Souq.com, a private entrepreneurial company, sold for more than Dh2 billion this year while in the same period at least two large listed companies, one with a sovereign wealth fund backing it, required Dh500 million to Dh1.5bn in new capital.
Understanding the difference between why an entrepreneurial company was so successful in a period when organisations previously perceived as successful now need huge amounts of capital injections and/or lay-offs is key to understanding the future of our economy.
I have been on both sides of the equation – an executive at Union National Bank, Shuaa and Credit Suisse Saudi Arabia as well as an independent investor and entrepreneur. Importantly, these are not two separate parts of my life, I have crossed back and forth several times.
I have spoken numerous times on how our social culture, which is non-confrontational, is unfortunately transferred to our business culture, leading to a large number of “yes” men.
Here is why this is not optimal. CBS News has an article that describes the institutionalised management environment that I have seen. The article uses as its basis a study by researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Michigan, Set up for a Fall: The Insidious Effects of Flattery and Opinion Conformity toward Corporate Leaders, in Administrative Science Quarterly.
The study finds that chief executives “who have acquired positions of relatively high social status in the corporate elite tend to be attractive targets of flattery and opinion conformity from colleagues”, which can harm the company increasing the “CEOs’ overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability”, which results in a reduction in “the likelihood that CEOs will initiate needed strategic change in response to poor firm performance.” Importantly, the study found that this leads to a long-term continuation of the company’s bad performance.
The former British prime minister Tony Blair says it more succinctly: “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
So how did we get here? I have a theory. It starts with the well-known Peter Principle: Everyone rises to their level of incompetence. Basically, if you are good at what you do you are promoted. You stop being promoted because you assume a role for which you are not competent.
In true capitalistic markets people’s performance and potential are measured with some accuracy, and if they are found incompetent they are developed or replaced.
The legendary Jack Welch, former chief executive of GE, tells us: “There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organisation’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction and cash flow.”
If an organisation is not doing well, then either we don’t know how engaged our employees are or what our customers think or what our cash flow is. Possibly all three. This is where the failure of the board would be. But what of our executives who have succumbed to the Peter Principle? Do they not realise that they should step aside? Perhaps the management psychologist Harold Leavitt has something of value to say: “We cling to hierarchies because our place in a hierarchy is, rightly or wrongly, a major indicator of our social worth.”
Back to the question of how Souq.com did well when other organisations did badly. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic, said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I have indeed seen this and this exactly explains why Souq.com, driven by the uncompromising entrepreneur, does so well and the many organisations led by the ingratiating CEOs and executives do so badly.
How do we change this? Apple, one of the earliest tech start-ups and probably the world’s most successful company, had as its most famous campaign the seeds of its astounding success: “Here’s to the crazy ones – the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
The executives we want are not the ones we need. The leaders we need are not the ones we want. Do we have the courage to change that?
This article was originally published in The National.