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BW Businessworld

Great Is The Enemy of Good

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This title or theme was inspired by Jim Collins’ much touted management book at the turn of the century called Good to Great. Many of you might be familiar with the theme of that work.
Essentially, he argued that “Good was the enemy of great”. Seeming to suggest that “contented mediocrity” is the glass ceiling that prevents organisations and individuals from achieving greatness. Only one of the 11 companies picked out for greatness in this book outdid the stock market over the 14 years since it was published. Three of these were subsequently in deep trouble and one of them was taken over.  Ironically, the authors’ magnum opus was called “Built to last”. And so I really wondered why most of the good-to-great companies had a durability issue. Hence, I suggest to you that in fact “great is the enemy of good”. Yes, I am twisting this a little, but my basic question is, whether there is a place for goodness in achieving greatness of any kind.

Actually, this is the more altruistic interpretation of the theme. In its extreme form, I call it the helicopter syndrome. Many would like to reach the top of Mount Everest. Most would prefer take a helicopter there. Typically and unfortunately, we encourage our wards to take the shortest cut to greatness. Very often, at the loss of goodness. And why not? What’s the worry if there is a faster way to get there?

In order to examine this contradiction, I thought of breaking it down into three sub themes. To argue this practically and not philosophically, we might examine each of these sub themes through the lens of one large entity, which might have affected every one of us at some point or the other.
Let me ask you this: Does anyone have a view on what might be the most valuable commercial name in the country? What do you think they may be worth? Yes, it’s the Tata brand and its worth $21 billion. Why do you think it might be worth as much? Let’s ask this question in a slightly different way. If I was the chairman of the group and sold it to you, the entire group and all its firms, brand and assets, but with one exception, that is the right to use the little four letter word Tata in any way, would you buy the group? Would you be able to raise money as easily, or buy companies much larger than your size, easily?

There is another excellent yet understated example in Tamil Nadu — the Murugappa group. It’s certainly not a household name like the Tatas. Their companies like Parry’s, BSA cycles and Coromandel are more recognisable names. Yet, they would find it difficult to manage many of the things mentioned before, were they not a part of the Murugappas.

Now, why do you think that a hard-nosed investment banker would like to give money to the  56th largest steel company to buy the fifth largest? Is it because of its balance sheet, its cutting edge technology or its global reach? I think, we all know the answer. It has little or nothing to do with the business resume of Tata Steel. It has everything to do with the reputation of the group.
But the real question is, for what? For the reason that, over a 140-year period, they didn’t compromise on their overarching traits, their integrity and compassion. It was only at the turn of the century that the group thought that this might be its biggest asset. That it might be its big ticket to global business.

Today the name is valued, tested regularly for impairment, internally licensed to group companies, governed for usage by a code of conduct and under the guardianship of no less than a GCC member, i.e., someone sitting on the group’s board.  It is no coincidence that the same guardian is also the chief ethics officer of the group. What lessons might this have for each of us individually?
The last part of this story might be exceptional but also quite instructive in exemplifying the idea of goodness over greatness. Dr Mammen Chandy is India’s leading hematologist. For the better part of his long and illustrious career, he has been attached to CMC Vellore. He was tempted a million times with carrots  by some of the biggest names in the business. He politely turned them all down. Finally, when he did decide to go, he went to start the Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Calcutta.

What was his motivation. To build a 150-bed cancer hospital for the needy, particularly from the North-east, who would otherwise have had to travel all the way to TMH Mumbai, AIIMS Delhi or Vellore. He knew that this was the one group that remained as committed to the cause. Both Dr Chandy and his new employers are planters, not harvesters. I have long been plagued by this dilemma that if all of us want only to harvest, who pray will do the planting?
The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 20-03-2015)