Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Case of the Bonsai Manager - R. Gopalakrishnan

I received this book as a gift from Crossword Mumbai in 2007. Bala was gracious enough to give me a gift after the launch of my book and recommended this book highly. (Gracious, because not many in his sector were equipped with that quality.) Since then I have made many spirited attempts to read it and never went past the initial few pages. Somehow it never got going. Until this time when I decided that I must now read it. And I did!
Penguin Books, 257 p

'The Case of the Bonsai Manager' is a book about managers whose growth gets stunted like the bonsai plants if they do not grow. R. Gopalakrishnan, a senior executive who served some of the best companies in India, uses his wide experience and his knowledge of nature to draw parallels and drive his point home. He urges managers to use their intuition - and while there gave me a good idea of how the brain finally looks like and operates. Let me share it with you. Imagine a pea, and a lemon, and then a cabbage, one atop the other - and that is your brain for you. The pea, called the cerebellum or the brain stem, has basic life functions (breathing, heartbeat etc), the lemon part is the limbic system supports emotions (fear, love, hunger etc) and the cabbage part or the neo cortex has complex emotions where you show deceit and guile, logic and analysis, working alternates etc. There is a case to be intuitive and how it helps managers grow - but nothing much in terms of how to be so. Suffice to say that when you need to, trust your instinct. The value of anecdotes, immersion and practice, are suggested.

The author says that there is no proven manager and one must always grow. I agree. He cites the case of the stunted crocodiles - a result of confining the animal to a small space. He also cites the case of the katla fish which grew faster and bigger when given space and experience. Snails reproduced when under threat where the offspring showed growth in all parameters.And my favorite story of all time - the one where fish taste good when they are threatened by a shark. (For this one story I will forgive all else.) Bottom line - put the guys in the deep end and they will learn to survive. If needed add some more danger and they get tougher (like adding a shark or introducing some piranha!)

Blue tits and robins, birds, come in handy to teach us about social propagation - the blue tits learning how to get to the milk in milk bottles by sharing info while the robins were stuck up and did not. Information is obtained by going deep down in all the good success stories. Then we meet the falcons of Arabia which are not the best types of birds to play around with but the trainer and the bird develop a close bond - an emotional connect they say. Here RG says the elements of coaching and mentoring must be based on trust, respect, commitment and faith. If one can do that with falcons why can't we do it with humans? (Humans obviously have that dangerous bit, that neo cortex which disguises all their emotions unlike the straightforward falcons!)

We then turn to turtles to understand the value of reflection and contemplation in leadership. The point is that the nurturing instinct increases with one's own mortality. There is a chapter on interdependence which is related through the biodiversity of Australia - scarce resources promote cooperation. The wisdom of groups comes to fore with penguins (watch the The March of the Penguins) where six new penguins in an enclosure drive forty six existing lethargic penguins into frenetic swimming activity. The wisdom of groups cannot be discounted he says. One has to look at the birth of the butterfly to understand the pain of change - the caterpillar feeds and grows and the skin splits five times before the pupa is formed and then the butterfly. Cave crickets  with their extra long feelers serve as an example for how one should have long feelers i.e. reaching out. The case of the homing pigeons and how they listen to sounds that come off the cliffs is important - listen to the inaudible sounds.

I loved the story of Vijay Gokhale who was the CEO of Union Carbide when the tragedy occurred and how his entire life changed. Vijay Gokhale chose the tough option, stayed, and put his heart and soul into helping the affected. During those years he saw the company's profits fall to an all time low and by the time he left the company, it was again at an all time high. I also liked the Bland's law reference - the amount of backbiting, infighting and skulduggery in an organisation is in direct proportion to the nobility of its goals. (The worst behavior he found was in a home for the handicapped while corporate biggies were all well behaved despite the profit motive.)

I understood why it took so long for me to get through the book. The style and structure does not lend to easy reading. Sometimes the examples goes all over the place and the central idea escapes the reader. With the content at its disposal and the core idea of management lessons from nature, it could have been  far more interesting and impactful. The frequent dips into the MNC culture, sometimes out of context, does not really help. If there is one thing that made me jump for joy it was my shark story - I was glad to find it in this book.

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