By Sumantra Sengupta
Recently, a colleague showed me an article that he wrote, which essentially took a page from the “Not your father’s …” tagline that General Motors made popular across many of their brands. Alas, many of those brands have disappeared, so not only is it not your father’s car — it’s actually no one’s car.
However, the statement coupled with the fact that I have one son in college and another one about to start made me think back about some nuggets of business-centric advice I was fortunate to receive from my own father. He was a well-known corporate finance executive in India back in the ’90s and passed away almost 30 years ago, when I had barely crossed the 20-year mark.
Are the nuggets that I recall still valid in today’s hypercompetitive and connected global business world? Or should his advice now be a part of “not your father’s business”?
Fortunately, after sifting through my memory bank and reading some of the letters that I have treasured all these years, I was delighted to find that some of his advice is still valid and will hopefully be passed on to the next generation. Here are some of the key nuggets:
• Emotional attachment is unnecessary. Long work hours, mingling with colleagues after hours and taking work home are common activities. This leads to developing bonds that can potentially cloud our professional judgment.
We can perform our tasks with just as much enthusiasm and discipline by maintaining internal barriers. My father did not advocate machine-like behavior, and neither am I. It is just easier to make fact-based decisions when there is no emotional cloud.
• Set boundaries that no one should ever be allowed to cross. People often talk about physical boundaries that are sacred, but we often ignore the verbal and mental boundaries that are just as key for well-being. In our day-to-day activities, we sometimes allow ourselves to be subject to subtle power games and struggles — the backhanded insult, the shift in organizational reporting, the sudden added micromanagement and the like are all part of the encroachment of individual boundaries. Do not allow it or else the old adage of “give an inch and lose a mile” will come true.
• Have impeccable work ethics. Capabilities get you the job, but work ethics are the key to continued professional success. Ensuring that the holistic effort that you put into your assignment is in excess of 100 percent of the requirement is crucial to demonstrating commitment to your company, your colleagues and subordinates. If you are in a management position, then you must be prepared to demonstrate the commitment so that you can get the same or similar behavior from your team.
• Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Where there are people, there will be politics. There is no such thing as a totally apolitical work environment. It is a myth and does not exist. I have always maintained that it is best to have open dialogue as much as possible. But while that is often best practice, it rarely is utilized. Hence, one should always be careful with the personnel ecosystem that surrounds you and keep the above moniker in mind.
• It’s never personal, just business. We make decisions every day. In many instances, the decisions may be unpopular. They may also be in the best interests of a larger group while adversely impacting a smaller group. We will always try to reach decisions that are in the middle ground, often called consensus. In the end, it may be impossible to satisfy everyone. When that happens, as long as we can assure ourselves and the ecosystem within which we work that the decisions were made with as little bias as possible (completely unbiased decisions do not exist), then we can truly say that “it’s just business.”
• Sumantra Sengupta is the assistant dean of the School of Management at California Lutheran University.