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Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from the cognitive work path of Manmohan Singh


As knowledge workers, we already face many difficultiesI read this account of Manmohan Singh's career graph in October 2011 article of The Caravan by Vinod Jose. This has been written on the basis of accounts gathered over the course of four months of research that included lengthy interviews with more than 40 people who have known and worked closely with Manmohan Singh ( MS) in his private and public life during the last half-century. 

By donning the hat of  'career researcher', here are my six lessons of what corporate individuals can learn from the story. 

1. Change requires a 'pain' strong enough for everyone to rally around on one agenda

See the background that triggered the biggest change in 1991.

India’s debt to foreign lenders had nearly doubled between 1985 and 1991, and a series of external shocks—including the sudden spike in oil prices that accompanied the Gulf War—had reduced India’s foreign currency reserves to less than the amount required to finance two weeks of imports.

The government was so desperate to raise funds that it had pawned 20 tonnes of gold confiscated from smugglers, which were secretly shipped to the Union Bank of Switzerland in exchange for $200 million. When that proved insufficient, another 47 tonnes from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) were sent to England and Japan to secure loans worth an additional $405 million.In a country where pawning the family jewellery would be an act of final desperation, the sense of alarm was palpable.

Learning for CXO's: More radical change requires more intense pain to justify the change. Please remember this when initiating any change in your organisations. 

2. To change the system, you have be 'part of the system'

MS had been working in different ministeries for 20 years, before he took over the role of Finance Minister in 1991. MS had authored the current Five-Year Plan when he was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and he was implementing policies in 1991 which were totally contradictory to his earlier plan. When the question of this apparent contradiction was first raised in June 1991, at Singh’s first press conference as finance minister, his response was unguarded: “I agree that I had played a role in getting the economy into a mess, and now I want to play a role in getting the economy out of the mess.”

Learning for CXO's: Thorough understanding of 'as-is' state of what the Government did before 1991 helped MS to move to the new 'to-be' state much more quickly. The same capability is required to ensure successful change in organisations. 

3. System picks you when your profile suits the need

In both the instances, MS was chosen because of the curious situational factors, not because he was the first choice.

Narsimha Rao picked MS in 1991 because it perfectly matched his need of a good finance minister who will help India get out of the trouble.Rao needed a finance minister who satisfied three criteria: he needed a skilled economist to conduct negotiations with the international financial institutions; second, in the event of a backlash against the radical policy changes, an ‘outsider’ would be easier to dismiss from the cabinet; and third, if the new finance minister was successful, he still wouldn’t pose any threat to Rao’s own position in the party. MS matched these three criteria.

Sonia Gandhi picked MS for PM in 2004, because his profile fitted the need of hour: Cognitive architect of 1991 liberalisation, the image of technocrat ( substantiated by the inability to even win the almost sure seat in 1999) that gave a good public branding, and above all the non-political humble background that ensured loyalty.

Learning: As you would have observed in the above case, even MS's liabilities became assets for the position.  If you aspire to reach the top of such a complex system, it is more prudent to 'be' what you are, along with your plusses and minuses, rather than trying to change to something else. Do not get tempted by self-help Guru's. 

4.Cognitive growth is important than ideology when one is learning
MS worked under different mentors and bosses without getting confused with their 'ideology'. He worked with with P.N. Haksar, who went against Indira Gandhi in Pre-Emergency, continued with PN Dhar, who had succeeded Haksar, RK Dhawan, an intimate of Sanjay Gandhi. When Indira was ejected and the Janata Party came to power, Singh worked closely with HM Patel, whose position was almost diametrically opposed to that of Dhawan. His capacity to adapt to shifting political winds was nicely captured by The Times of India in a 1991 editorial: “Manmohan Singh was perfectly happy with the garibi hatao phase of Mrs Gandhi, then with the Emergency, then with the Janata Party, then with the return of Mrs Gandhi.  

Learning: This sounds 'atypical' with the image of MS, but this is an ideal way to maximise the development of competencies of your cognitive talent in the phase II.

5. Behaviour is always contextual; do not get confused with preconceived biases

P V Narsimha Rao's indecisiveness was known to the world. However, this story so clearly shows how wrong we were.

PV, who was known to be so indecisive—at cabinet committee meetings he couldn’t even decide between tea and coffee—was surprisingly sure that India had to deregulate and open its markets, and he gave Manmohan the crucial confidence to make those moves.

When MS told PV that the country immediately needed a huge standby loan of at least $5 billion, “There was no ambiguity in Rao’s mind,” the senior secretary recalled. “He was more convinced than Manmohan Singh.” Rao approved Singh’s proposal on the spot.

Learning: Our behaviour is determined by the situation. We are decisive in certain situation, and indecisive in others. Our traits are contextual. Even honesty, motivation, confidence are contextual traits

6. Transition from one role to another is the most difficult phase to negotiate   

See the initial examples of transition that MS went through in 1991 after becoming a FM ( after being in Government for 20 years):

a. “During that month of budget preparation, the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs met almost every day,” the senior secretary told me. “Manmohan was so indecisive and nervous that Rao ended up doing most of the talking and convincing the others himself.”

b. Singh’s budget, which would come to symbolise the unleashing of the Indian economy, met with a cold reception within the Congress party. At a meeting after the budget speech to discuss the new economic policies, a sizable crowd of MPs vented their outrage. They were certain that slashing fertiliser subsidies, among other measures, would spell doom at the polls. “There was considerable unrest in the Congress ranks,” a CWC member and former cabinet minister told me. “There were as many as 63 backbenchers who spoke against Manmohan. PV really had to save him in that meeting.” 

Learning: In the early days of transition from one job to another, either you are changing from programmer to PM, or GM to VP or VP to CEO, the transition is the most difficult phase to negotiate where maximum derailments occur. Seek support during this period.


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