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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!


Culturally aware, sensitive or competent?

A couple of weeks back, I ruminated on a very pertinent poser by a friend. What do you think makes relationships work? Love? Patience? Compromise? Or…? As I was attempting to answer this in the personal sphere, I was struck by the possibilities if this question were to be posed in the professional sphere! Though situationally different, common amongst the two are the same attributes of compromise, patience, and understanding.

How can you romanticize the professional world, do I hear you wince? Once the groans and frowns have had their say, reflect on this – the top and the bottom lines in the professional world are made up of, and run by, people! Two factors add to the complexity of the relationship. One, the acknowledged and unequal balance of power. Two, it is a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural. It is the second point that raises interesting possibilities – to look at through a different lens to responsibly and seamlessly integrate with business objectives.

We say diversity, we say inclusive – and a host of derived variants and jargons. And yes, we have policies that celebrate them as part of the business agenda. We say with pride (and maybe a trifle pompously or condescendingly?) that they are part of the corporate culture and DNA. At best, we want to believe in them – even though we find it painful to practice. At worst, of course, we could not care less. From the gullies of cultural knowledge to the streets of cultural awareness, to the roads of cultural sensitivity and then perhaps to the avenues of cultural competence – the routes to reality seem longer and more painful than ideology!

The truth is, organizational cultures largely mirror the mainstream societal culture at any particular point of time – biases, prejudices et al. And a mere slogan of organizational culture does not and never will equate to, let alone equal, cultural competence.

Binding knowledge about different groups of people and transforming it into standards, policies, and practices that make it actually work is the signature of a culturally competent organization. In doing so, it acknowledges, validates and involves its different people. It makes the whole exercise non-threatening by adopting an “inside-out” model that places no onus or responsibility on any one group to do all the adapting. Diversity of thinking and people are respected and valued to create the synergy.

In today’s marketplace, diversity, shorn of its jargon and sloganeering, is a stark truth. Working together is the best and only strategy to stave off an inevitable (and sometimes crippling) organizational and cultural gridlock. Let us not look at it as an effort that has to be endured or suffered – or as a PR exercise. The spin-offs in genuinely practicing this enhances creativity in problem solving through new perspectives, mutual respect and understanding, increased trust and cooperation, all of which are critical tools of business productivity.

And yes, this must start at the top. The structure, leadership, objectives and activities of an organization and its functions must reflect such values, perspectives, styles, and priorities. Having started so, it will be wise to remember that a beginning is only just that – it has to be seen through to the finish with the sharing of power among people from different cultures.

As pleasantly recommendatory as it may sound, the truth is, we may really have no choice. If we do not channelize cultural differences to help us, it may end up hurting the organization big time.

It is the question stupid!

WDYT – Have you heard of this acronym?

Mostly thought to be a perfect hedging ploy, this is actually a powerful pointer to perhaps a crucial leadership trait.

What do you think?

Uh oh! Don’t answer it! For that is the answer. Not just to WDYT, but also to the million dollar question that distinguishes the leader from the worker ant in an organization.

If you wonder where I am getting at, consider this. As children, we revel in asking questions. The more we ask, the more we are touted as smart and intelligent. In our curiosity, we hold a complementing smarter weapon. “What happens if…..?”

And then, school happens. And later, college. Where we are indoctrinated to provide the answers. Forget smart aleck questions. The why, how, what, when, where…all become three, four and five letter bad words!

By the time we hit the workplace, we are robotically trained to provide answers. Even as we rise through the ranks, we still remain the front line – providing information to our seniors, expected to know all the answers. Heck, it is engraved in our job descriptions as the stamp of our skills and competence!

Till one day, wham! The all-important question socks us in our jaw. Why are we running to stay in the same place? Why is it that in spite of being proclaimed as the experts with all the answers, we are still rungs below our well-meaning bosses?

This is the time to slam the brakes, stop and ask that question a little louder. And pursue the dozen other corollary questions that arise with it.

But no…we think we need to become a greater expert at finding more answers before we hit the high spot. And we furiously accelerate to the depths of a frustrating prison.

It is the question stupid! Not the answers!

In our frantic search for answers, in our anxiety to please by providing them, we forget that it is always the question that gives the answer. Our search should therefore be for questions. Ever wonder why is it your toddler finds that speck of dirt in a home you attempt to keep spotless? It is because he goes searching for it in the nooks and crannies. And so should it be with our questions.

Wise and smart are the ones who not only ask insightful questions but also do not shirk from admitting they do not have the answers. Call it humility, call it pragmatic self-confidence, call it what you will – it is they who have learnt the ultimate truth. That admission of ignorance is the best step to liberating oneself from the insecurity and fear of having to know everything!

When you ask a question, you actually place yourself respectfully on an equal platform with the one you direct it to. It works beautifully both ways. If you are the senior, you give a chance for your junior to develop. If you are the junior, it is a shot in the arm to touch that moment of equality, even if for that moment!

So try consciously to step back from providing answers to asking questions. In your daily meetings resist the urge to answer at least one general question to which you know the answer (unless, of course, specifically asked for an important purpose).  And ask at least one smart question a day.

Who knows then, you may rewrite the proverbial saying to “A question a day keeps my frustration away!”

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.


Dare to vision

Corporate lore has it that McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, pictured his empire long before it existed, and he saw how to get there. He invented the McDonald motto ‘Quality, service, cleanliness and value’ and kept the vision alive by repeating it to his employees throughout his life.

Everyone will agree, and categorically so, that vision is very critical to any organization. The irony sometimes is that it is placed on too high a pedestal to reach, too hidden in a grandiose statement to see and understand, and locked in too safe a vault to ‘touch-and-feel’. How many of us can say, without pausing to think, what the vision of our organization is?

Both on pragmatic and  emotional levels, it is a true eureka moment when vision morphs into strategy. The question is never a choice between vision and strategy – it is the priority or order in which they are placed. When strategy flows from vision, there is purpose and clarity. Looking at it in the reverse order, or looking at strategy without a vision is like applying faith in reverse gear. What you expect becomes the reality – not what you believe in.

This assumes significance in today’s stubborn down economy, where we feel cornered to stay very tactical. We need, and so try to survive. Will what works this moment be an indicator of the next moment’s success? Let us get pragmatic, we say, this quarter is all we can focus on.

But then what happens to the workforce, the engine of the organization? The constant slogan of the now starts wearing thin on them. Why does my effort matter? How does it connect to a bigger picture, a larger story? Am I just working from Monday to Friday, week to week, paycheck to paycheck?

This is where great leadership makes all the difference. Leadership is not about influence alone.  It is about building the large compelling picture – exhorting and reminding people of what it is we are trying to build— as the story goes, a wall or a cathedral. And, most important, why it matters. Good leaders do not dismiss vision as ‘nice-to-have’ hype, nor do they make it the first casualty when times are tough. It is their target to focus resources and energy. It is also their solid contingency measure against setbacks, including failure. The inspiring leader sees the future and still can stay focused in the present. He uses vision to push all stakeholders toward the same goals together rather than separately. She uses it to harmonize the corporate hierarchy. And yes, they show the ability to oversee its implementation and execution.

For us as individuals too, vision should not be just an entitlement we expect from our leaders. We should dare to see beyond our current reality, to create what does not now exist, to become what we are not right now. We should motivate ourselves to raise our ego healthily to envisage what the world would lose if we were not present. In good times, it inspires us to connect with our passions and potential. It makes us feel valuable as individuals. In tough times, it buoys us to overcome obstacles and motivates us to ‘hang on there’.

Otherwise, how in the world will I now how to get there, if I do not know where to go?