Category Archives: Business

Book Review: True North – by Bill George with Peter Sims

Ture North – by Bill George with Peter Sims

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

This book is all about following one’s moral compass, as a leader and about authentic leadership. In many ways it is refreshing, as it emphasises that there are no cookie-cutter rules about leadership, so differs from other leadership books that may be more prescriptive. It encourages one to figure out one’s true values, strengths and weaknesses and understand this deeply. True values only come to light when one has to choose between close trade-offs, often in a crisis situation.

The book traces in depth, through interviews, the leadership lessons and ups and downs of well-known leaders such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks Coffee, Chuck Swab of Charles Swabb, Narayana Murthy of Infosys, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, Dan Vasella of Novartis, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and others.

The book also gives useful insights on why leaders may lose their moral compass, being driven by external factors, rather than internal ones, drawing upon the experiences of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, contrasting this against that of Ronald Reagan.

It is easy in today’s world to get lost in all the external demands and short termism and to forget what we are good at, what our natural styles and values are. This book is an excellent read – a reminder to stay grounded and follow the all important moral compass when all else is in chaos.

Arghhh! Stuck in Train Doors

No apologies if your head gets stuck in train doors!

The Writer’s Digest recently announced a very short story contest called The Shortest Short Story Contest which requires a story to be told in 132 characters or less (in Twitter) or 140 characters or less in its website. In an impulsive moment, I thought “why don’t I write any little story that comes to my mind?”.

Here’s what I wrote in 132 characters:

The train doors crushed me. Stuck, struggling, I prepared to be dragged viscously to my death. Suddenly, the doors opened. Oh god!

Someone made a nice comment about this little story, so I thought I’d tell the full story here. Yes, it’s a true story – it actually happened to me!

I had landed in London, Heathrow in a snowy, very cold winter one January, after a good six weeks in the tropics. It was obviously a shock to the system, besides, I was very tired after the 14-hour flight. Taking the underground train (or tube as it’s called in London) to Central London, I was half asleep when I realised my destination had arrived. I rushed to pick my suitcase and bags up.

I was wearing leather gloves, and struggled to lift the suitcase handle which had a spring that flapped it firmly down when not being lifted. I took out my gloves but my fingers were numb in the freezing weather a weather that I really hadn’t gotten used to just then. I could hardly feel anything with my fingers. By the time a managed to lift up my suitcase and gather my other bags and speed out, it was too late. The train doors slammed hard with me stuck in between them clutching all my bags with my numb hands! I was absolutely terrified.

I had visions of being dragged by the train, crushed against the walls of the underground tunnel and being torn to pieces. Arghhh! Horror of horrors! Thankfully, oh, so thankfully, a few seconds later, the doors opened and I walked out, my blood circulating properly again at last. Only at that moment did it occur to me that these trains must have sensors and safety features built in that prevent them from moving if the train doors are not shut properly. Of course – it makes perfect sense! Silly me! Nevertheless, technology is not always reliable and there is always a chance of something going a little awry, so I have to admit, I would still be a little scared if it happened again, if not as terrified.

Well, that’s my little story! I wonder if someone could have imagined it from the shorted 132-character version!

Odd Advertisements – Yo Yo Ma and UBS?

Sometimes, I just don’t get it. When I first saw this advertisement, I thought, “What Nice Music”. Yo Yo Ma is, after all, a great cellist. The second and third time, I thought the same, “What Nice Music” and thought again, what fantastic musicians Yo Yo Ma and the pianist are.  It occurred to me after a hearing it a few times, that I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was that was being advertised. I had to concentrate really hard the next time I saw it – and there it was – the very unobtrusive UBS logo right at the end.

After many times, I have to admit, I still don’t get the logic of this advertisement. Some may call me obtuse, some may say I don’t appreciate a really good quality advertisement. Well, maybe that is all true, but I’m still baffled. I still find the association of Yo Yo Ma (and any musician or artist, for that matter) with UBS (or any bank, for that matter) a rather unnatural one.

“Working together” is something we would like all banks to do with their customers, sure. There’s nothing wrong with that, although, as a statement, it’s not particularly memorable – wouldn’t we obviously want that for any service industry? “Creating together?” Well, that’s something else. In this age, one cannot help but be reminded of “creative accounting” and “creative banking products” that led to the systemic collapse of the financial services industry. “Creative” seems to have almost become a dirty word, when associated with Finance. Doesn’t the ‘Sage of Omaha’, Warren Buffet say, after all, he likes to keep things simple? If he cannot understand something, he will not invest in it, he has always told us.

I will emphasise, this is just my opinion, and an expression of the impact of this advertisement on me (i.e. nil, as far as banks as concerned). I will never (easily anyway, even after seeing the advertisement many times) associate musicians with banks, and Yo Yo Ma with UBS. Do you have a different take on this?

Left Brain – Right Brain Confusion

left_brain_right_brain_confusion

I attended a 2-day training programme, about a year ago, by a company called Dramatic Resources, as part of a course I was attending. This 2-day segment was mainly on public speaking and leadership.

One set of exercises we had to do in the programme starkly showed how the interaction of the left brain and right brain can sometimes derail us if we are not careful. This has implications in the things we do in life so it is worth taking note.

Here’s how the exercises went. We paired ourselves up (to illustrate, let’s call the participants in a pair A and B) and did the following exercises:

Exercise 1

A and B say 1,2,3,1,2,3, in sequence alternating between A and B quickly (i.e. A:1; B:2; A:3; B:1; A:2; B3; A:1 etc)

This, apparently, is an activity in which the left brain predominantly, is used.

Exercise 2

A and B do the actions (clap, stamp your foot, flick your fingers) in sequence alternating between A and B quickly (i.e. A:clap; B:stamp; A:flick; B:clap; A:stamp; B:flick; A:clap etc)

This got us into a groove. We almost felt like we were dancing! In this mode, we managed quite well. This, apparently, is an activity in which the right brain, predominantly, is used.

Exercise 3

Combining the above, A and B had to insert the numbers in Exercise 1 after every 2 actions in Exercise 2 (clap, stamp, say 1, flick, clap, say 2, stamp, flick, say 3, clap, stamp, say 1 etc. ) in sequence alternating between A and B quickly (i.e. A:clap; B:stamp; A:1; B:flick; A:clap; B:2; A:stamp; B:flick; A:3, etc). As you can imagine, this drove us crazy!! It was really, really hard to do this quickly. This, apparently, is an activity using both the right and left brain and gets very confusing.

This really hit the point home for me and I found the exercise very insightful.

There are examples of this in real life. A child may get quite carried away in telling a story using her imagination (right brain activity). When an adult comes a long and chides the child, demanding an explanation as to why she is not doing her homework (left brain activity to answer this) she just freezes, going blank.

This could sometimes be what happens when we are talking to an audience, happily engrossed in the description of what we are saying and something triggers left brain activity (doubt for example – why is that person reading his blackberry instead of listening? Am I boring them?) This disrupts our right brain activity that was carrying on so nicely until interrupted.

I find it very useful to have this understanding of how our brains function. With this knowledge we can try to consciously tell the offending part of the brain to keep from interefering (for a while when we need this discipline) when another part of the brain is doing just fine.

Have you had such an experience you would like to share?

Tolerance of Lifestyle – We Love It!

Selective tolerance?

In one of the first organisations I worked in, there was an official set of organisational “values” that we were all educated on. As you would imagine, most of these centred around client service and quality. Some values related to how we worked in the office.

When a survey was done some point after these values were introduced, it turned out, the most popular value (by far) was “Tolerance of Lifestyle”. There was a pretty uninanimous vote on that one…..surprise, surprise! It meant (broadly) that all cultures, workstyles, lifestyles, etc. were welcomed and embraced, so long as a quality, timely output was delivered. Everybody just loved this! This seems somehow quite telling of human nature.

A quote I found recently on tolerance reads as follows: “Tolerance does not mean that we agree or ignore each other. It means we make space for other peoples’ (different/wrong/interesting/odd) opinions.

I believe if this value is embraced more widely, many people would practise this and enjoy it. After all, it gives one an invigorating feeling to be allowed to be free and to not feel compelled or obliged to conform. As well, when there is a spirit of tolerance, there is mutual respect, which makes for a much healthier environment in which to take things forward.

Inspiring person with Autism: Temple Grandin

Reblogging an absolutely amazing story I came across – about an autistic woman (a professor and animal scientist) who can relate extraordinarily to animals….

Understanding and Embracing Diversity

Dr. Temple Grandin is a person with High-Functioning Autism noted professor and animal scientist, famously known for her invention of the squeeze machine, which helps SOME individuals with Autism to calm down. She also invented cattle -processing facilities that cause the least amount of harm to animals (if any).

Here’s one of many documentaries about Dr. Grandin entitled ‘The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow’:

For more information on Dr. Temple Grandin, click on the links below:

Temple Grandin’s profile on TED

Dr. Temple Grandin’s official website

 

More on Autism:

Vote for Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman

What does Autism mean?

What is PDD-NOS?

Communication difficulties in Autism

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper: Asperger’s Syndrome’s Poster Boy?

Still unsure if Sheldon has Asperger’s?

The Autistic Me: A BBC Documentary

BBC4’s Growing Children: Autism

Study Shows People with Autism Can Spot Inappropriate Behaviour but ffind it difficult to Verbally Explain Them

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Book Review: Ethical Issues in Accounting – Edited by Catherine Gowthorpe and John Blake

Ethical Issues in Accounting – Edited by Catherine Gowthorpe and John Blake

This book is concisely written. It has a number of contributors and a large list of references. Although first written in 1998, the issues are highly relevant today and provide valuable insights into ethical issues in the profession.

It covers all the critical aspects of the subject – creative accounting, whistleblowing, the ethics of tax practitioners, the role (and shortcomings) of the professional bodies in ethical issues, auditors and moral issues, self-regulation vs. independent regulation, public service (and the tensions and conflicts of interest with management there), the environment and corporate social reporting.

There are interesting (and shocking) insights from the authors’ own experiences at work, and the lack of power to be able to speak up against unethical practices. There is critism of the partisanship of professional bodies. There is also critism of their role as guardians of accounting and auditing ethics, suggesting that these bodies themselves routinely compromise their own ethical position. Balancing arguments are also presented, suggesting that the radical critics’ views are sometimes overstated and misrepresented.

Overall, it has been a fascinating read for me. I am very impressed with how the crux of issues and debates are packed into this very informative little book (under 200 pages). I learnt and became aware of a lot through reading it. Some if it, I have to admit, was a little above my head because of the academic approach to the discussions in places, but I would be tempted to read it again to get round this, given its usefulness.

World Bank – a Call for Ideas on Eradicating Poverty

The World Bank has started a blog to crowdsource for ideas on eradicating poverty: Social Media at the World Bank: Tell Us What It Will Take To Eradicate Poverty. I first heard about this on CNN a few days ago. I did not even realise it was the mission of the World Bank to eradicate poverty – we don’t normally hear a lot about this organisation. Apparently the new head of the World Bank, Jim Yong, Kim is working at cutting out bureaucracy and getting the World Bank staff all excited about eradicating poverty more quickly than the approximately 1%p.a. rate that has been achieved over the last years.

There are a number of comments already on the page, but I thought I would think about this myself. A few ideas come to mind regarding what has worked well in recent years:

Philanthropy

I have been impressed by what I have heard about the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, run by Bill and Melinda Gates – e.g. providing vaccines to the poor and helping farmers increase yield on vegetation by testing soil samples. Encouraging great philanthropic efforts from the well-to-do and resourceful will certainly have a far-reaching impact.

Microfinance

Microfinance, promoted by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, with Grameen Bank was very successful in bringing people out of poverty, especially women in coutries like Bangladesh. He wrote the well publicised book, Banker to the Poor and other books.

Social Enterprise

Social enterprises such as KIVA source for donations for many projects to help the poor.

The book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by C.K. Prahalad gave many great examples of how simple enterprises help increase income for the poor from zero on some days to something meaningful. An example is an initiave to provide fishermen with access to mobile phones that helped them work out where to fish each day depending on the weather.

Education

Education is a way out of the poverty trap. The nature of education has changed today and can be revolutionised with more thought. Even in the developed world, ideas like home schooling have become a reality. With the internet and social networks, the reach of education may be increased manifold. Equiping poor regions with computers and developing online programs may help accelerate the rate of education in these far out poor regions.

Other

Apart from this, we sometimes hear about inefficiencies in the system, corruption, difficulties in reaching poor regions because of poor infrastructure, etc. Progress must be made to root out inefficiencies and corruption where these exist.

I shall post these thoughts of mine in the World Bank’s site. Friends in the blogging community and elsewhere – do you have ideas about this? Do share them on the World Bank’s site at the link above.

Away from the Madding Crowds

A swimming pool all to myself….

Free to choose almost any seat at a restaurant….

A one-third filled flight to Abu Dhabi, with 4 seats to myself….

No queue at the snack shop….

Empty seats in the underground train….

A smooth-sailing 5-hour road trip with little traffic….

Whizzing through ‘immigration’ and baggage collection at the airport….

Ahhh…these are a few simple pleasures one can enjoy when one’s immediate circle of family or friends are not in 9-5 office routines or in school with fixed term times.  Lunch at 11am or 2.30pm or a trip somewhere when most people are at work or at school are what I try to do when I have such opportunities.

Perhaps things will change in many years time – when formal organisations decrease in importance, as predicted by Charles Handy in his book The Age of Unreason, or when home schooling or other alternatives to formal school as we know it today gain in popularity. And why not? With the internet, so many new possibilities open up. When these changes start to happen, perhaps crowds will trickle more steadily throughout the days and years instead of the “all-or-nothing” crowds in cities we experience during peak hours and off-peak hours. Until then I shall look for opportunities to stay away from the madding crowds!

When People Lived Till Only 40 or 50, When Did They Retire?

Life expectancy has increased tremendously over the last century and a half. In 1900, life expectancy in developed countries was only 40 to 50 (see table). Today it is close to or over 80 in developed economies.

I was curious about how the retirement age has changed over this time. To this end I found a few helpful documents and sites such as Gary Beene’s Retirement Information Centre. It would seem that in most of the 19th century, people worked pretty much all their lives, as long as they were physically able, death then following soon after. Many were self-employed at the time, working on their farms, for example. When the industrial revolution started in the late 19th century people became wealthier and social security during retirement started to become a viable idea. Among the first to get such privileges were war veterans. Retirement benefits were paid for just a few years (maybe 2-5 years) while people lived, as older people were deemed to be in an insufficiently healthy state to contribute to the workforce.

Going into the 20th century, not only have people survived to a much older age, they are also now much healthier during those older ages, as a result of vast advances in medical technology. Today, with retirement ages in the 60s and people living till the 80s, pension funding has gone haywire. Retirement ages have not kept up with increases in life expectancy. Retirement funding in a big way started during the last century, for generous pension benefits and proved unsustainable later because of both increasing life expectancy and lower interest rates.

A recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek had an article that the Japanese are still working, at least part-time after formal retirement, not just for the money but because they are physically and mentally able and want to do something meaningful. We have seen a tremendous shift from the norms of the 19th century and the (different) norms of the early and late 20th century respectively. Surely, the way we look at work and retirement going forward will also have to undergo radical change.