Thursday, 25 September 2014

Handle With Care!

A lot has been written about the importance of LISTENING and EMPATHY and with good reason. They form the foundation for any meaningful communication and consequently a meaningful relationship. However there are two more elements which have been highlighted less often, but can make the difference between building a meaningful relationship and undoing one that already exists. These elements are PERMISSION and ACKNOWLEDGEMENT and they work best when combined with good LISTENING & EMPATHY.

Let’s look at PERMISSION. We do not visit people’s homes unless they invite us, we don’t take part in meetings unless we are required to, we don’t visit clients unless the client agrees. Then why is it that we enter more intimate spaces like someone’s personal space without permission? Think about it. Do we give suggestions on personal improvement without being asked? Offer advice on behaviour when unsolicited? Or make judgements about individuals or their actions/choice and insist on sharing it with them, without permission? The answer is often YES. Most of us are guilty of the above actions every once in a while. It doesn’t imply that our intentions are malicious; on the contrary, we often mean well and want to help! But in the process we leave people feeling hurt, upset, angry, annoyed and/or violated, albeit unintentionally, and effectively prevent a relationship from blossoming.

Let’s look at an example. Two colleagues meet at the office cafeteria. They have met a few times and have chatted at the cafĂ© before, but other than that, they haven’t had many interactions. They happen to meet again after a couple of weeks and following is the conversation that takes place between them:

Allie: Hey, how is your fitness regime going?
Rachel: It’s been OK. I go to the gym twice a week, though the original plan was to go 5 times a week...
Allie: Why? What happened?
Rachel: Nothing in particular. It’s just that there’s so much work at office, by the time I get home I have no energy to go to the gym
Allie: You know there is this great home workout video I came across a few months back. It’s very inspiring! You could try that instead of going to the gym!
Rachel: Well, may be. But I find home workout videos overrated.
Allie: But this one’s very good! And you don’t even have to go to the gym; you can do it at home. You don’t waste any time travelling.
Rachel: Hmmm. But going to the gym ensures that I have somebody to work with and it’s customized.
Allie: But at least have a look at the video. How will you know unless you try it?
Rachel: err… OK, may be... How is your team project coming along?

Does that conversation sound familiar? It’s a conversation all of us have at different times and with different people. The subject may change but the pattern remains the same.

So let’s see what’s happening here. It is obvious that there has been a discussion about Rachel’s fitness between the two of them, sometime in the past. As they meet now Allie wants to simply check on Rachel’s progress. Allie’s interest, in Rachel, in itself shows good intent and helps foster a sense of comradery between the two. Clearly Allie cares about Rachel enough to remember what’s going on in Rachel’s life. But do you notice that soon after Rachel gives the response to the first question, how Allie takes the conversation forward? What’s happening at this point is interesting and critical in understanding PERMISSION. While Rachel speaks about how her regimen is not going as planned, Allie has moved on to finding a solution, for what she thinks is Rachel’s challenge. Please note that Rachel hasn’t asked for any opinion or suggestion. Consequently Rachel starts to feel uncomfortable as she views Allie’s unsolicited suggestion as an indication of being judged, for choosing a less effective workout regimen. She sees Allie as crossing an invisible line, entering a space she hasn’t been invited to, while Allie is mostly unaware of this line and rushes in with the enthusiasm of a well-meaning school teacher. As she unwittingly barges in, Rachel politely tries to nudge her back and Allie in the role of a self-appointed solution finder, fails to see Allie’s resentment and annoyance lurking under the surface. When Allie does feel some resistance, she runs in once again, till such time that she finds herself against the invisible door between herself and Rachel, which is now firmly shut. She is eventually forced to give up, feeling a little disoriented, confused and maybe hurt, by Rachel’s less than enthusiastic response to her well-meaning suggestion.

You may have noticed where permission is meant to come into the above scenario. But before we explore PERMISSION let’s take a quick look at something that comes in before permission and that is ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. When Rachel responded to Allies question about the progress of her fitness regime, it was Allies chance to acknowledge Rachel for her efforts. She should have acknowledged Rachel for taking action. She could say something like Well done for enrolling to the gym and working out for all 5 days for the first week’. By doing this Allie acknowledges and appreciates Rachel for what she did do (rather than focusing on what she didn’t), because taking the all-important first action that gets things moving, is where many of us fail and Rachel showed commitment in going through that part. Now in case you are wondering why Allie should care, then you should also ask - if Allie doesn’t care then why make suggestions in the first place? But let’s stick to the assumption that Allie does care. With acknowledgement, Allie has let Rachel know that she genuinely cares.

Moving on from AKNOWLEDGEMENT. Allie has this idea, which she truly believes could work for Rachel. However before she offers this suggestion, it would help to ask if Rachel would like to hear her suggestion. She could say something like ’I sense that you could use some help to stick to your regimen. If its ok with you, may I share a thought that came to mind?’ What’s the worst that could happen? Rachel may say NO. And if she did that, at least Allie would not waste her time giving unwanted advice. On the other hand if she said YES then Rachel would be more willing to consider the suggestion coming her way. Allie should follow up her suggestion (’There is this great home workout video I came across a few months back. It’s very inspiring! You could try that instead of going to the gym!’) with the question ’What do you think?’ By doing that, Allie gives Rachel the space to not take up the suggestion unless she wants to, without any negative impact on their relationship. This example does not imply that Allie has identified Rachel’s issue correctly or guarantee that Rachel will follow Allie’s advice, if she agrees. But that’s not the point, this example is meant to highlight how, at this juncture Allie’s relationship with Rachel is still intact and Allie has been respectful of Rachel’s personal space, which is often an overlooked aspect while communicating.

Coming back to the question about whether Allie really cares enough about Rachel to acknowledge what Rachel has achieved? If the answer to that question is NO, then why she would offer a suggestion to Rachel at all?? The reason could be because Allie wants to be SEEN as knowledgeable or helpful or then she is just getting carried away with her own flow of thoughts; none of which are of any use to Rachel. This can happen especially in conversations with colleagues, with whom, our relationship is not yet deep. But watch out! Even when the intention is to help, we could be treading on toes inadvertently. As the saying goes The road to hell is paved with good intentions!

Let us now reflect on our own behaviours. How often are we aware of our intent when contributing to a conversation? How often do we ask permission before giving suggestions or opinions to people about personal matters or on matters we have had little to do with. If you are one of the few who are sensitive to these aspects (to your own intent and to others needs) then congratulations, well done! And if you haven’t considered it before, give it a shot now! When someone opens up to us, they are letting us into their lives, they are sharing a part of themselves. This is a precious gift and we have a responsibility to handle it with care. So think before you speak, acknowledge others’ achievements (even small ones) and take permission before making a suggestion or giving an opinion and be the one who lights up the neurons that spark happiness and warmth in people! It works with colleagues, spouses, partners, parents, children, friends, relatives and just about anyone. By doing this, we give ourselves a chance to filter our own responses, assumptions and opinions that we may end up imposing on others. While it may take some conscious effort in the beginning, the more we practice this, the easier it gets. Use this often enough and you will notice how you become a better communicator and help relationships become more fulfilling!

By Divya Thampi

Monday, 8 September 2014

7 Habits of Highly Effective People | An Actionable Summary

One of the books that have made a significant impact on my life has been Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Over the last several years, I have realized, through my conversations with people, the multitude who have not read this book. Interestingly enough they have heard of the title from one place or another. The reason is obvious enough, time; or perhaps that's just an excuse. You decide.
Thus I have taken it upon myself to make a fun-to-read and actionable summary of this awesome book which should take but 5 minutes to read:

This, of course, isn't a free pass to not read the book (for those who haven't read). If anything, this should encourage you to go pick up the book so you can learn the 'Why' behind the 'What' that I have mentioned in this write up. Personally I feel knowing the why is the best thing one can do for him/herself because it makes the what that much easier and digestible.
Hope this helped you in some way. And I'm always interested to know how the book has helped people, if you're one of those who've read the book please feel free to share your learnings from your reading in the comments below.
Reference: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Friday, 18 April 2014

Making Learning Stick

As performance consultants, one of the biggest complaints we hear from our clients is something along the lines of: "The learning does not stick" or "It doesn't translate into their work-life". We couldn't agree more. Though many organizations realize this as a growing need for them, very few organizations actually see the change they wish to see. What is it that those organizations are doing right which the many others are not doing?

In our interactions with several organizations with varied learning strategies, we learned that the answer is simpler than we’d think. Most organizations (where learning penetrates into becoming habits) apply the simple concept of prioritization. Stephen Covey in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People calls this concept First Things First. He simply states that in order to get things done, you must have an idea of what priorities mean to you. That’s at a personal level. When looked at from an organizational level the answer is embedded in a question. What is the most important priority for this organization/department/team with respect to learning?

The challenge arises when we consider all training needs as top priority. As a result we don’t end up achieving any kind of noteworthy success from the array of training programs we design based on the gathered needs. The father of business management, PeterDrucker, had a simple process of sequential tasking in his learning curriculum. He would take one subject and study it thoroughly for 3 years before moving on to the next. There were times when he would delve into a subject and realize its vastness and conclude that he would need to break the subject down into sub-subjects and go into each one for 3 years at a time. He would allow himself enough time and reflection to be able to understand the broadness of his topic and its application in his life. That kind of growth is known as organic growth. It comes from within. It’s a form of growth which results from an intrinsic pull for one to want to learn rather than an extrinsic push towards learning.

The process of such organic growth is observed by organizations that apply the concept of Regressive Progression. Regressive Progression focuses on developing new skills without losing what has been taught in the past. In order to effectively apply it, it's important to prioritize the competencies first. The process starts at the beginning of the year with a training needs analysis which will lead us to several gaps in competency that lead to performance issues at work. This is where we must be vigilant about venturing to find a common thread among all the gaps in competency with respect to a certain department/team. Each department/team within an organization will have their own sets of competency challenges. They may also be at different levels in their skill with respect to their maturity, thus each department/team must be looked at individually and training interventions be tailored to address specific needs. Finding that common thread between the seemingly unrelated competencies requires us to put our Sherlock Holmes hat on and think about the underlying reasons for certain competencies to come up in the training needs analysis. By doing so, we will have gained clarity and a sense of priority of the training needs.

After identifying the common thread, we can move towards accomplishing the one goal in mind. Rather than trying to achieve all competencies we now focus on just one or two throughout the training year for that specific department/team. This does not mean we ignore other competencies, it means we draw a tangent from each of the related competencies and work on the skill which is core to them all. When the foundation is strong, other structural problems will, in effect, not arise. After all, we would all agree that after a year of learning one or two skills from several different angles one can’t help but be proficient at it.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Background - The Opaques, Translucents and Transparents
As kids in school, most of us were in either of three categories: The opaque, the translucent or the transparent. Each of these three categories comes in a positive and a negative variety. Everything we did revolved around which category we found ourselves in. During those years, it was a make-it or break-it experience for some of us. Our decisions, big and small, were dependent on the truth of what category we were in. The opaques were the strong ones, they made great decisions; always. They were the valedictorians and the most popular people in our classes. They were also our bullies and big shots who always must be the center of attention; they must stand out. They had a sense of confidence about themselves that bordered overconfidence in the case of many. The translucent were the blenders and the adapters. They were the ones who could hang out with either of the two other types. They would take the shape of those they spent time with. Very much like water. It has a character of its own but it’s ready to blend and become that which it’s introduced to. Then there is the third category. The transparents; these are people who don’t necessarily have an identity of their own. They are nearly unknown to the world. In an average class their presence won’t be noticed immediately.  They never made their presence known through any form of rambunctious behavior. They would be OK with an opaque taking credit for a task they may have accomplished. Though they were smart and talented, they were also timid. They were quiet and always wanted to steer away from any and all kinds of trouble. They were soft-hearted and tender in their action, nature and being.

Amongst the three categories, perhaps the most envied were the opaques. They were envied not by the
translucent or the transparent because neither of them wanted what they had. They were envied by themselves. So each opaque went out of his way to set new standards and create new pathways, new breakthroughs and most definitely new benchmarks in both, positive and negative, ways. To them; an impression must be made, someone has to be impressed. But who? If you know anything about an opaque, you know that they aren’t easily impressed by anyone but them-self. Impressing the translucent does not have as much a market value as they blend with nearly anyone. Besides, translucents were very good at blending which made them friends of the opaques. Hence, their choice of people to put an impression on remains very simple: the transparent because their mysterious characteristic is almost attractive.

Each opaque has his/her own way of impressing people but for the sake of this discussion we shall speak of the bullies here. The bullies impress by telling others what to do. They get their way every time. No transparent ever wanted to know what would happen if the opaque bully didn’t get his way. As a result they allowed themselves to be bullied; willingly. They would have to live their life according to what the bully told them. The bullies did it for the perks; the best stuff from the transparent’s lunchbox, getting homework assignments done, small and big errands that need to be run, etc… For most transparents it is a tough battle and rather discomforting initially to take orders from the opaque bully. Eventually, their desire to resist subsides and they stop fighting, though they ever only resisted internally. Their sense of freedom is killed and along with it their creativity to think beyond what’s being told. This leads the transparent to either bend or break. Some who bend bounce back with retaliation and find a new sense of identity while those who break fall deeper into the abyss of responsive numbness. Both outcomes are chronic and destructive. If they bend far enough, they bounce back and become the protege as the next bully in town and the cycle continues. If they break, which is the case of many, they become something of a static nature; stagnant in the mind, not unwilling to think, rather; unable.

This seems to be the lot of one too many professionals in our organizations too. They’re either the opaque bully or the transparent victim. Yet the need of the hour remains for us to be able to work together in unison. “None of us is as smart as all of us” says Ken Blanchard. Unity is created through trust and credibility. A sense of unison never existed where there was bickering and backbiting. The four ways of building trust have been understood and expounded upon since Aristotle pointed them out in his philosophy of ethos, pathos and logos in 350 BCE. He said ethos is the essence of trust and credibility and stated the four ways to develop ethos when interacting with people: Authority, Similarity, Reputation and Trustworthiness. Perhaps most managers didn’t know these four ways of developing ethos by these terms but they certainly knew about it in one form or another. We know the usage of authority more than any other form of ethos. Each day we lead or are led in our organizations with authority. People do what we ask them to do and they do it simply because we’re their boss. The goal still remains for us to be able to work together to achieve greater goals while creating a sense of intrinsic accountability so people work because they ‘want to’ rather than because they ‘have to’. So the question remains: How do we create intrinsic accountability?

Philosophy - The Master-Apprentice Relationship
Have you ever had a boss who never made you feel like he/she was your boss? Rather you felt like this person was more of a mentor or a coach who was put there to make your life easier. You felt like you could share almost anything with this person. He/she was able and willing to help you with your personal and professional challenges. On the other hand, many of us have also had bosses who banked on them being bosses. You felt like you had to report to them because they were people of authority over you. They sometimes made you feel uncomfortable with their demands though the demands were legitimate. Knowing these two types of bosses, one cannot help but wonder what is it that the former boss does that brings him loyalty of his/her people that cannot be attained by the latter. He/she is either consciously or unconsciously using the Master-Apprentice Philosophy which is built on a mutual win-win scenario that is greatly expounded by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

If you've ever watched Star Wars then you know where this is coming from. The Master-Apprentice Philosophy simply states a relationship which is a blend of three major relations: friendship, mentorship and companionship. These three potential relations, when combined into one relation, lead to the ideal Master-Apprentice relationship. The Master-Apprentice relationship demands a few preconditions: 1. Each person in the relationship has to be growth oriented. Without growth orientation either of the two will be frustrated while steering the relationship to positive ends. 2. The Master has to be willing to take the responsibility to teach. 3. The Apprentice has to be willing to put his/her ego down in order to make the best of the learning environment. As a result each person will have achieved the cornerstone of a healthy relationship: respect. Mutual respect is one of those loaded terms that most people think they have in their professional relationships but in reality there is dearth thereof. That is because the depth of most professionals' circumstance is deeper than the depth of their relationships which is why many people are forced to lead from authority rather than similarity and trustworthiness. With mutual trust among the people of the organization, no one person is ever wondering if "I'm being taken for a ride?"or "I hope this pays off in someway" or even when things are in their favor, thinking some version of "what's in it for him/her..." Though these statements are never actually uttered but they certainly are thought in the confines of one's mind. And if one was to tally up the instances when such thoughts emerged, one would be convinced that they stem from lack of trust which is the fruit of the respect we have for the other. When we respect we trust and it could never be the other way around except under compulsion.

Master - The Wistful Teacher
At this point, it is important for the one to understand the mentality of the master to truly know why the master does what he does. Without getting inside the mind of a master, one won't be able to rationally justify the master's actions.

The challenges we come across in life, in general, are not always new and innovative in nature. When objectively looked at, one realizes they're quite redundant. They simply revolve around management of time and/or effort. Many of the problems we face are in some way, shape or form a version of the two broad categories. And as we mature into a more sophisticated lifestyle, though we're learning lessons along the way, we tend to forget the mistakes of the past that we once learned from and vowed to never make again. When the master takes on an apprentice, he now has the opportunity to consciously think about the errors of his past as he strategizes to help his apprentice.This allows him to recollect his errors of the past and avoid pitfalls of the future because he's able to see the intangibles associated with those errors which he then -when erred- didn't understand due to his lack of maturity. In this sense, the master, for his own growth, takes on an apprentice as the apprentice does more, through his ignorance, for the master than the master, through his competence, will ever do for the apprentice.

The mentality of a life-altering master can be likened to that of a Zen monk who's been there and done that. S/he's forgiving and patient. S/he does not expect the apprentice to change the world or move mountains overnight. Sure, every master wants his apprentice to change the world and move mountains but many expect that unreasonably out of irrational expectations without equipping the apprentice with enough heart to make tough decisions. Ironically, the life-altering master does that by lowering the bar rather than raising it. The root of equipping the apprentice with a heart comes from enabling the apprentice's trust in the master. The master gains trust by allowing the apprentice to believe in himself through the achievement of his planned goals. With every achieved goal, the apprentice believes more and more in his own ability to succeed and inevitably in his master's capacity to guide this success.

Moreover,the life-altering master thoroughly understands the difference between encouragement and empowerment. He empowers his apprentice with his example and by first making the tough choices. Choices which may not be visibly in favor of the master himself but have two distinct characteristics: 1. A direct benefit for the apprentice 2. It is the right thing to do. To the life-altering master, the withholding of a tangible gain is not an end in itself but a byproduct of his larger commitment to ensure success for his apprentice. He understands that nearly all powerful forces are intangible, hence he does not consider the tangible loss but considers the intangible benefit in his transactions.

Apprentice - The Eager Learner
The apprentice recognizes that the master is crucial for his/her growth. Without the master, the apprentice is lost. Many may argue: there are plenty of books and resources available that one can take advantage of. Though yes, they undoubtedly help one bring about positive change, yet they lack a crucial edge that is brought by the Master-Apprentice relation; real-time responsiveness. The situation of an individual without a master can be likened to the situation of someone trying to walk through a minefield by reading a manual on how to detect mines buried in a field. With the assistance of a Master the road is charted because the master has walked the minefield the apprentice is about walk through.

An important facet of the Master-Apprentice relationship, the apprentice must understand, is that the master is not obligated to serve the apprentice. There could be a thousand other things that the master could be doing. The apprentice must seek out the master more than as and when he/she feels the need for assistance. One of the more prominent flaw of growing leaders is their sense of independence. In today's world, with excess of available resources and information, its easy for an individual to think he/she does not need mentorship. When we compare ourselves to the leaders of the past from any era before ours when information wasn't as abundant; we see some of the most concrete Master-Apprentice relationships. And as a result, the apprentice's core values, even 2 generations later, are in a direct alignment with that of the original master who's long gone. That is because the master has invested himself into the relationship and his core values have trickled into the life of the apprentice through a holistic interaction through generations because each master invested himself in each relationship respectively. However, the investment of the master is purely dependent on the applicability of the apprentice. The determined apprentice has a greater desire to learn from the master than the master himself has to teach. This isn't a new or foreign concept, we've all seen ideal Master-Apprentice relationships at work in some of the greatest Hollywood movies like The Karate Kid where the kid is determined to learn from a man who is an expert martial artist, while the master himself has little or no desire to teach. But it is the determination of the apprentice that the master eventually commits to.

Finally, the apprentice must learn the art of appreciation and express it in the master's preferred communication style. If there is any one thing that the apprentice will do to strengthen his/her relationship with his/her master, let it be this: To learn how to express appreciation to the master. It is a form of currency which is unique to each person and it is crucial for the apprentice to know what currency is accepted by his/her master. The determined apprentice understands the importance of appreciating the master because we all know that when one is appreciated, he/she gives more. In this case, the appreciated master becomes more committed to the relationship and assumes more responsibility to help the apprentice grow. After all, growth solves all problems and growth through relationship increases positive outcomes.

So how does one appreciate the master? The master will never bluntly express what form of currency of appreciation he accepts, for all we know he might not even know it himself. It is for the apprentice to figure this out through the process of trial and error. In short, one can express heartfelt gratitude in one of four ways: Gifts, Service, Words and Time. It is important for the apprentice to know which currency of appreciation works best with his/her master because giving the wrong currency of appreciation may not in fact make the master feel as appreciated, just as giving the right currency of appreciation can render multiplied dividends of the apprentice's effort.

Wingman - The Ultimate Comrade
At some point in the Master-Apprentice relationship, both the master and the apprentice realize their relationship's readiness to go to the next level. This very unconsciously happens when both are evidently learning from each other rather than the one-way learning relationship experienced at the beginning of the Master-Apprentice relationship. This relational metamorphosis can be likened to the caterpillar turning into a butterfly who will never again be bound by the restrictions of mobility. At this stage of the relationship, the master and apprentice are now equals in each other's eyes. The master no longer feels the unmentioned obligation to teach  just as the apprentice no longer feels the unmentioned obligation to seek the master. The relationship has now evolved into something of far greater value. Where both parties are aware of the presence of each other and take advantage of it. They are now learning from each other. They are friends, comrades who have been in the trenches together. They meet every so often and share inspiring stories of failure and success, they both grow in their own mediums and meet to create nothing but synergy. Though no self-imposed laws or justified means holds them accountable to each other, they secretly share a covenant to bring out the best in the other forevermore. They draw inspiration from the constancy, the endurance, the values, the ethics, the successes and the failures of the other. To have a wingman is, unconsciously, the ultimate goal of every intellectual being that walks the surface of this earth. It is exactly what separates an inspired from an uninspired soul which makes all the difference in one's life; ask the uninspired and you'll know the deep longing for peer-inspiration. It fuels one's existence and empowers one to strive to do what has never been done before. It creates a healthy, not cutthroat, competition through which stem all forms of tangible and intangible advancements. It enables creativity and focus through the balance of that which one may think unconventionally while drawing conclusions to thoughts rather than running rampant with free-flowing ideas. The relationship is a means and an end in itself.

The desire to give back is evermore after one becomes a wingman to another. And he/she then takes on a new apprentice to begin, once again, the journey of learning, unlearning and relearning as he/she see himself through the eyes of his/her apprentice. It can be likened to the image of a man with one hand stretched upwards to be pulled up by the people that have gone before him and another stretching downwards to bring along others. Such is the perpetual nature of the life-cycle of the Master-Apprentice-Wingman relationship as it creates true intrinsic accountability; one that is independent of any and all external factors.

Entrepreneu - The Application Of
A question that certainly might come to mind at this point is: "Can one enable such a system in their own organization?"  Yes, it can be done. And to add to that, it can be done with low, and in some cases no, monetary costs associated with it. The process goes back to what was mentioned in Why 90% of Training Programs Fail. We must do three fundamental things in order to create a culture of Master-Apprentice relationships in our organizations:
Inspire - Any and all actions stem from some form of motivation. When the motivation is intrinsic (stemming from within), the person is inspired. We must inspire our people to aspire towards such relationships by first spreading awareness and then showcasing and celebrating such successful relationships within the organization/industry.
Teach - The characteristics of the highlighted relationships must be expounded for a thorough understanding of the relationship. It is imperative that participants clearly comply with the mentality of the master or apprentice respectively for the relationship to produce the best possible result.
Enable - Finally, a support system must be created for tying masters with apprentices and vice versa. A place where people can come to give back (be a master) and to learn (be an apprentice). This closes the loop which started with the desire to want to teach/learn.

a note to the inspired
To the individual reading this who is not part of an organization that has embraced this concept; nevermind that the world has not adapted to its need of the hour, you must seek out that master who will guide you in your journey. And while seeking out the master be sure to disregard income, fame, bank balance, etc... Consider lifestyle instead. Ask yourself: "Would I like to live the way he does?" Because a master worth learning from is the one who lives a holistic life and one can only teach what one knows because one cannot give what he does not have.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. I am interested in knowing your thoughts on this. Please share them below, let us start a discussion.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Curious Case of the Nosy Employee

We all know of the employee who is a wanderer in the office premises. All that he ever does is walk around and march into other peoples' desks and cubicles, and ask - 'Hey, what's going on!' He greets people with a big smile and a deep baritone that you know is going to reverberate through the office as he opens his mouth to speak (let's call him The Wannabe Tycoon). Or he might be a quiet guy who goes about his task very subtly, somewhat akin to the horse whisperer who tames the wild beast with his mellow voice, and then builds a rapport with the stallion for life (let's call him The Smiling Buddha). Whatever his demeanor, his behaviour is sure to harbor extreme reactions in people - he is either liked a lot by his fans or downright detested by his audience. Yet others may be slightly amused by his candor, and shrug their shoulders in disbelief every time he leaves their cubicle. They wonder when he gets actual work done, and if he gets any work done at all.

Let's linger for a while longer here and understand the modus-operandi of this curious employee. You might be working for hours on an assignment holed up at your desk, it is probably late in the evening, and you are hoping for some divine intervention that will help you get it done and go home. A head suddenly pops up from the desk across your cubicle and your friendly neighborhood Buddha is beaming at you. You smile back. He comes over and very politely asks if you would like to get some tea. You forget all about the assignment for a brief second. You are relieved to have The Smiling Buddha for company and for the chai break - you happily consent to the offer. 

Rewind the scenario back a bit and go back to when you were working hard on that assignment. You are startled and almost fall off your chair when you hear a booming voice from right behind you that shouts "Whats going onnn!" You turn around to see The Wannabe Tycoon beaming his perfect set of 32 teeth at you. He comes and sits by your side to engage you in a long drawn discussion about methane gas on Mars, challenges at the workplace, his cool new gadget, potential client wins on the horizon, and his last vacation to the Bahamas. You are slightly annoyed at the interruption, but humour him nonetheless, hoping to get back to your work as soon as you can. 

Regardless of the personality type of the employee, we see both The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon leverage the informal learning environment that exists at the workplace. During the next team meeting, you can rest assured that both these gentlemen would have interesting insights to offer - about the market, assignments, competition, etc. They consciously try and glean important information through active conversation with colleagues, bosses, clients, and competition, while at the same time respecting personal boundaries and confidential information. 

Leaders must recognize the importance of knowledge exchanged via a social setting, and consciously create conducive learning environments for such interactions between employees. What is the point of having relevant knowledge rot in the company's social media archive for years? Or the rich, albeit underutilized perspectives that exist in silos within the four walls of the organization? Very few managers can identify the powerful synergies that can be realized by getting their employees to engage in active discussion. Imagine getting members from your legal, finance, marketing and sales teams into the cafetaria to have a lively SWOT talk over coffee or lunch. They would be uncomfortable sharing anything at all the first time, but when this turns into a regular affair, you will begin to see perspectives come to the fore that nobody thought existed previously. The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon use the power of informal learning to establish lasting relationships, learn more about their business and their industry, and advance their careers. Maybe it is time to use some of those techniques to enable your organization catapult itself to the next level of learning and performance.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Can HR be an architect of firm culture?

The role of the HR function has evolved over the last decade and a half to keep pace with business realities.  A number of definitions of the HR function and its roles have been put forth by business leaders and researchers alike. For example, a simple typology of four groupings of HR practices that follow the processes central to organizational success are1:
  • Flow of people
  • Flow of performance management
  • Flow of information
  • Flow of work

The role of HR has also been defined through the lens of strategy, wherein the HR function is actively involved in both the creation and implementation of the overall strategic direction of the organization. HR no longer has to worry about working doubly hard to convince leaders that it is central to the business and about achieving the proverbial “seat at the table”. In this context, HR is a Strategy Architect, looking at organizational challenges through the lens of both business and people. This leads to the HR function facilitating strategy creation, clarifying and articulating the strategy, ensuring timely execution, aligning leadership behavior to strategy and bringing the view of the outside customer into the organization2.

However, there is also a third, and extremely crucial function with respect to strategy implementation. This ‘missing link’ is only now beginning to be understood by HR practitioners and business leaders. The link assists in seamlessly integrating the four crucial groupings laid out above, and is sometimes seen as the ‘soft side’ of management. However, experienced leaders will tell us that it is actually the hardest, because it deals with attitudes and behaviors which seem vague, but are critical to the firm. This missing link is Culture.

Defining Culture

What then is organizational culture? The concept of organizational culture has been defined from many perspectives in the literature. There is no one single definition. The topic of organizational culture has been studied from many perspectives and disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, organizational behavior, and organizational leadership to name a few. Deal (1999) defines organizational culture as values, beliefs, and behaviors that differentiate one organization from another3. Simply put, culture defines the proper way to think, act and behave within an organization4

This simple, yet accurate definition of culture gives us scope to ask several questions about the nature of firm culture. What is our current culture? Who creates culture? Who sustains it? Is it always aligned to firm strategy? Is it well aligned with the firm’s vision, mission and values? 5 What leads to changes in firm culture? Is it always managed top-down? And most importantly, it leads us to the question: What role does HR play in shaping firm culture?

Leveraging Firm Culture for Competitive Advantage

Human, not financial, capital must be the starting point and ongoing foundation of a successful strategy6. Significant advantage accrues to companies that encourage open communication and that know where and how to break down barriers to honest feedback. Risk management programs at large companies tend to be finely tuned to financial and compliance risks but rarely focus on cultural sources of risk7.

If the collective attitudes, perceptions and behaviors of all employees in an organization shape its culture, then alignment of culture with the firm strategy is imperative to firm success. It is common to talk of an organization’s culture as if it is simply “the way things are”. But no culture is static8. It is continually reinforced and balanced by internal and external events that drive the organization.

How then can HR play a pivotal role in shaping firm culture? Would some of the traditional tools of pay systems, performance management, recruiting, selection and training & development suffice in this endavor? Or is something more required?

  • Ulrich, Dave; Brockbank, Wayne, The work of HR part one: people and performance, Strategic HR Review; Jul/Aug 2005; 4, 5; ABI/INFORM Complete
  • Ulrich, Dave; Brockbank, Wayne; Johnson, Dani, The Role of Strategy Architect in the Strategic HR Organization, People and Strategy; 2009; 32, 1; ABI/INFORM Complete
  •  Boniface C. Madu, Grand Canyon University, Organization culture as driver of competitive advantage, Journal of Academic and Business Ethics.
  •, HR Impact on Corporate Culture, Jul 1, 2005.
  • Andy Hanselman, Moneywatch, How to Use Culture for Competitive Advantage, July 22, 2010.
  • Christopher A. Bartlett & Sumantra Ghoshal, Building Competitive Advantage Through People, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2002, Vol. 43, No. 2.
  • Paul Edelman, Srikanth Seshadri and Randeep Rathindran, Organizational Culture: An Overlooked Internal Risk, Bloomberg Businessweek - Companies & Industries, October 01, 2010.
  • Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Random House Business Books. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The People Paradigm: Why sticking to the basics will go a long way to ensure sustained growth

The fast-evolving, ever-changing, globalized world of today leaves us gasping for breath as the corporation of the 21st century tries to make sense of the myriad tools available at its disposal to take it to the next level. With the Indian economy slowing down drastically over the last few years, the focus has shifted from long-term, vision-oriented growth, to maintaining a consistent top and bottom-line, ensuring steady growth quarter on quarter, appeasing shareholders, and staying just a little ahead of competition. CXOs move at a frenetic pace to discover and re-discover technologies that help improve processes, strategy and quality. Entrepreneurship and learning agendas revolve around technology-enabled platforms that help improve these factors. Paradoxically, while we seek out tools that help improve efficacies and cut-down costs in a slowing economy, we self-impose constraints upon ourselves which disables us to think beyond top-line growth. It is natural that market-related factors would result in additional pressures on the firm. However, looking at the problem through the very narrow lens of just numbers chokes up the two crucial aspects of the evolving organization: outcome-oriented innovation and transformational leadership.
Let us draw a parallel here with something that we are familiar with: a bustling metropolitan city. Assume that your organization resembles this city. An ever-growing city, it acts as the financial, political and entertainment nerve-centre of India. The city resembles a living, breathing being spreading out its tentacles as it expands further in all directions. The bustling metropolis is a hotspot for a multitude of professionals: artists and bankers alike. Communities from all over the globe call the city home. Every day a new housing project is announced by a hot-shot developer, promising gated communities, green zones and wide open-spaces. But those of us who have a vision for our futuristic city also understand that this growth is not sustainable. This is also a city that is bursting at its seams. Endless traffic jams, bad roads, poor connectivity, delayed projects, pollution and waste-management / sanitation issues are blocks that degrade quality of life. It is therefore imperative to build a solid foundation on a bedrock of energy, conservation, and world-class infrastructure.
From an organizational perspective, this bedrock is its people, the employees. Just like the world-class infrastructure of a well-planned city provides a strong foundation for the city to grow, the people of an organization provide support to the firm through their personal and shared visions. Growth for its own sake neglects the people of the firm; and when we neglect our people for a long time, we risk weakening the foundation on which we build our institutions. Just like well-laden parks and public spaces allow personal enrichment for citizens in mega cities, opportunities to stretch the mind, created consciously within the firm, create the right environment for employees to grow and flourish. The parks may not serve any immediate purpose in furthering productive usage of the land (as some people may argue), but visionary city-planners understand that providing this benefit allows for happy citizens leading a healthy, balanced life. Similarly, creating metaphorical parks for employees that allow them to periodically break out to innovate and ideate go a long way in strengthening organizational foundations, as opposed to focusing on one-dimensional growth with single-minded ferocity. Neglect this most crucial aspect of building and nurturing the foundation, and you risk building a futuristic city on a foundation of loose silt, creaky infrastructure and poor sanitation. What results is a cranky organization, replete with honking drivers, endless traffic jams, filthy streets and potholed roads. 
Here are some questions for introspection: As someone with a vision for your organization, what do you as a person stand for? What does your organization stand for? How many times do you discuss your firm vision with your employees? How often do you evaluate gaps? How often do you listen to the perspectives and shared visions your employees bring to the table? Do you start your change-management process when you begin to see a spike in attrition levels? It is probably too late by then. Or do you prefer a proactive approach, by consciously, continuously investing in your employees, giving them enough opportunities to collaborate, take risks, and implement their personal and shared visions? Are you aware of your firm culture and what it is breeding? Where do you envision your firm to be in five, ten, fifty, hundred years? Are your people well equipped to march with you into the future? Do you consciously promote a culture of excellence, innovation and constant self-renewal? Or is it a by-product of the industry that you operate in? (again, a reactive approach).
These are some tough questions that organizations need to ask themselves. Any form of growth, be it frenetic or slow, cannot be sustained with weak foundations. We live in a world filled with unlimited opportunities and ever-expanding possibilities. It easy to get washed away with the ebb and flow of volatile market sentiments. Well-grounded leaders understand the value of investing back into the firm: more specifically, into developing their people. Company strategy may shift, numbers may fluctuate, technological influences may vary, but one crucial aspect remains constant through all of these: people and the power of transformation they bring with them. Choose to ignore this and you choose to convert your only constant into an unknown variable.