As a child living in western India, I grew up reading stories of the valiant Shivaji, arguably the most respected Indian king in the 17th century. One of his generals, the story goes, once invaded a mountain fort at night, using ropes and ace mountain troops. Unfortunately, the general died in the big battle that ensued. His troops, losing courage, started running toward the ropes to escape. The old uncle of the general, himself a fierce warrior, cut the ropes. With no way out, the troops returned, fought hard and won the battle.
A recent interaction with a childhood friend, now a very successful entrepreneur, reminded me of this story. Born the second son to the poor watchman of our building and a housemaid, he grew up in poverty.
To complicate the matters, he had no interest in studies and to his parents’ dismay, eventually dropped out of high school. I moved to the U.S. and we lost touch. Fast-forward 20-plus years, and I am back in my hometown and he is a fabulously wealthy and successful entrepreneur.
His empire spans a range of businesses: from building materials supply to transportation, to beauty care and insurance, to fabrication and real estate development. He still runs all the businesses he ever started.
Intrigued, I met him at his office where he started it all: a fabrication workshop. When I asked him about the principles that helped him succeed, he pointed to the big backup power generator he had installed. In a city suffering from frequent power cuts, such generators are a familiar sight. But most are powerful enough to perform only essential functions without interruption. His generators were powerful enough to run his entire workshop.
He then answered my question with a question of his own, “Can you tell me why I have such a big backup generator?”
“An idle plant and labor is money lost,” I said.
He shook his head. “No, that’s not the reason. However hard it was when I built my first workshop, I can stomach such losses now. But the real reason is the one principle that I have always held supreme: Plug your own exit routes first!”
I asked him to elaborate.
“Most often, schedules slip and commitments are missed because the boss has various ways to rationalize it, first to himself or herself, and then to the customer. I can never blame a missed commitment on power outages!” he explained.
My old friend remains a high-school dropout. He doesn’t know what “schliess thine ausweg” means.
Come to think of it, there’s no sentence like that in any language. It’s my own mixture of German and medieval English—roughly translated to “plug your escape route.” As a student of German in my college days, I remember thinking that the English “way out” or “escape route” simply didn’t capture the meaning as pithily as “ausweg” does.
Neither my engineering undergrad and graduate studies, nor my Wharton MBA, nor my long management career at Intel Corp. ever taught me how to deal with “ausweg.” In fact, hedging bets, covering behinds, and having a plan B (or plan C and D) was often considered sound management practice in my high-tech, first-world career.
Luckily, my friend was unlucky enough to be a high-school dropout. Struggling to bootstrap his ventures in a third-world economy short on resources, with no access to world-class management wisdom, he was forced to rely on his inner voice and on his unshakable resolve never to let his self-esteem down again—ever. I don’t know of any situation where he has had to cut the ropes.