30 May 2009

CASA Strides for Kids, 2009

On May 30th, 2009, I ran to raise money for CASA – which is an organization devoted to getting judicial help for abused kids. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates for children. While it was slated as a 5K run, the actual distance was a little short (2.8M). My times were 22 min 41 seconds which for a full 5K would be 24 min 57 seconds. That would be about 30 seconds better than my personal best. The tips from my mentor in Dallas helped out immensely. This was organized in the city of Cumming, GA. You can find more about the organization at http://forsythcountycasa.org/
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16 May 2009

Alphareta Mayor’s Challenge 10K, 2009

On May 16th, 2009, I in the Alpharetta Mayor’s Challenge 10K run. All proceeds went for the benefit of Rotary Club service projects. Till date, this is my best time in the 10K category. (56 minutes 55 seconds). This was organized in the Wills Park. The first 5K was on the roads and the next 5K was in the park trails. Shaved off a little over a minute from my previous best. Details at http://www.mayorschallenge.com/mchome.aspx
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10 May 2009

Mortgage Clue

How do you clue “Mortgage”

(Or Sampling a Bengali party in Dallas) 

“Have weekend – will party” is the usual war cry that emanates from my friend circle – come Friday, Saturday or Sunday. A very lively bunch of blokes, I admit. Half the fun is getting prepared for the party, another half is planning for the next party while this party is going on and of course the rest of the fun is during the party  🙂 The reason the parties are so lively is because of the bench strength we can call from when it comes to bringing together a motley of “characters”.

If you have seen one of these parties, you have pretty much seen all of them. Here is how the script roughly goes. First, about a week before the party is called you find out who else has been called. It is a taboo to mention about this party in the presence of the uninvited – lest they get the idea that they are not part of the “in” crowd. There is a particularly industrious friend who insists on finding out who is going to whose party – I have this nagging feeling that she has this massive roster with rows and columns and “X”s all over 🙂 I wonder whether she gives odds on who is going to be invited and who is not on which day.

Well, eventually you arrive at the party. Remember that this is an India party. It is not mandatory to know the exact address – just a rough idea of the location usually suffices. Prior to internet boom, you would have to hover around the area for a few minutes till you could locate the highest concentration of Hondas and Accords around a block. Post internet boom, you improve your chances by snooping for Lexi (is that the plural of Lexus?) and Mercedes.

Once you are in the block, you promptly get down and strain your neck to see which house has a few “chappals” outside the door. You got your host’s house zeroed down to the tee. Any doubts are soon taken care of by the wafting of delicious curry smell leaking from the house. Armed with your usual gift of the nearest bottle of wine that you could grab while closing the garage door, you enter the house.

You are immediately greeted by the immaculately dressed host weaving his way thru about forty seven pairs of shoes of all hues and shapes strewn all over the doorway. You promptly add yours to the confusion there.

Then there is the customary “staircase-goodbye-to-kids”. True to our striation systems that we have back at the place we call our motherland (don’t forget this is an Indian party), all the kids are segregated to go upstairs and adults stay downstairs. The only time you will see your kids again is when they come down to have the pepperoni Pizza ordered for them. You also get to see them when you go upstairs to see what the confusion upstairs is all about. Your turn usually comes when it is your kid who is crying or you hear some other parent yelling out your kid’s name not to hit anybody 🙂

So, away from the staircase you go to make the grand entry to the living area. All this time you were hearing vague mentions of your name coming from the living room but of course you have been pointedly ignoring them. Lest you forgot, you are reminded that this is an Indian party when you realize that the ladies have congregated on one side of the room and the guys have gotten together with equal amount of gender spirit (either that or by the method of elimination) in another corner of the room.

There is one thing that binds these two groups at the foundation level though. If you carefully hear what they are talking about, it is invariably about Bollywood. Some of the data that are spit out astounds me in detail and irrelevance. As an example – somebody says “Have you seen the new movie – Mohabbat Ki Gudgudi”? In about 5 minutes, you will get to know about which grade did the third cousin twice removed of the supporting actor fail in while in St. Mary’s School in Andheri!!

Needless to say, by this time, the first round of appetizers have been brought in by the hostess – thanks to whom now you also know which bus stand the playback singer of the aforementioned movie used to go to for his trysts with Preeti Bhede. [You got me there – I had the same question – who the heck is she – but I resisted from asking since I did not wish to look like an idiot. Well, more than I am acknowledged to be, i.e.].

I simply marvel at their ability to store so much inconsequential data. I am so afraid that if I tried to cram those in my head, the rest of the hair might have to fall off to make space!!

Did I mention what the host has been up to all this time? As you can imagine, we take the role of being a host very righteously. This means basically 2 things. We buy 2 large bottles of red wine and download from the internet the latest jivey Hindi songs from the internet into our iPods a few hours before the party starts. If you do not have an iPod, you run a huge risk of being looked down upon!!

The more sophisticated ones of course go thru the rigmarole of “tasting the wine”. The bottle is opened with a lot of flair and the first hapless victim is poured a little and asked “Chalega kya”? The “victim”, not to be outdone, swirls the goblet with equal vigor, pours a little thru the lips and closes his eyes as the rest of us in the audience are holding our collective bated breath what the judgment will be. “Chalega” is the verdict handed down. Just once – just once, I want to say “Hmmm… let’s try something else” and see the reaction of the host 🙂 So far, I am happy to report that I have not risked it. Partly, because I have this feeling that after a couple of ounces of wine, most of my friends can’t differentiate between red and white wine – let alone the taste of the wine!!

By this time the party has started getting loud. There are a few (three to be precise) in my friends circle who have a decibel level that will make the bullet train back off on its tracks! One holler from them and I swear that Hurricane Katrina would have gone back from where it came!!

Then there are the usual laggards. As in your circles too, I have a couple-friend who have taken it upon themselves to keep certain traditions of our motherland alive among us – specifically Indian Stretchable Time. The good news is that the husband is a model here (some of us snidely comment that he models for P3 underwear for J.C.Penny – but I am sure that is mostly because the rest of us are just jealous of how much attention he gets from the other end of the living room 🙂 ) and runs everyday some innumerable miles a day. So we just overlook all these small foibles in life.

Then comes dinner – which, to me, usually is the most enjoyable part of the day. I am almost embarrassed to mention this that somehow the hostess has invariably taken special care of me and made one curry of eggs. While I am non-vegetarian, I prefer vegetables any day. I also love eggs. (To me eggs are vegetables – they are sold in the fruit shops in Benachity, anyways). However the very guest-conscious hostess nowadays makes a special egg preparation for me. Either that, or there is a vast right wing conspiracy to stock me up on cholesterol!

After the dinner comes the earplugs to deal with the next part of the show – which is usually either some game (like Taboo or Pictionary or whatever) or if you are less lucky – dancing. Now, let me very upfront here. I play these games with the ease of a cow climbing up a tree and I dance with the grace of a hippo on a hot plate. Let’s take Pictionary as an example. Most of you who know me, probably also know that I have many strengths. Drawing is not one of them. About the only thing I have liked drawing in my life is my salary.

Well, here I am, and I am given the clue “Suck”. I am not kidding you. This actually happened to me a couple of weeks back. I am supposed to draw “suck”. All my teammates know is that it is of the category “action”. After overcoming all my conscientiousness (it helped that it was a husbands versus wives game), I proceeded to draw a diagram that, if put on the web, is surely going to be taken out by Cybernanny. My teammates did get the word but not before I learnt two important lessons in life.

* Art does NOT imitate life (one hopes at least after seeing my picture)

* You will be amazed how people can come up with very complicated synonyms for very simple English words 🙂

The husbands versus wives rule was originally made when (prior to the rule), a wife clued to her husband teammate the word “Mortgage” (in Taboo) by saying “This is the painful thing we go thru every month”. The prompt response from the husband was no less painful on us as we split our slides literally rolling all over the floor laughing our heads off.

However, the husbands versus wives rule also bring the decibels out of all of the participants with allegations and counter allegations of cheating. The way the two teams keep count of their scores would make the Enron accountants blush!!

And then there are days when there are dances. This is usually the sequence of how things work out. First, some jivey remix sings are blasted over the high bass systems in the living room and the lights are dimmed. There are a couple of wives who are the more enterprising ones and lead the floor. Soon all the wives join in. The husbands take a lot more time to warm up. There are a few exceptions of course.

The fun starts then. Imagine a living room with sound blasting at a level befitting an IMAX theater and numerous folks trying to coax their legs to move their upper body as gracefully as they can. And whoever joins in the dance takes it upon himself or herself to pull in the innocent bystanders too. It is like when you get married. Once you get married, you try to get everybody else married. I think the sentiment is “If I am going down, I am not going alone” 🙂

Anyways, like I said, I am not a dancer. I would not dance if you paid me a million dollars (btw, after looking at my bank checkbook lately, I am nowadays reconsidering that statement 🙂 ). But there exists no undiluted fun as much as watching a bunch of folks trying to dance. You know the amateurs since they have the same moves – whatever the rhythm or beat. So there is this guy who at any point of will remind you of Nataraja (two hands up, on leg up, belly to match with).

Of course, I am in the kitchen, sipping my red wine and fending off all approaching me (including my beautiful wife who has already complained that I don’t dance – my theory is that by the definition of dance – none of my friends dance either) to pull me into the dance.

Soon that ends too. And it is time to go. All of us comment on how great a party it was. And sympathize with the poor husband who has to clean up the house now 🙂

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10 May 2009

Customer First or Innovation First?

I realize the apparent implication of the subject line – that you have to choose between customer or innovation makes little sense – in fact, they are inextricably intertwined. All innovation needs to be driven for the customers and preferably with the customers. In fact, I have often held the belief that most innovation happens at the edges of the system. (where your system and the customer system intersect).

That said, imagine that you have just taken over a team or division or company and you realize that there is a grounds up rebuilding of culture you need to do. Across most industries, most companies and most teams, it is safe to say customer focus and growth thru innovation are going to be two of a few underpinnings on which you are likely to rebuild your organization.

If you have tried culture changes in any large situations, you also know the danger of pushing too many levers at the same time. Culture change is less about words, powerpoints and dashboards – and more about sustained example setting, public reward and penalty system and above all driving clarity on why change. Such efforts require both focus and perseverance.

Where would you put your relatively larger focus on – make the organization customer focused and enable innovation to happen thru that or put larger focus on accentuating growth thru innovation and use the customer as the litmus test thru the process?

I first faced this problem thirteen years back when I had to rebuild up a whole technology organization which had to fight the inertia of the existing players (who had been successful for some period of time). While it is dangerous to draw generalizations, I have tilted towards focusing on building the customer oriented culture first. And innovation was an inevitable result (needed work and processes to channelize it though). I will probably do the same again.

Thoughts?

9 May 2009

Run for your Life (Younglife), 2009

On May 9nd, 2009, I ran my career best till date 5K (25 minutes 17 seconds) for Run For your Life – a race dedicated to YoungLife (helping our kids grow). This was organized by Greater Johns Creek. Shaved off 15 seconds from my previous best. First two miles were good at 7 min 40 seconds each. The last mile killed me. Details at http://sites.younglife.org/sites/JohnsCreek/default.aspx
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3 May 2009

Personal Relationships with Direct Reports

Over the years, if there is one thing I have changed a lot on, it probably is this – how close I choose to become with my direct reports on the personal front. If you know me, you probably know that I am one of those gregarious persons who loves to talk and have been accused of fairly capable of listening to the interests of the other party. My personal Rolodex of about 10,000 people that I carry with me (about 2,000 of them get birthday wishes from me – handwritten emails – none of the automated ecards etc) is a reasonably good testimony to how quickly I can make friends.

For most of the early part of my career, I built great personal relationships with my direct reports. Our families would be close and we would share a lot of social events together. I have seen that model work for a lot of people too. In fact, I have observed how one of the CEOs that I admire a lot takes time over the weekend often to golf or hunt or what have you with his direct reports and sometimes with people deeper in the organization. I have no doubt in my mind that this has resulted in not only a great rapport but also a deep commitment from the people. In fact, most people that I know who still report to the CEO have the greatest loyalty.

However, for me, I had a change of heart probably sometime 7 or 8 years back. While it was great to know that we were a committed team, I started getting severe doubts on inherent human weakness of letting liking or not liking shrouding professional judgment of a person. I take great pride in my ability to differentiate these two. But I started reminding myself that I would be fooling myself if I thought I was above being human.  I also started thinking hard about whether this style of leadership might give rise to too much of  “conformance”. As a side story, I had an almost instinctive reaction to this from that time – anybody who has worked with me for the last 7-8 years will agree on one thing – I impulsively take the opposing view – regardless of what the arguer’s view is. (It has stood me in good stead – but that is a story of another day).

I remember having read a book around that time – cannot recollect the name – about true leaders looking for “performance, not conformance”.

And that is when I started the process of slowly weaning myself away from getting too close to my new direct reports on a personal front. It is very difficult for me to tell you – without running a control experiment whether I am better off or not. But I can tell you that I feel very comfortable that I have stonewalled some amount of the human fallacies. Of course, on the personal front, I missed getting to know some really great human beings closely. And as the 10,000 Rolodex entries shows you, personal relationships far outlive professional relationships.

Have you ever faced this conundrum? If so, what did you do? And why?

Rajib

2 May 2009

Run For Life (ALS), 2009

On May 2nd, 2009, I ran my career best 5K (25 minutes 32 seconds) for Run For Life – a race to end Lou Gehrig’s disease. So far, the best tagline I had seen for charity was “Give a little, care a lot”. I found another great one today – dedicated towards people who have been affected by Lou Gehrig’s disease – “Celebrate a Life, Imagine a Cure”. Awesome!!! I also saw couple of runners wearing the funniest T-shirt saying “A Drinking Club with a Running Problem”. Funny!!!! It was a great experience. Details at http://www.cureforals.com/
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