Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics

May 28th, 2009

In August 1999, Anjolie Ela Menon was telling everybody that she wished Sonia Gandhi remained the Congress President and Manmohan Singh was projected as the Prime Minister. At that time, it sounded like the celebrated painter’s ultimate flight of fancy
Ms Menon was then one of the inspirations behind a unique platform called `Volunteers for Manmohan Singh’ (VMS), which was basically a Dr Singh fan club. It was election time and VMS was trying hard to drive home the point that the Lok Sabha needs people like Dr Singh.
VMS’ efforts failed miserably as Dr Singh lost the only election he has contested so far (he was defeated by the BJP’s V K Malhotra in the South Delhi constituency by over 30,000 votes). But Ms Menon’s words proved to be almost prophetic as Mrs Gandhi listened to her not once – but twice.
It’s easy to understand why in 1999, everyone thought Ms Menon was stretching her imagination a bit too far by wanting to see Dr Singh as the PM. I am sure even Dr Singh could never imagine this. For, more than anybody else, the gentlemanly Oxford-educated economist himself was acutely aware of his lack of political mass base.
For proof, listen to the man himself.  In his interviews much before he became the PM, Dr Singh has been quoted as saying that “it is nice to be a statesman, but in order to be a statesman in a democracy, you first have to win elections”. That’s something he has never achieved.
Earlier, I agreed with Dr Singh’s self-assessment fully – something which was reinforced during my two interactions with him (both were five years before he became the PM). The first meeting was an interview I did during his election campaign in 1999. Since his answers were becoming almost a repeat of the Congress’ election manifesto and I was more interested in knowing more about Manmohanpolitics than Manmohanomics, I tried hard to provoke him into rebutting the charges his political opponents were making about advertisements issued by his campaign managers in prominent local dailies.
The campaign, designed by Anjolie Ela Menon and issued by a company called India Business Network, asked for votes for Dr Singh. Malhotra, however, complained to the Election Commission that Dr Singh must have spent an estimated Rs 8 lakh on the advertisement and must have exceeded the per candidate personal expenses limit fixed by the EC – serious enough charges against a politician who considers honesty to be his biggest asset.
The charges later proved to be baseless as the advertisement was issued by a couple of industrialists who openly supported him, and I expected Dr Singh to take the opportunity to rip the opposition apart.  But the “politician” before me just requested that he be excused from answering that question and that it would be nice if I could stick to his record in the finance ministry! After that experience, I marvel at the transformation every time I hear Dr Singh using strong words against the Opposition.
My second interaction with Dr Singh was during a trip to Amritsar four months later. I had gone there to attend a function to honour B S Minhas as the Financial Express Economist of the Year (I was working for the paper at that time) and Dr Singh was the chief guest of the evening. After the initial pleasantries, Dr Singh did only one thing during the seven-hour train journey to Amritsar by Shatabdi Express: Read.
But what made me agree with Dr Singh’s the then self-assessment about his lack of political instincts was his response at a press conference after the function. The local journalists were all excited about talking to a man who was not only the country’s former finance minister, but also a son of the soil (his brothers still run auto parts shop in Amritsar) So most of the initial questions were in Punjabi and strictly about local issues.
Dr Singh looked visibly uncomfortable and requested through his assistants that the questions be restricted to national economic issues and that he would prefer to respond in English only. Here was an opportunity to address your own people in their own language and about the issues that impact them directly and the “political leader” was just letting it go! It wasn’t a surprise that most of the local journalists kept quiet throughout the press conference.
Finally, let me share one personal reason why I am a huge fan of Dr Singh and am glad that my initial belief that his lack of political instincts would doom him to fail in a job that is a largely political office has been proved wrong.
Way back in 1995 when he was the Finance Minister, Dr Singh came to the Bombay Stock Exchange to address a distinguished gathering. He was in a hurry to leave as soon as the meeting was over and the huge gathering around him ensured that I failed to ask him any questions despite my best efforts. Dr Singh, who was walking towards his car, suddenly turned back and came near me to say “Sorry, young man, I will talk to you on my next visit to Mumbai”.
I have come back to Mumbai after a stint in Delhi in between and the increasing crowd around him has ensured that I haven’t been able to ask him any questions still. But the humility of the man continues to stump me — still.

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Great CEOs make themselves redundant

May 1st, 2009

There are enough management books on the qualities that great leaders should have. But the one that I agree with the most is that they also know how to make themselves redundant at the right time.  K V Kamath, who stepped down as the MD & CEO of ICICI Bank to take over as non-executive chairman, set that ball in motion almost a year back. He started withdrawing  himself  from the day-to-day management of the bank — just to give that much breathing space to his successor.
Redundant may be a strong word to use — for,  great leaders can’t make themselves totally redundant even if they want to.  But one of the biggest compliments Mr Kamath has received is from his successor Ms Chanda Kochhar, whom he had recruited as a management trainee. Ms Kochhar said that while Mr Kamath was an institution by himself, she had no intention of stepping into his large shoes. “I am going to get into my own shoes. What is important is that I walk in a stable manner in my own shoes,” she said. Her boss would be proud of that self-confidence. 
One of Mr Kamath’s biggest achievements has been to ensure a smooth succession plan for the country’s second largest bank. Result: even though two  high-profile executives left, the bank was able to name their successors from within its ranks almost immediately. The task was complicated as the ICICI group has too many companies under its fold. 
 Kamath knows his larger-than-life image has the potential to overshadow his successor, so he says he would follow the example set by N Vaghul who had brought him to ICICI Bank. After taking over as the non-executive chairman of ICICI Bank – a post he held for 15 years – Vaghul have never met clients for any business meetings and would always direct them to meet Mr Kamath instead.  That’s the practice Mr Kamath would follow too.
This is important as many great leaders have fallen by the wayside just because they didn’t know when to let go. Take HP’s Carly Fiorina, for example. When she took the helm of HP in 1999, the company held the 10th spot on Fortune’s annual survey of top corporate cultures. After that, HP started slipping down the list every year with the worst setback coming in 2004 when it failed to make the cut at all. A consultant appointed by the company to find out what went wrong came up with a one-line answer: “Fear loves this place.”
Something must have gone horribly wrong for  a company that was once celebrated for the “HP way” – creating an open workspace broken up by small cubicles to encourage communication between workers, and pioneering the concept of profit sharing.
The reason,  say experts, was that Ms Fiorina tried to make it too much of a one-woman show.
The self-confidence that helped take her to the top of the corporate world also got in the way of her taking advice and suggestions. As a result, when she was asked to go, Ms Fiorina left behind a weak senior management and no obvious internal successor.
 

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