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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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Attitude is the key

January 28, 2014

I’ve always believed in hiring/selecting for attitude, since I believe people who have the right attitude will always find a way and will make a difference. I recently came across the story below that highlights this so well that I had to share it on my blog. Hope you enjoy reading it.


Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax)


The Duck and the Eagle

Harvey Mackay was waiting in line for a ride at the airport. When a car pulled up, the first thing Harvey noticed was that the taxi was polished to a bright shine. Smartly dressed in a white shirt, black tie, and freshly pressed black slacks, the cab driver jumped out and rounded the car to open the back passenger door for Harvey. He handed Harvey a laminated card and said:

“I’m Wally, your driver. While I’m loading your bags in the trunk I’d like you to read my mission statement.”

Taken aback, Harvey read the card. It said:

Wally’s Mission Statement : “To get my customers to their destination in the quickest, Safest and cheapest way possible in a friendly environment. This blew Harvey away. Especially when he noticed that the inside of the cab matched the outside. Spotlessly clean! “

As he slid behind the wheel, Wally said, “Would you like a cup of coffee? I have a thermos of regular and one of decaf.”

Harvey said jokingly, “No, I’d prefer a soft drink.”

Wally smiled and said, “No problem. I have a cooler up front with regular and Diet Coke, water and orange juice.” Almost stuttering, Harvey said, “I’ll take a Diet Coke.”

Handing him his drink, Wally said, “If you’d like something to read, I have The Wall Street Journal , Time, Sports Illustrated and USA Today.”

As they were pulling away, Wally handed Harvey another laminated card. “These are the stations I get and the music they play, if you’d like to listen to the radio.”

And as if that weren’t enough, Wally told Harvey that he had the air conditioning on and asked if the temperature was comfortable for him. Then he advised Harvey of the best route to his destination for that time of day. He also let him know that he’d be happy to chat and tell him about some of the sights or, if Harvey preferred, to leave him with his own thoughts.

English: A rubber duck. Français : Un canard e...

English: A rubber duck. Français : Un canard en plastique de couleur jaune. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Tell me, Wally,” amazed Harvey asked the driver, “have you always served customers like this?”

Wally smiled into the rear view mirror. “No, not always. In fact, it’s only been in the last two years. My first five years driving, I spent most of my time complaining like all the rest of the cabbies do. Then I heard the personal growth guru, Wayne Dyer, on the radio one day. He had just written a book called ‘You’ll See It When You Believe It.’ Dyer said that if you get up in the morning expecting to have a bad day, you’ll rarely disappoint yourself. He said, ‘Stop complaining! Differentiate yourself from your competition. Don’t be a duck. Be an eagle. Ducks quack and complain. Eagles soar above the crowd. The eagle will fly to some high spot and wait for the winds to come. When the storm hits, it sets its wings so that the wind will pick it up and lift it above the storm. While the storm rages below, the eagle is soaring above it. The eagle does not escape the storm. It simply uses the storm to lift it higher. It rises on the winds that bring the storm. ‘”

“That hit me right between the eyes,” said Wally. “Dyer was really talking about me. I was always quacking and complaining, so I decided to change my attitude and become an eagle. I looked around at the other cabs and their drivers. The cabs were dirty, the drivers were unfriendly, and the customers were unhappy. So I decided to make some changes. I put in a few at a time. When my customers responded well, I did more.”

“I take it that has paid off for you,” Harvey said.

“It sure has,” Wally replied. “My first year as an eagle, I doubled my income from the previous year. This year I’ll probably quadruple it. You were lucky to get me today. I don’t sit at cabstands anymore. My customers call me for appointments on my cell phone or leave a message on my answering machine. If I can’t pick them up myself, I get a reliable cabbie friend to do it and I take a piece of the action.”

Wally was phenomenal. He was running a limo service out of a Yellow Cab.

I’ve probably told that story to more than fifty cab drivers over the years, and only two took the idea and ran with it. Whenever I go to their cities, I give them a call. The rest of the drivers quacked like ducks and told me all the reasons they couldn’t do any of what I was suggesting.

A great attitude is a matter of choice. You could either quack like a Duck or soar like an Eagle.



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January 20, 2014

Earlier this month, I requested Nik to guest-blog for me and he kindly agreed to reproduce an HBR blogpost he had written. I found the points around consistency and connecting it with other relevant data, very relevant. Even in my career, I have seen these becoming the major contributors to lack of Talent Insight.

Talent IntelligenceNik Kinley & Shlomo Ben-Hur

Big data is all the rage in HR recently. But more immediately promising is the talk of small data — of more effectively managing the data we already have before we start thinking about analyzing more complex datasets.  And nowhere is this more pertinent than with talent assessment data. For here, sitting right under organisations’ noses, is a huge, easy, and yet almost always overlooked opportunity to fundamentally transform the impact of their talent management.

Every year, companies spend in excess of US$3 billion on talent assessment – on trying to identify the right person to hire, promote, or select for talent-development programs. Companies do this in all sorts of way, generating all manner of data about which candidates are the best or most suited to a particular position. And this is just fine.

The problem, however, is that most stop right there, only ever using their assessment results to inform decisions on individuals. Too many firms, then, are missing the opportunity to start using their aggregate assessment data for something more ambitious. Because when you build and use your talent intelligence effectively, development processes can be targeted, recruitment processes can be adjusted to bring in certain types of talent, and retention processes can be better aimed at specific talent populations. This may sound complex and difficult, but it need not be.

For an example of just how much you can achieve relatively simply, consider a large, global company we recently worked with. We were able to transform their selection processes by performing just three, simple analyses using no more than a simple spreadsheet:

  • We compared the average competency ratings of new hires with those of current employees. We found that the new hires had an uncannily similar pattern of strengths and weaknesses to the current employees. This kick-started a debate in the business about whether it was “just employing clones,” which in turn led to further changes in hiring practices.
  • We compared the qualities distinguishing high-potentials with those actually being promoted.   On the one hand, we found that those labelled high-potential were more outgoing, showed greater entrepreneurial spirit, and were generally rated by their managers as performing more highly. This was certainly reassuring to the business, as it was trying to adopt a faster-paced and more edgy approach. But when we looked at promotion processes, we found that the people being selected were those who performed well but were viewed as team players. As a result, new criteria for promotion were developed.
  • Finally, we looked at the average competency profiles of the various groups measured to identify capability gaps and fed the findings into the learning and development functions. As a result, specific development programs were created to address key competency weaknesses in particular groups of employees. The measurement data thus enabled better targeting of learning investment.

These were all simple steps, accomplished with simple data and without resorting to expensive systems.  More broadly, to put yourself into a position to turn your talent data into talent intelligence requires three commonsense steps:

Collect it. Collection should be centralized and include all your talent-measurement data– interview ratings, psychometric scores, competency ratings. It may be possible to use an HR IT system to do this, but a large spread-sheet will do, as well. The centrality of the database is key here, because without central collection, businesses cannot build up a picture of the talent across the organization. Talent data is a valuable resource and it should be managed as such.

Make it consistent.  By “consistent” we mean, make sure that as far as possible you’re collecting the same data for everyone’. For example, if you measure one person’s intelligence and another’s personality, bringing the two pieces of information together will not tell you much. But if you know the personalities of both people, then you can compare them. And if you collect these data consistently for enough people, you can compare individuals to the average profiles of a group, or you can compare the qualities of different groups. It is therefore critical that as far as possible you know the same information about different employees. Without this, meaningful talent analytics is simply not possible.

Connect it. Just collecting the data isn’t enough; you then need to do something with it. The critical step here is to connect it with other types of data. For example, knowing the average competency ratings of new hires can be useful. Yet if you can then connect this to individuals’ annual appraisal performance ratings after they have joined, you can see which competencies are most predictive of initial success. And if you can connect it to records of who is subsequently promoted then you can see which competencies are most valued in the business. It is only through connecting assessment data with other types of information such as these, that its full value can be realised.

Succession plans and talent pools and managing talent “on demand” may get all the headlines and be genuinely good and desirable.  But none of it stands a chance of making any real difference unless it is built upon good talent intelligence. And for that, a few simple steps can go a long, long way.


Nik Kinley is a London-based Director and Head of Talent Strategy for the global Talent Management consultancy YSC, whose prior roles include Global Head of Assessment & Coaching for the BP Group and Head of Learning for Barclays GRBF. He has specialized in the fields of measurement and behaviour change for over twenty years, and in this time has worked with CEOs, factory-floor workers, life-sentence prisoners, government officials and children.

Shlomo Ben-Hur is an organizational psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the IMD business school in Switzerland. He has more than 20 years of corporate experience in senior executive positions including Vice President of Leadership Development and Learning for the BP Group, and Chief Learning Officer for DaimlerChrysler Services.

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