Business is not a War – and can never be…

2012/01/02

I come across many articles and thoughts that directly relate business situations to a war and how business leaders are like leaders of an army, and how their subordinates fall into various ranks till the last foot soldier.

For heaven’s sake, I would vehemently oppose any such comparisons with all that I have. Please do not dis-respect people who protect our sovereignty without even knowing who we are, and are prepared to lay down their lives for intangibles. In fact, one post I came across said in a war there are bullets and in business there are deadlines. Sure, but you can’t die of deadlines, and bullets are meant to kill you. Moreover, there is always a scope for win-win solutions in business if the leader is mature enough for that, but in a war, it’s almost always a no-win situation. I hope you would agree that the gains of a war are not worth the price paid for it. I’m no M.K.Gandhi to preach non-violence here, but looking at the current economic situation and looking back on the great depression, that’s a thought hard to ignore.

By the way, I don’t know what it is to be a soldier – I have never been one and neither have any of my closest family members or friends – but I’m confident what they do is much beyond what any business leader can ever think of doing. Even the likes of Steve Jobs – RIP!!!

But in my mind, business leaders & managers can do one thing all leaders of the armed forces do – lead from the front – a phrase I’m sure was picked up from the armed forces. This, in my mind, is one of the few phrases that be used to draw parallels between a war and business – in a much diluted form though. Leading from the front in a business situation can probably mean this:

Taking accountability for failures, spreading credit during successful times, and dirtying hands when there is a need.

Beyond that, I feel any further comparison to a war is simply under-estimating what soldiers do for our respective nations. OK, maybe a few more “war” phrases can be applied to businesses too – and I’m looking forward to knowing them.

So, do you honestly believe war and business can be spoken about in parallel breaths?


Why Good Leaders Fail…

2011/12/26

The internet and even book shelves are filled with numerous articles on the traits of bad managers, and some traits of good managers too. It might sound a bit ironic, but all my time spent on reading and searching has proven this – there are more bad managerial traits than there are the good ones available in any format.

But there are those that fall in-between, ones that were good managers, got excellent results for the business through people, created a thriving environment for everybody to grow, ensured individual motivators are leveraged to achieve key results, and in the process let a few of them grow, and if possible, even over grow themselves. I know these kind of idealistic phrases are generally associated with angels and some religious representations that cannot take a human form, but I have come across a few people (very few though!!!) who are capable of this. But the moment you put them in another environment or organization, they start to break down. All parts of the phrase above reflect the exact opposite now. They miserably fail in meeting the expectations of their direct reports and managers. They lose touch with reality and sometimes it also affects the lives of people around.

So why do such managers fail in one environment, while been wildly successful in another? These are some reasons that I have come across in my experience. Please do feel free to add your thoughts too.

  • The value systems are entirely different – Weather they move from a mature to an immature value system or vice versa, there is a natural tendency to under-perform. And if they move from a non-political (trust me, there are such for-profit organizations) to a highly political environment, it becomes a turmoil.
  • Parameters for trust are entirely different – If you read my posts even irregularly, you would have guessed it by now. I’m a stickler for trust. Some of my friends even call me an old-school person. Either way, I’ve been in situations where trust means different things for different people. In fact, I’ve been in situations where trust does not hold any meaning at all. So, if what we mean by trust is entirely different, between team members, peers and our supervisors, then this is a sure-fire recipe for failure.
  • The new manager is not as mature as you – This is again a sure-fire recipe for total disaster. You have gained experience the hard way, making terrible mistakes, embarrassing yourself, doing a few right things – basically the hard way. But your new manager is, hmm, political and raw. And then the conflict of interests starts. Either way, please remember, you are never going to win a battle with such a boss. Either work around them, or just work in a different place.
  • The manager is not able to establish credibility with the new team – This is entirely up to the manager. If the manager had been working with a team for a few years, then it is more like a known devil situation. But, direct and indirect reports don’t look at new manager as an unknown angel. The sooner the manager establishes credibility, the better. This is best done by exactly defining goals, guidelines to reach them and what will happen if those goals are not met or met. This will ensure people really don’t care about the person and concentrate on results. Not being popular is much better than making people chase shadows to be liked by a few people.
  • The Manger is probably too “good” – A lot of manager fall into this trap – in fact I’ve been there too when I started out as a first line manager almost 8 years back. They take management as a popularity contest and fail on their basic responsibilities – defining goals that directly impact the business, and helping the team achieve them too. This urge for being popular becomes all the more imperative when the manager takes charge of a new team.

So what do you think? Why do leaders fail sometimes, while being wildly successful elsewhere?


3 people who can benefit from Micromanaging…

2011/06/15

Micromanaging is often seen as a bad word and a bad habit – in many arguments, rightfully so too. People who micromanage are seen as terrible managers and people who are micromanaged rightfully lose their motivation. While all this is also backed by research results, I also feel one size does not fit all and sometimes, we also need to micromanage for the benefit of not only the system, but also the people themselves. Here are three kinds of people whom I think can benefit from micromanaging. The key though is, knowing when to stop. This is a result of some of the experiences I have had, and would love to hear your thoughts on the same.

People moving from unstructured environment to a process driven environment: As the organization moves from a start up to a mature one, it is critical that we set some processes that serve as principles of engagement and collaboration. A key trait of mature organizations is systems that are scalable. In a start-up, we might have worked day in and day out just to satisfy customers and help cash flow, but as the organization matures, I think it is critical to set some ground rules that serve as a basis of operation – a Standard Operating Procedure you might call. But these ground rules and processes can require a lot of re-iteration and hand holding initially. We cannot expect the entire organization to follow a process by just sending out mails to a few people. A new process also needs a lot of feedback to enhance it – thus making the system scalable. I don’t think it can happen fruitfully unless we micro-manage the process, and people who follow that process to an extent.

People who are under some kind of performance review: Periodically, many organizations put employees through some kind of performance review in case their performance does not meet certain levels of competency. While this is not done in a mature manner in many originations, I feel unless we micromanage these situations and people, we are actually doing injustice to them and the system. These are very sensitive situations that need some maturity to handle. We should neither be seen as tough task masters without humane considerations, nor weak managers who let bad performance pass by. Both will set employees for failure. For this to happen, I think we need to back the performance of the concerned employee with solid, authentic data. This quantification of performance is not possible unless we micro manage to an extent. If we just say an employee’s performance has been bad over let’s say, one year and they need to buckle up, we are actually putting the employee in wilderness. They neither know why their performance was bad, nor understand what is expected of them to scale their competence up. It’s a typical management jargon to say “feedback needs to be specific and action items followed through”, but can this be a justifiable exercise without micromanaging to an extent? I think it is gross injustice to the employee if we put them under performance review but not be specific enough on the plan of action and also not follow through them – in short periods that too. Without this, I feel a decision to either fire them, or retain them will both be subjective. And being 100% subjective in these situations is setting these people up for failure.

High performers who are groomed for the next level of responsibilities: Not just bad performers, but even high potential performers who are being groomed for the next level of responsibilities can benefit from a bit of micromanaging. Specifically, when people move from an individual contributor’s role to a leadership role, I feel it is vital they are hand held for some time to begin with. I feel one of the primary reasons for failure during this transition is expecting the team to do the same things we did – thinking it is the only right thing to do, given we have actually been promoted doing it – and benchmarking the team performance against our own as individual contributors. Guiding those people will only help them in the long run. But the key in this scenario is deciding what exactly we do to guide them. While in other cases, its simple micromanagement from the industrial era days, in this case, it’s more about giving those people tips, providing training tools, fixing accountability and escalation guidelines, etc.

As mentioned before, in all these instances, the key is, knowing when & where to stop. Understanding that and striking the right balance defines our own Leadership Maturity. What do you think? Is micromanaging bad irrespective of the situation or have I missed more kinds that can benefit from micromanaging?


When does a Manager Grow…

2011/04/15

I recently read a post, that talks about busting the “I can do anything” myth for a manager. These were some fundamentally sound thoughts and should be read by all managers and aspiring managers.

But then, these thoughts might help a front line manager. Leadership is not just about inspiring, motivating etc, agreed, but then is it about being the specialist? In my opinion, being a specialist will not pave way for a holistic picture of the business and environment in general. Leaders and managers may not, and in good many cases, cannot grow if they are functional specialists. The chances of growth are more if we are operational specialist, people who know a bit of everything, and everything of something. Did Bill Gates know anything about marketing or sales or HR when he started off? He was a specialist. But, could Microsoft have become so big if he had not known a few things about all functions without being a specialist in them?

For a manager to grow, the “I can do anything” myth is definitely not going to help. But knowing what you can do, getting help in places you cannot, knowing what questions to ask, understanding the right problems to solve, a deep understanding of the stake holders who are going to be benefited by solving the problems, etc. can be the key for leadership success and generally, leadership growth. It then boils down to a more fundamental thought – Humility. What will help a manager grow is the “I can manage anythingconfidence, but a deep rooted knowledge and acceptance of the “I don’t know everythinghumility. That way, the manager not only grows, but also helps the specialist grow by asking the right questions and brining into focus the specialists at the right time.

What do you think? Do you feel being a specialist is probably the best way to grow? Do you feel working at being a “true” generalist is not a good use of time? Or what else do you think is the best organic growth factor for a manager?


When Am I a Successful Manager?

2011/03/28

Being a manager means so many things to so many people. And unfortunately, success for a manager is also defined in so many different ways that it’s a rare chance two people will always give the same answer if ever asked. These are something’s I see as success indicators for a manager, but then, these are my opinions and experiences, and could be right, wrong or even left. Looking forward for thoughts, comments and of course, criticism too.

Success for a manager can probably be seen in two ways, success in terms of business results and success in terms of team’s performance. When it comes to team’s performance:

  • Success is not about low turn around rates always. More than low turn around rates, success for a manager is also about where and how people from the team are placed once they move out. A team member sticking to a particular team or manager may not only be a result of his/her preference, but also the fact that the manager has not enabled the people he/she is responsible for enough to actually be successful beyond the particular job function. This is dicey for both the team and the manager. It could well be because the manager actually does not think beyond the current role for both the team and himself/herself.
  • Being popular need not mean being successful. This is probably the most clichéd quote, so I’m probably not going to explain this further. That being said, being unpopular with the team and popular with executives is not a sign of success either. A truly successful manager is popular with both the team and the management – and not for antics, but for results.
  • Another key success trait for a manager is when each and every reportee of him/her knows exactly what is expected of them. This could again sound clichéd, but more than knowing what is expected, I also feel it is important for a manager to share exactly what each of the performance standards mean and how a person will be rated during the dreaded performance cycles. I feel every reportee should know what each performance parameter means to the manager, what is the scale of rating, and what each point in the scale means.
  • Also important is the knowledge of what it takes to move to the next level. This sets a level playing field, and also shows that the manager is truly interested in the success of his/her people not just in the current job roles, but also larger ones.

Success from business results stand point of view is actually pretty simple. Whatever you do, please meet customer expectations!!! Sounds simple right? But this is probably the toughest thing for any manager to do. There is so much talk about “customer delight” in the Indian IT industry in particular, but honestly, customers would be more than happy if we just meet their expectations I guess. This was the success mantra of Flipkart.com, and boy have they grown!!! Reflecting on the instances when we were customers, I’m sure we will agree that we will be more than happy if Chinese food smelt and tasted like Chinese food, and being exquisite etc will only be over and above satisfying that primary need.

What do you think? These are just a set of thoughts I could think of, and would definitely add more when I think of them.


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