Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bonsai Managers and Banyan Leaders : Need for a New Paradigm for India Inc

R Gopalakrishnan in his book "The Case Study of The Bonsai Manager" propounded the concept that a manager who is not working at the upper end of his own potential can be termed as a bonsai manager. He goes on to analyze various anecdotes, fables and comparisons from the nature and wild life to draw analogies of managerial responses, focusing on concepts of knowledge, intuition and wisdom. The focus of his book is essentially on the variables that a manager can play on to either be content with being a bonsai manager or grow into a fully functional and fully contributory manager. Gopal's thesis implies that a manager is by himself his own cause and effect in the event he gets stymied as a bonsai manager. The thesis of his insightful work is that by shaping one’s managerial instincts intelligently and contextually, often drawing lessons from nature, one can unleash the power of intuition in oneself and thus reach the fullest potential. Gopal’s book is a must-read for its native simplicity and contemporary wisdom.

Gopal's highly innovative and intuitive conceptualization does not consider a companion concept of banyan leaders in organizations. A banyan leader, as the name suggests, is one who dominates the organizational scene not developing powerful successor-leaders or even managers and general managers, just as a banyan tree would, in a natural habitat, not allow growth of alternate plant or tree life. A banyan leader, in his individual capacity, thinks, expresses and acts as the collective wisdom of the organization rarely allowing flowering of any independent thought. It is a moot point if a preponderance of bonsai managers causes the perpetuation of banyan leaders or the domineering personality of a banyan leader stymies the development of free managerial thought, expression and action causing an organization-wide bonsai manager phenomenon. Reverting to the wild life scene, the contrast is remarkable; elder animals encourage the younger ones to be independent and adventurous at the very first opportunity. There is perhaps a whole different survival and growth paradigm in the organizational eco systems that set differential rules of personality development, compared to wild animal life or controlled civic life.

Three levels

Organizations typically have three levels of professional personality development. The first and basic level is the executive level where a professional largely functions as an individual, following the guidance of his or her superiors. The second higher level is the managerial level which sees the professional maturing into a manager with the responsibility of planning, organizing, strategizing, directing, reviewing and controlling the performance of team members. Typically, managers lead departments. The third highest level is that of a leader who has the responsibility for the vision, strategy and execution as well as the overall performance of a business unit or the organization as a whole. Typically, an executive has an individualized compliance responsibility while a manager has a group-oriented optimization responsibility and a leader has a company-wide transformational responsibility. As one progresses in the managerial and leadership hierarchy, the challenge of managing the external environment also increases significantly. The escalating hierarchy of responsibilities makes it imperative for professionals to be not only distinctive but also instinctive and statesman-like.
The three intellectual components that Gopal mentioned in his book become relevant in the above progression. An executive needs to be knowledgeable. A manager needs to add intuition to the knowledge he has had as an executive. A leader has to add wisdom to the knowledge and intuition he has had as a manager. While it is not incorrect, and on the contrary it would be fortuitous, to have executives who are not only knowledgeable but also intuitive and wise, unfortunately the highly compliance oriented work systems at the operating level make such executives feel strange and unwanted. Companies such as Google, on the other hand, owe their meteoric rise to the freedom and empowerment they provided to the youngsters to dream and develop new paradigms of growth in technology and business. The same companies also are evidence to their growth slowing down with bureaucracy overpowering creativity and empowerment at the bottom of the organizational pyramid. On a similar analogy, companies such as Hindustan Unilever which create appropriate eco systems for their managers to combine intuition with knowledge enable their managers handle growth opportunities early on, thus building up the leadership stock in the company. The same companies found their growth stalled when their eco systems turned less challenging for their managers.  
The race of the banyan
The growth of the banyan tree has few parallels in wild forestry. The great banyan derives its growth force from its genetic evolution. The way it grows symmetrically and expansively drawing strength from its branches, the branches becoming roots and becoming supporting pillars of the main trunk and the vast expanse of overarching branches is a fascinating study. A banyan leader in an organizational setting displays a remarkable similarity. Like the banyan tree, the banyan leader possesses indefatigable growth energy. His vision and aspiration dominates the entire organizational eco system. Like in the case of the banyan tree’ main trunk, the banyan leader’s core competence would, however, be inadequate to support an organizationally overarching leadership personality. The banyan leader verily then depends on a set of followers who adulate, propagate and mimic the leadership style of the great banyan leader, and like the banyan’s root-branches become inseparable component of a monolithic, all-pervasive leadership system (not merely style) in the company.
The banyan leader is a great source of strength for small and medium scale organizations, struggling to cope with the scale and power of larger corporations. The banyan leader is also essential in entrepreneurial and start-up organizations which require conviction and passion as much as competencies and capabilities to carry the day. Typically, the banyan leader has a tremendous level of energy and commitment, which together with functional expertise makes him virtually the sole leader in his organizations. It is important for the banyan leaders to recognize that there come an appropriate time in the organizations when they themselves should operate slightly below their potential so that a new crop of leaders can grow under them. Banyan leaders who refuse to recognize this need for slow-down typically end up competing with their own teams to establish their continued superiority and sole relevance. Gopal in his book outlines a simple three step process for leaders to develop leaders out of their younger generation. The three step process is in fact a reflection of how the animal kingdom grooms its offspring to stay on and succeed in the fiercely hostile natural habitats.

The first task of a leader is to protect the younger generation from the harsh organizational environment and make them aware of the manner in which they can be successful in the organizations. Induction and alignment programs provide a valuable methodology to achieve this. The real value will, however, accrue only when the leaders are able to devote their personal attention to spend quality time with the new recruits. Their presence in the induction programs provides confidence to the new recruits that the leadership has faith in them.  The second task of a leader is to nurture the young talent.  Here again, on the job training programs and standard operating procedures as well as written down vision, values and code of business conduct play a valuable part in nurturing the young talent. However, this phase also requires participation by the leaders to coach and motivate the young generation. Wise leaders often devise ingenious ways to cut through the hierarchy and reach out to youngsters through company-wide communication programs and professional development programs. The third task of a leader is to pace the young managers through complex challenges to assume leadership responsibilities. Performance appraisal and management systems do provide a valuable methodology to achieve such progression but are not wholly adequate. Projects which are in the direct line of sight of the top leadership are the only viable means to bring out the best in the young managers. These could be productivity improvement, operational excellence, business development and organizational transformation projects, for example.
Tracking the young officers from the time of their joining an organization is a practice that progressive organizations institutionalize. Talent map, competency atlas and skill pool are tools which can capture the talent in an organization at a particular cross-section of the time and provide the platform to manage the talent in a proactive manner. As organizations grow larger and global it becomes difficult for top leadership of a company to physically or virtually stay in touch with the younger generation spread across the businesses and regions. A useful thumb rule adopted by alert leaders is that behind the extraordinary performance of any established functional or business leader there would be one or several young managers who could be contributing silently. Understanding the silent performers of an organizational hierarchy is often a challenging task as the corporate rule book often asks that career rewards are an adequate return and recognition of the performance of the younger generation. The rule book ignores the tangible and intangible benefits of identifying future leadership talent early and put them through the three step process of protecting, nurturing and pacing. It is not the case, however, that professional transformation is the exclusive responsibility of the leaders only; on the other hand, the young professionals themselves have a great responsibility to be seen and heard in an organizational system.
Akin to the three step process of protect-nurture-pace recommended for leaders to groom young talent, corresponding three step process of absorb, upgrade and transform for the young professionals. The first task of any young entrant to an organization is to process and absorb as much information as possible on his job and his company. The young officer must be prepared to spend time with related functions to understand the wider organizational value chain, and be willing to spend midnight oil to perform projects which may not fall wholly in his domain. The second task of a young officer is to augment the competency set. It does not suffice any longer to be just a specialist and aspire to become a successful leader. At the same time it is also counterproductive to be a generalist and hope to become a top leader. Today’s precision dynamics of business requires leaders to have multiple core competencies. By seeking job rotation and dipping deep into other functional domains youngsters can achieve success in competency augmentation. The third task of a young manager is to transform himself into a leader. Organizations usually set the bar for leadership transformation high. Organizations may deploy a wide range of metrics from proven performance record to psychological evaluation score to determine the transformational readiness of a young manager. Apart from coasting through such gates the young manager should have an objective idea about his own transformational fitness.
Careers certainly cannot always be realized in exactly the same manner as they are planned for (by the organizations) or aspired for (by the individuals). It is, however, important for young aspirants to choose their peak aspiration early and assiduously work towards scaling the peak. In this journey, it would also be useful to choose a role model of top leadership to understand the key success factors. While leadership styles and models are easily categorized, no leader works or delivers exactly the same way as another leader. Apart from the fact that leadership is contextual, it is also intrinsically personality driven. There are over fifty personality attributes that have a crucial bearing on the contextual leadership model. It is therefore important for youngsters to develop their own leadership styles even as they get mentored, coached and inspired by great leaders. Today’s leaders of Indian blue chip companies have all functioned and grown under stalwart leaders; yet each successor has been able to set his or her own stamp of leadership as he or she became the leader. Essentially, the transformation has to come from within, to reach one’s full potential.
Neither bonsai nor banyan
The organizational landscape would be poorer if it is marked only by bonsai managers or banyan leaders. As India, Inc takes on increased domestic competition and gets prepared to play a larger direct role in other emerging markets and developed markets, managerial and leadership capabilities need to be of a very high order. Young aspirants and established leaders need to collaborate to fulfill a new global managerial and leadership vision for India that reflects a healthy growth of talent, an ample measure of empowerment and a viable metric of delivery.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 19, 2011       

1 comment:

Narayanan said...

Leadership journey is akin to evolution rather than a revolution. In an increasingly complex business environment that requires a thoughtful combination of competition and collaboration, the trajectory of leadership evolution needs to be situational and fluid. As the author has rightly pointed out, neither the bonsai manager nor the banyan leader are likely to serve as a robust prescription for continued success for Indian firms. Tim Harford in his book "Adapt" makes a persuasive case for the role of failures in eventual success underscoring the need for wide experimentation, surviving failures and knowing/learning from them in both professional and personal lives. Perhaps it is time for leadership mentoring programs and formal HR initiatives complement the traditional "how to succeed..." classes with "how to fail and survive..." to help young managers sculpt a more relevant self-portrait to help build inner confidence and a sense of higher purpose as an antidote to "bonsaification". Counteracting the longer term pernicious effects of a banyan leader is far more challenging as they and the organizations they lead are likely to be victims of their past successes. However as Harford quotes in his book, Leslie Orgel's second law - "Evolution is cleverer than you are" is a merciful thought indeed and one would hope banyans are capable of evolution as well!