Are you stuck? (How to recognize talent? -3)

In my previous posts I wrote about the following points

1. Need to look at talent needed for different time frames -immediate and over medium term to ensure certain mobility of people and flexibility.

2. Need to focus on basic skills like drawing, writing, painting, visualizing, selling, planning, organizing, developing algorithms, leading etc. and less on applied skills like use of computers, newer tools etc. This is because the basic skills are acquired over a long time as compared to the applied skills.

The above points can be used to design screening methods for candidates or for correcting imbalances in existing methods. For example, a very common mistake is to emphasize on domain knowledge and use of tools and overlook the basic skills and needs over medium term.

You can’t become a writer just because you know use of word processing software or just because you have good knowledge of English. You can’t become a software architect just because you know programming well and just by programming for years.

If you find that people in your team are stuck where they are and that you are stuck with them, it is quite likely that reasons will be anyone of the above two. Isn’t it?

Do share your experiences about the above.

In the forthcoming post I will put the spotlight on your ‘candidates’ for talent.

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How to recognize talent? -2

You wish to hire or nurture talent. But what is ‘talent’?

Look at these synonyms:

flair, aptitude, facility, gift, knack, technique, touch, bent, ability, expertise, capacity, power, faculty; strength, strong point, forte, genius, brilliance; dexterity, adroitness, skill, cleverness, virtuosity, artistry

All these words tell us about the quality of ‘doing’ something. It is less about knowledge or information (knowledge can be acquired or learned or transmitted). But there is more. Let’s take Jay. Jay sketches well.  Before he can be considered talented enough by a creative studio he will need to ‘work’ on his drawing skills -draw different subjects, use different media (paper, canvas, computer screen) and use different tools and techniques.

‘Talent’ in a professional context involves basic skills, practicing on platforms, and using a set of tools.  But in case of Jay, his future jobs may also need visualization of characters or landscapes. Therefore some jobs may involve additional basic skills.

Many recruiters focus mainly on ability to work on various platforms and ability to use tools.   It is easy to see that while platforms and tools can be taught and learned(assuming basic familiarity with computers and a will to learn),  it is almost impossible to develop from scratch a new skill like drawing or visualizing.

There are two kinds of skills:  basic skills like drawing, writing, painting, visualizing, selling, planning, organizing, leading and applied skills like using computers, using applications, using newer tools. It is easy to recognize applied skills  -one can ‘test’ people for applied skills and rate them based on their performance. One can even automate such tests for screening a large number of people. One can usually find standardized tests which can be purchased.

Evaluating basic skills of a person is much more complex. It requires some personal interaction. Therefore it is useful to write down such skills as the above types explicitly and plan your interactions carefully.  I will discuss this in my future posts.

In the meantime please do write about your experiences and questions on the subject.

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How to recognize talent? -1

Whether you are looking for talented people outside or surveying your organization for internal talent, you will need to be clear about what you are looking for and how to recognize it.

The first step should be to nail down what kind of work you expect the person to be doing  in near future and eventually, over next two or three years. Answering this question for short and long time frames will help in avoiding two extremes -expecting too little from the job holder or over-specifying your requirements.  You should get two different answers in most cases.

What do I mean by: “You should get two different answers”? Let us consider this case: You are looking for a team leader from a pool of engineers with relevant domain experience. You would expect that such a person should be able to plan the work of the team based on team’s goals defined by the project manager. Such a person should be able to detail out work activities in logical sequence,  decide what kind of resources would be needed, decide time needed etc.  You may expect a team leader should be able to develop such action plans in collaboration with team members and outside people. You may expect that a chosen person should start performing the above type of activities  almost immediately.

You may expect the person to grow into a project leader in next two three years. For this, he or she will have to grasp overall flow of the project execution, will need to develop good insights into needs of clients,  identify risks, and mitigate them through a network of resources within and outside your company.

From the above kind of job requirements, you can decide how to screen people and what to look for related to their potential learning & development.

We will continue our discussions on ‘how to recognize talent’ through some future posts here.

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Conversations with a young spark

I was having a tough time convincing Sumeet to start thinking about next steps in his career. Not that he was a lazy, laid back chap with an attitude. Sumeet was a guy with sharp intellect, a degree from a top engineering university, an engaging curiosity, and huge amount of stamina to put in hours in whatever he was doing. He defied the convention of the intelligent to be lazy. He defied the convention of the well educated to think that they know it all -he remained curious.

I saw in him potential for doing bigger things. So I was chatting with him.

“Please don’t start with ‘how do you see yourself with x years from now’ stuff. I have told you that I don’t see myself at all years from now”  Sumeet said peremptorily.

I was prepared for this.  I asked, “You write beautiful code. Today you are writing it on one platform, tomorrow it will be on another platform. Today you are writing your code in one domain, tomorrow it will be in another domain. You are a great code writer. Do you wish to be doing that always?”

“Why shouldn’t I? I like writing code.”

“Sure you like. That’s one reason why you do it so well. The other reasons are your intelligence, knowledge, curiosity, and zeal of going to the bottom of everything”


“No, you aren’t getting it!”

Sumeet looked genuinely puzzled. Soon enough a sheepish grin appeared underneath his stubble. I knew his mind was working furiously. I enjoyed the wait.

“Wait! Are you alluding to my yawns which appear even before it is noon? They are because of my late nights watching recorded TV episodes”

“Not quite. You also play games and keep cracking higher levels while you keep yawning”

“It’s OK to play games?”

“The point is not about your games. Let’s say you are of 28 years now. When you are 35 or even much before that you will have lost some of your curiosity and passion to get to the bottom of everything and to build everything up well”

“Why? Can’t I retain all that I have?”

“Look. There is only so much one can do all by oneself. After a while what you are doing so well today will become a routine for you. It already has. That’s the reason for your yawns. Aren’t you just coasting along?”

“But I can always crack tougher problems by myself”

“They don’t get much tougher for someone like you at the level of an individual, unless you are working on something audacious like finding theory of everything or unless you are on a quest to find who you really are and why”

“I am not convinced. There will be enough challenges ”

“When you have mastered writing code at individual level next challenges will come only from code written by tens or hundreds of coders. Sorry for the word. Hundreds of people can’t be good writers. And today you need so many of them”

“I hate to be a manager” I think he tried to second guess me.

“If you wish to handle technical challenges several orders of magnitude bigger than what you get to handle at individual level now,  you will have to get inputs from others, learn, develop ideas, influence others, and build and execute. Whatever you call doing all this, it is inevitable”

I continued, ” It may happen sooner or later, I mean hitting your wall. That’s for sure. The question is, how are you going to deal with when it does happen. Saying that I will cross the bridge when I come to it will not work because by that time you would have changed for worse. You would have changed because of lack enough challenges which put your abilities through a stretch. Even now you are finishing day’s work fast. Then you wait for others to catch up. By that time you would have seen some of your colleagues falling behind. You would have seen some of them shifting to new jobs, bigger roles, and handling complex challenges. You would have gone through such comparisons.”

Sumeet was in a deep thought. His sheepish and impish smile had gone now.

I added, “There is nothing wrong to continue to like coding. The question which someone abundantly gifted like you must answer is whether it is going to be enough even if it pays you well enough”

“By the way, there is shorter name for -to get inputs from others, learn, develop ideas, influence others, and build and execute. I call it leadership ” I finished.

Sumeet said, “I see your point. I will need to think about it”

Did Sumeet continue to stick to pure coding? How did his career develop? We will need to catch up with Sumeet’s story for answers.

But I think we must ask ourselves such questions. If we don’t and if we aren’t on a lookout for ourselves, sooner or later we are bound to hit a wall of boredom or frustration or despair or victimization or being unsung or being left behind, or any combination of such feelings. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to do much better?

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Bake a cake

What are you carrying into this weekend? Was it a week of frustration? Was it a week of excitement and celebration?

Your answer may depend on what you expected from the week.  It may depend on whether you got results for your work. It may depend on whether your work was appreciated and rewarded. It may depend on whether your difficulties were recognized and acknowledged. We spend days and weeks and years of life looking for such tonics.

For most us, weeks of frustration are common and we have wait for a week of excitement and celebrations. The question is: can we ‘salvage’ those weeks of frustration?

We ‘push’ through our days and weeks of  work jumping from problem to problem and trying hard to solve them. We fail at times despite trying very hard.  But some times everything false in place and we succeed with small efforts. Did you ever think why this happens?

You will say ‘luck’. ‘Luck’ means those other factors coming together. Logic  is must, but solving most ‘real’ problems involves luck. If this is so, why fret?

Will it not help if we focus on defining a problem (or a goal), finding a good method to solve or achieve it, and just implement it in the best possible way? Can we not get satisfaction (even thrill ) by doing these things well and by practicing the required skills and by obtaining necessary help? Can we not celebrate doing these things well even before the results come in? Good results will then be an icing on the cake which we baked well. Let luck do its part.

I think it is worth trying to learn and practice baking of a cake and let our ‘luck’ provide the icing when it does. Have a great weekend!

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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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