How Westeros is a lot like the business world
Living in G.R.R. Martin's fantasy epic is no easy task. Every moment spent wandering through the Known World is a constant battle for survival. One wrong step and you're out, all while any number of people are looking to take everything you have.
This makes Westeros and the world of business very similar environments to inhabit.
Granted, your head is marginally safer working in financing than on The Wall, but in both realities, finding security and definite stability are nigh on impossible. Every day is a fight to survive.
Yet, in this violent world of dragons, undead and the deadliest of them all, Lannisters, both people and businesses do indeed survive and sometimes even thrive. Given the similarities of the worlds, surely there are a few things we in the business world can learn from our bloodier Westerosi counterpart, right?
1. Contingency plans keep you out of danger.
The Lannister family is the wealthiest in all of Westeros. Anyone who has seen the TV show knows this much.
This fact is peculiar, though, when you also consider the fact that the Lannister gold mines, the source of their wealth, have been dry for a number of years – since before the events of "Game of Thrones" even began. How, then, when their resources ran out, did they manage to maintain their fabulous wealth? Imagine if your business was to become unable to sell its primary product or service. It would go out of business, such as what happened to Blockbuster.
If Tywin Lannister, head of the family at the time, had relied purely on gold to maintain the family's wealth, they would have ended up like the video rental chain – but they didn't.
Tywin ensured the survival of his wealth by creating contingency plans, developing sources of secondary income that would sustain the Lannister house. He invested in lands, castles and other assets that brought in revenue. He also lent money to poorer houses, charging interest rates that helped the Lannisters carry on paying all their debts. Crucially, though, he also supported a movement which saw his family become part of the ruling class of Westeros, assuring income through taxation and allowing the Lannisters to take out loans from the Iron Bank, securing them against the crown rather than his own house – protecting themselves from bankruptcy like business owners protect themselves by establishing an LTD.
Tywin's cunning business model is something we can all learn from. Essentially, he used his acquired skills and resources to make money through different platforms. Of course, building a property empire of castles is not within the reaches of most businesses, but then, most businesses wouldn't need that type of money to maintain their wealth.
What we can take away from this is that the key to survival is adaptability.
Our own history is littered with examples of failing or struggling businesses that turned things around by adjusting their course and changing how they made money. One such man was Michio Suzuki, who initially started out selling weaving looms for factories. Yet as the industry changed and demand fell, instead of going out of business, he used his experience as an inventor to move into the automobile industry.
2. Controversial partnerships can yield surprising results.
When businesses create a partnership, it is usually to pool their related resources, knowledge, goals and markets. Yet, as "Game of Thrones" has shown us, you don't always have to team up with the most likely candidate to achieve good results.
Notable odd-couple partnerships in "Game of Thrones" include Tyrion and Bronn, Jaime and Brienne, and Arya and The Hound. On the surface, these pairings seem like recipes for disaster, yet as events unfolded, we found that their differences actually complemented each other very well, allowing them to accomplish a great many things.
A similar real-world scenario would be a partnership between Samsung and Jay-Z. Seeking to boost its customer base, Samsung went not to a similar firm, but to an influential music artist. The result was Jay-Z securing a platinum album and Samsung accessing a vast new swath of consumers. It wasn't your traditional business partnership, but it worked.
What's more, "Game of Thrones" also demonstrates that partnerships that seem to make more sense on paper can actually be hugely detrimental. For example, Jaime and Bronn partner up to rescue Myrcella. Though they are similar in many ways, two strong warriors with attitudes and great hair, it didn't end well for them. Nor did the partnership between the Lannisters and the Tyrells. It made perfect sense, two rich houses combining resources to continue nationwide domination. In reality, it ended up with a litany of deaths, including two kings of Westeros and one queen. It isn't just in Westeros that this happens, though. Plenty of seemingly perfect business partnerships have crashed and burned right here in the real world.
The right partnership isn't about what similarities you have; it's about exactly what you can bring to the table that will benefit the other. For example, The Hound brought Arya protection, whilst Arya brought him humility and the chance of redemption. Samsung brought Jay-Z guaranteed sales, whilst Jay-Z introduced Samsung to an untapped audience.
3. Respect of cultural traditions is important.
International business can yield some seriously powerful results: engaging with new markets, building global networks, accessing better resources. It's a major step up from domestic trade, and one many businesses aspire to reach.
Yet, it is important to tread carefully when doing international business. Mistreatment of cultures can reflect poorly on your company, turning potential partners into enemies. We've seen this scenario play out numerous times on "Game of Thrones."
Two of the most notable examples are when Tywin Lannister conducted the fiendish Red Wedding and when Daenerys Targaryen abolished slavery in Slaver's Bay. While one act may be more morally acceptable than the other, both leaders forced their will upon the people of different cultural backgrounds, without considering how they would react.
In the case of the Red Wedding, Tywin had the Starks butchered while hosting them at The Twins, thus breaking the sacred Northern law of hospitality, guest right. From that moment on, the Northern houses were to never again serve the crown faithfully, eventually breaking away from the Seven Kingdoms and declaring Jon Snow the King in the North. Daenerys, however, sought to bring freedom to her new domain, yet faced uprisings due to her dismissal of valued cultures and practices. She was eventually forced to reopen the fighting pits to appease her people.
Disrespect, or simple ignorance of cultural practices, can have serious consequences for your business. When moving onto the global stage, it is imperative you understand your obligations while working with overseas businesses, lest you face the wrath of Lyanna Mormont.
4. Never assume you are safe.
If "Game of Thrones" has taught us anything, it's to not get attached to characters.
The bloodbath of deaths started with our beloved Ned Stark, carried on through his lineage and spilt over to other families, claiming the lives of kings, warriors and even the occasional child. It doesn't matter who you are in Westeros; you aren't safe from the sword.
Nor does it matter who you are in the business world. There are countless examples of major corporations – corporations you once thought untouchable, just as we all assumed Ned Stark was, meeting a bitter end. From GM to Enron, status does not guarantee safety. No matter how good things may seem now, storms can brew on the turn of a dime. Stannis Baratheon had an army, a birthright and the support of a centuries-old sorceress. And where is he now?
Always be prepared to fight another battle. For businesses, winter is always coming.