In Conversation with Barack Obama

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Today I had the privilege of listening to President Barack Obama in Singapore.

He eloquently shared his wisdom on topics like global economy, political polarization, climate change, rise of social media etc. yet what got me spellbound were his incredible insights on leadership.

Obama said when you are in a leadership position, the first thing to do is to assemble your best possible talent – people with integrity, who will subscribe to your vision – and then make the best possible decisions based on the circumstances and the best available information by setting up a process to look at every problem using logic and data.

He said he believes in a constant renewal of leadership. In his point of view, most of the problems around the world are happening because of “old men” not getting out of the way – these are people who have their old mindsets, and like to quash the perspectives from younger ones.

His advice to the leaders in the room was to embrace diversity and put people at positions where they can shine, to not put ‘yes men’ around you, to not be threatened by great talent in the team or the hierarchy, and to understand and accept that you can’t master all tasks and be subject matter expert in everything. He said this is missing today in many countries leadership too.

One of the wrap-up messages stuck a great chord with me. He said “we all have flaws, our blind spots. We make mistakes. Laugh about it and then get back up. People who take themselves too seriously are brittle and can’t bounce back”.

If only we could all embrace such an open-minded leadership culture, our countries and our companies would flourish and the world will be a much better place to live in.

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WARNING: I have a SHORT FUSE

Mark is a senior manager at a reputed MNC and I’ve been his coach for the past few years. He recently took up a new job with a team of three reporting to him. But within the first couple of weeks he noticed one of them, Tracy, showing resistance to his suggestions and initiatives. Soon she escalated to their general manager that Mark is a difficult person to work with, and work for. In order not to “rock the boat” the general manager promptly re-assigned Tracy to a new manager. Despite this change Tracy continued to spread unpleasant words about Mark at the lunch table and water cooler. His attempts to be more sensitive and garner her support were all futile, driving him to consider a new job search.

When Mark called me for guidance I told him I will meet him at his office. Reaching his office I took a walk around and observed his team’s work desks. Tracy’s cubicle stood out with a loud poster on the wall which said:

i-have-a-short-fuse

Very often we, managers, tend to miss or ignore such early warning “signs” in our sense of urgency proving ourselves at the workplace or meeting deadlines. In the daily grind we tend to forget that we are all eventually dealing with people – and every individual is unique. What triggers one to stay motivated could be a total deterrent for another.

Further discussion made it apparent that there was a fundamental culture chasm in Mark’s company, and these were the telling signs:

  • Everyone knew the company’s “vision 2018” but had no clear idea how the management was executing to this vision.
  • Mark’s role and responsibilities were not properly communicated to the wider organisation by the general manager.
  • She gave him no orientation on the team, their attributes, attitudes, or background.
  • The idea of ‘change’ was alien to most of them. “It’s always been done this way” syndrome ruled their kingdom.
  • The general manager was too busy or inexperienced to coach the team, and quite often exhibited lack of professionalism in managing the people.

Managers Leaders

It is true – not all managers think or act as leaders.

Managers must demonstrate leadership by diligently communicating the vision and purpose of work, identifying what motivates their team, and keeping them motivated and committed. I covered these topics extensively in two of my earlier blog posts, you can read them here and here. Today’s leaders have an additional challenge at hand. As my ex-CEO John Chambers wrote recently, we have to go through “near-death” experience in order to make our companies great. In today’s digital world we have to constantly think of disrupting ourselves, else we will be disrupted and displaced. Managers have to act as leaders, and inculcate this culture throughout the organization.

The Culture of Change

If you want to be the best, you have to embrace change. From the top down, everyone in the organization must adapt and adopt this culture. In her most recent interview with HBR Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo said “I told everyone that if they don’t change, I’d be happy to attend their retirement parties”. I encourage you to read the full article for the context of her statement, and also for some incredible lessons from her experience at PepsiCo.

When Lou Gerstner remarkably turned around IBM, it was through wide-ranging programmes of management culture change, and diligent focus on execution. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner says “The hardest part of these decisions was neither the technological nor the economic transformations required. It was changing the culture – the mindset and instincts of hundreds of thousands of people […] It was like taking a lion raised for all of its life in captivity and suddenly teaching it to survive in the jungle.”

Coaching Tips

Let’s re-look at Mark’s case now. It is apparent that his general manager showed poor judgement by instantly re-allocating Tracy to a new boss. A better approach would be to first have an open unbiased session with Tracy and Mark, and observe his communication style to learn what makes Tracy so sensitive about it. As a leader she should then coach her whole team to collaborate, ensure they all understand the company’s strategy and execution plan, clarify to Tracy why they hired Mark as a change agent, and reinforce that there will be more changes coming ahead, and for the better. Keeping Tracy happy is a myopic approach, because if she continues to light her short fuse the whole team’s future could be in jeopardy. As for Mark, building rapport with the team, and taking Tracy’s poster as a warning sign to adapt his communication and delegation style accordingly, could have saved him half the trouble.

Here are 3.5 things you can do as a leader to inculcate the right culture in your company:

1. Communicate

Communicate your vision, strategy and execution plan all the time… simply, and consistently. Garner feedback, get people involved and aligned. Make sure everyone’s roles and responsibilities are clearly articulated, but don’t let them build silos.

2. Set an example

Be authentic, passionate, decisive, demanding, consistent, impartial, and firm. Be a role model for the whole team. Get the culture right, and be maniacal about driving it through the length and breadth of the organization.

3. Coach

Stick to the strategy and demonstrate in execution. Don’t tell them “this is how I do it.” Teach them how to fish, don’t give them a fish every time. Give them the tools to do their job. Understand every team member’s motivational triggers and sensitivities, and adapt your coaching style accordingly.

3.5 Zero tolerance

Do not tolerate mediocrity, and certainly do not tolerate people who are unable or unwilling to operate within the values – no matter how talented, experienced, or apparently successful they are. Remember that letting small things go unfixed can have surprising repercussions.

So are you are a manager aspiring to be a leader? Go ignite your people’s passions, not their short fuses.

Are you a motivating mentor, or a micromanaging maniac?

A few days ago I had the opportunity to speak with a visionary leader. He shared with me that when building up a leadership team, his first and foremost criteria is for the incoming leaders to bring the right culture into the organisation. In his opinion this was far more critical than industry experience or relevant subject-matter expertise. It was an inspirational chat, and he got me thinking.

I have seen inexperienced HR managers turn away brilliant candidates because they couldn’t find relevant industry keywords in their CVs at first glance. It’s even worse when recruitment companies use automated keyword search on CVs to shortlist potential candidates. If managers get hired this way, how can corporations ensure building the right foundation for themselves? How will your team ever imbibe fresh out-of-the-box thinking into its culture?

A recent survey by IIC Partners revealed that the number one skill companies and Boards of Directors seek in senior executives is the ability to motivate and lead others. 68% of the top leaders surveyed (n = 1,270) said they preferred a senior executive who could motivate and inspire others more than they desired an executive who consistently performed well. The price of entry to corner office could be competence, but the measure of success is inspiring others. In an earlier post I had shared a similar sentiment about discovering the purpose of work. Leaders should be meaning-makers, and not motivation-breakers.

Clueless companies often expend tons of effort and resources conducting that once-a-year farce of an exercise called Employee Engagement Program. A lot has been written and debated about the skepticism of this practice (good read here in this article). But what most employees truly need is inspiration. They want to see their leaders walk the talk. They want to be motivated by managers who lead by example.

Ever wondered the distinction between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty? If I was your customer and I told you that your product/service was “satisfactory”, does that make you feel good? Anyone can satisfy a customer, but winning customer loyalty is priceless. Loyalty is an affirmation for the future. On a similar note, there is a clear distinction between an engaged employee and a motivated employee. A motivated employee will be committed to the future of the company. Motivating your people will go a long way toward building a high performance team than merely “engaging” them.

Are you are a manager who believes engagement is good enough? Motivation is not your cup of tea? Here are 3.5 things you can continue doing:

1. Keep on talking about financial results

Your Board cares about your company’s financial performance, but what about your employees? Studies have shown that many employees care more about the impact their company (and their work) has on the society than about its financial performance. Great leaders will build a culture where they mould their teams to think more than just stock prices and profit dollars. By motivating this way, their teams will elevate their mind-set and loyalty from ‘engaged for money’ to ‘motivated by purpose’.

2. Dig deep in the blame game, and forget the “We” mindset

Managers often ask “Why are you doing this… Why are you not doing that…” questions when things don’t go well. To unmotivated employees these questions appear as blame and criticism. There is always a reason or two behind employee non-performance. Inspiring managers will approach on the ‘We’ mindset instead to uncover those reasons. “What can we do to help?” and “How can we fix this problem together?” This approach avoids the blame game, and instead gives team members the opportunity to reconnect with their company, and also learn and develop further.

3. Spend more time micro-managing, and less time inspiring

One common trait of busy managers is they spend a lot of time attempting to micromanage and control the activities of their employees. Individuals who work for such managers are often less committed and unproductive. I admit that it might appear more productive to micromanage their work, or even roll-up your sleeves and do things yourself, while it can be difficult to take time out of your busy schedules to spend quality time inspiring others. But remember that leaders who take an inspirational approach form closer relationships with their employees and have more focused, more motivated, and highly committed team members working under them. These employees also stay in their jobs longer than the unmotivated ones.

3.5. Apply the same inspirational approach on everyone

Ok, so you have outgrown the micromanagement and employee-engagement mindset. You are a budding inspirational leader, and you have set aside quality time to motivate your team. What next? The question you need to ask yourself is If I could do something to influence the emotional state of the people around me, what would it be?. The answer: It depends on the individual. Some of your team members may need the feel to be connected, some need to feel informed, and some others competent. You can’t apply a one approach fits all theory here. List out your team members and write down the emotional state you plan to nurture in each of them. Your inspirational leadership radically changes when you value your team’s emotional states, and motivate them appropriately.

 

Building the right culture is indeed the most critical element in setting up a solid foundation of any successful organisation. Everything else will follow. Hire inspiring leaders who can think and act strategically. Let them inspire and motivate their teams to deliver best in class performance. Be maniacal about inspiring your team, but don’t be a micromanaging maniac who destroys the team’s motivation.

“I hate waking up every morning and going to work”

“I hate waking up every morning and going to work. Can’t wait for the weekend to come.” At some point in time or another, am sure you’ve heard your friend or colleague say this to you.

Ever wondered why? …that terrible train ride? the mean Manager? a pathetic pay? Well you could be right, but I believe the real reason is that they have lost their purpose of work.

Do you, as a leader, help your employees find their true purpose of work? In their book “The Why of Work“, Dave and Wendy Ulrich ask “How do great leaders create, for themselves and others, a sense of abundance (meaning, purpose, hope, pleasure) that not only engages employees but also delivers value to customers, investors, and communities?”. That is exactly what we leaders ought to do every day.

Why is Purpose (or Meaning) so important?

Let me start with a story first (I love stories, by the way). A boy was walking along the woods one hot summer evening and he came across three workers at a construction site. All of them looked dirty and sweaty by the end of the day. The first worker looked very tired and dejected. The boy asked him what he was doing, and he replied “I am nailing these wooden planks”. The second worked had a tired and unhappy expression on his face. The boy asked the same question to him and his reply was “I am building a house”. The third worker, despite the summer heat, looked happy and was whistling a tune to himself. When asked what he was doing, he cheerfully replied “I am building a home for a family”.

No matter what your job, it is there for a reason. When you understand that reason – and how it makes the world a better place for someone else – you have figured out the meaning or purpose of your job. An individual who truly understands the purpose of her job will be happier and more engaged in her work. You add up each and every such ‘engaged employee’, and that’s when you get a great team, a great company. From the CEO to managers to employees, everyone will feel aligned to the common goal of the company… and your customers will feel that difference.

 

The 3.5 things you should NOT do as a Manager

Leaders should be meaning makers. As a leader you should set a direction that your team will aspire to follow. If you want your team to discover their purpose of work, avoid making the following mistakes.

1. Write a fluffy meaningless Mission Statement

Many companies come up with mission statements that are banal platitudes like “We shall deliver highest standards of professionalism to achieve sufficient profits”. Compare it with that of Southwest Airlines: “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

Create a mission statement that differentiates your company from the rest, one that defines ‘what business your company wants to be in’, one that is meaningful to all stakeholders, and most importantly one that inspires and excites your team to wake up every morning and feel happy and proud to go to work.

2. Create hierarchies and titles that demotivate people

Hierarchies and reporting lines are important to ensure proper functioning and accountability. But if they create a culture gap, if people start to become demotivated because their job titles make them feel inferior to others, you are doing something totally wrong. As a leader you should develop a corporate culture that makes every employee feel important. I often reiterate and reassure my team that their job is as important to the company’s success as our CEO’s. Whether the person is a CXO, a janitor, a sales executive, a clerk, a manager, an accountant, you name it, every job is equally critical to the company’s success in its own way.

3. Set individual goals that do not align with organizational goals

Always connect your team members’ personal goals to the company goals. In an earlier blog post I mentioned how in my company we ask employees to list down what their target performance objectives should be, instead of Managers pushing these goals top-down. This is a great process where you, as a leader, can steer your team’s KPIs as well as their motivation and drive in the same direction as your company’s overall objectives. In this process the Manager is just a facilitator, helping her team take individual ownership by reflecting on the core purpose of their own respective jobs.

3.5 Ask the “What” question instead of “Why”

Very often we tell our team what to do. We make project plans, WBS, PDCA cycles, action items with owners and deadline assignments, etc. These are  all the “whats”. How often do we tell them the “whys” or ask them the “why” questions? If you sense one of your employees appears disengaged, have an open conversation with her. Instead of asking what are her current activities, ask her “why are you doing these”? With this “why” question you can allow her to explain, in her own terms, the following:

  • What purpose does my work serve?
  • Who will experience the results of my work?
  • What value will my work bring to them? and,
  • If I accomplish my work, what positive effect will it have on them?

 

Most people want to know their work means something positive to someone eventually. But they are often left clueless because their leaders don’t take ownership to help them in that process. Follow the above 3.5 steps, start helping your team today. Turn them into a truly engaged team by making them realize they are not simply nailing boards, but building a dream home for a happy family.

 

Every manager is an HR manager.

“Every manager is an HR manager.”

When I was in Hong Kong last week, I saw this adage in a presentation by our regional HR Lead. I must’ve seen it a hundred times in my career. But this time I decided to meditate on it because it dawned on me that when the times are tough, when the economy is taking a roller coaster ride, when you are in an industry where margins for error are as thin as a strand of hair, when your competition unleashes a war on you with price as their prime weapon, the morale of your team goes south… and then this statement starts to make a lot more sense to all of us managers.

They say “Performance = Ability x Motivation x Opportunity” 

As managers we are all responsible for the performance of our teams. It is our job to recruit the right talent, and then lead, facilitate, motivate and develop them. But is that the reality?

Are we doing it all right?

More often than not, our interviews assess people on their Abilities. We build up tons of training programs and resources to further sharpen their aptitude and technical/functional competences. But how seriously do we assess them on their Motivation levels? Do we ensure that they feel valued, involved, engaged and committed, once they join our organization? And how often do we create the right Opportunities for them to perform, to develop, to grow into leaders of tomorrow?

What we often see is companies placing their people in 9-block grids or on bell curves to run statistical analyses. Employees are told they are the most valuable assets, and then treated like a liability. And if they did not perform, managers chart out action plans for them without taking time to validate the most important thing:  were they motivated enough to perform in the first place?

It is often said that employees don’t leave organizations, they leave people. I believe that. Employees leave their managers (or their management) most of the time. Am sure we have all read the stats that attrition costs the typical company 125% of the employee’s salary. We can all argue what is the right figure, but the point is loud and clear: If we keep our teams motivated and give them the right relevant opportunities to grow, they will perform to their best of abilities. But if we fail to do so, it will cost us dearly.

1) Get to the root cause of poor performance

As the Chinese proverb goes, “For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree, only one will bend down to inspect the roots.”

Before you can fix performance issues, diagnose it. Is it really due to the employee’s lack of Ability? Or was there a lack of Motivation? It is very easy to establish whether Ability was the factor. Ask questions like the following ones to yourself and your peers:

  • Was the task overly difficult, to begin with?
  • Can you spot individual aptitude, knowledge or skill lacking?
  • Do you see a lack of improvement over time, despite putting the person on trainings etc.?

If you feel any of the above are true, perhaps these people have been poorly matched to their jobs. Or they might have been promoted recently to a position that is too demanding in terms of skill set. You can then apply the following approaches to fix such issues.
a) Listen to the employee’s frustration points and offer help with renewed set of resources. Ask them what additional resources they might need to complete the tasks effectively. This is how you establish with them that you are willing to listen to their problems and here to provide support.
b) Provide training. In today’s world it is very easy to get outdated with trends and technologies and developments. So putting the employee through a focused training program often helps quickly resolve the aptitude and skill gaps.
c) Job rotation or re-assignment. If the employee is a great asset and her job allocation was poorly done upon hire, you can still keep her in the company by re-assigning her to a different team/job where her true skills will be beneficial to you. For example, a marketing executive could be re-allocated to your sales team if you find that her skills are a better fit there.

If the above three do not apply, you might have to let the person go. But in order to decide that, you need to ask yourself the following very important questions:

Was the employee Motivated?
Was I being fair to her as a manager, and did I offer her the right Opportunities?

2) Improve your team’s motivation

If you did the root cause analysis diligently and established that employee Ability was not the cause of poor performance, it’s gotta be a Motivation issue. As a manager it is your responsibility to create a motivating environment for your team to work. This is not a task of HR department alone. How can you do it?

a) Evaluate your organization’s motivation level
A brief survey, an occasional informal discussion with randomly selected employees, a chat at the water cooler or pantry, it really doesn’t matter what mode of “listening” you employ, the most important thing is that you listen to your team. Diligently. And genuinely.
b) Work closely with your employees and create a motivating work environment
You can help create the right motivation levels by jointly setting performance goals with the employee, regularly (and genuinely) assessing performance, and creating provisions for performance feedback.

Performance management

In my current job we let the employees present to their managers what they believe their goals for the next year are. This opens up a great positive dialogue between the employee and the manager, and also garners the ownership (and hence the right motivation) from the employee throughout the year. Your HR leader can help you with tools for SMART goal setting, should you wish to formalize the process. Locke’s goal-setting tool is one widely practiced process, you can refer to here.

Performance feedback is the most critical among all. Do it in a timely fashion, be accurate, open and honest, and create an environment that acknowledges the successes of employees.

Rewards and recognition

Rewards and recognition play a very important role especially when the times are tough and if your company is going through a downturn. This can create unprecedented upswings in motivation levels of your employees. I have seen businesses turn around in amazing fashion by the act of a single leader who kept the team motivated and recognized the great efforts by the team. It is also important to remember that rewards and recognition need not always be monetary in nature. If you clearly understand what motivates your team, you can link your recognition and rewards to it.

Communication

Team motivation can also be improved by improving communication. In one of my previous companies we used to have regular town-hall meetings, informal lunch gatherings (we were a few hundred employees) with lunch buffet served at the premises, functional team outings, team building exercises, etc. And we built one of the fastest growing profitable businesses in an industry notorious for low profits. As business managers, every time we returned from customer visits around the globe we would set up sharing sessions with the whole team – engineers, software developers, product testers, everyone. This was the best way to share with the team how our strategy and execution were going hand-in-hand. And that motivated our team to ruthlessly steal market share from our competition.

3) Create Opportunities for everyone

If your team believes that you are facilitating opportunities – both in their day-to-day work, and for their future career development – they will perform at their peak.

Here is what worked for me in the early years of my career:

My manager asked me to draw up my career road map. He wanted me to project on a timeline what I wished to do 10 years out. With that goal in view, he then asked me to work back on my 5-year plan, and then a 3-year plan. I was asked to further divide the 3-year plan into half-yearly and quarterly plans. Now that started to get very interesting as I immediately saw Ability gaps in my plan that would prevent me from achieving my 5-year and 10-year goals. Then he had my HR manager work with me on a training program and leadership development program that would help me become who I wanted to be in the next 3 and 5 years.

He didn’t leave my career progression in the hands of HR. He then personally put me up on a leadership development assignment in Dubai, coached me meticulously, and then gave me an added senior role in a Joint Venture business unit within the company. He constantly challenged me to take on responsibilities above and beyond what I thought I could do. He diligently created growth opportunities for me. And 10 years down the line, I am doing more than what I had charted out in that road map back in 2003.

 

Managers, my message to you is simple. Create opportunities for your teams to perform, and to grow. Opportunities trigger Motivation. And Motivation sparks the team to pull our their best Abilities… and that’s how they Perform. Now you see how they are all interconnected.

In all of the above areas your HR leaders will play an active role along with you. However we, as managers, need to take the lead and drive the organization forward. Our teams are our responsibility, and their well being and career progression are our duty. It is our task to facilitate their performance and help them develop into next generation leaders. Those who rely on HR managers to do this task are not worthy of being called a manager, because every manager IS, and should be, an HR manager.