When I got entrance to a university to read for my doctorate studies three years back, I thought of accepting the invitation given that in my early life I had failed my A levels. Perhaps now I can make good for this early setback in my life. Pursuing this opportunity I looked backed at my work in British and American multinationals organizations over 15 years including winning a multitude of awards for marketing and business excellence. However, I felt it is my duty to work for the country for a tenth of the salary.
Even though I have worked in some of the most dynamic organizations and managed some of the world’s powerful brands like Dettol, the excitement and challenges that I have faced in the last five years in my public sector life will be memorable. Working at the highest level in office, be it developing export strategy or driving economic growth, I found myself getting stretched to the limit. I also remember one brother in law once saying that until you get tested for honesty you will not know if you are honest and true to his words, I got this exposure and stood the test of time. I was proud of my strong family upbringing.
LTTE on the work table
Coming from a business background in 2006, I was selected by Dr. Palitha Kohona to be part of a broader team in the fight against terrorism and I suddenly found that the daily agenda included countering LTTE strategies. Travelling on military aircrafts became a way of life. Chartering vessels to carry essential goods to Jaffna after the closure of the A9 due to LTTE attacks, staging business exhibitions and trade visits for businessman to Jaffna and defying the LTTE ethos that nothing can stop the economy functioning was the ultimate challenge I have encountered. I remember when eating ice cream one evening in the popular ice cream parlour in Jaffna RIO – a chamber of commerce member in Jaffna pointed to a senior LTTE cadre who had just walked in. I froze but I remembered my father’s words “Pen is mightier than the sword.”
The support I got from the private sector was amazing. We proved to the LTTE and the world that business will continue. There were days I had to travel from the Palaly camp to Jaffna town in an armoured car or the unicorn as the security forces did not want to take a risk as I was seen to be a driver of the Jaffna economy in the eyes of the LTTE.
The adrenaline flow was so strong that I used to take time to pen articles on anti terrorism that got quoted in pro LTTE websites and subsequently a blanket death threat surfaced. Even this did not deter any of us in our efforts as we believed in the motto ‘country before self.’ The fact of the matter was that that LTTE is a banned terrorist organization in over 35 countries and is branded as the most ruthless and brutal force that invented the world’s first human suicide bomb. Beating this organization by the Sri Lankan security forces on their own turf can highlight many powerful lessons to the world. I felt it is my duty to capture some of them and by using data that has been published in interviews and my own analysis.
Lesson 1 – Stay in the game on ground
The Defence Secretary and the Army Commander are proven battle hardy soldiers. Both had survived a suicide attack by the LTTE. The Army commander has been wounded twice in the field which explains the experience he has to direct the troops if required. For instance when the forces were up against earth bunds that the LTTE had erected, he personally instructed the ground forces where to breach it and how to hold territory there after. This earned him the respect to lead not only at the strategic end but operationally too.
The implication to business is that a CEO of today must be in constant contact with those on the field while managing financial aspects like working capital management and new product development. Especially in today’s economic downturn, a CEO must keep moving down to the field level for decision making while working at the top on strategy.
Lesson 2 – Attack the strengths
The great Tsun Tszu advocates ‘attack the vulnerable points.’ However Sri Lanka’s strategy was to attack the most difficult points. For example, it took the army eight months to take Thambapanni which was just four km from the frontlines and many were wodering at that time if the army could actually win the unconventional war that the LTTE was waging. The army leadership did not change course but kept its focus on the bigger plan. The troops finally broke through the lines and created a psychological advantage. The enemy on the other hand became weaker due to this strategic loss.
The implication to business is that if you declare war on a competitor, then attack the key strengths but ensure sure you have adequate resources. I remember when Cloguard toothpaste challenged ‘Signal’ that red and white stripes has no link to the fluoride in toothpaste as one such instance, war was declared on a competitor’s strengths and the challenger brand went on to capture almost a 30% plus market share.
Lesson 3 – Manage the different actors
While the war on the LTTE was in progress, the President personally managed key stakeholders such as India, China and Japan so that global support was garnered. To my mind, this was pivotal to the overall victory. In contrast, between 1987 and 1990, the Sri Lankan army was just closing its net on the LTTE head when there was foreign intervention and the LTTE got away.
The lesson for business is that while the aggressive thrust on the sales front is in play, the key stakeholders like lobby groups, internal public, government and the media has to be managed. If this is not done it can lead to many issues like when a story leaked awhile back that a particular brand of milk powder had been exposed to radio activity and not fit for consumption. I was working in the field at that time and there was chaos at the retail end. Different actors need to be managed very carefully.
Lesson 4 – Pick your men, though unpopular
When the army commander was recently asked by a reporter what the key to the success on ground was, he answered ‘I selected the task force and Brigade commander’s not on seniority but on past capabilities on the battle field because when I was at the battle front, I had the opportunity to observe the performances of the officers. I also selected those officers who had confidence in me.’
The business implication is the same. Pick your team on merit and culture fit. DO NOT LET GO OF A GOOD MAN which is where the problem is when it comes to Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS) – the best people leave. A company must be careful when announcing VRS schemes in today’s environment.
Lesson 5 – Single command concept
The army leadership practiced a clear single command leadership of all divisions and task forces that were created so that there was synergy. Separately it was mentioned by the leadership that ‘No Brigade, Battalion or a Division can win a war in isolation and the back up facilities were carefully planned under one leadership.
The implication to business is that total leadership must be on the mantle of a CEO. Especially in today’s business environment where chaos is the order of the day, even a ‘Demand Forecast’ must be personally checked by a CEO. This is a best practice coming out of successful companies. Moreover, having a charged up sales force is not enough if the other departments are equally not charged.
Lesson 6 – Ruthless power
In 1983, Prabhakaran apparently had only 12 cadres with 20 shot guns but by 2006 the LTTE had aircrafts, tanks, submarines, missiles and a brigade of more than 20,000. In 2006 after the Mavil Aru anicut issue that the LTTE created, the army first sharpened its human capital, bolstered the necessary machine power and developed an efficient supply chain efficiency that helped outsmart the enemy on all fronts.
The lesson for business is that before engaging competition, check your resources as against your competitors. The best case in point was when Walls Ice Cream was launched in Sri Lanka, I remember Elephant House went off the media and allowed the bombardment to finish. Then it attacked strategically with ruthless fire power on the media and below the line activity focusing on the ‘home consumption’ segment. Within two years, Walls Ice Cream was history in the business landscape.
Lesson 7 – Get the media behind you
When the war became intense, we saw the strategic moves where all media rallied around the security forces and got the nation’s support. It is called building a visionary community that came from the President downwards.
The implication to business in my view is that conventional advertising will not get you anywhere when you are at war with a competitor unless you mobilize public relations (PR). If strong PR can be generated in addition to formal communication like the Api Wenuven Api’ campaign, you cannot actually make an impact on the consumer.
Lesson 8 – Strong Intelligence gathering
It is a fact that one of the key points to the success of the war was accurate intelligence that key decisions makers received. The Navy was able to sink almost 10 LTTE arms ships due to the information provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI).
The aerial attack by the Sri Lankan air force that killed S.P. Thamilselvan is another classic example of the importance of intelligence. The business implication is that an effective intelligence mechanism must be in operation with the sales force at its core.
Lesson 9 – Finish to the kill
The final battle started in Villamulvaikkal at 2.57 am when 250 LTTE cadres had formed a ring around Prabhakaran and its top LTTE leaders. The Sri Lankan troops completed its task during that day and completed an initiative that started two years and 10 months back.
The lesson for business is that if you decide to fight the competition then fight to the end. It has to be fought at the sales end, advertising end and at the Managing Director’s table too. One such initiative that I personally know of is Munchee. The company engaged war at all ends and is today the market leader even though the competitor resorted to many negotiations as the LTTE did in the last day of battle.
Lesson 10 – Lead a simple Life
At a recent interview General Sarath Fonseka said that in the last three years he has been in the same place and the only satisfaction was the duties he performed. He was not into eating in five star hotels or living in large houses and he wants to continue that same life.
The implication to business is that it is not the cufflinks one wears or the flashy car one drives but it is the sheer performance in what you are committed to do that counts. This is especially in today’s environment where there is an economic downturn and cost cutting is mandatory.
Lesson 11 – Young blood
At the saluting parade the army commander commented that the war was won by the soldiers on the ground and if not for the youngsters that joined the army, this victory would have not been possible. Youngsters tend to have no inhibitions and past experience that may impede an’ impossible task.’
The lesson for business is that infusing young blood tends to bring in new ideas and fresh thinking that increase effectiveness and productivity. On a periodic basis, an organization must do an age analysis, particularly in the marketing and sales division to keep teams young and dynamic.
Lesson 12 – Get the top behind
In my view one of the key points in defeating the LTTE was that the security force commanders had the backing of the head of state and the defense secretary with a strong common understanding. This was the edge that tilted the coin as well and the whole nation coming together. It was one voice from the top.
The implication to business is that it is very important to get the Chairman and the Senior Management on your side, not only in trust but in a deep understanding of what one is doing to beat the competitor. Mistakes will be made and if the top does not understand, there can be a loss of confidence that ultimately affects your performance in the future, especially when it comes to mobilizing funding.
Lesson 13 – Political stability
Another key point that helped the country achieve freedom from terrorism is the management of the political stability when there was so much external pressure. This was very cleverly managed by the President so as to not impact the security forces. The implication to business is that in reality, all organizations be it small or big, has politicking and this has to be managed.
Hence we see that there are many lessons for the corporate world from the war against terrorism. Since the war has come to an end in Sri Lanka, the challenge is how we can make companies competitive so that as a nation we become strong. After all, 80% of Sri Lanka’s economy is driven by the private sector.
On the other hand the public sector must focus on developing the North and East together with the private sector on livelihood development.