In 1984 when bti ltd was incorporated, my only assets were an engineering degree and an unimpressive bank account which every month had much more debits than credits. There was an urgency to start making profits. I had no business plan or strategy; any project which would make the bank balance go north was a fair proposition. The only guiding principle was that the venture had to be fully legitimate and that every stakeholder directly or indirectly involved with it should be treated fairly and equitably. Fresh out of engineering university after four gruelling years I was still suffering from PGSD (Post-graduation stress disorder). I used to do Vector Analysis in my sleep and have nightmares about Mr. Small, my dreaded professor of Thermodynamics. I had no idea about business management theories but in defining this guiding principle I had unknowingly articulated the first “Core Value” of the company. Over the years bti has grown and evolved but I am proud to say that the first core value of “Honesty, Integrity and High Moral Values” remains a bedrock of our business philosophy to this day.
As the company grew, people from different backgrounds joined the company. While business flourished, I felt that there was a major problem in the organization. Apart from making profits we did not have any other purpose for our existence. This brought some people with mercenary attitudes into the company which made the working environment toxic and constantly put a strain on my original concept of maintaining high ethical values in the conduct of business. I also realized that most of the employees had a strong value system and working for a company which was just focused on making profits did not give them a sense of pride and joy. With no clearly defined set of values and people with differing ideologies working together created rifts and questions were raised about what is the right or wrong way of doing things. I realized that the resolution of this dichotomy did not fall within the purview of entrepreneurship. This was a management issue and addressing it would require expertise and knowledge of organizational management which I did not possess. After many gruelling years of learning management the hard way, I now believe that entrepreneurs should not put on the manager’s hat. Entrepreneurship and management are very distinct roles and there is no guarantee that a good entrepreneur would also be a good manager or vice versa. An entrepreneur’s role should be to start a business and then appoint competent managers to run the business while the entrepreneur does what he is supposed to do. Start a new business. Coming to this conclusion has taken me many years. At that time, not having the benefit of this hindsight, I took it upon myself to acquire knowledge about the mysterious world of organizational management. Over the years I have read hundreds of books and articles on the different aspects of management and have become so passionate about it that I now consider myself more of a manager than an entrepreneur.
After deep contemplation I concluded that our organization was lacking a Culture. Culture is the glue that keeps an organization united. It is the silent code of conduct. It defines how things are done in the organization. A company’s culture is probably its biggest asset and is like its immune system which protects it from any wrong thinking or practice and indeed wrong people being a part of the company. An organization’s culture should be an extension of the ideology of the founder(s). Establishing a genuine culture where the organization practices what it preaches is a pre-requisite if there are long term or even intergenerational aspirations for the enterprise.
The foundation of the organization’s culture are its core values. These are the deeply ingrained principles that are the company’s moral compass and form the cornerstone of its Culture. In bti we have six Core Values-
Win the customer’s heart.
Work hard and strive to be the best.
Maintain an entrepreneurial spirit
Respect, develop and empower our human resource
Honesty, integrity and high moral values.
Speed in work and fighting bureaucracy.
These core values tell us clearly what the company stands for and what is considered right or wrong in our culture. Our employees do not need constant help and hand holding by their seniors in decision making. Everyone is told that the guideline for making a decision on any complex matter is best found in the core values of the company and employees are rewarded for demonstrating the company’s core values. For example, our first core value is to Win the Customer’s heart. We must therefore never let the need for profits cloud our judgement about fair dealings with our customers. Culture is not built in a day; culture emanates from the steadfast commitment from every member of the company to live by the core values of the company. The culture of the organization is strengthened by the many stories of the employees practicing the different core values.
Every employee of bti from top to the bottom must be able to recite the six core values. Any new employee must first know the core values by heart before he is handed the appointment letter. Over the years many employees have been terminated because of violations of the core values. Some of them were star performers. This importance given to the core values has made it clear to everyone that no matter who you are the core values and the culture of the company is more important than you.
Apart from the core values, our culture also has other clearly understood features. bti has three VIPs. In the order of hierarchy, the most important VIP is the customer. The second most important VIP is the employee and the third most important VIP is the shareholder. We have open town hall type meetings where employees are encouraged to point out any deficiency the company may have and thoughts on how to make bti a better place to work. We also have a clear understanding that bti is a place for excellence and therefore there is no room for non performers. The practice of hiring and firing for non performance is very much a part of our culture and we do not shy away from admitting the practice of this controversial concept.
It was about twenty years ago that a formal initiative was taken to make a Vision statement which defined our long term objective and a Mission statement which tells us the overarching purpose of our existence. At the same time we also spelled out our core values which were the seeds of our culture. Over the past twenty years every manager in the company has made it his or her sacred duty to nurture and strengthen the company’s culture of which we are all ever so proud. Our culture has united us and brought out the best in us during times of adversity. For any organizational leader the greatest success is in establishing a lasting culture. The company’s balance sheet will see good days and bad days. It is the culture of the company that sustains the legacy of the leader.