Sunday, November 27, 2011

As the Tsar went so goes Trotsky

Not much in this world is as veritable treasure of contradictions, cruelties, ironies and stories as USSR and communism. During my usual treasure hunting at an old bookstore I found "Trotsky's Diary in Exile 1935" by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, for those who do not know, was considered second only to Lenin himself in the Revolution. Trotsky was respected as a great intellectual. In later years Trotsky fell out with Stalin and was exiled from USSR. While living as an exile in Mexico Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalin agent.

Trotsky's entry for April 9th is chilling. One of the mysteries of the Revolution was how the Tsar's family was murdered. Every member of the Romanov family was killed in a cellar, or it is said. The story of Anastasia, the missing Romanov princess, inspired a Hollywood movie starring Yul Brynner and the undoubtedly beautiful Ingrid Bergman (Kollywood robbed the movie to make a Rajni+ Sri Devi starrer 'Adutha Vaarisu'). Trotsky narrates a tale in his diary. It needs to be quoted in full:

" Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: "oh yes, and where is the Tsar?",he answered, "he has been shot"." "And where is the family?""and the family along with him." "All of them?" I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. "All of them" replied Sverdlov. "And who made the decision?" I asked. "We decided it here. Illyich believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around..".

Trotsky then continues remorselessly, "(and) considered the matter closed. Actually the decision was not only expedient but necessary." The prize for Freudian slip that shines a light into the darkest corners of these so called revolutionaries goes to this:"The severity of this summary justice showed the world tat we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the Tsar's family was need not only in order to frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy, but also to shake up our own ranks.

What makes the reading of that diary page so gripping and spine chilling is it is written by a man who is fleeing for his dear life from a blood thirsty tyrant who also was interested in " frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy". The irony reaches biblical portions when one reads just a few days before that Trotsky worries about his own family, including his first wife, left back in Moscow. Stalin promptly sent all to the Gulags and then dispatched an assassin to kill Trotsky. Trotsky was struck by an ice-axe and died a few days later. I am not sure if he thought how Stalin would characterize this killing as "not only expedient but necessary"

Most anti-communist literature focuses on the atrocities of Stalin. Very few know that Lenin himself was a monster. Lenin, according to Soviet archives recently opened, would draw up lists of doctors and educated people to be killed. Maxim Gorki, who had a love hate relationship with Lenin, would plead with Lenin to go easy on the killings. David Remnick, author of Pulitzer winning "Lenin's Tomb" on the downfall of communism, wrote in his essay on Lenin for Time's 100 greatest Leaders in the centenary issue, "Stalin was a lamb compared to Lenin". Lenin and Trotsky were not fated to live long or at the helm and only that fate saved millions from their hands and delivered the millions to Stalin instead.

The Soviet Union was a terror machine more to its own citizenry than to others. Communism killed mostly its own citizenry. Nazism in a perverse logic declared a section of its own people as not German and THEN killed them. Che Guvera sitting in Cuban jungles would dispense Trotsky's "summary justice" horrifying even Castro.

Tatyana Tosltaya, great niece of Tolstoy, in her "Pushkin's Children" muses on this blood lust by communes revolutionaries and the Tsar's before them. Her theory is that Russians have a streak of violence interwoven in the culture and it spills over.

The diary itself is an interesting read. Trotsky's biggest complaint against, Emma Goldman, an American communist and highly respected revolutionary, was that Emma was an "individualist". Trotsky goes for a hair cut in France and his barber talks to him about Charlie Chaplin.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Steve Jobs A Model C.E.O.? Level 5 Leadership.

Steve Jobs remains the flavor more than a month after his passing. A manager in a Fortune 500 firm gifted a copy of Steve Jobs's eponymous biography by Walter Isaacscon to each one in his team. I do not know the exact reasons as to why he did it. I surmise he felt enamored about Jobs's life story and felt his team could learn a thing or two from that eventful life and career. True there is much to be learnt from Jobs and there is much more to be wary off too.

Jobs was a classic iconoclast. His obsession over design and simplicity are all now regurgitated endlessly (including yours truly). Just last week I was looking at a Sony laptop and the word that came to my mind was "ugly". I had been using Macbook Air for over 3 weeks. Other laptops were grotesque. The good old PC towers are declining now its mostly the "all in one PC" made famous by the iMac design. Steve Jobs has a patent for the glass panels he designed for his flagship store in New York. He also holds a patent for the unique staircase in that store. He would not hesitate to delay a product release if he was not satisfied. He rejuvenated Apple and brought it back to life from near certain death. Apple is now frequently trading places with Exxon as the most valuable company on Earth on market capitalization terms. Jobs has upended decades worth understanding of consumer behavior. A college dropout was feted by Ivy League universities. Yes, there are lessons to be learned there. But, how often do we learn the correct lessons? Jobs had another side that could be summed up in one word "JERK".

Let us overlook quibbles like whether he was less than generous to Steve Wozniak or his friends. Many subordinates recall one trait of Jobs. Whenever an employee offered an idea mostly Jobs would call the idea stupid and the employee an idiot (laced with expletives of course). Two weeks later he would come back and repeat the idea like it was his own. The employee would have to meekly agree. For a man who threatened to go 'thermonuclear' with Google over Android OS, that he called stolen from Mac OS, its strange that he would shamelessly palm off ideas. He was a genius but not above swiping an idea.

During Jobs's first stint at Apple he had to be bridled by a person recruited to be CEO. The CEO's prime responsibility was to baby sit Steve Jobs the irascible genius whose very genius was threatening to derail the company he had founded. Later in a coup, one tailor made for a movie, the CEO and the board joined hands to oust the founder.

At Pixar, another company Steve Jobs resuscitated from the brink, Jobs would run up huge expenses insisting on arcane coloring of machines. The furniture and architecture ran up bills that any CFO would not just lose sleep but bring in the board to rein in. Again his genius revived the company but his passion also came close to destroying it.

No management book would endorse Jobs's actions as manager, much less as CEO. With all due respect Jobs died too soon before his time. Android phones have overtaken iPhones. MacOS is still a minuscule market share. iPod's are being threatened. Can we place Apple in the league of Coca Cola or IBM or GE? Not just yet. Coca Cola and IBM are around for 100+ years. It takes more than one individual to build a company like that.

Jim Collins, guru in analysing companies and author of "Good to Great", wrote in Harvard Business Review about what kind of a CEO delivers great results. The article's title sums it up "Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve". Collins wrote "our discover of Level 5 leadership is counter intuitive. Indeed its counter cultural". Collins brushes past celebrity CEO's like Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca and offers, 'shy, awkward, shunning attention' Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark. Level 5 leader, Collins sums up, "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will". Level 4 leader is one who "catalyzes commitmment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards".

Isaacson often refers to Jobs's "reality distortion field" referring to Jobs's ability to make people do what they thought was impossible for them to accomplish. Jobs is clearly Level 4. Nothing beyond. Level 5 leaders are those who took their companies to great, delivering "cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market for 15 years, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next 15 years". Apple has had a great decade after the turning point what lies ahead in the next 5 we don't know yet.

Even Jack Welch the most celebrated CEO is being re-evaluated and many wonder how much of GE's growth was due to him and how much to the overall economic climate which was the most prosperous period in post war USA. Jack Welch's divorce papers showed a typical greedy arrogant CEO who had bargained for outlandish benefits from an awe struck company that thought he was God.

Jobs could afford doing the unthinkable reschedule of a major product release chasing perfection. Facebook CIO says she does not have the time for perfection and in her line of business its better to bring a 'good enough' feature quickly to market. This shows the pitfalls of learning about Jobs without carefully considering his context. That pitfall applies any exercise in analogy. Failure to analyze and map two situations clearly to test whether they are analogous is the most common folly of all.

For a man who felt scarred for being given up to adoption as a baby Jobs was remorseless about abandoning his first girl friend and his daughter. Jobs paid for her education and tried to make amends but she in turn bore the scars he himself carried.

Much is made of Steve Jobs's famous address to Stanford grads advising them to remain "foolish and hungry' going after their passions. Once addressing a classroom of Stanford students he asked the girls how many of them are virgins and he asked the class if they had done drugs. As a self confessed LSD taker he felt that such rebelliousness, losing virginity or taking drugs, is what makes them different and become a creator. About his famous rival, Bill Gates, he would stingingly say that Gates "had no imagination" and would ruminate that Gates might have made better products had he "dropped acid". All of that makes good reading but if followed would be dangerous. Millions have lost their lives doing drugs and millions of teenage women have ruined their lives due to teen pregnancies. College grads chasing dreams with no plan B end up as wastrels or in Occupy Wall Street shrieking inane leftist bromides.

Steve Jobs practically commissioned this biography, primarily, so his young kids would know their father after he is gone. He knew very well that he would not live to see his book. Isaacson interviews Bill Gates several times especially about the famous Jobs-Gates rivalry. Gates had beaten Jobs in the market yet Gates is gracious in his admiration for Jobs. Jobs on the other hand is in no mood for grace, he rubs it in that Gates was uncomfortable in technology and is now 'comfortable doing philanthropy'. Even Isaacscon notes the absolute lack of grace. Jobs wanted to reach from his grave and rub dirt onto Gates's nose.

Learn from Steve Jobs, but very carefully. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Friedman's India Kool-Aid

I first came across Thomas Friedman in 2001 when I read “The Lexus and The Olive Tree”, an excellent primer for understanding globalization. When globalization was bursting into policy circles there were few books that explained the new order so lucidly. Ever since I remained a big admirer of Tom Friedman and eagerly lapped up his wonderful columns in New York Times. Then he wrote “The World is Flat”. It was the very first time in my life I sold back a book I had bought. The book was a bestseller and every American CEO who had not heard of Bangalore grabbed a copy of the book for in-flight reading before they reached Bangalore to negotiate offshore contracts. The book was panned by serious scholars. Yes he shone a nice light on little known aspect of India. Friedman’s book, the outsourcing phenomenon, the massive influx of H1B’s (including me) changed America’s perception of India for the better. 
Friedman, however, painted another extreme picture of India. He portrayed an India that was ready to snag Nobel Prizes by the dozens, rock the world technology with innovations, math crazed students, students who took to science like ducks to water and so on. During an interview he was asked why he interviews only CEO’s and never the common man for his books and articles on globalization. Friedman replied “only CEO’s can explain the emerging order”. I was aghast at the hubris and could clearly see how he was losing touch from his days as reporter. His book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, which brought him fame, was filled with tales of common men. His books on globalization, on the other hand, start and end with Nilakeni, including his latest column in NYT titled “India’s Innovation Stimulus”
Friedman writes, “just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”

I did not have the stomach to continue. Friedman thinks flying First Class on a Jet, driving around in a Mercedes, staying at Marriotts and playing golf with Nilakeni gives him a picture of India. Silly guy. Nowhere else in the world he would see a billboard advertising “physics degree” because nowhere else in the world would degrees be sold like popcorn. I saw those boards during my last trip to India and told my dad that it reminded of the inverted V shape boards in front of Udipi hotels saying “today’s special”.
Only in India can a doctor purchase both MBBS+a P.G. degree for a package deal of Rs 1-2 crores. Only in India would MBBS students protest that the passing limit should be brought down by 50%. The much vaunted IIT’s do not even figure in the top 200 universities in the world. The research output of Indian professors, let alone students, is pathetic. I bet that most students do not even know what a ‘peer reviewed journal’ is. Of course not all of America’s students are Feynman’s but the system ‘encourages’ the excellent. An American 12th grade student sits for a 4 hour SAT exam. A medical school aspirant in USA sits for a 7 hour endurance test taking MCAT. In Tamil Nadu politicians and demagogues take pride in abolishing entrance exams. The student in Tamil Nadu is taught to fear exams, the student is taught to abhor merit, the student is taught that he/she is entitled to a college seat. 
When the outsourcing phenomenon hit the airwaves, thanks to Lou Dobbs 'Exporting America' program on CNN, the death of IT industry in US was predicted. Friedman and his ilk enthused ‘there is nothing that cannot be digitized and sent to India for completion”. Friedman kept repeating that India graduates a million engineers every year. 
Outsourcing is here to stay but the predictions of sending high level jobs never happened. A chief challenge was the quality of Friedman’s graduates. Duke University and McKinsey analysed India’s graduates by including a criterion, ‘employability by a MNC’. The number of qualified Indian graduates fell exponentially. Wall Street Journal ran a detailed report on how woefully inadequate the Indian graduate is. I've worked in the biggest investment banks and have seen at first hand how outsourcing experiments have failed chiefly due to lack of quality work.
Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine, “I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative”. Note, Zakaria is being polite about the education he received in India. I can vouch that most colleges in Tamil Nadu are not fit to be called colleges at all. That any of us turned out any good is despite the colleges we had been through. 
If Indians want to progress they should stop drinking from Friedman’s kool-aid. (Drinking  the kool-aid is an American expression to say somebody is buying into an idea blindly and is actually dangerous)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

IBM Shatters The Glass Ceiling

On October 25th Virginia Rometty, 60, was chosen to be the CEO of IBM. She is the first woman CEO of IBM in its 100 year history. It came shortly after HP, another venerated tech giant, chose Meg Whitman as its CEO, its second actually after the unceremonious ouster of its first woman CEO Carly Fiorina.

Ginny, as Virginia is referred to, joins a select club of woman CEO's. Indra Nooyi, Indian born, at Pepsico; Ursual Burns, first Afro-American and second woman CEO to head Xerox, Xerox has had two women CEO's in succession with Anne Mulcahy as the first; Ellen Kullman heads the bicentennial giant Du Pont, a first in 200 years of that company's existence. Compared to corporations the supposed guardians of progressive politics, the universities, are slow to move. Princeton got its first woman president, Shirley Tilghman a molecular biologist, in 2001. Harvard appointed Drew Gilpin Faust a Civil War scholar to its presidency in 2007 shattering the proverbial glass ceiling after 350 years.

Sam Palmisano, the outgoing CEO of IBM, is quoted by NYT as rejecting the notion that gender played any role in selecting Rometty. Palmisano was full of praise for Rometty. No nation on earth is free of prejudices and biases that disadvantage sections of the population but how they evolve from it is what differentiates the substantive from the chaff.

The rise of women, by merit, in US is irreversible and marks a progress that is substantive. Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated how women outgrew their traditional roles in the crucible of the civil war in her book "Mother's of invention". When men had to leave for battlefields it was the women who stepped out and filled in the shoes of men. Teaching, seen today as a woman's profession, was out of bounds for women in pre-civil-war era in USA. In the decades after women were assigned to traditional jobs like nursing and teaching. Many other occupations were out of bounds for women. Especially Science and Math. Faust herself faced jeers from male professors as a student. Faust had completed all requisite coursework for her PhD and the work that remained did not need her to be at the university. Newly married Faust asked her professor if she can complete the thesis from remote as she had to accompany her husband. The professor sneered that as woman she was only focused on marriage. When many women won Nobel Prizes in science in 2009 I wrote and emphasized that women started entering top research positions only in the 80's and their researches are only now coming to notice and that this is only a beginning.

The incident in Faust's life illustrates a key difficulty for women. I remember reading an article in Harvard Business Review citing IBM studies that women lose 7 years in their career life due to child bearing and bringing up children. Corporate America has been negligent in this regard. In an age when jobs are being sent across oceans allowing women to work from home where the function can afford it is still in the minority. Corporate America is stuck in the 60's when it comes to workers and work practices.

Corporations are rarely, rather never, given credit for ushering in social change, politicians corner it. IBM has been a leader in ushering in social change. As an employer of hundreds of thousands over decades its policies are an illustration of how Corporations are often painted with the same brush and very unfairly. IBM's President Thomas Watson, in 1953, sent out a letter to his employees that IBM needed the best people irrespective of color. He also sent notices to two southern governors that IBM will NOT have a segregated workplace. Only those who know the race politics of US would appreciate the monumental courage for a company CEO to do that. IBM is rated highly for its support of Gay and Lesbian rights. When Atlanta natives demurred over a function to honor Martin Luther King Jr who had won the Nobel Peace prize Coca Cola threatened to walk out of Atlanta if the city did not honor its most famous son. A note, both IBM and Coca Cola were thrown out of India when Janata Party came to rule, George Fernandes broke coke cans in the streets.

When Time magazine chose to highlight whistleblowers for their courage to speak truth to power, not coincidentally all three that were chosen were women. Michael Lewis in his latest bestseller about the crises sweeping Europe, "Boomerang", writes that maybe Wall Street would not have been so reckless if there had been more women at the helm. Testosterone driven men drove Wall Street off the cliff. Michael Lewis, I could say with my tongue in my cheek, has not heard about Jayalalitha or Indira Gandhi and has forgotten Imelda Marcos.

American politics is still chauvinistic. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueled for the Democratic party nomination a WSJ poll said more Americans were ready for a black president and not yet for a woman president. The poll was taken about a hypothetical without referring to Hillary or Barack. However I am sure people responded with those two in mind and it certainly skewed the results. Hillary is the first woman to 'win' votes in a primary. She gave many a sleepless night to Obama. When Hillary spoke at a rally in New Hampshire two guys stood at the back of the crowd with t-shirts that said "come do my laundry". Obama never faced such a racism at close quarters those such comments surfaced in commentary. Hillary finally lost due to her own mistakes. However today she is the most admired cabinet member of Obama with a Time magazine cover story this week gushing over her work. She is the third woman as Secretary of State.

Many men who swear by gender equality still betray traces of male chauvinism. I've seen this especially amongst Tamil Nadu men, particularly those who dislike Jayalalitha. Jayalalitha's marital status is often fodder for jokes and snide remarks. That she was an actress adds fuel to the fodder. As Elizabeth, the Virgin queen, was mocked for her supposed virgin status so is Jayalalitha mocked.

Hillary Clinton suffered many an unkind remark about her pant suits, her girth, her make up, how she dressed, if she dressed conservatively she was stuffy, if she dressed with an open neck she flaunting cleavage, if her eyes had dark lines she had a bad night dreaming of losing, if she had her makeup perfect perfect she was 'unconnected and distant'. Damned if she did it, damned if she did not.

After Iowa when blacks realized that Obama is not Jesse Jackson and rallied to him in a historic candidacy women refused to do the same for Hillary. Oprah chose race over gender. Hillary plowed on and won 18 million votes in primaries and later referred to it in her concession speech as '18million cracks in the glass ceiling'.

That women of high merit are chosen because of their merit is what makes these breakthroughs as admirable. Drew Faust is a sheer scholar. Rometty is a high achiever. They are not, to be blunt, affirmative action cases or quota cases. In a not too distant future a woman would certainly become the President of USA.