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Analysis: Variable Values

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Let me state my stand clearly upfront. I see nothing surprising in Ojas's or Vishesh's behaviour. Ojas is a junior sales guy; Vishesh sounds like a mid-level manager; both are doing what they are trained to do — get results in the short-term. The two people to blame for this soured relationship are where the buck must always stop — the two CEOs.

Mahir is incredibly idealistic and naive. There is a shocking disparity between his initial reaction to Ojas's "bad behaviour" and the ease with which he eventually signs the renewal contract for HeadsUp. Mahir needs to walk the talk, or be prepared to have his credibility suffer.

Jatin is incredibly hands-off, has not built a consistent and sustainable culture within HeadsUp, and his business will suffer in the long term.

Every organisation needs a few things to succeed — a clear long-term vision, ambitious objectives, a strategy, resources, and so on. It's not intuitively obvious why values are important to organisational success. Values provide the guiding light to what's right and what's not in the pursuit of organisational success. Values enable every individual to make daily decisions on their own, and others', actions.

When I say values, I don't necessarily mean good values. I just mean a clear set of principles which individuals can use consistently to decide what's OK and what's not. Don Corleone's Italian mob had a clear and consistent set of values. And cutting off a prize stallion's head and stuffing it under the Godfather's enemy's bedclothes was perfectly justified by those values!

Without exception, the CEO is responsible for defining the organisation's values, and for propagating them so that they are understood and consistently applied. In this case, both Mahir and Jatin fall short, though for different reasons.

Jatin's failure is easier to explain. It appears he built a good business in the beginning. The fact that Red Dot had been customers of HeadsUp for eight years is testimony to this. As is the fact that Mahir openly and willingly recommended HeadsUp to others. It's a different matter that I don't think highly of a business, which keeps its relationships with customers "free of excessive human interface". Hardly a good way to build stickiness into customer relationships. But it is clear that Jatin grew distant from his business over time. He may have been "decent, sober, polite" at Ferguson College, but he's now a Blackberry-toting executive flying from Frankfurt to Chicago, without the sense to directly intervene and preserve an eight-year-old relationship with an important customer. How else do you explain Vishesh's somewhat arrogant, shrug-his-shoulders attitude? I am a notoriously hands-on manager; I would have called Mahir from Frankfurt airport, and would have come back and visited personally. Ojas would have been put on notice never to repeat his overtures to Amanda (or anyone else at important customers) and Vishesh would have been under no illusions about "who deals with interpersonal issues". On certain issues, there can be no doubts about who is the boss. And "values/principles of doing business" is one such issue on which the boss' word should be the last.

So, while Jatin claims that "HeadsUp stands for much more", once again he doesn't walk the talk! Values cannot be proclaimed by an absentee CEO; they have to be enforced. When needed, they have to be enforced brutally so that everyone gets the message. Jatin is just not engaged enough any longer.
On the other hand, in my view Mahir falls short at clearly communicating a consistent set of values or principles of doing business. Had he been clear, Indira would not have choked on her tea and run to Mahir. She is the HR Director after all; she should have had a direct relationship with Jatin Kale. She should have called Ojas and discussed the issue with him. If that had not worked, she should have escalated the matter within HeadsUp. But it sounds like she wasn't clear about what Red Dot's stand would be. It certainly appears nobody was clear, given the parliamentary debate that erupted among Mahir, Uddhav and Kaushik and in, which Indira appears to have been a mere bystander.

So, I have no sympathy for the long and impassioned speeches that Mahir indulged in, while he bemoaned the values of the younger generation of managers. And for all the strategic advice he got from his Chanakya, and the grandstanding that they did with Vishesh, all they got in response was a shrug of the shoulders and a casual "That is a call for you to take".   And after all that Mahir decides to renew the contract with HeadsUp! Talk about a gap (more like a canyon) between values and actions.

In the end, it is important to have organisational values. But there is no easy way. The CEO needs to state the values. And communicate them clearly. And live by them everyday. And do so constantly, and consistently.

Nitin Gupta has held top executive positions across Unilever, GE, and MasterCard, and is currently an executive search consultant with Spencer Stuart.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-11-2009)

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