Monthly Archives: January 2013

Needed – Smart Talent or Smarter Systems too?

Roll this question in your minds – Do people make organizations smart?

Now play the devil’s advocate and ask a deliberately twisted qualifying question – Or is this merely an intellectual justification for why some people are treated with disproportionate attention – in hierarchy, compensation and progress?

Sharpen the devil’s horns a little more to ask this piercing question – Is the system only as strong as its stars?

Give the devil its due – maybe its disruptive introspection could help us place talent and its management in a more truthful perspective.

Here are some spices of confusing contradictions.

Educational institutions evaluate individual brilliance. Working with aids or other people comes close to being branded ‘cheating’. At work and in the real world though, success depends on how well we manage ourselves, others and use aids to navigate through situations.

 “Sift, Strike, Shove” – this happens in organizations. Six rounds of interviews to hire among the top 10%; a year or two down the line, flush them down the drainpipe, ostensibly for falling to the bottom 10%. Did not the slide happen during the residency term at the organization? Ironically, many 360 degree feedback show poor correlation between how peers and bosses rate individuals.

This leads us to wonder – is ‘talent’ being abstractly celebrated?

Analyses on the debacle of ‘talent-mantra-churners’ like Enron seem to conclude that they failed not in spite of their talent mind-set but because of it. The question arises – Can we find a smarter way to avoid the trap of just overrating smart people? Can we have smarter systems to make them succeed for themselves and for the organizations they belong to?

Simulation studies conducted across students and working professionals provide some consistent and interesting revelations. A striking difference in behaviors is noticed between groups praised for their effort against groups praised for their intelligence or ‘talent’. Excluding exceptions, those praised for solely for their innate talent tend to define themselves by that description. They show a reluctance to look at improvement or remedial measures. In tough situations, when their self-image is threatened they seem to have difficulty with the consequences. Those praised for their efforts, on the other hand, grasp at opportunities to make effective inroads to develop their strengths.

Research also seems to be consistently proving that conscious training is the key. It is the process of practice followed by reliable feedback. If you want to reach any pinnacle, practice it lots, practice it right and practice it smart.

This lesson is for both individuals and organizations to note.

As individuals, let us believe success is a skill; that there is not a talent we cannot learn or master. Like someone said, stare hard at who you want to become and steal the lessons they demonstrate in their success. It is OK to make a mistake or be stupid just once. Use simplicity and humbleness to reach, struggle and repeat to succeed. Be astute to prioritize the hard skills to succeed. Pick tough teachers and trainers. And do not forget the golden rule – work ethic trumps talent.

For organizations, it is not just to stick labels on people and assign theoretical expectations. Provide a demanding, safe, committed and innovative learning environment for them to succeed.  Steer clear of a culture that believes only in stars and not in systems; that suggests that the abilities of those not ranked the highest cannot be developed.

Talent still is a sexy word and evokes awe. It is up to us to keep it positive and from being disbelievingly overrated. And it is certainly up to us to keep the struggle optimistic – towards excellence and not merely towards existence.



Do…or be done?

For quite some time now, the Human Resources function continues to see itself at critical crossroads. History has been visited and revisited, data has been hashed and rehashed for trends to transform it to competitive advantage and functional viability. Yet, even today, HR grapples to find decisive means to define the future rather than react to the ceaseless changes in business models.

So much for the dream. On a basic ground level, emotional thinking still rules. We have the media running amok with dissections on why HR gets no respect, or why it is disliked. HR summits have lofty keynote topics (‘How to get a seat at the ‘C-Table’), but underline an inherent sentiment of inferiority. Employees view HR with entitlement as both their advocate and administrative assistant. Managers expect HR to be their lighthouse as they get pinched between business demands and employee engagement. Business leadership expects HR to be what someone described its ‘dark henchman’! Unless HR frees itself, with purposeful resoluteness, from the agony of balancing between these expectations (that does it no true credit), and elevates itself to a respected and trusted internal consulting organization, it will stare at the same critical crossroad ten years from now.

So how does HR reinvent itself with a fist-clenching roadmap for business mastery? The answer lies in relentlessly working on both its art and science.

As an art, this means moving beyond creative support (at best!) to developing serious consulting capabilities to mastermind ‘big leap’ initiatives. It means moving beyond being a function to be a business unit. It means having a business strategy on talent, capabilities, innovation, renewal and culture that part directs organizational strategy. As the artist, HR needs to be seen an unimpeachable domain expert, who will be wooed to the C-Suite.

As a science, it means perfecting the maze of transactional logistics so that all trains run on time with effortless precision. Business acumen, productivity analytics, program management skills are the skills to master; self-service technologies or outsourced business process support could be the tools to deploy. Whatever approach is taken, the solution should be highly efficient and scalable to command awe and respect. As the scientist, HR needs to be seen primarily as the business expert.

In so transforming its profession and skills, the commanding aspects of influence and perception will fall automatically into place. HR need then not expend redundant efforts in clarifying its role as a boardroom vs department entity; neither does it need to go on the defensive on perceptions of enforcer vs advocate. It can then market its information rather than staid reporting.

I will admit this – this stuff is great for social table conversations, or for blog and book authorships. And maybe easier too. But this is also the stark reality facing this people function. We have only tinkered with names and jargons over the years – Labour Relations, Industrial Relations, Personnel Management, Human Resources, Human Capital, Talent Management…And now the bee buzzes on ‘Social HR’!

Unless this function independently creates ‘game-changing strategies’, unless it shows gutsy fortitude to step out, lead, and enact a new role for itself and the organization it partners, there will be a more chilling demand to the following call that appeared in an article in the Fortune magazine about 15 years back – “…I am describing, of course, your human resources department, and have a modest proposal: Why not blow the sucker up? I don’t mean improve HR. Improvement’s for wimps. I mean abolish it...”

As they say, “If the lion does not tell its story, the hunter will”

Please stop asking me if I got your email!

“This is ridiculous”, snorted my friend a couple of days back, as she finished a call on her mobile. It was a Sunday afternoon and one of her colleagues had just called her to find out if she had received her e-mail that she had sent five minutes back. No kidding!

The ‘time-trap’ of communicating in real time without really communicating anything of any significance is frighteningly real. Even a mere apology of a reply is seen as being email-responsive. Can I not be allowed the time to mull over the message and send a response with both content and context? Will not this approach make both feel maximally efficient?

Consider this email exchange between X and “Mr Responsive Y’ (as we will call him). Fictitious as it may seem, this happens for sure!

First email from X to Y

Hi, are you free for a 15 minute call on Wednesday, Dec 19 at 2 p.m? There are a few clarifications I need from you on our project. Please let me have your number and confirmation on this.

Response within 5 minutes from ‘Mr Responsive Y’

“Sure. What time will you call?”

(What did Y say ‘Sure’ to, if he did not read X’s mail?)

X scrambles to clarify.

“As I said in my previous mail, 2 p.m., is the time OK by you? Please let me have your contact number”

 Mr Responsive Y’s response comes in two minutes.

“2 p.m. sounds great! Look forward to your call!”

Huh? How can I call you if you do not give me your contact details, mulls X.

And so the mail chain continues…

Is Y really responsive? Or is he reactive without being attentive?

Have you felt your inbox screaming out a cacophony of voices and vying so loud for attention that you cannot hear what anyone is saying?

The futility of both action and inaction exasperates.

I try being ’responsive’and end up doing nothing but answer emails all day.

I try looking at emails only thrice or so a day, and I barely manage to wade through the avalanche!

I try using the ‘reply-or-file’ method – the only mails I can respond to under three minutes, are the least important ones!

It is ironical – the more I answer swiftly, the more mails I get – and the more responsible I become for inane responses that blunt the ability to actually respond! I have occasionally frozen on seeing a crazy number of unread mails in my inbox, not knowing where to start.  Creating rules and folders does not take away the gnawing ‘back-of-the-mind’ feeling they are still to be read and acted on.

From this obsessive habit of responding immediately to all emails, it is but a gentle slide to the compulsive checking of the smartphone every 30 seconds. Or to ‘spoilsport’ a vacation with email checking and responding, especially to those who are happy not to see or hear from you for a week or so!

In an eight-hour work day, let me not become a six hour slave to my emails. Thinking was purposefully designed to be a process requiring time. Let me aim at giving one meaningful reply with minimum revisits. Maybe I will get branded as a snooty slacker, but I truly value my sanity more.