Published October 13-17, 2020
The Monkey Problem
Someone once told me a story that I have related to many others. Every person who walks into your cabin walks in with a monkey on their back. (The “monkey” is a problem that they have.) Their goal is to get the monkey off their back and leave it in your cabin – that is, make their problem your problem. Your goal is to make sure that when they leave the cabin the monkey goes with them! Else, you are going to be in a room full of monkeys which will make it impossible for you to get anything done.
It is a story that holds true. In most meetings, others are looking to pass off their problems. You have to ensure that they keep the ownership of the problem else before long you will be doing everyone else’s agenda rather than yours. You can discuss, guide, suggest but under no circumstances should you be taking up the ownership of the problem.
I learnt this the hard way in my early days as an entrepreneur. I would think that if someone had a problem, as the business owner I had to take up responsibility and solve the problem. Before long, my days would be just solved in addressing every new issue that came up. It became impossible to focus on the things that I needed to do and which no one else can do. I then started pushing back – much to the chagrin of the others who were so used to passing on their problems to me.
It was many years later that I heard the ‘monkey’ story, and realised it so well captured my early days – I was living in a room full of monkeys. As I look around, I see many people stuck solving problems they should not never have accepted in the first place. It is not about saying No to every problem – if there is something core to the business, only the entrepreneur can solve it. But there will never be time to address the real challenges in a room full of monkeys.
So, remember this whenever someone walks in with a monkey on their back – as they leave the room, make sure the monkey leaves with them!
Talk not Text
Recently, I got an internal escalation about an issue with one of our outsourcing partners. He was frustrated that my colleagues were not responding to his requests for clearing his pending payments. He had struggled for many months and every time he was given a false assurance, a run-around or both. Plenty of emails and WhatsApp messages were being exchanged. Matters finally reached a breakpoint. The partner had switched off the service that was being operated – in an effort to make us listen.
I did not have the full context of the problem, but knew it was serious because our customers were being impacted. I could join the gang of texters – send an angry WhatsApp message asking for the service to be restored. I realised I would be no different than the others, and that was not going to solve the problem. I decided to call and talk to the head of the outsourcing company.
As I listened to his side of the story, I realised that what he really wanted was to be heard. He promised to restart the services immediately. He sent me the full email trails exchanged over many months. It was not a pretty sight for me to see how some of my colleagues had acted. It had not been an easy call for me to make. I tend to stay away from such problems. But in this case, I realised I had to do it. And as I heard the head of the outsourcing company speak, I realised I had made the right decision to talk and not text. No text could have captured the emotions and pain that was being felt.
As managers, leaders and entrepreneurs, we are always going to be faced with issues – either internal or external. In today’s digital world, email and WhatsApp have increasingly replaced the directness of face-to-face conversations. The digital world is pithy and informal. The physical world means looking someone in the eye and feeling what they are going through. We tend to avoid the latter, without realising the bluntness of a text message can someone do more harm than good.
When faced with a difficult situation, consider calling and speaking to the other person. You will surprise them and that will go a long way in resolving the issue. Many times, what holds us back is our own ego. If we can set that aside and speak with humility, we will find that the hardest of interpersonal problems can be resolved to our satisfaction. Next time you are faced with a tricky situation, instead of replying with a text, try talking.
Margin of Safety
One of the first things you learn when learning how to drive a car is to maintain a safe distance from the car in front. In case the car brakes suddenly, you need that extra distance to make sure you do not rear-end the car in the front. Tailgating removes the ‘margin of safety’.
The same idea is applicable in personal life and business. When going for a meeting, I keep a margin of safety to ensure I am not late. When running a business, it is important to have the cushion of cash each month just in case some customer payments are delayed so you are not caught in a cashflow bind.
Margin of safety comes from the world of investing. Here is a brief from Investopedia:
Margin of safety is a principle of investing in which an investor only purchases securities when their market price is significantly below their intrinsic value. In other words, when the market price of a security is significantly below your estimation of its intrinsic value, the difference is the margin of safety. Because investors may set a margin of safety in accordance with their own risk preferences, buying securities when this difference is present allows an investment to be made with minimal downside risk.
Alternatively, in accounting, the margin of safety, or safety margin, refers to the difference between actual sales and break-even sales. Managers can utilize the margin of safety to know how much sales can decrease before the company or a project becomes unprofitable.
Here is more from Rule on Investing:
Warren Buffett said, “The three most important words in investing are margin of safety.” That means to buy stuff on sale. That means pay less than what it’s worth. That means to buy $10 dollar bills for $5 dollars. That’s the whole secret to great investing.
Buffett’s teacher Ben Graham, who wrote the Intelligent Investor, which is one of the best books on investing I’ve ever read said, “Buy stocks the way you buy groceries, not perfume.”
One of the keys to getting a great margin of safety is to understand that price and value is not the same thing.
Margin of safety is critical in the early stages of a business. I was talking to a person who was just starting a business and planning to raise some initial capital from family and friends. I asked him: how long before first revenues come in, and how much money will be needed till then? He had planned it perfectly. It was then I asked him: “What if things don’t go as per plan? What if it takes longer to develop the product and get first revenues? Where is your margin of safety?” My recommendation was to increase the runway by raising more money to keep a buffer in case things take longer.
Optimism is good, but keeping a margin of safety is better!
Debt can Kill
I was talking to a friend recently and the discussion moved to entrepreneurs who had lost control of what seemed to be very successful businesses (or so it seemed from the outside). Jet Airways. Zee. Café Coffee Day. Future Group. And many others. If there was one common factor, it was that they all loaded on debt during the good times, over-extended themselves, and when the tide turned, they had no way to pay back the debt. Leverage can be a business killer.
This is not to say that all debt is bad. A business may need debt to augment working capital or fast-track expansion plans. The key is to ensure that the debt can be paid back even in the worst case scenario should things change. Under no circumstance should debt may be taken for unrelated expansion.
Many founders of companies in the public markets pledged their shares to borrow money to fund expansion. For various reasons, some have found themselves unable to pay back the borrowed funds. As a result, they ended up losing control of the companies they created and built over the better part of their lives.
I have never taken on debt in my entire business career. It was a principle my father had drilled into me when I began business – no loans, no debt, no leverage. Live within your means. From the early days of IndiaWorld through to my 23+ years at Netcore, I have always tried to ensure that we are profitable and have positive cashflows to ensure all payment obligations are met on time.
While some businesses need capital to begin and may need to take on debt, the objective must be to have the means to pay it back. All debt is not bad if one can ensure the future income streams will support the repayment – with a margin of safety.
Life has its uncertainties. Early in 2020, few of us would have expected the pandemic. No business would have thought that its revenues would go to zero for an extended period of time – as has happened with many companies. During these times, debt obligations become impossible to meet. It is thus all the more reason to exercise caution when taking on debt – do it if you have a margin of safety, else the debt could become a death trap.
While I have talked about me-time earlier, there is one aspect of what to do with me-time that needs greater attention – reflection. Reflection is about taking the time to think about the decisions you made, pondering about the meetings that happened, contemplating what you have read, or just deliberating on events that took place and how you reacted. It is about understanding your own actions and thought processes better.
Reflection needs to become an integral part of the day. It must become a daily discipline, a habit. We need that zone in which we clear out the present and go into deeper thought. It is not the same as meditating – which is about clearing one’s mind of all thoughts. Reflection is about letting the thoughts flow. It is about replaying one’s actions and understanding what one did right or wrong. It is about better understanding oneself.
Here is OpenLearn on reflective thinking: “At its core, ‘reflective thinking’ is the notion of awareness of one’s own knowledge, assumptions and past experiences. Your past learning and experience provide the context for your thoughts, and are therefore unique to you, but reflective thinking is a dynamic process that continues to develop and evolve as you learn and respond to new experiences, situations, events or information. In practical terms, this is the process where you interpret and evaluate your experiences, check that they make ‘sense’ to you, create meaning, justify actions and solve problems, and it helps with your future planning.”
Here is more from University of the People:
Reflection is looking back at an experience or a situation, and learning from it in order to improve for the next time around.
There are three main aspects of reflection:
- Being Self-Aware: Reflection starts with self-awareness, being in touch with yourself, your experiences, and what’s shaped your worldview.
- Constantly Improving: The next step of reflection is self-improvement. Once you’re aware of where your strengths and weaknesses are, you can know where to shift your focus.
- Empower Yourself: Reflection gives you power to take control and make the necessary changes in your life.
Reflective thinking means taking the bigger picture and understanding all of its consequences. It doesn’t mean that you’re just going to simply write down your future plans or what you’ve done in the past. It means truly trying to understand why you did what you did, and why that’s important. This often includes delving into your feelings, reactions, and emotions.
Reflection is an integral part of my daily routine. Early mornings are the best time for me. At times, if there is a gap during meetings during the day, I also use that to think back – especially after an important meeting. I write down my thoughts as they flow – they help me capture the moment. This can then be reflected on later.
Reflection is especially important when you make mistakes. Understanding what you did wrong is important and that will only come from quiet reflection. This is especially true when it comes to personal and family relationships.
A few months ago, I suddenly become very angry with my son after I saw his marks in one of his papers. I threw the paper back at him. He was shocked since I very rarely lose my temper. He started crying. My wife, Bhavana, intervened. I withdrew into a shell. As I reflected, I realised that something else was bothering me, and I expressed that anger on my son. I was wrong. I had hurt two people I loved most. It took me some time, but I then went up to both and apologised. I realised that I needed to become more aware of my own feelings and not mix up work and personal emotions. The brief period of reflection helped me resolve a situation quickly that would have caused much more damage had I let it linger on.
Create some space for daily reflection. It is the best way to become a little better each day.