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Tough journey, great destination by Ronnie Peiris


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By Deepal Sooriyaarachchi

Recently I watched the movie ‘The hacksaw ridge’ the amazing story of how a young man called Desmond Doss went to the battle field without a gun because it was against his value system to kill. Eventually he ended up saving 75 people from death.

Whenever I propose to managers who get trained, coached and mentored by me that they should not undermine their own value system, sometimes I hear the question “Deepal, can upholding values and success coexist?”, as if I am off and unrealistic. Then I challenge them to define the two what they mean by ‘success and values’.

While Sargent Desmond Doss walked in to the hell fire of war armed with the value of not killing yet excelled in his chosen profession of nursing, I was fortunate to read another rare and an authentic story of a young man who walked in to the hell fire of business world which is fuelled by greed but armed with a strong set of values of doing only the right thing, and to uphold the principles of the profession. That I found in the first of the eight chapters of Tough Journey, Great Destination by Ronnie Peiris. I am thankful to Jayaratne for gifting me a copy of this fantastic auto biography. I read it cover to cover in one go but with so many places being highlighted and notes made on edges. It is one of the best management books I have read in the recent past.

The stories are so gripping and the principles elicited are so powerful and useful. The book brings out so many lessons.

The naughty child

When reading the first chapter it is very easy to find out how Ronnie had the courage to say ‘no’ to a boss who wanted him to cook the books, that made him jobless in a foreign country. That strong character had been built by his parents and all the naughty things he had done as a boy. He did things boys would do and got in to trouble big time. That gives you courage to take risks later in life. This I can vouch with personal experience! But you learn to face adversities and to think on the spot! His parents never came to his rescue when he had done wrong. 

“The night before the 1969 Royal Thomian cricket encounter, my mother returned from dinner at her brother’s house to find me being herded away in a police jeep. It was around 11:30 p.m. and I was in a lot of trouble.

‘Inspector”, I heard her say, “If he has done something wrong, give him a good beating.”

Now you fast forward this scene and compare what would happen today. Today parents find fault with teachers for verbally warning their kids let alone being punished by cops. Just imagine how this kind of solid experiences formed Ronnie’s sense of values to do the right thing.

He goes to relate how on another occasion when he went to tell about a friend who had said something nasty about Ronnie’s father and this is what happened.

“We thought my father would give him the works and were bristling with anticipation. Imagine our shock and consternation when he told us to place our palms against the wall and gave us three sharp cracks of the cane each.

‘Don’t you dare come to me and sneak.’ he barked. If you have a problem with Yogi, fight your own battles with him. I don’t want you ratting on the other boys’. What a lesson that was!...

Such incidents taught me to first rely on myself for solutions to personal and professional problems.

Once again spoon fed kids of current generations cannot face a problem. These kids have already come to our business organisations. They are weak!

Ronnie prides in saying, “We were not materially wealthy but were rich in values.”

“The desire for recognition by way of awards or the pursuit of fame must not guide our actions.”

In today’s world of 15 minutes fame this may sound crazy. Schools want to put banners when children win, tuition masters advertise with the picture of the same student, parents post those in face book, and corporates spend more to tell how good the CSR than running business ethically. 

Professionalism 

‘As a professional accountant, your loyalty must be first to the public/society; next, to your profession; then to your employer/client; and lastly to yourself; this is the pecking order I have adopted throughout my life. It had worked for me.

Every chapter is full of such powerful lessons that we cannot ignore, especially when they come from a veteran with more than four decades of experience. This chapter particularly must be made compulsory reading for every professional whether they are in finance or in another field. He passionately and with the sense of a true leader advices the young professionals “Do not let your personal brand be impaired by your inability to eschew temptation. If you lose your dignity, even a herd of elephants cannot haul it back.”

Brave as he is, he has been very bold to bring out his frustration when he writes, “I have seen situations where professional accountants aid, abet and join senior managers in enhancing cash flow by deliberately delaying payments to creditors. This is not astute cash flow management, in my book. It is downright robbery.

I am sure he must have thought a lot for using such strong words, to emphasise the importance of doing what is right.

Starting at the bottom

Aptly sub titled with the saying “The only job where you start at the top is digging a hole” in this chapter he traces many a lessons he had learnt by working from the bottom. This reminds me how Matsushita the founder of Panasonic got the newly recruited engineers to first work on the factory floor, then in finance department followed by sales before giving them a chance to work as engineering trainees. Knowing how the nuts and bolts of a business work is so important to be effective, and to innovate which is the buzz word today. 

Another powerful lesson he elicits is how as a very junior cost clerk he went beyond his job scope to study the other aspects of the business when he was at Unilever. This is obviously signs of a person who would rise to great heights in the corporate world. Today this is not very common among managers even though some of them have MBAs. I always tell those who aspire to reach higher positions to be conversant with other areas of the business, be concerned about the other areas of the business and to contribute towards the other areas of business from your own perspective. In Ronnie’s case he had demonstrated all these three attributes very well.

“I cultivated an inquiring mind. Acquainting myself with activities outside my immediate area of responsibility geared me to hold informed discussions with colleagues I other divisions and other disciplines,” he says.

He attributes his success as a General Manager to the lessons he learnt and the wisdoms gained along the way.

Standing up

“I guess the more I defended what was right, the more I earned recognition. The top management would have identified the qualities in me that made me suitable to be finance director and ultimately, managing director”. This he refers to his period in Zambia working for Anglo American Corporation (Central Africa) Ltd. It gives a very important message to business leaders. That is of the importance of allowing professionals to critique the organisation and its decisions and processes. Increasingly we hear from professionals how they do not get the chance and how the top management does not want to listen to such counter views. Many organisations that collapse can attribute their failure to this simple reason; Lack of opportunity to raise a different view. It also shows the importance the confidence the professionals must have about themselves.

He recalls with gratitude a lesson he got from one of his bosses. “Ronnie, your next promotion depends on how ready your subordinate is to take over from you”. Not developing subordinate to take over one’s own job and not letting go of the smaller activities of the previous function even after getting on to the higher job is very common. This happens because executives are not properly being coached by their superiors on this aspect.

MBWA

Managing By Walking About seems to be a dying art. Ronnie brings it to the fore very forcefully. Walking about, listening to co workers help one understand them, more importantly to get connected with them, and these are very important to leaders. As Ken Balchand says in his book One Minute Manager ‘How on earth can I get results if it’s not through people? I care about people and results. They go hand in hand.. People who feel good about themselves, produce good results”

MBWA is a very powerful means to show that you care and that is enough for people to give their best.

“As a perfectionist I found it difficult to let go of even trivial tasks. I thought a tight hands-on approach was appropriate to ensure I had control and was, thus, better placed to see that things got done. On further reflection however it dawned on me that I was displaying insecurity.”

This is an excellent example of how learning happens. Our best lessons are from our own lives when we observe what we do from a distance without a bias as much as possible. By sharing how he reached this very lightning insight so selflessly Ronnie not only argues against micro managing but highlighting the art of learning by reflection. This I believe is a difficult skill to develop and as a result many continue to make the same mistake over and over again with ever increasing confidence calling it experience!

“In leadership positions the ability to manage people supersedes your technical skills. Technology can be bought. But managerial and leadership traits must be consciously nurtured. Some of these are intrinsic as a part of nature.”

These are only a few lessons I thought of highlighting. 

As I completed reading all the eight chapters I could see some very clear threads running across.

The importance of building a person’s character early on since it really hard wires the future behaviour.

The real meaning of being a true professional and especially of those professions where public place trust on the opinions expressed by those professionals in making decisions.

The importance of continuous learning and keeping abreast with the changes

Ability to observe your own behaviours, actions and decisions with a view to converting them in to learning points so the future behaviour can be guided by those learnings.

There are a large number of statements that are very thought provoking quotations and suggest they be separately highlighted in his website.

Finally I would urge any aspiring manager to grab a copy of this book and use it as a regular companion to get inspired and to draw lessons from. I earnestly hope that this will be a recommended text in all professional education institutes, business degrees at undergraduate and even at Masters Lessons.

Tough Journey is a Sarasavi Publication.

(The writer is a Management Consultant, Accredited Management Coach and Mentor. He serves on boards of a number of leading corporates. He can be reached by deepalsmiles@gmail.com.)


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