By Christopher Ram
December 1, 2002
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Cult of the leader
For over twenty-five years that wisdom prevailed and we witnessed the development of the cult of the leader in business to the point where politicians sought out opportunities to be seen in company and consultation with these idols.
How can we forget that Kenneth Lay of Enron was a close friend of the Bushes and that Jack Welch who was voted the manager of the last century was constantly courted by successive Presidents. This happened in Guyana too and we recall former President Hoyte giving pride of place to some leading private sector personalities, while the late President Jagan also courted some other icons in the private sector.
At least in the United States, the thinking particularly after Enron, Worldcom, Xerox, etc, has shifted dramatically and figures put out by companies are now regarded with considerable suspicion.
No longer are the head honchos of these organisations allowed to write their own salary cheques and set their own retirement compensation.
Rather, they are now required to attest to the accuracy and reliability of their company’s financial statements, their audit committees and the word ‘independent’ to describe directors is now being taken far more seriously.
This wave of accountability has assumed international proportions and CEO’s are being fired with frightening frequency.
In 2000, over twenty per cent of bosses lost their jobs because of poor performance and this percentage rose to 37% in 2001. And the average tenure of CEO’s of the world’s top companies has shrunk from 9.5 years to 7.3 years over the space of the last six years. No longer are institutional investors and major lenders prepared to sit idly and allow their value to be eroded by all-powerful CEO’s.
They now exert immense pressure for results and swiftly move against those CEO’s who fail.
The annual publication the World in 2003 published by the Economist, is predicting that businesses will return to basics in emphasising content and results over style and form and noted that even the dressing down which had become so popular after Silicon Valley set the trend in the early nineties is being swiftly reversed. According to the Economist corporate managers will measure their success by their ability to solve nuts and bolts problems, meeting their bottom-line targets and getting people to buy their products.
It is unlikely that this prediction is based on the fact that one of the more recent management books has the bald title Execution. That the book brings together a protege of Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charran, an advisor to some of the world’s leading companies will no doubt help to shape the thinking among business advisors and academia over the next few years.
However, it is worth noting that the National Association of Corporate Directors of the USA has added execution as one of the areas on which directors need to focus in their annual assessment. It is also well known that many so-called concepts fed to the unsuspecting person looking for quick fixes are merely the regurgitation of basic concepts repackaged as the flavour of the month.
Whatever it is, there is a strong case for substance over form and for leaders to be made accountable for their mistakes as readily as they are credited with the successes of their companies. Execution in the past has always been thought of as the tactics function of the business while leaders dealt with strategic issues.
Execution, however, has to be embedded in the whole culture of the organisation’s discipline and processes. You cannot argue that the leader can be divorced from the organisation’s culture, discipline and systems. Indeed the CEO ought to embody those very values and project them both internally and externally.
If we want to measure the importance of execution all you have to do is take two organisations in the same type of business with similar strategies.
In the computer business Dell and Gateway make a very useful case study. Both Dell and Gateway had a strategy of selling direct to the customers only after a confirmed order had been received. What Michael Dell did, however, was execute with such precision that Dell turns over inventory eighty times per year - just every four days. This is between four and eight times the turnover achieved by its competitors.
The Guyana scene
While the political economic and social climate for doing business in Guyana is indisputably inhospitable, it is also true that had we had a larger core of dynamic leadership and management, the seeds for our difficult social and economic climate in Guyana would not have been so easily nurtured.
We have some CEO’s who year after year fail to deliver results.
In Guyana and indeed in the rest of the Caribbean CEO’s in the private sector are rarely fired and are often so powerful that they effectively appoint those who legally have the power to fire them! The average period of service of our CEO’s probably runs into decades and sometimes a lifetime. Some of our CEO’s behave like politicians and resist being honest and open to themselves and their stakeholders, concealing some massive failures within their areas of successes. Sometimes they launch initiatives with such fanfare and ceremony that they can never publicly accept failure.
It is not all doom and gloom however. While we have had entrepreneurs who would easily make it into a Rogues Gallery, we have had some excellent examples of successful entrepreneurs whose legacy is an example of wealth creation and economic democracy. Peter D’Aguiar stands out in these respects while John Fernandes who laid the foundation for the empire which still bears his name did it in what is still a private company.
His strong legacy is demonstrated by the current czar of the empire, Chris Fernandes, who is as good an executor as one can get. Other examples of leaders who are also effective managers include Deo Singh of Didco and KFC who was not only responsible for the re-introduction of franchising in Guyana but has also been excellent in executing a strategy to expand, consolidate and grow.
The Bulkan brothers at Precision are known for their attention to detail and acceptance of responsibility for the quality of the products leaving their factory.
If you’re good, you’re good
David Granger has proved his mettle with the monthly newsmagazine Guyana Review, while Frank De Abreu in distribution sports and social activities and Naim Nasir in bread and pastry manufacturing and distribution, are some other examples of individuals who can conceive an idea and then successfully implement it. Interestingly Granger and Nasir all made it having completely changed careers, proving that if you’re good, you’re good.
George Jardim too qualifies as a person who combines leadership with the ability to execute but with the centre of his activities located on the East Coast Demerara and his emphasis on high-level skills and technology, his company soon became a victim of political instability, sterile economic policies and the wave of crime and emigration.
The emphasis on execution as an academic issue has as much to do with marketing as it does with the uncovering of the absence of substance in many top companies. Business Page supports the concept of execution but total emphasis on this may ignore the crucial role of the team, and that the CEO is really only the first among equals. There will always be persons who are great with ideas and concepts while others like to deal with the details.
It would be counter-productive to try to make the ideas person into a detail person and vice versa. The task facing any business is how to link strategy, people and operations to achieve success. If that is what is meant by execution, then yes, let’s execute.