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.

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.

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 – 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 – How to give effective feedback?

Providing effective feedback for others is one of the key elements in performance management. It is possibly the best way to help others grow in their careers. Based on my experience I have come up with a presentation which talks about top 5 things to take care when giving feedback:

  1. Devil is in the details
  2. How providing examples is key?
  3. Negative feedback is not bad
  4. Subjective vs Objective
  5. Give recommendations

Let me know you ‘feedback’ for this presentation on ‘feedback’ 🙂


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

Performance Management – Keep it simple

In one of the earlier posts here, Performance management was called out to be one of the least understood domain. I, in fact, think its one of the MOST OVERRATED process. No, I am not saying its not important… I just feel that many companies have over complicated a fairly straight forward function. Here is how the whole “process” works in many companies:

  1. The employee is asked to fill out a long form, which includes her achievements, areas of improvement, support received, support not received, strengths, weaknesses, aspiration etc etc. As expected, most employees refrain from saying things that will adversely impact their hike / rating / promotions…. This takes a few days at the very least.
  2. The manager then goes over this with the employee to give her a good hearing and charts out a plan to address areas that need to be addressed – the plans put out are more often than not, not implemented subsequently. Watch out for the same set of inputs in the subsequent appraisal to understand whether they were indeed implemented or not.
  3. The manager then reviews this with HIS / HER boss to normalize things across teams and functions and comes up with the final hike / rating and promotions.
  4. The decisions are then communicated to the employee as part of a pretty long and typically stressful meeting. The focus is on retro fitting the hike that the manager decided to a rating.
  5. After a few days, the employee comes back with concerns about the way it was handled…. “My rating was lower than expected”, “would have liked more hike” etc etc.

Now the whole process is not only pretty long drawn (I have been in companies where this process took 1 1/2 months or more… twice a year), it also takes away a fair amount of mind share and focus from the core activity of building a product.

An alternate approach that I have found much more effective has the following characteristics:

  1. You, as a manager, is responsible for working very closely with the person and feedback is given then and there – for both good and bad performance. “Your handling of this customer complaint was impressive – here is why”, “Your commitment in getting this module out was awesome”, “You screwed up on this sales call – and here is how I think you should have handled it”. The results of the good or bad performance is fresh in the mind when the feedback is provided. You dont say during the performance appraisal “You messed up the documentation 2 months back”. This also gives a chance to the person to rectify things as quickly as possible. If you do not work closely with a person, get her immediate supervisor to do the performance appraisal. You dont.
  2. There is no surprise (positive or negative) during the performance appraisal – the person pretty much knows what to expect based on the continuous inputs received. If the person is surprised at the rating that you give her, it just means that you as her manager have not done your job and had her waiting till the performance appraisal to tell her how she has been doing.
  3. In short, feedback is then and there and continuous.
  4. In response, also build a culture that allows people to raise their concerns as soon as it impacts their work. To their “boss’s boss (if the concern involves the boss herself). The person cannot say, “I did not get clear specifications for this functionality 3 months back” during the appraisal.

This changes the whole performance appraisal from a “big band one time stressful” to an “on going continuously improving” process.

The common justification provided for the “big band one time” is that, it lets the employee to step back, reflect and set medium / long term goals. While it is important to “step back, reflect and set medium / long term goals”, I dont believe they need to be during the performance appraisal. It needs to be in response to an event (your competition launching an update ahead of you, the person realizing that he is working on a technology that doesn’t interest him, the person wanting to move into a more customer facing role, the person feeling he cannot work with a particular individual and wants a change).

These (and a lot more, in a typical product organization) require course corrections and changes to the way we work and set goals, but these hardly need to be part of the performance appraisals.

Keep it simple!!!!


– NWritings

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.