MMA-KAS-IIMC organised a discussion on the book “The Art of Management” written by Mr D Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla Group. The author was in conversation with Mr R Ramaraj Founder, Sify Technologies Pvt Ltd., and Ms Gowri Mukherjee, CEO and Co-Founder, CreditMantri.
Gowri: Is management really an art? I have always felt that it is a little bit of a science.
Shiv: Not true. I thought about this for a long time. There are many aspects of management which are quantitative, for example, anything to do with data or process or supply chain where the hard numbers are there. Context and culture are important in management. There is no management without either context or culture. The elements of management of a business, which relate to consumer, competition and partnership, are all a matter of art. There is no science to it. You shake hands with some people whom you think you won’t shake hands with but you shake. Indian employees reveal their increment and salary to everybody. It is in our culture. When a company is going through stress, even the best manager can’t motivate the team, because, fundamentally people are worried about their job or kids’ education. I can apply all the disciplines of management and I would still have failed. So the context is very important. The timing is also very important, and that’s why I call this the art of management and not the science of management.
Ramaraj: There is enough precedence, especially in Indian philosophy, about codifying values. It is expected that businesses will go up and come down. If you are expecting it to come down, then you’re a pessimist, but if you’re prepared for it, then you are a true leader. Often during good times, we don’t know why we are good. When something drastic happens, we say, ‘Oh God, why me?’ That preparedness makes us think it’s a science.
Fair argument. Every company prescribes a set of values. Every country does that. Values are, according to me, things you would die to uphold. Here’s the catch with values. How do people experience values in a company or an institution? They experience it through the behaviour of the senior managers. That behaviour is variable and completely contextual. Somebody gets up, has a bad day and he’s grumpy. Why do we ask the boss’ secretary, “What’s the mood of the boss today?” If management is science, we wouldn’t do that. You tend to favour people who come and see you regularly. You tend not to favour people who are out of sight. It has nothing to do with impact. These are human failings and human nature. One has to recognize this. I’m not saying this is wrong or right, but that’s what I have seen.
Gowri: You mentioned the book is broken into three parts: managing oneself, managing teams and then managing business. Can you walk us through that structure?
Managing yourself is possibly the core of having a successful life or a successful career. Nothing is more important than doing that. You can take any set of examples – from politics, sports or business. People from similar backgrounds and similar achievement in school or college diverge out. The divergence invariably goes back to the ability to manage very well.
Tendulkar is a very good example. His ability to manage himself is outstanding. I once remember having dinner with Sachin in Delhi when we were doing one of the campaigns. I asked Sachin, “Which is the most difficult ground to bat on?” Sachin thought about it for a minute and said, “Shiv. Auckland in New Zealand.” I asked why? He said, “There are gaps in the stadium and the wind comes.” Having an engineering frame of mind, I said, “The ball comes slower or faster depending on which end of the pitch you are in.” He said, “That’s not the problem. When the wind comes at you at ten degree temperature, the biggest challenge is to keep your eyelids open for the two seconds after the ball is released and it goes past you. If I do not train to do that, I’m in trouble. When I bat in Auckland, I have to keep my eyes open all the time, so that I could see the ball.” Then he added, “Melbourne.” When he goes out to bat in Melbourne, he stares at the sight screen wide eyed. I asked him why he did that and he replied, “In Melbourne, the light is too bright. If I don’t stare at the sight screen and absorb that whiteness, I will never pick the red ball.” Only somebody who has really thought about the game deeply can really do that. These are things which you manage yourself. You understand it, codify it and make it a craft. Managing yourself is absolutely critical. There are many elements to it—managing time, ambition and relationship within the organisation.
The second is managing a team. Managing a team is managing horizontally also—managing your peer group, managing somebody else who’s out there, working in a matrix with you. Once you get the privilege of managing a team, and then lead a business, how do you think about business and look ahead? A lot of people in the past world used to look back and extrapolate. I’ve done that as a brand manager. I have stood up in Hindustan Lever and said, “Inflation is six percent. The category will grow four percent. My brand will grow five percent. Our revenue growth is 11 percent.” By and large, you would be right. Today that formula doesn’t work. Extrapolating the past is possibly the silliest way of managing the future.
Sports seem to be a passion for you. What games did you play? How did sports influence you professionally and personally?
I grew up in a boarding school. So (playing) a sport was almost compulsory. One day, I had to play basketball, one day, play cricket and another day, hockey. I had to play things that I hated too. What a sport does or at least what it taught me was four things.
First, it teaches you preparation. Whether you’re going to bat or play a tennis match or play the role of a fullback or goalkeeper in hockey, it mentally prepares you for something. You have to focus on those 30 overs of the match or the 90 minutes, whatever it is. Second, a sport teaches you to assess and judge competition. You tend to look for weaknesses in the opponent to say, what can I drive away from? What can I do differently? Third, a sport teaches you teamwork. Cricket is an exception where individual brilliance can see you through. By and large, most of the sports are team-oriented. One guy cannot win a match. Finally, a sport teaches you to respect rules and regulations and institutional authority. I used to have a philosophy—never argue against the umpire. In any game, the umpire or referee is the king.
I’ve always thought that a sport teaches people how to lose.
Yes. It teaches you how to lose gracefully. I admire the combination of Nadal Djokovic and Roger Federer. When one of them loses, the other always says, “The other guy played well. One of us had to lose; sad it was me today.” They have deep respect for each other. The other is the old Australian cricket team. Whenever they lost, they would say, “We lost to a better team on this day. Our day will come tomorrow. No problem. We’ll come back.” They never offered excuses or blamed anything or anybody. Losing gracefully and accepting it is just as important as winning.
You have not interviewed startup entrepreneurs—people from the younger startup ecosystem. Why is that?
There are entrepreneurs in my batch of 21, like, Aarti Kelshikar, CVL Srinivas, Harsha Bhogle, Renuka Ramnath and Vikas Khanna.
Ramaraj: The entrepreneurs that you’ve chosen in a way reflect enterprises, profit, profitability and all the stuff that we were taught as good management principles. Today, all the heroes that we worship and invest after are the ones who are very ambitious, drive high valuation and great teams, taking high risk. They have very different models of business that we see as disruptive. Are there any lessons to be learned from them?
There are many big lessons. Over the past six months, I met at least 100 to 150 digital startup owners—first to learn and then to see what this model is all about. The average age of a company in the year 1935 was 90 years. Today, it is anything between 12 and 18. There will be two types of companies in a future world. One is the legacy companies, who will be there for 60 or 70 years or more like the Tatas, Birlas, Mahindras and Reliances of the world. Then there’ll be another bunch of companies who will have a very short life span, may be 0 to 20 years. Either, they will die, or they’ll get bought out or they’ll merge. The first set of company will go slow and steady and give you stability. You can learn the basics there. The second type of companies is high-risk, high-return type. The adrenaline is pumping all the time. Tomorrow is a different day from yesterday. Now, you have to make up your mind as to which type of company you belong to. You cannot be in a second stage or new age company and say, “I want the security of the first stage company.” If you go back by 30 years, there was another stage company called the government. Those days, people would say, the government had all the protection and discourage those who join private enterprises. Now, nobody talks about the government, because the government cannot develop jobs anymore. They can have regulatory jobs, the armed forces, police and so on. In a digital world, there is no role for the government to create physical jobs. Those days are over. We are now back to a similar debate—between private enterprise and startups.
When we hire, we look for people with drive and ambition. Ambition may be bad too. How does one test oneself to know when it is bad and when it is good?
Ambition is good because it raises the bar consistently. I am not an advocate of saying, “Don’t be ambitious.” We are all ambitious for our kids, our teams and our companies. But once ambition becomes a very naked exercise where you wear it on your sleeve and it’s all about yourself without the collective element of anybody else, then that’s a serious problem. Someone like Geoffrey Boycott was deeply ambitious about his score. His team members didn’t like him and there are videos of some of them deliberately running Boycott out. When your ambition is so clouded that you don’t want to think of the team, then that hurts you. CK Prahalad said, in the context of companies, ambition must be higher than their resources. If you think about yourself in a very individualistic way, you must have what I call divine dissatisfaction to say, “I want to be a better version of myself tomorrow.” You can do that only if you constantly get feedback and reflect. You can’t ask for promotion in your company because your 2002 batch mate got promoted in Colgate. You should do what’s right in your company. Thus there are many shades of ambition. Talking about ambition is not the same as committing in a disciplined manner to achieve it.
In my father’s and our generation, we all were hired to retire. Now, if somebody stays for more than three years, they think it’s something wrong with their ability to move or they are not wanted. We have to learn continuously. There are many lessons of learning from your bosses and peers. If this trend of people leaving within two or three years continues, are we going to move ahead with a bunch of inexperienced people?
Difficult question. We reflect and thought on this a lot. The consumer is changing far faster. David Ogilvy said many years ago that the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife. It’s so true. We see a bunch of young people whose thoughts are very different on the future, compared to other people. Secondly, technology is impacting change dramatically. Whenever I look at trends, I always ask myself: Does this trend impact the individual? Does it impact the family? Does it impact the society? If it impacts all three, you can be sure that it will impact your business. That’s my simple checklist. The employees react to what they see. Twenty years ago, retail was a hot sector. Then mobility became a hot sector. Now for the new age companies, technology is a hot sector. Tomorrow, it will be Metaverse. So employees consistently want to ride that next wave and think, ‘Why should I get stuck in an old age industry, with old age bosses who don’t teach me anything?’
A very important shift has happened in learning in the last 10 years. On the job training used to be a big value proposition of every company. People would say, “Come join us. We will teach you. We will grow you into a general manager.” I have not seen one interview of any CEO in the last five years about on the job training. It’s gone. As leaders and companies, we’ve outsourced development plans to management institutes like ISBs and IIMs. Even coaches, we outsource. There’s nothing of development to an individual which is happening in the organisation today. Then, why do you expect the employee to stay with you? I have this conversation with many CEOs. I can tell you that everybody is frustrated with it but nobody is able to offer anything.
Gowri: Is your definition of ‘on-the-job training,’ learning from bosses and peers through interactions or going through a structured learning program in the premises?
We used to call it 10-20-70 model. On-the-job training in the past would be 70% of the capability building. Let me give you an example. In Unilever, every time I had to think of advertising and how to do better, I would send a note to my guru Michael in London. He would send back the note saying, “Not good enough, Shiv. Rewrite.” I have rewritten, at least 10 to 20 times to sharpen the message to the consumer and the advertising. That’s on the job training. Michael took interest in ensuring that the next generation of marketing people in Unilever learnt to practice very well. You don’t have that today. Everybody is in a rush. When I give feedback to my team, people tell me that they have not received such feedback. If I don’t do that, I am hurting them. That’s my point of view.
Ramaraj: If you give adverse feedback, most people start leaving. They have opportunities and so they leave, saying you criticise their work. It’s not taken as helping one grow. Is that something that we will see more?
Feedback is the breakfast of champions. You can easily make out the guys who say, “Give me feedback and I’ll take it.” They take it on the chin and try to be a better version of themselves the next morning. There are some people who, when you give them feedback, try to defend or project. If you truly want to give feedback as a boss, you have to be a few miles ahead of your team members in thinking, in framing the problem and structurally thinking about the issues. Many bosses are not. Do people in your team and your industry respect you? If they do, then they will take your feedback. Second, be consistent. You call out good and bad as it is. Then people will see that over a period of time. If you are only attacking the person and not the issue, then that is not feedback anymore. It’s murder.
Gowri: There is a rush to acquire new skills.
Yes. There is a mad rush to hire people. Companies must diligently recruit people and put in the framework very rightly. Drucker was the first guy who talked about the concepts of organisation, business, manager, span of control and profit centre. He studied organisations deeply. It was the supply chain era. Philip Kotler came in and said that the consumer is the king. That is when the marketing era started. In the late 80s, Michael Porter came in and said—of course, without using the word—we work in an ecosystem: suppliers, buyers, regulators, government, etc. The skills needed in these three defining points of time are very different. I believe that the biggest and cheapest way of learning is to watch people in your organisation. You learn a lot more by just watching people—how they react and conduct themselves, than anything else.
Ramaraj: In recruiting, how do we know who is the right candidate, especially the younger people? We often know only from hindsight.
When I look for people, I look for communication skills, drive, energy, etc. I also ask them for their biggest failure in life. If people are not pushing their boundaries, they are not failing. In a fast changing world, you need self-reflection, self-awareness and resilience to come out of failures.
Do the best management skills come from experience or from theories and case studies?
It is a combination of both. You cannot implement something if you don’t know the concept or the underlying principles. First level is the principles and body of knowledge. The next level is experience and understanding of what other industries have gone through.
Is there anything called the Heart of Management?
There is. A practising manager in every company has a choice—either to follow the company rule book or what the employee wants, which is an individual value proposition or to find the right mix. That is the heart of management. If you blindly follow the rule book, then a computer can do the job. If I pander to every individual need, I can’t have 100 employee value propositions. The heart comes in judging what is right for the company, in the context of the employee. In the post-pandemic world, the heart is going to come by offering employees flexibility.
How can employees balance their ambitions and their ability to achieve those ambitions?
We tend to invest in the stars in organisations. That’s a fundamental mistake. I am not saying we don’t need stars. We need a Tendulkar but only in the context of the team. If you take a room, the ceiling represents the stars. The average capability of the organisation might be the floor. We tend to put disproportionate time and energy in growing the stars. Then the gap between the stars and the average performers widens, leading to cynicism, strife and back-biting. The trick is to grow both the stars and the average simultaneously.
How do you keep yourself effective and productive?
If you want to be relevant in today’s world, you need to learn a lot. I speak to people from outside my industry. I have done this consistently over many years. If something works well in some industry, by and large, it may work for other industries too, from my experience. The ability to stay relevant to my people is what really drives me. In managing time, the trick is to manage your dead time like sitting in a flight or a car. You can do a lot of things at that time. The second I would say to young people is to avoid as much distraction as possible, such as late night parties, overeating, binge watching, etc. The fewer distractions you have, the more disciplined you are, as long as your exercise and diet are in the right direction. Discipline, energy and focus are absolutely critical for any good career. You need to manage all the three. Having one alone is not good enough.