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Home > Business > Special


What makes a great manager

Raj S Rangarajan | September 11, 2007

Why are grizzly bear cubs trained for two years to hook salmon? Why did the Arab bond all day with a ferocious falcon? Did you know that blue tits live as couples until they have reared their young?

These and other questions are answered in a book by an experienced manager.

Interestingly, The Case of the Bonsai Manager (Penguin, India, 264 pages, $11 or Rs 450) is not about plants or Perry Mason. It's about today's managers who, author, R Gopalakrishnan suggests, need to learn to be more intuitional in decision-making. This nonfiction intersects nature and management.

Managing is an elusive task for many. Not everyone is adept at it, many avoid it with a passion and on some, managerial responsibilities are reluctantly thrust. Why then the fascination with the subject? Think: attractive perks, status and rewards that come with being a successful corporate manager in today's business world.

Can a case be made for 'intuitive" thinking in management? Would it be considered kosher in management circles and at institutions where management is taught?

Gopalakrishnan says, it is possible. He talks of how initially he too trod the beaten path in terms of following bell curves, algorithms, and parameters prescribed by management pundits. But, in his later years he has changed and now believes management should comprise a human component where intuition and instinct have roles to play.

The author, executive director of 139-year-old Tata Sons, India which recently acquired Anglo-French steelmaker Corus Steel for $11.3 billion, says, intuition is a vital tool in a manager's armor as much as analysis and empirical data.

Management -- as an entity -- is not a zero-sum game where numbers and results matter more than crushed emotions and feelings. With the number of job firings in so many industries on the rise, the concept is not a friend, rather a presumed adversary to the staff.

Every manager is undoubtedly trying to do his or her job diligently but with the global picture changing ever so often, being ruthless and impersonal seems par to the course.

What is one major management decision you regret making? Didn't intuition help you in this instance?

Author's response: "In chapter 1, I have referred to an episode about marketing concentrated detergents in Arabia. I made two decisions intuitively: one was right (launching a standard detergent) and the other was wrong (building the concentrate plant)."

'Stunted' managers perform below par

If mental growth could be stunted can there be stunted managers? The author answers his own question: 'A stunted manager is one who is operating and working at a level which is well below his potential."

Managers become 'bonsai' through their own acts of omission and commission. A 'permanently stunted manager is found in small companies, multinationals and the public sector -- almost everywhere."

Whether the CEO happens to be a Premji, an Indra Nooyi, or an Ambani, managing is not everyone's cup of tea. American corporate figures such as Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have shared their management wisdom, but Gopalakrishnan's approach to management pays obeisance at the altar of intuitional thinking.

Former PepsiCo chairman Roger Enrico's management coaching style comes in for praise in 'Bonsai Manager". Enrico reportedly relishes Sambukas at 2 a.m. in his Texas ranch while training his senior managers.

The author's intricate explanations on when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and how a fly's eye is made up of about 4,000 tiny, hexagonally packed lenses with a 360-degree vision tend to be exhaustive -- even exhausting.

His 70-80 hours of research on the animal kingdom shows. "By understanding how animals respond to ever-present threats, there are memorable lessons for managers," advises Gopalakrishnan.

Why nature for a management book?

Gopalakrishnan says, "Just as authors sometimes weave leadership stories of generals in war, I chose analogies from nature for my book. I realised that most people truly love nature and with sufficient evidence from [television] channels such as Discovery and Animal Planet, I learnt that audience response was positive."

He talks of BRIM -- Brain's Remote Implicit Memory -- where the operative words are 'remote" and 'implicit." These words help us access our memories from caches of stored data over our lifetimes. Explicit knowledge is available in books and CDs but tacit knowledge is available in managers' minds. Does a manager ever think of BRIM when deciding? A remote possibility, perhaps.

Gut feeling

A practising manager for 40 years, Gopalakrishnan says, intuition does manifest itself either as an inner voice or as a vague and unspecified feeling from within, which we call a 'gut' feeling.

The act of choosing is not an analytical or process-driven activity. He advises young managers to 'seek out experiences with multiple challenges in multiple geographies spread over multiple domains within the first twenty years in corporate life: a good guideline for an aspiring general manager.'

In today's global economy with the world continuing to shrink, it is doable.

The author has woven three strands of each concept into one fabric: first the Nature anecdote; second the Management anecdote; and third the Concept or Idea.

He says, 'I first present a real-life business dilemma when my intuition told me one thing and my logic told me another, and how it was resolved. Then came chapters on what exactly intuition is, and how it can be developed. The next three sections concerned ways to enhance intuition: (a) by varied and multiple experiences, (b) by sensing and feeling the signals at the edges of the spectrum, (c) and by reflection and contemplation."

Words of management advice from the author: "Become an intuitive manager first, the practical aspects will come later. Leaders who fail to listen, fail. Socialization, communication, understanding and patience are at the 'heart' of managing. Managers are trained to be efficient, but are they effective?"

Talking of effective, how effective are the muttawah (religious police) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia?

Gopalakrishnan recalls a personal incident that happened in the downtown Ballad area.

"A Tunisian sales manager accompanied me. I inquired, as a newcomer to the city, do you have any words of advice? Keeping in mind strict norms of social interaction in the Middle East, the Tunisian responded: 'Do not walk on the streets with another man's wife.'"

'How would the muttawah know whether the woman accompanying me was my wife?'

The sales manager responded, with great seriousness, 'If you seem to enjoy her company, they would know it is not your wife!'

Raj S Rangarajan is a New York-based writer.


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