I am an Indian and an advantage of that is seeing multiple faiths and religions in close proximity. But, the world of our religions often looks very far from the world of our business. Many perceive business to be pragmatic and religions to be emotional et al.; and that the two do not really intersect like a Venn-diagram. But the texts of various religions actually have a lot of pragmatism, which has a lot to teach about modern business management.
Measure the journey itself, not just the outcome! The Hindu scripture Bhagwad Gita stresses a focus on karma, i.e. the work itself, rather than only the outcome. Even Buddhism espouses a focus on the present, ahead of the future. Ensure the most of what is there right now, not just what can happen. As companies measure the ultimate profit margins and return on equity, it is important to measure the current process itself. A business example is when companies track not just margins, but also periodic operations metrics like productivity, interactions, pitches, collections, etc. It would also help identify early warning signals for variances that could eventually impact the ultimate profits. Without ensuring the means to the end, the end itself would never be realised anyway. Focusing on the ultimate goal is one thing, but taking the attention away from the process itself would spell trouble.
Show the larger picture, but push the change in small steps! Moses showed the bigger vision of the Promised Land to the Jews in Egypt but requested the Pharaoh with smaller nudges to free his people. While the big vision helps drum support for the plan as it gives clarity of purpose, people are often resisting radical and drastic changes. Hence, change should be pushed in small measurable steps, as it smoothens this resistance and moves the task to the bigger vision. This also includes communicating the plan properly so that everyone is on the same page. That means the leader also has to be great storyteller if he has to sell his big vision to a heterogeneously large group. Jesus Christ scored on this front, through his famed approach of speaking in parables to build context for his listeners. A business example is India’s recent demonetization, where the bigger vision of fighting corruption was shown, although one may argue whether the change was done in smaller steps or in one radical “band-aid” move?
Both Moses and Prophet Muhammad teach an important leadership lesson – when the going gets tough, the leaders have to get going. Whether it was the Prophet leading the Muslims to fight against the Meccan attackers at Badr or Uhud, or Moses leading the Jews to make the great crossing to the Promised Land, in both cases the leaders themselves rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty instead of just giving directions from a safe haven. When times are tough, the leader leads by actually doing the task himself, not just by giving directions. Examples abound even outside business or religions; be it of the US President flying into the mission himself in the movie Independence Day, or of the Indian cricket captain coming out to bat at a tricky juncture in the World Cup final match. Such leaders are often more admired, unlike CEOs of bankrupt Indian companies who may leave for foreign shores using legal loopholes, while leaving their creditors and employees stuck in a rut at home.
The Guru Granth Sahib is full of examples of being fearless against all the odds, especially when the odds look mighty. It was always safer to remain in the comfort zone rather than trying the unconventional, but fighting against such odds is a sheer test of fearlessness. Sikhism taught us there are times when it better to die while standing straight, rather than survive by crawling on one’s knees. In the business world too, there are often tricky situations wherein numerous naysayers will dissuade you from trying unconventional tactics, even if it’s apparent that conventional solutions will fail. How does the business remain fearless when pushing for such unconventional change against all the odds? Cricket also reminds us of two examples, when the crucial last overs in the T-20 World Cup and Hero Cup finals were given to new bowler Sharma and part-time bowler Tendulkar, instead of the conventional options.
Jesus Christ taught us to keep our word! It is amazing how in today’s competitive business world where most products are getting commoditized very quickly, often it is the un-adherence of basic quality or service standards that causes maximum client attrition. After all, quality and service that is promised is something everyone takes for granted. But it is actually ending up as the main differentiator, as many companies actually do not deliver on what they promised. Some of India’s biggest companies rank pathetically low on this. If a company cannot deliver what it promised, it will always face the leaking bucket syndrome, i.e. always need to replenish lost customers.
One has to be adaptable, rather than get attached! The Gita makes this business-type observation, be adaptable to changing situations rather than be fixated on what you originally thought. The business environment is constantly changing be it due to systemic or external factors, and one needs to change along with it to avoid becoming irrelevant. Attachment is good as it creates emotional bonds, but too much attachment can prove detrimental since it creates a barrier to change. A business example is exploring new options, ideas and innovations, which may help it maintain and grow its market share in a competitive market; even if it means getting out of the comfort zone of its earlier strategies. But at the same time, it is critical to evaluate the new ideas deeply before rushing to change just because of the heck of changing. To put it in a business perspective, it means trying every new business strategy, or idea on the board can just end up burning the invested capital while yielding minimal aggregate returns. It may be better to invest a bit extra time to evaluate and pick the relevant strategy, and then change!
A consultative approach to decisions was advocated by the Prophet, and this is important for business too. Involving the community is an oft used approach in Judaism as well. Everyone has some specialised knowledge or skills, which others can gain from. It is not possible for one to know everything. The best solution is to pool together all the knowledge and skills from different specialists so that the best decision can be taken. If decisions are based on half-knowledge or on the basis of people not be fully conversant with that topic, then the task is bound to fail. A business example is when a plan fails as the CEO felt he did not need the advice from those lower in the ranks, even if they are specialists of their domains. However, a CEO who pools ideas from relevant stakeholders may win.
Business managers have to manage people really well, just like Moses did during the journey to the Promised Land. Managing people includes your successors who will succeed to carry on the task, involving the more experienced older colleagues in the decision process, and tactfully isolating trouble-makers so that they cannot negatively affect the others. One can always hire good product managers to ensure quality standards, but handling people is critical across all levels, in whichever situation, for whatever objective. A succession plan is an imperative, be it for the task at hand when you are absent, or for the company as a whole. Valuing the experience of senior peers has its advantages, as they have seen more cycles than you and can offer more insights and anecdotes on what can work or not. Trouble-makers can bring a revolution in the ranks if left as they are. Hence one has to either address their concerns if genuine or diplomatically remove their influence from the group. All these test people skills immensely.
Jesus Christ and Guru Nanak both showed the virtue of being humble and compassionate, even to one’s hardest critics. This includes keeping up one’s integrity and values, something the Holy Quran also espouses. In the world of business, many CEOs act arrogant if they have achieved to crack their markets while many remain humble. How many people would like to work for either CEO? It does not mean the arrogant one is wrong, but they may find it hard to get the loyalty of their people; as those people only support the performance, not the personality. Since performance can be temporary, so can the support. A business example is when young CEOs of Indian start-ups act with utter arrogance on public forums.
As per the Gita, knee-jerk reactions are often done without proper reasoning and clarity, and the ensuing confusions only fan the smoke further instead of helping solve the issue. A constantly changing environment means sudden situations that may not be palatable! The result – we often resort to knee jerk reactions that cause us more harm. A business example is firing a manager who reached low sales targets for few months, instead of addressing business issues that may have genuinely impacted his performance. Such a hire and fire attitude only erodes the business’s brand in the market and ensures even high potential prospect employees refrain from joining. It is better to evaluate and reason out the situation with proper focus, as that would yield better results.
In conclusion, our religious scriptures are full of many more lessons that can be relevant in the context of modern-day business management. While many of the examples mentioned herein may sound clichés, it is worth noting that there is actually not much difference between what our religions teach us and what management teaches us. There may be a Venn-diagram between them, after all!