Thursday, September 24, 2009


No man ever gets a potbelly. No one! And born gymnasts like me, never in ten lifetimes. You might get a little plump here and there, but a potbelly? Bah! Thus it was, when – with much irritation after being hounded for over a month by my wife who libelously accused me of having procured a potbelly – I landed at the neighbourhood gym (which looked more like a fancy den for bully boys, one-third my age, trying to show off their hormone pumped muscles).

Trudging in contemptuously, while ogling at the plethora of mile-long machines lined up on both sides, I was straightaway introduced by my teenage nephew, who frequented the gym, to two brawny thickset six-footers, and asked to choose the trainer I would desire to be trained under. And why would I ‘desire’ one trainer over the other? Their differing training styles were put forward for my consumption. While one hooligan roughneck (Beastus Maximus is what I call him) was purported to be the toughest monster-trainer west of Cambodia, who could savagely whip your ten generations blood-dry till you got into shape, the other surprisingly had a gentler and suaver style of training, allowing you to lavishly train according to your ‘desires’ and needs, without pushing too hard.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Don Juan predictably was the more admired trainer with a bigger following. But that brought me to an interesting question. Despite the likability – or dislikability – index, who would be in reality more effective in getting people into shape – would it be bullboy barbarian who could machine wrench your guts out; or would it be the caring inveigler who’ll give you enough space to set up a farmhouse?

I decided to check out the metaphor in global corporations – have hard taskmasters been less successful universally than soft taskmasters? My research gave results to the contrary. The list of Fortune’s 2009 Best 100 Places To Work For (which contains names of 100 corporations which employees love the most globally) had only 5 names from the world’s top 100 and best performing corporations. That is, 95% of the world’s 100 largest companies – including Exxon- Mobil (the most profi table corporation in the world), Walmart, Chevron, Hewlett-Packard, GE, Berkshire Hathaway – are actually not the best places to work!! More shocking is the fact that the #1 company in the Best Places to Work ranking (a company called NetApp) did not even make it to the Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest corporations! The #2 and #3 do not even feature in the Fortune 1000 list!!!

For information, Fortune once noted that research shows that having or not having natural talent is “irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice, and hard work...” Fortune also wrote about Warren Buffett, the world’s richest individual, that he was “not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster,” and that he achieved greatness “only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but of a particular type that’s demanding and painful.”

In other words, deep-rooted and long standing sustained sincerity works terrifically better than plain passion and myopic bursts of commitment.

Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what research proves. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely young age (when he was just 2 years old!) and encouraged him to “work hard,” Tiger had racked up at least 15 years of hard work by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the US Amateur Championship, at the age of 18! Even today, after winning many world titles, he works as hard, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking the same swing twice, because that is his formula to getting super better.

When Carly Fiorina left HP (of course, after halving HP’s shareholder value in her six year term), the tumultuous 2001 merger with Compaq appeared to be driving HP straight to the undertaker’s workshop. Enter Mark Hurd, who is described as a “peerless control freak and an unrepentant leftbrainer!” As Fortune confi rms, “Hurd quickly established himself as a stern taskmaster for accountability.” Ben Horowitz, who was CEO of Opsware, which HP bought in 2007 in a $1.7 billion deal, adds, “His weapon of choice is the voicemail... and he begins the barrage in the wee hours. If Hurd is down on someone’s work, he’ll complain openly, so everyone knows he’s displeased. It feels like the walls are closing in on you.” Hurd’s greatness comes from the fact that he’s unrelenting, unrepentant and ruthless in his employee destruction, reaching below various levels of employees to rebuke bad performers personally. HP today is the world’s largest IT corporation (Fortune #9) whose revenues of $118.36 billion surpass even that of IBM’s. Even in the face of recession (a time when desktop and laptop sales have been battered), HP’s stock price has jumped by an unbelievable 130% since 2008 to touch $46 as of date.

That brings us to a close associate of Mark Hurd, A. G. Lafley, who in July stepped down as the CEO of P&G, while retaining the seat of P&G’s Chairman. When Lafley took CEO charge on June 6, 2000, P&G was in a big mess. Over the next six months, matters worsened, with the stock losing 50% of its value and its Mcap falling by more than $50 billion. But Lafley did the unimaginable through his ‘Working It’ program, which ensured that every member of the P&G family was made to “actually go into shops to sell to consumers,” as the April 2008 book by Ram Charan and Lafley titled The Game Changer notes. This go-to-field program ensured that each and every employee was made to work hard and sweat it out for maximum productivity! By the time Lafley left office as the CEO, P&G’s Mcap had improved dramatically to $150.59 billion from the lowly $33.74 billion it touched in the first six months of his arrival – a rise of 346.28%! What about ‘unhappy’ employees? Lafley confesses, “The company has no right to be happy unless ‘the boss’ is happy.”

Mentioning Jack “Neutron Welch” as “a tough taskmaster” would be a cliche. But it’s still important to note that Jack was well renowned for his often most displeasing “handwritten notes on performance” to employees, throwing out even passionate people at will, if they didn’t have sustained sincere attitude towards work. When Jack retired, GE’s value had increased by an astonishing 2,729% to $410 billion!

In the 2009 Conference Board Review paper titled, Why Americans don’t trust CEOs, Jason Jennings, author of the best-seller Less Is More notes that “strong leaders should be: straighttalking, hard-charging, tough taskmasters...” Many say like AIG’s former boss Hank Greenberg, who built a $99 billion financial-services empire (before Martin Sullivan, his successor destroyed it) – BusinessWeek calls Hank “the impatient and prickly leader, who could yell at people even while cycling furiously on a stationary bike!”

For too long, we have been a nation purporting the myth that companies should protect employees, give them brilliant and amicable working environments. No more! It is time to call the ridiculous bluff and to realise that without being the worst taskmasters and slappingly demanding sustained sincerity from employees, we can never become world class and globally benchmarked!!!

But hey, all said and done, research could go to hell, what about my personal life – and the ever growing potbelly? I still had the Damocles’ predicament hanging on my head at the gym. Who could ensure my potbelly could be zapped away with sureshot guarantee? Was the ungodly taskmaster Beastus Maximus really a better choice as my trainer or was my hero going to be the genteel Don Juan de Marco? I was confused and undecided through the day, until dinner when I met my dad – who had sometime back rid himself of his potbelly almost unbelievably overnight. I asked him what choice would he have made in such a damning situation? “Kapalbhati,” came his lightening reply. Taken aback, I said, “Kapalbhati?!? What in crazy heavens is that?!” He coolly replied, “It’s a yogic breathing technique, kid.” I stammered back, “But how can a breathing technique help you to get rid of your potbelly overnight?” Dad smiled mystically, and said, “Suck the damned potbelly in boy, that’s what it teaches you!”