26 September 2010

Incredible India! For All The Wrong Reasons.

With seven days to go before the curtain lifts on the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the city is scrambling, day and night, to get ready for the 7,000-plus athletes and officials expected to arrive for what was originally touted to be India's coming-out party ... but which has unfortunately become a source of national shame.

Several star athletes have announced their withdrawal from the Games, citing health and security concerns. Advance teams from Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and Ireland have lodged complaints about the accommodation allocated to them.  Site workers have been using the unlocked flats. Toilets are stained. Fixtures haven't been installed, don't work, or are broken. The first batch of UK athletes and officials arrived on Friday, but tellingly checked into a 5-star hotel -- and brought their own sanitation team.

The Indira Gandhi Velodrome is flooded with rainwater, adding to the risk of mosquito-borne dengue fever. A bridge and the ceiling of one of the competition halls recently collapsed. Alarm and fire evacuation systems are yet to be put in place.  Obviously, no test events have been run to put the timing and measurement systems through their paces.  And the city is bracing itself for aggravated traffic jams as special lanes are going to be blocked off for athletes and officials hustling to their events.

The original budget of US$500 million has ballooned to nine times that figure, in a country where 800 million people live on less than $2 a day. While this doesn't condone the corruption that has largely caused the cost overruns, it goes some way to explain it.

Mike Fennell, chief of the Commonwealth Games Federation, has gone on record to say that he is disappointed with the Indian organizers and that the lack of preparedness for sporting event has hurt the reputation of the country. He flew into Delhi yesterday for crisis meetings with the Indian Prime Minister in an effort to conclusively determine if the Games should go on -- or be cancelled.

Whatever the outcome, some hard lessons are obviously being dispensed -- and hopefully internalized.  Among them will be some soul-searching around how a team of bright, intelligent and articulate people in positions of influence could have allowed Delhi's preparations to be in this sorry state at two minutes to midnight.

Organizational leaders can heed an important lesson here: Unless you make the effort to align individual and organizational goals, you are not going to achieve any significant forward velocity. In fact, you may wonder what's causing the drag on your efforts, not recognizing your uninspired workforce for what it is. This phenomenon is true of every company, but is especially evident in large organizations which have to consider not just individual aspirations but also cultural nuances and matrix reporting relationships.

India may be one country, but it practises an extreme democracy -- which is all the permission an educated population needs to make their feelings known.

One can only hope Delhi pulls together in this last crucial week to salvage the Games. The repercussions on brand India will be felt for years to come.

08 September 2010

Is Reputation Meaningless Today?

Mark Hurd's smug face looks out across reams of newsprint and computer screens today. The recently deposed chief executive of HP has just been appointed Co-President of HP's erstwhile partner and soon-to-be competitor, Oracle.

In an inevitable reaction, HP has moved quickly to file a lawsuit against Oracle and Hurd, citing the need to protect itself against the inevitable disclosure of proprietary information about his former company in his new role. Essentially, in the course of doing his job as Co-President at Oracle, Hurd would inevitably draw on information gathered while at the helm of HP. You can enforce limitations on what a man does; but you can't enforce restrictions on what a man thinks.

This is disturbing on several fronts, not the least of which is the topic of reputation.

Well-regarded companies generate reputational capital that gives them a competitive advantage:
Their products and services entice more customers.
Their stock attracts more investors.
Their employees are more productive and loyal.
Their job vacancies attract more applicants.
Their clout with their suppliers is greater.
They survive crises with less financial loss.

An individual's reputation can be equally potent. But -- as Mr Hurd is demonstrating -- just as transient and fragile. As Warren Buffet, chairman & CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has said: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation, but five minutes to ruin it".

Jeff Bezos, founder & CEO of Amazon.com, puts it just as vividly: "Reputation is what people say about you when you have left the room." Going by some of the comments posted here and here, Mark Hurd doesn't have too rosy a rep, Wall Street notwithstanding. Glassdoor.com gives him the lowest employee approval rating (just 34%) of any major tech CEO.
I have to wonder why Mark would make such a move, so soon after his stint at HP. It's not as if he needs the money.  He could have chilled out for six months, or until the proprietary secrets he carries around in his head lose their competitive edge with time. Either Larry Ellison was a persuasive man -- or he must awfully, badly want to stick it to his former company.

HP's Standards of Business Conduct (SOBC) recommend that employees pose themselves a simple question to decide whether an action is appropriate: "Before you make a decision, consider how it would look in a news story."  I served eight years at HP, and once turned down an all-expense paid trip to the Maldives offered by a media owner -- because it was drummed into us to avoid even the slightest hint of obligation in our transactions with suppliers.  After five years with the company, and barely a month after leaving it, Mark Hurd seems to have ditched those very same standards he swore to uphold not so long ago.

He may yet wring a bunch of cost efficiencies out of Oracle; but in my book, he starts in his new role morally bankrupt.