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ZEN AND MANAGEMENT TRAINING

by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

Students eager to learn about Zen are usually told the following anecdote before they start training. In the olden days, an aging burglar decided to teach his son the tricks of the trade so that when he pass away, the son may become the breadwinner. So one night, they both went to the village and broke into a house. The father saw a huge chest of clothing and ornaments and thereby instructed his son to go into it and collect the items. As soon as he went in, the father closed the lid and padlocked the chest. Then he made all sort of noises, banging the door of every house and shouting "Thief! Thief!". The whole neighborhood was awakened, and tried to pursue the burglar who quickly vanished into the night.

Angry and cursing his father, the son trapped inside the chest started to think of how he could get out. A brilliant idea flashed in his mind. He would scratch the chest and make gnawing noises like that of a mouse, and maneuver the resident to open the chest and free him. The master of house, upon hearing the strange noises, ordered his maid to open the chest and free what he thought was a trapped mouse. Thereupon, the young thief jumped out, blew out the candle the maid was holding and then pushed her out of the way. The entire neighborhood ran after him. While fleeing, he quickly spotted a well and went in that direction. Upon reaching his destination, he took a large rock, dropped it into the well, and continued his escape. The pursuers, upon hearing the splash, gathered around the well and relished at the thought of the thief helplessly drowning.

When he reached home, the son angrily asked his father why he cruelly abandoned him and played a dirty trick on his own son. The father told him to calm down and explain how he was able to escape. The son related how he got out of the chest and managed to deceive his pursuers. The father exclaimed: "There you are, now you have learned the trade!"

This short anecdote shows that learning an art or trade goes beyond verbal and written rules and instructions of do's and don'ts. An action-oriented approach is much more direct and effective. A situation of helplessness arising from a crisis environment tends to bring out the best out of any neophyte - in much the same way that a mouse trapped in a corner can scare away a cat. A crisis can teach creativity and confidence which no amount of courses can teach. Lessons and principles learned in this way are easily internalized and remembered.

This brings us to the question: "How must we train managers how to manage?". How can we teach managers the art of management? How effective are management courses, in-house seminars and training, or even the so-called "on-the-job" training.? These exercises are usually conducted in a secure and comfortable atmosphere. And things-to-happen have a large degree of predictability. They are set up in such a way that the student has nothing substantial to lose by making mistakes - he cannot harm the company nor himself. In the military on-the -job training, i.e., war games or exercises, real bullets and bombs are used to impress on the soldier that he has something to lose if he does not learn fast. Because there is no second chance. Predictably, soldiers learn their job much faster than managers.

The following anecdote shows a modern-day application of the above principles:

An outstanding fresh college graduate was planning his career. He was also smart enough to realize that what he learned and mastered about management in school will not enable him to manage a company. An option was open specially to him: He could join a large multinational firm, start from the bottom as a management trainee, learn bits and pieces of management know-how along the slow-but-sure way, and hopefully, become vice-president after a decade or two of grinding and politicking. Worse, he feared that, everyday for years, he would be parking his car together with his brain before going up to the office -- like so many other bored but highly-paid managers he knew.

He thought that this career path was not only long wait but also a doubtful way of learning the tricks and trade of management. He dismissed the option and decided to look for a more challenging and less comfortable career: He would look for a distressed company and negotiate with the owner to manage, run, and rehabilitate it. He found one and was able to convince its board to appoint him as CEO with full powers. His salary was no only low but also unsure since the company was on the verge of foreclosure by 4 creditor-banks anytime. He knew that the odds were against him and the company. His future, his reputation, and maybe even his life, were at stake in case he fails to turn it around -- but that was the situation he actually wanted. This company was going to be his school-of-hard-knocks. He being the master of his own self - the teacher and the student combined.

The company was in a mess. Without the knowledge of the owners, managers and employees were milking the company of precious cash and other assets. To stop the internal bleeding, he has to get information from the very same people he would prosecute. At the same time, he knew he could not fire everybody. This case was his first problem in personnel management and industrial relations which his school teacher did not take up. He interviewed all employees, tried to negotiate for information, and cross-checked their stories. After a series of tearful engagements in which several employees broke up and spilled the beans, he was able to trace the masterminds whom he immediately dismissed and sued. Minor cases were made to sign promissory notes amounting to what they have embezzled.

He learned the other functions of management in much the same personalized way.

  • Operations management: To get the much needed cash, he had to improve and streamline the billing and collection systems and procedures which were causing the huge account receivables and bad debts.
  • Finance management: He had to learn how to negotiate and renegotiate for the roll-over of overdue loans and get new loans, though more expensive, to pay off the old defaulted loans and angry suppliers. He successfully convinced the banks that if they foreclose now, they get nothing; if they allow him to improve things, they can get part or maybe all their money back.
  • Marketing management: He had to talk to lost customers to convince them of the company's future and ask them to support his rehabilitation plan which he is presenting to the banks and other financiers.
  • Business Strategy: He decided that the only way the company could survive and operate profitably in the long run was to sell it to a buyer with huge financial resources. He was able to find a willing buyer and convince the owners to sell out.

The company was back on its feet only a year after he joined it; he knew there was nothing else to do and learn. He resigned, feeling that during that short stint, he has earned a doctorate in management. But he started looking for bigger challenges - bigger companies in trouble to manage and learn from. Education for him should be endless -- and exciting.


 

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