As a child, I used to wonder where mosquitoes in winter hide, why fish keep swimming, how birds learn to fly and other such 'un-natural' occurrences. After a career in marketing & communications for over 20 years, building and running businesses of excellent sizes and in many a geography, hiring and training dozens of successful managers, I continue to be aggressively curious about beings and things. In 2011, I co-founded Friends of Ambition, a Business Growth Platform for Middle India. It works with growth-minded businesses in Middle India and helps them professionalize their operations, build internal capability and become agile. Our focus on Middle India [a.k.a Tier 2 towns] stems from a strong conviction that the next several decades of explosive business growth in India will come from that geography. As I often find myself in cities and towns I might have only heard of just a few months ago, meet business owners there and hear their stories, dreams and challenges, I feel a sense of elation and sadness, sometimes simultaneously. This blog is a chronicle of my experiences in Middle India - mostly gleaned from real life encounters with business owners, their influencers and well wishers.
Why you must learn to 'let go', if you are an ambitious business owner My partners and I have been traveling through Middle India rather aggressively over the last few months. As we hear business owners talk about the immense growth possibilities they foresee and challenges they need to deal with, one area that gets naturally discussed is talent. Finding and hiring good talent is a concern for many.
Although most business owners we meet need a bit of help in articulating their real issues, it appears after some discussion that they understand the criticality of people.But to them ‘finding and hiring people’ is the solution. Now, to someone like me, a city-experienced career manager, ‘finding and hiring’ would always appear to be only a part of the solution, what remains is the broader issue of how to optimise human capital and balance productivity and engagement. I cannot but help compare the Middle India practices to that of Metro India, when it comes to this important challenge faced by any growing business.
There are many facets of talent management in Middle India that would look like highly desirable best practices even from the big city trained HR management practitioner’s viewpoint. Indeed, many practices there are quite advanced by classical standards, even if they are applied intuitively rather than methodically. But hidden inside some of those practices are natural growth stoppers.
The biggest one, I am coming to some sort of a conclusion, is the trouble a business owner has ‘letting go’. To me, the willingness and ability to let go on the part of the promoter-owner-CEO begins to define the working culture of the organisation. It affects not only its attractiveness to prospective employees, but in a more direct, although quite invisible way, the workplace productivity and long term morale of the current workforce.
It is not difficult to see why the owner may not want to let go. His business is either inherited or very often built painstakingly to a certain size over several years. When you have built the business from the ground up, it’s easy to hold close to your heart the idea that "if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." This is one of the reasons why many growing business owners have the temptation to go back and over-supervise an employee or worse, actually perform a functional role for an extended period, instead of worrying about leading the business. If the business is expected to grow at a flattish pace, it is perhaps okay doing this, but what if you want to put it on a very aggressive growth path? Can you afford not to delegate and empower? It may be worth remembering another old saying “what you got you here, won’t take you there”.
Here are seven so-called Middle Indian ‘best practices’ that are all excellent, but if not managed well, they can actually come in the way of letting go, and eventually stop growth in its tracks.
1. Hiring based on familiarity and trust: Most employees in growing Middle Indian businesses are hired on reference. Which means at senior and middle levels, almost every employee is related to the owner in some way [immediate family, extended family, school friend] and they have been hired in the first place because they are ‘trusted’. At other levels, they may be some other employee’s immediate family, extended family or a school friend. This appears the right thing to do because ‘in our town, everyone knows someone’.
Existing familiarity removes the anonymity at workplace that is so prevalent in larger organisations. Familiarity can actually make teams very cohesive. That’s a good thing. But over-dependence on familiarity means something else gets neglected – job competence. When you don’t hire competent people or can’t train them to be so, you find it difficult to trust their ‘ability to do a job’ as well as you can do, even while you trust them in a human kind of way. When you cant trust someone’s ability to do a job well, you can’t let go.
2. Know every employee: Knowing every employee is a good thing: It creates a ‘caring leadership’ image and makes employees loyal. But very often, knowing gets restricted to the employee’s personal life, family issues, rather than job related strengths and shortcomings. In the absence of a formal talent management process, the knowledge about the employee becomes personal, not organisational.
3. Treat the Organisation like a family: Which leader does not want to believe and make other people believe that the organisation is a family? It’s a good feeling to work in a family like environment. But organisations and their leaders have a greater responsibility towards the individual employee than just create an environment of bon homie, which is pretty much where the family treatment often stops.
For example, in an organisation, some people perform well, and others don’t. If an organisation does not know how to re-train, re-assign and if required, relieve people, the overall organisational competence will drop over time, customers will suffer and growth will be no more than a philosophy. Families don’t have a concept of deadwood, organisations have.
4. Hire for the organisation, not just a job: The competence issue resurfaces here. In large organisations, it’s a good thing to bring in talent and let roles grow around them. Small, growing organisations don’t have that luxury, if they have to run a tight ship.
Often we find people being hired without a clear role in mind for them, and they become free floaters, doing odd jobs, being the CEO’s runner and frequently his eyes and ears. Not only can this create a bloated, under-productive workforce, it can bring down the team morale significantly.
5. Hierarchies are for the military, not for my firm: Flatter organisations are better. But there’s a downside to being too flat too soon. All firms start flat. The moot point is how flat they remain as they grow. When organisations create un-guided flat structures, everyone wants to run to the owner-CEO to find the solution to every problem. Up to a certain size of the organisation, this is manageable and can actually give the owner-CEO a sense of being in complete control. As the organisation grows however, decisions can get delayed, control too centralized and productivity can suffer, in the absence of a strong working hierarchy. It is said that all employees learn most from a direct boss and direct subordinate. When a truly flat organisations has only one boss, learning nearly stops.
6. Informal, on-the-job mentoring is the best way to teach: I have always believed that this is an attempt to not build formal training and development programmes. On-the-job mentoring offers rich supplemental learning, but should it be the dominant or only method of skills development? No sir; that does not work. The fact is, most growing, owner managed businesses don’t think of creating a training and development budget. That means people can take a long time learning skills and developing attitudes that can help the owner develop the confidence to let go.
7. Let an employee’s role and career evolve naturally: This is good in theory, because it is based on a cosmic view of time. Natural evolution is supposed to be healthy. When it comes to careers though, casual and unplanned approach is not a good thing in general. When careers are guided properly, people are made ready to take over from someone else and as people learn to take over responsibility from other people, the organisation grows and the owner can ‘afford’ to let go.
I am not a trained HR professional, but having run large teams and scaled companies, I have learnt a thing or two about people and how they are encouraged to give their best. ‘Letting go’, no matter whether you are a mid level manager, a CEO or owner, is one of those big lessons I have learnt, is critical.
In planning to let go, as an owner, you learn to create well thought through and productive structures, hire smart people, enable them with the right tools and technology, allow them to take decisions, build teams, create a performance culture, then measure performance and truly empower them. Empowered people, all of us know, are more engaged and more productive. They drive the organisation, without having to be spoon fed. When your people drive the organisation, you can let go, and take that vacation you really need.
Disclaimer: Not all businesses in Middle India are equal. Most of the challenges mentioned above are faced by really ambitious businesses on the threshold of an explosive growth phase. Also, we usually end up meeting companies with a turnover of between INR 30 Cr and INR 200 Cr, because it is these companies we help grow. Since this may not be representative of the universe of firms in Middle India and the companies we meet are not chosen randomly, the commentary given in this post should not be read as research finding.
Please also forgive the usage of the masculine pronoun 'he' through out this post. It is just meant to make for easy reading. No offence to the female business owners.