In order to build organisations which can be the models for an entire generation of businesses, one needs to discover the diamond in the rough
Last week, I suddenly got a call from one of my good friend who I had known for a long time, though LinkedIn was mainly how we kept in touch these days. He was calling to get my advice on a new opportunity he was considering and was excited about. I knew that he was doing some wonderful work in his current role and that he was a sought-after speaker at international forums that wanted him to share his experience. So I was surprised when I heard that he was looking at a change. Even more surprising was the option he was looking at a large and successful Indian firm, but one that had a somewhat questionable reputation for its HR culture. My first reaction was “No, you are not going there. Period!” But he was not in a mood to give up that fast, or perhaps he had anticipated my reaction. He persisted. He said the company was wooing him because they wanted to transform their culture. The call to him had come from the CEO, the big man himself, with a clearly stated mandate “come in and tell us what it would take to be a truly global company, and help us make it happen”. I understood why he was enamored - how often does one get a chance to lead change management at a Fortune 500 company in India?! He managed to move me from an outright “No” to a“let me do some research” tone at the end of the call. And why not? What if this was indeed the sign of Corporate India truly taking up the mantle of becoming ‘Global’? Perhaps the CEO, the visionary that he is, knows that the years ahead represent the golden opportunity for India and his company to succeed on the global stage; and he’s perhaps realized that he needs to transform his organisation and culture to be able to get there?
It is virtually a given today, that India is one of the hotspots for growth in the coming century. The events unfolding this week are, quite rightly,being interpreted by pundits to imply that the tipping point in the global economy has been reached. It is as if the World was waiting for that one decisive event that would signify the shift of gravity to the East, and the S&P downgrade of the US provided just that! India and China are undoubtedly the brightest spots in the horizon,with growth averaging 8 % plus and a huge middle class that has just embarked on a buying spree. Even more than China, India’s young demographics and low base puts it firmly on the top as the land of opportunity - what the US/Japan were in the last century. It means that capital from across the globe will find its way here. We are already seeing this with the increasing flow of FDI, and the burgeoning valuations in the start-up world. Cheap capitalis beginning to attract more entrepreneurs and more new businesses in all sectors of the economy. A very different place from where we have historically been, and no doubt a good place to be in!
However, the challenge starts here. Getting off the starting gate does not automatically mean that these entrepreneurs have won the race. From past experience, we know that many of them will disappear or get acquired by other firms, especially the ones coming from outside wanting to get a foothold in India. Organisations that know not just how to leverage market opportunity,but also build significant scale, will require consistent, predictable execution day in and day out. Flawless execution will determine the difference between success and failure in high-growth markets. And this is not an easy task that can be managed by throwing money at it, or by just having a charismatic leader at the top. It will require a high-performance team. It will require leaders in every function who come not with just a traditional bio-data, but with the experience and track record that demonstrates that they know how to challenge the status quo. These are the quintessential ‘transformational leaders’ who thrive in high growth, chaotic environments that throw up completely new problems to solve, and solve fast, every day. They are passionate about putting their head down to the task at hand, and doing what it takes to do the job to perfection; problem solvers whose commitment and zeal spreads infectiously to the team. What drives them is not fame and fortune as much as the desire to venture into unchartered waters and swim successfully to the shore.They are the kind of people who get their kicks from challenging established mores, by swimming against the tide - the kind that Steve Jobs brought in when he came back to revive Apple.
One of the first things Steve Jobs did after he rejoined as Apple’s CEO was to hire Tim Cook. Who was Time Cook in the late ‘90’s? Did everyone know him then? Hardly. I’m tempted to quote from Dweight Silverman’s blog on Tim Cook -“I was the tech beat reporter for the Chronicle(Houston) during that period, and don’t recall ever meeting Cook or hearing his name. He was not high profile on the northwest Harris County campus while he was there. Bob Stearns, who was chief technical and strategy officer for Compaq at the time, described Cook as ‘not very senior or visible’. He was ‘the guy who got laptops out of development and successfully into the manufacturing environment’, Stearns said.Specifically, Cook’s job was Vice President of Corporate Materials, which means he was involved in manufacturing and supply chain management at Compaq. In the late 1990s, Compaq was locked in a fierce duel with Dell, which had pioneered selling computers directly to customers. Compaq was still largely reliant on resellers, and was struggling then to convert to a more direct business model. Cook would have been part of executing that effort.” Of course, Cook brought in more people like himself who lived by the same mantra of ‘execution’. So, while Jobs ideated and dreamt of changing customer experience, it was Tim Cook and his team who tightened the nuts and bolts. Thanks to people like Tim Cook, Apple today knows what it takes to put completely new products in the market, and supply them in mind-boggling numbers, consistently, without sacrificing their high standards of quality.
This seems to be a pattern with companies and leaders who achieve extraordinary results; they were invisible and undiscovered for the longest time. They are too busy executing and pushing the company in completely new directions. They are impervious to the outside world; the mainstream media and recruiters are equally impervious to them. But if we are serious about building the next Apple, the next GE, or the next anything from India, we need hordes of such leaders. Finding these people wherever they are, and empowering them,should top the agenda for investors and CEOs, for that will determine whether they succeed big time or remain also-rans. Today’s India is very different from the past, and more-of-the-same will fail in this new paradigm. At stake is the opportunity to build organizations that could be role models for an entire generation of businesses. We can fritter it away, or we can seize the moment. The ability to execute will be the key determinant of which way we go. The right people, who understand and know what it takes, are there, but they are not going to knock at your doors. You need to discover the diamond in the rough.