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Kumar Mangalam Birla | June 01, 2005

Under Kumar Mangalam Birla, the $6-billion Aditya Birla Group did not just acquire a new logo, it transformed itself. From a commodity-based organisation steeped in babu culture it is today an aggressively modern multicultural transnational with more than 72,000 people drawn from twenty different nationalities.

In this exclusive with The Smart Manager Kumar Mangalam Birla shares his nine important learnings.

Transformation is about turning aspirations into reality, converting setbacks into opportunities. It is about courage of conviction. It is about what Charles Handy, one of the world's leading authorities on the nature of work, calls, "The creation of new alchemists from ordinary people."

Transformation, to me, is the end result of a highly energised process that combines human ingenuity with its indomitable spirit to make new things happen and create value.

The transformational process can be so absorbing that often its lessons reveal themselves long after its implementation. Today, as I reflect on our group's journey over nearly a decade, I do believe that we have changed in some very fundamental ways.

In fact the genetic coding of our group stands altered substantially. We have become a transnational, multi-cultural entity with more than 72,000 people, drawn from twenty different nationalities of whom more than 70 per cent are under the age of forty.

Ten years ago women managers were few and far between. Today women constitute more than 6 per cent of our employees and the number is on the rise. As we venture into new countries the world over, our group's geography has changed phenomenally as well.

So has the work ethos that has been shaped to stay contemporary and relevant in a different world. However, much as we have changed, we continue to constantly reinvent ourselves.

Let me quote Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of the path-breaking work, The Third Wave, who wrote, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

In fact, much of the change process for us has been about learning, unlearning and relearning, and I have tried to cull out for you the nine lessons which we believe are key to our transformational process.

Lesson # 1

The first question that to my mind needs to be addressed is: "What is it about the transformation process that needs to be managed?" It is my personal view that for those at the helm of an organisation in the throes of change, management is restricted to largely two broad areas.

The first is the ability to manage time effectively because an organisation in a state of flux throws up many more demands on your time as compared to one in a steady state.

And the second area is that of energy management because the process of change can be rather exhausting, both physically and mentally, and requires sustained levels of high energy over a prolonged period of time.

Other than these two areas that need active managing, the process of transformation is mostly about leadership.

Leadership at all levels in the organisation as much as leadership at the top. It is about plugging in to the minds and hearts of people. It is about rallying them around to a compelling and exciting vision of the future. It is about upping the quality of imagination of the organisation. So the first lesson for us has been that the process of change is perhaps 90% about leadership and only 10% about managing.

Lesson # 2

Back in 1996, we launched for the first time a Corporate Identity. The intent at one level was simply to have a group identity that would serve as a corporate logo. We chose the rising sun. That the impact of a symbol can be so enormous is something that took us by surprise.

At a time when the group was going through emotional turmoil, the symbol of the Rising Sun brought the different parts of the group together, helped us as an organisation to reenergize ourselves, cross the bridge, and to get started on the path to change.

The learning was quite striking. The need to relate, to belong to a club, to an association, basically to some sort of fraternity is inherent in all of us. The corporate identity served that need, as also as a proxy for a charismatic leader who was missed greatly. At another level, it made an emotional connect that wove the group into an integrated whole.

The Rising Sun, in a strange way, brought a new optimism and served as a rallying point for the organisation. That really, in a strategic way, was the first positive step for us in our process of change.

The lesson we learned is that symbolism can and does have a positive effect. In our case, it was the corporate identity. In another situation, the symbol could well be different.

Lesson # 3

It is stating the obvious but I do believe it is important enough to say it anyway: a critical area in any change process is that of communication. The process of transformation is about communication, communication and more communication.

In the case of a corporation going through the pangs of change, I do not believe that you can ever over communicate. And I cannot think of any instance in our case where the change process was set back because of over-communicating.

Looking back, however, several instances do come to my mind when I think we could have communicated more, better and faster.

Using technology to advantage in communication can add a zing to the process. Reaching out to as large an audience as possible, engaging with small groups, opinion makers and those who may be impacted adversely, is obviously critical. And communication is the key to making this happen.

A significant part of the learning about communication has also been that the same message is filtered by different audiences within the organisation differently, given each one's unique world view, context and perspective.

Some time back, I learnt about a survey conducted by the United Nations. It was an international survey and it had only one question. The question was: "Please give your honest opinion on the shortage of food in the rest of the world and suggest solutions." The information was urgently required, but the survey unfortunately was a huge failure.

In Western Europe they couldn't understand the meaning of the word 'shortage'. No one there had ever experienced a shortage of anything. In Eastern Europe they couldn't understand the meaning of the word 'opinion'.

Having been under socialist rule for years, no one had ever volunteered an opinion. In the Middle East they couldn't understand the meaning of the word 'solution', for obvious reasons: there never had been any solution to any of the difficult problems there.

In Africa, sadly, they couldn't understand the meaning of the word 'food', which comes by so rarely. In Asia, they couldn't understand the meaning of the word 'honest'. And in the United States they could not understand what is meant by the 'rest of the world.'

On a more serious note, the point to be made is that it is important to customise communication, so that different audiences within the organisation understand the message in its right context, in the way it was intended. So, the third take away for us was that when you succeed in the transformation, it is because your communication worked.

Lesson # 4

Different people have different roles to play in the process of change. I believe that the management of most organisations focuses sharply on high performers - the people with high potential or the high fliers as they are commonly referred to.

That is, of course, important but, I do believe that what is equally important, is to focus on that bulk of the organisation who are somewhat dismissively referred to in management jargon as 'the stayers'.

These are people who make the day-to-day, month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter things happen. Their role in the process of change is critical. Just as 70% of the human body is made up of water, so also 70% of any organisation is made up of people who follow the rules, who keep it moving ahead at a steady pace.

You cannot have everyone setting the rules. We need people who follow the rules, people who may not contribute in a significant way intellectually, but who are happy to implement the rules diligently.

Ignoring this segment of people in a process of change, I believe, can lead, to use the analogy of the human body again, to organisational dehydration. For sustaining the transformation, you need to engage and recognize this quiet majority.

These are people who are often less visible but who to a significant extent make the organisation what it is.

So we owe it to this mass to keep them motivated, to recognise their contribution which very often gets overshadowed by the performance of the 'stars'. Click here to read lessons 5 to 9. . .

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Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.

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