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Who runs the world? Twenty-somethings

The world is being run by twenty-somethings. Strictly speaking, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it would seem that in a few years time, it might well be true. Giant businesses are being built by people who cannot buy a beer in Delhi. A bunch of kids are dreaming up ideas, hiring people much older than them, negotiating tough deals with a bunch of cut-throat investors, and generally re-imaging the world as we know it. Their parents presumably approve.

Apart from making older people look ridiculous, the emergence of this new breed of leaders also dramatically challenges the idea that doing certain kind of jobs requires qualifications, the relevant experience and a host of qualities that are deemed absolutely essential by management consultants ( delegating effectively, getting hands dirty, being good listeners, leading from the front, re-inventing oneself frequently and so on). These young people not quite out of college seem to rush into everything and find it remarkably easy to do all the things that we have been told are very difficult.

And they are not the only ones who pose this question of us. The idea that only people with the proper education, requisite experience and formal training can over time, become capable of handling ever more complex tasks is something that gets challenged in different ways all around us. Politicians for instance, run ministries without having a clue about the subject that they are final arbiters of. There is no formal training that they undergo, and although they might not be the finest advertisements for a lack of qualifications, as we have seen in the recent having highly qualified leaders, does not necessarily translate into meaningful action.

Young scions of business families are routinely parachuted into top management where they get to lord over professionals who not only have eye popping qualifications but have spent weeks sitting in various training programmes painstakingly ‘developing competencies’ and working on their team building and leadership skills. By and large, this model works just fine, for if it didn’t the market would have ensured that only professionals ran companies.

Could it be that the idea of competence is in part a device used to determine who gets to leadership positions when there are no other means available to figure this out? So when it is possible to either elect people through voting as is the case with politicians or with lineage as is the case with family business, we rely on these methods. When such universally transparent and culturally incontrovertible methods are not available or seem inappropriate , we turn to an invented system based on the notion that competence and capability need to be acquired systematically by going through a certain institutionalized process.

Or is that the idea that management is a standalone discipline that can be taught is by itself a somewhat dodgy proposition, constructed as a way of establishing a certain kind of order? Reading popular management texts, business self-help books or even the newspaper supplements that peddle what passes for strategic wisdom seems to confirm that management science consists largely of wrapping some staggeringly self-evident clichés in waves of self-important language.

Among the top 20 business bestsellers on Amazon currently include titles like Rising Strong (by the author of Daring Greatly), The Rich Employee, Strengths Finder 2.0, Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World, 10-Minute Declutter, Get What’s Yours, Getting to Yes and that old faithful, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At the considerable risk of judging books by their titles, it would seem that these texts seem to represent a discipline that is less about science and more about assorted short-cuts to get successful, without having to tax the intellect mightily.

The management myth arrogates to itself great complexity which requires strategic vision and other such lofty skills while simultaneously valorising concepts that even half wits would find rudimentary. This is why organisations go to great lengths to hire really smart people and then go to even greater lengths to ensure that this smartness is rarely put to use. The truth might well be that there is nothing that requires deep intellect in managing organisations, it does require sophisticated life skills, which does not need any great formal training. But without the air of self-importance, the suits, the salaries that bear no relationship to reality, the power point presentations and the technical language, maintaining an orderly and stable system would be difficult.

Perhaps something fundamental has changed. As new ideas become the dominant source of energy in any ecosystem, the power of the management myth begins to subside. In a world where settled structures based on size, history and power are the dominant forces, being qualified is of great value. One has to fit in to a complex framework that already exists, and that is not easy. A stable system needs order, and a predictable set of processes. But a world founded on ideas is fundamentally a more unstable one. What matters here is the power of the idea- ecosystems follow ideas, and capabilities develop in the gap that exists between an idea and its execution, or can be bought off the market.

The opening up of the digital space, which is many ways a completely new universe that needs to be colonized, has thrown up a new set of pioneers who are known more by their ideas than by their antecedents. These are creators, not managers, concerned more with building news ways of imagining the world rather than with efficiently distributing scarce resources over competing priorities. That they are as young as they are is no accident, for the freshness of perspective they bring needs them to be free of the stifling order embedded within the very idea of organisations. They will, in time, develop their own clichés and find their own mental prisons, but for now, it is time to acknowledge the coming of a new order.

Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
Santosh Desai Before taking up this assignment, he was the President of McCann-Erickson, one of India's premier advertising agencies. A post-graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, Santosh spent 21 years in Advertising and was strategically involved in building key brands for a range of local and multinational clients. He has been a guest lecturer at various national & international universities and has addressed the global management boards of several multinationals including Microsoft, Philips, Hershey's, Unilever, Coke and Reckitt Benckiser. His principal area of interest lies in studying the relationship between culture and brands. An academic at heart, he writes regularly on contemporary Indian society and on subjects related to Marketing. Recently he published his book on India titled "Mother Pious Lady".

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Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
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