Monday, April 3, 2017

The Urge to cut Costs

imageRecently, during a dinner with some senior MNC friends, a discussion led to the question of comparing a cost effective model with a growth model. Normally, I do not write about these management questions. Most people do not have any interest in them, whatsoever, and I myself find them very boring. However, in this case, I thought it incumbent to record my learnings, as it may help someone in the future.
Right at the outset, let me declare that I find it amazing that some big management gurus tilt towards cost effectiveness, while in my opinion, cost cutting is only an occasional tool to boost efficiencies (for minimal periods) and can never create sustainability, as compared to a business growth model, which leads to longer term sustenance. 
The answer in sums is so simple. Fixed cost will be, say 10% of the total revenues of the company. A substantial saving in these will lead to an overall increase in bottom line by approximately 1% of revenue. A similar growth rate in the overall business revenue, will lead to a 10 % growth in the topline. This will lead to a very significant pass through to the bottom line. That is the essential difference. In one case you are expanding the whole pie, while in the other its just one small slice being improved, while the pie does not expand, infact sometimes contracts.
Nowadays it seems to be a habit though. Most MNCs seem to be restructuring all the time. This is really a code word to control costs and become more efficient. A continuous cost drive takes the edge off creativity and makes people risk averse. Employees are incessantly worried about their jobs, so very little space is left to actually worry about performance. There are other side issues. Uncertainty, while cost is saved, leads to tension and insecurity. This inevitably leads to politics and a lot of in-fighting. The employees forget the purpose of working for the betterment of the company. Very soon, even when the cost has been saved, the company has lost enough sales, so that we are back to square one. The same bottomline! So then this process is applied again and more costs are drawn out of the system, with the same circular reference effect on the sales. The company is actually chasing its tail and we have seen some large companies dwindle into nothing over time.
Gunning for growth is always a positive message. It means more sales, more people working, less per capita costs, greater buoyancy, more people progressing in their careers and general all round happiness. Of course it comes with more risks, as growth is not a given and many times one has to create this growth, sometimes with innovation and change, other times with out of the box thinking.
Fortunately, in almost all my career, I have been in growth situations and only a couple of times has one encountered a cost saving situation. I make no bones about it…once the job was done, my dislike for the organisation led me to leave it at the first available opportunity, as part of a general exodus of many good people. Infact, generally the best performing people find optimistic spaces and are much happier moving from these sort of adverse cost saving situations.
The need to cut costs will surface at times, especially when a business is in trouble, and to save the company and a larger part of the work force, some sacrifices have to be made. In this case cutting cost makes sense for survival sake. But not the way its practised today, for the sake of enhancing bottomline and rewarding shareholders at the cost of employees lives and families. That is a most inhuman form of management. At the same time one is not advocating rampant cost increases here. Its good to be cost conscious and not throw away efficiency. However, that is a mind-set and not the main purpose of the business, which is to sell profitably, make bottom-line, have an engaged work force and happy shareholders. A balanced path!

The picture is from the free picture site

Monday, March 27, 2017

Modern Day Pillars of Ambition

In the old days, power through authority was the biggest pillar of desire and ambition. Kings could change the world. The Pharaoh even had the arrogance to think he could reach for divinity. He was rudely corrected and put in his place, but in the end Kings dominated the world. Power told! Alexander climbed mountains to conquer, Hannibal crossed seas to challenge Rome and Muhammad Fateh dragged ships across land to subjugate. 

Along came Magna Carta in 1216 and the authority of Kings was fenced. You can influence, but you cannot make rules without 'Us' (Us can be various segments of society at different times). The French Revolution in 1789 dealt a fatal and final blow to Kings and the future definition of power changed totally. From a throne, to a series of chairs debating in a hall. In various forms, for the last century this has been a constant. Though there are recent signs that a change is coming soon, in the power of authority, but for the moment 'Power is exercised via cliques and interest groups, while individual authority has receded'.   

Throughout history, money also had its place in individual ambitions. In earlier times, money could be substituted by land, or gold or flocks of livestock. In the Industrial Age it became factories, stocks of goods or commodities, plus paper. Paper which could translate into gold, shares or money. Today it need not be in any physical shape at all. Simply, a digital entry may be worth billions. Facebook, Uber, Google are just such examples. But money always had its limitation. It need not translate into power. Hence, Shylock had to concede to a judge and Qarun (in the Quran) was shown his real place, though he was richer than rich. And hence, China can shut out Facebook.

Nevertheless, ambition for money is a constant drive through history. For some it could be greed and for others it is that elevation of status which is another part of man's ego. We love to be admired and unfortunately this world admires money. So despite its limitation money attracts. I hear someone saying what about comfort and luxury? Comfort and luxury can be achieved with reasonable amounts of money and does not need billions of dollars. That extra bit of money ambition is placed at the door of ego. 

Modernity is shaping out in a different direction. Fame seems to have overtaken money and power. I have no research to justify this statement, but it is what I observe. People are dying to be famous. It can be through stardom, but it can be as big through social media. It need not translate into money, but it definitely translates into power.  

The Twitterati, Facebookers, Instagramers, Whatsappers, Bloggers can move governments and societies today. Remember back to the Arab Spring and see the devastation it caused. And then there was Obama, moving opinions and grabbing the biggest job in the world. It was all done through the power of connectivity and social media. Lately, so much of Brexit and Trumps power and success have come via online connectivity fame. 

This fame and power equation has been further accentuated by the use of 'fake news'. Just a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that non-existent events could drive power. Today, if I am clever enough and skilled enough, I can create a false event on the net and get it accepted as truth. Based on this acceptance, I can then drive public opinion, my own popularity and eventually acquire the power to influence. Unfortunately, presently there is no defence against such an eventuality. We see that regularly, when totally false and illogical facts are being retweeted a dime a dozen.

We are entering a new age of power. More than anything else, ambition in our children will be connectivity and its trappings of power. The consequences of such a social change is mind boggling. More than ever, the up-bringing and value system of our children is an imperative. With no boundaries to truth, only values deeply set in the mind can keep this world on a fair and decent road.

*from the 1939 movie Gulliver's Travel

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A pivotal point in History

As Gollum struggled with Frodo at the edge of Mount Doom the world stopped. The armies of Aragorn and those of Sauron already engaged in deadly battle, heard Gandalf call out the time of reckoning is here. Hold still. A pivotal point in history had arrived. So it goes in the Lord of the Ring.

In our present real world, one has been waiting for just such a moment for decades. There have been pivotal points in history before. The moment when the world changed.  Imagine the people living at that particular time, mostly unaware that life was going to change.     

As Julius Caeser looked across from Gaul at an island which he was heading to conquer, would he have thought that his were the first steps to a British Empire on which the sun would never set? Or when Muhammad Fateh dragged his ships across land, past the Bosporus into the Black Sea, to conquer Constantinople, would he have known this was a four plus century event, which would culminate in the destructions of the First World War? Or when Archduke Ferdinands carriage trundled down the street of Sarajevo in June 1914, would the on-lookers have known that within seconds his assassination event would occur, leading to two world wars and death of a 100 million people?    

This feeling of a pivotal point in history is here and now. One feels it. Hold your breath, this world is about to change. Sadly enough, it's been coming these past three decades, but we have been blind and insensitive not to have seen it earlier.    

It is a complex matrix and the variables are many. But they are all coming into play.

- A global elite has led an economic onslaught, which has marginalised the 99%. Poverty prevails and the majority do not belong. So the poor majority are flexing their power to bring in leaders who will reverse the trend of 70 years and bring the world back to 1945.
- The baton of leadership of the West is passing and a new challenge from the East is coming. Never has the baton of domination been passed on without armed conflict. A conflict in the South China Sea is brewing. Not to mention the trade wars.
- A further conflict is shaping up in the old world. A clash of civilisation, where a secular ideology is at loggerheads with religions of the books. This presently manifests itself in the Islam versus West struggle, but actually can mutate into a Middle East conflict.    
- The various conflicts are causing refugees and starvation. Ten million refugees and twenty million starving are the highest such figures in history. 
- A technical advance which started in the late 60s with Moore's Law, is now coming to a point where artificial intelligence threatens to take over humanity's role.
- The social consequences of technology, materialism, a breakdown of traditional family structures are leading to many social challenges and the urban centres in the world are heaving with rancour, unrest and substance abuse.
- A combination of over population and material needs is driving man to produce and consume more. In five decades we have consumed 400 million years of resources. The pace of consumption is increasing and we are bordering on resource scarcity.
- The above has led to an environmental degradation which has tilted the balance nature has maintained from the beginning of time. The very existence of all beings is being threatened at the hands of rampant heat on our Earth.  

So what is coming? Maybe the best place to look at is eschatology. That seems to indicate that all the signs are pointing to an Armageddon (Malhama in Islam). A mother of all conflicts, which will lead to major destruction. This is so in all three religions of the book. The difference is that for the Jewish faith the Messiah (saviour), is considered the imposter in Islam. So even here, the religions are looking at the same events from opposite sides.  

History too is not encouraging. Civilisations last an average of 250 years. The West is reaching that. A Dominant Currency lasts approximately 90 years; the US Dollar is reaching that time frame. So a change is on the cards. A pivotal point in history is visible. Only problem is, this is the first time in recorded human history, that Man has the power to destroy the world. 

So all one can do is pray that better sense prevails and humans resort to talking and mutual agreements to resolve these conflicts.

*image is downloaded from Getty Images, as a free picture.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Nations, just do not happen!

The breaking news was as usual all about dire consequences of one action or the other. One gets used to it. This is the way of all channels and media world over. Somehow, bad news travels fast, gets more attention and attracts people. Nothing like a good old disaster to get people animated. Anyway, here in Pakistan we have become de-sentisized, as we have plenty of bad news and on top of it, dozens of channels vying for breaking news. More grief!       

All the bad news notwithstanding, I would like to add my two bits to this discussion on how things have become this bad and how we are in a mess. My personal take on it is that it is nature taking its toll. Yes, Nature!    

In the past I have written on our nationhood and blamed our duality of vision. The duality being a desire to be an iconic Muslim homeland and at the same time desiring a strong economic state. We got our wires crossed, losing our vision and in the process ended up doing nothing. However, over time and after due consideration, while I still think we need a vision to take us further - otherwise there is nothing to hold us together - but the reality is that nature is taking its toll.  
Let me explain my statement, which I assure you is not an effort to be facetious. In the worlds written history, there have been nine great nations. There have been other good ones, but what we would classically call great, are those who have dominated their period in the world, added to knowledge and their traces are left in the working of the world even today. Historically they have lasted an average of two hundred and fifty years. Want me to count them out? Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, Arabia, Ottoman Turk, Britain, America. More or less chronologically and another interesting point; there have been no repeats. China might well turn out to be the first repeat.   

Anyway, think of these nations. They were formed layer by layer. The Egyptians took thousands of years to come to a stage of absolute dominance. Same with the Romans.  From the discovery of Romulus and Remus on the banks of the Tiber to Julius Caesar was a good several hundreds of years. These years comprise a coming together, a homogeneity of purpose, a gathering of strength, conquest and respect from others that you are the leaders. Having reached this peak, the decline starts and first society fragments, then economics falls apart and finally the military strength declines. That is the round trip of a nation.      

Now think back to August 1947. When India got independence they had a memory. They remembered the Aryans, then Alexander as he came through the Khyber Pass, later the Huns, Mongols and Babur. They owned the Red Fort and Taj Mahal. This they took as their own. This was as much their history, as Chandragupta Maurya or Ashoka or Ranjit Singh. Their culture was a melting pot of homogeneity and in economics they were working against adversity together.

Then there was Pakistan. We had a seven year history (from 1940 resolution) two clearly varying lands and cultures apart by fifteen hundred miles, a western part which comprised borderland tribes who had only invasion history in common and were diverse. We had nothing binding us, other than a principle and we competed for the same resources. This all was running uphill against history and nature. No wonder! 70 years is minuscule in history, a dot in time. We are children and still learning. When we get to our teens our time will be different and hopefully we will mature one day. This might involve another hundred years for these layers to form. In comparison to other development of nations, I would say maybe we are like the Wild West of USA just now.  

We shall get there Inshallah. Just require patience and faith. Nations just do not happen, they are chiselled into shape.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Making Real Organisations


I had a session on this topic with managers of a large MNC recently. They were interested in the thought, vision and strategy involved in creating an organisation.
You cannot help but personalise such an endeavour, if you want authenticity. It all starts from a considered and declared choice. ‘Who am I’? The real authentic model! I will live ‘MY’ life; not someone else’s. It is only one life to live after all and why short change yourself.
Once you understand the ‘Who am I’ part (facing the truth is tough!), it becomes easier. The next vital question is ‘Why’ do something? It’s essential to connect the ‘Why’ to the ‘Who am I’. You want to do things which are fulfilling your aspirations. There is a very good talk on TED by Simon Sinek which explains the ‘Why’. He then goes on to secondary questions, like ‘What to do’, to satisfy the ‘Why’. And once you decide on the ‘What’, you can go into implementation and talk about ‘How to do it’. (Simon Sinek ‘Start with Why’)
The ‘Who’ is our soul; ‘Why’ is the vision; ‘What’ is the concept/strategy; and lastly ‘How’ is the tactics.
Most organisations function only on the ‘What and How’ level. Its not authentic and it’s generally not sustainable. At some point, to exist beyond plain commerce, they will have to dive deeper to learn about themselves.
My legacy, driven on by the ‘Why’, is doing ‘What’ my soul wants to do. Not what ‘someone else’ wants me to do. If I deliver on what someone else wants to achieve, that is no success. I may have wasted my life.
So from childhood I wanted to do certain things. Money or position was a minor achievement in life. Fun, adventure, helping others were the big reality. Respect for characters like Abdus Sattar Edhi was intense. On the other hand, I had little admiration for corporate executives, especially the gung-ho variety.
To use Engro, as illustration of the above process.
The foods business started on the simple dynamics of per capita consumption. Same calculations are used by other consumer organisations in Pakistan. It’s commerce, core capitalism and fulfilment of apparent needs. Nothing wrong with that, but not my game. Why take this role at all? It amounted to two things :-
A) Its about Pakistaniat. Recreate the progressive Pakistan of the 60’s, to make us seem worthwhile again. Also to do something for rural area prosperity and emancipation of people.
B) Run an organisation in Cyrus the Great mould. A people’s organisation. Here people will carve their own destiny, they will belong and have ownership. There is no London or New York to report to. This is just us. We have freedom to think and freedom to do, because this is ours. If we fail, the CEO shall be answerable, as long as it is shown that due diligence was practiced and their was no malafide intent.
In the end this ownership drives the company. It ends up growing at huge CAGRs. It ends up winning international and local awards. In the end it also becomes very profitable. Because profit is a by-product of engagement of employees. The commercial purpose is achieved, but it’s culturally done in a human way and people are still happy.
In summary
An entity is created (NewCo)
A Vision is carved out.
A Value system is instituted to cater for the workings of a free, feeling and adventurous organisation. NewCo must hold a moral high ground.
The HR strategy is based on above Vision and Values. NewCo needs risk takers; flag flyers; people with heart; people not so interested in normality, but wanting iconic things.
Put them together and make them buy into the Vision.
CEO personally must live the daily aspect of Values. He has to walk the talk.
Out of this comes a common purpose. In this common purpose there is belief.
Out of this belief comes passion. Passion leads to ownership, diligence and hard work.
In achieving all the above, a team is formed. When team dynamics come into play, We are on a roll. The team will propel each other towards the target. Any target is now achievable. Every now and then, senior management will have to give direction, nudge, cajole, pamper a bit; but the cart will goimage rollicking along on its own now.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Storyteller

imageThe other Sunday, I had the privilege of attending a Toffee TV enactment of storytelling at a local theater, where the audience was mainly children from the ages of five onwards. It was a great exhibition of storytelling, maintaining interest of the little ones, with great delivery, a bit of theater and lots of warmth. Simultaneously, there were messages during the story of love, caring, righteousness and community responsibility. The story of Kaala bhoot was a direct message to the kids, on the environmental hazards of the plastic bag.
This enactment started a train of thoughts, on the art of storytelling and how it is enmeshed in man’s history. I felt that man has now moved beyond stories and is living a life bereft of the charm of stories. However, when I browsed the internet I realized it’s much more complex than that.
The storyteller has been around since the dawn of man. Imagine it! Some deep dark place, without modern day lighting, the stars shine brightly and huddled together, are clans of hunters. They are raw predators with ingenuity as their weapon and essentially living a nomadic existence. When threatened they move on, as also occurs when the game has disappeared from the locality. Huddled together at night in this darkness around a small fire, standing in front of them is a long haired animated member of the clan. He is telling the story of their forefathers, who came after many years march from the barren mountains to these forests. The storytellers language is still basic, but he compensates for it with bodily action and gestures.
In whatever way man communicated, it was the forte of a few to pass on messages. Invariably these messages took the form of stories. Down the ages the stories continued. In some cases powerful story tellers influenced history. Blind Homer some 3200 years ago, carved out stories – maybe based on reality. These stories of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey are the longest lasting stories of humanity. They were taken by subsequent generations, embellished with ornaments, eventually reduced to paper and then transported three millennium to us in present day literature form. Along the way, these stories affected Greek society and culture, became part of the fabric of living, and through the inventions and advancements which subsequently occurred, became a small part of ourselves today. 
There are many other stories which have shaped us. Like ‘The Arabian Nights’, stories entwined in our eastern culture. Or stories based on reality, offering whispers of experience. The Quran used this means of passing on teaching. As did the Bible. The Quranic stories, parables as Allah calls them, have influenced a billion and half Muslims of the world. We have grown up with the events of Hazrat Ibrahim and his son Hazrat Ismail, the stories of Luqman, Khizr, Hazrat Musa and Zulqarnain, and the dramatic lessons from Hazrat Yousuf, a great tale of survival and triumph of righteousness. We have also heard the frightening ones, like Noah, Shoaib, Lot, Aad and Thamud, serving as great warnings of events beyond human capacity, which have shaped our thinking. Clearly, Allah knows his creation and has used the best way to disseminate messages and therefore leave a lasting impression. Hence, storytelling is inherent within us and is our best case scenario of learning.
So, then to the disappearing storyteller! He is not visible  anymore. In our childhood grandparents must have borne this role. We all have our individual stories. Mine are the exploits of Shaikh Chilli and I see now that it was not just fun and love, but also deep rooted corrective messages. On reflection, it came to me that the storyteller is still here in existence.
In today’s time the storyteller survives, only his form has changed. He is in the movies, best sellers, on TV and radio. He is a politician or an artist relating their thoughts. So the Humsafar drama which gripped so many – I confess I never watched it, just heard about it – is just another form of storytelling. There are stories on the internet also. Of necessity, the medium has changed, as our lives have changed. But the essential story from whoever is the same. A message delivered in a most powerful way, for one to disseminate and pass on through the generations.  Sometimes these storytellers are artists through paintings or animation and then there is the ever present politician or leader. He too winds stories, which then brings support, he leads and his performance too is a story, which is delivered in history books to later generations.
Just to show you that not much has changed, let me remind you of some powerful imagery just enacted in the last 30 years which depict the same scenes, as at the dawn of the humans. The same group huddled together across a fire and the storyteller telling his story. Hark back to the movie MacKenna’s Gold and the lit fire and blind Adam telling the story of the hidden valley of gold. Or the third of the Star Wars movies, in the Return of the Jedi, C-3PO holding his audience spellbound, as they huddled across a fire, while he related the evil story of the Emperor and Darth Vader.
No the fascinating storyteller is alive and well and continues his good work of changing society, while entertaining us simultaneously. Maybe in the bargain, scaring us at times also!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Our friend Ramiz

A perennial back bencher throughout life, it was a bit of trauma  when I ended up in the front row of a cramped classroom, with the teachers desk only a yard plus away. Coupled with that, this kid sat next to me, who was a trial and a half. He never stopped being incredibly happy. 

In the junior school of Karachi Grammar School, in those years, we had these old 1930s benches (1930s because it had carved on it, X loves Y, 193x), with two attached desks cobbled to the bench. Effectively, you shared one long desk with the person next to you and that happened to be ‘the happy individual’. Ramiz Allawala from then on, for almost fifty years, remained a happy part of my existence.

So this was Junior School and through that year, it did not matter if the tests were tough, or the results bad, or Pakistan lost in hockey or cricket. Ramiz was always happy! He just laughed and smiled at everything and had no other mood swings. Even for under tens like us (who were generally optimistic and with few hang ups) this was a difficult one to handle. I must have stared at him hundreds of times and considered how to take that smile off his lips. But, I am so glad to say, that I did not succeed then, or in the ensuing years.        

Yes, there was one occasion when I saw him serious, but that was not my doing. It was a particular showdown with our Principal, in our last year at school. Both Ramiz and myself were House Captains and we had been summoned and given a set down. Surprisingly, Ramiz was vocal during that meeting and it showed a particular fighting quality in him, which  resurfaced at various times in his life.   

We came back to Pakistan in the 1980s, after our studies, as did most of our class (this was usual in those days). It was a great bonding period for us friends. Early careers, unmarried and fairly care-free. It was around this time that Ramiz showed another part of his personality about which we were totally unaware. He started speaking and spoke about things, which never in a thousand years we could imagine floated in that happy brain. He spoke about spirituality, about sincerity, about doing the right things and more importantly about how to make life happen.

Over the years Ramiz reached out to thousands. Some for free, some as part of his new profession. He became articulate and respected, inspired other people, helped change lives, but still never lost his grassroots or his happiness. We saw less of him, as he traveled and eventually settled abroad, but whenever we met, it was like sitting on that desk and bench in school almost fifty years ago. That connect with ground reality, what we were and where we came from never left us. It was always an emotional experience meeting him, sadly only once in a while.

When our childhood friend Ramiz Allawala arrived back home at Jinnah Terminal, a dozen of us went to receive him. It was no ordinary homecomIng. He had bravely chosen to walk away from a one year fight with late stage colon cancer. His decision to come home to family and friends was a decision of faith and love. It was a decision which said there are more important things in life than mere existence. Love, friendship, loyalty and home are perennial and count for more. A wish to be buried in your soil is a strong attraction for us humans. To see a man supremely fit (he used to do tens of laps of the pool regularly) at almost half his size, shrunken, eyes glassy and cheeks sunken in was a shock and emotions and tears flowed freely. But, we are glad that Ramiz got his final wish to die with all of us and to celebrate a life which in passing was wonderful, warm, giving and happy. 

When you have known someone that long, his death is like a part of the self is afflicted.

There are so many of you out there who interacted with him and benefitted from his time, words and sincerity. It is time to return that hard work of a well spent life.  Send some gratitude back towards him.

Please pray that Allah (swt) grant him maghfirat and Jannah. Ameen.