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Engagement and Purpose are linked

October 1, 2014

Mid-life crisis“I’m not enjoying myself” “Need something exciting” “Is this all there is?” “I’m bored” “We can’t hold on to employees” “Our employees don’t seem engaged” “We’re doing everything we can but, staff attrition is high” “We are losing middle managers”

Engagement. The big conversation today. Whether for organizations or individuals. Whether at work or in personal life. More people than ever before are disengaged. I was too. Through personal experience and conversations with over 100 professionals at a CXO level, who are dealing with similar challenges I realized that we needed a different approach. For ourselves and for organizations.

The Context

When we start out in life, we are driven by our dreams to earn money, be financially independent. Every role has new learning and gives a chance to test ourselves, we’re challenged and find constant approval. However, by the time we reach middle management, our primary purpose i.e. financial stability/independence is either achieved or within reach. Role changes become fewer and further apart. As an outcome, we begin to miss the activity that used to keep our minds engaged. At the same time, the initial purpose is no longer relevant and we haven’t realized that.

Organizations too, are stuck in their paradigms and don’t realize this emotional transition that employees go through.

English: Stillness by Eckhart Tolle, on a Park...

English: Stillness by Eckhart Tolle, on a Park bench plaque, facing Sacramento River, Redding CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A working solution for the self.

Over time and exploration, I realized that the key to breaking out of this state of ennui and constant dis-satisfaction with the present was to raise levels of self-awareness and engage in a re-purposing conversation.

Step 1. is to acknowledge that the problem is not outside of yourself but something that lies within. That it has to do with what engages you or excites you. But even more important to understand that the world changes and that what worked for you before may not be working now.

Step 2. Is to realize that now that the primary purpose is irrelevant you are anchorless and need a new anchor. One that is more consciously derived than the existential purpose you “inherited” at the outset. Re-Articulating your purpose is key.

Step 3. Identifying the mediums that will help you live the purpose. Identifying the possibilities that your purpose can unleash and the tangible impact they will have. Identifying the personal changes you will need to make in order to achieve the purpose. Identifying the constraints within which you will work and seeing them as challenges to be overcome, as the path that you must travel. This is the key.

A suggested way forward for organizations.

Organizations must recognize the above and redefine the employee value proposition via rejigging the conversation they have with employees.

1. Move from performance conversations to purpose conversations

2. Enable employees to articulate their personal purpose and possibility and enmesh it with organizational purpose and possibility. The organization is the platform, the stage, where the employee can achieve their desires.

I have the privilege to work with a global FMCG-like organization that does exactly this and they have found tremendous success with engagement and achievement over a 6 year period that this process has been in place.

How do I redefine my purpose?

For self-awareness, start by reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

Relook at the 360 feedback results you received – what do they say about you?

Seek feedback from friends.

Reflect on what makes you happy, where you find joy and satisfaction.

Explore – do new things.

Give of yourself – find people who need help and support them.

If you have a skill, teach it to others, you’d be surprised how many others need what you have.

In doing all this, you will open up avenues that will help you redefine what gives you joy and that will be the start point of helping you define/redefine your purpose. Don’t hasten the process, there’s no telling how long it will take. All I can say is, the more you do different things, the quicker it will come to you.


HR needs support, not judgment!

August 19, 2014

HR!Search the web and you will find countless judgments and diatribes about the inefficacy of HR. For a while I was part of this group of people who denounced HR. But the more I engage with my colleagues and partners who have the difficult job of managing this function, the more I realize that the blame cannot be laid at their feet, nor can they be held solely responsible for the present state of HR.

Let’s park our judgments and take an objective look at the HR function and some of the challenges they face.

The first challenge they face is clarity of expectations. Few leaders or leadership teams are able to clearly articulate what they expect from HR. Everything that doesn’t belong elsewhere can tend to get dumped on them. More often than not, issues relating to people (which leaders and managers should handle) are pushed on to HR. In the less developed organizations, Admin is clubbed under the HR function. Many times facilities too. This dilutes and diverts the focus of the function leaving leaders stretched thin and defocused. Any performer or function is only going to be as good as the expectations you lay before them. There is an overwhelming focus on Talent Acquisition and often HR is judged by their ability to hire quality and quantity on time. Leaders who are part of the recruiting effort tend to forget their role and failures are only attributed to HR. And the same happens with Performance and Talent management too.

Secondly, I wonder how many leaders are really aware of how much the function has changed in the last 2 decades, demanding a change in skillsets and orientation of HR professionals. HR has largely been left alone to manage this change and upskilling in almost all organizations. Josh Bersin quotes data to back this up in his fantastic blog on the same subject. The qualities and skills needed by HR professionals 2 decades ago are very different from the ones needed today. Sadly enough most HR Heads today hail from that era, and while some of them have made the transformation, many have yet to do so. This equally limits their ability to mentor their younger colleagues. Outsourcing has meant that the operational and transactional content of the HR role now lies outside the organization and outside the direct purview of the HR function. HR professionals are encouraged to be HRBPs (business partners) which is a different order of skills, attitudes and competence. Lacking mentorship and investment in re-skilling, this is not happening at the pace required. Spring

Which leads me to the core issue i.e. Support. Organizations where leaders are supportive of HR and understand the value and impact of the function have exceptional HR practices and a function that is respected. Others languish. I believe that great HR is an outcome of a CEO or leadership team that values and supports HR. More than anything else, it is this factor that drives the health and strategic impact of the HR function. I see support lacking in 3 areas:

1. The role of Leadership: Leaders who are unable to harness and leverage the function appropriately, do little to support it or develop it. HR is treated transactionally, has transactional expectations and hence is reduced to a transactional function. Yes, it’s up to the HR leader to influence this, but try influencing someone who doesn’t “get it” and you will realize that after a particular point in time, it is better to cave in and do what’s asked for, or quit.

2. The role of Academia: Premier B schools and even specialist HR colleges have done little to revise curriculum and pedagogy. Content seems to stay the same. Disseminating knowledge is redundant, since that knowledge is now available at the click of a button. The course curriculum and competencies that colleges develop has to change. And not just for HR professionals. When B-schools are able to educate leaders about the impact of human capital and how they need to leverage the HR function, we will see change. I am surprised how little attention is given to this area even in Management courses for senior leaders.

3. Selection: Even today I meet young HR aspirants who want to get into HR because they believe they are “People oriented” and HR would be a good fit. Enabling conversations that help prospective candidates understand what the function will require will help make more appropriate career and education choices. Refining selection criteria for college admissions and hiring will help ensure the right input and accordingly, appropriate output.

HR2In order for HR to be effective, you do not need to “split the function” as Ram Charan says. You need an ecosystem fix. We need to ensure we attract the right people for the right reasons. That we equip them appropriately and that the function receives appropriate support from a leadership that understands the strategic value of HR.

To all the nay-sayers and ridiculers of HR, I ask you this, how come HR functions do extremely well in organizations that have CEOs/Boards who leverage the function, set clear but demanding expectations and support the function appropriately?

As a practicing HR professional or a Leader of a business, do you agree?

Staying relevant in a VUCA world

July 6, 2014

For quite some time now, all those who are responsible for or concerned about Talent and Leadership have been struggling with the challenge of developing leaders for a VUCA world. The ability to predict potential in a world that is volatile and ever-changing is questionable – how do you define a set of skills or traits for a future that is uncertain? And then how do you develop them, not knowing if they will even be relevant by the time you get there?

And if you are a professional, then the same question holds true for you. How will you continue to be relevant in a mercurial future? Time was, the Peter Principle took a few years to catch up with a professional; today, it can happen in a month! How then, will you avoid irrelevance? 

I had a chat with Abhijit Bhaduri, CLO of Wipro and one man who I think has an incisive intellect and a solid opinion about the above dilemmas. After 2 chats, I realized what he said was valuable and requested him to share one of his blogs on the subject. As always, he doesn’t disappoint. Here’s his insightful take on what individuals and nations need to do.

Abhijit, thanks a ton for this. 

In another twenty years more than a billion people will be more than 65. The greying population will largely be in the developed world. The old people to working age population will get severely skewed in many countries. According to The Economist, by 2035 Japan will have 69 old people for every 100 in the 24-65 age group. Germany will have 66 and America will have 44.

Across the rich world the well educated people are working longer than the less skilled. In the age group of 62-74 in America, 65% people with a professional degree are still working compared to only 32% of people who didn’t go to college. The incomes of the highly skilled are rising at the expense of the unskilled. Ironically the employment rates are falling among younger unskilled people.

The source of labor will have to come from Asia and Africa which will in 2035 have 22 people over 65 for every hundred who are in the 24-65 age group. While we keep flaunting India‘s demographic dividend we conveniently ignore the dropping rates of employability with passing year. Less than one out of four MBAs is employable. One out of five engineers can claim to be employable. Only one in ten graduates is employable. What are we missing?

Historically, colleges ensured employability. The gap between what the employer needed and what the new hire came in with was met by mandating a certain number of training days for the employees. The world was slow to change. Hence the skills that a person picked up and sharpened lasted a lifetime.

The world outside is changing rapidly. Business is not booming as it did in the pre-dot-com era. Opportunities are like rainbows. They appear for a brief while and suddenly vanish. Those who are agile and skilled get the spoils. By the time the competition has caught on, the opportunity dries up and appears in another unexpected part of the world. That basically means that people have to constantly reskill themselves. The skills have short life spans.

Academic institutions have not changed over the years. While the real world problems are often solved by cross functional teams, colleges and business schools are still organised by the silos that existed decades ago. Information that was once available only through a professor is now available for free online. The role of the professor should reflect this reality. In the absence of that fresh entrants into the workplace will find it harder with each year to be relevant.

Education has worked on the principle of fixed tenure and variable quality. Every student spends the same three or four years to get a degree but there is a wide variation in the level of proficiency between students. The employer on the other hand cares about proficiency and not the time that a person has taken to acquire the skill. Academics argue that employability is not the end goal of education. It is all about opening the mind and making the person a global citizen. That is a luxury only the rich can afford. Ask a fresh MBA who is unable to find a job, what he or she believes to be the purpose of education. We acquire skills so that we can use it.

The world today needs people who can learn to constantly reskill themselves without waiting for their college or employer to nudge them. That is a big mind shift needed.

The workforce for the future will come from Africa and Asia and from countries which have a crumbling education system. It then is no longer a problem that we can leave to the respective countries to deal with. The countries which have the wealthy but ageing populations must invest heavily in boosting up the infrastructure, teacher training and the resources needed to prepare the next generation workforce. The next set of entrepreneurs and innovators are in all these countries which are youth-rich and proficiency-poor. Time for a rethink on how we view the world. 

Abhijit’s article also appeared in The Economic Times –

Pink Floyd sang “We don’t need no education…”, I’m doubtful about that! But they went on to say “We don’t need no, thought control..” and that I agree with! What we need is an education system that enables us to be open-minded, humble, self-aware, receptive, responsive, agile, adaptable and experiential and proactive learners. At the very least, it will help us survive!


How the mighty (Jet Airways) have fallen

July 1, 2014

Jet Airways Boeing 737-800

I’ve been delaying this post for the last 2 years. Hoping that I won’t need to. However, time after time, Jet Airways demonstrates how far they have slipped from the industry defining standard  of customer service  that they had introduced to the Indian flier.

It was some time in 1995, I had to fly from Bombay to Delhi. Upon checking with my agent for flight options, I found that Jet airways was the costliest ticket. On a whim, I called them up and asked the lady why this was so. With a great deal of confidence and pride she told me “Sir, we are the best. And once you fly with us you won’t think of this question.”

She was right. And for the next decade and more I flew only Jet Airways. I was a platinum member for the longest time. And their best ambassador. It wasn’t in the big things that Jet Airways impressed a customer but in the small details – the airhostess who’d switch on the light if she saw me reading – the cleanliness of the seats and aircraft – the willingness with which you received 4 packets of mouth freshener when you asked for one.

Today, I consciously avoid taking a Jet Airways flight and only opt for the airline if there is no other option. Why?

They are never on time anymore. They lack the simple courtesy of informing passengers about a delay, why there is one or how long they think it will take. And I am talking 20+ minutes.

The food quality is terrible. I am scared to eat the food because I worry how old it is and how bad the quality of the chicken and noodles are.

The aircraft is dirty, the seats are worse. Once I made the mistake of flying business class to Colombo from Mumbai and the seat was broken.

The pride, the confidence that one saw on the faces of the crew is missing. They look tired and defeated.

The last time I was checking in on a Mumbai-Singapore-Sydney flight, I was issued only the Mumbai-Singapore pass and asked to pick up the Sydney boarding pass in Singapore. Because there was an error on the system. When I argued it took less than 3 minutes to generate the boarding pass from another system. It’s a breakdown in customer orientation.

Naresh Goyal‘s dream is tarnished. Maybe he himself isn’t as involved anymore. His legacy and gleaming dream has no shine left.

I know the airline industry is in trouble. I know everyone is struggling. But what I cannot understand is how Low-cost Carriers like Indigo and SpiceJet can offer better service, on-time flights, better food quality at lower cost and Jet Airways, with a wider span and greater economies of scale, cannot.

I believe it has to do with focus, mindset, rigour and an uncompromising commitment to customer service. It has to do with the fundamental purpose of an organization, and the purpose cannot be financial survival (which is an outcome), organizations which have a purpose woven around the customer always come through good times and bad, in good shape. Which is something Jet Airways seems to have lost. Which is sad. I miss the service. I miss the energy. I miss the experience.

How the mighty have fallen.



The Curse of the High Performer

June 2, 2014
“Devika worked hard every year. Received a meets expectation rating twice and an exceeds expectation once. Won an award twice for demonstrating efficiency. But there’s something missing. She looks around and realizes that there are some who are valued more than her. She sees them get the pick of jobs, assignments and other developmental inputs. She sees them being mentored, coached and sponsored. She sees them receive all this attention and she begins to wonder what this means for her.
She wonders why it’s not her. She wonders if someone will talk to her and she wishes someone would explain to her exactly what it would take for her to be a member of “that Club”. But no one does. She decides to strive harder, puts her head down against the wind and moves forward with a stronger resolve, committed to making it the next year. And when she doesn’t she is none the wiser.”
Organizations the world over have woken up to the importance of talent. Companies big or small, old or new are putting processes in place to identify, engage and develop talented employees. However, the definition of talent now needs to be reconsidered.
Organizations largely define talent, as individuals who have future leadership potential. This is appropriate. But it creates a conundrum viz. What do we do with the High Performer? That steady, dependable individual who meets expectations year on year and consistently delivers results.
If we were to look at percentages most organizations would rank order individuals into 20%, 50%, 15% and bottom 15%.
Which means that 50% of the population are High Performers. And all of them experience an attention deficit similar to Devika. What is the potential impact of such a selection bias?
  • Disengagement? Certainly.
  • Attrition? Quite often.
  • Loss of organizational productivity? What do you think?
This means that attrition & disengagement are going to impact the largest and most important demographic of your organization, but there is no strategy to address this issue. 
I believe it is time organizations and the Leadership community put on their thinking hats and find solutions for HOW to address the development needs of these Steady-Eddies.
Some suggestions are:
1. Clearly differentiate between HiPos and High Performers in a manner that the individuals know what is being measured
2. Give a chance to the High Performers to attempt to develop their skills and move into the HiPo pool
3. Have developmental and career conversations with High Performers so they can see that they are valued and have a future in the organization. Also that the organization has a plan for them.
4. While HiPos would experience significant vertical growth, High Performers would benefit from broad-basing their skills and finding enrichment in widening their job skils.
It is time the High Performers are respected and actively engaged by the organization. The organizations that achieve this, will have a competitive advantage over the others.
What are some things your organization is doing in this space? What are some suggestions you have around how this can be addressed?
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Delegating Effectively

May 24, 2014

Delegate4Delegation continues to be a bugbear, not just for leaders themselves but equally so for organizations, since it has so much to do with developing the next line. While most leaders intellectually understand the need to delegate and the value it brings for themselves and the organization, it is emotions that hold them back from effective delegation.

So I thought I’d jot down the 2 core principles of delegation, in the hope that they might be of assistance to leaders who’d like to get better at delegation.


The 2 principles of Delegation:

1. Delegate what you fear to delegate or what you believe you can’t delegate. Delegating only what you are able to delegate means you are delegating what you believe your DRs can do. Which addresses present skills. It is only when you delegate what you are worried about delegating that you are developing people. This does not mean you should delegate things that you should be doing per se. The fist step is to identify things that you SHOULD NOT be doing, but you don’t delegate because of discomfort or anxiety.

2. When you delegate, know that the delegate will fail. If it’s the first time they’re doing something, they are likely to not do it as well as you. Be prepared to back them up. When they fail, don’t take it back or take control. When someone rides a bicycle for the first time, they will fall. When they fall, you encourage them, give some correctional/supporting inputs and put them back on the bicycle.
Delegate 1Follow that principle. Again and again and again. As long as the delegate is willing, has the gumption to continue and the learning agility to not repeat the same mistakes again and again. You need to continue supporting them.


Are there other core principles to delegation that you yourself use? Do share them as comments so we can all be wiser!

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The future of business – Emancipating the Customer

May 13, 2014

The future, more than ever before, is about emancipation. Businesses that will provide higher levels of emancipation to their customers will have an advantage over the others.


Telecom companies that enable customers to make plans/products of their choice or insurance firms that allow a customer to create their own insurance product from a variety of buffet-like options and businesses that empower dealers to select the merchandise mix, enabled by strong analytics are going to be the pioneers of this new advance. No longer the tyranny of the marketing or sales or product team. 

Customer services

Customer services (Photo credit: gordon2208)


The app will be the liberator. Websites will provide information, apps will enable customer relationships and interaction. Banking operations, utility payments, school fees, airline ticketing and many other services that have moved from offline to online will embrace the app ecosystem or perish.


Today’s customer is value-conscious of both, time and cost. Why would I invest additional time visiting a branch or store if I can manage to achieve my needs while traveling in a bus or cab? Thereby freeing up time for other pursuits. As customers become more discerning about work-life balance and free up dudgeon in order to have more time for following their passion, time-value will become a key brand differentiator.


Organizations that embrace this change will need the following:


  1. Leadership ethos. A leadership that is comfortable letting go and handing over control to the customer. Traditional mindsets of ownership, beliefs that we know the best plans to offer our customers, will have to be let go. This will require humility, an exploratory mindset and a the ability to crowd-source ideas from the sharpest users of the app Eco-system.


  1. Technology at the forefront. Organizations will have to stop seeing IT as a business support or business enabler and transition to leveraging technology as a driver of the business. In the new normal, the COO must be equal parts CTO and CIO. Ensuring the customer engages with a technology platform that is flexible, adaptable and agile will help disintermediate several layers between the customer and the actual organizational service-provider.


It is in transferring power to the customer, that services businesses will find greater empowerment and differentiation. The ones that do it best, not necessarily first, will win in the marketplace.

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