Politicians are not leaders (at least not all of them)

In the wake of the BJP’s electoral dominance (at least in the Lok Sabha elections), most of India’s Opposition parties appear to be in disarray. Several political commentators and even ordinary citizens consistently point to the lack of credible Opposition “leaders”. This refrain continues despite the fact that there are still many veteran politicians in the ranks of the Opposition. Clearly, then, all politicians are not seen as “leaders”. Therefore, who is a “leader”?

In politics, we have largely come to see “leaders” as people who have lots of “followers” (and are thus able to win votes). That is certainly one indication, but the deeper and more relevant question is why so many people choose to follow that individual politician. In most cases, it is because of their hope that these leaders can help them in some way. The nature of help that the leader is expected to deliver defines whether it is an individual, a family or a set of people with common interests that become followers.

In India, an individual voter expects that an elected MLA/MP will sign a certificate that will provide him/her family with certain benefits. This is one reason why a certain politician has a following. People of a certain caste who seek reservation may believe that voting for a certain individual will increase the probability of such reservation. That is another example. Such behavior is by no means limited to India. Candidate Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is a good example of a resonating message used effectively to garner support. But it’s important to understand that “leadership” goes much beyond coining slogans or even one-time actions.

Here are six key traits that leaders (whether in the political sphere or elsewhere) must possess.

Ability to envision a better future

A key leadership trait is the ability to envision a future state. A state that will be seen as desirable by a number of people because it represents improvement vis-a-vis the current state of those people. Leadership means possessing the ability to paint a picture of positive change. A corollary is that the bigger and bolder the vision, the greater the circle of potential influence- and hence, larger the number of people who will be attracted as followers. Teenage environmental champion Greta Thunberg is perhaps a good example of someone exhibiting leadership of this kind. Her vision transcends religion, national boundaries, language, gender, age or pretty much any classification criteria (except perhaps those who believe that climate change is not for real).

Inspire followers to subscribe to the vision

A leader’s vision must enthuse people to do what it takes to realize the vision. A leader must thus possess the ability to inspire people to subscribe to the vision of the future state. This also means convincing people who do not share the vision to see why the vision represents a better future worth fighting for. Such convincing should not be by force (remember Hitler or Stalin?) but through open, transparent exchange of ideas.

Good communication skills

To facilitate an effective exchange of ideas leaders must possess strong communication skills. Most of us understand the need for strong speaking and writing skills, but we often forget listening, which is perhaps the most critical communication skill for a leader. This is simply because no individual can be an expert in every field. This means there may be points of view or perspectives that a leader has not considered when formulating the vision. By listening to others, a leader has the opportunity to take on board differing views and incorporating relevant aspects into a revised vision. Leaders simply must not exhibit the “Not invented here” syndrome, as this would only impede making the vision the best it possibly can be.

Action focus and relentless follow-through

Leadership goes beyond slogans, speeches and election manifestos. Effective leadership demands constant actions to ensure that the vision remains relevant and that all actions being taken by the cohort are indeed in the desired direction.

Open to a constantly-evolving path towards the vision

Leaders understand the “context” of any situation well, and appreciate that contexts can and do change. When they formulate and declare their vision, leaders do not always know the detailed route map to get there. They usually only have a general idea of the broad direction. A leader who listens can more easily assimilate information and use relevant elements to define/refine the path ahead.

Self-confidence and resilience in the face of failure

Leaders are not immune to failure. What distinguishes good leaders is their ability to bounce back. They see failures as temporary setbacks, analyse the situation to identify what may have gone wrong and most important, do not hesitate to make course corrections. This may mean changing the proposed roadmap or even recasting their visions as and when necessary because the context has changed. All through such change, leaders maintain their self-belief and confidence- even when people around them start to worry and fret.

Authentic and humble

Sadly, most politicians come with a halo of hubris and an aura of inconsistency: they speak with forked tongues. That is not the “flexibility” that leaders must exhibit. They must embrace certain core values and remain authentic to them come what may. Sadly, many of us give up our values when it is convenient to do so for short-term gains. The hubris comes in the way of even listening to alternative narratives, forget acknowledging them.

Although it can be argued that there may be some genetic/epigenetic considerations, it is fair to assert that the above traits can be learnt through discipline and hard work.

Armed with the above, let’s take another look at India’s political scenario. Are there politicians who possess the above traits? If not, what prevents at least the younger politicians from developing and honing the above abilities? If there are some who do possess these traits, do they exhibit them consistently or do they change based on which way the wind is blowing? What prevents all our politicians from painting bold visions of where they want our country to be in 5 years or 10 years? And here, I do not mean visions in the limited sense of short-term political gains (reservations, presenting only one view of history, finger-pointing etc.). Their visions may be different, but let them enunciate them and let people choose what they believe is most appealing to them based on aspirational relevance. Then, let the power of democratic processes kick in. May the best leaders win!

PS: The above traits are as relevant to leaders in the corporate world as they are to politicians. Sadly, what is happening is the permeation of political machinations into companies instead of leadership qualities among our politicians.

October 30, 2019 at 2:47 pm Leave a comment

Back to the future

Many people say that after the Covid-10 pandemic, our lives will change. Unquestionably so. But if you think about it, how different will life in India be from what it was, say, in 1970? If you can remember that far back, you will recall that we used to buy groceries from nearby shops. Fruit and vegetable vendors used to criss-cross our neighborhoods with hand carts or a basket on their head; we could pick and choose whatever we wanted. There was no home delivery- at best, you could buy some products from vendors who traveled on their bicycles or scooters hawking products like pickles, papads etc from house to house. There were restaurants, but eating out was rare, even among middle class families. There were some brands, and most of them related to personal and home-care products such as soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, detergents etc. There were brands of cigarettes, confectionery and soft drinks as well. All of these products were “made in India”. Imported chocolates or liquor was for the handful who went abroad- and back then, customs duty rates were much higher. The scenario now is much the same. The difference, of course, is that there are many more brands (both Indian and foreign) in retail stores. Also, there is some home-delivery- but these days, it is sporadic, because e-commerce companies are finding it hard to get delivery crew. But what if Covid-19 spurs countries to adopt more nationalistic policies and dump globalization?

In the pre-internet era, people would go to their respective offices, do their work and get back home by 6:30 or 7:00 p m (depending on how long the scooter or bus ride took). No conference calls or emails after that. All that has changed, because these days, employees are expected to be “always on”. Back then, unless you lived in Delhi or perhaps Mumbai, there was no TV either- and till the early 1990s, no cable TV either; AIR’s Vividh Bharati provided entertainment from 6:00 a m to 11:00 p m in the form of 30- or 60- minute slots devoted to classical music, radio skits, talks, Hindi (and regional language) film songs, interviews with well-known people and so on. Watching films meant going to a movie theater and standing in line to buy tickets (unless you had bought them a day or two in advance). There were no malls or multiplexes, so if you did not get tickets, you risked “buying them in black” or went home disappointed. Today radio is regaining popularity. Of course, there are a myriad OTT streaming options also available- which can all be viewed from virtually anywhere there is stable internet connectivity. Back then, children played outdoors with friends; one had to take one’s siblings along, no matter how much they cramped your style. The absence of the www meant that news was delivered either in the baritone of Surajit Sen, Barun Haldar or Lotika Rathnam (hope I’ve got the names right!) on AIR’s news bulletins or via the newspapers the next day. Now, though, hundreds of websites deliver news; and if that is not enough, social media platforms are available to propagate facts, opinions and plenty of fake news.

Today, we have digital technologies that enable so many things from the relative comfort- and safety- of our own homes. To that extent, life has changed, because “instant gratification” is being enabled and encouraged like never before. But in other ways? Maybe in the post-Covid-19 world, we will all just go back to what life was like fifty years ago. Getting used to this shift will not be easy, though, because as a society, we have lost the ability to trust (and in some cases, acquired the ability to trust blindly).


April 15, 2020 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment

Disruption, transformation and unintended consequences in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic

Words such as #transformation and #disruption are often used by business consulting companies and providers of technology services in their marketing brochures and blogs. The objective of these words is to convince prospects and existing customers to buy new offerings. Senior executives across companies and industries too use these words to communicate with stakeholders (employees, business partners, industry analysts, equity research firms, the media etc.) about new strategies and plans being formulated and rolled-out. Again, the intention is to get stakeholders excited and energized and subscribe to the journey ahead.

Buzzwords such as these are almost always meant to denote positive change and as a  harbinger of better times. But for whom, and using what criteria? If the transformation program succeeds, it will certainly be good times for the proponents of the change (company executives and their advisors). But as a result of the transformation (even if it is successful), there are almost always direct and indirect adverse consequences like job losses, closure of individual plants and over time, industry consolidation.

For experts planning and managing such transformations, many of these impacts are captured as numbers in spreadsheets, bullet points in slide presentations and sections or paragraphs in internal memos and reports. But it is advisable to remember that there are always multiple perspectives and viewpoints about any given situation. What may be transformative could easily also disrupt human lives adversely.

Cut to the present. As a direct result of the #Covid-19 #pandemic that continues to rage globally, our lives have been “disrupted”, and in many ways, “transformed”- both individually or collectively. A virus- something so small that the naked eye cannot even see it- has all but brought human society as we know it to its knees. It has forced cities, states, countries and entire continents to announce #lockdowns of varying durations and severity. We may not like it, but there’s little we can do except comply. At least until a cure and/or vaccine is found, tested and approved. This, dear reader, is “disruption”! We are all washing our hands many more times every day; we are mindful of “social distancing”; we are curbing our desires to order food in or let outsiders into our homes to clean or service appliances. Such behavioral change is one facet of “transformation”.

As a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, economies have been severely hit. Stock markets are in free fall. Companies are bleeding and even entire industries are on the verge of collapse. But maybe it’s not all bad news. Just as there are unintended consequences with so many other actions, the ongoing pandemic too has caused some. And unlike the generally negative associations the terms “unintended consequences” or “collateral damage” have, we thankfully have some positive outcomes to show. Carbon footprints globally have reduced due to the lockdown, and some say that this could even cause the hole in the ozone layer to shrink in size; this is of course good news for our planet as a whole. Many pictures and videos are popping up on social media, showing animals and birds making a reappearance in urban locations. A few weeks of significantly lower human activity and other species are encouraged to come back to areas that they once inhabited (and then co-inhabited, before being forced to flee). Of course, one swallow does not make a summer. People are learning to manage with what they have and cut down on consumption of goods and services. (To be fair, though, consumption of streaming entertainment and OTT services have probably jumped in the past month or so). Many are rediscovering faith and forbearance as antidotes to frustration.

However, as always, #sustainability is key. Can we, as humans, agree to stay on the path of minimalism, avoid conspicuous consumption and waste, and be more sensitive to fellow denizens of this planet after the pandemic ends? Only time will tell. But if we are able to do this, history may be more charitable in documenting the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps describing it as an event that was an inflection point for earth. But in this process of effecting this transformation humans and many other species on earth would have paid a very heavy price-  not just in terms of figures inside complicated spreadsheets but in terms of real lives lost, degradation in health and immunity, mental suffering and stress and so many more parameters.

PS: I am not an #ecofascist.

April 9, 2020 at 4:04 pm Leave a comment

Musings about the Covid-19 pandemic

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has hit the whole world. While there are many negatives, there are some positives too- and we should learn to be grateful.

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Continue Reading March 31, 2020 at 10:38 pm Leave a comment

What a recent train journey in India taught me…

This past weekend I needed to travel from Bangalore to Chennai and back. For various reasons, I ended up traveling by train both ways. I have always enjoyed train travel, but have not traveled by train for some years now. Therefore, it was fun. Usually, I travel A/C chair car or II A/C sleeper, but this time I traveled second class (a six hour day journey each way). Fortunately, I got window seats, allowing me to feel the wind against my face and look outside at the world passing by (both literally and metaphorically). Although I had a book (and my smartphone) for company, I used the opportunity to observe people around me and ruminate about what I saw. Here are 10 things I was struck by:

  1. How economical rail travel is in India (especially second class). The auto rickshaw fare from my home to the railway station (about 10 Km) cost me almost as much as the fare from Bangalore to Chennai!
  2. How fortunate I am in so many ways. For one, I can travel almost as and when needed. Two, I had the luxury of a reserved seat. And there are many more reasons to be grateful.
  3. One does not need expensive things to be happy. I watched young boys (probably 10-12 years old) playing cricket with a makeshift bat and something that looked like a ball (but may not have been one).
  4. Children smiling and waving to passengers in the train whom they don’t know and most of whom will not even smile or wave back shows that we can be happy and spread joy easily.
  5. There are so many people who work hard and honestly for their living- for example, waiters tirelessly carrying food and beverages from the pantry car to various coaches.
  6. Even if not strictly “legal”, there are so many hawkers and vendors who sell a wide variety of things- from fresh fruit and vegetables grown in towns along the way to toys and key chains and other knickknacks. And there are buyers- so clearly, they are serving a need.
  7. Some of the hawkers were visually challenged- and yet they were brave enough to earn their living by doing a job that, without a doubt, has its own challenges, uncertainties and risks. I was touched by their trust in customers, manifested when they asked them to take what they wanted and declare the denomination of the note they had handed over. With so much negativity all around, there are still instances where the basic good nature of human beings is there for all to see. And it is fair to say that these customers are not from the highest echelons of our society. Perhaps that says a lot!
  8. I even saw a transgender selling some “sitaphal”. And when s/he was sold out, another woman vendor requested her to sell corn on the cob on her behalf. Did they know about distribution channels or contracts on sales commissions, ownership of inventory etc? Did they even care? But the spirit of collaboration and basic human enterprise was evident in full flow.
  9. At one of the intermediate halts, lots of passengers got on board the coach I was in. They sat in the aisle- on the floor. There must have been at least 15 people in my coach alone. It made movement very difficult for passengers needing to go to the restroom or even for the authorized vendors selling a wide range of food and beverages. They grumbled for a moment or two, but gamely moved on because they had a job to do and because they knew that the regular unreserved coaches were overflowing. Another example of compassion- a key element in the repertoire of basic human traits- on display.
  10. Sadly, it was not all positive stuff. Fellow passengers continued to throw trash out of the train window. My friendly suggestion that they throw the wrappers, empty water bottles etc. into the trash can provided inside the railway coach was met with stony glares or a smile that conveyed guilt but also the unasked “who are you to tell me what I should do”?

PS: I was also impressed by the new coaches the Indian Railways has introduced.

November 12, 2019 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

Do your team members clearly understand the goals you have set them?

The best visions, strategies and tactics too cannot deliver unless they are executed well. Effective and efficient execution requires everyone in the team to punch above their weight and find new and better ways of working so as to improve productivity, reduce costs, enhance customer delight, accelerate innovation and so on. This means questioning status quo, thinking outside the box and doing things differently (and maybe even doing different things). A team member’s ability and willingness to do so depends on not just whether clear goals have been set for him/her, but how well he/she actually understands those goals in the context of the bigger picture.

Enough has been written about the need for goals to be “SMART”. But how well do people know how their work impacts the outcomes of the company’s strategy? Simply setting “SMART goals” is not enough. Managers must use goal-setting as an opportunity to explain why these goals are important not just for the individual’s own growth, but also to the company’s progress. For instance, at a software company, zero defect code is not just a project level goal- it has implications for customer satisfaction, the ability to deliver faster, creating reusable assets etc. Similarly, a recruitment team’s goal to fill vacancies with the best possible talent within the shortest possible time without a huge jump in compensation is another example of a goal that impacts the larger organization.

When goals are explained in the context of the bigger picture, they start to make more sense to people. They spur people to go beyond what they are doing- and it is this raising of the bar by individuals that ultimately delivers superior outcomes for customers and the company. This is one area where many managers can do better. More managers should explain every SMART goal they set their teams at three levels:

  • impact on individual (i.e. KPIs/KRAs and how individual performance will be measured);
  • effect on team performance (and perception); and
  • how achievement of the goals will contribute to the larger objectives of the department, business unit or organization.

The above may seem quite obvious, but it’s not done very commonly. Most managers simply set goals that do not let their team members see the big picture linkages. Another benefit that organizations will derive from managers taking such an approach is that company strategies, priorities etc. will get more frequently articulated, shared and discussed. In the process, not only will they become more understood and internalized, but also, new data, perspectives and insights may emerge, allowing fine-tuning of strategies. In turn, this can enable the team/company reach a higher level of performance in a shorter time.

Don’t take goal-setting lightly. It is a critical managerial activity and needs time so you can think through not just the relevance of the goal but also how to articulate it for maximum clarity (and minimum ambiguity) and ease of understanding. As the person setting a goal, it may be clear in your head; but the person for whom you are setting the goal must be clear too. Otherwise, come appraisal time, the conversation will be more about missed goals and the consequences, instead of focusing more on development and the road ahead. Of course, giving and receiving feedback is an art too, but that’s for another time.

January 24, 2019 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

If you make only one resolution this year, let it be this: be a better listener!

Listening is at the core of so many different models that seek to explain leadership, innovation and organizational transformation. The importance of listening ought to be obvious to everyone and yet this critical competency is not well-developed in the vast majority of us.

Why is listening important?

During a conversation or meeting, listening is the primary way for us to gather information from another person. Body language helps, but if the subject being discussed is new or needs information to be shared, listening to what the others are saying is unavoidable. It is also unavoidable in situations where non-verbal cues are lacking- for example, on an audio call (or a poor-quality video call for that matter).

Poor listening makes for information gaps. When there are information gaps, and we don’t bother to ask questions to fill them with the right information (or do not listen to the answers we are being given), we make assumptions. If the assumptions are right, we can count our blessings and move on. But if we make incorrect assumptions, erroneous inferences will follow, in turn causing us to make sub-optimal decisions and take the wrong actions. More often than not, we are not able to make the right assumptions because there are too many “moving parts” in every situation we face. That’s why listening (and then thinking and speaking) allows us to improve the odds that we make the right calls.

Listening is not always about what someone else is saying. Call it inner voice or conscience- each one of us is blessed with a powerful in-built compass that is available to guide us if only we listen more attentively to it.

What prevents us from being good listeners?

Our mental cacophony

At any given time, all of us have many thoughts running inside our heads. These thoughts may be about different aspects of the same core topic (say an upcoming leisure/business trip) or they could relate to completely different topics (the trip, tomorrow’s budget review, tonight’s dinner meeting, not having called your parents, the car behind you that is honking needlessly, your doctor’s advice to “slow down”….). This “mental cacophony” is virtually incessant when we are awake, and albeit unconsciously, consumes a lot of our attention and mental bandwidth, besides being a distraction. That is the first impediment to listening.

Our biases & prejudices

Most of us are inherently biased. While our biases may be born of experience (or what we have read or been told), we must remember that they are ultimately biases. Even a 95% confidence level associated with a bias may not be statistically significant- there’s a 5% chance we may be wrong. These biases and prejudices interfere with our listening. The voice of bias, often in the guise of “experience”, tells us confidently, “This will not work… it did not work the last time…” or “Don’t fall for what they are saying…” or “What does this person know…?” and so on. By pre-judging the other person’s intention or idea or suggestion, we dismiss it even before we give the other person a fair hearing. The tendency to prejudge is a pretty strong reason to not listen! Think how life would be if judges or doctors based their decisions on this kind of a process!

Hindsight, we know, is always 20/20. As a quick check, look back at some of your own recent decisions to see if you truly made them after considering all available information or on the basis of some bias or pre-meditated thought. Ah, but I rely on my instincts, you say. Fair enough- but remember that our gut feel too is shaped by past experiences and knowledge.

Our fears and insecurities

No matter how brave and nonchalant we pretend to be, we are afraid- of failure, of not looking cool, of how others will judge us and so on. Fear forms an insulating layer around us that prevents us from listening to what others say- because we are afraid that someone may point out something that we have not considered (which is thus a reflection of our competence). This fear prevents us from accepting evidence that we may be wrong. Me… wrong?! Yeah, right! Sadly, the layer of insulation is semi-pervious; the holes in it let in only our biases, fears and prejudices. And by the way, biases could be positive or negative.

Our false belief that we can multitask

Humans are not designed to multitask; we sequentially think about (and do) different things, giving ourselves the impression that we are master multi-taskers. Unfortunately, this reality is getting buried deeper by digital lifestyles. We think we can drive while speaking on the mobile phone. But what if there’s some bad news that momentarily clouds your judgement? Or because you’re cursing a jaywalker, you did not even hear (forget listen to) what the caller said!? Admittedly, these are extreme examples.

Think of when your child is excitedly narrating what happened at school while you’re replying to an important email. If you’re like most people, you end up not completely listening to the child (and later complain that you were not told of the achievement or don’t recall, annoying your child and spouse in the process). Nor do you write all that you wanted to in the email (that important something that came to your mind went out briefly when your child was saying something about her play at school, only to come back 15 minutes after you sent the email). Anybody looking for examples of a lose-lose situation?

Other factors that impede listening

Other factors too can impede listening. These could range from ill-health or other physical discomfort, inadequate language proficiency, lack of familiarity with the subject and so on. If the topic of discussion is not of interest to you, listening quality will be compromised.

One can always find excuses for not listening. But no matter whether you are the other person’s manager, peer, direct report, family member, friend or someone else- you owe it to him/her to listen with all the attention you can muster. If the boot were on the other foot, would you not want the person you are speaking with to listen with attention? Think about a performance appraisal discussion in which your boss was clearly distracted and not listening to what you had to say. Would you not come out thinking “what’s the point of saying anything… it’s all a charade”.

Listen to your body. Listen to your gut feel. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your family and friends. But act based on a balanced view that factors in the current context- not what was or might have been. Validate what you’ve been told with additional information as needed so you don’t fall prey to confirmation bias.

It’s that time of the year when many of us make new year resolutions. Make yours to be a better listener.

I wish you and your loved ones a happy, peaceful, healthy and prosperous new year!

January 1, 2019 at 1:14 pm Leave a comment

Change is constant, but the more things change the more they remain the same

French writer and critic Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr is said to have written “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. The most common translation of this epigram is “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. Although his acerbic comment was written almost 170 years ago, recent events continue to evoke a strong sense of déjà vu and point to how prescient he was.

The spike in air pollution during the winter months in the NCR (and indeed, most other parts of the country) has been an annual occurrence that we have witnessed for many years. Governments have come and gone, but the problem remains.

A decade after the housing mortgage crisis in the US, we now seem to be in the midst of India’s own Housing Finance Company mess that threatens to snowball into God-knows-what. If l’affaire Lehmann Brothers was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back in the US in 2007, the last word on the implosion of our very own ILFS has not been written. God alone knows how that is going to unravel and the impact it will have directly and indirectly on companies, mutual funds and the financial system as a whole. There is also the risk that crucial infrastructure projects across the country (and maybe even overseas) go into limbo till a resolution is found.

For more than four decades after World War II ended, the Cold War drove the formation of a bipolar world. Happily, saner counsel prevailed in the late 1980s, leading to the two superpowers agreeing to ostensibly end their missile proliferation race. But three decades later, as a new, multi-polar world is emerging, we seem to have turned the clock back.

More than three decades after the formation of the EU, Brexit happened. The apparent inability to agree on what life will look like post-Brexit means a lot more uncertainty and possible impediments to the growth of EU nations and the UK. The attractiveness of a “Common Market” seems to have lost out to the pre-EU ways of thinking. China’s recent decision to revoke the ban on tiger and rhino body parts, the US deciding to withdraw from bilateral missile control treaties and even multilateral ones such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change are all examples of one step forward, two steps back.

It is natural for political leaders to put the interests of their own country ahead of everything else. Indeed, that is why they were voted. But leaders- and the citizens who vote them to power- must remember that especially in the past three decades the world that has become much more inter-dependent than it has ever been before. In light of this reality, what’s good for the entire planet cannot be forgotten; every country looking to protect only its interests will create a zero-sum game for others.

It must be remembered that the earth belongs to non-human species as well. We may already have reached a point of no-return, with the WWF’s latest Living Planet report stating that between 1970 and 2014 there has been an average 60% decline in mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations. The report warns that if no action is taken right now, the figure could go up to 67% by 2020! (https://newatlas.com/wwf-report-60-percent-decline/57014/). The ill effects of ecological damage or a potential nuclear flashpoint are not bound by national or political affiliations or limited to any specific “perpetrator”. Nor is such damage limited to the human species. Who can say for sure that the storms, typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones that have brought misery to people in India, Cuba, US (Florida), the Philippines in recent weeks are not the results of humankind’s avarice or contemptuous disregard for the environment? Just as nobody can say with any degree of certainty that another nuclear incident will not occur, leaving large parts of our world devastated. Or that the effects of the consequent nuclear winter will only be limited.

Perhaps a similar set of forces caused earlier civilizations (and species) to be wiped off the face of our planet eons ago. In a few million years, someone somewhere may again express similar thoughts, pointing to us as the lost civilization. Clearly, the more we thought things have changed, the more they seem to remain the same.

October 31, 2018 at 5:52 pm Leave a comment

With apologies to Alistair MacLean, fear is not the key- overcoming it is!

I am a voracious reader of English fiction. I started with Enid Blyton’s stories when I was about 5 years of age, and recall reading my first Alistair MacLean novel (Where Eagles Dare) when I was about 14 years old. Over the next couple of years, I devoured most of the books he wrote in the 1950s-70s- The Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Fear is the Key, Circus, Breakheart Pass and so many more. Thank you, Mr. MacLean, for your inimitable writing style that has kept memories of your books fresh even after 30 years!

In 25+ years of my corporate career and more recently as a freelance trainer and writer, I have learned many things and have often had the opportunity and privilege to share my perspectives. One strand that seems to affect many people but manifests in different ways is Fear. Most of us are afraid of taking actions for fear that we may be seen as incompetent, dumb or somehow inadequate. Fear stops us from taking even simple actions like asking for clarifications or additional instructions if something is not clear. Fear is what suppresses our ability to speak up at a meeting to articulate our ideas and opinions (even though in our heads we know that our ideas merit attention because they are as good as the ones being discussed).

Fear impedes our judgement and decision-making when it comes to addressing inter-personal issues between team members. For example, as a Manager, we may find that someone in our team whom we consider to be more valuable (or less dispensable, if you will) is in the wrong. But we tend to overlook the problem or go easy on the person because of the halo of performance, perceived strengths or just plain loyalty. The result: you give the wrongdoer the confidence that s/he can get away with transgressions. You send a signal to everyone in the team (including the person who has been wronged), that you are not fair or that you are willing to compromise on organizational/personal values. Finally, your action gives others the space to potentially commit similar (or other) transgressions- because they have a precedent to cite. In hindsight, answering “why was that OK but not this?” can be very difficult.

Another common everyday situation where fear comes in the way is when we have to push back on something that is wrong or unreasonable or otherwise detrimental to the team or organization. Fear causes us to imagine and project scenarios that are usually pessimistic. “If I ask a client for a higher price after one year, he may balk and terminate the contract”. Or “If I tell my boss that I am halfway through some other task assigned to me and can take up this new task only tomorrow, I may be seen as inefficient”. This fear then drives an imaginary evaluation process in our heads and stops us from pushing back- which would have been the right thing to do. Instead, we end up in an unhappy place, full of anger and resentment that in turn impact our performance. We hold the price at the cost of margins or by forcing our teams to work unreasonably long hours (thereby raising the risk of a shoddy job). Or we accept more work, and not knowing how to prioritize, end up doing below-average work all round. The result: our fear impacts performance and leaves room for others to point out that we did not do well. In other words, it creates a vicious circle of “projection” driving “reality” further reinforcing “perception”.

The key to performance is to overcome fear- the fear of failure or the fear of being perceived as weak or incompetent or whatever other negative descriptors your mind conjures up at the time. Fear shackles our faculties in hidden but insidious ways; it takes away from our joy and self-esteem. Work on being conscious of your emotions- including fear, for anger, disappointment, envy and low self-esteem are all manifestations of fear. Be afraid… be very afraid of living in fear, for it will hold you back from being the best person (and hence leader) you can be.

October 30, 2018 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

AI accelerates innovation and offers operational efficiencies but what of its potential risks?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to be written about extensively. Companies adopting it rave about how it has transformed the way they do business and how customer experiences are being enhanced. IT services companies, on the other hand, are trumpeting their efforts to develop new frameworks and solutions to help their clients harness the transformative power of AI (and other technology paradigms). In recent days, many are also writing about the potential dangers of AI, Machine Learning and the like. They are expressing the concern that because AI algorithms use observable data and continually refine the rules they apply, the risk of biases creeping in may not be insignificant because that’s the way the cookie crumbles when it comes to existing data (generated by existing social, economic, technological and workplace practices).

If AI systems use data that reflect biases based on age or gender (or whatever other criterion), won’t the same biases tend to be perpetuated for some more time (at least till the data sets themselves have lower biases)? And while systems that learn by themselves sound really cool, is there not a real risk that over time, “self-learning” processes become so opaque (or at least so highly translucent) that it becomes practically impossible for human beings to figure out why the rules changed in certain ways so as to yield unexpected results?

It is therefore not inconceivable that in the next couple of years, IT services companies will be contractually asked to maintain audit trails to track how, why, and at what point the AI systems they design and manage acquired the “bad data” that altered the rules causing unexpected outcomes. Will it even be possible for companies to provide such audit trails? Who will take responsibility for any adverse consequences that arise from AI systems that turn rogue? (I use the word “rogue” in the limited sense of a loss of control). For example, who is liable if it is established that a driverless vehicle has caused an accident? I do not have the answers, but I am sure there are AI governance gurus and legal eagles out there already applying their “natural intelligence” to find solutions to precisely such issues.

The situation we are in now with AI, Deep Learning, Machine Learning, Cognitive Systems etc. eerily reminds me of the time (in the mid-1970s and perhaps even earlier) when climate change researchers started warning us about humans around the world causing global warming and other irreversible environmental damage and how these could lead to ecological disasters of various hues and magnitudes. Despite the incontrovertible evidence, human greed won out and has brought our planet to the veritable edge of the precipice. The last and final push may well come due to AI, if indeed it becomes as all-pervasive as pundits expect it to become in the coming decades. I hope my misgivings and sense of déjà vu are misplaced!

October 23, 2018 at 1:32 am Leave a comment

Skills in new technologies are essential but not sufficient for IT companies

Recently, there was a news report that Cognizant Technologies had let go of 200 senior executives because they were not able to demonstrate an adequately high level of skills in new technologies. A couple of days later came the news that TCS has significantly raised salaries for fresh hires with skills in new technologies. Both reports point to the fact that Indian IT companies are taking the reskilling challenge seriously. They are putting their money where their mouths are, and attempting to make their large, elephant-like organizations dance to new tunes.

This is good, because the best of strategies and plans mean nothing if they are not executed. As the world goes digital, it is vital for IT services/solutions companies to build capabilities in digital technologies such as AI, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Blockchain, Analytics, IoT and so on so that they can deliver “Digital Transformation” projects. But such work won’t just fall into these companies’ laps, will it? Companies like Infosys have stated their intent to hire rainmakers capable of closing US$100+ M deals. And doubtless, others in this space too are taking similar steps.

What’s my point?

Cricket as an analogy

Think back to two major transitions in the game of cricket that have taken place in the past 50 years. The first was the introduction of the limited overs format, an innovation that occurred 40+ years ago. For the first 20+ years after their advent, ODI matches were played not too differently from test matches. Batsmen, still caught in the test match mindset, were not aggressive enough. A score of 250 at the end of 50 overs was considered very respectable- and defensible. To make ODI matches high-scoring and interesting (especially for TV audiences that had started becoming an important worldwide source of revenue for broadcasters and Cricket Authorities), the rules of the games were tweaked. Restrictions were imposed on the number of fielders who could be placed inside the 30- yard circle during the first ten overs and so on. Cricket teams found themselves in a state of flux during the mid-1990s. The rules of the game had changed, and old ways that served teams well in the past were not working. Competitors were using new strategies that need to be countered effectively. Technology was making the job of umpires (and the coaching staff) harder.

The way the game was played changed dramatically when Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana started to take advantage of the field restrictions by using the first ten overs to give the bowlers the charge. Opposition coaches and players took notice and soon, totals of even 350+ started to become common; many teams chased down such totals regularly.

The second major shift was the introduction of T20 cricket about a decade ago. This format too forced batsmen and bowlers to innovate and adapt. Explosive hitters like Chris Gayle, A B de Villiers and Rohit Sharma emerged. A new category of “pinch hitters” playing lower down the order became the norm. Bowlers innovated new types of delivery for their arsenals. Today, many teams don’t balk at run chases that require them to score 10+ runs an over. Training methods have changed, as have team compositions and strategies. Cricketers are choosing to specialize in different formats, with only a few players possessing the temperament and skill to switch from one format to another- and play well.

Like cricket, business too is a team sport. Just as a cricket team’s sustained success depends on the consistency of its batting, bowling and fielding performances, the performance of IT companies depends on the quality of their product/service, how well their sales teams do their job, how well services are delivered, how the company’s resources are managed etc.

How IT companies must adapt to the ongoing disruption

The IT industry finds itself in a situation similar to what cricket teams faced twenty five years ago. They are being forced out of their cocoons into a world that has changed and continues to evolve. There is today a much higher degree of information asymmetry between service providers and customers. This is because neither side is fully aware of what is possible; with rapid technological evolution, new choices are generated all the time. Often, there is no clear purpose that drives adoption of new technologies except that companies want to be seen as being part of the vanguard and so decide to adopt AI, IoT etc. Therefore, adoption either stops with the pilot because the benefits are not visible or the business case for further adoption is not solidly definable as it was with conventional outsourcing of application development, maintenance or infrastructure projects because it is no longer about labor cost arbitrage.

Conventional ways of selling will not work for IT companies in the new environment. Client Partners and Sales Managers need to have a much stronger understanding of technologies and what possibilities they can create. They must be able to engage meaningfully with Business and Technology leaders at prospect and client organizations to show them how new technology paradigms can help their businesses scale newer heights of operational excellence, customer loyalty, agility in innovation etc. Frontline teams must develop deeper understanding of their clients’ business domains, strategies and operations, so as to proactively identify opportunities to leverage new technologies. Perhaps just as important is for them to be “out-of-the-box thinkers” who can look beyond their clients’ industries for inspiration on how technologies are enabling business efficiencies and supporting growth. Cross-pollination of ideas can create breakthroughs.

These changes must occur in tandem with technical up-skilling because unless the delivery teams possess high levels of skill in emerging technologies, companies may not be able to live up to the promises they make to their customers. But a mindset change is vital. People working for these companies must first become fearless. Even today, fear is an important element in client relationships. This comes in the way of Account Managers or Sales Managers being able to disagree with clients or push back on an unreasonable demand. In days when companies had sizeable bench strength, throwing more people into a project could crash timelines, and this approach may have been able to paper over other failings. But not anymore.

In days when customers “owned” specifications, the need for additional functionality was met through a well-defined process of “change requests”. But today, when customers look up to their IT services partners for advice on what, why, how, where and when, IT companies cannot easily rely on change requests. They need to make their scoping process tighter and more robust. This means asking more questions and obtaining answers to the really important ones. In the current environment, shying away from asking questions (or not asking the right ones) simply raises the risk that projects get impacted and relationships endangered. Knowing what questions to ask is a skill that must be consciously developed. An allied competency that is just as critical is the ability to listen effectively. Most people are poor listeners, thanks to the mental chatter that goes on in their heads, that in turn causes biases, fears and other harmful emotions.

Unless IT companies pay attention to these aspects as well, addressing technical skills will not offer a holistic solution. It would be akin to investing in new software but not upgrading the hardware or connectivity that enables these new systems to run optimally.

October 15, 2018 at 2:17 am Leave a comment

Adopt AI with a clear purpose to realize benefits

Those who have read Lewis Carroll’s fable “Alice in Wonderland” may remember the incident when Alice reaches a fork in the road. Spotting a Cheshire cat sitting on a tree, she asks, “Which road do I take?” The cat asks in response “Where do you want to go”? Alice says “I don’t know”. “Then it doesn’t matter”, says the cat.

The above conversation could easily represent an imaginary exchange between technology companies and their clients in the context of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which, along with IoT and Analytics, is expected to radically change business strategies, operations, government policies, regulations and above all, the lives of consumers. The immense transformative power of these technologies can be realized only if business and technology leaders have a clear purpose. An incoherent, bits-and-pieces approach will not help.

How AI and allied technologies can help

The term “Artificial Intelligence” dates back to over 60 years so in that sense it is not new. But AI has taken center-stage in recent years for three reasons:

  • Data processing power and speed have increased enormously over the past decade, making it possible to crunch even petabytes in fairly short order.
  • Disciplines such as Analytics and Pattern Recognition have matured rapidly.
  • Advances in “machine learning” make it possible for computers to “self-learn” based on their “experiences”. This cognitive capability allows computers to mimic human processes of analysis and decision-making.

The term AI is today loosely used to also include machine learning, cognitive learning, expert systems and so on. AI-enabled decision-making is gathering prominence because increasingly, various business processes rely on automation and intelligent devices that spontaneously generate data that can be monitored and analyzed to get insights into the health of an individual process or other qualitative and quantitative aspects of the enterprise’s interactions with suppliers, customers, employees, regulators and other members of its ecosystem.

As our societies go digital massive amounts of data are generated, exchanged, stored and retrieved by individuals, enterprises, governments. This mass of data needs to be cleansed, validated and analyzed to identify broad trends and unearth granular actionable insights. A business enterprise, for example, can use AI to discover, verify and refine actionable insights that can then be used for:

  • Driving collaborative innovation
  • Anticipating and responding to shifts in consumer behaviors and preferences
  • Enhancing customer loyalty
  • Reducing overheads and avoidable costs across the value chain
  • Improving productivity and efficiencies within the enterprise

Governments, on the other hand, can use AI to detect trends and connect the dots to deliver superior services, tighten compliance, generate more resources and reduce leakages.

A clear purpose will make the transition easier and smoother

A clear purpose for adopting AI means you know why you are doing so. And once you know why, it becomes easier to focus on where to adopt AI, how it can be deployed, what benefits to expect etc. A clear purpose also helps in planning, prioritizing and project managing the implementation. It also helps in managing trade-offs.

AI capabilities are more evolved in some areas relative to others; therefore, prioritizing where you adopt it is vital so as to strike a balance between current capability maturity and expected benefits. Taking a calibrated approach to inducting AI will make it easier to drive changes in people’s mindsets, processes, systems and thereby accelerate value realization. Remember that AI adoption is a large-scale change process that will impact stakeholders inside your organizations (employees, partners) as well as outside (customers, government) etc.

One approach to embracing AI is to identify enterprise-wide strategic priorities and brainstorm where AI can help, and custom-build an AI platform with the requisite capabilities. An alternative approach is to start with an existing third-party AI platform that is customizable and scalable so that your enterprise can hit the ground running.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. The former gives you the close fit with your needs that customized solutions deliver, but developing the platform will take time. The latter may be more efficient as it will allow your organization to hit the ground running, but you may not get the exact functionalities you would like. But you gain because your enterprise can start embracing faster and use the outcomes to refine how it can be used going forward. The tools offered by third-party platforms may even aid and speed up brainstorming within the organization.

Communicating tangible positive results within the ecosystem can build confidence and credibility, and thus help in changing mindsets of employees, business partners etc. Often, it is rigid mindset that impedes wider adoption. Given the pace of technological evolution, an incremental approach may yield better outcomes than a “big bang” deployment of AI. Remember a period when massive investments in ERP solutions did not yield the expected ROI for many enterprises? Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

October 11, 2018 at 11:22 pm Leave a comment

Authenticity is becoming important for brands but maintaining it won’t be easy

Nike recently caused many eyebrows to go up and raised the hackles of even more loyalists in the USA (and elsewhere), by choosing Colin Kaepernick to front its latest campaign marking 30 years of “Just Do It”. If you are wondering why, here’s the back-story in brief. In 2016, Kaepernick (then the frontline quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers) chose to kneel rather than stand when the US national anthem was played before the start of NFL games. He did so to protest racially-motivated police brutality (referring to instances of unarmed black youth being beaten or shot by white cops). This did not go down too well, with many people labeling his actions as disrespectful of the national anthem and hence, unpatriotic. Kaepernick was dropped from the team (he is still a free agent, not part of any NFL team), causing him to file a grievance against the NFL.

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, screams Nike’s campaign on its Twitter handle #JustDoIt. With Kaepernick’s actions still fresh in public memory, Nike’s decision to launch its campaign at the start of another NFL season was… what? Brave? Foolhardy? Brilliant? There has been widespread reaction to the campaign, with many people taking to social media to vent their ire at Nike. Videos of people burning Nike sneakers or tearing other Nike products have gone viral. Many have sworn never to buy Nike products again. But there has been a groundswell of support for Colin Kaepernick as well.

Nike’s choice of brand ambassador reinforces the personality traits of free-spiritedness bordering on irreverence that the brand has stood for (I wonder if Serena Williams’ outburst against an umpire during the recent US Open finals would also be seen by some in similar light). Nike’s stock price took a sharp hit, but is back again to where it was before the launch of the campaign- which means pundits don’t see this episode as having adverse consequences for the company’s financial performance. It is hard to predict how Nike will do in the months and years ahead and whether its choice of Kaepernick will eventually go down in the annals of history as a massive mistake or brilliant branding. But irrespective of how this eventually plays out, marketers will do well to take note of the underlying shifts in consumer behavior.

People (especially those who control significant discretionary spends) around the world are increasingly seen to be driven by concern for societal issues. Studies show that their brand preferences too are being shaped by what stands brands take on such issues- particularly on matters dear to the individual. Two lessons emerge for marketers and brand managers. The first is that they must be more willing to take stands on societal issues. The second is that brands must be authentic vis-a-vis the causes they espouse. Especially now, because the reach, speed and performative impact of social media enables news to travel fast- and bad news travels faster. The challenge of remaining authentic will be particularly tough for global brands that source from multiple countries and sell in diverse markets because specific societal issues will have varying degrees of relevance in different countries. If Nike supports racial equality in the US, it must be seen to be consistent everywhere it operates. This means it cannot source from locations where the cost advantage accrues mainly because of exploitative practices.

Will taking a stand upset some customers? Without a doubt! But as the old saying goes, “you can’t please everyone all the time”! Segmentation and positioning will start to take on a whole new meaning for brands, just as “customer loyalty” can no longer be taken for granted based on product quality, price, features or variants.

September 13, 2018 at 6:56 am Leave a comment

Leadership lessons from Germany’s shock exit at the Group Stage of FIFA World Cup 2018

Following their heart-breaking loss to South Korea, Germany, the defending champions and the top-ranked side failed to qualify for the Round of 16- the so-called “business end” of the tournament. This is the first time since 1938 that West Germany/Germany is absent from the 16. Understandably, fans are shattered (as must be the players, the coaches and the support staff). Rival fans are gloating and the word “schadenfreude” (a German word that means to feel happy at someone else’s failure or trouble) is all but trending on social media.

I will leave it to football pundits to debate if Germany’s team composition was right, if VAR is really useful, whether dropping Muller in that game was warranted, if including Ozil was a good idea or even whether Neuer had any business being so far away from where he ought to have been etc.

Admittedly, hindsight is always 20/20 and it is easy for armchair experts to say “I told you so” after the fact. But to me, team sports represent the best paradigm to learn about leadership (and managing teams in particular). My intention is not to critique any specific aspect of what the German football team did (or did not do); my limited purpose in writing this piece is to draw parallels with leadership in the corporate world.

A good leader must create a unifying sense of purpose that is powerful enough to overcome any other forces that may promote divisive behavior. German coach Joachim Low is reported to have said “We really had the feeling that our team wanted to move ahead and qualify for the knockout stages….”. Unlike previous German teams, this team did not appear to be fully united. There have been rumors for a while about there being more than one “camp” in the team. Why such camps came up in the first place is irrelevant here; what is key is that their effects were palpable, and the team’s leaders were unable to meld the players into a cohesive unit. Alan Shearer, former England captain was quoted as saying  “I am amazed at the lack of energy and hunger this team showed.”

Leaders must anticipate. But information will never be perfect. Germany did not start well, losing their first match to Mexico. Even against Sweden, the team did not have a look of solidity or class. Perhaps it was time to think outside the box. And maybe that is what Low intended, by deciding to keep Thomas Muller out of the starting line-up and ringing in as many as five changes overall. But things did not work out.

Not everything will go to plan every time. The key is to bounce back from the failure, honestly analyze possible causes and make changes that are deemed necessary. Leaders must always assess the context in which they are making decisions. Certain decisions may have worked in the past- but how sure can a leader be that the context has not changed? Would what worked when Low was a player (with a different set of fellow players and different dynamics on and off the field) continue to work when he transitioned from player to Coach? Does everyone in the current team have the right attitude? Were they in a space where they played as a team to win? Did they all buy into Low’s strategies? Numerous questions can be raised and indeed, they must be asked, so that German football is put back on track.

Leaders must consciously build resilience in their organizations, allowing them to bounce back from failures, because they are bound to happen. Remember that the success of any strategy can only be assessed in hindsight. All that leaders can do is to anticipate the operating environment and competitor actions and plan to counter them as best as they can. And if things don’t work to plan, don’t remain stuck in the past. Seek input from the team, analyze, communicate the findings (with the team), modify strategies and move on to fight another day.

Former German captain Michael Ballack’s tweet is on target. Read it here


June 30, 2018 at 3:58 am Leave a comment

Don’t just know; act!

Why do some people seem to “do better” than others? What “better” means, on what scale and using what indicators may vary with individual perception. There are always examples of classmates or batchmates or colleagues at work who seem to be able to achieve the results that we are struggling to achieve. We may attribute this to various factors such as destiny, luck, being at the right place at the right time, biased performance evaluations, policy changes or whatever else. But those are all mere excuses. Why do we not accept the possibility that there is perhaps something else at work that has to do with us and not something external?

That “something else” is more fundamental than just Knowledge. To me, it is Intent, which is what connects Knowledge with Action and powers them both. Unless people know, they cannot act. However, although Knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient to cause action. Most of us know what needs to be done, but we don’t always do it, do we?  For instance, are those who do not exercise regularly not aware of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle? All forward movement is possible only if there is action, and only when knowledge is driven by Intent will it cause the individual to take action.

A strong Intent creates a positive feedback loop that allows individuals to assess their own actions and actual results vis-a-vis targeted outcomes, thereby enabling them to make necessary course corrections. Indeed, it is Intent that guides individuals to seek and acquire additional relevant knowledge and insights beyond what they already have. A powerful Intent will open up pathways of creative thought to enable people to think outside the box and come up with alternative approaches that deliver better outcomes. It is Intent that builds the attitude to embrace change, and the resilience to fight another day despite setbacks. It is this Intent to constantly improve that sustainably drives self-awareness and actions directed at higher levels of performance.

The next time you feel like griping about broken resolutions or the unfairness of the system, look within; you may well find the root cause inside of you. Happy introspection!

June 25, 2018 at 3:19 am 1 comment

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