10 Things To Learn From Warren Buffett’s 2017 Letter to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders

The Oracle of Omaha’s latest letter to his Berkshire Hathaway (BH) shareholders is filled with Buffett’s typical humour, humility and cutting insight.

Below are some early reflections from his 2017 letter which was issued on the 25th of February.

1.   Always Look For The Opportunities

Buffett (and Charlie Munger, BH’s Vice Chairman) will always be “prepared mentally and financially to act fact when opportunities present themselves.”

He then goes on to add, in classic Buffett-style,

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons.”

2.   It’s Okay To Make Mistakes (Just Make Sure You Learn From Them)

Buffett shares his anecdotes about how he’s “made some dumb purchases, paying far too much..” and gives some examples of when he overpaid for companies such as Dexter Shoes which lost all value and for which he paid for in Berkshire shares (shares now worth $6 billion – arguably the most expensive shoe company in the world!). He then made a similar mistake buying General Reinsurance, again with shares. From that point, he explained how he has ensured that most of BH’s deals came from internally-generated cash rather than through BH shares.

“Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares,” declares Buffett. The lesson here is how it is okay for mistakes to be made, but what won’t be okay is not learning from them!

3.   The American Dream – Built By Immigrants

Buffett remains the eternal optimist. He remarks on the ‘miraculous’ achievement of the United States of America over the last 240 years through the efforts of a ‘tide of talented and ambitious immigrants’, the rule of law and human ingenuity. He explains how, since 1776, Americans have managed to amass wealth totalling $90 trillion.

He does acknowledge that the majority of the homes, cars and other assets are often borrowed but goes on to add how even if the owner defaults on the asset, it remains within American hands.

The one point he does touch on very cursorily is about how the wealth is divided but argues that it is okay as long as it belongs exclusively to Americans. The real challenge here is how less than 1% of Americans actually own the bulk of the wealth – and this inequality is arguably the biggest challenge America faces in the coming years and decades.

4.   Remaining Bullish

“Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history,” claims Buffett very boldly. He goes on to explain how American businesses are going to be without doubt ‘winning’ as President Trump may claim.

He then reminds investors that ‘widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases,’ and that ‘personal fear is your enemy.’

5.   Succession Planning and Managing Talent

Buffett speaks of Ajit Jain who manages Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group and extols his virtues including how Ajit’s operation ‘combines capacity, speed, decisiveness, and most important, brains in a manner unique in the insurance business.’

Buffett talks about how when Ajit Jain first came to BH, he had no experience in insurance and went on to build one of the most successful insurance businesses. Buffett goes on to say, “I there was ever to be another Ajit and you could swap me for him, don’t hesitate. Make the trade!” providing further hints that Ajit Jain could become the next chief of BH.

Ajit Jain is also another immigrant from India who has established his roots in the US and it will be interesting to have the views of Steve Bannon who was dismayed by the fact that there were too many CEOs from South Asia.

6.   The Power of Marketing

Buffett demonstrates how you should always be unashamedly promoting the brand you represent and goes on to tell all readers of the letter to go on to GEICO (an automobile insurance firm) by providing their contact details to save money on their auto insurance! He extols the virtues of GEICO’s superior advantages driven by low costs and how they’ve grown (from making US$8 million annually in 1951 to making that same amount now every 3 hours!).

7.   The Importance Of Having Trusted Advisors Beside You

Buffett explains how he has made errors and ‘stumbled’ either in assessing the fidelity or ability of managers and also talks about how one could count on him certainly making more errors. He then touches on how he is fortunate that Charlie Munger is always around to say ‘no’ to his worst ideas! Anyone who thinks they have no need for guides or advisors is going to be sadly mistaken.

8.   Targets Drive Behaviour And Culture – The Challenge of CEOs Who “Always Make The Numbers.”

Buffett fires a shot across the bow for CEOs who tend to omit certain items or expenses in order to ‘make the numbers’ and meet analysts’ expectations. Buffett warns how CEOs who ‘overtly look for ways to report high numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well.”

As Buffett explains, business is too unpredictable for numbers to be always met and when a CEO’s focus is driven solely by Wall Street’s expectations, he or she will be ‘tempted to make up the numbers.’

9.   What Value (Or Fees) Do Those Hedge Fund Managers Add?

Buffett has hedge fund managers plainly in his sight. He bemoans the prevailing hedge fund standard of “2 and 20” which means a 2% annual fixed fees and 20% of profits – which means hedge fund managers end up making money (simply by piling on the assets) even if the underlying fund performs badly.

Buffett argues how merely investing in an unmanaged low-cost index would do far better than through some very expensive fund managers and highlights how only one individual, a Ted Seides, from thousands of professional investment managers offered to take him up on a $500,000 bet that a low-cost S&P fund would beat (over a 10-year period) five expensive hedge funds. He goes on to explain that 1,000 monkeys are as likely to make similar market predictions as 1,000 fund managers…

Buffett’s guidance is that all large and small investors should stick with low-cost funds as it is always going to be the hedge fund managers rather than clients who reap the benefits.

He adds how he has always recommended a low-cost S&P 500 index to his friends but how wealthier investors have always only politely thanked him for the guidance and went away to listen to the ‘siren song of a high-fee manager.’ Buffett estimates that more than US$100 billion has been wasted in the past ten decades as a result of “elite superior investment guidance,” and how most of the financial damage impacted pension funds for public employees.

10. Mind the GAAP – the Woes of Warren

One final point to note about Warren’s on-going challenges with accounting standards, or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). He explains that amortisation is not truly an economic cost and therefore should not be reflected in the way US GAAP requires them to. He also feels that GAAP-prescribes depreciation methods also understate true economic costs which mean earnings are overstated.

Buffett highlights how the changes in BH acquisition strategy – from merely owning a portfolio of stocks to outright ownership of businesses. This meant that rather than having a balance sheet that was ‘marked to market’ (or having a balance sheet that reflected prevailing share prices for the stocks they own) they had now companies they owned or controlled and therefore had to be reflected as per current GAAP or accounting standards. This meant that they have had to write down for companies that lost value (referred to Buffett as the “losers”) but could not revalue the goodwill for the companies that performed well (or the “winners”). This is why their market-value gain was 23.4% in 2016 vs a book value gain of 10.7%.

6 leadership lessons from the first men to reach the South Pole.

(Adapted from blog post originally posted on August 4, 2014)

I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Oslo and the Fram Museum, which houses arguably one of the world’s most important polar ships, the Fram.

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Roald Amundsen’s cabin in the Fram

The Fram ship was captained by Captain Roald Amundsen as he led the first men towards the South Pole during an era considered the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This was an era of intense rivalry and competition as men and nations were competing to be the first to achieve feats of exploration.

The rivalry between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott are legendary as both men vied with one another to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Amundsen won and earned the distinction of being the first man to reach the South Pole. Scott who managed to reach the Pole later met with a tragic end and never made it back to his camp.

There are numerous accounts about their journeys and the historical reactions that followed both Amundsen and Scott’s achievements.

I want to highlight the six leadership lessons one can learn from Amundsen’s approach to his trip to the South Pole.

  1. Clarity of mission
  2. Clear and consistent leadership
  3. Attention to detail
  4. Constant preparation
  5. Avoid arm-chair expects (and get the right people into the team!)
  6. Luck – is what you make of it

 

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Flag used by Roald Amundsen

1. Clarity of mission

Amundsen was very clear that his primary objective was to be the first man to reach the South Pole. He expended his energy, his thoughts and his efforts to this one single endeavour.

On the other hand, Scott’s agenda was never very clear and he wanted to conduct scientific research, exploration and also reach the pole but nothing was clear defined. One example was when Scott and his team were returning from the Pole, defeated and already running low on supplies, he decided to stop at the top of the Beardmore glacier and deemed it fit to ‘geologise’ and subsequently add more than 15 kilograms of rock to their loads, which slowed them down further and precipitated the crew’s sad demise.

Amundsen was very clear about what his expedition’s objectives were and what his own ambition was and set out to dispassionately attain it.

A confused mission and vision will ultimately confuse your team and lead to misaligned goals and values which will scupper any business or programme.

 

2. Clear leadership

Scott was a product of his times and was extremely formal, conventional and hierarchical and this is what the English establishment demanded this of anyone who was leading an official British mission.

Amundsen on the other hand was an extremely competitive, relentless and focused individual who was also hugely innovative and was ruthlessly direct in his leadership.

As an example, most of Scott’s team (which was made up of sixty five men) was was picked by various external parties. Within that team included a Captain Oates with whom Scott clashed with on numerous ocassions. Oates was never silent about his conflict with Scott either which only served to undermine Scott further.

Amundsen on the other hand handpicked 19 men for his lean Fram expedition. In his team was a Hjalmar Johansen who was a noted explorer too. However, there was an incident where Amundsen made a mistake in setting off for a trek too early. This mistake almost cost the life of one of the men and Johansen publicly berated Amundsen in front of the other men. Amundsen dismissed Johansen from the expedition to preserve the unity and integrity of the team.

One may argue that Amundsen could have taken a different tact or approach. Ultimately, for an expedition into a great unknown, there has to be absolutely clarity and trust.

Constant undermining of leadership would have led to mistrust and confusion and in the end cost lives.

As the National Geographic  puts it very eloquently, “Amundsen was also a man of towering ambition, prey to the same dangerous dreams and impulses that drive all explorers to risk their lives in wild places. Amundsen’s greatness is not that he lacked such driving forces but that he mastered them.”

It is vital that whilst there is space for disagreements and diversity of thought within any team, once a decision has been taken, it has to be followed through by everyone and anyone seeking to undermine a decision after it has been taken has to be either counselled or removed from the business.

3. Attention to detail

The clarity of the big picture is important. For any project or mission to succeed, the attention to detail, regardless of how minute, is also crucial.

In the case of Amundsen, he had a laser-like focus on every aspect of the Fram expedition – from the food chosen to the mode of travel to the choice of clothing.

Amundsen knew that in order to travel the distances they were targeting, they had to be able to get around quicker than if they were to do so purely on foot. To this end, Amundsen spent considerable time perfecting their ski equipment and footwear. This was something Scott’s team did not do sufficiently and towards the later stages of Scott’s expedition, this proved to be fatal.

Amundsen also spent considerable time with the Inuits and adopted fur suits along with their windproof outfits. The Inuits also wore their clothing loosely to reduce sweating (which helps retain body heat and also prevent freezing of clothes).

Even the way the fuel cans were sealed played a big role in the Antarctic expeditions. Scott had used incorrect washers for the fuel cans which led to evaporation of the fuel – which is a critical component in turning ice to water for drinking. Amundsen had worked this out earlier and had ensured that the cans were sealed properly to prevent any loss of fuel.

Food was an important component in the expedition which Amundsen paid a great deal of attention to. Amundsen, following his time with the Innuits, understood that an exclusively meat diet consisting of penguin and fresh seal meat was vital to remaining healthy. Although this wasn’t understood scientifically then, fresh seal and penguin meat provided enough Vitamin C to prevent scurvy (an ailment that afflicted sailors in those days and which was fatal in the long run if not treated).

On the other hand, a number of historians have indicated that the lack of good nutrition was one of the many reasons for Scott’s failure. They also tended to overcook the penguin and seal meat  (to remove the ‘fishy’ taste) which destroyed the Vitamin C present in them. Amundsen’s indifference to palate meant that his expedition ensured that they ate very unappetising biscuits (made from oatmeal, yeast – with enough Vitamin B, beef fat and pounded dried beef!) and which provided them with essential roughage. Again, this is something the British expedition team chose to ignore.

As Geir Klover, director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, explains, “”Amundsen had a tremendous reputation. He was a meticulous planner, easily the best organised explorer of his generation.”

The attention to detail, especially for major campaigns, is absolutely critical in not only determining the success or failure of the campaign, but between life and death.

 

4. Constant preparation

During the winter months, Amundsen and his team spent the days optimising their equipment, their clothing, their logistics and working to improve their efficiency. It was an extremely focused team with a clear view of what needed to be done to achieve the task at hand.

Scott’s team spent the time engaged in a series of meetings, lectures, reviews, and reading. This led to missed opportunities for the team to review their practical and operational needs and performance.

A clear vision, decisive leadership and attention to detail are matters which determine how well a team is prepared for a mission.

The need for constant preparation is vital and whilst it is easy to slip into a routine of meetings, conferences and discussions, without preparing for the tasks at hand, it will be near impossible to do a great job.

 

5. Avoid arm-chair experts (and get the right people into the team!)

Amundsen had one of Norway’s skiing champions in his team (despite the fact he wasn’t an explore or mountaineer). He also ensured that he had canine experts and dog handlers to choose the best dogs for his journey.

Scott chose not to use dogs – which he thought was more noble. This was also counter to the prevailing view in Britain in those days that dogs were of dubious value as a means of Antarctic transport (which was subsequently proven to be false).

To further compound matters, Scott had also instructed a member of his team who knew nothing about horses to choose the ponies for the expedition. The ponies chosen were of poor quality, age and condition and which only served to hinder Scott’s expedition.

Amundsen also made it a point to engage with the right people and subject matter experts (such as Fridtjof Nansen – another famous Nordic explorer) as he formulated his journey towards the South Pole.

6. Luck – is what you make of it

Amundsen summed it up best when he said:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.

Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

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Where technology lost to tradition

Over the last few decades we have seen numerous examples where technology has usurped tradition, leading to plenty of hands wringing, worrying and eventually acceptance of technology’s dominance over the things that we previously thought were ‘the way things are done’ or tradition.

From going to a travel agency, or flagging for a taxi, or buying takeouts , we have now ditched habits and activities that were previously taken to be the de-facto way.

In the light of these changes (and some undoubtedly have had a huge benefit in people’s lives), it was interesting (and perhaps heartening) to read an example of how tradition managed to stand strong in the face of overwhelming technological progress and indeed even strike a blow and reign supreme!

This is the curious tale of the dabbawalas.  A recent Bloomberg Business article, Startups Haven’t Replaced India’s 19th Century Food Delivery Service (February 3, 2016), highlighted how over 400 technology/app driven businesses backed by over US$120 million of funding  have failed to dislodge a 120-year old, traditional food delivery enterprise. The aspiring new-age disruptors failed to make a dent whilst single-handedly decimating traditional black cab/taxi or travel industries.

Only a handful of 400 food-delivery-tech start-ups are still in business after having lost much of the VC funding and thousands of staff, despite spending millions on technology, promotion and advertising.

I thought it would be useful to take a closer look at the conditions that have led to the enduring success of these dabbawalas (from ‘dabba’ which means lunch box or tiffin carriers – the ubiquitous multi-layered carrier tins; and ‘wala’ which loosely means man or deliverer leading to ‘dabbawala’ – lunch box delivery man).

First some context and history to the humble dabbawala:mumbai-dabbawala

  • Starting from 1890, no rain nor flood nor natural disaster nor riot not terrorist strike nor weather has stopped the dabbawalas in fulfilling their duties.
  • The business model has remained exactly the same since the very first delivery: food prepared at home or community kitchens are delivered to students and workers in schools, offices, factories and depots in a lunch/tiffin carriers, and the empty containers are returned!
  • 5,000 dabbawalas now deliver about 175,000 to 200,000 meals a day (or over 50 million meals a year)
  • They have only ever gone on strike once in over a 120 years – and even then timed it on a public holiday – and in support of an anti-corruption campaign!
  • Each dabba or lunch box changes hands at least six times in transit before it reaches the final consumer – or 2.4 million transactions per day (200,000 deliveries X minimum 6 transits X 2 – to return the lunch/tiffin box back)
  • There are some claims that the dabbawalas lose only one tiffin box per 1.6 million deliveries (comfortably allowing them to be within the six-sigma standard of 3.4 defects per million transactions) – despite the absolute lack of technology or apps to support them. All that is used is a system of alphanumeric codes to identify the source and destination of each dabba.

Next, let’s consider the business and employment model used by the dabbawalas:

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  • The monthly service charge for the delivery of the lunch boxes is between 400 to 1,200 rupees (or between US$6 to US$18 monthly).
  • The prices are not based on distance but on the customers’ ability to pay – deliveries from richer neighbourhoods means higher rates.
  • There are about 200 ‘managers’ who act as supervisors to teams of up to 25 dabbawalas – managing the total 5,000 dabbawalas
  • The dabbawalas age ranges from between 18 to 65 and are often poorly educated (often rarely receiving formal education beyond the age of 14 or 8th standard in Indian education terms)
  • The dabbawalas continue to be paid low wages – approximately 8000 rupees (or about US$120 monthly) but have achieved a very low attrition rate or labour turnover.
  • Each dabbawala receives the same income, irrespective of experience, age or number of customers serves.
  • Each dabbawala is not an employee, but is an entrepreneur and equal shareholder in the Dabbawallah Trust.
  • The dabbawalas employ a risk-mitigation system of a KYC (know your customer) principle to prevent the threats of contraband or bombs being delivered and implement a minimum monthly-subscription rule.

 

So how have these poorly educated, lowly paid individuals without any access to any computer or app to support their delivery system become an award-wining group of process champions?

  • The dabbawalas have been the paragons of social entrepreneurship – leading to social mobility through enterprise. They have provided employment opportunities for those who have needed it the most. The late Paul Goodman, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the Carnegie Mellon University, described it as thus: “They provide a different picture — a complicated system of working built around human ingenuity and supportive social arrangements that has long been absent from U.S. industry,” in his documentary on dabbawalas.

 

  • Uncompromising attitude to cutting out waste or preventing excesses – this has led to the dabbawalas rejecting a number of potentially lucrative marketing or sales opportunities because it was deemed that they will take up time and impact their core business of delivering on time every time.

 

  • Culture – there is an unwavering commitment to their cause.

The dabbawalas are of a view that their duty is akin to service to God. They are committed to the last man towards a single principle of delivering food on time to the right person.

As Manish Tripathi, a director of the Mumbai Dabbawalas states, “Our work revolves around a few beliefs – the most important ones of which are sticking to time and believing that work is worship. Annadan is mahadan (giving food is the greatest charity). We dabbawalas have a strong belief in god. But you don’t see god, do you? So, whom do you worship? People – after all, they are creations of god. You worship god by ensuring that people get to eat their food on time.”

Professor Stefan Thomke of Harvard Business School notes in his paper, “Culture, for example, often gets short shrift. Too few mangers seem to recognise that they should nurture their organisations as communities – not just because they care about employees but because doing so will maximise productive and creativity, and reduce risk.

 

  • Superior focus on organisational objectives and customer service

There is an absolute focus on unerring time management logistics and commitment to superior customer service through accuracy.

An interesting anecdote is when the dabbawalas were informed that Prince Charles wanted to meet with them, they allowed for the request on the condition that Prince Charles should be at Mumbai’s Churchgate station between 11.20 am and 11.40 am. The mere 20 minutes were given because “they could not take time off work” and only because that was the short period of the day when the dabbawalas had a rare moment of a break time!

Prince Charles Dabbawalas

(As an aside, it is also worth noting that of the three indians invited to Charles’ wedding – two were dabbawallahs (who presented gifts for Camilla (sari) and Charles (turban) – paid for by the dabbawallas pooling)

 

  • Effective leadership

The managers (each managing up to 25 dabbawalas) do not see themselves as leaders or supervisors. They are individuals who help to continuously improve the work-place practices and systems and empower their teams to make decisions within a clearly defined set of parameters. The individual dabbawalas make rapid decisions (modern managers may label this ‘agile’).

There are regular meetings once a month where decisions are made and issues identified and discussed. In the rare event of an error, an investigation is launched to ensure it doesn’t occur again and customers are refunded.

 

  • Adopting new practices to serve customer better

Whilst the delivery model has remained the same, the dabbawalas have introduced innovations such as delivery booking through SMS, online booking (through www.mydabbawala.com) and also introduced online customer services feedback. The customer-centric approach that has been instrumental to the success of the dabbawalas continues.

 

The secret to the dabbawalas is best described by Professor Thomke who says, “The dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars – organisation, management, process and culture – are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. In the corporate world, it’s uncommon for managers to strive for that kind of synergy.”

In this day and age, where the human touch is going out of fashion, the dabbawalas remain a source of inspiration and there is much to be learnt from them.

Branson dabbawalas

As Richard Branson (who spent a full day with the dabbawalas) said, “I will tell my employees: walk like a dabbawala.

Indeed!

dabbawalk

Make hay while the sun shines: Lessons for businesses in emerging markets from the world of farmers.

“The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

                                                                – William Jenning Bryan, Nebraska Congressman, 1896

 

Introduction

Very often, business leaders responsible for the growth and development of emerging markets units turn to the words and deeds of management gurus, industry leaders, governments, business titans and sometimes even politicians (!) to seek a way to best capitalise on the potential and to frame their actions in order to achieve success in their markets.

However, there is a segment of society that offers businesses an enormous amount of wisdom, knowledge and insight that leaders can benefit from – farmers. Now farmers are, for the most part, an unseen and unheard segment of society. We don’t hear much about them, we don’t see much of them and we don’t know much of how they go about conducting their business. The implications and impacts though which farmers have on society are profound. The food we eat, the clothes we wear and the security we seek for our sustenance come from farmers. Without them, society, as we know it, would not function.

Agriculture is a sector that contributes to roughly 3.8 percent of the world’s total GDP which equates to an industry that is worth over US$2.9 trillion at current prices. If farmers of the world united, they would represent the fifth largest country in the world in terms of total GDP!

Business leaders have an opportunity to use farming as the basis and blueprint for success. Over the last half decade of austerity and uncertainty, the one certain thing for most major organisations is that emerging markets represent more than just a passing phenomenon or a rising force – they are the main elements and pillars of sustained economic growth.

However it is important to note that these emerging markets (even amongst themselves) differ fundamentally from more mature markets. This means that the skill sets and capabilities that help emerging markets business leaders in not only establishing operations but to also flourish are unique. We may need to consider the lessons and experiences from farmers, given that the challenges and opportunities are similar. This is the context upon which the rest of this article is based on.

 

The wisdom of farmers

A book published in 1726 titled, ‘The Country Gentleman’s and Farmer’s Monthly Director,’ by Professor Bradley of Cambridge introduces the role of a farmer as follows: “I consider a Farmer as a Person whose Business depends more upon the Labour of the Brain than of the Hands.”

Almost a century later, Sir John Sinclair, founder of the Board of Agriculture highlighted that, “Agriculture, though in general capable of being reduce to simple principles, yet requires on the whole a greater variety of knowledge than any other art.”

The sentiments above remain true two centuries later. Farming and agriculture has been an outstanding, if not neglected, successful endeavour of human society. In the last century, it has succeeded in feeding an ever-increasing global population, a diverse range of produce and goods more efficiently and at lower prices. It can be argued that farmers have been an integral pillar supporting modern economic growth.

Agriculture is not an industry on the periphery of modern civilisation and the world of business. It is a fundamental element of human society from which businesses can gain significant insight and, if applied appropriately, will lead to success in emerging markets and beyond.

 

A common approach to investment

Established businesses looking to develop and sell their product and service offerings must fundamentally treat the way they consider investment in an emerging market or sector differently to their business as usual sectors. A number of organisations make the error of setting performance objectives and deliverables for an emerging market in the same way they would for an established business resulting in unwanted consequences of de-motivated managers on their emerging front lines.

My argument is that businesses looking to establish an emerging markets operation should consider their investment the same way a farmer approaches his investment in his agricultural practice.

To illustrate this further, let us consider an example of a multinational organisation that supplies professional consultancy services across a range of markets. In an instance such as this, we can expect the organisation to have very clear monthly or even weekly targets for their sales performance as they have an established business model, a recognised brand name and the people on the ground who have the experience and the networks to deliver performance to targets. They key factors of production are within control and output therefore is also more easily controlled. Therefore, makes sense to have monthly (or even weekly) targets, forecasts and delivery and indeed performance should be measured with the same frequency.

If the organisation decides to subsequently enter an emerging market where it has no established presence, a brand name that is not recognised and a team that is relatively new, they will need to alter the way they view performance and the way targets are set. Adopting a monthly or weekly target approach will prove to be unfeasible particularly as conditions in emerging markets are not always entirely stable. This is where businesses in emerging markets can consider the way of the farmers.

Farmers have a different system for targets and performance. Farmers do have seasonal targets and objectives but given that the nature of farming is such that it is impossible to predict all the various factors of production. Factors such as the weather and climate, the nature of seeds used, the crop yield, the animal production, amongst other things, can only be managed and not controlled.

A farmer has to deal with many uncertainties, for instance a cold weather snap will destroy ground crops, affect lambing, cause ewes to abort, which all affect the yield for the farmer.

A farmer also needs to deal with farming regulations, subsidies, and changes in government practices or policies (e.g. the structural changes that happened in the farming community upon the adoption of the Common Agricultural by the EU Commission). As Gary Libecap, Professor at the University of California explains, “Agriculture is the most regulated sectors of the American economy. The production and sale of almost all of its commodities are affected by some government policy through a complex mix of programmes.”

It is this enormous ability of farmers to navigate through uncertainties and their overall resilience to rapidly changing underlying conditions and factors that prove most instructive to leaders of emerging markets businesses.

An emerging markets business leader has to remain nimble and agile to the dynamic and sometimes unstable political and regulatory conditions in emerging markets. Even seemingly straight-forward tasks of setting up a legal entity in an emerging market may become a highly tenuous affair and an emerging market business leader has to retain the patience and the will to deliver through the bureaucratic obstacles. It is this patience and perseverance which successful farmers have  in abundance which allows for their ongoing success and growth.

A successful farmer and a successful leader of a business in emerging markets have more in common than we have assumed before.

 

Of growth and harvesting – the shared goals of farming and emerging markets

The objectives of both the farmer and an emerging market business leader are congruent in many respects. The average farmer is a skilled diplomat, a human resource leader, an effective delegator, a scientist, a chemist, a negotiator, a commercial leader, an innovative marketeer and sometimes even auctioneer. He has to possess exceptional skill and energy to carry out the above roles and tasks and ensure that his agricultural endeavour is a successful one.

An emerging market business leader is similar and has to be able to navigate through sometimes sensitive commercial negotiations in the face of vastly evolving regulatory changes and has to be able to engage both his teams as well as key stakeholders such as regulators, government leaders and suppliers in a diplomatic manner that allows him to achieve his business objectives.

Farmers have always been very adept in ensuring that they adopt relevant approaches to farming based on their location and underlying conditions. This is not a modern phenomenon but one that is as old as agriculture itself. For example, the indigenous Ifgugaos in the Philippines realised two thousand years ago that their mountainous and hilly terrain meant that crop cultivation was going to be challenging and sought to change the underlying condition and created what is now known as the Banaue Rice Terraces. These terraces were built with little tools and water was sourced from the forests which were above the terraces through a unique and ancient irrigation system.

To further illustrate this point, in the northern hemisphere, wheat must ripen in late spring or early summer to get as much sunshine as possible. To grow it, one has first to plough the ground, then sow, harrow (to get rid of the weeds), and eventually harvest. Any anticipation or delay of any of these operations entails losses, which can become serious. For example, ripe wheat, if not cut, would fall on the ground and soon become worthless. In Burkino Faso, land has to be ploughed within days of rain or the land becomes too hard to plough.

Similarly, an emerging markets business leader will need to be swift and decisive in their strategic and market implementation. There needs to be ample planning and analysis in advance of delivery and once a common approach has been agreed, timing becomes critical and execution must take place within defined times to attain the defined aims and ambitions. Delaying or vacillating over decisions will lead to missed opportunities and potentially allow for rivals to take the lead in a potentially lucrative segment.

Farmers also need to be able to think strategically for the future in anticipation of global and local circumstances. Strategic management and optimal operational delivery is a way of life for modern farmers. They have to be able to factor all information, both historic and projected, which allows them to make appropriate and relevant decisions that allow them a sustainable farming business. The farming sector, supported by high commodity prices, has demonstrated enduring resilience during the last economic crisis in 2008. World Bank data shows that in 2009, agricultural value added at world level rose by 4 percent which can be contrasted to a 5 percent fall in global sector-wide GDP. This resilience was more pronounced in emerging economies, where agricultural GDP rose by 8 percent.

Likewise, an emerging markets business leader needs to be able to clearly define and articulate their propositions to their markets and customer segments. They will need to prepare adequately for their specific targets and estimate accurately the required resourced needed to achieve their outputs. In this regard, they can learn from farmers whose entire seasonal output and sometimes even survival depends on their ability to estimate accurately the required resources to achieve a given output.

Emerging markets leaders also need to be assess and understand their market terrain and environment. They need to ‘work the ground’ and understand the local feedback, context and factors that will have significant impacts on their output. The most successful farmers continuously identify their strengths and weaknesses relative to their local as well as international competitors who may be able to offer the same output at a lower cost. An example of how this has been done includes potato farmers in Tasmania who undertook extensive research to understand how lower-cost potato imports from the Netherlands and Belgium are undercutting their business and took steps to address these challenges. Similarly, emerging markets business leaders will need to conduct sufficient levels of quantitative and qualitative market research to ensure that their businesses remain resilient against competition, both local and international, and also achieve their growth targets.

 

Resilience and leadership

Farmers face a range of challenges and issues. The challenges range from external environmental factors outside their control such as climate change. Global economic pressures, livestock disease and climatic changes are the types of issues which farmers have to navigate through.  For instance, there is a loss of arable land due to climate change amounting to as much as a fifth of all agricultural land in South America and Africa.

Events and challenges such as this affects crop yield which in turn affects farmers’ incomes and cause them to become highly volatile. These mean that farmers need to be careful in how they manage their finances and funds in order to ensure that they are able to meet expenses and also correctly anticipate demand. Farmers fundamentally need to navigate through uncertainty and steer their operations and farms through competing pressures and noise to keep producing in a way that meets challenges.

Risk management is a central pillar in terms of how farmers manage their business. They are now being required to produce more food and other agricultural products on less land, with less pesticide and fertilisers, with less water and also manage a lower carbon footprint. Part of the risk management process of farmers has been to understand what their underlying risks and challenges are and to subsequently develop and implement the technologies and practices that counter environmental and land degradation and climate change to maintain sustainable and viable farms.

Examples of this include mixed cropping that have led to better usage of nutrients in soils and more effective pest management systems. In Zambia, for instance, crop rotations have reduced water requirements by up to 30 percent. They also use a new strain of maize which produces a yield which is 500 percent higher than the average yield for the rest of Africa.

The underlying risks have also been managed through a series of other initiatives such as skills development training across a wide range of relevant topics and generation of non-farm income (such as agri-tourism). They also deal with it through diversification into renewable energy technologies and by developing markets for novel and alternative cropping.

Businesses investing in emerging markets also need to ensure there is a sufficient level of risk management and due diligence conducted prior to entry into new markets. They will need to ensure that they have diversified their risks through investment across a wide portfolio of markets. They also need to be able to react appropriately to emerging regulation and underlying economic conditions by reviewing their business operations and investment accordingly.

Farmers globally seek to create viable and resource-efficient farms and agribusinesses that are able to meet demand and yet remain resilient to fluctuations in the business cycle or other natural causes without recourse to significant public intervention.

Initiatives such as the establishment of grain stores in Africa and the creation of dairy hubs in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are helping farmers to cut costs, create greater income and reduce price volatility.

A successful farmer is a leader who does not micro-manage staff or instruct them to do something they cannot or will not do. The most effective farmers are inspiring (particularly when they are undergoing moments of extreme uncertainty); strategic (by having a good view of the changing conditions and consumer patterns which impact their sales); energetic (to rouse their teams into action towards peak performance); and possess a clarity of vision which can effect great change.

Likewise, a successful emerging markets business leader should have the ability to delegate effectively and provide enough support to their people and inspire confidence. They should also cultivate and nurture their teams towards peak performance and give them a sense of ownership and achievement. It is also vital that emerging markets business leaders ensure their teams have sufficient levels of training and development so that they are constantly building on their capabilities and can support business and corporate objectives even better.

Farmers also remain a source of emotional vitality in their communities and countries. Their critical importance to the well-being of their nations and their role in a profoundly rebalanced world mean that they provide the vigorous inspiration required for growth and development. Their leadership and resilience has led to the innovation, creativity and has the potential to inspire the social cohesion required in a world marked increasingly by differences.

 

Innovation as a key essence to success

Thomas Malthus predicted in the 18th century that there would come a time in the late 20th century where the world population would exceed food supply leading to widespread impoverishment and famine. This has not come to pass and indeed over the last fifty years, agricultural production has tripled and farmers have ensured that the world, for the most part, remains fed and clothed. This has happened due to the constant innovation in farming. Smallholder farmers (who account for almost half of the emerging world’s labour force) have overseen a rise in agricultural productivity.

Farming innovation can be broadly grouped into four categories: biological innovations (new strains of plants and animals); practices of cultivation; technical and technological innovation (including machinery, fertilisers and the increasing use of technology).

The ‘Green Revolution’ which saw India experiment with new varieties of rice and wheat in the 1960s helped to ensure that India averted the pains of starvation. Increasingly, new strains of rice and wheat that can withstand flooding and salinity are being developed that will ensure that the poor agricultural lands are converted to fertile plains.

Increasingly, innovative agricultural practices are also improving farmers’ yields and performance.  An example of this is the way fertilisers are spread to crops. Traditionally, rural farmers applied fertilisers by spreading them by hand.

However more rural farmers are now applying a practice widely known as ‘Fertiliser Deep Placement’ (FDP) which works by using a specialised fertiliser called a briquette about four inches underground which releases nitrogen gradually.

This prevents less nitrogen to be lost through run off. FDP is now being used widely by farmers across Burkino Faso and Nigeria and has helped increase their yields by almost a fifth of total production.

Modern technological innovation is also being adopted by farmers and extended globally. VetAfrica is a mobile app which now allows for farmers to diagnose livestock illness and to apply appropriate remedies and drugs to treat diseases. In India, farmers now have access to various instructional support by the government’s agricultural agencies that provide both online and offline information to rural farmers and their communities.

This spirit of innovation will also place emerging markets leaders in good stead. Businesses that invest significantly in research and development and ensure their people are empowered to experiment and deliver innovative solutions will be better placed to create scalable and transferrable innovations that can support the wider business.

Farmers have remained at the forefront of innovation and have also been very enthusiastic adopters of new technology and solutions. This is despite the fact that agricultural innovation generally entails a high level of risk and many of them yield little or no financial reward to the inventor.

In an era of rising energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, some researchers are questioning whether conventional agriculture’s reliance on chemical fertilisers is sustainable, and point to its negative effects: pesticide residues, soil erosion and reduced biodiversity. Switching to organic and resource-conserving methods of farming can improve smallholder crop yields, food security and income, a review study by the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability has found.

Likewise businesses that enter emerging markets should also consider their overall business practices and consider how the implementation of socially responsible practices can help reduce their overall costs and improve their bottom line in the markets they are operating in.

Farmers have also identified increasing demand from a more affluent customer base and have responded to it by shifting towards organic production and cultivation. The amount of land in organic production across Europe has grown by about five million hectares over the past decade, according to the European Union, and has grown by 13 percent annually over the last decade. A similar phenomenon is also observed in the United States of America according to a survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The number of USDA certified organic farms has quadrupled since 1990 and the area dedicated to organic farming has increased from 1 million acres of land in 1990 to over 4.1 million acres currently. Organic farming is also becoming increasingly popular across South Asia (particularly India) as farmers tap into the increased demand and are evolving their farming practices accordingly.

Similarly, there is significant scope for emerging markets business leaders to learn from the habits of the farmers. The approach to farmers in testing and innovating to arrive at the optimal farming solution (the way they test to see which crop rotations work best given the soil and land conditions for instance) will also help business leaders in emerging markets to test out product launches and to test it in a given market prior to a full-scale rollout. This allows them to obtain a clearer insight into consumer behaviours and the general market sentiment for their product which will allow them to make the necessary improvements or changes required before they invest in a full rollout. This experimentative approach to new markets will become increasingly important particularly as organisations become more risk averse and seek a higher level of returns on investment but within a defined risk framework.

 

Building a force for good and planting the seeds of hope

Farmers and agriculture are vital to the overall betterment of society as well. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural (CGIAR) certainly believe so and feel that agriculture will help nations meet the emerging UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the successor to the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Despite the well publicised challenges and adversity faced by farmers and the struggle they undergo on a daily basis, their resilience and their hopeful outlook provides food for further though and reflection for emerging markets business leaders. This is a spiritual dimension that must be noted.

Likewise, an emerging market business leader has to remain cognisant of their responsibilities within the societies they operate. If they are representatives of larger multinational organisations, the general public will expect them to implement world class practices and behaviour. They will also be required to adapt to the culture-specific scenarios presented to them and act in an appropriate manner.

It is vital that emerging markets business leaders look beyond profitability and financial remuneration. They need to ensure that their organisations are acting in the public interest and whilst creating value for their businesses are also creating positive externalities and value for the communities in which they operate in. It is this that sets the framework for a fruitful and sustainable growth and development of both businesses and societies. This addresses both the social and economic dimensions of sustainability.

The final dimension of sustainability is that of environmental sustainability. It is well known that the natural world that agriculture relies on is exhaustible and the relationship with nature and the environment has been a distinctive and intractable feature of farmers.  This is true from the fertile padi fields of Java to the ranging prairies of the Midwest.

Emerging markets business leaders need to give sufficient consideration to environmental sustainability. This not only ensures that they are contributing in a positive manner to the society but also acts as an important license to operate across a number of countries.

In conclusion, farmers can be a powerful source of inspiration and guidance to business leaders in any market. A farmer needs to tend to his flock with loving care and the successful farmer is one who takes an active interest in the welfare of his farmhands, who cultivates and nurtures his crop and animals with passion and tenderness. A successful farmer also flows with the changes to the external environment and navigates them successfully. A farmer also continues new ideas (be it the type of seeds used, the type of farming, consider the impacts of automation and technology on his farms, the use of data to understand the changing crop yields, risk mitigation, etc) and constantly innovates. A successful farmer also has to negotiate effectively with other farmers, with government, with regulators. He has to manage finances effectively and think of new financing to make it through the lean times. All of these skills and qualities are also what contribute to effective and successful business leadership.

 

 

“The prosperity of other industries is not the basis of prosperity in agriculture, but the prosperity of agriculture is the basis of prosperity in other industries…Immense manufacturing plants and great transportation companies are dependent on agriculture for business and prosperity. Great standing armies and formidable navies may protect the farmer in common with other people of a nation but their support comes from the tillers of the soil.”

                                                    

                                                                     – Nahum J Bacheldar, 1908 (Leader of National Grange)

 

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Leadership and management lessons from the first men to reach the South Pole

As I was watching Eight Below on HBO this afternoon (great film by the way), I started reading up on the first men who went to the ends of the world and was thoroughly impressed with the feats of the men who sacrificed life, limb, wealth, friendships, family and sanity in an era that was also considered the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

As I started reading more about the various principal characters involved, I became particularly intrigued by two individuals, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Both these men vied with each other for the title of being the first person to reach the South Pole. Amundsen ended up with the honour of being the first to get to the South Pole. Scott got there later but met with a tragic end and never returned back to his camp after reaching the Pole.

There are numerous accounts about their journeys and the historical reactions and developments about both Amundsen’s and Scott’s achievements. However, I want to touch on some of my own observations on what businesses and leaders can learn from Amundsen’s trip to the South Pole:

1. Clarity of mission
2. Clear leadership
3. Attention to detail
4. Constant preparation
5. Always find subject matter experts (and avoid arm-chair experts!)
6. Luck – is what you make of it

 

Amundsen-Early-Exploration

1. Clarity of mission

Amundsen was very clear that his primary objective was to be the first man to reach the South Pole. He expended his energy, his thoughts and his efforts to this one single endeavour.

On the other hand, Scott’s agenda was never very clear and he wanted to conduct scientific research, exploration and also reach the pole but nothing was clear defined. One example was when Scott and his team were returning from the Pole, defeated and already running low on supplies, he decided to stop at the top of the Beardmore glacier and deemed it fit to ‘geologise’ and subsequently add more than 15 kilograms of rock to their loads, which slowed them down further and precipitated the crew’s sad demise.

Amundsen was very clear about what his expedition’s objectives were and what his own ambition was and set out to dispassionately attain it.

 

2. Clear leadership

Scott was a product of his times and was extremely formal, conventional and hierarchical and this is what the English establishment demanded this of anyone who was leading an official British mission.

Amundsen on the other hand was an extremely competitive, relentless and focused individual who was also hugely innovative and was ruthlessly direct in his leadership.

As an example, most of Scott’s team (which was made up of sixty five men) was was picked by various external parties. Within that team included a Captain Oates with whom Scott clashed with on numerous ocassions. Oates was never silent about his conflict with Scott either which only served to undermine Scott further.

Amundsen on the other hand handpicked 19 men for his lean Fram expedition. In his team was a Hjalmar Johansen who was a noted explorer too. However, there was an incident where Amundsen made a mistake in setting off for a trek too early. This mistake almost cost the life of one of the men and Johansen publicly berated Amundsen in front of the other men. Amundsen dismissed Johansen from the expedition to preserve the unity and integrity of the team.

One may argue that Amundsen could have taken a different tact or approach. Ultimately, for an expedition into a great unknown, there has to be absolutely clarity and trust. Constant undermining of leadership would have led to mistrust and confusion and in the end cost lives.

As the National Geographic  puts it very eloquently, “Amundsen was also a man of towering ambition, prey to the same dangerous dreams and impulses that drive all explorers to risk their lives in wild places. Amundsen’s greatness is not that he lacked such driving forces but that he mastered them.”

 

3. Attention to detail

The clarity of the big picture is important. For any project or mission to succeed, the attention to detail, regardless of how minute, is also crucial.

In the case of Amundsen, he had a laser-like focus on every aspect of the Fram expedition – from the food chosen to the mode of travel to the choice of clothing.

Amundsen knew that in order to travel the distances they were targeting, they had to be able to get around quicker than if they were to do so purely on foot. To this end, Amundsen spent considerable time perfecting their ski equipment and footwear. This was something Scott’s team did not do sufficiently and towards the later stages of Scott’s expedition, this proved to be fatal.

Amundsen also spent considerable time with the Inuits and adopted fur suits along with their windproof outfits. The Inuits also wore their clothing loosely to reduce sweating (which helps retain body heat and also prevent freezing of clothes).

Even the way the fuel cans were sealed played a big role in the Antarctic expeditions. Scott had used incorrect washers for the fuel cans which led to evaporation of the fuel – which is a critical component in turning ice to water for drinking. Amundsen had worked this out earlier and had ensured that the cans were sealed properly to prevent any loss of fuel.

Food was an important component in the expedition which Amundsen paid a great deal of attention to. Amundsen, following his time with the Innuits, understood that an exclusively meat diet consisting of penguin and fresh seal meat was vital to remaining healthy. Although this wasn’t understood scientifically then, fresh seal and penguin meat provided enough Vitamin C to prevent scurvy (an ailment that afflicted sailors in those days and which was fatal in the long run if not treated).

On the other hand, a number of historians have indicated that the lack of good nutrition was one of the many reasons for Scott’s failure. They also tended to overcook the penguin and seal meat  (to remove the ‘fishy’ taste) which destroyed the Vitamin C present in them. Amundsen’s indifference to palate meant that his expedition ensured that they ate very unappetising biscuits (made from oatmeal, yeast – with enough Vitamin B, beef fat and pounded dried beef!) and which provided them with essential roughage. Again, this is something the British expedition team chose to ignore.

As Geir Klover, director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, explains, “”Amundsen had a tremendous reputation. He was a meticulous planner, easily the best organised explorer of his generation.”

The attention to detail, especially for major campaigns, is absolutely critical in not only determining the success or failure of the campaign, but between life and death.

 

 

4. Constant preparation

During the winter months, Amundsen and his team spent the days optimising their equipment, their clothing, their logistics and working to improve their efficiency. It was an extremely focused team with a clear view of what needed to be done to achieve the task at hand.

Scott’s team spent the time engaged in a series of meetings, lectures and reading. This led to missed opportunities for the team to review their practical and operational needs and performance.

A clear vision, decisive leadership and attention to detail are matters which determine how well a team is prepared for a mission.

 

5. Always find subject matter experts (and avoid arm-chair experts!)

Amundsen had one of Norway’s skiing champions in his team (despite the fact he wasn’t an explore or mountaineer). He also ensured that he had canine experts and dog handlers to choose the best dogs for his journey. (Scott chose not to use dogs – which he thought was more noble). This was also counter to the prevailing view in Britain in those days that dogs were of dubious value as a means of Antarctic transport (which was subsequently proven to be false).

On the other hand, Scott had instructed a member of his team who knew nothing about horses to choose the ponies for the expedition. The ponies chosen were of poor quality, age and condition and which only served to hinder Scott’s expedition.

 

6. Luck – is what you make of it

Amundsen summed it up best when he said:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”