The man who knows everything

I heard this story from my friend, who a is senior executive. My friend is quite perceptive and he is able to see things as they are. As it happens, a casual conversation gets us into a deeper interaction on the business of knowing. He then tells me this story.

“As you know our top boss is a fanatic. Fanatic about hands on control, fanatic about meeting the sales numbers, fanatic about cost cutting. His famous quotes are: “Spend 26 hours a day and get this done” “When you can travel by train, why do you travel by air?” “Review, review, and review (debtors)”, “Execute this project in this month itself” “It is your business to know everything” Whenever he visits any regional office, it gets paralyzed preparing  for three days. It gets paralyzed during the actual review on the day of his visit. And it stays that way for three more days after his visit.”

“But this is the story of  our regional sales head who is in charge of our Delhi office. Let’s call him Amit. Amit is an IITian. He previously worked in sales departments of our competitors before he joined our company  4-5 years back. He is very courteous. What makes him special is his knowledge. He knows his people well. He knows their first names, spouses’ names, status of their children. He knows company’s current and past dealers and their families. He knows who is where and why they aren’t in some other place (where they should have been)”

“What delights our boss the most however, is that he can rattle out sales figures, overdue debtor collections and their reasons. He can fill in whenever anyone gets stuck for details and data”

Now my friend turns to me and continues.

“You should know that under Amit’s watch the sales haven’t grown much. Amit will tell you why. The debtors’ situation has actually worsened because some dealers turned belly up. Amit knows their financial situation too well.  Of course, some his people now know much more than they ever did. In every review Amit impresses his and our boss with his command over the details. Our boss often scolds Amit’s people asking them despite of such a hands on boss why aren’t doing better. Amit then sits back smugly.”

We don’t need to state the moral of the above story. We don’t have to guess how the story would unravel. Do we?

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My two days of work and he found two errors in two minutes!

Anita, an executive in the accounts department in an engineering equipment company was chatting with her colleague about her boss. The two of them were settling down for their lunch in the cafeteria. Anita said

” I worked hard for two days to finish the accounts for the month and I submitted the monthly financial reports to the boss in time. I was expecting an appreciation from him. He did say ‘great, thank you’ on receiving the report but asked me to hang on for a while.

“He scanned the reports flipping the pages back and forth. He then asked me ‘Are you sure of the closing inventories levels?” I said yes, I  double checked my spreadsheet entries. He then wrote down opening inventories levels, used sales figures and an assumed contribution margin ratio based on the sales mix, and known big ticket purchase figures and arrived at estimated inventory levels. The discrepancy was large.  I stood firm knowing that I had ‘double checked’ the figures. He asked me to go over the report again and revert.

” I was upset. How could he just trash my two days of work in just two minutes? But later I went over the spreadsheets once again. After a lot efforts (You know, spreadsheets with lots of formulas can be very difficult to diagnose) I found some errors in the formulas. I corrected them and found that the spreadsheets now threw up inventory figures close to what the boss had estimated”

“What did you do then?” asked Anita’s colleague.

“I went back to him and told him about the error. He said “Good. Now please tell my why there were no errors in the last month’s reports? ” I hadn’t thought about this because I was too excited. So I said “I wish to learn to spot errors like you. You needed just two minutes to detect errors in my work that needed two days to finish”

“He said, “Anita, for me the reports are not just some abstract numbers in the cells of a table. The sales, the inventories, the debtors, and payments to suppliers and the collections are all too real for me because I know the amount efforts all these take to achieve. So every piece new information gets accumulated I get a feel of what is going on and what numbers to expect. It needs a lot of interest in the business. It needs constant thinking, estimation and verification.” I was stunned. I said “No wonder, all of us are on our toes when you are around”. He said “Thanks, but please don’t forget to find out why there was no error in last month’s reports.

Anita’s colleague said,” Oh! I have to submit a report on customer complaints to him by end of this week. I better be careful and make sure that my report has no holes!”

Anita is fortunate to have a boss like her boss because she wants to learn. If she makes her numbers real for herself she will do a lot better and progress well in her career. She has to take charge of her learning. No one else can teach her more. Her boss is an example of a good leader who understands reality and who makes his people think better about their work.

Like many other skills, leadership skills are best learned through practice and trying out. Here are our learning programs on leadership. A program book  and web based programs

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A walk in park

Hiring and managing existing people in team is not a walk in park. But a walk in park can reveal a lot.

Ramesh, a CEO of a industrial equipment manufacturing company, told me this story when as a part our coaching session I asked him to recount one of his hiring mistakes.

“Our logistics head had just resigned.  And it was a relief because in his short stint with us he had left many tasks half done, had made hasty arrangements, hadn’t informed his colleagues and had caused general confusion in our dispatches and invoices.  I had decided to get to the bottom of things and I had put together information on a couple of major goof ups. I had gotten others too with him in my office so that there would be no behind-the-back-blame-game. The situation soon unraveled. His casual approach was clear as day light to every one. I ended the meeting abruptly. An hour later he walked in with his resignation.  After seeing him off I started recollecting how I had hired him. Somehow the incident was etched in my memory. 

I was standing near the window of my first floor corner room in our two story factory building. No, it wasn’t ‘the’ corner room! It was one of those eight corner rooms our floor had due to a block of conference rooms which divided the hall in two halves. The window offered a pretty view of the nicely manicured lawns. Palm trees were thoughtfully planted on either edges of the lawns between the internal road leading to our building.

A candidate was to meet for an interview for the post of our logistics head. I had carefully read his CV.  His work experience included stints with reputed companies and he ticked all the right boxes.  Just as I was looking out of the window I saw a young man on the road between the lawns. He was carrying a folio of papers like they do when they go for interviews. The young man sauntered, taking in the scenery around him.  

The same man appeared in my office some minutes later. I met him and asked him questions of about his previous job and talked to him about what would be expected from him in our company.  Now as I was rewinding this incident in my mind it struck me hard. Why didn’t I think more about what was apparently very odd -his casual demeanor? Indeed, he met all requirements of the job and my colleagues who met him also had good impression of him. So I had done what was logical. I had hired him. But had failed to investigate his apparent casualness moments before he was to appear for an interview.

Theoretically, it is possible that a man who stays relaxed before an important meeting can be so because of high level of self assurance, but it is also likely to be a sign of a general casualness. I should have at least probed this.

I had erred in hiring him. Fortunately the error didn’t cost us much because in months which followed his joining our business boomed and the work pressure increased. The situation soon came to head as I described above.  He quit on his own. I learned that peoples’ attitudes limit or boost their knowledge and skills. Everything that is possible should be done to gauge their attitudes.”

Ramesh learned the right lesson from his mistake. We take a lot of efforts to evaluate people’s knowledge and skills. We also try to know about their attitudes. But we don’t do enough. While knowledge and skills can be enhanced through training and practice, it is very difficult change attitudes. It is not a walk in park.


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He just shook his head

It was still early days in my career. I was in a new job in a new location.  We had recently recruited three technicians who were fresh out of their diploma courses.

Standing near his work table, which was a test bench, I asked him, “You weren’t there in the meeting. What happened?” Without taking his eyes off the oscilloscope (an instrument which shows voltage or current signal wave forms) he just shook his head. Since he too was a Maharashtrian like me, I correctly guessed it was a NO. It meant that not only he didn’t attend the meeting (which I knew) but also that he didn’t want to attend the meeting. His name was Anil, one of the fresh recruits.

I could see that he was quite engrossed. I inched closer to his oscilloscope. I shifted the probes to another point on the printed circuit card and pointed to the wave form there. Now he was thinking. I suggested a few changes in the connections and again showed him the changed wave form. He stood up with his face lit up. It meant ‘Got it! Thank you’. He said ” I will do it”.

A day later, he approached me at my desk with some questions. Having given him some suggestions, I decided to probe further about the ‘meeting’. He said in his broken English, “No use. Only talking”. I said, “Yes. Let’s change that, but someone has to talk. Only then others can listen” He nodded and went off. It meant that he had agreed.

In the next meeting Anil sure was there. He remained silent for most part but spoke up suddenly saying ” Don’t know. But I will do it” He had taken on to solve a nasty technical issue which had held up deliveries of our instruments.

Later I found that he was the first one from from his family having studied beyond higher secondary and having finished a diploma. He found it difficult to converse in English but he could understand it well enough for his job of a tester in production.  Through next few months I used to go his test bench. I used to ‘discuss’  technical problems with him by shifting probes here and there, drawing some diagrams, and noting some observations. He too would come calling with his questions. He soon became our chief technical trouble shooter (unofficial). He never wanted to become a ‘manager’ but he could manage a lot technical stuff.

To recognise talent it is important to ‘observe’ people in their jobs or in near job situations. Note their concentration levels. Note their body language. Note their attitudes towards problems. It is important to go beyond the apparent. I learned this from the guy who ‘just shook his head’.  That was early in my career. Thank you Anil for that.

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Recognizing talent: “I have done it the way you asked….”

She had filled in the forms and she had completed her written exercises as per of our company’s selection process.  Then she came in for interview. My colleague from HR and I were to interview her. The interview was for the post of executive in administration.   I had seen her walking in with an expression that meant that she was not entirely convinced about something. After initial questions were done with I asked her if she had anything on her mind.

She said, “Madam and Sir, I was asked to write about where do I see myself five years from now. I was also asked, why I consider myself suitable for this post of executive in administration. I have written that. But I wasn’t informed well about the job. I imagined it. And I wasn’t asked how I would perform on it. Also I wasn’t asked how would I would reach the position I saw myself in after five years”

That was the reason for her expression of doubt. It was the turn of my HR colleague. To my surprise she was candid, ” You are right. We should have scrapped that part  and we should have done it better. Thanks for pointing out. But now that you have asked better questions why don’t you answer them as well”

I could see that while she would do things even when she not convinced out of compulsions, she would still ask questions and when possible she would come up with better ideas. I could see that she had energy to do all that. It would be challenging and interesting to work with her.

The young woman joined despite some doubts (about us).  She always worked with enthusiasm and diligence. She would ask questions and would wait to be convinced. She would do things even when not convinced because of urgency. She would go beyond call of her duty when needed. She turned out to be one of our best people.

I had learned that good people exhibit straightforwardness, clarity, energy, right attitudes, and of course job skills without talking about them. It takes  keen observation to recognize them. It takes side stepping cliche and jargon and big words. Above all, it takes humility.




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….but I was going to promote her

One of the toughest challenges faced by any leader is to keep together a high level of talent pool -to retain those who are in and to attract more for renewal.

One day you find yourself saying this: ‘But I was going to promote her….” You hated the way she looked at you. She was sympathetic to your plight, yet she had made up her mind to quit. She would of course stay on to finish some important work. You also realized that even a promotion wouldn’t keep her back.

Talented people are talented because they keep learning and honing their knowledge and skills. They know what they wish to be doing. They wish add to their repertoire. That’s their second nature. When they undertake some work they wish to finish it well and in time. They don’t wish to keep redoing it or reworking it. They don’t like to undo someone else’s errors beyond a limit. They don’t like to keep chasing others so that they can get on with what they had planned to do. They wish to go home every evening with a satisfaction of having done a good day’s work. They wish to do ‘good work’.

And they expect good salary and working conditions and some respect for their work. These don’t have to be the best in class but need to be good enough. They don’t mind parties and picnics and the employee engagement stuff, if they are getting to do ‘good work’.

Her case has another angle. If she loves her work she may not even be happy with a promotion.because promotion might mean that she would have to move away from what she liked. Talented people are fairly sensitive about changes in work that a promotion might mean. They are not necessarily against it, but they are surely going to weigh any change. They are also likely to be well cued in about whether they are ready to take on more responsibilities.

In short, they have worked themselves out much better than you would have done about them. That’s the real challenge.

Do you agree? Did you face similar situations? What did you do?

Read more on ‘talent’:

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A story of my learning

I was chatting with my friend. Our conversation drifted to change on a personal level. I started telling him how my years of studying and living at the IIT Bombay changed me. I not only learned engineering subjects, but I also learned a lot about people and their diverse cultures -middle class Maharashtrians like mine, Tamils, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Andhraites, Kannadigas, UPites, Biharis, Rajasthanis, and Assamese and many others were all there. People from Africa and Gulf countries too were there. There were those who were born with a silver spoon in mouth and those who could afford education only because of scholarships. I had to change my thoughts about all these people and junk my prejudices. I changed and learned to become friends with people who were not ‘like us’.

Out of campus life and in a job, intellectual stimulation was much needed. Books provided that. Thrillers, real life stories, fiction, philosophy, humor -books were now those ‘not like us’friends. Books entertained, troubled, and challenged me. They made me reflect.They made me do stupid things. They had a huge and lasting effect on me.

At work, a shift from technical to sales meant that I had to learn to deal with people ambiguities instead of technical certainties. I had to learn to remember faces and names. I had to attempt face reading and reading pages upside down from across the table. I had to learn to summon all my faculties at 6 in the evening for tough sales negotiations after a day long wait and after having almost given up. I had learn to get a foot in door (literally and metaphorically) and win from there. I had to change.

A responsibility to manage a demerger of our unit and to set it up as an independent company came up and I plunged into it. Among other things, I had to figure out better ways of helping our people to develop themselves. I had to learn to talk to them, to ask questions to them for helping them to frame their goals and problems and help them to find solutions. I had to learn to be patient with them. A lot was at stake then.

I always liked the sound of drums. Learning to play drums meant that I had to develop specific reflexes and I had to learn to listen to music better. I had to change the type of music I was listening.

I always wanted to run. When I started running, it was not just about improving stamina. I had to learn to listen to my body, to let it do its work well and to respect it. I had to learn body sensing. I learned that finishing a run in good form and with happy face is so much important.

It is difficult to say what of the ‘original’ me still remains, but I am certain that without changing oneself it is impossible to learn anything important.

I know that we are still good friends after all this changing and learning!

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Just One hour A Day…

It takes the discipline of just one hour (or even half an hour) a day of learning or practicing to improve life….exercise and you will enjoy better health, meditate and you will have a calmer mind, learn any new skill for doing things which you like or for things which are vital to you and you will have rewards coming your way.

Read this as an example

If learning leadership skills is vital for for you here a self learning program book  Also, there is web based program which comes with optional coaching support


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How I coach minus jargon and leadership theories

The reason I try to avoid jargon and why I don’t ask people to remember a particular framework is that they either believe that they know the stuff or they get put off by it all. In both cases the jargon or frameworks come in way they putting these to use. For this I suggest workouts which incorporate underlying principles. This is a very experiential method of learning and practicing.

Read this : The Trouble with Leadership Theories

Even if you don’t read the above, do take look at http://www.learning-leadership. com and book Lead to Regenerate (info at /blog url of the site)

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Bullets as a tool for expression and thinking

Bullets at best are just checklists.

At their worst they are…. read this : Most presentations aren’t bullet proof

Since almost all presentations are based on bullets they are all suspect: they can’t express coherent thoughts. Nor they promote better thinking.

Bullets may be handy time saving tools,  but what they save -the time- doesn’t get used for thinking better.

For more on the subject of thinking and expression read my book ‘Lead to Regenerate’

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