Economy

Flexibility First: Time To Reinvent Business Management

To survive and prosper, large firms must have adaptable leaders and constantly revise targets and performance.

Keep it sharp
Roberto Salas Guzmán

-OpEd-

GUAYAQUIL — Many managers work hard, are creative and invite the people around them to strive for excellence. But often their objectives fail to reach beyond, well, just hard work. Top executives, meanwhile, keep pushing for higher budgets at board meetings to pay for a bigger and more sustainable business. Both parties have the best intentions but are often immersed in unnecessary frictions and frustrations.

The difference between company directors and day-to-day line managers is that managers seemingly live in a simple and linear world, believing their work to be nothing more than to pressure and challenge. The business executive, however, lives in a fierce world of hyper-competition, thinking of new enterprises, unforeseen events and aggressive rivals.

The world is neither simple nor flat. Businesses need time to flourish and hyper-competition is no novelty, although management, even those that know how to handle such conditions, are victims of traditional systems and dogmas that resist any change of methods. The solution, therefore, could be to recognize — both at the directorial and managerial levels — that the world is changing fast, and that the management of firms must also change and break with old, outdated practices.

Agile strategies

A starting point could be to revisit the classic annual strategy-design meetings, which tend to be filled with egos and partial visions that nobody dares challenge. The idea is not to eliminate these. If managed well, such meetings can generate alignment, interesting debates and trust between the firm's leadership and administration. But for that to happen, participants need to permanently engage in strategic validation, evaluate new combinations of scenarios with emerging information, make bold choices, and direct resources accordingly.

Thus, directors and managers must organize strategic discussions more often and dare to adjust their strategies quickly, in response to relevant events.

Second, when budgets fall short, it is no good sticking to them. It may be better to supplement annual budgets with dynamic and flexible systems that correct and update projections. Every three months the firm can make projections for the next 12 or 18 months, adapting to volatility or so-called black swan events that change the original scenario.

The emphasis must be on creating value in the medium to long term, defining milestones that can be monitored frequently to check one's distance from the expected financial value but also other, critical elements that make that value sustainable. In that way, budgets stop being straight-jackets that limit management innovation and creativity, and become a base tool for projecting chosen scenarios in a flexible and adaptive manner.

Long-term incentives

The third point to revise is the incentives systems for executives, which should not be based too much on the short term. Budget discrepancies and changes over the year can make previous figures irrelevant, undermining manager motivation and beyond that, a strategy's potential.

One way to resolve this is to establish short and long-term incentives. The first should be based on challenging albeit reasonable expectations on both financial and non-financial (like sustainability and capability development) indicators that meet the minimum targets top management wants to see fulfilled.

Firms must also emphasize long-term bonuses tied to value creation, using mechanisms aligned with stock prices if the firm is listed, or calculations of its shadow value if it is a closed company. When real shares are not involved, other good reward criteria can be EVA (Economic Added Value) or Total Shareholder Return, provided calculation formulae are always transparent and consistent in time.

Stretch it out — Photo: Marco Verch

The absence of a risk management culture is another big problem. Even firms that do devote time to this become obsessed with less important risks, while skirting around more important ones to avoid seeming pessimistic or entering conflict zones.

Innovation without results is another trap to avoid

The daily struggle to meet the operational targets expected of you distracts managers from the broader vision. Amid concerns to sell to big clients that bring in the crucial monthly sums, they may ignore the negative impact of bad sales or some of the negative trends that have no relevance now, but will do later. It is up to company directors to see that their managers duly consider and manage risks and prepare the firm for when those risks do finally become reality.

Evolving solutions

Innovation without results is another trap to avoid. Many firms struggle to find agile methods of making mistakes early, rectifying and finding evolving solutions that bring traction and scale, due to organizational flaws and internal cultures.

Firms should certainly learn to absorb the processes and microclimates of startups. If every business is a commodity in the long term and firms are essentially digital today, then all firms must effectively incorporate processes of open innovation. Many already do, though not effectively. Why? I think mainly because many firms do not understand the difference between the day-to-day and creating future businesses. They do both with the same policies and people, which impedes success.

The world is becoming more volatile and uncertain, that much is clear. The options are either sink or swim. Survival depends on the latter, but that means adapting appropriately.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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