Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day 27/28: The Beginnings

As I write this, I can't stop measuring how far I have come with regard to my new year agenda. Last day of January, a month wheezed past already, means that I am already done with a third of my 100 day plan period, which is supposed to change my life. Besides, one-twelfth of the year, if I must be reminded, is already over.



Reflecting back, I have reasons to be happy. I have achieved a big leap - a freedom from my sense of guilt, the overwhelming sense of responsibility that I felt at my work to get things done. Two reasons: First, I realized that what I am now putting together is the only sensible way to run the business, given the commitment levels of the investors. Second, I also noticed that I am being manipulated for my self-imposed sense of responsibility, a state of affairs I should not tolerate for much longer.



Besides, I felt a sense of commitment to my customers, individuals those who invested money on my bidding. One could possibly argue that it was a commercial decision on their part, but all sales is also personal, and I think salesmen will do better to assume some responsibility of what they do and say. I do think I am responsible, at least partially, to see that my customers achieve their desired objective, or at least do my bit to facilitate that objective. This list is now reasonably short and manageable, and except one partner, I think I have given everyone enough ways to set their business models right. The one which is still struggling has ethical issues - he uses his smartness rather wrongly and believes that he can control everything with his connections with political mafia, an oft-repeated mistake in India. And, by taking that path, he is increasingly freeing me up from my sense of responsibility, which is a good thing.



Apart from structuring my work, I am also made some progresses in structuring my life. After many false starts, it seems that the corporate consulting business that I thought of starting is finally good to go. I am trying to put together many diverse elements into one business - sales and induction training for BFSI sector, leadership training, business communications training, and training content development - and business modelling will be of great significance in getting this business going properly. For me, this business is a marriage between the current opportunities brought in by various partners and my ideas of creating a world class corporate training company within the context of the current business I run.



Because the plan for this new business is so closely aligned to what I have done earlier, and because it is so closely influenced by my own thinking, I had to stand back and think through the issues that I faced in running the business operations in India, and the reasons why the achievements were far less than what I aspired for. I did go through the usual arguments that some of my colleagues throw at me - wrong people, high cost, contracts difficult to enforce etc - and concluded the obvious, that none of this is actually true.



Instead, here is my list of things where we went wrong:



First, insufficient planning. I have seen this many SMEs that they don't plan at all. They actually have a disregard for planning, and believe in here-and-now business decisions. I have had conversations where my request for making a longer term plan was met with incredulity, and I was advised to focus on the next deal. I would guess this works in some businesses and in some situations, but this is definitely counterproductive in a complex business like training and especially if one is venturing out in a distant territory.



Second, the lack of planning invariably meant lack of commitment. I have come to realize how important burning the ships are when you start a business. One can not start a business and keep thinking whether this is the right business to do. You do the thinking beforehand, not while you are in the business. While you are in business, the only acceptable attitude is that you will do the business come what may. In fact, that is the basis of any successful endeavour. Unfortunately, the lack of planning does not help create that commitment.



Third, I was told that the two above factors did not matter because I was given the independence to do things as I like, and as long as I planned and I was committed, it did not matter. But, it did - because a business of scale, as training business in India needs to be, needs more than individual commitment. It needs a corporate commitment, money, technology, everything else. None of this is easy if a lone man is given freedom - as much freedom to eat his breakfast if he is paying for it - to run a business without money. This is possibly another SME disease, a disproportionate emphasis on individual enterprise and dis-ingenuity at the cost of the planning and proper infrastructural commitment. I am sure it works some of the time, and I have great regards for those entrepreneurs who pull things off against all odds. However, I think it was wrong to assume that this works all the time in all the places, and especially in the context of a complex business which makes money only at a scale of operation, this was suicidal.



I have been through this analysis earlier, and I did it now. The significance of this exercise is not just to point out the usual handicaps of a foreign company doing business in India [and, therefore, I did not highlight the factors like the lack of market understanding and consistent stereotyping etc], but to seek out the common factors that even an Indian company, including the one I set up, may face. The essential lessons are obviously that of intelligent planning, giving the business the required scale of operation to be successful, and mixing the need of individual creativity and enterprise with the common tools of management, like structures, responsibilities and processes.



Besides, I think, there is an overwhelming need of professionalism in businesses like this. And, frankly, I know that professionalism starts from the top. You can't expect your employees to be professional and committed if you are not professional and committed yourself. That's one of the basic functions of leadership which so many people fail to perform. I have seen managers who take it as their privilege to not to come in time to office, while expecting all staff members to turn up. I have seen senior managers behaving badly, while expecting the employees to maintain courtesy while dealing with customers and suppliers. I would think any such behaviour is a violation of a psychological contract an employer has with the employees, and the impact of such inconsistencies are as bad as the situations where employers do not think paying salaries is their responsibility, but expect the employees to work wholeheartedly.



Besides, I have a problem with the usual definition of professionalism. I would guess there is an inherent expectation that man as a professional person should be different from man as a person, and there should be two sets of behavioural patterns, one applicable in private life and the other in professional life. It is almost as if I as a Director of a company is somewhat superior to I as myself, and overriding personal values, like responsibility, commitment and consistency etc, do not have any place in the world of business and work. I am not sure whether one can really live watertight lives as a professional person and as a person, and I would believe that it would get much easier to do good work if we start shifting away from such dichotomy. Why not make a simple pledge to become a better person overall, respect others all the time, be empathic, be firm on principles, be disciplined, in all spheres of life. I would not believe someone can be hardworking at work while being lazy in their own lives, respectful at home while being abusive in office, vice versa. I remember one of my mentors from NIIT days always started her interviews asking about the candidate's typical day, an attempt to judge their private person first: This is possibly the most sensible interviewing style I have seen. With all the experience I have gathered, I have now started believing deeply in Chester Bernard's observation: You pay an employee for certain types of work they perform, but it is the whole person who comes to work.



So, I have some work at hand. To build a business from ground up, which is not trivial. Besides, I can only do this properly when I have left the current assignment completely, which will happen only around the end of March. But I know that I can't make any mistakes this time - I must build a professional business based on enduring values. My first pledge is that I must get a clear sign-off on some basic principles from all the employees and partners that I am going to hire - an absolutely non-negotiable commitment to professional behaviour, clear commitment to follow the laws of the land, no bribing, things like these. I have already been told that these are utopian principles and business may not be successful if I follow such things. However, as I said, I do not see the difference between one's business life and life in general that clearly, and believe that the business I run must adequately reflect the principles I should govern my life with.

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