Character vs. Competence: What Does Your Company Value?

Ranjan has been associated with Vodafone for over a decade now, prior to which he held key positions at Delphi, Gillette India, Hindustan CocaCola Beverages, and Reliance Telecommunications, to name a few.

A few months back, my news feed buzzed with the instance of ball tampering by the Australian team. On the face of it, the offence itself was minor; yet the outcry especially at the home country was significant and led to bans for the parties involved. As Harsha Boghle’s comment put it, it wasn’t about the ball tampering at all, it was about heroes letting their country down. Latest in a long string of examples where character and competence come in conflict, it demonstrated yet again, character is often on the losing side.

The above is by no means to suggest that competence is not necessary but to merely posit which side in corporate life does trade-off happen. In most cases, the competence is valued over character. History is littered with examples that any compromise on the former is more dangerous than the latter. While Arthur Andersen, Enrons, and Satyams are easy to recollect in corporate world, this failure permeates across. The 2012 Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is well covered in annals of sports history. Indeed many of our companies are made vulnerable every day by small yet significant instances of someone compromising on character. This someone can be a competent professional too.

The way the entire Ball tampering scandal unfolded made me reflect why would a team that is considered having one of the best in bowling attack choose to do something like this? What makes a person so driven to win the race that one tends to compromise on the ‘how’. While not exhaustive, it can be boiled down to following scenarios:

• The Push from the Top: If there is anything that the recent Uber issue has highlighted, it is that management missteps can lead to a consumer boycott for even the most promising companies. It is true that it is a hyper competitive, achievement - focussed world. In a market that pushes for unquenchable thirst of growth, many leaders believe that only running ahead of the market can help them survive. In many organisations where the underlying culture of performance is surmised as ‘you are as good as your last delivery’, it compels managers and teams to look at shortcuts. Overwhelmed with goals, these organisations induce stress instead of stretch.

• The Internal Urge to Win Despite of Knowing it is Wrong: The other side of idol worship is often the disappointment when our idols prove to be less than heroes. No other place illustrates this more than the world of sports. From scandals that rocked the 2016 Olympics to the massive FIFA fraud, the need to win bested even the most competent. They say character is what we do when no one is looking. In corporate life too, the need to win every round can sometimes come at odds with the espoused company ethic of ‘doing the right thing’. This culture is often seen in 'whatever it takes’ and even ok to break good rules. While out of the box thinking and going beyond are a hallmark for innovation, it is important to know that when accountability of decisions is diffused.

• The Fear of Failure & Glorified Past Drives You to Take Shortcuts: Being held prisoner to self-image is one of the most intriguing places where one finds the sacrifice of character at the altar of competence. This is particularly true for the established leaders, often behemoths that have seen great successes. Incidentally, this is the exact thing that is their undoing too. Having not tasted failure in much of their history, they get lulled into a sense of complacency that they know rules so well and thus can get away with breaking them.

• One is Very Lonely in Corner Office & Has no One to Advice: In most cases, it is a single action that can lead to poor decisioning. It’s lonely at the top, and while CEOs are always expected to steer into the future and have all the answers themselves, there is little advisory that is on offer. So pervasive are the above scenarios that one is bound to encounter them in the work life.

Building awareness that one is close to a trade-off between competence and character is the key for remedy

The question therefore is - what one should do? Is there a way to strike that balance when the seesaw is swinging? Building awareness that one is close to a trade-off between competence and character is the key for remedy. This awareness is built through some steps:

• Diversity of Thought: Get yourself surrounded by people of different ideology that can offer diverse points of views. This would mean consciously moving out of a 'yes man' culture that inevitably builds-up around leaders.

• Fail Forward: Build a long-term mindset that allows one to put failure in context. It is fine to fail at times. In fact it’s even desired, as failure has the kernel of innovation, the only way to live long term. A temporary dip of market capitalization is fine over a debacle of a clan.

• Strike a Balance: Have a system of performance assessment to balance what and how.

• Switch-off & Then Switch-on Again: Some times the age-old IT help desk advise has more power than many management books. Take long breaks to spend time with yourself. Those introspection moments will give you a time to differentiate.

Our Talent acquisition rally cry is often ‘hire for character, train for skills’ or ‘hire for attitude train for aptitude’ and similar analogies. Hand to heart, if we were to admit, what is it that we really practice? Is it probably closer to, ‘hire on competence and fire on character’? All our Talent agendas speak of putting the best person for the job. We determine the best person on the basis of their competence. If they have high-premium skills like agility, innovation and design thinking, then we have a 'hi-pot'. We invest disproportionately in this category. The language for performance in most organisations is written in familiar KPI laden formats. We speak Targets, Top line, Bottom line, EBIDTA, cash flow, Opex and many others. They certainly seemed to have stood us well in the past and seem perfectly good for the future too, or are they; let me know your views?