Ajay Kaul

Management: awareness, communication and execution!

In Business, management on April 21, 2015 at 12:18 AM

90 minutes of intense soccer action in a world Cup game – a player is fouled, the team members are up in arms. One individual runs up to the center of the commotion – flashes a few yellow cards and directs the players back to their positions – the referee has just performed his job as a manager!

The house is short on groceries – the paycheck is still two days away. She pulls together a quick meal out of the frozen vegetables she has in the refrigerator for this kind of a contingency. The mother has just performed her job as a manager!

Managers – they thrive in execution. They make things happen. While leaders dream up a vision of the future, managers help realize the vision and build the new future.

Managers are accountable for results. Leaders thrive in disruption. They get us away from status quo; managers help stabilize the disruption to get us to a new status quo while maneuvering through constraints.


Successful management entails 3 key aspects:

  1. Understanding the environment/team – Understanding the environment provides an insight into the prevalent opportunities and risks. Understanding the team provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the team members individually and collectively. Managers have to tailor their implementation strategy to the environment and the available resources. Implementation plans and techniques cannot be cloned across teams and environments. Ferdinand De Lesseps successfully built the Suez Canal as an Ocean level canal, but failed miserably with Panama Canal when he tried using the same implementation approach. The Panama Canal was finally built as a combination of lake and ocean level by William Gorgas. (Read: Panama Canal Timeline)
  2. Communication: You can never communicate enough – Communication is key to a successful implementation. Managers work with teams and it is important that every member on the team understands their role towards achievement of the final goal. Managers have to continuously monitor and evaluate progress to ensure the team is on the right track for a successful implementation. Communication is a 2-way street. Managers have to communicate and also receive feedback from the team. Feedback ensures that the team has understood the goal and both the manager and the team are on the same page. A disconnect between the initiator and recipient of a communication can lead to massive consequences – the Berlin Wall apparently collapsed prematurely due to a massive miscommunication.
  3. Execution: Management is all about execution and results. A successful execution is built upon the foundation of a strong understanding of the environment/team and a clear and solid communication channel.In Soccer, a successful strike at the opponent’s goal is usually accomplished after a series of moves that entail a combination of forward push and retreat. The implementation cycle is where reality comes head to head with perception/assumptions. The manager needs to closely monitor progress and be ready to fine-tune the implementation to ensure achievement of the end-goal stays on track. Fine tuning can mean re-assigning team members based on the strengths and weaknesses they have exhibited or taking a detour to avoid an oncoming obstacle.

Gandhi – managing the implementation of India’s Independence:

Leaders design the future; managers implement it.

The vision of an independent India, free of British occupation was designed by Lokmanya Tilak in the early 1900s, but India had to wait for Gandhi the manager to take the vision through to implementation.

Gandhi excelled as a manager on all 3 fronts:

Understanding his team and environment: Soon after landing in India from South Africa, Gandhi undertook a tour of India to acclimatize himself with the social and economic structure of the country. He witnessed a huge population of 350 million –  economically impoverished and socially suppressed (Watch: Gandhi tours India) under the British. Gandhi realized that the impoverishment was rife for a revolt, and the suppression could be channeled productively into non-cooperation.

Communicating the plan: In an era where the word of mouth was the most effective mode of communication, Gandhi was able to communicate his plan effectively across to about a quarter million Indians. His tactic? Shock and awe.His execution plan entailed non-cooperation and non-violence and he started his campaign for non-cooperation with a message of boycotting foreign goods. He mass communicated this via a dramatic burning of English garments under the very eyes of British cops. This set the tone for the non-cooperation movement. Word spread like wildfire and soon all of India was creating bonfires of English goods.

Executing the plan: Gandhi’s brilliant plan entailed having the entire population of India refuse to co-operate with the British. He indicated this in his TV interview with “100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if the Indians refuse to co-operate”

Gandhi monitored the progress of the movement closely and did not hesitate to pause and fine tune the execution. During the non-cooperation movement when a group of protestors turned violent and set a police station on fire killing 23 policemen (the Chauri Chaura incident), Gandhi immediately called off the non-co-operation movement and went on a five day fast to protest the bloodshed, holding himself personally responsible for not communicating the message of non-violence effectively. News of his fast and its impact on his health spread like wildfire and effectively delivered the message to his anxious followers about the importance of non-violence in the freedom movement.

A leader will lead the horse to water, but the manager will make it drink. Leaders inspire (and pull us out of our inertia of complacency) and managers motivate (to deliver results)

Pope Francis: Fixing a dream gone sour:

One of the most effective managers in recent times, Pope Francis has been busy reshaping the Vatican. Pope Francis too has excelled on all 3 fronts as a manager:

Understanding his team and environment: As an insider, Pope Francis had a head start on this front. He did not need time to understand his team and the environment. He was well aware of the politics within the Vatican and probably had a semi-operational game plan in mind to get the Vatican vibrant and functional. All he needed was a handover of the leadership baton.

Communicating change: “Who am I to judge?” – an opening remark that echoed across the globe. Like Gandhi, Pope Francis too is a follower of the shock and awe technique. However, instead of laying out a complete agenda for the change, he has shared his intentions one topic at a time – shaking the thinking of his followers, waiting for it to get absorbed and then moving over to a different topic to shaking it once again.

Implementing the change: Whereas Gandhi sought to empower 350 million Indians to drive the British away, Pope Francis has sought to empower his leadership team to influence change in the Vatican. And the first step in empowering the leadership was to change the leadership itself. Hence the election of a new set of cardinals – empowered with a fresh agenda, to enforce change.

Great managers like Gandhi and the Pope do not need to be far and apart. We come across great managers in our everyday lives – managers who have to be effective because their role demands. Some of these roles are:

  1. The mother – the mother performs the job of 3 managers simultaneously – the finance Manager, the inventory manager and the human resource manager. Most of the skills come naturally to the mom – and most of the execution is carried out without any tools. The most challenging piece being a majority of her team members (the children) are a huge management challenge. Among all professions/roles, the mother undoubtedly is the most unique example of an outstanding job as a manager.
  2. Sports referees/umpires – especially in fast games like Soccer and Basketball, the referees rely on manual and tech tools to deliver the right decision. They have to maintain order in chaos to ensure a fair game. During intense moments, tempers and egos run high and test the management skills of the referees to the fullest.

What other characteristics in your opinion are also key to successful management?

What other roles demand effective management skills?

Panama: the Canal, rainforest and lots of humidity!

In Travel/Leisure on October 17, 2013 at 10:38 PM

When you land in Panama, a vast coastline greets you with an eager looking flotilla of sailboats vying for your attention. It feels like Southern California with lots of humidity.

The Pacific Ocean - Panama

The Pacific Ocean – Panama

A quick passage through immigration is a sign of less bureaucracy and when you find out that the current President of Panama is from the private sector, it begins to make sense.

It indeed is very humid in Panama – so much so that for the first time in my travels I have had to continuously wipe moisture off my camera lens. Panama City looks beautiful at night – well lit with lots of skyscrapers dotting the Pacific Ocean.

Panamanians are very proud of the Panama Canal – it is one of the primary sources of income and an engineering marvel. And when you go on a transit cruise through the Canal, you experience the engineering marvel first hand.

The Canal was built in 1914 to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and as a result, better integrate the West Coast of North and South America with the world economy. The Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. Ships passing through the canal pay a fee of approx. US $ 200,000, depending upon the size of the ship and the cargo – the highest so far being paid by a Disney cruise ship – US $ 330,000.

3 sets of locks – the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and the Gatun, lift and drop ships 85ft (26m) – to the level of Gatun Lake, to transport them between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is primarily this system of locks that makes the Panama Canal an engineering marvel. The size of the locks determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through the canal. A ship which equals the maximum size is called PANAMAX.

The lift and drop of the ships within the locks is an extremely fascinating experience and so is the passage through the Canal. The route of the cruise through the Canal is quite scenic and you pass through the Bridge to the America, the Centennial Bridge, the Gatun Lake and the Continental Divide. It takes ships about 8 to 12 hours to cross the canal, but there’s a partial cruise available for tourists that ends soon after the Pedro Miguel locks, close to the Soberania National Park Rainforest.

The Panama Canal Visitor Center next to the Miraflores Locks offers the visitor a closer look at the operation of the canal, along with a brief passage through the history of the Canal. However, the balcony is the top draw of the visitor center as it offers a bird eye view of ships passing through the adjacent Miraflores Locks.

The Gamboa Rainforest resort is in the vicinity of the Soberania National Park Rainforest – which is home to several colorful species of birds and butterflies. An early morning walk through the rainforest can take you into a colorful world of butterflies, the musical world of birds like the Flycatcher and the woodpecker, including the very shy Toucan and some primates as well. Don’t be surprised if you sight a crocodile relaxing in a swamp as you saunter through the rainforest.

Besides the Canal and the Rainforest, Panama has a lot of culture and scenery to offer. Old Panama City or Casco Viejo is a blend of old architecture, monuments like the Salon Bolivar and Plaza de Francia.

For a leisurely stroll in the evening, the Causeway Amador is just the right stretch to be in. You have a clear view of the Bridge to the Americas and a full view of the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the causeway.

Big Brother or Guardian Angel: government’s responsibility vs accountability

In Politics on June 10, 2013 at 7:57 AM

The NSA had an intense surveillance program for the last 4 years. There seems to have been just one glitch – they forgot to include their own. Edward Snowden, a tech specialist contracting for the NSA leaked the details of a highly classified surveillance program called PRISM to the Guardian and Washington Post last week.

The leak raises 2 key issues and should force a re-think and retrospection:

–        Safety and security around classified programs

–        Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy


Safety and security around classified programs:

Thankfully, the information leak by Edward Snowden was less related to national security and more towards individual privacy. But what if one of the operatives on Operation Neptune Spear – the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, felt it was wrong and leaked it to the media before it was executed? How does the CIA or NSA ensure this does not happen?

In the case of Edward Snowden, an interesting issue that stands out is that a contractor had access to classified information. Contractors are temporary employees and are usually assigned to maintenance type work or short term projects. They complete their short assignment and move onto another assignment or another organization. So how did Edward Snowden get hired as a systems administrator? That alone gave him an extremely broad access to classified and non-classified data. That would be a huge security loophole. And he could’ve leaked the Bin Laden raid as well if he didn’t agree with it.

So, it maybe time to have an independent agency audit the processes followed by our intelligence agencies towards hiring and assignment to classified projects?

Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy:

Now 4 administrations have been accused of wiretapping individuals. So it is high time we go past the idealistic baloney and accept ground reality. Protection of its citizens is the highest priority of the government. In the past, especially during the cold war, this was reflected in high defense expenditures. After 9/11, terrorism has become the #1 threat to the United States and the recent Boston Marathon bombings prove that the originators can be right amongst us. In fact, weren’t we able to narrow down upon the suspects through public surveillance systems including cellphone images from bystanders? Then why are we upset when the government has taken it to the next level?

The key here is prevention of misuse of the data. As Snowden points out, there is so much data that at some point in time (watch: Edward Snowden speaks) it could be misused to implicate innocent individuals.

So how do we prevent this? The Legislators have to get together and come up with laws around governance of this data. Some of the areas they have to think about should include:

–        Purging of data: The data related to wiretaps and internet access should have a finite life and once the intelligence agencies have analyzed it, it has to be purged. The data cannot be built up with time – that would be a complete violation of individual privacy

–        Legal recourse in case of misuse: What if a rogue intelligence analyst stalks a private citizen? What if a rogue analyst sells data to commercial organizations to help understand consumer buying patterns – the list can go on. There needs to be a legal recourse against the intelligence organizations for this kind of an infringement upon individual privacy.

–        Vetting of the data mining process: The intelligence agencies have to clearly define the process of data analysis of such kind of data. Who needs to have access to the data and for how long? Snowden was a contractor but he has systems administration responsibilities – that itself is a huge loophole in the process. As indicated under safety of classified programs above, the hiring and assignment process needs to be vetted by an independent group.

Once we have a legal framework around this kind of surveillance, the concerns of the average citizen should reduce drastically. But the administration, especially the President has to take accountability for continuing with this program after using this as a key election plank. Interestingly, this incident seems to draw a parallel with two of George Orwell’s bestselling novels – “1984” and “Animal Farm”. While “1984” is the story about government surveillance headed by Big Brother, “Animal Farm” is the story of an idealistic leadership getting corrupted by power. Both novels were written before 1950 and seeing the parallel in the 21st century – my respect for George Orwell suddenly quadrupled!


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