21 July 2022 07:56:47 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

How do you eat an elephant?

Some leaders succumb and some leaders thrive under the enormity of their problems. What makes the difference?  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The answer to the question in the title of this piece is simple but rarely easy — one bite at a time. We are often paralysed by the enormity of the challenges we face as leaders — either business challenges or life challenges. It could be an unpredictable crisis that has hit us for which we are totally unprepared. It could be a massive opportunity that we are tasked with harnessing or an ‘impossible‘ target we have to hit.  

It could be a people problem, a compliance nightmare, or a PR disaster. Leaders face elephants often in their leadership journey. How they deal with it destroys some leaders but it makes others. Covid presented a very elephant-like problem to almost every business leader. Many are still struggling with rescuing their businesses or start-ups from the depths they had fallen into. But we have seen some leaders succumb and some leaders thrive. What makes the difference? 

One step at a time

One of my favourite examples of eating an elephant is about well, not eating an elephant, but eating hotdogs. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss the story in their book Think Like a Freak. The Olympics of Hot Dog eating is Nathan’s Fourth of July International hotdog-eating contest held in Coney Island, New York City. Millions of viewers tune in to see how many hotdogs, contestants could wolf down in 12 minutes. In 2001, the world record stood at Ripley’s believe-it-or-not level of 25 1/8 hotdogs in 12 minutes.

An unassuming and impossibly thin Japanese known as Kobi — full name Takeru Kobayashi — entered the contest that year. The watching crowds waited with eager anticipation that a suitably well-built winner might beat the world record and maybe get to 26 or heaven help us, 27. But it was Kobi who shattered the world record and blew the competition away. He ate 50! Almost double the world record! 

People thought he was cheating but the truth is he’d turned ‘elephant eating’ or in this case — hotdog eating — into a very Japanese-process-driven art. He questioned all the conventional wisdom and practices — why eat the hotdog whole, why not break it into halves?

Why eat the dog and the bun together — why not just do a few dogs first that slide almost effortlessly down and then just chomp down on the buns? Why not soften the buns by dipping them in water and eating the mashed buns faster? What amazed me was that he never accepted the existing world record as a boundary at all.

This is usually the first challenge leaders face when we take on an elephant — ourselves. Before we begin attacking the challenge, we often make it even bigger than it really is through our own fears, our desire for approval and our disproportionate attachment to the results. We also handicap ourselves with assumptions about what we can and cannot do, what our resources are, and what our constraints and boundaries are. But Kobi shows us how to go about eating the elephants we face. 

Perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of eating an elephant in the business world was described in the HBR article Cracking Frontier Markets. Richard Leftley’s elephant came into view as he studied two tables in the annual statistical analysis published by the global insurer Swiss Re. He was a veteran of London’s insurance industry but was piqued by what he saw. The first table showed the number and location of people who had died through natural disasters. The second showed insurance pay-outs. Leftley saw the absolute mismatch between the two lists. The people who most needed insurance were the ones not getting any.

His elephant was how do you give people from the poor economies the benefits of insurance. Nobody thought it was possible and colleagues laughed at the very thought that he would try to confront this elephant.  But MicroEnsure founded in 2002 went on to register over 56 million people (by the time of the HBR article) and had paid out over $30 million in claims providing protection across a range of needs, from micro health to political violence and crop cover. But it didn’t start with success. He had to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Slow and steady

From changing the standard brochures that contained irrelevant clauses like “sky diving and water polo are excluded” to transforming the way he offered the product and priced it. He decided to offer free insurance through people’s mobile phones. They signed up without paying any premiums and only had to buy a certain number of extra minutes and hey presto, they had their insurance cover.

With the purchase of the extra minutes, the telecom company would pay the premium to MicroEnsure and their insurance partner. It was a simple, smart and relatable way to serve people who often had neither the means nor the resources to access a benefit they needed, but could not afford. Even then the product failed as people still struggled to cross the hurdles of the sign up process.  

“Leftley realized that although sign-up required answering just three supposedly simple questions — name, age, and next of kin — even that was too much. “Those three questions caused 80 per cent of people to not complete the process,” he says. In many frontier markets, questions about age and next of kin are far from simple; people often don’t know or care about their age, and designating next of kin in a complex family structure is difficult. So MicroEnsure had to radically innovate its business model again. 

What if the company didn’t ask customers anything? It would know only a person’s mobile phone number. With that one piece of information, it would agree to provide insurance and make payments directly to that phone number; no paperwork, answers, or proof of anything would be required.

“This was very freaky for insurance companies,” Leftley says. To cover a customer without knowing even his or her age, in an industry built on data, forecasting, and actuarial tables, was a truly radical thought. But with that innovation, he explains, “buying insurance became as simple as signing up for a ringtone,” quoted in a Harvard Business Review article.

That’s true elephant-eating leadership in action. What can we learn the next time we see the elephant charging us. Question assumptions. Challenge boundaries. Break the elephant down into bite-sized pieces. Go in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom. Refuse to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge and instead focus on the small, specific milestone that gets us first started on the journey to tackling it.  

Former US President Jimmy Carter is supposed to have used the phrase ‘duck diplomacy’ which was about calmly floating on the surface but with some furious paddling below the surface. That gives us an insight into the kind of combo-attitude we need. To stay calm and not let the size of the elephant make us lose our composure or our confidence. But it also urges us to get cracking with action. Many leaders freeze in front of an elephant. But the best way ahead is to take that one small bite first, then another and then another.