Archive for the ‘Bible Lessons’ Category

Management Partrnerships

August 11, 2007 Leave a comment
Last year I wrote a blog entry on leadership. That entry was based on an idea expressed by Rabbi Mendel Lew, and given in one of his weekly synagogue sermons. Today Rabbi Lew gave another sermon which I think has implications for management.

The topic was a strange verse in the Book of Genesis just prior to the creation of Adam’s wife, Eve. Genesis chapter 2 verse 18 is generally translated from the original Hebrew as follows: God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a compatible helper for him’. Two verses later (verse 20) the same idea comes up. The man named every livestock animal and bird of the sky, as well as all the wild beasts. But the man did not find a helper who was compatible for him. The Hebrew words “ezer kenegdo” are translated as compatible helper or similar variations (e.g. a suitable helper) but a more literal translation would actually be a helper against him or a helper who contradicts him / argues with him. (For linguists – ezer means “helper”, while kenegdo means “against him”)

So what does this have to do with management. The second verse quoted gives the clue – in that Adam was not actually on his own, as implied in the first verse. Adam had companions – dogs, cats, livestock, etc. However none could advise him or work with him. They were all subordinate to, and dominated by, him.

There are two types of managers

  1. those who seek to dominate those around them
  2. those who listen to, work with, and respect the opinions of those around them.
The first sort generates “yes men” and “yes women” who dare not question the wisdom and leadership of the manager. The problem with this sort of manager is that if they are wrong they will have nobody to tell them so. They will have helpers – but nobody to tell them when they are wrong, or even to discuss issues objectively. Nobody will risk contradicting such managers – and if such a manager did ask for the opinions of those around them, the answers received would be crafted to correspond to what people thought he/she wanted to hear. Essentially the helpers are a bit like a sheepdog rounding up sheep for the shepherd – very useful, but only so long as everything is straightforward and there are no problems. The moment problems occur, the manager – like the shepherd – will be alone. Essentially this type of manager has nobody to share ideas with: he/she has no peers to listen to, to respect and to view as equals.

For true management and leadership success this is not enough. You also need to hear contradictory opinions and take into account the views of those who disagree with you – who are against you. From the differing opinions you can then develop a balanced viewpoint – and end up making better, more profitable decisions.

In a recent blog entry (Thinking Hats) I suggested that prior to making a decision you look at the problem from six different perspectives, with the sixth being a synthesis of the other five. The same applies to management: to manage successfully you need to consider the opinions and attitudes of those around you. You need an ezer kenegdo whose opinions are seen as equal to your own, so that you can balance your and your peers’ views when making decisions.

However this only goes as far as the planning stage. When it comes to action, you need to think as one – and act as one. There should be no scope for different people to pull in contradictory directions. Successful managers should take on board diverse viewpoints, and then come up with rational strategic or tactical decisions that bring people together; that unify the various perspectives; and that lead to coherent actions that fulfill agreed business aims and objectives.


Honey Traps!

December 20, 2006 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about a topic for this entry. I was considering something along the lines of the uses and dangers of honey-traps in competitive intelligence and counter-intelligence. This was prompted by the story of Judith told in the Apocrypha, and featured in some of the world’s greatest art work. (If you see a woman holding somebody’s decapitated head then it is either Judith with the head of Holofernes, or more commonly, Salome with John the Baptist’s head. Judith’s story is remembered on the Jewish festival of Chanukah that ended just after Christmas, and led to a custom to eat cheese on this holiday. The key point is that Holofernes, a Greek general, was tempted by the beautiful Judith, who plied him with salty cheese, and then wine to quench his thirst. Holofernes had lost his head to Judith’s beauty before he fell into a drunken stupor. He then lost his head to Judith’s sword! It is essentially the old-new story of beware Greeks bearing gifts – in reverse, as instead of it being the Greeks tricking the Trojans, it was the Greeks getting tricked. For competitive intelligence professionals, it shows three things:

  • How easy it is to get information or what ever is needed when tempted by an unexpected gift. Rather than ask for information and give nothing in return, try and make it a quid-pro-quo by offering a piece of harmless (but unknown to the interviewee) information. This exchange can stimulate conversation and encourage the passing of information. As an example, many years ago, I was working on a project. I promised interviewees a copy of the report I was writing in return for their co-operation. This was a sanitised version of what I was giving to my client. In fact, it was pretty much a rehash of what my interviewees had just told me, with the useful bits wanted by my client removed. I sent this to one interviewee – who promptly called me back to thank me. He had been my main source and much of the report was based on his input. He then proceeded to give me much more information than he had before – invaluable to my client.
  • How an unexpected gift can encourage people to talk. The above example shows how it can be done. The danger is that people in your company may be giving away valuable information – so it is important to ensure that there is a policy on who can talk to outsiders, and what can be said.
  • How women can tempt men. Yes – I know that this is politically incorrect, but it is done. I know of a CI consultancy that had a reputation for employing extremely attractive, and very bright 20-year old graduates. These girls would then call up senior executives, play naive, and get the executives to talk. They would then invite them to a lunch meeting to talk further – and the executives would melt, giving away information that they should have known not to give. Unfortunately it is a failing of some middle-aged men to give away the store when flattered by a much younger woman. This is the classic honey-trap, and although it may not be ethical, it does go on.

The question of leadership

July 2, 2006 Leave a comment

I last wrote about leadership almost a year ago. Yesterday I heard a talk that made me think again about this topic.

Understanding leadership is a crucial competitor analysis skill. Poor leadership is a weakness which is reflected in the strategies taken by the company. And companies with poor leaders are less likely to survive when competition intensifies. The opposite is the case for good leaders.

But what makes a good or bad leader. Is it just an ability to come up with winning strategies, or is there more to it.

I’ve written before about how the Bible can teach us lessons that are applicable for today’s business. The biblical story of Korach – told in the book of Numbers is one story that illustrates the issues of leadership. Korach was a cousin of Moses, the Israelite leader. According to Jewish legends, he was fabulously wealthy, and he was also sufficiently charismatic to attract several followers. He approached Moses and asked why he was being passed over – questioning the right of Moses and his brother Aaron to be top dogs. God was not amused, and eventually Korach and his followers were destoyed.

But was it so wrong to aspire to leadership. What was so special about Moses and Aaron that made God accept their leadership style and not that of Korach. Afterall, Korach had proved that he could be successful – his wealth and followers showed this.

The answer lies in how you lead. There are two sorts of leader. The first, leads for reasons of ego. They want to lead. They want to be the boss. Essentially, their ambition is to make things better for themselves, and if those beneath them benefit, then all the better. They thrive on the feeling of power and control that leadership can convey. This type of leader can be viewed as a taker. They take what is given from their followers and those underneath them. If they are good at strategy, then all benefit – although they will often benefit more. If they fail, however, then through not cultivating successors and partners, they are likely to drag all down with them.

The second sort of leader is the opposite of the first, in that rather than choosing to lead, leadership is thrust upon them. They may be the boss, but their ambition is not to benefit themselves but to make things better for those who entrusted them with the leader role. They are givers and will encourage others to follow them, through taking up leadership roles and sharing power. As a result, such leaders are more likely to leave a long-lasting legacy, and will also be better suited to withstand problems. They can call on others for help – and as their motivation is altruistic, they are more likely to receive help.

So how do you spot givers and takers in companies. The first thing to do is look at the company culture. Is it collaborative or mercenary? Do the leaders lead by example, or do they just expect to be obeyed? Do they consult with others and take account of the needs and interests of all the organisation or just a select few who they see as their near-equals?

People like to knock Microsoft, and Bill Gates. Gates is a ruthlessly successful businessman. It is not for nothing that there used to be a Googlebomb that claimed that Microsoft was more evil than the devil. Afterall, Windows and Office are the dominant computer operating systems and software (although not 100% – this is being written on an Apple iBook using Firefox – if you are not using either, consider switching for a better computing experience!). But let’s look at Gates himself, over the last few years. He stepped back from being the Microsoft CEO, and now has virtually stepped out of the picture. The world’s richest man stated that his aim is to use his wealth to benefit others – via his charitable foundation. This is not the profile of a taker but of a giver. Is this why Microsoft is so successful – it listened to its staff, its customers, its suppliers and the inner voice that says make the world a better place.

Or what about Google. Their company motto may be a trite Don’t be evil but this at least recognises that corporates can be evil – Enron and Worldcom were just the tip of the iceberg. OK – so Google’s practices in China are suspect. And the way they don’t filter out pornographic sites is defintely wrong. However I personally think that both these examples are reflections of how difficult it is to resolve mutually incompatible conflicts of interest. How do you supply search listings when a government gives you a choice of censorship or nothing. Refusal to comply, and so getting blocked totally, doesn’t help the population of China. And machines don’t find it easy to tell good from bad – Google set rules on what could be found and how, and although these could be altered for exceptions, it sets precedents that could destroy the very accuracy people want. Essentially, Google’s leadership style is that of a giver – but giving is never easy. It is taking that is easy as you then consider what is best for a small elite and don’t have to balance multiple conflicts of interest.

Both these examples link to computers and the Internet. But givers don’t just come from these areas. Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company is another example – that as part of its corporate objectives supports small-scale family owned farms that would otherwise have gone under – squeezed out by their larger competitors. Ben & Jerry’s new owners – Unilever also take corporate social responsibility seriously. And if you look at how Unilever is managed, you will see a truely diverse company with many races and creeds at senior positions. Or take the Indian ICICI bank. India is seen as a patriarchal society by many. Yet ICICI has more women at senior / board positions than many US corporations. It is also India’s fastest growing private bank – success and the giving mentality seem to go together.

There are many more examples. Just recently Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hatherway, announced that he plans to leave 85% of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation – which made charitable payments in 2005 alone, of more than twice that donated by UNESCO. The name Buffet won’t even become incorporated in the charity’s name.

So, when you look at the leaders of your competitors (and your own companies) think about whether they are givers or takers. If they are givers and your company is a taker than be worried, as long-term it seems that being a giver is a more reliable indicator of success.

(With thanks for the idea of givers and takers to Rabbi Mendel Lew and his sermon given following the annual reading in synagogue of the story of Korach).

Sometimes things are not what they seem: Debunking Mythologies!

November 12, 2005 Leave a comment

I just read an e-mail newsletter from the headmaster of my old school – Rabbi Jeremy Rosen. Rabbi Rosen is not your typical Rabbi, and likes to challenge and get people to think. He encourages questioning at a deep level.

The Old Testament is often seen as a book of vendettas and vengeance – and compared unfavourably to the New Testament. Many of the most interesting stories are not even taught in Sunday schools, so most people – unless they read the bible – are unaware of some of the stories that appear in the bible. For example, Rabbi Rosen mentions how the book of Genesis contains the following:

  • A story about a major character who puts his wife and marriage in danger – with blatant lies about her – in order to save his own skin. This happens not just once but three times;
  • A story about how a lively teenager and his mother are kicked out of the biblical hero’s home into the world with no more than a day’s supplies;
  • A story where the above biblical hero tells his son that they are going on a hiking holiday, when in fact the intention is to kill him;
  • A story about another biblical hero who cheats his father and tells lies – in order to get his hands on the inheritance promised to his older brother;
  • Stories where one child is favoured over another and stories where the hero takes advantage of their siblings;
  • A story where the hero moonlights and takes advantage of his father-in-law’s capital assets;
  • A story where two of the hero’s children go out of control and top the local gang (in revenge for the gang leader molesting their sister);
  • A story where a major character spends the night with a call-girl who he’s picked up off the street and who turns out to be his daughter-in-law.

And this is just Genesis. There are many more stories as graphic as these and more later on in the bible. Yet – this is a source book and holy writ for Christianity and Judaism, and many of the characters and stories are also sacred to Islam and Bahaism. The characters have influenced the way we think about life, society and ethical behaviour.

So what does this all have to do with competitive intelligence. Well – one mistake that people make is to make myths out of information. They get blinded and make assumptions. They read the company histories and believe that what was written about the company history is correct – or mostly correct. But real life is not like this. People make mistakes. Things go wrong. The company founders were never the paragons that are portrayed in later company literature. Part of the role of competitor analysts is to uncover the truth, and to disperse the fog that companies like to put around their origins and history. Because the history is important in that it sets the scene for the present. The culture, strategies and vision are all products of what went before – even if the company refuses to accept this and tries to airbrush the unpleasant bits out of their collective story.

That is part of the genius that is the bible – as the bible does not run away from stories that put its heroes in a bad light. The idea is to show that even biblical heroes got it wrong and that nobody is perfect – and that we should learn from the mistakes made. If only companies did the same, and were as honest: the job of a competitor analyst would be much easier.

PS: I’ve deliberately not identified the above stories. As good information searchers it should not be too difficult to identify each. However as a seasonal competition (no prize – just the honour of getting praise) – see how many you can work out. Post the answers in the comments – or wait, and I’ll respond in a couple of weeks if people ask!

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