From Plato to Bob Dylan, in a day

I was flipping through the employment section of the newspaper when I was interrupted by a cheerful Mr A.

“Boy, why so gloomy?” asked my boss, backslapping me.

I shook my head, trying to avoid a direct answer, but he would have none of it and insisted on knowing the reason for my downcast mood.

“I think the company is going to be wound up, or at least there would be layouts. I see no future here. It’s time to move on,” I blurted out my dark thoughts.

“He, he, he,” he laughed in his rare display of good cheer. “You read the balance sheet or company forecast?”

“Isn’t it obvious? We are losing clients and business. We are not innovating. How long can we stand?” I asked, not taken in by his bravado.

“We survived for the last 30 years not because our balance sheets were good, or because we never lost clients. We survived because of the X factor,” he said. “Not Mr X, X factor,” he added hastily.

I was sure of my facts, and the writing was clearly etched on the wall. I was not likely to fall for the X factor gimmick , and just nodded. My boss realized that it was time for a serious, educative lecture, and began thus:

“What is most important to keep a company afloat?” he asked.

“Capital,” I replied, reluctantly, for I did not wish to get this gloomy lecture started.

“Ah, that is where you MBAs get it wrong. Companies are afloat on Faith. Till investors have faith, capital will flow,” he said.

“And our company instills faith in investors?” I asked derisively.

“My boy, don’t interrupt. Listen. You will agree our company reinvented itself three times in the last thirty years?” he was sounding like Socrates now. I nodded in agreement.

“And in those times, the wolves were at the door?” he asked and I nodded again.

“Are the wolves at the door yet again?” he asked.

This time I thought, but could not come to any definite conclusion. “Maybe,” I said.

“Yes, they have, or no, not yet?” he asked. “For we must be clear about facts,” he added.

“Maybe not just yet, but the day is not far off,” I replied.

“So far so good. How far in the future do you expect our canine friends to pay us a visit?” he asked.

“The point is the world is not the same. There is competition, and turnaround time and opportunity is too small. Reinventing companies today is almost impossible. It is easier to start afresh,” I protested.

“My boy, you did not answer my question. How long do you think the company has for a major crisis to strike,” he asked again, ignoring my comment.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Based on Fibonnaci retracement analysis, about three years, I would say. Subject to some assumptions,” he answered his own question, to his own satisfaction.

“You admit there is going to be a crisis in three years,” I said a little triumphantly.

“No, I said that is what you should say, based on your studies of accounts,” he said. He was being a little deep today.

“And what would you say?” I asked.

“I would not say anything till I come to the bottom of the whole business, till I have explored the question in full,” he replied.

“Are you reading Socratic dialogues by Plato, by any chance?” I asked suspiciously.

“Do not confuse yourself,” he admonished. “Tell me this, what will happen when a crisis strikes?”

“Why the company gets broken down or wounded up real fast. Vultures come in pretty fast to devour the leftovers,” I tried to add a bit of Shakespearean color to what was turning out to be too Socratic to my liking.

“It does nothing of the sort. There are people who have investments in the company. They start thinking. When the management goes to them to ask for financial support, they ask for ‘plan’. And this time, the plan has to be good, and workable,” he said.

“And is there a possibility that the management will be able to come up with a good plan?” I asked, for I felt we were just delaying the inevitable.

“Knowing the company you feel there is no possibility?” he asked. This time it was easy. I shook my head in the negative.

“And so, the invested money, the infrastructure would be allowed to be dismantled?” he asked.

“There is hardly a choice,” I said.

“You mean, there would be no faith. But the faith is there today?”

“There is inertia. There is no spotlight on us as of now,” I said.

“It would be too time consuming to start with an analogy, like Plato would have done,” he said, “and so I would come straight to the point. There are about a hundred companies in a situation similar to ours in our field. None of them have lost faith. And, more important, none of them are going in for ‘re-invention’ just yet. Not all of them must be blind,” he remarked.

This argument interested me. I waited to see what was coming.

“Re-inventing comes with a price – in terms of capital investment and risks. It is done only when it is inevitable. Companies are not closed down – this is not a Hollywood idea of business, this is reality. Here, and this is not how MBAs are taught, the balance-sheet within the minds of big investors matters most. Till the time there is a possibility of a positive balance-sheet, nothing will be ‘written-off’,” he explained.

“But that is not how great companies are run,” I blurted out, before I could check myself.

“Ah, there you reveal yourself,” he said, sounding like Sherlock Holmes now. “Your worry is not whether the company will survive, your worry is whether it will be great.”

I refused to answer that.

“There are few companies that MBA text books feature in their case studies, but ours is not one of them,” he said, “but, like thousands of them out there, we will not be the one that will shut down. Or become a case study.”

“And we will come up with a plan, when required?” I asked.

“Sure, like all others will, at that time. The answers, at the time, would be blowin’ in the wind,” he remarked with finality in his voice.

Sudden shift to Bob Dylan zapped me. But the satisfied look on his face was strangely reassuring. I put down the employment section of the paper, and picked up ‘page-3’. No use fretting till the time when our canine friends give us a visit, I thought. I looked at Mr A, who had started a game of Scrabble on the net, and wondered whether managers like him are made or born.

***

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About Abhishek

I will let the blog speak for itself...or, at times, for me. View all posts by Abhishek

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