Tabuk, the Litmus Test

imageThe Surah Tawbah starts without Bismillah. And no wonder. Its a part of the Quran, which talks about hypocrisy. The unusual harshness which Allah (swt) displays within the Surah, shows the importance of the subject. Surah Tawbah partially revolves around the Tabuk incident.

The Tabuk expedition, was a march from Medina to Tabuk in 9 AH, against Roman Armies – in the peak of the summer- which led to their dispersal without any battle. It helped consolidate most of Northern Arabia within Islamic rule, thus creating unity which (the year after) led to the freeing of Mecca, and culminating at Yarmuk (some years later) in a decisive opening of the world to Muslims, via the defeat of Heraclius. Hence, it is one of the most important events in Muslim history. Some have called Tabuk a non-event, because no battle took place. The reality is that this is where the wheat separated from the chaff. Tabuk, was the Litmus Test for the people in Medina.

In focussing on the march to Tabuk, the Surah brings out the problem which had bedevilled the Muslims for long. The hypocrites pulled out all the stops to cause dissension pre the march, even to the extent of using a mosque outside Medina, as a meeting centre, to execute their plans. They caused issues and doubts, but due to the high profile participation of all the big figures of Islam, the Prophet (saw) marched with thirty thousand in the peak of the burning summer. Only three Muslims did not participate and even these three felt great guilt and were eventually pardoned by Allah (swt). However, due to the difficulties and the danger of possible battle, the hypocrites opted out and this led to a decisive parting of the ways. The reality had come out of hiding. The hypocrites would hereafter, either be sidelined or become responsible members of Muslim society. This seminal moment has affected us down these fourteen centuries. That all this was accomplished without any battle or lives lost, is an absolute wonder.

The lessons learnt from Surah Tawbah were simple and apply even today.

– you cannot have an ordered society, till people take responsibility.
– sacrifice is required from the good to fulfil this responsibility.
– there is no tolerating evil, otherwise it overwhelms you.
– hypocrisy is the biggest danger to societies.

If you read Ayat 75-77 of Surah Tawbah, it is a reflection of what has happened to us in Pakistan.

75) And among them are those who made a covenant with Allah [saying], “If He should give us from His bounty, we will surely spend in charity, and we will surely be among the righteous.”
76) But when He gave them from His bounty, they were stingy with it and turned away while they refused.
77) So He penalized them with hypocrisy in their hearts until the Day they will meet Him – because they failed Allah in what they promised Him and because they [habitually] used to lie.

We made this country for greater things, based on an aspiration and a promise of goodness. However, somewhere along the way, in the 1950s and 60s we lost our way. Its a collective derailment; we all are responsible. The punishment for that breaking of a promise has been a full doze of hypocrisy and its repercussions. Hypocrisy is taken here in the religious sense; to lie, break promises, betray a trust and argue unjustly.

May we learn from the events of Tabuk and be guided on a rightful path.

The above write up, while based on Surah Tawbah, has used the interpretations applied by Maulanas Maudoodi and Israr.

The Tarang Moment

imageThey show these types of moments in movies. Imagine a man sticking his axe into the ground and out shoots a jet stream of oil. The man is sitting on an oilfield and knows that he has arrived. This is his goldmine. And talking about gold, the famous moment in McKenna’s Gold when they enter the valley of gold. The walls, the floor and even the stream are lined with gold. McKenna, Blind Adam and the whole entourage had also arrived. They were looking at a life changing moment.

Sometime in August 2007, myself and many more Engro Foods people, had this same experience. Lifelong we would know this event as the Tarang Moment. It changed our lives.

In commercial parlance, when you launch a brand you are stepping somewhat into the unknown. If you have done it right, then a lot of research on consumer insights has been completed. The product has been tested in stress conditions and has passed. Its taste profile has been matched and tested with consumers. The packaging and name of the brand has been researched, designed and tested. Through research and our own portfolio strategy, we know the bulls eye positioning and the marketing (both media and activation) campaign has been concept tested and fits the positioning. The distribution strategy has been agreed and we know exactly where and at what price the brand will hit the shelves. Our stock levels have been worked out and the production forecast has matched those, so that there is little danger of shortages.

As they say, all the ducks are in a row, and we are ready for success. So then one wonders why, nine out of ten brand launches fail. Unfortunately, that is the history of the world, so very likely things could go wrong and the launch may not be successful. At best recall (I may have missed a small one here or there), I have lived this routine through forty three launches in my career and many of those brands are not around anymore.

So back to that Tarang Moment. We struggled to get approval from our Board of Directors to launch a tea whitener. It took three attempts. Their query was that a rival brand had failed to make it a success, so why would Engro Foods succeed? When it was finally approved, we were allowed to launch only in six towns. That really set our backs up, and it was considered a challenge to our professionalism. Research showed us that tea was the highest incidence of milk usage in Pakistan and it also showed that in those very homes where this tea was consumed, there was a great demand and connection to ‘filminess’ (the movie world). It was also researched that as yet, no right fit product – enhancing the taste of tea – was on the market. Hence the brand Tarang, portrayed a ‘filmi’ world which was enhanced by ‘Chai ka Sahi Jor’. In all my career, I cannot remember a clearer positioning, which was backed by product attributes and fitted its brand world. We felt we had hit the nail on the head.

The Tarang Moment arrived for each of us at different times. For me it arrived at 8.32 am on August 15, 2007 in R A Bazaar, Lahore. The brand had been launched, but media had not yet broken. I was on a market visit to see how we had distributed the brand. A ‘SEC C’ class store in R A Bazar was my first stop early in the morning. An old woman walked in to buy something. She saw our colourful pack on the shelves and asked the shopkeeper “Ay kya haey? Ay Taranga?”. He said ‘chai bananay kou’. The old lady bought it, nary any advertising, nary support, nary any awareness. Alhamdulillah! I knew we had hit gold. Two weeks later this was further confirmed. With advertising on TV and strong supporting activation, our capacity to supply the product had gone short. What we had expected to achieve in a years time, we got there in fifteen days with maybe five days of TV coverage. When a new filling machine arrived four months later, that also ran out of capacity within another fifteen days. The Tarang Moment may last all of us a lifetime. Its unique in my career and probably unique for all the team involved.

A Driving Test

imageAs part of an elaborate procedure of hiring, corporates test a candidates personality. This is a dive into the inner being, to see hidden personality traits, create a picture and then try to match this personality with the corporates profile. There is a wish, that within this uncertain and complex procedure, some success is achieved in getting the right personality match.

Over the years I have seen this develop into a very complicated exercise, with hours of online questioning. Myself and the Engro Foods Management Committee (MC) went through just such testing sometime ago, to ensure that the next MC member can be tested for fit and thus make it a successful entry.

Over the years, most managers are still left with a nagging feeling. Where are these tests coming from? Who is designing them? How do we know they reach the correct conclusions? These have been designed for other cultures, do they really fit here? Many times it is simply a case of conflict. Reason and intuition is saying something and the tests are saying different things. Who to believe? Personally, my best results have come based on intuition and some judgement, rather than depending on physchometrics. So the jury is still out, on whether this works and the preferred route. Maybe, it should be a combination, but which is the dominant influence on a hiring decision? Psychometrics or a judgement call.

Now this might sound wacky, but bear with me. I have reached a conclusion, that as part of a hiring procedure, candidates who can drive, should be taken on the road and asked to drive for a time period. A Driving Test! Often, I have found, real personality traits are revealed under driving stress. Sometimes, one is really surprised. A mild mannered individual can turn out to be an aggressive, in the face, rude and abusive driver.

So following on from the above train of thought, I have carried this a bit further. While observing people drive, certain traits are revealed. These I have listed below, to show the appropriateness of my recommendation.

A mild mannered driver, under stress, will tend to be a calm manager, little impulse action and much serenity.

A decisive driver will apply similar decisions in a managerial role and will not dither and lose confidence. The reverse will be true for an indecisive driver.

An aggressive and pushy driver, will most likely take the same attitude into his job and also treat others in the same way at work.

Those drivers who follow all the driving rules, will tend to manage by the book and be strong in process and less so in human connect.

A risky driver can tend to risk himself and others in his surrounding. They might well apply similar behaviour at work and can tend towards taking risks which may or may not be appropriate. Similarly, a person who is a safety first and risk-less driver might be a very careful manager, who then will only take safe decisions.

The above is not a catch all list and there must be many other individual facets which could be monitored. These are better looked at by HR experts for appropriateness.

The above might sound way out of the box, but it is my feeling that if proper research and work is done on the above thought, we should be able to go a long way in revealing the personality profile of a candidate and then doing related work to match these traits to our organisational fit.

Something for HR experts and CEOs to chew on, for improvement in the hiring process.

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