Why it is Important to Ask ‘Why?’ in the Family Business

Once procedures and habits are established in an organisation, it is often difficult to make people believe that re-evaluating whole work processes can be beneficial. Anees Redha Q. Sultan, Head of Marketing Development at W.J. Towell L.L.C. in Oman, shares his experience of when he insisted on to reinvent the wheel in his family company.

Civilisation is not imperishable. It must be relearned by every generation.’ By William Durant. A year into my experience with the family business I was assigned the task of working with the financial division to create an owner-friendly MIS. Ours is a business of many divisions and, as we now call them, clusters. As a result, the accounting and the financial reporting are well established and, one may expect, robust. It was therefore no surprise to me that my task was met with some resistance if not even a feeling of resentment at the idea that I might try and improve something or, God forbid, find a gap. Under my fervent assurances that my job was to create something parallel to the existing structures and not to overhaul everything, I started.My direct boss was the one posing the biggest challenge; he dismissively called my efforts ‘reinventing the wheel’. In one of these rare defining moments that you later often recognise as being moments of truth, I challenged him back saying, ‘Yes, I want to reinvent the wheel, if for nothing else, than to learn how it was made in the first place’. No one can openly deny family members the wish to learn in their business, and so it was a cool and clear win. A handy trick, I guess, for all ambitious family business members.

As a result of that confrontation, I got the information I needed, I started to polish my slightly rusty financial skills – never a bad thing to do- and set to work. My findings were not mind-boggling, nor unexpected. I guess after a few years in the business, I see my job as that of a middleman for information. Traditionally, in many of our Gulf businesses, accounting has always been done by outsiders, and it is not a bad idea and never too late to have firsthand knowledge of numbers. In fact, I would even go as far as to suggest an immersion into it in order for the owners of the capital to be able to decipher financial symbols as well as their accountants.

The whole process got me thinking of my former work experiences. Many years ago I worked with a CEO who professed that asking one simple question was the crucial factor in order for anyone to understand any business: Why? Why to the nth degree? ‘Why’ to everything until you get to the bottom of things. In asking ‘why’ you force the other party to question and defend his assumption; in essence, it is a form of reinventing the wheel. Asking ‘why’ is non-threatening and it runs in the spirit of learning – and so it is a defensible strategy. He never told us, however, that asking ‘why’ many times over would make you increasingly unpopular. However, as a CEO, I imagine, he didn’t really care about that sort of thing.

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Related to the issue of whether going back to basics is the right thing to do, is the all too easy dismissal of college education by some business leaders. Many reason that this is because ‘college teaches you theory’. Well, theory is only impractical if you confine it to books. Once you actually practice it, your work becomes all the more powerful. In business it means that the use of financial theory coupled with practical knowledge makes you understand what ratio or what analysis to use rather than just to accept what’s randomly thrown at you. People of conflicting sets of values or interests, will always use derisive statements such as ‘too theoretical’ or ‘reinventing the wheel’. I believe that you need to reinvent the wheel if you are coming from a low knowledge base.

By the way, if you were to produce a simple bicycle wheel – note even a wheel for cars, airplanes or high-end technology uses but a simple bicycle wheel- you would still have to master disciplines such as geometry, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, and production. Now tell me that’s not worth learning!

At any rate, as I pondered upon the untamed data in front of me, I managed to draw some conclusions that I knew would be hugely unpopular within our finance division. I wondered if I should show them to the chairman first and ‘score a point’. I further imagined challenging him that if he were to ask the division for a similar report, he would get a watered-down version. I then dismissed such superfluous, yet tempting, heroics, knowing very well that other than creating a stout enemy in an already testy relationship, I am still at the mercy of what’s given to me; what if I was missing other parts of the puzzle. Sure enough, as I called the first meeting with more participants, major shortcomings became evident. The group realised that is the gaps were serious and needed to be rectified. If all this sounds like a challenge, then the next step is even more daunting. How do you bring about major change in the way and format of reporting managerial numbers? Well, I guess I need a few more years in the family business to be able to write about that.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 10, 2011