Ram Charan is a global business advisor, author and speaker who has spent the past 35 years working with some of the most prominent companies and CEOs of our time. Ram talks to The Industry Leaders about the lessons he learned as a boy working in his father's shoe shop in India and tells us what every business leader should be doing with their time.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
I worked in my father's shoe shop when I was a boy, delivering shoes to clients all around the city. I then earned an engineering degree at a university in India before taking a job in Australia. After some time there proving my capabilities in business, I studied an MBA and Doctorate from Harvard Business School and later began consulting. In 1998 I started to author books and have gone on to write 32 books to date.
The secret to my work so far has been to know my client and their needs intimately, be honest with them - always - and keep my own business small. Why do I keep it small? Because it avoids the need for associates and other unnecessary positions that can dilute my methods.
As for the shoe shop, it's still open today - well into its 3rd generation. The secret to its success is that the shop knows its customers: exactly what they want, how their shoes should fit and how each client needs to be treated. These are lessons I use in my work to this day.
You were described by Fortune Magazine as 'the most influential consultant alive'. What do you attribute your success to?
For a start, I don't think my journey is finished. I certainly haven't climbed the mountain yet. But, ultimately, my success so far comes down to a few things:
Are you able to solve the client's problem?
Can you make the client more successful?
Are you satisfying your customer?
Do they trust you?
If you can meet those key criteria, you'll be a success.
What keeps you getting out of bed on a morning, doing what you do?
The answer to this is simple: learning.
I love learning, and it's something that never stops. Any leader should always be learning as much as possible, and they should do so by looking outside of their industry. If you only focus on your industry, you'll end up drinking your own bathwater.
If you only focus on own your industry, you'll end up drinking your own bathwater.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I remember very clearly, it was the family doctor in India who encouraged me to learn constantly - even in the evenings. Through education, I was able to travel the world and take the path I have taken.
Lifelong learning is fundamental.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
My goal would be to donate all of it to people in my hometown village in India. They need it.
I'll get somebody to do something constructive there.
What would I want them to do with the money? I'd like them to build and offer scholarships in the school for people who can't afford them. $10m can do a lot of good.
You recently said that businesses need to 'digitise or die'.
How should leaders educate themselves to do that in their businesses?
Yes, this is very urgent for every company, and they should discard the myth that it is expensive. It's not. If you don't do it, it's more expensive!
Firstly, leaders need to educate themselves about how other businesses have successfully digitised. Build a habit of learning from the giants: the CEOs of Amazon, Salesforce, Microsoft, Netflix, and Alibaba.
An excellent way to do this is by spending time listening to their investor calls. There's a lot of new stuff in every call, 80% is routine, and 10 to 20% is new. The calls are publicly available on Google, and they put them on their websites.
Secondly, start to read the Financial Times and The Economist carefully. There is just so much good information in there that I wouldn't focus only on one section: you need to be reading them cover to cover.
I'm also writing a new book that teaches business leaders how to digitise inexpensively and the soul of the book is about creating a roadmap that you divide into projects. No project goes more than ten weeks, and the cost of each will be less than $300,000. At the end of 10 weeks, you will have a tangible output that will improve your business.
What do you see as the most important traits for today's leaders?
The first one is dealing with complexity and how to get to the right point of every issue. This is especially the case nowadays where we have people who want to participate in your decision making beyond shareholders. Dealing with that can be hugely complex.
The second is speed.
Both of these issues are different from 100 years ago, ten years ago, even five years ago; the number of variables you deal with has increased exponentially.
But the most important change that today's leaders must account for is customer-centricity. This requires personality, resilience, agility, selecting people, motivating people, and inspiring people. Those are things that have not changed for decades - centuries even.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
All business leaders need to devote time to find talent that builds the future. The future is being built by leaders and experts, and that doesn't [exclusively] mean people with degrees.
Steve Jobs was an expert on consumer products, an expert and a visionary. He became an expert by doing the grunt work.
Jeff Bezos is an expert, too. He gets to the details 99% of people don't get to. And once you get to those kinds of details, you never forget what they are.
How do you see the world after Covid-19?
Well, quite simply, we need to continue to be optimistic because our feet are still on the ground, and the pandemic will eventually go away.
We've got to build the future, and remember that we have huge positives coming over the next ten years. The major one is that we will have $30 trillion of new economic stimulus here in the USA, which we should celebrate and use as a focus to drive all our future projects.
What's next for you, Ram?
Well, I'm currently co-authoring a book that talks about how HR creates huge value and how you can measure it — a totally different way than we do now.
It's about creating four times the company's market value in five years and is based on my work with actual companies - not armchair studies.
It will be out in October, so watch this space!
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