Sunday, February 25, 2007

Where's your team, Professor Yunus?


Professor Yunus has been my hero for nearly 25-years. He's a rare gem who not only thinks big, but also delivers spectacularly.

So, when he threw his hat into the political arena, one expected a wave of support bordering on hysteria. Yet, the response has been distinctly tepid. Even my own reaction as the self-appointed president of his fan club has been far from euphoric. Why?

To put it bluntly, the general perception is that the esteemed Nobel laureate is going about it the wrong way.

For starters, Professor Yunus seems to be under the impression that his success as a chief executive officer (CEO) would be easily replicable to the political landscape. There is some merit in this belief. After all, his success is not limited to micro-credit only. Think telecom, textiles, and health foods. In each of these areas, he knew nothing about the respective field when he started. So, the fact that he is a political novice is not an insurmountable obstacle, but just a temporary setback.

But wait! In these other fields, the role of Yunus was primarily to ensure that right team took over at the helm. So he enlisted the help of companies such as Telenor and Danon who are experts in their respective fields. Where is his team in this political expedition?

The professor must recognise that he is a novice in politics. His role during October 2006 to mid-January 2007 -- one of the darkest periods of this country's history was bewildering. His unthinking statements and acts of the time deserve no better than a capital F.

His latest gaffe is the "Yunus Shomorthok Goshti." At a time when the nation is seeking to move away from personality cults, this move of his is a public relations Hiroshima. Clearly, he's being badly advised, or more likely, not being advised at all. Also, how else can one explain the call to the general public form 20-person committees at neighbourhood levels at their own initiative? How does one control for quality? Team building is the primary function of a leader. It cannot be taken lightly.

Undoubtedly the Yunus brand has voter appeal. But it would be a monumental mistake to think that he could win on the celebrity card alone. He needs a strong team that devises and implements a winning strategy.

What would a winning strategy look like? In business, a company rarely achieves greatness by taking its rivals head-on. Instead, it rewrites the rules of the industry through innovation or intelligent positioning. For Professor Yunus the strategy has to be similar. There are four key areas where his party should focus:

First, demographically the largest segment of the electorate is under 35. To this group, Mujib and Zia are legendary figures in the history books. This group grew up with essentially no living national heroes with whom to identify. All that changed of course when the professor won the Noble Peace Prize.

Significantly, as numerous surveys have shown, this group is also politically apathetic mainly because of their disgust and disillusionment with the present menagerie of politicians. This group represents a natural constituency for Professor Yunus. In stark contrast to the political culture that mainstream politicians have fostered, Yunus is visionary, forward-looking, managerially competent, and honest.

The key question here is does the professor know how to reach out to this young group? Does his team include bright young professionals who understand the youth and can communicate with them?

Second, apart from a brief flirtation by General Ershad, the mainstream political parties have tended to marginalise local government despite promises to the contrary. Power has become increasingly concentrated in the centre. Decisions for local development are decided upon and funded by the centre. Yet, local government represents the biggest opportunity for Professor Yunus to deliver a googly to his opponents.

The argument is simple: As power is concentrated in the centre, the member of parliament (MP) becomes supremely important in a given constituency. However, if Professor Yunus can credibly promise to promote local government, meaning shifting power to local levels, then the role of the MP becomes less important. In other words, the history of the MP as a person who has worked on behalf on the constituency for many years becomes less important, making entry easier for a new political party.

Credibly promising power to local governments requires specialised knowledge at the Upazila level. Who are the professor's team members that are experts in local government?

Third, there are about 12 million micro-credit borrowers. This group could conceivably lean towards the professor. However, it is not clear whether the micro-credit borrowers, especially non-Grameen members associate micro-credit with Professor Yunus. Even if they did so, their warm regards might waver once the professor sheds his banker's robes for those of a politician.

Clearly, a major communication exercise has to take place between the professor's party and the borrowers. The question therefore is who are the public relations experts in his team that can deliver on this front?

Fourth, there are certain constituencies, mainly located in urban areas where voting largely represents the mood of the nation. In such areas, the role of the MP tends to be minor. As the mood of the nation is anti-mainstream political party at the moment, these constituencies should be relatively easy pickings for the professor.

The key exercise is to identify the right ones. Here the professor has to rely on electoral math wizards. Will these geniuses in the professor's team please stand up!

There is a wonderful American folk-saying: "If you can get it all done by yourself, then you ain't got much ambition." Bangladesh has huge ambitions for the days ahead, and the nation needs the professor to rise up to the challenge.

So, professor, my hero of a quarter of a century, don't try to do it all by yourself. Build a great team; listen and rely on them. #

Syed S. Kaiser Kabir is a founder of Phiriye Ano Bangladesh (PAB) His views do not necessarily reflect those of PAB