One of the best kept secrets least discussed matters in the startup world is what power a CEO really wields. When you are one of the worker bees or even a vice president it seems that the CEO is this powerful fellow, who at times appears all-knowing. And even when he isn’t, he still seems to wield an unfair amount of power. It’s only when you get to be the CEO of your own startup — by accident, choice or default — you realize that the power of the CEO is all too illusory.
Sure you can TELL folks what they should do and you can mean NOW! but that doesn’t work too well nor get you too far. You’ll soon find out, what anyone who’s raised teens knows, that what you want and what you get can be two different things.
Recently as a friend and fellow entrepreneur and I discussed issues each of us were facing in our businesses, about getting things accomplished, it hit me suddenly. Ginger! There’s much leaders, especially new CEOs, can learn from good Asian chefs – especially in how they use Zingiber officinale – or ginger.
Ginger when used in small amounts, whether to flavor a favorite curry dish or to create a zing in your tea, elevates the dish and the entire culinary experience. There are few delights greater than having sushi with some finely sliced and pickled ginger – a near out-of-body experience when accompanied by wasabi. At the other end, a well made ginger ale or even a ginger chutney, despite being all ginger can be immensely enjoyable.
The trouble however arises when too much ginger is used in the tea or too little in the ginger ale, making both undrinkable and worse yet leaving a nasty aftertaste. Despite the taste risks too much or too little ginger poses, you rarely find Asian cooks using physical measures of the quantum of ginger they use. It’s all a subjective call and a visual appraisal honed through apprenticeship and experience.
It is the same expertise that leaders, especially of startups need to cultivate of when and how to use what amount of cajoling, pressure, suasion or even the occasional threat to get their work accomplished.
Of course both the chefs and chiefs can benefit from sharp knives, but that’s a story for another day!
Stories of personal heroism and the extraordinary effort are slowly appearing from the survivors of the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Besides the obvious lessons on preparedness (or lack thereof ), there is an important lesson for all of us on the criticality of timely communication. Much of the anger and angst felt by people towards politicians and the media , during and after the attacks, stems from the vacuum created by the absence of a single official source of information. Even if it were to tell people, “We don’t have the facts yet, but we are staying on top of it and will let you know the moment we know something,” people would have rallied around the speaker and the message.
Contrast this with the role Rudy Giuliani played even as the World Trade Center towers burned during the 9/11 attacks on New York. As the New York Times reported ,
Three hours [after the attack began] … he stepped into a press conference with Gov. George E. Pataki.
“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said softly. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”
Through that day, Giuliani held two more press conferences and at 11PM, was seen walking around Ground Zero talking to rescue workers. While I was no admirer of Rudy Giuliani prior to 9/11 or his recent run for the 2008 Republican nomination, he demonstrated through his actions and presence, the signs of a leader – one who understood the need to communicate, to reassure, even when he did not have all the facts.
While the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra did appear on television several times, their unsubstantiated assertions on the number of terrorists, their origins and the state of the seige which changed with each interview undermined any confidence the public may have had. The Prime Minister too when he addressed the nation a day after the attack began, seemed to mumble incoherently and was insipid in the kind words of one editorial commentator .
It is a shame that the Indian political leadership at the city, state or national level failed to step up to the bar, to provide the focal point that people sought. Mr. Chidambaram, this might be your opportunity to provide such a leadership to reassure the citizens through direct, periodic and factual communication.
Leadership requires communication, be it good news, bad news or worse yet no real news. Communication done clearly and consistently is more likely to reassure listeners than silence, even if the crisis isn’t over.
Life has a nasty way of springing surprises on you. The only certainty, it would appear, is that you will encounter a lot of uncertainty. Being an entrepreneur is no different. If you are like me, you might have thought you made your hardest decision when you chose to become an entrepreneur.
Wrong! Before you know it, the business, customers, employees and the world at large are bringing problems that require you to make decisions. There also seem to be few easy decisions. Why didn’t anyone tell you about this? Well, you heard it here first — much of your productive time as an entrepreneur will go to making, hopefully, good decisions.
“Effective executives do not make a great many decisions. They concentrate on the important ones,” says Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive. Simple as Drucker’s assertion sounds, it is hard in the fog of entrepreneurial battle to focus on the important few. So how do you identify the important from the merely urgent or routine problems? Having identified these, how can you make good or effective decisions?
Is this your decision? The best way to make good decisions is to first determine if it is even your decision to make. Entrepreneurs — and here I speak with some experience — love to be in the thick of things. “The equipment is stuck in Customs. We won’t be able to ship our product on time. What do we do?” “He won’t accept our offer without a joining bonus. Should we offer him one?” “The customer will not issue a purchase order without a penalty clause. Do we agree to one?”
Issues like these will keep popping up all the time. While you may love playing Captain Crunch, the one everyone goes to for decisions, you would be mistaken to offer one for every question posed. If you want your business to grow and, importantly, if you want to have a personal life, it is critical that most decisions be made by other people. That is the first decision you have to make every time, answering the question: Is this a decision someone else should be making?
So how do you determine which decisions are yours to make? I’d recommend that you use the following simple guideline — if a year from now it would still matter what decision you make now, then it is probably something you want to be involved in. For instance, agreeing to a penalty clause in a multi-year contract with the Government will matter. Similarly, anything that involves the culture of your organisation or shareholding or capitalisation would make the cut. Most other decisions can probably be made by someone else. Which of course brings up the question: How do you ensure that the decisions others make do not drown your business?
Decision mechanics Having a well thought out and tested process for decision making will not only help you but your entire team make the right decisions. Here again, I refer to the work of Peter Drucker who spells out a five-step decision-making process. They are:
Comprehending the nature of the problem or decision — is it generic or an exception?
Understanding the boundary conditions of the problem.
Figuring out the right solution without considering real world compromises that might be needed.
The action required to execute the decision.
Validating the appropriateness of the decision once taken.
At first glance, it may seem tough to figure out what to do if your product won’t ship on time. Most operational issues do not require executive decision making. As in the example of agreeing to a penalty clause in your Government order or deciding to do business with the Government or setting up an overseas distributor — issues that will have a long-term impact on your business — a well thought out process helps. Further, it allows your senior staff or other partners to use the same methods and yardsticks to make their decisions. This way your direct presence or involvement is not needed in each time.
Drucker makes the point that one rarely encounters truly exceptional cases. Most situations you encounter, even if new to your business, are generic and would require a rule to be fashioned. “We don’t sign penalty clauses in our contracts or any penalty or liability clause cannot exceed the value of the contract itself,” is a rule you can formulate. “We may offer discounts or walk away but no penalty clauses,” is another. It is critical to define the problem before you attempt to make a decision. This requires the first three steps to be followed rigorously. Subsequently, dealing in the real world rather than in some ideal scenario, it is important to ensure that the solution is effective. And this should not merely be faith-based but data-driven; such validation after a decision is made will ensure you continue to make good decisions or learn from bad ones.
The five steps could take a few minutes in some instances and a few weeks in others. Either way, it will help you make measured decisions. Needless to say no process is infallible and good leaders trust their instincts. Of course, great leaders know when not to rely on their instincts but to get the data first.
Not making a decision is a decision The former Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao epitomised the art of non-decision making or so it seemed. Legend has it that he’d avoid making difficult decisions and in time, the problem would disappear or resolve itself. As an entrepreneur you will rarely have the luxury of ignoring decision making. That is not to say you will not do it. I have avoided the hard decision to let go of some difficult employees, as my staff keep reminding me frequently. Such avoidance of decision making is the classical ostrich-sticking-its-head-in-the-sand syndrome.
It is critical to recognise that it is a legitimate decision when you decide to not make a decision. It’s worth reading the previous sentence more than once — it is not intended as a play on words. Choosing to not make a decision is completely different from avoiding a decision. The difference is that you have made an explicit choice, one with consequences that you understand and are prepared to live with. Such a choice is particularly appropriate when it is evident that the situation will take care of itself. More importantly, it is of little importance, even if annoying, and is unlikely to have any material impact. In such circumstances, it is worth keeping in mind the Roman edict, “De minimis non curat praetor”or “the magistrate does not consider trifles!”
This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 17, 2008
A casual search of the blogosphere, with the words “Capt. Kirk” and leadership spews a long list of largely positive descriptions of Capt. Kirk’s leadership style. In fact, a secondary school principal, has actually written a referred article on Captain Kirk, His Leadership Style as a Model for Principals in the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Bulletin!
For those of us old enough to have caught William Shatner as Capt. Kirk, admiration is usually the first response (especially if we were lucky enough to miss the priceline.com ads – I had to move out of the country for this). Capt. Kirk cut a dashing figure – a man who surrounded himself with smarter folks (Spock the scientific officer, Bones the Doc and Scotty the engineer), always prepared to lead from the front and always got the girl! I am sure I am not the only 40+ fella who wished he were in Capt Kirk’s shoes, when we first encountered him.
Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen, in their book “Dinosaur Brains – Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work” speak of cheering Capt. Kirk as he staved off an attack by the Romulans, even as he just recovered from a problem of rapid aging. “What a manager!” was their first feeling. Then they began wondering “Or was he?” They go on to say:
In our culture there is some confusion between management and heroics. The distinction is quite simple: The hero handles everything single-handedly; the manager delegates. If a manager is indispensable, is he or she really managing?
What is true for managers is truer (in spades) for entrepreneurs, who inevitably are in leadership roles which they play all too often from Capt Kirk’s heroics’ handbook! I am certainly competent to speak, having been an adrenaline junkie till recently (others may argue I still am) – always charging off (in my strapped sandals, we don’t have much use for steeds, white or any other color) to solve problems. Luckily having great people around me, who were neither shy nor too polite, cured me off this, I’d like to think. However, as Capt. Kirk himself has shown, having good people (“Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a miracle worker!”) around is not a sufficient reason for not falling into the “I’m here and will take care of everything” habit.
So stop for a moment and take a look at the ol’ mug in the nearest mirror and ask yourself “Am I a leader or merely a hero?
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.