Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When the penny drops: Learning what's not taught

Dear Readers,
This review appeared in the November, 2010 edition of the Journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountants Society. I have pasted the review below.
Best regards,

Title: When the Penny Drops: Learning what’s not taught
Author: R Gopalakrishnan
Publication: Penguin-Portfolio
Price: Rs 399 (Hard cover)

The ‘Foreword’, penned by Arun Maira, member Planning Commission is as riveting as the book itself. Arun Maira begins by saying: “A common joke about consultants is that they borrow a client’s watch to tell the client the time.”
He goes on to add: But, the main reason why consultants are hired is that we need insights into ourselves and this can be explained to us by good teachers and clever consultants.

This is exactly what R Gopalakrishnan’s book: When the penny drops: Learning what’s not taught, aims to do. It is often difficult for us to hear the penny drop (i.e.: to get an insight into ourselves). Yet, if we read this book with an open mind and are prepared to humbly listen - perhaps even to our own voices and the implied voices of others, and reflect upon the same, we have more than a fair chance of realizing our own bonsai traps (inherent behavioral weakness that show up in the way we conduct ourselves). Climbing out of our bonsai traps will help us be better managers, better leaders and even better human beings.

In every individual there is as much evidence of boosters such as ambition, self-confidence, hard work and sheer grit, as there are bonsai traps, such as arrogance, eccentricity, volatility and jealousy. Yes, we all have our dark side. For instance, a universal trap which most managers fall into is: I am better than my competent peers! Managing our negative impulses is vital for success. Unfortunately, this is not taught to us. It comes from experience, that of our own and the experience of others.

Self help books can be monotonous, but not if you are reading real life stories and imbibing from the experience of others. R Gopalakrishnan, who as we all know is currently the executive director at Tata Sons. This book is sprinkled with real life anecdotes, emanating from either the author’s own rich experience of over forty decades in the highest echelons of corporate life or borrowed from experiences of others. As the author states: “Reading about the learning experiences of others and listening to their stories accelerates learning.”

The author’s association with the Tata Management Training Centre which undertook collaborative research with the Center for Creative Leadership, North Carolina, helped him develop the book’s framework. It is arranged in four sections. The first section describes Ram’s career and explains the book’s framework through his career. I must say, this section really sets the tone of the book. The next three sections delve deep into the three worlds of the manager: the inner world; the world of relationships and the world of getting things done.

Let me, in this review; briefly touch upon the three worlds of the manager.
The inner world: The inner world comprises of the ‘physical self’, the ‘psychological self’ and the ‘ethical or spiritual self’. We get guidance on all three aspects. Treat your body as if it were your only car, don’t ignore the need for physical fitness or adequate sleep, cautions the author. As regards the ‘psychological self’, the author teaches us various lessons. The three common hazards in a career are: coping with unfairness; earning a living without enjoyment, not finding the time to let go.

At times dealing with unfairness may mean quitting an organization and finding another job. At this juncture, it is important not to burn your bridges. Two people can walk out of a job owing to unfairness, yet one may carry the burden along with him to his next job, whereas another one could walk out on cordial terms and find joy and satisfaction in his next job. Follow your passion is another important point that comes across in this book. And lastly, we do need to develop our inner child. Do you take your annual vacation? Well, if you don’t, it is high time you began to plan, right NOW!

Lastly, the ‘ethical or spiritual self’ has been analyzed. R. Gopalakrishnan explains the very purpose of a career: “It is to utilize your potential fully.” This applies irrespective of whether you are a chairperson or an assistant. This alone can lead to self-esteem and job satisfaction.
It is important to do the right thing, to walk the talk and perhaps most important of all, to lead as we ourselves would like to be led.

The world of relationships: Communication is the key to survival itself. This book deals with ‘Connecting’ – saying what me mean and ‘Misconnecting’ - saying what we don’t mean. In this scenario, the other person gets a message that we haven’t meant to send out. While we may have a fair idea of the concept of connecting, especially when it comes to pointing a problem, where it is better to offer a solution as well, rather than harp on the problem alone; it is the entire concept of ‘misconnecting’ that caught my attention. The author refers to the ‘Seven deadly habits’ drawn up by Prof Sydney Finkelstein of Tuck Business School, which include among others, portraying an attitude of “I know it all”, just relying on past experience thus shutting out of one’s mind the very idea of new solutions and new possibilities. As we progress in our career, we will have to deal with unknown problems which will not have any known solutions. Connecting rightly and not Misconnecting will play a crucial role.

The world of getting things done: The world comprises of thinkers and doers. Not many of us can be a perfect balance of both. In this era of slick power point presentations, it is common to mistake articulation for action. The author refers to the thinkers as ‘architects’ and the doers as ‘engineers’. While both capabilities are important, perhaps in the early stages of one’s career it is important to be able to execute well or in other words be a good engineer, at a later stage, the role of an architect – the visionary may become more important.

The book ends with real life illustrations from the life of no other than J.R.D. Tata – a true transformer. Transformers are leaders who do what is right; surround themselves with talent; have inspiring aims; patch up differences’ empathize with people and lead with affection.

The book is a good easy read, even as I revisited a few chapters, for better learning. While I was aware of a few of my own ‘bonsai traps’, I did have a few ‘Ah-ha’ moments while reading this book and I know I will spend this weekend reflecting and understanding how best to walk out of my bonsai traps.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

TATA: The evolution of a corporate brand

Dear Readers,

I am sure everyone in India has a personal TATA story to tell. For instance, once when I just wanted to get away on a solo trip to think, I opted for TATA plantations in Coorg, near Bangalore, Karnataka. The brand name TATA meant, that I would be safe, even if in a strange cottage all alone. Yet, surprisingly, outside India, people associate TATA with say Corus or Jaguar and not with TATA Tea. This book - TATA: The evolution of a corporate brand shows how TATA, as a group has evolved over a period of time. It has built on its foundation and also in the course of its way, added various other 'brand values'. I realised that Chartered Accountants could learn a lot from this book. Hence, after a very long gap, I reviewed this book for the Bombay Chartered Accountants' Society and it was published in their September journal.
If you need to learn how to build your own brand, do pick up this book.
The review is pasted below.
Best regards,

Book: TATA: The evolution of a corporate brand
Author: Morgen Witzel
Publisher: Penguin Portfolio
Price: 599

Readers may wonder why I am reviewing a book based on a specific group i.e. TATA for our Journal. True, most of us in India have a TATA story to relate, some at a personal level, others at a broader level. India rejoiced when TATA acquired Corus or Jaguar. Nano has and will continue make many a dream come true, even as competitors are now coming up with smaller cars.

This book review relates largely to what brand lessons we as individual chartered accountants or firms of chartered accountants can learn from the TATA story, which is succulently captured in the book: “TATA: The evolution of a corporate brand” by Morgen Witzel.

Many of us scoff at the word, ‘brand building’. We think we are professionals and should automatically be recognized for wearing the CA badge. However, in many spheres, we compete with ‘other professionals’ from a different field. Thus, ‘brand building’ is essential at a broader level.

Further, within the CA community as well, it is essential to stand out for one’s knowledge or unique set of offerings, or qualities or any other attribute which can be a USP, whether one is in practice or in the industry. A brand, is largely a sum total of perception. But perception takes time to build. More-so once a good perception (brand) is build, the public scrutiny intensifies. You really cannot rest on your laurels.

Just like the TATA group, the CA profession is decades old. One particular paragraph in this book struck me: In the 1990s, TATA was seen as fusty and out of date. Today, Indian stakeholders in particular see the company as a ‘fighter’ - aggressive and innovative and yet strong ethical and committed still to India and its people. As the author puts it, the perception today has changed to: “No longer my father’s TATA, but my TATA.”

In the 1990s, the task was not so much to create cultural change as to steer the TATA group back to its original culture and values. This was not easy but it was done. The TATA group could then create a brand based on its existing culture, rather than having to undertake the immeasurably harder task of creating a brand and then bringing the culture into alignment with it.

Indian customers see TATA as trustworthy, safe, reliable, a provider of value for money and at the same time innovative, modern and stylish. Innovation and keeping in tune with the changing needs of its stakeholders did not mean that TATA diluted its past heritage of safety, reliability and trustworthiness; rather it took strength from its past heritage.

Initially as the author began his study and research he found that three key values lay at the heart of the TATA corporate brand: trust, reliability (especially in terms of quality and value for money) and service to the community. These were the three things that a broad spectrum of stakeholders mentioned first and most often.
As the story progressed the list expanded to cover seven facets, viz: service to the community; trust and integrity; fairness and responsibility; innovation and entrepreneurship; global aspiration; quality and value for money (reliability) and lastly perception of goodness.

Similarly, we CAs need to draw on our rich heritage and at the same time, keep pace with the times. What would be the heritage that a CA can draw upon? While I can lay down quite a few attributes, yet integrity and reliability come uppermost to mind. Not only collective efforts, such as those by BCAS but also individual efforts, say: in training juniors or for that matter constantly checking our course of action while conducting our professional duties will ensure that this attribute for CAs remains strong in the minds of the stakeholders.

At the same time there is a need to change, to develop new skills – not just technical skills, such as by keeping pace with changing tax policies in key jurisdictions, but also soft skills such as better communication; innovating ways of doing things – even in mundane things such as filing , such as by introducing a proper checklist of documents that should be kept on record; of forming alliances whether formal or informal to ensure that the best possible comprehensive service is available to clients. The areas for introducing change, for upgrading (to use the term) are endless and we need to determine, after conducting a SWOT analysis, what exactly are our weakness and/or where we need to grow.

Being perceived as contemporary is also crucial in the broader sense. Today, especially after what has been perceived as tough final examination results, youngsters are increasingly giving a second thought while contemplating a CA course. The ICAI has tried to keep its syllabus contemporary. But the challenge lies in showing that the “CA profession is not my father’s profession, but can be my profession”. The answer to that lies in ensuring that CAs are not merely regarded as bean counters but that they play an important role in a client’s business strategies or the business strategies of their employer (if they are in industry).
Another concept which is alive at the TATA group and which greatly impressed me, is the ‘Dare to Try’ campaign which began in 2007 and which offers awards and recognition to employees who come up with innovative ideas, that for one reason or another, have not taken off – such as lightweight plastic car doors by a team at Tata Motors or flavored capsules for adding flavor to water or other beverages by Tata Tetley’s team. The entire objective is to be make innovation part of the eco-system. Rewards for suggestions to create a better eco-system in a CA firm or community need not be monetary. Sometimes, recognition counts or rather plays a greater role.
There are instances in this book which show that no one is immune from mistakes, but the important part is how we tackle these mistakes. When Indica was launched there were some technical glitches and parts were replaced for free. Once the glitches were tackled Indica V2 was thereafter launched which has become a popular car.

Brand building is not a dirty word. It is the sum total of what you stand for. “A corporate brand is not what you say it is. It is what you are” cites the author. In other words you have to walk the talk. The same applies to us CAs.

The table below contains some suggestions regarding the brand attributes for a CA, I am sure you can select from this list, add your own and strive to evolve, if required, to tackle the challenges of a changing environment.

Brand attributes for a CA
Traditional brand attributes
Financial prowess
Technical Knowledge

Emerging brand attributes
(Traditional attributes to act as the foundation, even as new attributes are built in)
Strategic thinker (Plays a role in client’s/organisation’s strategic decision making)
Contemporary technical knowledge (including basic understanding of the emerging regulations in key overseas jurisdictions)
Improved soft skills
Networking abilities

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Positive thinking

Life is a roller coaster ride, at times you may feel like shouting at the top of your lungs: WHY ME?
Will that help? Perhaps not. Nor will worrying about your situation. In fact, worrying will make things worse, it will add to your problems and not solve anything.
Logical thinking, exploring alternative solutions, if any, and positive thinking will alone help. In recent times, I have become a big believer of "Positive thinking". By this, I do not mean making wishes and leaving things to the Universe without lifting a finger to achieve your dreams. However, what I mean is looking at the silver lining behind each and every dark cloud.
During an especially bad patch, I came across this contest and entered and won. Here are the two winning entries and mine is on, you guessed it right: Positive Thinking.
It is called: Paint My Dreams.
Watch out for more such contests on Visual Arts Junction.
Source of the photograph