Nepali Times
Strictly Business
High mental bandwidth


Last January, at the risk of appearing self-indulgent, I wrote in these pages about my then experiences as a CEO of a media company. Six months later, it's time for an update.

Trust, but verify: Once someone is in a position of authority, employees and others face an incentive to tell him things they think he likes to hear. And what he hears boils down to flattering information about himself, and conspiratorial information about others. At best, these interactions result in providing the CEO with access to necessary 'soft' information, which he can put to use. But at worst - and this can happen much more frequently than one thinks - these sessions can degenerate into time sinks for employees to exchange favours with the boss in return for 'privileged' information, which can be of dubious value.

Since I often do not know which is which, my rule of thumb is to listen to everyone both attentively and skeptically, and then ask for as much verification as possible. This simple act helps filter information that has value from information that could have been shared simply to massage the boss's emotions. As Bill Clinton was supposed to have deadpanned: "I don't understand why I lose at golf, and why people no longer laugh at my jokes, now that I am no longer the President!"

Explain the business: Most employees do not necessarily understand the basic ins and the outs of their company. Nor do they understand how their company invests, earns and spends money for growth. And matters of external changes such as rise in the price of paper in international markets and the downturn in the advertisement industry in the local market can be too abstract for most employees to grasp. Besides, any seemingly secure and happy job can lull even the most productive employees into thinking that their company is somehow not subjected to the harsh realities of market competition and the law of supply and demand.

This 'we are immune' feeling can be compounded further by the view that the shareholders have unlimited resources and infinite patience. Faced with these ground realities, the CEO should assume the role of a story teller who seizes every chance, in large meetings and in one-on-one meetings, to repeatedly explain as forthrightly and plainly as possible how the company functions or does not function for growth. Otherwise, in the absence of a common believable business-centric story, there will be a mismatch between how the CEO perceives what the company should do and how the employees perceive the same matter.

Iterative decisions: The aid industry (my previous employer) rewards those who can churn out long-term plans on behalf of, say, the poor in Rolpa or the children of Panauti. These plans have a linear-logic certainty to them. But in a private business, long-term plans are nice to have, but it's day-to-day tactics that take account of evolving situations that are most effective in getting things accomplished.

At any given moment, there are so many internal and external variables that can go wrong that a CEO needs to develop a 'high mental bandwidth' to make sense of situations fraught with ambiguities. This means that decisions made on Monday could be changed on Wednesday because new information has come up, and, once the CEO walks down this path, the process of decision-making jells into an iterative practice.

In the best moments, this can feel like playing beautiful jazz; at the worst, the crashing of plates. Either way, one becomes less terrified of making decisions.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)