18 Jan 2021 20:36 IST

Seven management lessons from the Sydney Test

Attitude more than ability matters; recruiters say skills can be imparted but attitude is what they look for in MBAs

Normally, it is the victories that are hailed in sports. But on January 11, 2021, in the cricket Sydney Test match, India managed to hold on to a creditable draw under extremely challenging circumstances. It has won plaudits for the Indian team as much or more than even a victory. The sheer circumstances and enormity of the performance reinforces lessons in organisational management.   

Aggressive (self-belief) mindset in adversity 

After the 36 all out drubbing at Adelaide, India did not spend time analysing the causes of defeat and said “let’s forget it as a one-off performance and focus on our strengths and the next Test.” The belief was that it was an hour of horror, where the batsmen just about nicked everything; against incredible bowling. Since there was no technical explanation for the collapse, should such a debacle lead to questioning the capabilities of the team or should self-belief be retained?

In business, a bad quarter or year quite often leads to analysis, questioning the belief in the core strength of the business and its employees, which may often be unwarranted. It takes clarity of thought from the leadership to recognise the inherent strengths and communicate it to the team, invoking self -belief to move ahead. This would be akin to a CEO exhorting his organisation in 2021 without analysing 2020 and ascribing the poor results as one-off due to the pandemic.

When India started the fifth day’s play at Sydney, the odds stacked against as the two opener had perished on the previous evening, and there was a bank of 409 runs for Australia to play with; and when Ajinkya Rahane departed early and Jadeja unfit to bat with a broken thumb, the only batsman capable of resistance and salvage a seemingly improbable draw was Pujara. The aggressive mindset in execution was reflected in the master stroke response of sending Rishabh Pant to attack when least expected, changing the complexion of the game, and raising visions of victory at one stage.

When business and industry face demand slump, the normal response is to protect market share by reducing prices or advance credit which adversely impacts the financials. However, a contrarian policy is to be aggressive by raising capacity and reaping additional profits after the economy revives.

Tactics, as important as strategy

While strategy is important in the long/medium term, it is the tactical smaller steps that help to achieve strategic goals. This was exemplified by the attacking mindset tactic of India till Pant and Pujara were there and the diametrically opposite defensive mindset of Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin to save the match once they departed. Similarly, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, many companies reduced salaries for six months to survive, and tactically restored them after improvement in the business situation.

As per the Resource-based theory (RBT), the quality and quantity of resources possessed by an organisation confers a competitive advantage that is advantageously employed in strategy formulation. Based on this logic, Australia should have walked over India in the Sydney test. That this did not happen demonstrates that a sound strategy is no sure shot recipe for success but requires execution where tactics plays an important part.

An organisation requires plodders and hitters

Organisational members while performing different roles may have diverse work styles but as long as their efforts lead to congruency of goals, the organisation should be agnostic to their styles. Despite his slow scoring rate Pujara’s occupation of the crease in a Test match is as much important as a more flamboyant player like Rohit Sharma who scores fast. Similarly, in a marketing team, the person who does solid market research and plans his sales efforts that may take longer to materialise is as important as an instinctive sales executive who generates quick leads and orders.

A leader need not have a designation

A leader need not necessarily be the CEO or those designated in senior management positions. Leaders emerge without a formal authority, by inspiring others especially during a crisis. One of the roles of a leader is to mentor and counsel his colleagues and this was amply demonstrated by Ashwin who counselled, energised and motivated his younger colleague Vihari to play a heroic match saving knock on virtually one leg. 

Teamwork requires alignment to a goal

Shane Warne repeatedly kept saying on commentary that there were devils in the pitch. How then did the Indian batsmen survive; Pujara kept hopping out of the crease to pad Lyon; Pant went after the bowling to score runs; Ashwin figured he could lunge forward to defend Lyon and Vihari stayed on the back foot to the fast bowlers. Each one of them were not following instructions, were creative in tackling adversity but what was common was the alignment to the goal. In an organisation, there is a lot of focus on standard operating procedures which although important often constrain creativity and team members executing to their strength.

While India’s teamwork has been glorified, it must be noted that gelling together, having a good understanding and rapport are not the only ingredients; it requires a goal-oriented direction. India have faced similar situations in the past, possibly in less challenging circumstances without the spectre of so many injuries to key players, wherein great batsmen of yesteryears such as Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid, were present, yet never have they produced a match-saving performance of this magnitude.

In the past, bilateral test matches were regular but series-based. Now, countries are playing for the top two places in the ICC test championship wherein India is currently lying third behind New Zealand and Australia and every test won or saved gives us valuable points. The goal of reaching the finals was probably the motivator triggering Ashwin and Vihari to take so many body blows and play with their injuries, at great cost to their physical well-being.

Great business leaders employ different approaches to give a compelling direction; Jack Welch employed a slogan “No company, small or big can win in the long run without energised employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.” Venu Srinivasan of Sundaram Clayton gave a direction to organisational improvement of quality by articulating the goal of ‘Winning the Deming prize’.

Leadership effectiveness is not about style

In management literature, leadership is often equated with styles — autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, and a host of leadership qualities are quoted profusely. Virat Kohli, a highly animated, excitable, articulate and aggressive captain has achieved excellent results having been named as the ICC Test captain of the decade, much like Jack Welch for GE. Ajinkya Rahane on the other hand is diametrically opposite, calm, composed, not as articulate as Virat, a monk-like approach, yet has been extremely effective in exhorting his team to stupendous performances in his three tests as captain like Welch’s successor, Jeffrey Immelt. In all these cases, leading by example and inspiring team mates is the common factor and not the styles.

Skills are important but attitude more so

In the final analysis, in the Sydney test, the combined skills of the eleven fit Australians were considerably greater than the seven fit and four unfit Indian players. However, the hunger and attitude shown by a depleted Indian team, especially on the final day, more than compensated for inadequacy of skills. This reinforces the views of most corporate recruiters coming to a B-school, that “knowledge and skills can be imparted, but attitude is what we look for in MBA graduates.”

(The writer is Professor Emeritus, NMIMS, Bengaluru.)