Managing a national turnaround

Managing a National Turnaround

December 15, 2009

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

It amazes me just how many people want the top job in the country. The Commission on Elections web site lists 95 candidates for the presidency. In recent weeks, we have been hearing the more prominent candidates answering some tough questions during live TV debates. While I’m not a strong believer in the capacity of TV to capture the real qualities of candidates, their answers during the debates at least give plenty for Filipinos to think about.

Indeed, whoever wants to lead this country has plenty to think about. Although analysts project about 2-percent growth for the country for 2009 and profits of listed firms have reportedly surged by at least 60 percent for the first three quarters of the year, poverty remains a growing problem. A recent Asian Development Bank report says the Philippines’ poverty rate of about 30 percent as of 2006 is going down more slowly than in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, and Vietnam. Thailand’s poverty rate, for example, is less than 1 percent. Most disappointingly, the Philippines is the only Asean country where the absolute number of poor people actually increased from 1990 to 2005! Clearly, most of the growth has been going to the already well-off.

The next president will inherit a serious turnaround challenge next year. As I study the candidates, the operative question in my mind is who among them can lead the country’s turnaround. In a past column, I have written about the research of Harvard management sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter on corporate turnarounds. I think her findings on successful corporate turnaround practices can be useful for national turnarounds and, therefore, in evaluating our current presidential candidates.

The first practice is dialogue. Generating possible solutions to serious national problems can be facilitated through forthright communication between the national leadership and responsible stakeholders and their representatives. Anger and sentimentalism need to give way to solid fact-finding and the calm sharing of perspectives. Will the candidate be able to engage various sides in problem-solving discussions? Or will the candidate believe his or her group has all the necessary wisdom?

The second practice is “engendering respect.” Turnaround managers preserve and nurture relationships as a resource for advancing a common goal. They are builders of social capital, which generates a sense of hope among fellow leaders, their subordinates and various stakeholders. The promotion of genuine listening, for example, is a good way of building the respectful communication important to any turnaround. Will the candidate be able to build trusting relationships among various parties? Or will he or she sow further division and intrigue?

“Sparking collaboration” enables members to concretize candidate solutions and to plan their respective contributions. Will the candidate be able to forge partnerships among various stakeholder groups to tackle the tough problems of the country? Or will he or she merely preside helplessly over the disjointed and cacophonous efforts of various government, civil society and private groups that have failed to achieve the needed critical mass we need for national renewal?

Kanter’s final effective turnaround practice is “inspiring initiative.” A nation in crisis is like a man who has fallen into quicksand. Unless the citizens act, it will slowly but surely sink. Will the candidate be able to use strength of character, collaborative communication and competent analysis to sway Filipinos to throw in their lot with others in reversing our deplorable situation? Will he or she be able to convince the rich to use their capital to build the country and help the poor? Will the candidate be able to inspire the poor to work productively?

The abilities we need from the next president go beyond qualifications, political machinery and TV oratory. They have more to do with helping us remember the greatness that is in each of us and our capacity to build a great nation together. Do you see anyone among the candidates who can do this?

Dr. Benito Teehankee is an associate professor of business and governance at De La Salle University’s Ramon V. del Rosario Sr. Graduate School of Business. He welcomes comments at