The crux of coaching

Every year 5th September is celebrated as Teachers day in India. We were preparing a custom greeting card for our little one

Coaching
Coaching

(to share with her teacher) to demonstrate a good gesture. Around the same time my mind started thinking about teachers, coaching and positive impact it creates individuals. The process of coaching doesn’t end after we pass out from school/college; in fact one requires coaching from a different dimension afterwards. I have been coached by many exceptional individuals for whom I will remain eternally thankful. There are numerous occasions when I was clueless, done mistakes or even frustrated. These set of mentors/coaches were always available to me to help and support all the time. I tried to look back and try to understand what exactly these individuals have done to me? After all what exactly is the crux of coaching?

I would like to take my recent example of coaching from long distance running experience and try to find answer for my previous question. When individuals are getting trained for long distances, it is highly likely possible those individuals face difficulties to keep up with running long distances. The issue can be due to physical fatigue, injury, mental blockers, and inferiority thinking which eventually leads to lesser self confidence in the person. In such situations individuals end up running last or walk or even think of quitting the run. Understanding this state quickly, I have seen the coach end up running along with this slowest running person in the group.

Now what is the powerful and indirect message that coach is conveying? Primarily the slowest runner gets a mental support that he is not alone and running slowly is not a big issue. By getting an encouraging word or two during such situations (“Good job, you are getting better”) from the coach instills confidence and re-assurance. This creates a huge transformation on the person, who is getting coached, which will help them to get out of the issue (mentioned above) quickly, even though it might fall under any of the category.

Connecting back, this is exactly what they have done to me time-and-again. In challenging situations these mentors ensured that they kept faith and confidence, which meant a lot to me during such situations. With this support it was quite natural for me to figure out action and come out of difficulties.

In my opinion, having faith in individuals and installing confidence during difficult times summarizes the crux of coaching. For the person is receiving end it is a humbling experience.

Book review: Employees First, Customer second

Jwritings - Employee first, Customer second
EFCS - Vineet Nayar

Author: Vineet Nayar

Price: 499 INR (Audio version of the book)

Employees First, Customer Second (EFCS) is creating buzz for a while now! Coined by HCL vetranVineet Nayar, this term has created a bunch of different interpretations, perspectives and discussions. I picked up audio version of this book from Reado, mainly to bring pace  to my reading habit. Listening to audio book, especially in busy city traffic conditions, makes it a enriching experience by putting better use of time. Also audio book helps to read book faster than the traditional printed books. I used to be an advocate of buying books in printed form and have them as my priceless possessions. Thanks to the busy schedule at work and home kindled me to explore innovative ways to keep my reading habit alive. EFCS is the first audio book I have heard (long time back I did similar stuff with one of the Tamil books, by having them listen during travel), so listening to an English audio book is also equally interesting experience.

Coming to EFCS book, author Vineet Nayar shares his transformational journey in HCL using EFCS framework. HCL, one of the top notch software services companies in India, steadily lost its stream both in business and people elements.  HCL was not considered as a preferred employer by many of people due to not so favorable work environment. Based on his experience by meeting HCL employees Vineet felt many key issues, which pushed him to make transformation in HCL by implementing EFCS. Fundamentally Vineet believed what he describes as ‘value zone’, which is nothing but an employee linkage with its customer. This critical zone where  customer interacts with software service organization like HCL to get the necessary assignment done. For customers, they see the software company and its value generation thru its employees who are interfacing with him/her. So from the organization perspective, if employees in the value zone, who can be enabled and empowered, would result in more value for customers. In order to take care of its customers better organizations need to work with their own people, to put them first before customers. Because every action they do eventually gets converted into value for customers thereby maximizing many things which include employee satisfaction, customer value, revenue, profitability etc. This doesn’t mean providing a second-class treatment to customer, but in order to give them first-class treatment, employees of the organization needs to be taken care.

With this basic principle, Vineet goes on executing EFCS by taking few important but bold changes in the organization. To start with, he gets his top 100 leadership team to buy in this concept of EFCS by creating what he describes  as ‘blueprint’ meetings.  Initially most of the senior leader were not able to buy in this idea with ‘yes, but….’ Thinking, but over a period of time, they start seeing the value of doing such things customers. Second, Nayar believes in order to implement EFCS successfullym, he need to build trust in the organization at all levels. In order to open up conversation with employees, he creates an internal two-way transparent web based system called ‘U and Me’ by openly making conversation with employees. Employees at any level can open conversation with the CEO (Nayar himself) or any of the senior leadership team. In case of specific questions, pertaining to a business line, the corresponding leader would provide the response. When this started off, initial days were more of making it as a compliant box, but over a period of time it turned out to be a platform to build two-way transparent conversation for building trust in the leadership. After attaining certain level of maturity, Vineet opened up this platform with a new item titled ‘My problems’ where he started seeing suggestions/inputs from employees for the issues faced by him with respect to competitors, business changes/challenges, media etc. He started getting very creative and workable suggestions from employees from all the level, which in turn created more belief in the leadership among employees.

Third, internal systems were tuned to support/empower and aid people in the ‘value zone’. For example business support functions like HR, finance, operations etc, need to be tuned for getting support to the business needs by creating a ticketing system with automatic upward escalation. This also broke the traditional power center concept by truly tuning the organization to be people centric, thereby eventually passing on the value to customers. In the same lines, Vineet opened up business results (revenue, profit, current status etc..) data of individual businesses as a transparent information across the organization. Every individual group/team were able to clearly see where their team/business stood with respect to other organizations. While this created some initial issues (ex: information leaking to the press, as HCL is a public listed company) but this created a sense of urgency and bias to take action for improving the situation. It took about four years time for Vineet to implement EFCS in multiple phases and he also explains the benefit/results of this framework in terms of revenues/profits/employee satisfaction. By taking certain big bold steps like EFCS, HCL is transformed into a multi billion dollar organization with capability to handle larget client base with higher criticality.

When such large scale tranformational changes are implemented, any organization will have its mixed response from people side. When I talked with some of my HCL friends about EFCS they were not so excited but admitted that it did had impact in the way HCL has done business. It required lot of courage backed with common-sense to float something like EFCS, but Nayar’s no non-sense common sense approach was really interesting to challenge stereotype management thinking.

Bowling coach to Sachin Tendulkar – Make sense?

Of course it doesn’t make sense!

Why do anybody want to appoint a bowling coach to the greatest batsman that cricket has ever produced? Why do we want him to get better with bowling when he is so good at batting? He has been pretty decent part-time bowler who bowled few overs and got some crucial wickets (with some special ones like 1993 Hero cup semi finals against South Africa) as well. All he did for his two decades of historical cricketing career was to bat, bat and just bat!

When I look beyond Sachin, here are the key attributes of Indian top order today:

Sehwag/Gambhir (attacking, aggressive) – Apt for first 15 overs

Virat Kohli (controlled aggression, matured stroke-player) – Apt for 15-35 overs

Raina/Dhoni/Yuvraj (excellent strikers who can effortlessly clear the field plus great finishers of the game) – Apt for 35-50 overs

Of course, when wickets fall early, batsman should adapt to the situation and play. Definitely, this batting order is not arrived in a random fashion. It is arranged based on which position a batsman is exactly good at, based on his natural game. It is done with specific intent in mind so that the possibility of success in a match can be maximized.

Cut to corporate! In teams we end up having different set of people who has different set of strengths. For example in a product development team I typically find individuals who are good in different areas – innovation, requirement analysis, customer interfacing, coding, software designing, user experience, crisis handling, quality assurance, critical problem solving ability and some all-rounders who can do all the above mentioned roles fairly well. It becomes extremely important to have right people in right roles (similar to cricket batting order) to maximize success of the team. Again “success” here could mean anything – increased customer satisfaction, increased sales numbers, quality and on-time product launch etc.

Its always a puzzle and challenging task to identify what individuals are actually good at and provide them with right set of opportunities. In my opinion this is THE critical responsibility of leader who should spend good amount of time in doing that. When roles are identified according to individual’s strengths and corresponding responsibilities are defined, it can be completely left with individuals to produce desired result. When individuals feel they are doing the job where they are good at, it automatically increases their self esteem thereby lifting the overall moral of the individual. In summary is multiples result produced by the team. Let me explain this with some example.

Say an individual A who is extremely good at finding new technology and passionate about innovation. Driven by his creative mental ability he can almost always suggest a new way to get things done. However he may not be a process oriented individual, who might even think process kills creativity. There could be another individual B, who is meticulous when it comes to getting things done by following the process with 100% discipline. He would love to do same things again and again and improve it over a period of time. For him the maximum pleasure comes from continuously refining it, whereas for the former case it could be continuously creating something always. Given the core strength of individuals, they need to be placed in appropriate nature of work. For example A can be part of organizational technology incubation team, which demands frequent survey of latest technology and suggest future business possibilities. B can be placed as a customer facing individual who can champion by following meticulous steps with each and every customer, failing which can cause customer dis-satisfaction. Now what if these roles are reversed? The answer is obvious – planned disaster! A will get completely bored and frustrated with customer facing and B will get scared to come up with new things very frequently.

Identifying individual strengths and providing them with right roles is not always 100% possible in an organization, where there could be multiple options. The team/business may not require a particular strength or skill which an individual is good at. In such cases it is much better to rotate individuals to different opportunities inside the organization where their skills can be utilized in a better manner. Or in some worst scenario, it is better to let them go (or they will get frustrated and leave the organization) rather than wasting both individual and organization’s time. In some cases there would be a possibility that the individual skills matches to the role to a larger extent (say 80%) who can be still provided support for making him effective in the role.  In some other cases individuals need to be rotated across different roles (ex: R & D -> marking) to expose them different aspects of the business, which is part of leadership building process. As a direct impact, this will immediately reflect in an individual’s performance ratings. I will talk more about this in a separate post.

Leadership dichotomy: Compassionate Vs. Ruthless

Let us start with two case studies.

Case-1: Consider a situation where one of your top performing members (person A) in the team is going thru a serious personal problem. The problem could come in many forms (love/affair failure, wife pregnancy complications, parents/kid having serious illness, perennial conflicts at home etc.) which make the individual disturbed because of which his focus on work might come down, due to which his intermediate deliverable may not be up to the mark. However he has earned his credibility in the team by consistently delivering on the expectations.

Case-2: Consider a situation where another member (person B) in the team, is not delivering on his business commitments where results are way below the expectations due to lack of ownership. Every other time, he comes up with some or other excuse for not doing the work, where proper effort is not spent let alone the results. However this individual has necessary capability to complete the work.

As a leader of the group, you end up facing cases mentioned above very frequently, which needs to be handled totally differently. With person A you need to be in ‘compassionate’ mode by understanding humane aspect of an individual by understanding personal issues/challenges faced. By considering the past record of this individual he needs to be given certain flexibility to sort of the personal problems. As a leader you can also offer solution or suggestion for him to come out of personal problem. But in simple terms, the leader has to take the ‘high on people, low on business’ approach by taking humane view into perspective.

In case of person B, you need to pass on a clear message with sharp feedback for not delivering on his commitment. If the situation prevails you need to quickly switch into ‘ruthless’ mode  by taking some strict action (ex: providing a performance improvement plan) or ask him to leave the organization if the situation worsens. When individuals are not delivering consistently, resulting in lower performance it should be treated very strictly. But in simple terms the leader has to take the ‘high business, low people’ approach by taking the business perspective into consideration. After-all organization and people are here to get things done and deliver on business commitments.

But the real challenge comes when you as a leader face multiple cases where you need to switch between ‘compassionate’ and ‘ruthless’ mode. Sometimes the mode switching has to happen in back-to-back meetings with hardly few minutes interval in between them. Based on my experience, the success of the leader depends on how seamlessly the leader is able to handle switching between these two modes, which is not an easy task at all. Also when it is not executed properly it may create disaster situations. For example, being ‘ruthless’ to the person A will create a ‘Hitler’ image of the leader to the individual (and eventually to the team) where the individual might feel his human aspects are not taken care. Also being ‘compassionate’ to person B will result in him enjoying paid vacation as a part of his job!

It really takes a lot on the leader to read the situations day-in-day-out and take decisions accordingly. Given the fact that leaders also human beings that have emotions, it is likely possible that leaders fail to switch between modes, which is normally known as ‘getting carried away’ by the situation. Achieving right balance between people and business is always challenging, which also makes leadership an ever evolving and ever learning journey as far as individuals are concerned. After all when it comes to leadership nobody can say ‘I am done’.

Who is the real “top” performer?

The performance management or appraisal system is one of the most debated topics around the globe, irrespective of the organization. After seeing different systems in different organizations, I come to a conclusion that most of them operate with same fundamentals. It can be summarized as follows:

  • What an individual has done in terms of given responsibilities (ex: Work volume)?
  • How an individual has gone about doing his responsibilities (ex: Behavioral aspects)?
  • What results (ex: Quantified) did an individual produce against given set of responsibilities?

While there may be minor differences in implementation among organizations, some of the members in a team or group need to be selected as ‘top’ performers, who did well in all the three dimensions mentioned above. These individuals are showered with higher salary raises, bonuses, perks, plum assignments etc. Sometimes these people are also regarded as ‘role models’ by giving rewards and recognitions. There is absolutely nothing wrong in doing this. High performing individuals need to be celebrated and showered with all possible benefits that organizations can provide.

However, there is a catch in identifying ‘real’ top performers. In my opinion these are the individuals who demonstrate strong character during adverse situations, which often goes missing in many evaluation methods. Given a team or group dynamics, things do change in terms of opportunities and situation. In such cases, there is a possibility where some of these top performers fail to meet the expectations, because of which their performance rating might come down a little bit. This is not because they have done really badly (after all they are high performers) but there are some other external factors (like somebody else in the team is doing better than him/her, other individuals are getting better opportunity etc…) which might have caused the situation.

The real litmus test starts when a high performance individual comes to know that his performance result has come down. Given the fact that we are all human beings, it is highly likely possible for those individuals react by saying – “No! I didn’t expect this”, “This is highly demotivating” or the most popular one “manager is biased; It’s all BS out there”. In some of the cases I have seen extreme cases where this “top-performer” becomes negative and starts spreading negativity in the team. In some cases we tend to wonder “Is this the same guy whom we rated high last time? Is this the same individual for whom we given so many awards in the past? Is this the same individual who was considered as role model one year back?”

The bottom line is very simple. Real top performers are the ones who not only do well when given higher performance ratings, but also accepts feedback in challenging situations and work for better performance next time. These individuals have a strong character which comes out during difficult times which is the sign of the “real” top performers. In fact I would rather bet on a guy who takes lesser performance rating and ready to work on it than a guy who just simply fails to accept the fact that he cannot be rated low.

Focus on the effort… as much as the result – Another perspective

This is the second part of my earlier blog “Focus on the effort… as much as the result” – http://jwritings.com/?p=562. In case you have not read that, I would suggest that you do before proceeding to read this.
While that blog presents a good picture of a project with high stakes, riveting rush by the team culminating in a nice photo finish (almost cinematic), there are some disturbing questions too. Why did it take until 2:00 pm on the release date to figure out that there was a long list pending? Shouldnt there have been appropriate checks and balances in place (especially since this was a release that multiple regions were looking forward to)? Shouldnt the stakeholders (folks who had made commitments to customers) been sounded off earlier that there could be a slip (in which case they could at least fore-warn the customers that there MIGHT be a delay)? What if the release had not happened even after all the effort?

Is this similar to our infamous Commonwealth Games experience where weeks before the games were scheduled to start the supervising committee found stinking toilets and unpainted stadiums and deplorable athlete village? Isnt it interesting that even a senior Indian official compared the whole Commonwealth Games fiasco to Indian weddings where things are chaotic right up till the last moment before miraculously falling in place in the nick of time? Has our Indian psyche trained us to see this whole episode as a “victory from the jaws of defeat” rather than a “last minute frenzy to barely manage to deliver after screwing up all along”. Even in this case, wasnt it passion and a heroic slog by the highly charged team that delivered the win rather than a methodical and systematic process?

Now if I have to weigh both sides and choose which of these two set of qualities – passionate and heroic sloggers vs methodical and process driven marchers, I would lay more emphasis on, I would much rather pick the former. Now I am not talking about these as mutually exclusive traits, but more as the dominant characteristics of the two sides.

Here is the reasons for my choice:

Software product development is inherently unpredictable. While you can do a reasonable job of approximations earlier during the development cycle, hard release dates pretty much “emerge” during the later stages of development. After about 12 years in product development, with 8 of those as a Product Manager, I have very rarely released a product exactly on the planned release date – and I have never felt bad about it. One of the best part of this job is the opportunity to say, “I dont mind if this product is launched a few days later, but I want the wow effect”. There are always last minute changes – enhancement that you want to add for the “wow” effect or a database query optimization that’s going to deliver faster customer response times – that you did not plan for when you wrote the specs 4 months back, but want it now!!!

This is especially true in case of start ups where priorities change fast, demands from a large customer can require you to rejig or do a course correction and you are constantly trying to do more with less resources and shorter time.

With best checks and balances and processes in place, you will still have your share of “2:00 pm on release day with a long pending list” days (the frequency pretty much depends on the pace of your business)…. and on those days, you’re seriously better off with a team that’s willing to go the extra mile than a team that’s dissecting what went wrong with the process or how many times the requirements changed.

NWritings

BOOK REVIEW: The new age of Innovation

Author(s): CK Prahalad and MS Krishnan

The context of innovation has been over the years. In the world of business (especially the ones which are consumer centric) providing superior ‘customer experience’ has become the core, on which organizations build their competitive advantage. However building this customer experience (which varies from one customer to other) is not easy to build from the organization point of view, as they may not have all the necessary resources to do that. This is precisely where leveraging global networks (thanks to the power of Internet) and co-creating value along with customers become very critical, thus forming the new age of Innovation. In the book titled ‘The new Age of Innovation’ authors CK Prahalad and MS Krishnan provide a framework for building this new age of innovation in organizations, which is essential to stay competitive.

Before jumping into details of the book, let us understand the concept with a simple example: The iPhone ecosystem. Given the fact that Apple iPhone (and Apps) are used by millions of customers worldwide, they will have unique set of application requirements depending on their need (ex: App for a local eCommerce site). However Apple alone cannot achieve it by developing millions of applications as they may not have the necessary resources to do that. In order to address specific customer needs, releases a Software Development Kit (SDK) using which can be used by any individual for developing applications and host it as a part of the App-store. This is precisely what authors call it as N = 1, R = G model of innovation. In order to address a unique requirement of a customer (N = 1) firm can leverage Resources (R) that are available globally (G).  In the similar lines of Apple, many organizations are innovating around this N =1, R = G model, some of the examples being Wal-Mart (retail) and ICICI (Banking).

After introducing this new model of innovation, authors dive deep into intricacies in subsequent chapters by taking various aspects and case studies. The first aspect talks about having robust business processes, which lay foundation for innovation as it integrates business strategy, business process and operations. The very process of doing a business activity differently can act as a competitive differentiators, thereby enabling innovation. ICICI Bank in India is a classic example where they transformed the face of Indian banking system by being successfully executing the business process innovation. Also by consistently building on the process they are able to introduce services like internet banking, online trading account, cost-effective support system etc. The subsequent chapter talks about deriving useful insights (ex: customer behavior and expectations) with data analytics by listening deeper into customer transactions. The analytical information derived can be used to take specific actions (ex: Dynamic configuration of resources, continuous improvement, strategic redirection) in order to meet customer/market expectations. Especially for organizations like UPS or FedEx, deriving useful intelligence information from global supply chain becomes critical.

Third aspect of innovation is about having robust Information and Communication Technology (ICT) architecture where building scalable and intelligent systems for responding to unique customer demands.  For example, Google accesses 40 billion distinct pages to create unique personalized experience (N = 1) for its customers, which is aided by strong internal ICT architecture. All the above mentioned three aspects (business process, analytics, ICT architecture) cannot be successfully implemented if organization and its people are not flexible and adaptable enough to cope with changing business environment. In order to achieve the desired results, strong organization commitment should be there in terms of senior management evangelism, strong accountability with alignment and clear understanding of ICT architecture, which is covered in subsequent chapters.

The people goal can be achieved only when the organization evolves by taking real time decision backed up with strong data-points, strong yet flexible organizational structure and pro-actively addressing customer issues. The other key point is to improve the capability of the organization by understanding and continuously making competency improvement in the organization. Authors explain various case studies (ex: Madras Cements) and how they have leveraged the people part to gain business advantage out of it. The final chapter of the book talks about a list of agenda those global managers to adapt for making the innovation work in their teams and organizations.

In my opinion, the context of Innovation has changed to a larger extent recently. What was initially considered as a “cool product” may not necessarily innovative in business sense as it may not make the organizational business successful. Taking customers and their unique experiences into account is a very important for innovating in business today, where many aspects mentioned in the book can be handy. Another very interesting observation is to see many case studies from various Indian companies and their innovation models, which is quite inspiring.

Personal Effectiveness in Team Building

Being an ‘effective’ professional is the key for becoming successful in a team environment. In technology industry cross-functional teams (consisting development, test, documentation and customer support members) is no longer a theory, but a norm these days. Understanding and handling perceptions, developing deeper listening skills, working in a team with complementary skills — are key for long term success as a professional.

Recently, I have shared a presentation to my team, which is shared below. With Agile (more on this later) becoming new way of software development, it becomes all the more attention for us to pay equal attention in shaping such behavior in our teams.

What is your opinion on this?


Performance management – Differentiation

Recently my supervisor has started an initiative, where each one of us started sharing details on a particular topic, taking reference from a famous leadership/management book. Based on my recent study, I have come up with a presentation on ‘Differentiation’  by Jack Welch. Have a look at it and let me know what you think.


Performance management – Beyond ratings & rankings

The topic on performance management (popularly known as performance appraisal) is one of the least understood and complex topics in management. Especially in Indian context, often it is linked with annual/bi-annual salary raises/promotions. At an outset it might look like a mundane ceremony done for name-sake,where favoritism (or impression with direct reporting manager) plays a major role. But the real spirit of performance management and the idea behind it goes much deeper than that.

When I started doing performance management in my team, I understood the awareness among members is much less. In order to improve that and build better mutual understanding, came up with some material which is shared below with some modifications. Going forward, I will be sharing a series of presentations under this topic. While there might be minor modifications among organizations in operational aspects, the core message remains the same.