Trinidad and Tobago’s economy continues to be closely pegged to energy sector production levels and global pricing, which in the past has allowed us to prosper significantly, albeit at the expense of competitiveness in other sectors. In recent years, the volatility of both price and production has crystallised in the collective narrative, the need for diversification and improvement in other facets of our economy in order to remain competitive. To understand the issue of competitiveness better, we can look at our rankings in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report. The 2017/18 report indicates that overall we rank 83rd out of 137 countries, pinning us in the bottom half of the rankings. When juxtaposed with standard of living indicators, Trinidad and Tobago’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita ranks in the top half of the pack, above countries that rank higher than us on the competitiveness index. This is counterintuitive, and as such, let’s drill further into the WEF report. The below WEF chart ranks barriers for conducting business in descending order based on Executive Opinion survey. Poor work ethic stands out as the most cited factor. (See chart below).
Many of the WEF sub-indices for Trinidad and Tobago fall below 100th including ‘Capacity for Innovation’ and ‘Cooperation in Labour-employee Relations’; however, the ranking that stands out the most to me is ‘Degree of Customer Orientation’ which is trending downward at 134th out of 137 countries in 2017.
Contemporary business theory implicates ‘customer orientation’ as a main driver for business success. However, sustainable competitive advantage is more deep-rooted as customer orientation sits atop of culture, i.e., shared beliefs and attitudes towards customer service and innovation. Kaplan and Norton make this link in their 1996 publication, The Balanced Scorecard, Translating Strategy into Action, where they describe the cause and effect relationship between the Balanced Scorecard Perspectives, with the ‘Learning and Growth’ perspective being the primary driver for all the other perspectives as well as the weakest link.
According to Kaplan and Norton, via the Harvard Business Review (2000), ‘The foundation of any strategy map is the learning and growth perspective, which defines the core competencies and skills, the technologies, and the corporate culture needed to support an organisation’s strategy’. Here Kaplan and Norton showcased Mobil as a success story after identifying personal growth and functional excellence as objectives in the ‘Learning and Growth’ quadrant of their Balanced Scorecard. MIT senior Lecturer and author of the Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation (1990), also speaks to learning and growth with ‘Personal Mastery’ being one of the five disciplines of the Learning Organisation exemplified by those who ‘are continually expanding their ability to create the results in life they truly seek’. These concepts of ‘corporate culture’, ‘Personal Mastery’ and ‘functional excellence’ are woven together to illustrate that cultural transformation begins with the individual. As such, one can assert now that in order for Trinidad and Tobago to improve its competitiveness in a sustainable manner, we must seek to improve customer orientation by first focusing inwards on individual excellence. This theme is imbedded in one of our national watch words, i.e., ‘discipline’, and permeates throughout all our traditional educational systems and is a common thread in our diverse religious institutions. It is a cornerstone of our national foundation, lost and shrouded by decades of relying too much on energy windfalls.
The above analysis juxtaposes themes of culture and work ethic with the outcomes of GDP and ‘customer orientation’ at a national level, and all institutions ranging from the private sector, from educational institutions, to religious and community organisations contribute in their own ways to these interdependencies. Following this, one must determine the role of the corporation as a microcosm of these national themes by considering how they can tailor their own internal strategies to align to the national vision of a disciplined workforce. Corporations typically build core values into their strategy, along with their vision and mission statement, and I will go one step further, considering the aforementioned proposition of individual excellence as a leverage point. More prescriptively, ‘Excellence’ in the form of four As: Attitude, Action, Ability and Accountability.
Most prominently, Excellence calls for having the right attitude. Too often, I have noticed that capable and intelligent individuals are prevented from greater achievement because of their attitude. They know it all, are not open to learning and are not open to suggestions (worse yet when they don’t know it all). How many times we’ve heard that John is very capable at his job but his attitude stinks - he is not approachable, not pleasant, does not even say good morning. Why is this acceptable? Many of my students possess a God-given ability to naturally understand and apply course material, however, the ones who achieve distinction are the ones who do not take that for granted and apply themselves to what they want to achieve. At some point, we need to recognise that the wrong attitude may be our only disability. Corporations must play their role in remedying the entitlement attitude that contributes to sub-par WEF rankings.
The reality stands that we are judged by our actions not our intentions. Effort is OK but execution is excellence. This is a perfect time to use Nike's rejuvenated tag line — JUST DO IT! With the right attitude and a bias for action, you will build the right relations throughout any organisation. Customers want results with a smile. This easily translates into the right attitude and result-oriented actions.
Once we establish the right attitude and a bias for action, we must ensure that our ability can match that of first-rate performance. Complacency in performing the job at bare minimum is the crippling notion throughout our country, further to which, we cannot be ok with average when striving for excellence. Our quality of work matched with timely delivery must be top-notch. Companies like Google place value on ‘great isn’t good enough’ where they strive for excellence that is beyond what is even considered great. This is the ability we all should be working towards and corporations need to contribute by way of meritocratic systems that reward and recognise Action and Ability.
As a people, we tend to blame the system, the policy, the technology, the government, the sun or anything we can remotely connect for contributing to the condition of non-performance. This concept of ascribing your own actions to your own outcomes is strongly tied to deferred gratification and strategic thinking. Challenges will always exist, but we have to begin to hold ourselves accountable for the tasks assigned to us in all facets of our life. Act as the owner in any situation that you (can) handle; solve problems, assume responsibility, bring solutions and make bold decisions in support of the business and your life. Personal integrity must be integrated into our corporate performance management systems from the CEO’s appraisal come down. These four As will solidify excellence and put you in gear towards the values necessary for a personal transformation.
Translating ‘values’ to competitive advantage
The quest to live a values-based culture must begin with the questions you ask yourselves, the behaviours you either adopt or do away with and the level of commitment you are ready to give in the name of sustainability and growth. These values will in turn support the formation of your culture. Where there is systemic cultural transformation, there will be sustainable competitiveness, i.e., the problem is addressed at root cause.
In such an increasingly competitive environment focused on the bottom line, why is organisational culture important? Because the culture of a company is its competitive advantage. Competitive advantage is what differentiates your organisation in the marketplace, and it is that which is unique about your company that has significant positive economic value that cannot be replicated. There is a common belief that a company’s competitive advantage is its service, but if we analyse that, customer service is the amalgamation of the behaviours of our employees that result in a product that will make current customers happy and attract new ones. The values of the organisation are what will guide decisions, actions and performance to produce the customer experience that will differentiate your company’s brand.
We all see a change in the operations of our country; change is constant, and we need to start thinking proactively and not reactively. Plan ahead, delay gratification and adopt something that will set you apart, something that cannot be replicated. Your company’s culture is its personality; ensure that it is distinctive and assertive. Connect all areas to what your organisation should stand on and see success take shape, while contributing to the wider national vision of a productive and competitive workforce regionally and globally.