Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Satyam investigation

The Satyam affair broke out in early Jan with Raju's famous letter. Since then, two parallel chain of events have happened - one handled brilliantly and one handled abysmally.

When the news broke, the company was on the verge of immediate collapse. The government acted swiftly in naming an eminent Board to take over. These individuals demonstrated why they are of so eminent a stature. They immediately took control, kept the business going, reassured customers and employees, staved off an immediate crisis, held an auction, found a buyer (can you imagine how difficult a task that would have been) and did a deal in 3 months flat. There is now a reasonable future ahead for the company, its employees, its shareholders and its customers.

By any yardstick this is a stupendous achievement. I haven't really heard, or read about, the plaudits they richly deserve. They deserve a medal. Messers Karnik, Parekh, Achutan and everybody else involved in saving the company - take a bow.

The other chain of events has been the "investigation" into the fraud. It would be difficult to find something more shabbily handled. Numerous government agencies are falling over each other in their so called investigations. The AP police and the CBI (you could not imagine two organisations worse equipped to investigate something of this nature) have taken four months and achieved precious little. Other than catching hold of everybody in sight and locking them up.

Here's a situation where the perpetrator of the fraud has owned up. And pray, what are they investigating? In four months, they haven't been able to bring a case on a self confessed fraud.

India's justice system is frankly pathetic. People get locked up and remain undertrials for periods longer than their sentences would have been if they were guilty. A basic tenet of justice is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Raju may be guilty by admission, But what about some of the others. Especially the PWC partners who have been jailed. As I posted before, this is a complete travesty of justice.

In many ways this story is a true reflection of India. There is an India which is brilliant, can achieve fantastic results and is breathtaking. There is another India, which is pathetic and shameful.

Three cheers to Karnik & co. Three brickbats and a kick on the backside for the judicial process.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

How the mighty fall

I read the news from General Motors yesterday, that they are discontinuing their Pontiac line from next year, with some sadness.

I grew up in the days when what was good for GM, was good for America. The best selling business book was, of course, "On a clear day, you can see General Motors". Any aspiring MBA graduate could reel off the famous five of GM - Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. Every Hollywood movie of those days had one these beauties as a star character. GM was, after all, the largest company in the world.

Those days, mass communication was still at its infancy. The internet had not arrived. Doordarshan had just made its tentative steps in India (with such wonderfully stimulating programs such as Krishidarshan). Yet all of us had known a lot about GM, even without stepping outside India and only seeing Ambassadors on Indian roads.

Pontiac is 83 years old. It was introduced when Alfred P Sloan was the legendary chairman of GM. Its heydays were the 60s and 70s. Pontiac models such as GTO, Firebird, Grand Am, Grand Prix and Trans Am were household names a generation ago. GTO was even immortalised in a song in 1964 which hit the charts. The American love affair with the car was at its peak (not that it has gone away now). And Pontiac and GM were heroes.

The story after that is all too well known. A long decline started and GM slipped. And slipped and slipped and slipped. Pontiac slipped along with it. If today's generation were asked to reel off the top five car brands that come to their mind, Pontiac is highly unlikely to feature. Pontiac who ? what ?

Pontiac is a grand old lady, whose best days are long gone. It is time for it to approach its Maker. But for some people at least, it will mean the passing of an era. Of a world that's gone and will never come back. Its OK to wipe a tear.

Pontiac RIP.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Dilemmas - IV

One final poser and I'll move on from this topic.

You discover something about a key supplier of yours that you didn't know before. He employs child labour.

Would you

1) Stop buying from him even though it may affect your business
2) Report his employing child labour to the authorities, but continue to buy from him
3) Ignore this, saying its his business and none of yours

If you work for a global company, you probably have no choice - NGOs will roast your company alive. (Remember Nike in China ?)

But , assume you are in a small local company. What will you do ?

Would your answer be different, if instead of discovering that he employs child labour, you discover one of the following

- He is cheating on VAT (excise, sales tax, whatever) and evading them , or,
- He is discriminating against women

Would your answer be the same ?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Dilemmas - III

Today's poser.

You resign from your company and join another company. Your were happy with your previous employer and he treated you well - you are moving just because a better opportunity arose.

In your new job, you need to hire four good lieutenants. You know that if you approached your four buddies in the old company, they would join you (for they loved working with you). But if those four left too, the business in the old company would be seriously affected.

This is one of those cases where in different cultures, you'd get completely different first responses. In some cultures, this is not a dilemma at all - you'd just do it. In other cultures, this would be a complete no no.

But, as I mused before, I believe these are deeply individual decisions based on one's values and beliefs. There is no "right" answer.

Would you place the call to your buddies ?

Friday, 24 April 2009

Dilemmas - II

Ethics are either black or white - there are no shades of grey in my view, as I posted before.

But there are some situations in business life where ethically it seems OK, but morally its not so clear. In such a situation, an individual's value systems determine what's right or wrong and there is no one right way.

Today's poser.

Does it matter what business the company you work for, is in ? If your company is an IT company or a soap company or a telecom company or a steel company, there is no issue.

But would you work for a cigarette company ? Would you work for a company that makes land mines ? Would you work for a company that buys "blood diamonds" from Africa ? Would you work for a logging company in the Amazon?

Or, does it not matter what business your company is in, as long as what it does is legal and you do your job professionally ?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Dilemmas - I

Ethics are either black or white - there are no shades of grey in my view, as I posted before.

But there are some situations in business life where ethically it seems OK, but morally its not so clear. In such a situation, an individual's value systems determine what's right or wrong and there is no one right way.

I intend to post a few dilemma's over the next few days. I have no answers for any of them - each of you readers will have your own "right" way.

Here's the first of the them.

You've worked in a company for 10 years. You've wanted a key job, but are not getting it. Your company's direct competitor is offering you that position. Remember its your direct competitor, whom you have spent the last 10 years of your life fighting.

Would you take it ?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Trust : Why businesses lost it

Chris Jarvis has made a superb post in his blog Realizing your Worth on "Trust : Why businesses lost it and how to win it back."

He quotes Charles Handy, an Irish philosopher specializing in organizational management who wrote in his book ‘What’s a Business For’ in 2002 this prescient paragraph:

The markets will empty and share prices will collapse, as ordinary people find other places to put their money--into their houses, maybe, or under their beds. The great virtue of capitalism, that it provides a way for the savings of society to be used for the creation of wealth--will have been eroded. So we will be left to rely increasingly on governments for the creation of our wealth, something that they have always been conspicuously bad at doing.....Trust is fragile. Like a piece of china, once cracked it is never quite the same. And people's trust in business, and those who lead it, is today cracking."

Click here to read this superb post.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Outsourcing Agriculture

The greatest crisis, in my view, of 2008 was not the financial crisis. It was the food crisis that hit the world in the early part of the year. Global food prices rose by 75% as compared to 2000. Food riots broke out in many countries. About 73 million people, in 78 countries, who depend on food aid from the United Nations have had their rations cut. The crisis got diffused, because other events overtook it and food prices fell back. But unlike the financial crisis, there is no solution in sight and its going to come back with a vengeance next year, or the year after, with certainty.

The problem is deep. A combination of high oil prices, climate change (both in terms of global warming and in terms of diversion of land for growing corn for fuel) and shrinking land for agriculture affects the supply of food. On the other hand global demand is expected to double by 2030 as population increases and economic development increases the demand for nutrition. End result is that food prices will rise meteorically for the next 10-20 years. That means food riots, starvation, malnutrition and a global crisis.

The problem will be deepest in three parts of the world - China, India and Africa. China is the worst placed - it has the largest population, but the lowest cultivable land. But China will manage the problem the best. Africa is best placed - huge cultivable land, but will manage it the worst. India is in between.

My take on the solution, is for Africa to "outsource" food production to China and India. The solution is not these countries buying up land in Africa, as Saudi Arabia and South Korea are doing. That will never work - in times of crisis, a Mugabe equivalent will simply appropriate the land back. Africa must retain the ownership of the land, but outsource grain cultivation to Indians and Chinese. India and China must focus on making Africa hugely food surplus. That will have twin advantages - it will greatly reduce starvation in Africa itself. And it will increase global food production enough to keep prices low.

China and India have the greatest stake here. They are the greatest consumers of food. Their natural reaction would be to boost agriculture domestically. That they should, and would, do. But they would benefit greater if they became an "outsourced service provider" in food production to Africa.

Buzz off Europe and North America. China and India must simply take over the FAO and deal direct with Africa.

Any takers for BPO in agriculture ?

Kya Bolte Ho ? nǐ shì shénme shuō ?

Monday, 20 April 2009

How come Bollywood is so small ?

Bollywood is world famous. Every Indian is mad about films and its a defining aspect of Indian culture. Indian films are now being known world over. India makes the largest number of movies in the world. Apart from Hindi films, there is a thriving film industry in many Indian languages. This must be a huge industry right?

Wrong. The entire Indian film industry size is just $ 2.2 bn. Just 60% of Infosys. One tenth the size of Reliance. The entire industry. That's it. Read the FICCI KPMG report for all the gory details.

Most films lose money. And for its tiny size, its expected to grow only 9% next year after a flat last year. Sounds like a dog industry.

How come ? Surely there's something wrong. You have one billion crazy Indians all wanting to imitate Shahrukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai. Not to speak of the rest of the world where lots want to learn "Bollywood dancing". Terrific talent in singing, dancing, acting amongst the Indians - just go to any college or company function. Fanatic demand. Great talent supply. And yet a tiny industry.

Why ? I am a self confessed ignoramus on Indian movies - haven't watched one for a few years. That won't stop me from speculating (that's the nice thing about blogging - you can wax eloquently on things you don't have a clue about) !

  • The size is probably understated as the industry is not all above board. But even at 2 or 3 times the stated number, its still a tiny industry.

  • Its highly unprofessional. A lot of financing is by the underworld and professional management just does not exist.

  • Marketing is an unknown function. There's no merchandising at all (how many Lagaan cricket bats have you seen ?)

  • Its not really sold globally. Whatever is taken global is for the expat Indian audience. Actually the films, with their song and dance, does have universal appeal.

  • There's zero market research. Do the producers really understand their customer - what do they want ? What are the market segments - the bhaiyya watches completely different stuff from the aunty.

  • Much of the product is garbage. That's why most films lose money - they are trash and deserve to lose money.

The industry has a larger than life image, but in reality its a mouse. There's a lot of noise, but little to shout about.

Corporate India - get on to the movie industry.

Now that's a thought. Won't you want to work in a company where you see Aishwarya on Monday, Kareena on Tuesday, Priyanka on Wednesday ......

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Friday, 17 April 2009

China's Q1 figures

These days China's numbers matter as much, if not more, than America's numbers. There was therefore more than the usual interest, when China announced its Q1 numbers yesterday.

GDP grew by 6.1% compared to Q1 of last year. This was greeted with some disappointment by the markets (who only react against expectations and not against reality !) This is actually very positive. Firstly, 6% is nothing to sneer at - every other country in the world would give an arm and a leg to grow at 6%. Secondly, on a quarter on quarter annualised basis, this is 6% against a virtual stalling last quarter as The Economist has analysed. So there are some signs that the worst is over, at least here.

On the positive side, retail sales grew by 16%. Fixed investment grew by 30% - the government's stimulus is starting to kick in). But on the negative side exports were down by 17%.

Actually China is not as dependant on exports as is made out to be. Only 10% of the jobs are in the exports sector. Although exports account for 40% of GDP, the value added (net of imports) is only 18%.

So here is my take on the China numbers

  • Growth is actually good, and forget whether it was dot on with expectations.
  • Growth is being led by domestic consumption and investment, making up for poor exports (isn't this what the world has been clamouring for ?)
  • Massive infrastructure spending and investment is happening - Will all this be really productive or will they be bridges to nowhere ?
  • If you look objectively, China was overheating in the past and is now on a more even keel.
  • The worry continues to be the banking sector. Massive lending for investment has happened. How much of this will truly yield returns. I know the published percentage of non performing assets is not high, but I am almost sure this is hugely understated.
  • The story that there will be social unrest if 8% growth is not achieved in bunkum. I simply cannot relate to this logic
  • Inflation in the medium term is a real real threat. God help if commodity prices around the world (especially oil prices shoot up).

One other thought struck me. Its only Apr 16. How come such numbers come out so early. Many companies cannot meet such a deadline. But a whole nation - and that too as huge as China?

There's just a nagging feeling at the back of the mind. Government numbers (everywhere) aren't audited. And you know that old adage - lies, damn lies and statistics !!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Is globalisation a dirty word ?

Whenever there is any event of importance anywhere in the world, you are sure to find some form of "anti globalisation protest". "Globalisation" seems to a be a dirty word. Also dirty are 'multinational", "capitalism", etc etc.

If you ignore the loonies and listen to the arguments of the sane protesters, their logic for anti globalisation usually converges on the following

  • It exploits poor people in developing countries and sometimes deprives them of their traditional livelihood (farming)
  • It is harmful to the environment and contributes to adverse climate change
  • It deprives people in richer countries of their jobs
  • It does not promote human rights and democracy in the countries they operate

Underlying this is the assumption that multi national companies , in their single minded pursuit of profit, will not care about any of these.

Consider this for a moment. The protesters argue against multinational companies. Is it then OK for home grown companies to do exactly the same thing ? Is there any evidence that multinational companies are worse in their behaviour than domestic companies - surely the opposite is true.

The problem is that companies can freely move across borders ; ordinary people cannot. Economic globalisation has happened far ahead of social and political globalisation. Hence the inevitable conflict.

As I mused before on the bad connotation that companies in general ignite, companies have to think global, but act local. They must not make a big virtue of their globalisation. They should keep that very low key. They must be seen to be local.

Only when the social and political fabric of society becomes global (if ever), should companies come out their closet and declare themselves global.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Global businesses, National Laws - the woe of taxation

Business are global, but the laws they have to follow are national. Nowhere is this conflict more severe than in the arena of taxation.

Every nation has the right to tax as it pleases. And businesses have to abide by the tax laws in every country it operates in. But when businesses go global, it causes a real problem. Its common these days for a company to buy materials from 10 countries, manufacture in 5 others, transport via 3 others, sell in 20, account for them in 3, have employees in 15, be headquartered in 4, - all completely different countries. The profit it makes is of course a composite one. Where does it get taxed ?

The answer is, in all of them ! Welcome to the world of a monster called transfer pricing. The only people who salivate on the very mention of this term are the accountants and the tax lawyers. Only one thing is for sure in transfer pricing - you will pay more tax collectively across all these countries than if you paid all your taxes in the country having the highest rate of tax. And you will be dragged to court irrespective of what you do.

Businessmen being businessmen, will try and find the lowest tax option out. Enter the world of tax havens. Countries you may have never heard of. And countries who use tax as a competitive advantage. Like Ireland in the past. Now Switzerland where many European supply chain operations are being headquartered. Singapore in Asia.

Is this all not simplifiable ? Actually the world has made huge progress in the area of indirect taxation, especially customs duty through the WTO. Likewise, it must surely be possible in income tax as well.

How's this for an idea ?

  • Tax bands are globally agreed. Income tax on companies cannot be lower than x and cannot be greater than y by multilateral agreement
  • Double Tax agreements are multilateral (through the WTO) and not bilateral between countries.

This will remove much of the pain global businesses face from the inevitable conflict of national tax laws.

Nobody can do justice to this area without writing a 1500 page PhD thesis. I have absolutely no intention of doing so ! All I am catalysing is a thought.

Tomorrow I'll post on another aspect of globalisation - why it seems to be dirty word in the minds of many.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Global businesses; National laws

Businesses are going global. But the laws they have to follow are national. No two countries can agree on any law. The result is a massive blocker to globalisation. Today, I focus on one aspect of the law that affects businesses - anti trust.

My immediate trigger for this post was the hold up by the Chinese competition authorities of Mitsubishi Rayon's takeover of Lucite. This is an interesting case. Neither of these two companies is Chinese. Mitsubishi Rayon is Japanese, Lucite is based in the UK. But both these companies have operations worldwide. So to get approvals for the takeover, they have to go to the competition authorities in each country they operate. They got approval from every authority, bar one. China . Now the deal is in trouble.

In the good old days, there were only two competition authorities that you needed to worry about, in any global deal. The US and the EU. Anywhere else, it didn't matter. The authorities in other countries rarely blocked global deals and even if they did, the operations in those countries were likely to be minor and could be dealt with. But China's competition authority, Mofcom, is now important as well. Last month it blocked Coca Cola's acquisition of Huiyuan, a Chinese juices company . A year ago they interfered in InBev's acquisition of Anheuser-Busch.

Its China flexing its muscles today. No doubt it would be India, Brazil and Russia tomorrow. And the others, the day after. Increasing no global business would exist without major operations in these countries. So no deal can go through without every single authority approving it. Fat chance of that happening.

Global M&A will undergo fundamental changes. Investment Banks, Strategists, Financiers and the like will have a lesser role than Lawyers.

This is a problem business will face increasingly in the future. Business is going global, much faster than the socio political environment it operates in. That is not sustainable, for it will inevitably provoke a conflict. Tomorrow, I will post on the worst example of the impact national laws have on global business - tax.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Wanna work in the US - No thanks say the Chinese

Has the US lost its lure as an attractive destination for the best and the brightest ?

I gave a guest lecture at the MBA school in the Sun Yat Sen university here in Guangzhou today. This is one of the top universities in China and some of the brightest students in the country study here. They come from all over China - there's a tough competitive exam to get through before anyone can get in.

There were about 70 MBA students I was talking to. During the course of my session I asked, how many would like to work in the US after graduation. I was expecting a sea of hands.

Not one hand was raised. Yes not one. I asked three times and got the same answer. Not one wanted to work in the US.

I was dumbfounded. I asked why. Got some muted responses - there won't be many jobs in the US after the recession. Somehow I was just not connecting. These youngsters weren't all that excited about going and working in the US. It just didn't click for them. I almost heard them say " Why should I go "? They thought they would be better off working in China.

Here is another evidence of the massive change happening in China. Parts of China are clearly first world. There's enough money to be made here. The action seems to be here. Exciting careers can be had here, without having to go anywhere else. For this group of students at least, the US is far from the Promised Land.

Sure, one session with a group is no evidence of anything. But sometimes the penny drops.

The world beware. You better start learning Mandarin. There's a tectonic geopolitical shift happening.

Ni Hao world !

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Satyam case - PWC partners

The PWC partners, S.Gopalakrishnan and Srinivas Talluri, who signed the Satyam balance sheets over the last few years are in jail for the last three months. Their latest bail petition was rejected yesterday.

Is it right for them to be jailed now ? I am not a legal man and have no pretensions to expertise in law, but from a common sense of what is right and wrong, this does not seem to be right.

The two partners seem to have been collectively charged, along with Raju and the others on criminal conspiracy and other counts, cheating (the famous 420) etc.

The fraud was not committed by them ; it was committed by those at Satyam. They may be guilty of colluding with Raju, but that has to be proven in a court of law. They may have been negligent, in which case they need to be dealt with by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. Or they may have just been incompetent in detecting the fraud, which is not an offence under law - if incompetence were an offence, millions of people would have to be in jail !

What is the logic for keeping them in jail before the trial has even started ? That they will tamper with the evidence ? Nonsense. Its already 4 months since the CBI has been investigating and if by now they haven't secured the evidence, they never will. That they will not cooperate with the investigation ? There seems to be no evidence of that - both the firm and the partners have said they will cooperate. That they will flee the country ? That can be easily achieved without locking them up. The ex CFO of Satyam, who is himself in jail, has said that the partners were not in a conspiracy. Raju has said the same thing. So why keep them in jail ?

I am proud to be a citizen of India, where, at least in name, the rule of law holds. Detention before a trial is not something to be summarily and endlessly used. If the partners are held guilty by a court , and if the verdict warrants a punishment in prison, by all means do so. But not until then.

I think this is a case of mobocracy. Everybody is angry at the fraud. So catch hold of anybody in sight (the more "important" they are, the better) and lock them up. Anger is somewhat assuaged. The mob is happy that VIPs are in jail.

That's not the India I am proud of. You are innocent, until proven guilty. Gopalakrishnan and Srinivas have not been proven guilty. They do not deserve to be in jail.

PS - After I made this post, I got an email from Niraj Kapasi who has posted a very good perspective on the affair in his blog at

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Visa is a four letter word

Business travel is painful at the best of times. Especially if you do lots of it internationally. Air travel these days is not nice at all - the long commute to airports, overcrowded airports, long and winding security queues, delayed flights, cramped seats, apology for food, and so on. But at the top of the pain list, for citizens of "lesser" countries like me, must be the four letter word - Visa.

As an Indian citizen, I am a second class citizen in the world's eyes. The only countries I don't need a visa to travel are Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Hong Kong (bless their souls). Everywhere else, I need this dreaded stamp on the passport. Chinese citizens are in the same boat. So, half the population in the world is second class.

In law, there's a basic principle - you are innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to immigration law, you are guilty until proven innocent. Consulates genuinely believe that every visa applicant is a cheat and wants to somehow emigrate to their country, which they believe is heaven. Please .....

So this dreaded process goes as follows

  • You have to submit tons of documents. Some of them are plain ridiculous. And the consulate is just looking for an excuse to return the pile to you - lets say there's an ink smudge at the bottom of the page !
  • You need to produce a special photograph. And of course every country has its own rules on photograph. End result, I must be the most photographed man on earth. Once I was so irritated that I went to a studio, asked the photographer to click every conceivable type of photograph, print about 300 copies , dumped the whole lot on my secretary and then refused to go to a photo studio again. And I got caught out by the French embassy which stipulates that you cannot smile in the photo (I am not making this up).
  • Then some idiots require you to come in person. These are the worst. You have to fight to get an appointment and travel to the city where the consulate is and spend a degrading 4 or 5 hours in the process. I am convinced that the rudest people in the world are the lot in the visa sections of consulates.
  • And then you wait. With you passport stuck and you can't travel anywhere or apply for a visa to the next country you are going to.
  • When you reach the country, you stand in a long and winding queue specially meant for citizens of lesser countries and go through the process of answering sometimes downright rude questions with a straight polite face of extreme gratitude. Every seasoned traveller knows that even if the guy insults your mother, you can't show the slightest trace of anger or else you are doomed.
Juggling visas has been an art. My travel was more dictated by visa considerations than anything else. In this world clamouring for free trade, free movement of everything etc etc, can't they make legitimate business travel easier. I am not talking of free immigration - just straightforward normal business travel and abolish this dreaded four letter word to history.

One of the things I love about my sabbatical now is that I don't have to make a visa application at all !

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Is there a future for "different" companies ?

This week, innocent drinks (that's right, its written with a small i), sold a minority stake to Coca Cola. Is this another instance of a "different" company succumbing to the mainstream ?

innocent is a 1o year old company based in the UK. It was started by three guys who gave up their jobs to start making smoothies. In their own words - "We've always found that there's something about modern living that makes it hard to be healthy. That's why we gave up our jobs over ten years ago and started making innocent smoothies. The idea was to make it easy for people to do themselves some good. And to make it taste nice too. We wanted people to think of innocent drinks as their one healthy habit".

In the process they created a company with a difference. They have 5 icons for their ethics -

As part of "sharing the profits" they donate 10% of their profits each year to charity through their innocent foundation. One of its works is to plant 86000 trees in India to benefit rural communities.

Same old problem. They have grown very nicely in the UK. They need to expand into Europe. They need capital. Step forward Coca Cola. The delicious irony seems to have been lost - they started the company motivated by healthy living and who do they go and sell their minority stake to ? They are putting a brave face now saying its only a minority stake they are selling and that the founders will still run the company and they are still committed to their ideals. Well Well ...

Something similar happened to Green & Black's, an ethical chocolate maker who sold a minority stake to Cadbury's in 2002 and three years later they became a 100% subsidiary.

In 2000, Ben & Jerry's, a famous ice cream company in Vermont, with a similar ethical philosophy, sold out to Unilever. Even Body Shop went to L'Oreal.

Is there no future for companies with a difference ? Companies who do not subscribe ONLY to maximising shareholder value. Not to say that that's not important, but does it need to be the only objective. Maybe, capitalism does not allow the survival of "different" companies - after all Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest applies equally to the business world.

Somehow, I think, the world is poorer for the absence of these companies. What do you think ?

Monday, 6 April 2009

Leave the wives at home

Who was the most seen and talked about person at the recent G20 summit. Barack Obama ? Wrong. It was Michelle Obama.

What was she doing there in the first place ? As far as I know, she did not have a contribution to solving the financial crisis at the London summit, or insights into NATO policy at Strasbourg, or betterment of EU relations at Prague.

What were the wives doing at these summits ? Remember, you and I foot their bill as tax payers. Yes wives. The two male spouses - Nestor Kirchner (Cristina Fernández's husband) and Joachim Sauer (Angela Merkel's husband) did not attend the London summit.

In many companies, its common for spouses to travel along with Board members or senior managers. Its always the top executives who do this. No flunky can, or will, take his spouse on business travel.

A top global company recently announced a huge cut in travel for all its executives worldwide. Very understandable in the current business environment. It also disclosed in a filing that it had spent £ 195,000 in the previous year on travel for the wives of the top 5 executives. Fantastic. Very motivating for all the employees.

In today's professional environment, there's no place for this sort of stuff. The company employs the executive - not his or her spouse. Its fine for anybody to take a spouse along anywhere, as long as they pay for it. Companies should simply not have anything to do with spouses.

Oh Yes. I have heard all the arguments. These guys work very hard. They travel a lot. The job plays havoc with their families. That's why they should be allowed to take their wives. Its like a perquisite. The execs need their spouse's support, else they cannot do their high pressure job. It isn't a huge expenditure. Don't be mean and petty. Blah Blah Blah.

Its just not cricket, as the English would say.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A (Power) Pointless World

A presentation without Power Point ? Unthinkable ? Think again.

A business presentation is all about communication of a message. Sometimes slides help in the communication of the message. But more often, you can communicate better without any slides.

The great communicators of the world don't need any slides. Barack Obama, to my knowledge, did not use Power Point in his campaign. And yet, don't we all remember "Yes we can" ?

Here is a recipe for a power pointless, but effective presentation.

  • Carefully consider your message. This must take the maximum time in the preparation (and not the production of slides). What is the objective of the presentation ? What is it that you want to say ? Why should the listener be interested in what you are saying ? What are his concern areas on the matter that he would like addressed ?
  • Consider how you will convey the message. Craft a few sound bytes - these would be the punchlines that the listener would remember after he has left the room.
  • Write down , probably in bullet points, the flow of your talking. Use this as a reference during the presentation (in many cases power point slides carry out exactly this function - they are a prop for the presenter and not for the audience !)
  • At the meeting, draw up the blinds, brighten the lights, open the window, maybe. Make it a bright, cheerful room rather than the semi darkened horror that is required for the other presenters who are using a zillion power point slides.
  • During the presentation go to the whiteboard and write down the two or three numbers or data that you need to present. In most cases that's all the numbers you need.
  • Talk confidently, in a voice, tone and accent that everybody understands. Make eye contact. Smile. Use gestures. Walk around a little bit. Relaxed , confident, sincere, is the key.
That's it. You will often find that this packs more punch. At the very least, its different.

Think about it. People who know exactly what they are saying, people who are passionate about what they are saying, people who are supremely confident of what they are saying, don't need any props. Their words create the magic.

Wanna try the next time around ?

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ten Cardinal Sins of Listeners

Ten cardinal sins of listeners (when they are in the audience for a presentation)

1. Check your e mail while somebody is presenting

This has to be at the top of the list. Checking email on blackberry or, worse still, on the laptop. Oh, its very polite. Tell the presenter you aren't one bit interested in what he is saying. I have seen many times, when somebody has flown 10 hours to be here and when the presentation starts, he is already fiddling with his blackberry. Why bother coming ?

2. Ask questions on Slide 1

Preempt the presenter by starting to talk before he does ! Ask all sorts of questions on Slide 1. Destroy his rhythm. Completely screw up his timing. Make him flip flop on his charts and his thoughts. Why not leave your questions till the last ? Let the presenter convey the message in the way he wants to . Listen. And then, after he has finished, ask your questions.

3. Flip the printed slides to see what is said on the last page

This is the problem with distributing printed decks. There is almost something irresistible about them. Your fingers are magnetically drawn to flipping over to the last page. Try and not open the deck. Listen to what the guy is saying.

4. Duck in and out

Walk in and out 17 times during the presentation. Take calls. Let your secretary interrupt you every 5 minutes. Not sure why you bothered to come for the presentation.

5. Nod off

Yes, I know - you had a sleepless flight last night. Still nodding of is not acceptable. Drink loads of coffee. Smoke like a chimney. Do whatever. But don't insult the presenter by nodding off. If you can't keep your eyes open, leave the room.

6. Point out the typo on the slide and crack a joke

Murphy's Law states that that every presentation has to have at least one typo. Don't compound the guy's misery by joking on it. Leave it be. Its not important to the message he is trying to convey.

7. Talk in a foreign language to another attendee

Cross talking is not polite during a presentation, but the worst is if you talk to your mate loudly in a language the presenter cannot understand. This is just downright rude and shows you are not a global citizen. If you must speak to another attendee, please do so in the language that everybody understands.

8. Look at the chart and not the presenter

Staring at the screen won't make you wiser. What the presenter is saying is more important than what's in the chart. Look at him. Encourage him with a nod. Make eye contact. You'll get his message better.

9. Your mobile gives a loud ring

Why is it that somebody's phone always goes off in every presentation. Is the silent mode so difficult to activate ? I wish there was a device that could automatically turn every mobile in the room to silent mode.

10. Doodle on the notepad

Another irresistible urge. Cover 5 pages full of intricate doodles in plain view of the presenter. Conveys a wonderful message to the presenter. Keep your hands firmly in the pocket. If you must take notes, do so quickly and get those hands back into the pocket.

In my experience, the more senior the member of the audience is, the more likely he is to be a listener from hell. What a pity.

Tomorrow, I'll post on presenting without Power Point to round off this series.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Ten Cardinal Sins of Presenters

Ten cardinal sins that presenters make (using Power Point, of course)

1. Spend 95% of the preparation time on chart making and 5% on what you are actually going to say

A whole battalion of underlings works on the charts. Hours and hours spent on revising and re revising them. A lot less time on what the presenter is actually going to say. Charts are an aid to speaking and not the other way around. How many times have I heard "now what are we saying in this chart" !

2. Have 74 charts for a 15 mts presentation

This is a universal truth - there will always be way more charts than what can be covered sensibly in the allotted time.

3. Spend 75% of your allotted time on Charts 1-4 and then desperately run through the balance 26 charts

Haven't you noticed how slowly the charts roll on in the fist 75% of the session and how they move at lightning speed in the last few minutes

4. Flip charts back and forth to check what is coming next

Some underling has put the charts together. You haven't spent enough time familiarising it. You don't know what's coming next. So you flip forward and backward just to see what's next. Worse still you gaze at your chart, after it has come on, to decipher what to say.

5. Recycle charts from old presentations

Everybody does this. But other than factual numbers and the like, any recycling makes sure the chart is not exactly in line with what you are trying to convey. After all no two presentations are exactly alike. And worse, there is the risk of the recycled chart carrying a big goof - for example the wrong name of the company !

6. Have a zillion things on your chart, preferably in a font size that can’t be read.

Why is it that consultants' charts are unreadable - after all aren't they supposed to be experts at presenting ; isn't that a key tool of their trade ? One CEO of a leading consultant said in a presentation that the "busy" chart was to give all the info for the listener to read later. Horseshit. Nobody reads the slides later. If your chart is unreadable; you've just lost the audience.

7. When asked a question, rummage through your chart pack saying “I have a chart on this”

Everybody has "backup charts" to be pulled out if a question is asked. Why ? Just answer the question. Nothing irritates the audience than the presenter rummaging through his deck to find the right chart.

8. Circulate hard copies of your charts before you start

Don't do it. Its a walking invitation for the listener to be flipping ahead to see your last chart. If you must distribute hard copies, do so after you have finished. Even this is rarely required. I have seldom seen anybody avidly devouring a deck post a presentation. Your nice glossy will simply lie in a cupboard for 4 years and then be shredded.

9. Have typos on your charts and then draw attention to them

There is always a typo or a goof. Mostly because you have been re revising it for the nth time and actually made some changes 60 seconds before you went on air. There is a golden law - if there is a typo, however small, the listener will get it. And you can then compound the error by drawing attention to it and "apologising" with a nervous giggle.

10. Stand at the exact opposite end of the room to where the chart is projected

This is to ensure that everybody gets a crick in the neck by swiveling from the chart to you. Being sensible people, they'll simply ignore you and stare blankly at the chart.

This is my own caricature of a "presenter from hell". Tomorrow its ten cardinal sins of listeners.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The curse of Power Point

How often have you seen a slide that says "Thank You" at the end of a presentation ? To me, this symbolises how much Power Point has become a curse, and many people its slaves. If you need a chart to say thank you, God help you !

Presentations are a bane of corporate life. You make them all the time. These days, it seems impossible to communicate anything, without charts. And of course, Microsoft, with Power Point, is a monopoly in the business of chart making.

Peer into any meeting room in any company these days. You'll see a semi darkened room. You'll see a projector. And you'll see a bunch of people staring at a screen. Is this always the best form of communication ? Sometimes it is. But many times it is not. You can effectively communicate your message with no charts at all. And yet most of us would feel naked going into a presentation with no charts.

I've spent a huge portion of my life making charts, or delivering presentations with charts or looking at them. Many times, I've travelled 15 hours to some distant place, only to be locked up into a semi darkened room and forced to blink at 7342 charts the whole day.You can perhaps excuse my intense dislike of Power Point !

This week , its mostly going to be posts on presentations. Starting with Ten Cardinal Sins of Presenters.

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