BOOK REVIEW: My journey – Transforming dreams into action

Abdul Kalam
Transforming dreams into actions

Author: APJ Abdul Kalam

Price: 195 INR

For most Indians, reading about Abdul Kalam and his work is always an inspiring item. Post retirement, he started off his journey into writing by scripting his auto-biography titled ‘The wings of fire’, followed by some popular books like Ignited Minds, Envisioning an empowered nation, Turning points etc. Most of them talk about his early life in Rameshwaram followed by his experience with various defense and space research organizations. Another popular theme in these book is about “Vision 2020”, where Kalam is been articulating India becoming super power by 2012 by achieving excellence in technology, rural transformation, self reliance and self sustainability.

In this latest book ‘My journey – Transforming dreams into Action’, Kalam has followed pretty much the same canvas but gone into very small and specific stories. Unlike his previous books, he has chosen real life anecdotes and shared deeper learning from them. Growing up in town like Rameshwaram with very high aspirations and dreams is not very easy situation to handle. With lesser resources and exposure, Kalam need to go thru lot of struggle and build his career brick-by-brick. The most inspiring part is about him overcoming umpteen numbers of challenges and overcoming them with very strong vision and value.

For example, he explains how he became a working person at the age of 8 by supplying newspapers in Rameshwaram and struggle associated with it. Every day he would to get up at 4 AM followed by his morning tuition and prayers. In order to support his family Kalam takes a part time job of distributing newspapers to Rameshwaram household. Thanks to some policy change, Chennai-Dhanushkodi passenger train which carried daily newspaper bundle from Chennai removed Rameshwaram station from the list. This resulted in Kalam doing every day stunt by catching paper bundle thrown from a moving train at Rameshwaram station. Kalam will then go on distributing them after which his school day would start. In the evening he would finish his homework and complete settlement of newspaper daily account with his cousin who gave him this opportunity. It was quite obvious to see the amount of stress and pressure he might have gone thru as a 8 year old boy, but the way he put it across along with key learnings is simply amazing.

There are multiple similar stories related to his profession filled with struggle and failures.  Inspired by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Kalam and his team went on building Indian space story from the scratch.  He recalls how his professional career is similar to his early life in Rameshwaram – Lesser resources, Limited knowledge, larger challenges and a passion to win. Taking references from Bhagavat Gita to Thirukkural, Kalam mentions how he taken inspiration from these great ancient text to lift him up when things went wrong due to mistakes.  There were some repeated stories (ex: Church in Thumba becoming ISRO office, thanks to the local people), however they are always inspiring ones to hear again and again.

Unlike his previous books, Kalam kept this one very simple which can even read and understood by a high school kid. Definitely worth reading!

Building Leadership pipeline

As the popular saying goes, Leadership is all about ‘Building more leaders’ in the organization. Identifying, coaching and grooming high potential individuals play key role in building the leadership pipeline. In technology industry, it is critical to choose an individual who bring in technology passion, people quotient and business acumen. However these folks are not available ‘read-made’, need to be built over a period of time by grooming.  In this story we will delve into three pragmatic aspects that need to be considered in the grooming process.

Identify strengths

Assuming that you are a leader who is looking forward to build your next set of leaders, the first step is to identify key strengths among the set of individuals, who can potentially take up the leadership position. Leaders need to spend significant amount of time by developing deeper listening to these individuals for assessment. Here are the typical questions you need to consider against each individual.

  1. What is the technology depth Vs breath an individual has? Is he a detail oriented problem solver or generalist with common set of skills?
  2. Does he possess significant relationship building skills? What is his individual track record in interacting with customers?
  3. How good is his Emotional Quotient? Can he take people together in a compassionate manner? How does he react in pressure or conflicting situations?
  4. How good is his interest in self development? Has he shown interest in investing himself by taking up organization specific training programs or considers it as an overhead?

The above mentioned questions may not be conclusive, but it would provide you with a clear indication of an individual’s strengths. Once it becomes clear, he needs to be positioned to take up leadership roles, depending on his/her strength area. At the end of this assessment process you will have the list of potential people who are competent to some extent to take up leadership positions.

Value alignment

While the first step talks about an individual’s strength and his competency, it is definitely not suffice to choose an individual as a leader. Here is where the critical factor of ‘value alignment’ comes into picture. An individual may be extremely good with certain skills, but if they don’t have necessary value alignment with the organization by possessing right values, it will become a disaster in the long run. Here are the few questions to assess the value alignment of an individual:

  1. How strong is his integrity? Can you trust on any numbers that he gives which could be in as simple as the estimation he provides for his own work completion? Does he bloat up the time just to ensure he is in a comfort zone?
  2. When any mistakes happen, does he protect his team members or passes on the blame to them?
  3. How well he understand organization core values and vision? Has he developed understanding of how the organization core values maps to his work?
  4. Does he feel comfortable to share the bad news first?
  5. Does he convey the same message to higher ups and to the junior members?

Again, the above mentioned questions may not be conclusive but clearly indicate whether an individual is a value aligned or not. Given a choice it is always better to choose a guy with strong values than the one having higher competency, mainly because competency can be groomed.

Coaching process

Once we identify an individual with stronger grip in competency and value aspects, he needs to be positioned in the team to do the leadership role without giving formal authority. This means rather than announcing ‘here is your next team leader or manager’ it is always better to groom them in the role by taking step-by-step approach. As a part of the coaching you need to identify his gap areas for taking up the leadership role and align it with current responsibilities and performance management system. That way an individual also understands that he has to evolve into the role by working in gap areas gradually.

On the job, the individual needs to be given incremental responsibility. To start with few coordination activity can be identified (ex: project metric collection) by working with various members in the team. Team should be clear about his new responsibility, mainly to avoid any potential conflicts. Slowly but steadily, such responsibilities needs to be increased depending on how well an individual is able to adjust with this new role. When he does any mistakes during the process, you need to support him by providing proper orientation. Rather than putting him into a full blown leadership coaching program it is always better to coach him on the job with real time examples like this. Along with that he can be nominated for internal/external leadership training programs.

Some of the initial set of challenges that leader-under-grooming could be facing, where orientation need to be provided:

  1. Handling conflicts
  2. Influencing individual members without formal authority
  3. Handling negativity in team member
  4. Self doubt or over-confidence

Once this incremental coaching is done, the leader-under-grooming will eventually graduate and become a well seasoned leader. Now he can be announced as a formal leader to the team by giving complete control of the team. However on a regular basic you need to do necessary check and ensure things are moving as planned.

Of course, it is very easier said than done. It is a continuous journey where you need to invest lot of time and energy in grooming. There can be many issues/challenges that will come on the way which you take it up resolve. After all when it comes to leadership, nobody can say ‘I am done!’

Performance Management – Keep it subjective

In continuation to my earlier post, Performance Management – Keep in simple, I wanted to add another facet of the Performance appraisal process here. In case you have not already read that, please do so, so that you have a better context of the thought process.

A lot of the overhead described in Performance Management – Keep in simple, fundamentally comes from trying to make the whole performance appraisal process objective. How else do you explain having the employee set medium terms goals and measuring performance at the end of 6 months based on the goals set.

The above approach of setting goals and measuring performance against those sounds reasonable, until you factor in the following:

  1. Its hard to measure most of the time.. Lets say a goal reads, “To improve the usability of the product by 50%” or “To improve code quality and reduce bugs by 25%”…. How do you measure these goal and rate performance on a scale of 1 to 10??? Moreover, these goals are typically set based on the experience from previous assignments and may not be relevant or achievable for the next set of very different assignment that you have on hand. Additionally, you may just decide that something else took a higher priority than improving the usability of the product.
  2. The traditional approach does not factor in “soft” people issues and does not offer itself to reward people for those skillsets. Some one who goes the extra mile to keep the general team morale up, exudes positive energy and influences that across the team, someone who goes the extra mile to mentor a new joinee, someone who has a keen eye to instinctively spot the gap when a release is going awry are all example of this. I have often heard good captains and coaches say, “Suresh Raina has not been among runs of late, but the amount of energy he brings into the team dressing room and on the field is hard to replace and more than make up for this temporary loss of form. We are going to retain him”.

Here are a couple of thumb rules I have usually used in the performance appraisals:

  1. Measure an employee based on the amount of responsibilities that she can reduce for her boss (so that the boss can focus on other things).
  2. Measure an employee based on the impact to the team and the product if the employee resigned.

Keep it subjective!!!!

 

– NWritings