change the world with their version of solution, product or business model; create new markets, beat big incumbents, or at least launch a flange attack to gnaw at market share. Most of them are driven by young entrepreneurs wanting to emulate peer success; their prime focus remains growth, at times driven by easy money at their disposal or their extreme risk appetite and nothing to lose attitude.
Technology driven startups have low entry barriers that allows for me-too ventures with irrational euphoria. Flash in the pan success emboldens the space until it gets crowded with spectacular failures, at times taking an entire ecosystem or micro-segment of the industry with them. Despite large amounts of fold ups, they continue to mushroom with reduced cycles to merger or demise. Some of these have been in hyperlocal services, aggregation of services, hyperlocal logistics, home ordering, and many more.
The moot question is why are enterprises unable to launch such blitzkrieg and capture the mind and imagination of their customers ? Why are they so obsessed with numbers and ratios ? Exceptions aside, majority of startups are long way off from making money while they continue to invest in market expansion; exceptions aside, majority of enterprises have not been able to replicate the success of the technology driven pure play companies; they continue to be at different ends of the spectrum in their results.
Experiments with Design Thinking and Inside Out innovation models have not been able to live up to expectations in the enterprise. Lateral shifts, hiring fancy titled self-proclaimed experts like Chief Digital Officers and the like have boomeranged. Politics and power struggles have seen the demise of many good initiatives with CXOs squabbling about credit and pushing the blame. The exceptions have grown with focused attention and faith in their business models as well as the teams who shepherded the successes.
Reality is that conventional wisdom and progress over the years brings in a certain way of working to enterprises that defines them; they find it difficult to give up their winning formula and move on to a new paradigm. Reality is also that startups with no baggage find it easy to let go and learn from their failures; at times they are also naïve in their thinking and repeat mistakes. A crossover between the startup and the enterprise culture would probably be a recipe for success or disaster of major proportions.
Which one will it be ?