Nigeria: How Business Executives Can Turn Uncertainty into Opportunities- An interview with Ram Charan.
By Adedoyin Adebayo
We are convinced of how much we can learn from each other. In fact, most knowledge is learning from the other. We had the great honor to speak directly with “the most influential consultant alive”, Professor Ram Charan, the Indian-American business consultant, speaker, and writer resident in Dallas, Texas.
I became fascinated with Ram Charan in 2008 when I read his book, Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done (which he co-authored with former Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy in 2002, was a #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller and spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. This interview was initially meant for Charan’s latest book– The Attacker’s Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities published last year but Charan also touched on several other important topics- Human Resources, Emerging Markets, Nigeria, Career etc. When you talk to Charan, you are struck by how simple his advice seems. But it’s not simplistic. It’s brutally pragmatic and totally relevant to the Nigerian business community and several others.
Talking to Ram Charan was no mean task. When we requested for this interview, Ram’s office contacted me almost immediately but letting me know that Professor Charan will personally take the interview but they will have to work with his schedule. Charan is constantly on the move, seven days a week, 365 days a year. He travels the world, dispensing his idiosyncratic straight-talking advice to bosses and directors of some of the world’s biggest companies. He was in Nigeria in 2013 during the annual Leadership Forum organized by MTN.
Ram Charan is a global business advisor, author and speaker who has spent the past 35 years working with many top executives at some of these Fortune 100 companies in the world where has close and lasting relationships with some of these world’s most powerful CEOs of our time. In his work with companies such as GE, KLM, Bank of America, DuPont, Novartis, Coca-Cola, Merck, EMC, 3M, Verizon, Tata and Aditya Birla, he is known for cutting through the complexity of running a business in today’s fast changing environment to uncover the core business problems and devise real world solutions.
Ram’s introduction to business came early while working in the family shoe shop in a small town in northern India, where he was raised. He earned an engineering degree in India and soon after took a job in Australia and then in Hawaii. When his talent for business was discovered, Ram was encouraged to pursue it. He earned MBA and doctorate degrees from Harvard Business School, where he graduated with high distinction and was a Baker Scholar. He served on the Harvard Business School faculty and did a brief, tenured stint at Boston University before leaving to pursue consulting full time. He has authored 17 books since 1998 that have sold over 2 million copies in more than a dozen languages. When Ram is not travelling the world consulting, he teaches at Wharton Executive Education. You can find him at ram-charan.com
Over the phone, his voice comes across as paternal and succinct as he took my questions one after the other. Edited excerpts from my interview with Ram:
Insel Consulting: Your latest book titled The Attacker’s Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities published last year, could you give me five ways how organizations can turn uncertainty into opportunities?
RAM:(Clears his throat).The immense uncertainty that today’s business leaders face is something truly unique. We’ve been living with uncertainties forever, of course. What’s new is structural uncertainty. It is structural because the long-term, irresistible forces now at work can explode the existing structure of your market space or your industry, putting it at risk of being drastically diminished or completely eliminated. They are like sudden bends in the road. They appear, seemingly without warning. Taking control of uncertainty and successfully steering your organization through frequent bends in the road is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time. Of the skills required to thrive as a business leader now, the first — and perhaps most important — is perceptual acuity. Perceptual Acuity- psychological and mental preparedness to “see around corner” and spot potentially significant anomalies, contradictions, and oddities in the external landscape ahead of others. It is your human radar for seeing through the fog of uncertainty so you can act first.
- A mind-set to see opportunity in uncertainty
- The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it
- Adeptness in managing the transition to the new path.
- Skill in making the organization steerable and agile
Many leaders wait for uncertainties in the external environment to firm up before they react. The ability to deal with uncertainty is perhaps the paramount skill leaders must have to be successful in this era. Without it they risk becoming personally obsolete and driving their companies off a cliff.
We have developed a series of questions as a self-diagnosis and improvement guide based on four parts of the book that correspond with the four sections of The Attacker’s Advantage. I invite you to give it a try here.
Insel Consulting: You talked about structural uncertainty and operational uncertainty. What is the difference between the two? How can business leaders/executives spot them?
RAMCHARAN: (Clears his throat). Every year country like India has four seasons. Some seasons, we get rain and some seasons we don’t get rain. Some years we get Monsoon very good and some years we don’t get Monsoon at all. So that’s the uncertainty of how we plant seeds and we know that will happen and that is basically an operational uncertainty.
A structural uncertainty changes the marketplace, changes the competition and changes the customer needs. So, Apple iPhone changed the destiny of the whole cell phone companies like Nokia. That was a structural change. And these structural changes will take place more often, deeper because new technologies are moving very fast.
Insel Consulting: What are the characteristics of leaders who are attackers, defenders and the sitting ducks?
RAM: Good question! The truth is that few leaders are attackers. Many more are defenders, who struggle to maintain their existing business when shifts in the competitive landscape and money making have already begun. Still others are sitting ducks, unaware of the changes that are underway until it is too late to recover. Every change they see, the attackers are on the offence not on the defence. They do have problems but their minds can work through those problems and turn them into opportunities. For example, Apple was dying and Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to create iPod and iTunes and he changed the game for the music and phone industry. This is what Sony didn’t do, Panasonic didn’t do, Phillips didn’t do and he was on the attack. He attacked that industry. Created an industry and touched people’s imagination.
Insel Consulting: You were in Nigeria in 2013 where you spoke on “Private Sector as the Engine Room for Economic Growth”, fast forward to 2016; a lot has changed significantly in our business environment. Nigerian CEOs face a lot of uncertainties more than ever before, most especially due to regulations by the authority, technologies, political decisions, and economic forces. How do you think you can help our CEOs?
RAM: Yes I was in Nigeria. What I try to do is to learn what is on the mind of the CEO. What are the external changes that the CEO needs to take advantage of them? Because, I work as an advisor with several business leaders, ranging from board members to business unit managers, in several companies and multiple industries around the world and I have developed a methodology they can use in learning what those changes are and where they are coming from. So, in this way I’m able to provide new ideas, new ways to think about it and link to the problems, challenges, and opportunities they are confronting. The issue facing your business leaders should not be how to cope with those changes but about how to anticipate changes coming down the track, understand their implications before competitors, and utilise them to improve their market position and profitability.
Insel Consulting: Are there any different challenges facing HR and business leaders in the emerging economy that their counterparts in the United States and other developed countries are not experiencing.
RAM: Every company depends on talent. Talent is a leading indicator of whether the business is headed up or down. Smart leaders put people before numbers, because it is talent, in the end, that delivers the numbers necessary to keep a business strong and healthy. Markets may be slow. Economies may be flat or maybe shrinking but nothing is as bad as the idea of losing talents. Every company should nurture its talents. They may be smaller in time, find talent, and deploy talents. Keep courage and weather the storm of the current challenging times.
Insel Consulting: In conclusion, what career advice would you give to an individual looking for career opportunities in these challenging times?
Every talented person first must recognize what’s their talent and continue to find experiences of sharpening that talent. In doing that, you may not get big money or even a big job during this period, but nobody can take away the talent you developed. So search for those opportunities to develop your talent within Nigeria or be it elsewhere.
Adedoyin Adebayo conducted this interview. He is a Senior Consultant at Insel Consulting