Listening to whispers amidst the bugles

“I found that the most rewarding moments of my work-life were not when I got attention, but when I felt good at the end of a hard day’s work”

 So nod the ‘invisibles’, as they are termed, of an organization.

 They are the ones leaders do not see, but experience their strength. The ones whose punch they feel without seeing their fists. They are the squares that do not need managers pegging them into the traditional round holes.

 As a manager, as a leader, how do you manage them? Recognize them? Reward them? Motivate them?

 “Puhleeez!” This is the ‘Invisible’ wincing. “Please do not think of me that way.”

 And that is why they are different. They defy typifying even in being different. So let us just take a tour of their psyche first – enjoying what we see, without even attempting to join any dots.

 Make no mistake, they are extremely crucial to your success. No organization can do without them. Yet, they do not hang their coats on the pegs of the conventional modes of rewards and recognition that an organization must execute to cater to the majority. Their traits are strongly tied to their unique and individual perceptions of achievement and life satisfaction – their benchmarks are as simple as they are exceptional!

 It is a no-brainer to assume that they do not like self-branding. Even as they pursue excellence, they are uncomfortable drawing attention to how good or essential they are. The “Aha” moments they create for themselves exhilarate them and make them feel satisfied in a way that a pat-on-the-back most certainly would not.

 Touch me? Touch me not?

That is the billion-dollar dilemma of managers and leaders. You cannot ignore them, you cannot blaze the spotlight on them. You cannot not see them, you cannot place them on a pedestal. They whisper, but come out louder than the bugles – and they cringe when you silence the noise to hear their whisper.

 And certainly you cannot let them go unrewarded. Like someone so aptly remarked, their lack of self-promotion is definitely not a lack of what they are worth.

 Perhaps a good place to start with would be the work environment itself. Can leaders create an environment that reassures there is no need to toot one’s horn? A team-oriented atmosphere that affirms the focus is on the collective energy of its members and not on individual image building?

 Maybe respect would be a good second on the list. Respect their need to raise performance across the team, not just being singled out for excellence. Acknowledge and allow, as invisibly as they keep their presence, their need to create (and not merely be given) intrinsically rewarding work for their team, not merely for themselves.

 Amidst the possible ‘Dos’ there could be one important ‘Don’t’ in dealing with them. And that is telling them in their performance reviews of the need to be more visible and more vocal for their success. Conditioned as we are to the success factors of relentless networking and stakeholder management, we may perceive the ‘invisibles’ as shy whispering individuals. In reality, theirs could be a powerful attitude and ability to quietly observe and listen to those around them, and guide them to finding the answers themselves.

 In so doing they could teach many a humbling lesson in leadership. Of how to influence with a quiet passion and love for work, and totally without authority.


Ladder, ladder, by the wall – who is climbing it to the top?

Say you are an acknowledged leader. As an individual you have chalked up indisputable achievements. As a team builder too, you have a motivated team that rocks. And you have set your ideals higher and backed a protégé who will perhaps be a perpetuation of your leadership legacy.

But people are fallible, right? Even if you do not think you are, your protégé could be. Could he stumble? Could she fall occasionally? Would you let him fail? So that she can show her mettle in getting up, dusting off her setback and finish the race?

Or would you protect him…hmmm…or yourself…from perceptions?

Tough egg to crack, do you think?

What if you shied away from finding a ‘right’ answer? What if you told yourself there can be no wrong one either?

What if you just gave in to an honest admission and choice?

Do I groom my protégé for my benefit, or his? Am I the ladder, or is she?

(Honestly, this is a totally non-judgmental exercise to tickle your thoughts on an interesting perspective. So that you may wrestle with the answers truthfully in the privacy of just your self as the audience.)

Back to the question.

Can you meet the truth of the answer without the guilt of selfishness or the smugness of selflessness?

Let us step back and dispassionately view this. In such a relationship, both the sponsor and the protégé benefit. The sponsor garners acclaim for leadership acumen through such ‘anointment’ of worthy successors. For the protégé, of course, it is a fairly protected access to success and the limelight.

So, toss the coin. Heads! I chose this person for my benefit.

I targeted this up-and-coming bright person because he is like me. I chose her because she will be my loyal lieutenant. My invaluable contributor. My ruthlessly efficient executor. My innovative problem-solver. Oh, and yes, supremely loyal. He may not fit the throne perfectly nor inarguably demonstrate all credentials. So what? No one is perfect, I have the prerogative of choice in running with levels of imperfection and I am a packaging expert.

Don’t run others down when you see this profile. Neither run yourself down if you are one such…just accept it.

What would I do if such a person fails to the extent he could jeopardize my climb?

The answer becomes easy when the shrouds are removed. Of course, I will give her political cover till it speaks creditably of me. But she is dispensable in the grander scheme of things. And she knows it too. When the heat gets intense, he will step down without a protest, falling on the sword to remain loyal to me. For you see, he knew from the beginning it was not his wont to prove to be the right person for the job. She was aware she was a brilliant pawn, right for my leadership legacy. And I will reward her in other ways that matter to her.

Let’s toss the coin again. Tails! I chose this person for her benefit.

I targeted this person not because I wanted to see myself in the mirror. I did so because she has terrific potential and has demonstrated all the required credentials. I know he can and I am committed to help him elevate his game, dream higher and take my job.

What would I do when such a person stands before the alligator pit?

I know there are pitfalls he will stumble on, and I will coach him ahead so that he knows to be prepared. I will give room for her to fail securely, with safety nets in place so that she is comfortable with and confident about taking risks. And when failure is career threatening, I will step in to totally protect them.

So go ahead, and look at the ladder closely. Do you see yourself climbing it, or your protégé? That is all the answer you need!


Always a story to tell but no ear to hear?

Half my advertising spend is effective, Lord Leverhume, founder of Lever Brothers, is reported to have said. I just don’t know which half.

Would it be the half that listened to customers? The half that did not merely spout grandiose marketing messages to prospective customers, but stopped to lend them their ears?

Listening is the new marketing, say the marketing gurus. And some companies have created roles called the Chief Listening Officer and the Chief Social Media Officer who will both listen and buffer the noise to engage with customers, employees and other stakeholders. It is also reported that the Clinton team will be appointing a Chief Listener to mitigate the conflict between the old guard and new blood in a run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Listening. A science? An art? Or a fundamental common sense trait that we need to revive in a professional world where everyone seems to have a story to tell and a message to proclaim but not an ear to hear?

It is a fact. Many organizations have a pretty disorganized and an uneven communication system. Leaders struggle to draw a comprehensible connection of the work their managers and frontline employees do to their organization’s strategy and goals. ‘Add value’, some say. ‘Be innovative’, say others. And, ah yes! ‘Think strategically’ is another favorite.

No, this does not help.

What is needed is an authentic space for conversation. Listening creates that. It creates the insight to engage the other person. It helps us know what they think and want, and create buy-in. It brings wisdom that translates data into ‘touch-and-feel’ knowledge and information. It needs to happen before decisions are made, as decisions are being implemented and as the reaction ball starts bouncing back in different directions.

Yet it is an uphill effort. How am I going to listen when I am so habituated to thinking out loud, tweeting or FB-ing my viewpoints? Even when I am face to face with you am I listening to you or actually figuring out what I will say next, before you are even done speaking?

Today’s professional life is a cruelly punishing taskmaster for ineffective communicators, be they individuals or organizations. Take the employee-boss hierarchical ladder. Or the customer-supplier seesaw. Or the shareholder-corporate tightrope. Or the business-public bugle. The balance of power has shifted to those who show nimbleness of action based on their alacrity of listening. It means asking unending questions, practicing affirmative listening for possibilities and joining the dots on diverse ideas for convergent thinking.

The Chief Listening Officer.

Suddenly it does not seem so amusing. It recognizes listening with a ‘chief’ status. It is an alarm that user content cannot be ignored. It is awareness for us to flex our listening bicep to reflect what others say and make them feel heard. It is being the expert guiding hand that sifts the unbounded available intelligence to get the right facts on the desks of the right people at the right time.

On a less daunting note, it is also the serendipity of finding needles in haystacks when you are not even looking for them. Only because you kept all your senses open!


Head-in-the-clouds but feet-on-the-ground employee engagement

OK folks, it is time to give the ‘good feel’ fella called employee engagement serious shape.

How does this sound?

High engagement workplaces have a

  • 63% difference in shareholder return
  • 50% higher sales
  • 56% higher customer loyalty
  • 38% above average productivity
  • 27% higher profits

Are you kidding, do I hear you ask? Let me ask you back. If Gallup, Hewitt or Towers Watson told you this, would you believe it better? The fact is this. The figures above come from a combined survey by all three of them!

Now that credentials are established, let us look at busting the biggest myth about employee engagement strategies and practices. Which proclaims that an organization must offer higher incentives to increase employee engagement.

The carrot-or-stick approach over-justifies incentivization and actually destroys an employee’s intrinsic motivation to perform. In many cases, the act itself is the cause of engagement, the driving force that enables employees to innovate, execute with excellence and exceed personal limits. Set a limiting price on this, and you limit his will to perform and her level of engagement.

Here is another interesting statistic. A Globoforce survey showed that 60% of employees look for employment elsewhere when they feel undervalued. And this reduces to 20% when employees feel appreciated! Lesson to be learnt? Move away from unemotional, transactional and top-down reward and award programs. No more of the milestone catalog gifts. How about making it social and emotional? Publicly appreciated? Applauded by peers? Awards tied to organization culture and values? Allow personal choice in the reward type?

Let us go back to basics. Anything that excites, promotes confidence and encourages self-motivation works like wildfire in blazing employee engagement. Three simple attributes of an employee engagement strategy can do the trick.

The first is placing freedom in the employees’ hands in the spheres of their work and accountability. The responsible creativity that bubbles up by opening this window of autonomy can be mind-boggling. Not to mention the multiplying effect of its healthy happiness for both the employee and the organization! Google’s incentive strategy of ‘20 per cent time’ allows its employees to devote just that extent of their time at work to whatever projects they want to work on. Similarly Altassin’s initiative of what they call ‘FedEx Days’ allocates one day a quarter for their employees to do whatever they want. At the end of the day, they gather to share what they have created. Cool, don’t you think?

The second concentrates on stroking positive psychology rather than highlighting what not to do, or what will not work. Most incentives are assassins of employee engagement, creating as they do (mostly by design), unattainable goals that leave employees frustrated in striving to meet them. By celebrating values and behavior that enhance the stated corporate culture, employees can be made more engaged, productive, and successful. Performance can then be kept separately to the high standards that are required for business to be successful.

The third is a wee bit wild, but grounded on a well-founded theory of psychology. It is allowing fluid intelligence to triumph over crystal intelligence. Simply put, it is promoting the skill to problem-solve in new situations rather than merely appreciating the ability to perform what one already knows how to do. Gamified initiatives in employee engagement can appeal to an employee’s will to succeed. Just as moving to the next level or ranking higher on the leaderboard drives game enthusiasts, this could well unlock their potential to think more creatively and feel more engaged.

Employee engagement is an endurance effort that lasts the entire lifespan of an organization. If promoted with genuine sincerity, a simple truth emerges. Engaged employees are more successful than successful employees being more engaged!


And they celebrate semantics in technology!

“It is a cold, hard world. There is no room for sentiments and emotions here”

Have you pronounced this as a leader, or heard it from your leader? Over time, as we collide with realities, we almost brainwash ourselves into believing this of our professional life. The optimists perhaps will try to balance this in their personal life.

But hey, pause for a minute. Why cannot sentiments and emotions be powerful tools in professional life? If social media is touted as enormously influencing, what does it play upon, if not the thinking and feeling of interconnected individuals, of social networks? And this thing they call semantic modeling – is that not an intuitive handshake of knowledge-based information?

We make such a great deal of killer apps (for example a ‘smart fridge’) that will tell us when the milk is sour or even get a replenishing order in. How boring! Really, how boring, when we compare it to the intriguing excitement of the human cognitive processes that decipher and decode language, expressions, movements and behaviors?  And when you add to this the spices of culture, context and persona, it is a heady brew!

IoT technologies. Crowdsourcing. Sentiment Analysis. Online Anthropology.Engagement Analytics. And each area has its own quota of trademarked tools.

Ah ha! What a difference packaging makes! When you call it so, it sounds so much more exotic, so much more ‘pedestal-worthy’ and so much more ‘jargon-attractive’! And the poor occupants of the trash bin named sentiment, emotion and intuition sadly wonder – but isn’t that me?

Actually they should neither be sad, nor should they wonder. They are the stars that are being featured in today’s buzz technologies – from the labs to practices in organizations. Researchers, solution providers, business users, and analysts are experimenting with text and speech analytics, natural language processing, semantics – and I am sure quite a few more I am not even aware of! Fast and furious, data is being acquired, integrated, visualized and adapted to transform them into business solutions.

Do I hear the ‘Internet of Things’ shouting? If so, the ‘Internet of Humans’ should yell!

For it is this internet of people and their sentiments that enable businesses and solutions to extend, improve and disrupt; to create, kill and expand. It is this recognition of people sentiments and human data that is being used in cognitive tools and systems. And in business solutions, to learn and interact with more people to extend what they can actually do on their own!

Ironic eh? To ask the human face before us to dump emotions and sentiments, and then have a garbage sifting system that actually recycles them to build tools!

Making machines of people and people of machines? Hmmm….


A little slack in your calendar does not make you a slacker!

“I really don’t care as to how much time to you can or not give this project”.

The smooth tone of my boss was dangerous – it popped up all my red alerts. Oh, oh! What was coming next?

“Just let me know how soon can I have this report”

 And this is the truth. The unvarnished truth, if I may be allowed to be dramatic. Nobody, I repeat nobody, really cares about your capability or capacity to do work. These are irrelevant till their main concern is addressed. Throughput – that is all your managers and bosses care about, my friend.

How quickly can you get the work done?

How long need I to wait?

Tick tock, tick tock…

Even Henry Ford found this out the hard way. He thought that he could squeeze more productivity out of his workers by increasing their schedules to 60 hours a week. Short-lived exultation, that was! The burst of productivity lasted only about four weeks as they began producing less than their counterparts who worked 40 hours!

How many times have you whizzed through your maze of drowning work after a relaxed sleep, or a workout at the gym? How many times has a “Eureka” stroke of genius struck you as got up from your claustrophobic space surrounding your desk, walked around the office to the pantry, or relaxed on the chair opposite your friend with a joke before coming back to your laptop screen?

Believe me, this is a powerful realization and acknowledgment. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you will be more productive if you can do more, or work at it longer. This is exactly the reasoning behind traffic signals – filling a road to capacity with cars ain’t gonna take anyone to their destination quicker. Break it up, mon ami, break it up!

And that is why you should recoil at the pretty sight of your calendar neatly boxed in to capacity with “to do” lists – meetings, calls… Empty spaces on your calendar are not sitting ducks to be filled up with some ostensible productive work (pray, who defines the meaning of productive?). They are your havens of sanity refreshers that actually multiply your throughput.

And for all ye resource management analysts, please don’t make the fatal mistake of assessing employee productivity through their calendars. That gives you merely the theoretical production capacity, not productivity – and certainly not throughput! 100% utilization of capacity is the biggest mythical loser – any ops expert will tell us that once a system exceeds 65-70% of maximum utilization, the only thing that increases is the cycle time. Never the productivity!

You need slack in the system, in your calendars and in your minds. That does not make you a slacker. It does not mean that people do not think about their work outside of their scheduled work hours or during their breaks. The truth is exactly the opposite. When I am not intentionally thinking about work, I actually spend time unintentionally thinking about it. I am in my boundary-less creative zone where I do not box myself in with the constraints of my work zone – and so reach the solution sphere quicker sans the annoying pull of ‘that’s-how-it-is-always-done” gravity!

So go ahead, grant your mind a work schedule with generous doses of ‘Do-Not-Fill’ blocks. Use your calendar not to plug empty gaps but to actually prevent you from taking on more commitments than you have the time to handle. And get ready to see your productivity soar!


I C – do you see?

They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.

They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.

The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.

Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!

I am referring to the Individual Contributor.

Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.

Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?

Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.

Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.

Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!

Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?

Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?

The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.

 Taking accountability for customer loyalty?

She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.

 Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?

He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.

Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?

The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.

Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?

Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.

The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should  move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.

The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”


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