Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fittest don’t Survive


“GO ON BE A TIGER” proclaimed the tagline of Accenture - said to be the largest consulting firm in the world with more than 1,86,000 employees and branches in 52 countries, with 96 of the Fortune Global 100 companies as its clients. The advertising campaign was seen as a perfect fit between the celebrity (Woods) and the client (Accenture). Tiger Woods was known world over for his strength, mastery, discipline and relentless focus on winning – much similar to Accenture and its business performance. This was 2003. Last month the tagline took on a whole new meaning when the world came to know about Tiger Woods’ frolic with porn stars. On the night of 13th December 2009, Accenture become the first company to drop Tiger Woods from its multi million dollar endorsement deal. For a company that for years had built its whole advertising campaign around this one man – the move was a strong indicator of how Wood’s popularity had sunk.

Tiger Woods surely knows what it feels like to hit rock-bottom. From being a cynosure of all eyes, the perfect celebrity endorser has become a toxic taboo subject overnight. So has Woods outlived his utility for the brands which he endorses? Moreover, is it time to rethink the celebrity endorsement industry as a whole? Well, the correct answers to these questions are still not clear. What is clearly emerging however is the impermanence of it all. Someone whom the media (and the rest of the world) called the epitome of success was labeled a “loser” in a jiffy. Herein lies the secret of real success. As Winston Churchill once said “success in not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.” The world will be watching Woods and how he continues after his fall.

The road to success is long and difficult, but if you are determined to succeed and if every part of your being longs for that, then there is no one who can stop you from succeeding. If you have the courage to follow your heart and know what you truly want to become, everything else becomes secondary and every step you take will bring you closer to success. However, with success come great responsibilities and with success also comes undisputed failure. A truly successful company or individual is one who knows how to manage his success and failures equally well. There is no law of nature that states that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Almost everybody faces a fall. But then success is what Nelson Mandela said: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” It is true for individuals, for corporations and even for kingdoms and empires.

Look at some of the greatest companies. Apart from their ‘greatness’ as a common denominator, they also have one more thing in common – each one of them have taken at least one tremendous fall at some point in time, but found a way to recover. Be it IBM, Disney, Boeing or Xerox, each of them have stumbled but have refused to give up. Each crisis has only taught them some new lessons in leadership.

The reason for fall may be different for different companies. As Leo Tolstoy very rightly quoted in his book Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Merck, for example, faltered because it became obsessed with growth. It grew so fast that it was not able to find the right people to sustain this sudden spurt in growth. Much like the Roman empire, which once seemed invincible and indestructible under Julius Caesar. But according to some historians, it was the empire’s rapid growth that caused its eventual demise. Its colossal size made it near impossible to manage and protect.

IBM fell in 1980’s when its top leaders refused to accept that times were changing and new companies and products were slowly edging it out. Scott Paper thought it was the best in making paper towels and no one could touch it. Companies like P&G and Kimberly Clark came out with products that attacked Scott Paper and still the company refused to acknowledge that things were going wrong. The result: from being the most successful and commanding company in paper-based consumer products, the company went into total oblivion. It didn’t take its competitors seriously.

That’s something Kalanithi Maran, India’s undisputed leader of regional broadcasting never overlooked. “I don’t take competition lightly,” he said. When everyone (including Zee Network) rejected his proposal of starting a regional channel, the man believed in himself and went on to start SUN TV Networks. Today, his collections of 20 satellite channels and 46 FM radio stations have helped him dethrone Zee and become India’s most valuable listed media company with a market capitalisation of $3 billion. If Zee wants to hold on to the top place, it needs to be careful not to go the route IBM traveled in the 80’s. IBM needed a great leader like Louis Gerstner Jr. to pull the sinking company back into form and his book ‘Who says Elephants can’t Dance’ showed how when everyone suggested he break up the giant, the man slowly infused life back into it and showed the world that even elephants are manageable!

An old adage goes that it’s all about the survival of the fittest. But when you look at dinosaurs, the adage is proved wrong. Fittest means in ‘best physical shape’ which is what the dinos were in. But as in business, so in nature it’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but one that is most adaptable to change. Survival is a choice, an option. You decide to adapt, you survive. Madonna, adapted and changed and today she still tops the charts. Big B changed from the ‘angry young man’ to PAA and just look at the man today.

If corporates want to survive, they need to change too. They need to adapt with changing times and not make the same blunder that the dinos made. An interesting study by Aries De Geus reveals that average Fortune 500 corporations survive for less than 50 years, while special corporations like Nokia survived for centuries. The difference was in the attitude, in the way they looked at success. For these hardy survivors the sole purpose of an organisation was not just to make money, but make a difference to the world they were living in; not to look after Wall Street, but after their people; not to just help their employees make money, but to make a ‘life’. This was how they defined success and every time they failed these are the thoughts that brought them back from the brink and helped them survive not just for a few years, but centuries. These corporations were ‘living organisations’.

So as we ready for the New Year, let us make a choice. Let’s redefine what corporates are meant to do, let’s redefine leadership and in the process, let’s build ‘living organisations’ that would not perish with one fall but would rise again and again and again. After all, we do know that survival is a choice and it is not always the fittest that survive...

Thursday, December 3, 2009



Women don’t wear pants in Japan! Now before your imagination runs riot, let me tell you this is one of the guidelines prescribed to many female business travellers to Japan. As per Google, “Japanese business etiquette” is one of the most searched for Japan business related keywords. According to these guidelines, Japanese men do not relate easily to women with authority in business and that can cause problems while doing business. The Japanese culture encourages women to wear long skirt suits to work. Most Japanese companies prefer that their female employees not wear high-heeled shoes as Japanese men are not very tall, and towering over them might offend some.

While “Going Dutch” is a culture common to Netherlands and accepted in many other cultures, the Turks don’t believe in “Going Dutch” at all, and a suggestion to that effect may not be appreciated much.

The head is considered a sacred place and nobody in Singapore appreciates it if you fondly pat a child on his head. In India, it’s a way of showing affection – not there.

Each country comes with its unique cultural nuances, and as a business traveller, it’s of utmost importance that one remains sensitive to these seemingly small irrelevant details. They will help you strengthen your bonds with your foreign partner and help you do business better. Though it might not in any way affect your balance sheets but it helps to understand your counterpart better when you know that sitting cross-legged in Singapore may be considered offensive, or that Germans consider a weak handshake as a signal that you are insecure and not convinced of your abilities, or that in Israel (due to years of fighting) men prefer to sit with their legs slightly apart and upper body leaning forward (akin to a position where they are ready to get up at a moment’s notice), or that in Switzerland, before starting a conversation, it’s important to shake hands with everyone – including children. While Arabs consider it a show of trust and solidarity when they put their arms around you and hold your hand with both their hands, doing the same in Germany could be one of the biggest etiquette blunders one could make. Germans avoid physical contact and placing your hand on someone’s’ shoulder could make you appear too authoritative and not appreciated. Knowledge about the etiquettes of other cultures is becoming very vital as it could as well be a deciding factor in whether you succeed in that country or not.

Yes, gone are the days when simply understanding your own country’s business environment well was enough to succeed. Today, if you really want to make it big, you need to stretch out, go beyond the boundaries and learn to do business in strange, foreign cultures. Ratan Tata, during his 18-year tenure as Chairman of the Tata Group, ensured that his company expanded internationally – a strategy that India’s other business houses copied and are still trying. Today, the Tatas have annual revenue of about $70 billion – that’s great, but what’s of significance is that 65% of the group’s sales are derived from outside India. If you really want to grow big, you not only need to expand but also need to have a global mind-set too.

This company’s revenues are more than the GDP of at least 144 nations, and today, it’s the world’s second largest company – yes, you guessed it right, it’s the retailing giant Wal-Mart! It’s an organisation that’s been super successful in America. As someone once said, “If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit. If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.” There is hardly any American who has not shopped at least once in Wal-Mart. That’s the power and reach of this retailer.

Yet, when it comes to going global, this is one company that has committed some very costly mistakes, for it failed to understand he local culture.

In Mexico, Wal-Mart started its stores and set up huge parking lots. Little did it realise that what was considered as a “facility” had no meaning for Mexicans as most came to the outlets in buses. It entered China in 1997 and in spite of doing business in the country for more than 12 years, the company has still not made a profit – it definitely has failed to understand the Chinese market. It tried to bulldoze its American styles into the Chinese market; a move that failed as expected. Selling golf balls in a low-income country like Mexico was as wrong as selling meat, neatly packaged in Styrofoam and cellophane to Chinese customers. A country where consumers insist on live fishes in grocery stores and on killing them in front of their eyes, packaged meat was looked upon as stale food and did not sell – despite being correctly priced and being of good quality.

Wal-Mart tried to export its American consumer culture to the world. Even its ‘Everyday Low Prices’ strategy failed and did not pass muster against the cultural preferences of consumers. No wonder it beat a hasty and costly retreat from Indonesia, South Korea and Germany. It’s not always a good idea to retain your individuality and be rigid. It pays to be flexible and Wal-Mart learnt it after incurring billiondollar losses. Today, the Wal-Mart of China keeps live fishes and turtles in its stores; it stacks up on diapers in the ‘Year of the Monkey’, which is considered a lucky year to bear children. It’s slowly learning to woo the Chinese shoppers

Wal-Mart seems to have found its footing in India too. It’s realised the importance of understanding the people and their culture before trying to sell its goods. So the first thing it did was to look for a man who understood the Indian consumer to head its Indian operations. It understood first what the Indian people wanted, studied the local kirana shops, understood which paneer sells where, and also realized jhadoos where more important to Indian households than vacuum cleaners! With 50% of Wal-Mart’s assets outside USA, it was high time Wal-Mart woke up from its stupor and realised that every market is not like its American one. Under Mike Duke – the new CEO of Wal-Mart – things seem to be looking up.

You too should know how important it is to understand the different cultures. Don’t commit mistakes like Wal-Mart. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” Widen your horizons too. If you don’t want to fail, don’t do what Wal-Mart did in the various countries. You will learn all your lessons in culture through one exercise – keeping an eye on Wal-Mart goof ups. So keep watching Wal-Mart.

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