What religion can teach us about business management

— This article was originally posted in Youth Ki Awaaz, India

By Sourajit Aiyer

One advantage of being an Indian is that one gets to see multiple faiths and religions in close proximity. But the world of our religions often looks very distant from the world of our business.

Many perceive business to be pragmatic and religions to be emotional and that the two do not really intersect. But the texts of various religions actually have a lot of pragmatism, which has a lot to teach modern business management. Here are some of these teachings:

Process is important, not just the performance

Measure the journey itself, not just the outcome! The Hindu scripture Bhagwad Gita stresses a focus on karma, i.e. the work itself, rather than only the outcome.

Even Buddhism espouses a focus on the present, ahead of the future. Ensure the most of what is there right now and how you do it, not just what can happen. As companies measure the ultimate profit margins and return on equity, it is important to measure the current process itself.

A business example is when companies track not just margins, but also periodic operations metrics like productivity, interactions, pitches, collections, etc. It would also help identify early warning signals for variances that could eventually impact the ultimate profits.

Without ensuring the means to the end, the end itself would never be realized anyway. Focusing on the ultimate goal is one thing, but taking the attention away from the process itself would spell trouble.

Sell the bigger vision, but move in smaller steps

Show the larger picture, but push the change in small steps! Moses showed the bigger vision of the Promised Land to the Jews in Egypt, but nudged the Pharaoh into freeing his people.

While the big vision helps drum support for the plan as it gives clarity of purpose, people often resist radical and drastic changes. Hence, change should be pushed in small measurable steps, as it smoothes this resistance and moves the task towards the bigger vision.

This also includes communicating the plan properly so that everyone is on the same page. That means the leader also has to be a master storyteller, if he is to be successful in selling his big vision to a heterogeneously large group.

Jesus Christ scored on this front, through his famed approach of speaking in parables to build context for his listeners. A business example is India’s recent demonetization, where the bigger vision of fighting corruption was shown; although one may argue whether the change was done in smaller steps or in one radical “pulling off the band-aid” move?

Leaders at times have to be in the cockpit, not just in the control tower

Both Moses and Prophet Muhammad PBUH teach an important leadership lesson — when the going gets tough, the leaders have to get going.

Whether it was Prophet Muhammad leading the Muslims to fight against the Meccan attackers at Badr or Uhud, or Moses leading the Jews to make the great crossing to the Promised Land, in both cases the leaders themselves rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty instead of just giving directions from a safe haven.

When times are tough, the leader leads by actually doing the task himself, not just by giving directions from a distance. Examples abound even outside business or religions, be it of the US President flying into the mission himself in the movie Independence Day, or of the Indian cricket captain coming out to bat at a tricky juncture in the World Cup final match.

Such leaders are often more admired, unlike CEOs of bankrupt Indian companies who may leave for foreign shores using legal loopholes, while leaving their creditors and employees stuck in the rut at home.

Do not fall in love with your decisions

One has to be adaptable, rather than get attached! The Gita makes this business-type observation: be adaptable to changing situations rather than fixated on what you originally thought.

The business environment is consistently changing, be it due to systemic or external factors, and one needs to change along with it to avoid becoming irrelevant. Attachment is good as it creates emotional bonds, but too much attachment can prove detrimental since it creates a barrier to change.

A business example is exploring new options, ideas and innovations, which may help the business maintain and grow its market share in a competitive market, even if it means getting out of the comfort zone of its earlier strategies.

But at the same time, it is critical to evaluate the new ideas deeply before rushing to change just because of the heck of changing.

To put it in business perspective, this means trying every new business strategy or idea on the board can just end up burning the invested capital while yielding minimal aggregate returns. It may be better to invest a bit extra time to evaluate and pick the really relevant strategy, and then change!

Involve multiple views in decisions

A consultative approach to decisions was advocated by the Prophet PBUH, and this is important for business too. Involving the community is an often-used approach in Judaism as well.

Everyone has some specialized knowledge or skills, which others can gain from. It is not possible for one to know everything. The best solution is to pool together all the knowledge and skills from different specialists, so that the best decision can be taken.

If decisions are based on half knowledge or on the basis of people not be fully conversant with that topic, then the task is bound to fail. A business example is when a plan fails as the CEO felt he did not need the advice from those lower in the ranks, even if they are specialists of their domains. However, a CEO who pools ideas from relevant stakeholders may win.

Keep your promise

Jesus Christ taught us to keep our word! It is amazing how in today’s competitive business world, where most products are getting commoditized very quickly, often it is the un-adherence of basic quality or service standards that causes maximum client attrition.

After all, quality and service that is promised, is something everyone takes for granted. But it is actually ending up as the main differentiator, as many companies actually do not deliver on what they promised.

Some of India’s biggest companies rank low on this. If a company cannot deliver what it promised, it will always face the leaking bucket syndrome, i.e. it will always need to replenish lost customers.

Be fearless when trying something new

The Guru Granth Sahib is full of examples of being fearless against all odds, especially when the odds look mighty. While it is always safer to remain in the comfort zone rather than trying the unconventional, fighting against such odds is a sheer test of fearlessness.

Sikhism taught us there are times when it is better to die standing straight, rather than survive crawling on one’s knees. In the business world, too, there are often tricky situations when numerous naysayers will dissuade you from trying unconventional tactics, even if it’s apparent that conventional solutions will fail.

How does the business remain fearless when pushing for such unconventional change against all odds? Cricket also reminds us of two examples, when the crucial last overs in the T-20 World Cup and Hero Cup finals were given to new bowler Sharma and part-time bowler Tendulkar, instead of the conventional options.

People manager first, product manager later

Business managers have to manage people really well, just like Moses did during the journey to the Promised Land.

Managing people includes your successors, who will carry on the task, involving the more experienced older colleagues in the decision process, and tactfully isolating trouble-makers so that they cannot negatively affect the others.

One can always hire good product managers to ensure quality standards, but handling people is critical across all levels, in whichever situation, for whatever objective.

A succession plan is an imperative, be it for the task in hand when you are absent, or for the company as a whole.

Valuing the experience of senior peers has its advantages, as they have seen more cycles than you and can offer more insights and anecdotes on what can work or not.

Trouble-makers can bring a revolution in the ranks if left as they are, hence one has to either address their concerns if genuine, or diplomatically remove their influence from the group. All these test people skills immensely.

No one likes arrogance

Jesus Christ and Guru Nanak both showed the virtue of being humble and compassionate, even to one’s hardest critics. This includes keeping up one’s integrity and values, something the Holy Quran also espouses.

In the world of business, many CEOs act arrogantly if they have managed to crack their markets, while many others remain humble. How many people would like to work for either CEO?

It does not mean the arrogant ones are wrong, but they may find it hard to get the loyalty of their people, as those people only support the performance, not the personality.

Since performance can be temporary, so can the support. A business example is when young CEOs of Indian start-ups act with utter arrogance on public forums.

Knee-jerk reactions are best avoided

As per the Bhagwad Gita, knee-jerk reactions often appear because of lack of proper reasoning and clarity, and the ensuing confusion only fans the smoke further instead of helping solve the issue.

A constantly changing environment means sudden situations that may not be palatable! The result — we often resort to knee-jerk reactions that cause us more harm. A business example is firing a manager who had low sales for a few months, instead of addressing business issues that may have genuinely impacted his performance.

Such a hire-and-fire attitude only erodes the business’s brand in the market and ensures even high potential prospect employees refrain from joining. It is better to evaluate and reason out the situation with proper focus, as that would yield better results.

Religious scriptures are full of many more lessons that can be relevant in the context of modern-day business management. While many of the examples mentioned herein may sound like clichés, it is worth noting that there is actually not much difference between what our religions teach us and what management teaches us. They may have a lot in common, after all.

Views expressed are personal, and not to uphold any one religion.