Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, on 27 November 2009
If the organization is a cow, then milk is the wealth that flows out of it. Whole milk is the topline and butter, the bottomline. These are the metaphors by which Indian mythology communicates its ideas on wealth.
Wealth is auspicious in India. The image of the goddess Lakshmi, seated on a lotus, flanked by white elephants, holding a pot overflowing with gold, adorns banks and restaurants and the desks of cashiers and accountants. If there is a safe in the office, it is not unlikely to find flowers on it and auspicious marks smeared with sacred vermilion powder. Lakshmi’s footprint, pointing inwards, is placed on the doorway of Hindu and Jain households during festival time. This is what people want. The flow of milk, preferably rich in butter, flowing in their direction. Lakshmi flows in the direction of Vishnu, preserver of the world, the true leader.
In the Vishnu Purana, the earth takes the form of a cow and weeps before Vishnu, her guardian. “My back is broken and my udders are sore,” she says, “I find the burden of kings unbearable. Their greed and ambition knows no bounds.” In response, Vishnu descends on earth and sets about killing kings – first as Parashuram, then as Ram and finally as Krishna. The massacre of Kurukshetra, described in the Mahabharata, has its roots in the complaint of the earth-cow. The earth-cow must be protected at any cost. The killing of the cow or Go-hatya is the worst of sins. When the cow dies, there is neither milk nor butter. No food. No livelihood. It is the end of the world.
When Jagdish started his design studio, he had three artists. Each one was very good. He expected work to pour in. But it did not. For two years he approached the top FMCG companies but there was hardly any work and his organization was bleeding. His father, the investor, was getting tired of waiting. The business plan said breakeven by the third year.
The father chased his son to relook at his strategy. “Go after other clients, mid-sized companies and even low-sized ones,” he barked, “Enough of pampering your artists. Take them to the market with you.” Goaded by his father, despite the protests of the artists who were unwilling to leave the studio, Jagdish went after new clients, presented his artists and their work, and there he struck gold. A small pharma company and then a new FMCG company hired his firm to design a few banners. The work was appreciated. More work poured in. Before long, the three artists were working twelve hour shifts. The balance sheet showed a lot of milk and early signs of butter. The grass of the investor had finally yielded results. Jagdish and his father were happy.
Jagdish’s father said, “Let us hire more artists, low-priced ones, and do more work at lower costs. Let us cater to the growing demand and kill competition.” Jagdish said, “No, no. Lets not take too much work. Let us charge more for the same work. Let stick to the original artists.” After much argument, the father prevailed – after all he was right the first time. Artists were hired at a low cost, the company grew in size and more orders were taken.
The new guys out to be junior but were expected to churn out the same quality and quantity of work as the more experienced artists in less than a month. To keep up with the client demands and the deadlines, Jagdish decided to hire a manager. The moment this manager entered the studio, he started working on systems to make things more efficient. But before the systems could be put in place, Jagdish kept pushing him on deadlines and output. Before long there was chaos: senior artists were exhausted, junior artists were stressed and the manager was confused. Jagdish screamed at them, Jagdish’s father screamed at him, the manager screamed at the artists and the artists screamed at each other. The cow was groaning and moaning. The outputs were not as good as they were. Payments got delayed. Clients withdrew. The flow of milk, and the proportion of butter, dwindled.
We often forget that an organization is a set of people, an organism, a cow that gives milk. But to give milk, the cow needs nutrition, and one has to be patient for the milk, allow the cow time to graze and ruminate and gestate. The cow also needs to be loved. It is a known fact that music makes cows give more milk. Beating a cow does not generate more milk. Yet we flog organizations, push people more than they can take.
Cow is a powerful metaphor for organization. The leader is a cowherd, the Go-pal. He is expected to take care of the cow, not for the sake of the cow, but so that the cow provides adequate milk. Some leaders get so obsessed with the cow – in taking care of people – that they forget to milk the cow. Others get so obsessed with the milk that they milk the cow till ‘her back is broken and her udders are sore’.
We must not forget that the organization exists to generate revenue and make profits. At the same time we must not forget that those who generate revenue and make profits are humans – they need material, intellectual and emotional nourishment, just as cows need grass and protection and music and love.
A myopic leader makes the cow cry. And only a fool feeds the cow and forgets to milk her. The point is to make the cow joyfully provide copious quantities of butter-rich milk for as long as possible. And a wise leader always ensures there is enough milk for the calf, the next generation of employees, for no cow lives forever.