Hello professional, what is your shelf life?

I am a successful executive, consistently exceeding performance expectations. I am an engaged employee, a team player and committed to my organization. May I sit back and smile in satisfaction?

Sure, smile you can, says a little voice within me. The voice of my friend, my good sense, I realize. But you need to turn around a little and read the expiry date of your usefulness to your organization.

Really? I wonder.

Hmmm… yes, the voice continues. This date is relative to how you grow yourself with respect to your organization’s growth or change. Without any reflection on your capabilities or potential, you may not have kept pace. Or you may have romped too ahead. In either case, one of you has outgrown the other.

How do I know when this happens, I ask. You can feel it in your gut, it says, provided you are honest to yourself. Provided you do not see it defensively or with a sense of entitlement.

I bristle. Will then my performance that has consistently exceeded expectations have no value? Ahem, interrupts my good sense, this is what I meant by not being defensive. If you are consistently so good, you may have reached your full potential. Think. Are you atrophying? Do you see room to grow? Can you make yourself room to fit you and engage you?

Wouldn’t that be the responsibility of the organization, I demand. I hear my good sense cough another ‘ahem’. See, now you are getting into an entitlement mode of thinking, it gently rebukes. Is it fair of you to expect your organization to offer you lifetime employment? Especially when it may not be able to, due to limitations beyond the blame game on either side? Your excellence is yours. So is your commitment. But do not let them come in the way of your own development, it counsels. Can you think differently? Can you reinvent yourself?

Good sense always makes, well, good sense. It shook me out of my focused but narrow thinking. Just like we are wary of food, however good, that has had an unusually long shelf life, so could my organization. It was up to me to keep my professional life fresh for the future.

However progressive it sounds, reinvention is daunting. But so can spending the rest of my professional life doing a job that is no longer fulfilling. It can frustrate if it is not fulfilling for myself, and it can rudely jolt if it is not so for my organization.

My mind latched on to what Wayne Gretzky the Canadian ice hockey player and coach said. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.”

So here is what I promised myself I would do.

First things first. No stupid self-denials. Change is imminent, let me get prepared for it.

Next, let me chalk my timelines clearly. How much longer do I want to tinker with the status quo for necessary comfort factors? Before I make the leap?

There comes my next sign. Tap both sides of your brain, it suggests. You will need both logical and innovative thinking to develop feasible new skills and turn existing skills into new assets.

Confidence, courage and commitment will be my best friends, I tell myself. Confidence to overcome doubt and leverage strengths. Courage to take a step back temporarily, if needed, to move forward. Commitment to hold myself accountable to the decisions I will make, without regret or frustration.

Yes, as a professional, I do have a shelf life. But I intend renewing myself to attract invitations from various shelves that interest me. And when I finally step off the shelves, it will be my call – with fulfillment and grace.


Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir…

Way back in 1971, the US State Department created its official Dissent Channel. It defines itself as ‘a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures…’

Responsible dissent. What is it?

Could it be the sustainable quality to stand up for what really matters, disagree and then come together again once the issue is resolved?

If so, how do we push ourselves into the right dissent? And what is the right balance in creating an environment that makes dissent a part of the workplace culture and not a standalone event?

The responsibility and accountability lies on both sides. Employees must learn how to question authority, and leaders should know how to listen to feedback and handle disagreements.

Let me wear the dissenter’s cap first. I disagree with my bosses on an issue – their stance bothers me, and the bother does not look like going away. I realize that speaking my mind to and disagreeing with power can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Do I or not stick my head ‘above the parapet’?

The voice of reason in me should ask – how personally responsible am I for the thing I am concerned about? What personal level of attachment do I have to the issue? What is the power I have to do something about it?

I realize that the first tough questions are for me to answer, not my bosses! And so my mind makes a practical checklist of the costs and benefits. Job security, professional relationships, acknowledgement of merit and courage, respect…

Once I remove emotions through this checklist, the second set of questions emerges. Is this conflict that I am about to create a healthy one? Do I have a purpose that goes beyond my self-interest? Will it create value? Am I pointing my energy in a productive way in the right direction? Can I look at the road ahead, and not in the rearview mirror?

And what happens when I wear the cap of authority?

As a leader I must be open to constructive dissent. I must recognize and appreciate the courage and professionalism of the person who has stepped forward even if I do not agree with him. If I prevail I must ensure he retains his dignity and is rewarded for his risk taking.

Good leadership creates an open and two-way communication system that encourages speaking the truth to power centers. Only then will the quality of decisions improve – moving as it will from ‘What would my leader do?’ to ‘What do we think and do?’

When such a culture is created, dissent will be compelling and speak the language of what is possible. It will be a discipline and not a war. A discipline that pushes us, on either side, to find our ‘energy sweet spot’ that fires up more of our creative arsenal that makes us unique, innovative, and passionate. A discipline that, over a period of time, will build an auto immune system in our organizations to check and correct power abuses, errors and ambiguity.


I belong. With pride. With purpose.

How does he do it?

I found myself asking this question as I watched him address diverse audiences. He has children, adults, teachers, industrialists and even the apathetic Indian (at home and abroad) involved and roused when they listen to him – and long after too.

Much has been talked and written about Narendra Modi’s speeches and his persona – I am not going to add my tuppence bit to that. But one phenomenal effect that seems to surge in the people he addresses seems to be a good lesson for all organizational leaders.

The pride of belonging.

Excuse me, it says, I am not the rhetoric of happy talk. I am the pride centered on purpose. I beat in the heart of every organization, team and individual. I beg to be tapped from the static company mission statements and brought alive.

Please, it pleads, I am far more profound than being merely appreciated through rewards and recognition programs. I spring from wells deeper than that.

It certainly does.

It is the culmination of the effort, the brainpower and all of the waking hours that people plough into their organizations. They need it to have meaning. They need it to matter.

It is the spirit of the happy people who sling frozen fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market at slim wages. They want this spirit to find common ground and be part of something bigger than itself. To have an additional pride of membership and connectedness to causes and results that matter.

Belonging in people recognizes the truth that the things they create and craft carry little but sure pieces of their skill, will, heart and soul. For the fire of pride to be lit, the relationship has to be reciprocal. People must feel that they too are transformed in some way by all that they build.

How does this shift the telescope of leadership?

For starters, a considerable U-turn from the Cartesian focus on ‘I think, therefore I am’ to the Ubuntu assertion of ‘I am because you are’. The softness of the latter statement is deceptive, very deceptive. No belief in collective strength can be soft. Any shared intellectual, emotional and psychological power packs a whopping punch!

Two, it also changes leadership’s listening frequency. They need to tune in to their followers’ hopes, expectations and needs with an ethic of service, principles, knowledge, capability and astute alacrity.

Three, their aggression needs to be wise – built on passion, compassion and agility. They need to sense, reflect, resonate and harmonize with their followership.

More than anything else, any leadership can evoke the pride of belonging only if the steward has the moral authority to gain trust and approbation from the people who want to be led. Only if their people respect and appreciate their personhood, not just their persona.

In translating the here and now to their vision of the future, in carrying their people along as they link the organization’s history and destiny, leaders need to make the unerring connection between hope and achievement of their followers. Otherwise the Ubuntu philosophy aptly describes what will happen. ‘Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter’


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!


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