Row, row, row your boat

“You are on a boat in the middle of the ocean together with your mom and dad. The boat springs a leak and starts to sink. As the only one who can swim and can only save one person, who will you choose to save?”

Like me, some of you may remember going through this similar enigma when you were young and too naive to sock the person in the eye for asking such a harebrained question, even if that person happens to be your parent.

I cannot recall whether it was my mom or dad that raised it, and why they would do so to a primary school-going adolescent who at that time in his life could honestly care less about saving either one since I wasn’t getting enough pocket money and my dreams of a red BMX ride never came through. I also can’t remember what my answer was, but we shall return to this riddle in a jiffy.

Once I had accepted a local university lecturer’s invitation for me to share some thoughts at a roundtable discussion for his class of postgraduate entrepreneurship students, I spent the next couple of days rummaging through my outdated and dusty collection of management books and scurrying the Internet to prepare for the event.

After all, one assumes that those SpongeBob scholars and their eagle-eyed professor would demand an endless list of intellectual theories, research methodologies and academic references from a supposedly qualified presenter.

As I tenderly pushed opened the lecture room door, the 15 participants of the roundtable session – it was technically a U-table dialogue – abruptly turned around and stared expressionless at me. They looked drowsy from the whole morning of schooling; lunched seemed to have weighted them down even further; and being a Saturday, probably had their minds on the cosy sofa back home.

The last thing they needed was another dreary lecture on theories and entrepreneurship philosophy. There goes my two days of research and 35 flashy PowerPoint slides out the window!

Without introducing myself, I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, put aside the stack of management books I had regretfully lugged along, pulled up a chair in the middle of the U-table affair, and asked:

“You are on a boat in the middle of the ocean together with your chief technology officer, chief marketing officer and human resources director. The boat springs a leak and starts to sink. As the only one who can swim and can only save one person, who will you choose to save?”    

After the typical 60-second Malaysian shyness waiting period, J.T spoke first. “Definitely the CTO. Without his IT development knowledge and technical expertise, the company would have no product to sell and thus would not exist.”

The boyish-looking lad further reasoned that, as technology is becoming the key differentiation factor – he quoted a strange French-sounding name that I’m supposed to know – the ability of a company to possess the best technology is what will keep it ahead of the competition. I found out later that J.T works as an IT manager in a multinational company.

Shiela guardedly jumped in: “Pardon my saying, but if you have all the world’s best technology, and no one to market it for you, then the business will not survive too. Pardon me, but I will choose to save the CMO instead.”

The petite but stern-faced Sarawakian argued that the chief marketing officer is the most important person of the trio because being able to promote and sell the company’s product is the most crucial part of an enterprise. “Pardon me, but the fact remains that most of the successful entrepreneurs in the world today are from a marketing background,” the fashion designer asserted. I quickly agreed with Shiela, as I could no longer bear to listen to another ‘pardon me’ statement.

Over the next half-hour, there were several other proponents for both the chief technology officer and chief marketing officer. A notable line of reasoning for the CTO that had my attention came from squeaky voiced production manager. Kim believed that technology creation was more about innovation and technological talent, whereas marketing was about procedures and strategies, which unlike its counterpart, was easily duplicatable. J.T’s grin could not get any wider, and perhaps may have fallen in love.

Just as I was about to prod about the lack of interest in the last passenger on the boat, Sam remarked: “Unlike most of you here, I would choose to save the HR director. Because what good will it do to have the CTO or the CMO, if there’s no one who is able to open up the password-locked payroll file to pay me at the end of the month!” Clearly, he was the joker in the pack.

In between his humour and one-liners, there was an increasing number who were nodding in agreement to Sam’s choice. He looked to have convinced his peers that because a company’s greatest resource of all are its employees, without a person around to organise and motivate them, the best entrepreneur, his best marketing strategies and his technological inventions will surely fail.

Now, “You are on a boat in the middle of the ocean together with… who will you choose to save?”

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