In conversation with Major General Neeraj Bali, Sena Medal, a decorated Indian military General with immense operational experience. His 41 years in the uniform included serving in Kashmir, on the Chinese border, Kargil and later as security advisor to the government in Lesotho, Africa. Post superannuation, Gen. Bali went on to carve a niche for himself in the corporate world as CEO of a rural education society first and then of an engineering & infrastructure consultant company. After 20 years as a motivational speaker and life coach, Gen. Bali founded LeadScape in 2020. The company consults on disruption, culture and leadership. He is also a certified ISO lead auditor, life coach and a writer – currently penning a book on corporate culture. Gen. Bali talks to Anant Sood on culture as behavior, not just intent, motivation and how to elevate performance by leveraging the best military strategies.

Culture: The differentiator

Anant: Tell us a little about your book on culture in organizations. How has your unique perspective, which combines both military and corporate leadership, shaped the ideas in this book?

Gen. Bali: The trigger point for writing this book was at a speaking engagement I had at IIM Ahmedabad in 2016 when a bright young student threw me a question. She asked me how the army and other government agencies or even corporates draw their input from the same demographic – small town background, same education background, same economic constraints, and yet a couple of months later the army guys are motivated enough to die for their country. Is it patriotism? Is it training? What’s really at play here?

That’s what made me think why not talk about this strong subliminal force called ‘culture’ that is silently driving us all in a certain direction. A lot of people are actually aware of it but don’t know how to handle it.

Replicating the wonderful culture of the army into the world outside is not the solution – it is not practical or desirable. But I decided to write a book on the distinctiveness of that culture, how one organization benefits from it all the time, how you should develop your own, and how you can cherry-pick the best from that culture.

Culture is not something splashed on the wall in a colorful poster. It’s not the stated intent, it’s the poetry in motion that needs to be heard.

A lot of people confuse culture with something that is splashed on the wall in a colorful poster or what is stated at an annual general meeting. In fact, I cannot think of a company which doesn’t say they are customer friendly yet not everybody succeeds because it’s not the stated intent, it’s the poetry in motion that needs to be heard.

Similarities and differences between Army and Corporate Teams

A: From an apex CEO or management perspective, what would be some of the dissimilarities and similarities between a team in the armed forces versus in the corporate world?

GB: I’ll start with some of the dissimilarities which are not understood or talked about much.

  • There is no profit motive in the army. Therefore, armies are very effective. We will take Kargil back, even if it means losing 550 people. The army will be effective every single time. But if you were to do a cost analysis, you may find us deficient on the efficiency scale. This is not being said as a criticism of the armies but as a conceptual point.
  • By and large, the members of a team in the army have come with a lifelong commitment. It’s like being married forever because when there is no way out, you will make the effort to adapt.
  • There’s no coming second in the army. Psychologically, it has a very big bearing on the team. It may sound like a tagline but if you come second in a war, you’re either injured or dead or you’ve lost some land. There is no great comfort for an army guy to say I came fifth or I was in the top hundred list of the best companies, there’s no popping the champagne in the evening.
  • The biggest difference between the army and the corporate sector is that the army inherited a very robust culture from the British. We latched onto it, we tweaked it, we Indianized it and we improved it. And it is that silent stream of culture, which more than anything else, enables us to do different fantastic things that the army does.

The similarities are –

  • The same demographic. You have the same material – you maybe took it in a different way.
  • Both the structures are hierarchy-bound, there is a certain protocol and a certain system, even if the corporate structure is slightly flatter.
  • And finally, both organizations work as a process-bound While the strength of the process and the quality may be different, both have to follow processes.

To summarize, I would say everybody in the corporate world should look at the fact that you have the same demographic and that you can develop a culture and that will bring you into alignment with better things.

To summarize, I would say everybody in the corporate world should look at the fact that you have the same demographic and that you can develop a culture and that will bring you into alignment with better things.

Character, Behavior and Culture: Stated intent vs observed action

A: What are some of the measurables of culture? Like in Amazon, we hear about how they live ‘customer first’ – doing one thing and doing it well. What are some things that can be parameterized for culture?

GB: One is the selection process. When the corporate sector takes in people, they look at their background, qualifications, ability, education, past experience, why are they leaving the previous company, salary expectations – there are multiple rounds of interviews etc.

The army looks at one added thing called character. There is a specific charter for army selectors to look for the character of the person who is coming in. How is he/she going to shape up under pressure? What are they going to do in real life?

There is no reason why this cannot be formalized and institutionalized, that people look at character qualities. I don’t mean ethical qualities; rather their attitudinal qualities and mental make-up.

A great example of good culture in the corporate world is Indigo airlines – they have carved a niche for themselves saying they will always be on time. Why is it that no other airline has been able to pick up this trick?

You know what it is? It’s culture. I have been to their academy and seen their training. In everything, they reflect timeliness, from bottom to top. They focus on timeliness so much that it’s ingrained in their DNA.

Culture starts from the top – with a vision of what kind of culture you want. But most importantly, it must reflect in everything you do.

Culture is not a matter of stating it or offsites – it’s not. It’s much more complex. It starts from the top – you must have a vision of what kind of culture you want. But most importantly, it must reflect in everything you do – in your SOPs, procedures, rewards and punishments, norms and traditions.

In the armed forces, one of the things most frowned upon is someone making money which leads to the fastest court martial. Whereas if in an operation, while firing a militant, you end up with collateral damage, so long as it was not out of intent or laziness, you can expect to be supported.

Culture has to be built into the fabric of the company. And it is the hardest thing to do – make no mistake about it. Anyone looking for a quick-fix is not looking in the right direction.

Role of a Team Lead

A: We’ve talked about the apex – how leaders need to live the stated intent of the company. And while culture gets stated at the top, it actually gets defined at execution. How important do you think is the role of a team lead in driving behavior and culture as compared to the role of a CEO?

GB: It’s easier to know your people and keep them motivated when you run a small business. But as the company grows, everybody becomes a name, a number, someone on your payroll. That’s one of the reasons why it is hard to motivate people – the top man is not influencing anyone in a direct way.

If that is true, how is it the million-strong army remains motivated? And therein lies your answer- the team leader is more important than the CEO or MD.

The CEO and MD are important for various things and one of those things should be that they empower their team leader in such a way that he can run his ship well.

In the army, the commanding officer (CO) of a unit, a colonel, is considered God. He is given access to roads that only generals (flag officers) are given. No one else in between, not even every colonel has that kind of access. The CO is important, his opinion is heard, he is responsible for everything. He is expected to know the names of all his 800-1000 odd soldiers. His team fights for the unit, because they are taken care of in that unit.

To boil it down to one sentence, it’s leading by example. The only person whose example you are seeing every day, it’s your immediate team leader. If he’s treated well, empowered well, trained well, your entire company will run well.

I hear people talking about it but how much it’s really practiced, I’m not too sure.

A: Is this because of a lack of wanting to give up control or is it because of not being able to articulate what you want from your managers?

GB: Certainly, one part is not articulating clearly enough where you’re going, what you want to do and achieve.

I think a) the vision should definitely be known, 2) there must be a lot of visibility of the top person to the last person. But what is still more important that MDs and CEOs must know – they must develop a culture where every manager makes everybody working under him aware how they are contributing to the success of their company. Most people don’t know this – all they know is their 9-to-5 job.

A soldier running the cookhouse for soldiers is not just “cooking food”. His job is raising the morale of the soldiers with good food, so they can do their job better. When he realizes that is his role, he is motivated.

The dice is loaded in favor of people who are visible. If you are going to be just a name behind a glass door, no matter how many memos you send, it’s not going to be understood. People want to see a human face – somebody walking around them.

Let’s say if an order is passed to the entire army to be more humane, to win hearts and minds. At the bottom of the food chain, some officers are going to say, “We are being made less aggressive, they want us to be goody-goody.”

But when a General comes down and speaks to everybody about the logic behind this – that winning the people to our side is critical to winning the war, then the rank-and-file instantly connects with it.

That is what is needed – to be visible, not to interfere, but to articulate to the last man what the vision is. The message must be consistent and sometimes the senior most people must reach out to the junior-most people, so that the message is not lost in translation.

If your message is consistent with your actions – that’s a winner.

So, when Alibaba’s Jack Ma says, “Customers are first, employees are second, shareholders third”, people see him and realize that he means it. And if that message is consistent with actions – that’s a winner.

Technology and Teams

A: What is your take on technology like AI and do you think it’s making it easier or more difficult to build or retain high performing teams?

GB: There are waves in human history which have landed – there is no getting away. You can sit on the beach and moan with all your might that you don’t like getting wet – but that wave is coming. So, either you like it, adapt to it or move somewhere else. Technology and social media are such waves.

Right now, anyone who was averse to even the basic technology has been collectively picked up and thrown in the deep end during Coronavirus.

So this part of technology poses a brand new challenge and that is how to keep people motivated in the world that by all accounts is going to be a hybrid model – where some of the brick and mortar will continue as usual and a lot will be online.

Once again you can turn to the army because our posts are always a day or two days away and we didn’t even have the benefit of Zoom or things like that.

One of the tricks that we in the corporate sector are missing out on is focusing inordinately on money as a motivator. If you look at the armed forces all over the world, you don’t get more money for getting shot. So while money is a very important factor in life, and nothing should be taken away from it, people are motivated by a lot more than money. They get motivated because they want an identity, they may want acknowledgement, recognition, some people just like working hard because that is who they are. And while we should look at money, I think if we stop being so transactional about our day to day life and wait for appraisal on the last day, we might end up gaining far more from human beings than we have gained so far.

If we stop being so transactional about our day to day life, waiting for appraisals, we might end up gaining far more from human beings than we have gained so far.

Secondly, technology is irreplaceable if we have to go through disruption again – of the kind that we are going through now. Because you need real-time information, real-time solutions, things being solved on their own. You cannot handle black swan events without it.

I think people more qualified and with more imagination than me would have to think hard on how to use technology to help us through disruptions. Because disruptions have a huge effect of anxiety on the human beings that you’re leading.

Third is the area of artificial intelligence where you guys are already doing a terrific job. I do believe we can use this technology not merely to keep tabs on how effectively your company is doing or which part is performing well, but rather to find solutions using the data.

There is no way technology can replace us. But AI must take over work that humans should never have had to do in the first place. Like picking a mine for instance.

A: Given that a lot of roles are being virtual, as a leader you are spending more time in the office than the field, do you think technology helps or hampers and why?

GB: Technology can always be used to attack that part of the system that needs to be attacked and improve what needs improvement. Technology has enabled face to face interaction for instance.

The understanding of human behavior (Neuroeconomics) when married to technology in a sensible and effective way will  take us far.

The human behavior aspect of things – like Neuroeconomics – when married to technology in a sensible and effective way will take us far. Eventually technology will help us handle what we can’t –  large amounts of data in a faster and effective way. It will show patterns to us. What we do with the patterns will always remain in our hands.

Image credit: Photo by Maninderjeet Singh Sidhu on Unsplash