A myth called Influencing with Authority

It is been said that “influencing without formal authority” is the most difficult task to do. This comes from the old school thinking that individuals can be influenced by a person who has formal authority over him or her. For example, if a team member (say X) immediate supervisor (say Y) is considered to be a person who has higher authority mainly because Y does X ‘s performance assessment, career growth, opportunity spotting etc.  Since Y is perceived as a “power-center”, it is assumed that Y will be able to influence X better by using tighter control. On the other hand, if an individual is not having the direct formal authority (say Z), influencing becomes a challenging task.

Cut to reality! I got first taste of this whole paradigm when I took over a program management role quite some time back. As a program manager, I was supposed to get a program delivered with multiple features, developed/tested by different team member from different project teams. Individual project teams had formal reporting structure with individual project mangers, who used to lend resources on  a per program basis. In simple term, this is what is popularly known as ‘matrix organization’ where formal reporting and business reporting act as a perpendicular items to each other. Definitely it was a challenging ask to get things done as a program manager without control of individuals. However over a period of time, I was able to build on it by developing stronger listening skills, communication, big picture creation, creating an environment of abundance etc, because of which the program execution became smooth.

At the same time I started observing where people started opening up with big time, by sharing some of their deeper concerns. They were telling me about individual career plans, career aspirations, concerns that are coming from various sources etc. Without even me asking for it information used to reach me, because of which I was able to build even stronger influence on people. On the contrary individual people managers who had formal authority were never aware of these items as information never reached them. In summary I was able to influence more without formal authority mainly because people were more open to me, which gave me tremendous opportunity for me to get people influenced.

On contrary, when I wore people management hat I ended up seeing the other side of the story where folks with lesser authority than me started having more influence on my people. Lesser the authority, more the openness thereby increasing the possibility of influencing. Performance appraisal is no longer the key for influencing individuals.

Book review – The speed of trust

Speed of trust
Speed of trust

Price: 500 INR

Author: Stephen MR Covey

This book was suggested to me quite some time back (by one of my mentors) got a chance to complete it recently. Written by Stephen MR Covey, son of Stephen Covey (senior), Speed of trust is a wonderful account of trust building in human relations. Personally, my experience with trust building is been a roller-coaster ride for me. I enjoyed tremendous amount of benefits in cases where I enjoyed higher level of trust, on the other hand struggled a lot when trust levels are low with the other person. Its hard to explain trust, mainly because “things happen” when it is there and “you feel it when you have it”. I was looking for some framework to work on getting better with trust building, where this book perfectly fit into. To start with Stephen establishes a business case for trust by connecting trust, speed and cost. In case of high trust environment, more things happen in real than talking or following-up. Hence speed goes up and cost comes down. On the other hand when trust levels are low, both individuals and organizations end up paying “trust tax” which slows down the progress of the overall progress. So level of trust has direct impact on organization’s  top line and bottom line in terms of financial implications. In case of no tax, top line and bottom line both goes up creating a ‘win-win’ proposition.

After establishing business case for trust, Stephen delves into multiple layers of trust and what are the key behaviors that will enhance the level of trust in any given situation. He starts with individual trust and further followed by relationship trust, organizational trust, market trust and societal trust. He goes on explaining key elements of building trust at various levels starting with individuals. Because if as an individual we don’t trust ourselves with highest level of authenticity, it becomes naturally reflected in other activities we handle and it gets passed on to others as a lower trust message.

As a part of trust framework, Stephen mentions how credibility is fundamental in establishing trust. In order to establish credibility four cores namely intent, integrity, capability and results play a vital role by laying down strong foundation. If these four codes are having issues with an individual, no amount of behavioral tactics will help in building trust. Once these cores are established strongly (thereby having higher credibility), individuals need to demonstrate certain key behaviors to establish higher trust environment. He talks about 13 behaviors (Talk straight, Demonstrate respect, Create transparency, Right wrongs, Slow loyalty, Deliver results, Get better, Confront reality, Clarify expectations, Practice accountability, Listen first, Keep commitments, Extend trust) as key behavioral elements.

With lucid examples and case studies Stephen takes though the framework of trust building. Stephen also talks about “Smart trust” where balancing right level of trust by tuning these parameters. Extending too much of trust sometimes might backfire (and I have personal experience in doing that) whereas extending less might create lesser trusty environment. So assessing the situation and extending right level of trust is key to have desired results. From outside trust might look like a intangible item, but its implications are very deep. It was a very hard and enriching learning to go through the framework and understand various elements of building trust.

Confidence vs Arrogance

Recently I was in conversation with one (relatively younger) colleague (say named A), who is at peak of his career. He is been handling plum assignments, Work activities matching to his strengths, Strong backup from senior leadership for his assignments, Very high visibility with customers – a great combination anybody can ask for. Definitely his hardworking ability and capability matched with this opportunity which has made him a star performer over years. Everybody (including myself) have seen such phase of career, during which individuals demonstrate lot of confidence, positivism and energy. However during the conversation, I found A slowly crossing limit and started behaving in a arrogant manner. He quickly gets into ‘godfather’ mode and start providing unsolicited advice as if he knows everything under the earth. Frankly I didn’t expect this from him. As a higher performing individual, I always thought he is a mature individual, who still has a long way to go in his career. Success (that too when it comes in abundance), starting affecting his behavior now. By looking more closely, he always been an individual contributor working on plum assignments with heavy duty back-up. Any change/issue, he is given necessary power to get it escalated because of which he always got his things done in his own way.

Similarly, some years back I have seen another individual who was in pinnacle of his career (say named B). You name any award he already got it. In fact there were some special award categories were created in order to acknowledge his contributions and results. This individual has organically grown his group from the scratch, because of which he enjoyed enormous amount of ‘organizational currency’ in terms of higher reputation with customers, better command over customer dynamics, deeper understanding of people etc. Faced by same behavioral he ended up rubbing shoulders against individuals, picked up fight with peers and demonstrated as if there is no tomorrow. However due to certain business situation, organizational structure got changed and he was rotated into a different role where he was put into a total new situation in a new business with new team.

As B always grown things organically, it was like ‘fish-out-of-water’ feeling to take up something in between and struggled to gain grounds. As his behavioral issues (like arrogance) has multiplied over years it became impossible for him to adapt to the new situation and demonstrate leadership. Slowly-and-steadily he lost his credibility and became ineffective in the organization. Another job rotation followed, which has made B’s life even miserable. Even today it is very hard for B to come in terms current situation (caused because of multiple changes). Since he has not faced the situation in the past, one small change has literally blown away his career. I am now wondering if the similar situation comes for A, how will he come out? What if he is asked to lead a set of people whom don’t know at all? How well he will be able to manage change? How effectively will he be able to keep his ego under check? How well he will adapt to new situation and perform? How effectively he will be able to handle ‘out-of-limelight’ situation for which he has not used to?

Often there is very thin line between confidence and arrogance, which makes whole lot of difference. Unless individuals are able to manage it well, individuals and their career soon becomes history.

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.

Right thing in a right way

Recently I was given an opportunity to discuss about ‘Business alignment’ with a set of people in my group.  To make the session interactive, I asked each one of them what exactly they understand by aligning with Business. Most of them replied saying ‘aligning individual aspirations to business needs’, ‘understanding organization opportunities in better manner’, ‘developing business acumen’ etc. While most of them are correct, I asked them back ‘In every given opportunity is it possible for an individual to be absolutely open and align himself to business needs? Can we always say business is heading in the right direction?’ and I could see many blank faces. While text-book definition of business alignment looks easy to understand, it’s extremely hard to implement.

Let us take an example. Assume a business leader is having a specific business goal (ex: improving customer satisfaction) considering the current business trend of customer complaints. Based on his understanding of business and his personal view, he typically comes up with ways to implement certain actions to achieve desired result. However, when the business task starts coming down the hierarchy, it gets interpreted by different layers in different ways. What is seen as the ‘right thing’ from the top might be seen as a ‘absolute blunder’ from the bottom layer of people. It can also be easily interpreted as the business leader trying to implement his ‘personal agenda’ to gain some benefit for him. This is one of the key reasons why practical implementation of business alignment becomes very challenging except for cases where the whole hierarchy consist of ‘yes sir’ type of people.

Now, how a business leader can ensure the ‘right thing’ gets implemented in the ‘right way’? In my opinion there is only one way to do it – Establish trust! For people who see value of implementing an action (to improve customer satisfaction) will right away go ahead and implement without fail. For people who don’t see or perceive the value of implementation will still implement because of the trust. He will work on a fundamental belief that ‘I might be missing something, let me implement this and understand this better rather than telling reasons for not implementing it’. This also leads to another case where an individual in the chain will build ‘disagree and commit’ mindset. This individual might not believe in the way it is implemented but still go ahead and do it in his own way because he is committed for the business leader.  For all you know such actions might lead to totally new set of possibilities which the business leader might not even thought of.

The power of trust is much bigger than we actually can think!

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

When Tendulkar drops a catch, Dhoni doesnt have to tell him to focus

Its a big Test match and India are desperately looking for wickets to tighten the noose around the Aussies. Ishant is streaming in and bending his back on a wicket that is providing the assistance needed for a determined bowler – bounce and movement off the seam. The Rainas and Kohlis have been doing their best with their constant yellings of encouragement. Hussey, or Mr Cricket as hes known, has been the lone source of resistance from the Aussies and they will surely go down in this key test match if hes gone. The ball is pitched outside the off and angling away and the otherwise cautious Hussey pokes it at tentatively. Ninety nine times out of hundred Hussey would have left this alone, but not this time. The ball takes the shoulder of the bat and flies off towards the waiting hands of Tendulkar in second slip for a straight forward regulation catch. Ishant has already sensed a wicket and is almost ready for his celebratory leap when the great man fumbles and the ball loops off his fingers – he had grabbed at it too early. Ishant is distraught and every Indian fielder has his hands on the head. The camera zooms in on Tendulkar and he knows he has screwed up – his face says it all. Numerous replays from different angles ensue. Dhoni and Dravid in first slip just walk to Tendulkar, pat his shoulders and unruffle his hair with a possibly a “take it easy…. come on” and move on to focus on the next delivery.

Now, this is exactly what most managers DONT do. The typical manager reaction to a screw up is long monologue, a dressing down and a stern warning of a “you better not do this the next time around”. They view this as the appropriate time to “educate” the employee on how things are done. Now, I’m not asking managers to turn a blind eye to screw ups or accept incompetence. However, In most cases the person who screwed up is already aware of the seriousness of his error and what he needs is a dose of confidence and being reminded of his achievements of the past. Back him!!! Help him remember the great slip fielder that he usually is and restore his confidence to be prepared for the next ball – unless this was the third catch hes dropped that day… in which case you want to move him to fine leg and pray that the ball doesn’t go there. Even if there are issues with the “catching technique” of Tendulkar, it is best addressed at the end of the day’s play.

Managers should look at themselves as “Coaches” who are vested in bringing out the best in people rather than “supervisors” who are trying to tell people how things are done.

 

– NWritings

Emotional Intelligence – How smart you are?

I am totally convinced!

After dealing with tons of people both in professional and personal space, I have come to an understanding that Intelligent Quotient (IQ) matters only in certain areas. For example — getting your photo published in local newspaper for topping the school, get admission into good college, land in a high paying job by attending campus interview. But the real fun begins after that, where an individual starts working with people in some form or other. Here having proper Emotional Quotient (EQ) plays more important role, which eventually determines professional/personal happiness and success.

Having high EQ is the key for handling situations in a better way, which eventually makes all the difference. Recently started working on the ‘Emotional Intelligence’ with some like-minded folks, following presentation has the first cut of information about this topic.