BCCI aligns itself with the structure of nature. It is a misconception, however, to say it is a "go with the flow" organisation, for it is much more than this.
The following article by Tom Thiss was published as a chapter in the book, Transforming Leadership: From Vision to Results (General editor: John D. Adams. Publisher: Miles Press 1986). The challenges of leadership, the changing view of leaders, and actual case studies all provide a comprehensive overview necessary to a complete understanding of how best to lead their organisation.
The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) is in its twelfth year. It came into being in the Middle East in 1972 and has enjoyed remarkable growth. In 1983 Euromoney rated BCCI the second fastest growing bank in the world over the last three years. What makes it unique is its management philosophy. Its President and founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, is the creative inspiration for the bank and for its philosophy, which he calls Real Management. This chapter attempts to highlight the principal concepts with some illustrations of how the system works. Real Management models itself on the laws of nature. The author refers to it as a management ecosystem.
The Open Plan: The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the fourth floor of the bank's office in the City of London is its openness. There are no private offices, only private conference rooms. All desks are in the open. The president's desk is no exception. The whole floor has an atmosphere of what one visitor called "dynamic serenity".
This is one of seven floors in what is known as CSO, Central Support Organisation. It is not CHQ. The bank does not believe in central control. Its function is to support the various regions, not to control them. The same is true for the regions in their relationships with the branches. BCCI believes in being a "local bank".
The bank is managed by a group called the CMC, Central Management Committee. And, in turn, the regions are managed by the Regional Management Committees, and the branches by the Branch Management Committees. In their highest form the committees are continuously active, though not always in formal session.
In the West we talk disparagingly about committees. We say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! But to an organisation whose roots are in the Middle East, a camel is a thing of beauty. Its beauty lies in its utility. And so it is with a committee. The utility of the system is in the continuous interaction of people. This on-going dialogue is the system. Nature does not separate function from beauty. Therein lies the fundamental organising principle of BCCI.
Alignment with nature
BCCI aligns itself with the structure of nature. It is a misconception, however, to say it is a "go with the flow" organisation, for it is much more than this. The bank is not opposed to structure. But because it values spontaneity, trust, initiative, intuition, and feelings, it minimises structure to facilitate these qualities. There is very little formal planning, scheduling and budgeting in the conventional sense. Plans evolve and schedules change with the continuous interaction of people. They call it ''dynamic planning''. Sometimes things just seem to "happen". Meetings are often impromptu and, if scheduled, late. But managers seem to learn not to sit around and wait but to continue working until the moment has come. There are cues - a phone call, a personal visit, or a manager's movement - that dictate the appropriate moment. It is all very fluid, but it works well and effectively.
It is not natural to isolate ourselves in closed offices, nor to build hierarchies of power that inhibit interaction, nor to create rigid statements of policy that stand in the way of change. Nature is an open system, ecologically balanced. Like nature, BCCI has its own ecosystem.
Nothing is more intrinsic to nature than energy. It might be said that nature is energy. The old distinction between matter and energy is dissolving as scientists probe more deeply into the nature of things. Real Management visualises each person as a human energy system, qualitative as well as quantitative.
For example, in selecting college graduates BCCI recruiters assess the quality of the candidate's energy. That is to say, they are not so much concerned with grades and with past performance as with the person's qualities, such as compassion, joy, courage, humility, and a sensitivity to feelings. If these qualities are present the bank will provide the appropriate ecology for their development. They believe the primary function of management is to enhance the quality of its human energy.
What makes human energy different from all other sources of energy is its qualitative or spiritual dimension. If only the quantitative or physical aspects of human energy are considered, then human beings are placed in the same class with barrels of oil or tons of coal. It then merely becomes a measurable matter of horsepower, thrust, and BTUs. Human energy has a qualitative aspect that is not measurable and therefore tends to be neglected by management. Qualitative energy is like the lines of force in a magnetic field. They are unseen but they govern the attracting power of magnetism. The stronger the lines of force, the stronger the pull. Managers tend to deal with the tangible effects of energy and often neglect the intangible causes. BCCI is concerned with the unseen force behind the effect - the spiritual ''lines of force'', if you will. When two or more human energy systems merge, we have interfusion.
Interfusion is the vital principle of Real Management. It is much more than an exchange of ideas. It is an exchange of energies, and the vehicle of this exchange is feelings. Feelings must be present to humanise and to energise the process. Feelings are qualitative. As such they are the common qualities that bond this corporate culture of 87 nationalities. Feelings unite where ideas divide. Ideas are static whereas feelings are dynamic. Each human energy system has its own unique configuration of qualities. These commingle with others to form creative combinations.
BCCI works unceasingly to enhance this process. Virtually everything in the bank is designed to encourage this. The open plan is one of the more visible means of supporting interfusion. In the entire time I have associated with BCCI I have never been turned away from another's desk by walking over unannounced and uninvited.
The President openly states that he has no power except the power to influence through interfusion. The quality of his energy, however, is such that his capacity to influence is extraordinary. Because interfusion is a sharing of power and energy there tends to be little individual recognition for achievement. The satisfactions are felt but not always acknowledged. In BCCI there are frequent references to "we". The pronoun "I" tends to be seen as somewhat arrogant. Recently a senior manager said: "We believe in sharing credit. Let it be unknown who did it. That is immaterial. Everyone is a co-author."
Recently, I needed to see the President about a matter of personal interest to me. He was scheduled to leave the office in 15 minutes and he would not be back for two weeks. As I approached his desk I asked for two minutes of his time. After politely offering me a seat, he replied softly: "Mr Thiss, you may have as much time as you wish." The President was sincere and I knew it. You tend not to abuse the time of one who so generously grants it. Like any President the demands on his time far exceed his capacity to meet them. Yet in the three years I have known the man, I have never seen him hurried. His priority is people and his feelings reflect the genuine love and admiration he feels for all. You don't hurry relationships.
In summary, interfusion is a synthesis of energies. BCCI calls this a "joint personality". This creative union is the "committee" in its highest form. In Real Management it performs the control function. When the joint personality is functioning, traditional forms of control, power, and authority are counter productive. In short, when the ecosystem is working it regulates itself.
The Eco-mittee System
Earlier I mentioned the Central, Regional, and Branch Management Committees. There are more. Additional management committees have been formed to include all managers. The primary purpose of these is to promote interfusion. Each committee is a self regulating ecosystem of its own. These "joint personalities" of 10-15 people meet regularly to discuss management concepts or timely issues. This process aids the growth of the bank through an increased exposure of its people to a range of concepts and ideas.
BCCI has also formed marketing committees. Everyone is a member of a marketing committee because the bank conceptually expects everyone to market its services. Marketing is the external application of the Real Management process. The concepts that underpin the practice of management apply to marketing as well. It might be said that "ecomittees" run the bank. A more conventional term would be consensus. All of this interaction would appear to be random and unfocused were it not for vision and purpose.
Vision, as BCC uses the term, is a perception of the evolutionary process. It is a glimpse of the dynamics of change. It is not a vision, however, unless it can translate itself into reality.
The first time I met the President he spoke of seeing "a painting before me", a vision of the evolutionary process of change and the possibilities for the bank within this evolving flux. He expressed his profound hope that others could see this painting as clearly as he. The President understands the power of vision.
In 1972 a group of people with a joint vision came together. They had a vision of a multinational, multilingual, truly international bank with a philosophy that would accommodate all nationalities, all races, all creeds. A universal institution that belonged to no nation but all nations. One that would link the industries of the North with the resources of the South, the mysticism of the East with the rationalism of the West in a network of trade and transactions. Now at the close of its 12th year BCCI employs 11,000 people and its network spans 70 countries. Business India, a leading financial publication, featured the bank in a March 1984 cover story, calling it "The Fastest Growing Bank in the World."
In BCCI one is encouraged to make management capability equal to the opportunity. Just doing better than last year is a limiting strategy. Vision, on the other hand, is seeing the limitless possibilities of what "could be". Opportunities lie in change and this bank has succeeded largely because it has been more sensitive to change. It sensed changes in the Middle East in 1972 and encashed the opportunity. In BCCI a series of changes is called a bridge. BCCI has been travelling on the "bridge of change" since its inception 12 years ago. To become something one must change, and thus through change one can bridge from the present to the possible.
The Major Purpose
At the heart of Real Management is the bank's stated major purpose. It is more than a mission statement. I have never attended a management meeting where it was not addressed in depth. It is stated simply in four points:
- Submission to God
- Service to mankind
The first three are relationships based on giving. The fourth is highlighted as the key to the other three. BCCI states that it happens to be a bank, but it could have been something else. What's important is its purpose. The bank is merely a vehicle to serve that purpose.
In 1982 the President sent a letter to all employees saying the bank would give them a cash gift representing 2½% of their annual salary. This was to be given by them to whoever they wished without accountability. The idea was to let each person experience the joy of giving. The amount has increased to 3½% and is now an annual event. In his 1985 letter on giving the President said: "Today, in a world so precariously balanced between conflict and cooperation, between prejudice and faith, between love and hate, I am sure you will all agree from the depth of your conviction that it is in the delicate balance of the quality of Giving that the quality of its order and existence will survive.'' The concept of giving permeates all aspects of Real Management. It is central to the concept that every person is given the responsibility of managing.
Everyone a Manager
The absence of organisation charts and titles reflects the bank's emphasis on equality and its dedication to the process of interfusion. BCCI sees every member of the family (a term commonly used) as a manager. The President urges all to see themselves as "chief executives". Although some are designated managers, all are expected to be managers. The obligation is a dual one - to manage and to be managed equally. There are no superior/subordinate relationships, no reporting chains. The process of interfusion is title blind. Each person is expected to influence and to be influenced by all others. The end result of this is a joint personality. In a very real sense, the joint personality runs the bank.
In 1983 when I moved to London I asked my sponsor, "Whom do I report to?". He replied that they did not have reporting relationships as such but that I would be part of a "joint personality" of four persons. We have operated that way ever since.
Members of the bank have a great deal of freedom to manage their own affairs. Responsibilities are less clearly defined to maximise entrepreneurial activity. Managers are expected to reach out and take responsibility as needed. As one manager put it, "you are running your own show but you must use ol).r controls (e.g. interfusion). It's up to you, however, to determine when you want those controls off." In short, they are free with the obligation to interfuse as needed - unhampered by the press of authority, by the restraint of departmental walls, or the limitation of "proper" communication channels. This is the dynamic essence of Real Management. Recently I talked with a young man at one of the London branches. He mentioned another branch manager's name as having been very helpful to him. The young man was not getting the help he needed from his manager. When the other manager sensed this, he assumed a personal responsibility to help the young man informally with periodic phone contact. In BCCI the responsibility to develop the quality of everyone is shared by all.
Getting People "done" Through Work
Traditional companies define management as "getting work done through people". This puts the emphasis on getting things done at the expense of those who do the work. In Real Management two terms are transposed to change the emphasis. Management is seen as the process of "getting people done through work". The development of people is what it's all about. I can hear the critics now saying, "What are you running, a rehabilitation centre or a bank?" The answer could be either, neither, or both. The BCC style of management demands that people interfuse. Interfusion is the creative process of growth and development. The job provides the opportunity for their to do so. As they develop so does the bank. Through interfusion the person powers the evolvement of the bank. They are inseparable. The vital principle of growth is the vital principle of management. Work is the developmental process. Management is the art of developing people through work.
Real Management believes in a philosophy of success but success is not viewed in terms of winning. Winning is a non-event. People don't talk about it. They don't even talk about win/win situations. The word doesn't seem to exist. Winning is irrelevant in the co-operative pursuit of purpose where the only competition is with oneself. Success is keyed to the evolution of the person; therefore, what we do hear a lot about is the evolution of the self. Some people are referred to as being ''very evolved". To be less so does not carry a stigma. On the contrary, it is accepted as a stage in the evolutionary process. The bud is no less than the flower; it is just a different stage in the process of evolution. The person will evolve in time. The bank is extraordinary in its commitment to helping people evolve. A regional general manager said to me recently: "We never give up. We keep trying."
Initiative and Patience
I have observed two traits that are essential to the Real Management system. These are initiative and patience, accompanied by an appropriate sense of timing. Together they form perseverance. The better practitioners seem to understand the significance of these two traits in the evolutionary process. They know that they cannot control time but that they can control the timing of their initiatives. This they do; they continually monitor the process, waiting for the appropriate moment to intervene. Shakespeare said it well in Julius Caesar: ''There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune".
A young and promising international officer posted in Africa saw an opportunity to open officer an agency office in a neighbouring country. Sensing it was the right thing to do country and the right time to do it, he took initiative and the moved quickly. Regional management was informed after it was done. He was commended for his entrepreneurial efforts. Flushed with his success he pushed on to contract with his government for full banking status and the legal right to open a branch. As before, he informed management after the fact. This time they were not as pleased. He had gone too far, too fast. Neither the bank nor the government was ready. He had forced the process of government change with premature initiative. He had not interfused beforehand. Had he done so, he would have known that the timing was not right.
In Real Management if you know what’s best, you are expected to take initiative. what's If you have any doubt, you are expected to interfuse. The process done openly and caringly will suggest the appropriate direction. The man in Africa is more experienced now two years after the fact and he readily tells the story with humility to illustrate what he learned.
Humility is the precondition that powers the practice of Real Management. It is the key the that unlocks the vital principle of interfusion. It involves the recognition of our limitations and the need to use our energies in the service of and larger whole where each of us plays a relatively smaller part. Operationally it is the art of openness. Accepting the reality that we of don't "know it all" makes it easier to want to know more. It also helps us to be less attached to a fixed position and more easily accepting attached of change.
Humility also conveys a deep respect for the individual. The President sets the tone for this with his unflagging commitment to nurturing the unique qualities of each person. Recently nurturing he called a meeting to talk about inadequacy. The message was that everyone is inadequate and that life is a progression towards adequacy, and yet it is people's relative inadequacy that makes them unique and interdependent and makes mandates everyone to interfuse to become more adequate. Therefore our inadequacies more and those of others should be accepted with humility and love.
Unity of the Moral and Material
In BCCI there is much talk about the unseen, the unknown, and the intangible. This is the moral or spiritual realm that powers the known and the tangible. In BCCI the seen, moral and the material are inseparable. Making a profit is very important. But it cannot be separated from the moral dimension the quality of energy that produced the profit the and the impact that energy had on others. The President has said that if we give more than we receive then we make a "moral profit". One very successful manager told me, "The way I see it, we are all either mercenaries or missionaries. I've been a mercenary, or but I'm a missionary." He went on to describe now with great zeal the impact his region was having on the GNP of a small Caribbean country.
Pay for Progression
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the system of Real Management began about two years ago. It was called de-linking. It involved dissociating the annual increment from performance. The bank was moving away from pay for performance. With this de-linking process the last bastion of traditional management began to crumble. If Real Management was to be a viable system, pay for performance had to go. Pay for performance is results focused. Real Management, like excellence, is process focused. The bank wanted to link pay process with the evolutionary process of development. The key was to link pay with progression, the qualitative growth of the individual. The assumption in Real Management is that developed, or more highly evolved, people enhance the quality of energy. This, in turn, powers performance. Putting it simply, the idea was to pay people to develop themselves. Not through random efforts but through all the means available in the Real Management ecosystem: autonomy, interfusion, joint personality, entrepreneurial initiative, patience, clear purpose and broadly defined responsibilities. In short, you are self-employed in the context of BCCI. You have as much responsibility as you can assume given the natural checks and balances of the system. In effect, de-linking gave people the opportunity to pay themselves. If they are not happy with their pay, they can develop themselves more fully and assume greater responsibility. The initiative is theirs. If people can be relatively autonomous in setting personal goals, why then can they not be in rewarding themselves as well? It is a bold move. And it had to happen, or Real Management would never be real.
Tom Thiss was a management consultant with Bank of Credit and Commerce International in London, United Kingdom. He worked as an independent consultant and trainer in thirty nine countries and six continents, including a residency in London from 1983 to 1989. He taught in the business community for over thirty years. He managed The Ridge Consulting Group in USA, offering initiatives to professionals including social styles, negotiating skills, stress management, team building, adventure-based ‘ropes’ courses, life/work planning, and a variety of organisational transformation interventions.
Books by Tom Thiss
- The WIZARD of IS inspired by Mr Agha Hasan Abedi, BCC President, and Mr John Hillbery, advisor of communications in BCCI.
- How to Be Book: Fable With Exercises to Take the Stress Out of Your Life