2 November 2008

Expense Reductions

This one is nobody’s pleasant subject. Nobody wants to cut expenses. Primarily because most of the time, it deals with the very tough calls of separating valuable employees from the company. Yet, thru this unpleasantness, I believe I have learnt a lot and become a stronger leader. My first big downturn was the Internet bubble crash and now of course we have the whole world crashing 馃檨 [As a side note, the current problem is severe and very unpredictable – still it is not the end of the world or even close to the Depression]

Back to the learnings…

What are the first things that get squeezed? Travel, Entertainment, Training and such. While there should be a very tight watch on these, it is not the best thing to go after. For starters, you can usually not squeeze much unless you had a hopeless system of approvals for travel and training. For another, they rarely deliver big numbers.

Assuming you will never go thru only one round of job cuts, I would suggest using the framework of three steps to deal with it:

1. First focus on productivity. Usually, in a growth mode, you will be surprised how we tend to add costs. If you get smart people together in a room, you will be surprised how many good ideas can come up on how to do the same thing smarter and cheaper.

2. Second, focus on stopping doing something. After a few rounds of trying to squeeze productivity, we need to show courage in the face of adversity by prioritizing. And this means making active choices of stopping some work, project etc etc. Usually, this is tougher than the first step since we live in a world where everything is considered high priority.

3. Third, look at structural changes. Break up fixed cost structures (you may need restructuring charges), flatten your organization, relook at other arbitrages (cheaper countries or outsourcing) – just go for larger structural changes.

None of these are easy – but that is the fun of running business. Sometimes you have to figure out how to respond to external changes that you have no control over.

Any learnings you have had personally?


10 October 2008

Leave Letters

A friend of mine sent this to me. Once again, I do not know how real these are, but I found them to be very funny. This is supposed to be a collection of applications for leave (the Indian style) from various employees in some of the outsourced development centers…

Application for Leave
路 Infosys, Bangalore: An employee applied for leave as follows:

“Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave.”


This is from Oracle Bangalore: >From an employee who was performing the “mundan” ceremony of his 10 year old son:

“as I want to shave my son’s head, please leave me for two days..”
路 Another gem from CDAC. Leave-letter from an employee who was performing his daughter’s wedding:

“as I am marrying my daughter, please grant a week’s leave..”
路 From H.A.L. Administration Dept:

“As my mother-in-law has expired and I am only one responsible for it, please grant me 10 days leave.”
路 Another employee applied for half day leave as follows:

“Since I’ve to go to the cremation ground at 10 o-clock and I may not return, please grant me half day casual leave”
路 An incident of a leave letter:

“I am suffering from fever, please declare one-day holiday.”
路 A leave letter to the headmaster:

“As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today”
路 Another leave letter written to the headmaster:

“As my headache is paining, please grant me leave for the day.”
路 Covering note:

“I am enclosed herewith…”
路 Another one written by a gal:

“Dear Sir: with reference to the above, please refer to my below…”
路 Actual letter written for application of leave:

“My wife is suffering from sickness and as I am her only husband at home I may be granted leave”.


路 Letter writing:-

“I am well here and hope you are also in the same well.”

Category: Humor | LEAVE A COMMENT
10 September 2008

Thanda Legey Jabey

I am not sure about the source of this but long time somebody had sent this to me to reflect upon the Bengali’s constant vigil against catching cold… Enjoy…

Thanda Lege Jabe

(“You will catch a cold”)

聽One phrase every Bengali worth his sweater has grown up with is “thanda lege jabey”. It is the ultimate warning of impending doom, an unadulterated form of existentialist advice. Thanda lege jabey. Thou shalt ‘catch the cold’.

‘Catching the cold’ comes easy to Bengalis. It’s a skill that’s acquired almost immediately after birth. Watch a Bengali baby and you would know. Wrapped in layers of warm clothing even if the sun is boiling the mercury, the baby learns quickly that his chances of survival in a Bengali household depend on how tightly he can wrap himself in cotton, linen and wool. Bengalis have almost romanticized warm clothing, so much so that Bengali art has found eloquent expression in a form of quilt-stitch work called kantha. I’m sure wool-shearers even in聽 faraway Australia say a silent prayer to Bengalis before the shearing season (if there’s any such season). I’m also sure the very thought of Bengalis sends a chill down the spine of many a sheep.

In winter, the quintessential Bengali’s outfit puts the polar bear to shame. Packaged in at least seven layers of clothing and the head snugly packed inside the queerest headgear, the monkey cap, he takes the chill head on. Easy lies the head that wears the monkey cap. With a pom-pom at the top,聽 it’s not just a fashion statement; it’s a complete fashion paragraph.

I remember strolling down the Walk of Fame in Hollywood on a pleasant May evening. My eyes scanned the glittering stars on the asphalt – each an ode to a Hollywood heavyweight. Suddenly, my ears caught the unmistakable Doomsday warning – ‘thanda lege jabey’. I stood transfixed. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is probably the last place one would like to get caught ‘catching the cold’. I turned around.There was this Bengali family braving the American chill. The young brat of the family was adamant that he didn’t want any more clothing but mom wouldn’t have any of it – “sweater porey nao, thanda lege jabey.” I need not translate that. Mom won, and the family – sweaters et al – posed for a photograph.

For a race that is perpetually running scared of cold weather, Bengalis have a surprising affinity for hill stations.

Probably, warmth of heart is best preserved in shawls, pullovers and cardigans. In an age when you are judged by how cool or uncool you are, the warmth that the kakus, jethus and mashimas exude can melt icebergs. I wouldn’t trade that warmth for any amount of cool. However, the monkey cap may look cool without the pom-pom.

Category: Humor | LEAVE A COMMENT
1 September 2008

Powell on Leadership

I am sure you have come across a lot of literature on leadership. If you had any doubts how difficult true leadership is, just look at the number of books written on it 馃檪 Most of the literature has a couple of good ideas and then a lot of pages so that they can actually make a book out of it.

However, there is a presentation I came across about 10 years back. A colleague of mine passed it on to me. It is a 20 -odd slides presentation from Colin Powell titled 鈥淎 Leadership Primer鈥. I love it so much that I go thru it even today – at least once a quarter. Once in a while, when I find myself getting dragged into corporate politics, I go back and read the slides again. It is a great pick-me-upper.

I guess the reason I have liked the presentation so much is because

(*) it makes some very bold statements
(*) the examples and explanations are to the point and focused (that is why it is a slide, not a chapter in a book)
(*) it gives the best definition of Leadership I have found till date.

I would strongly recommend that you go thru it at your convenience when you get some time. Here is a website that has the slides: http://www.blaisdell.com/powell

Here is a quick run thru of the titles:

1. Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off
2. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.
3. Don鈥檛 be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.
4. Don鈥檛 be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.
5. Never neglect details. When everyone鈥檚 mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.
6. You don鈥檛 know what you can get away with until you try.
7. Keep looking below surface appearances. Don鈥檛 shrink from doing so just because you might not like what you find.
8. Organization doesn鈥檛 really accomplish anything. Plans don鈥檛 accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don鈥檛 much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.
9. Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing.
10. Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.
11. Fit no stereotypes. Don鈥檛 chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team鈥檚 mission.
12. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
13. Powell鈥檚 Rules for Picking People: Look for intelligence and judgment, and most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.
14.Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.
15. Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.
16. The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.
17. Have fun in your command. Don鈥檛 always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you鈥檝e earned it. Spend time with your families. Corollary: surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.
18. Command is lonely.

and my most favorite…

鈥淟eadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible鈥.


17 August 2008

Judging Talent

No doubt, you are called to appraise people鈥檚 performance once or twice a year and in the process, have to pitch in your commentary about talent of some of your subordinates. I have heard of certain companies truly understanding and building talent. I cannot honestly admit that I have seen a lot of them. Some are more disciplined than others – definitely some are more serious about it than others.

The process is far more nuanced than the forms that you fill up on strengths, weaknesses, development and so on and so forth. The more sophisticated ones use the 9-box from 鈥淲ar for talent鈥 or some variation of the same to differentiate the past from the future (potential). And some go many more steps further.

After watching such processes in quite a few companies over the last 20 years or so, here are some observations from my side. If you are a senior manager / executive, it would be interesting to keep these points in mind:

1. At the end of the day, there is a lot of subjectivity in the process. All HR processes, rationalizations, 360 degrees are great attempts to bring some objectivity to the process but at the end of the day when you try to summarize a complex set of human behavior into a few bullet points of positives and negatives, undoubtedly, broad brush and stereotyping will get in. Just admitting that will perhaps force you to think many more times.

2. A small set of data points play an overwhelming role in the final judgment. Good or bad, a few interactions, somehow lead us to form deeply rooted convictions. The underlying O.B. theory is that, as humans, we try to simplify our views of people or events – rather than care to have a lot of nuanced views. I have seen a lot of managers give one or two data points to make their case – and then struggle like hell when asked for a few more data points. Ensure that you have enough data points to back your view. You will surprised how you have formed opinions based on what you have heard or your first interaction etc etc.

3. An ideal talent process should take into account the 鈥渆nd state鈥 to decide the strengths and the gaps. Too often managers write strengths and weaknesses by focusing on the variance between some target that they have in their mind and the appraisee in question. Needless to say, this is one way subjectivity gets injected. But rarely have I seen a manager understand what the employee wants to be eventually and then work backwards from there to accentuate the strengths and develop the gaps. [This is somewhat like a football coach wanting to make a quarterback of everybody!!]

4. Finally, we as humans, far over-rate our ability to judge talent. This gets even more dangerous as managers rise up due to their business strengths and by virtue of that position is now called upon to be the 鈥渏udge鈥 of talent in their organization. HR needs to play a very strong role in this. Even in 鈥渞ationalization鈥 sessions, care should be taken to ensure that the highest ranked manager鈥檚 view is freely and frankly challenged.

I would be interested in hearing from you some of the great talent development processes or ideas that you have seen (or not seen for that purpose).


24 July 2008

Smokies – Roys and Haldars

This summer we were fortunate enough to host a lot of our friends at our place. In July, the Haldars and the Roys visited us from Dallas. We spent a couple of days in the Smoky Mountains with them. These are some video clippings from the trip – specially the trek to the Laurel Waterfalls

20 July 2008

The Power of Advisory Boards

Advisory Boards are not a very common phenomenon that I have come across. However, a well formed Advisory Board can be extremely helpful to most top level executives.

First, I am not talking about Executive Boards – that is pretty much the domain of the CEOs. And I am not talking about Customer Advisory Boards either. If you are a C-level executive (but not CEO), I am talking about forming your own external advisory board formed from luminaries in your industries that you can trust and respect.

Having had twice formed such boards for myself in the past and having been in two such boards myself, here are my observations:

1. As I observed before, this is NOT a common practice. I think that is a pity.

2. Not all executives are equally adept in leveraging such a board.

3. It is a very cheap way of getting access to a lot of talent. You can pretty much get this done by a few flight tickets, hotel bills and lunch/dinner checks. If you are on a shoestring budget, chances are you can pick executives from your local city for this.

4. Such a board gives you the following:

4a. Great access to you and your operating team to a lot of experience and talent from outside. Chances are they have face some of your challenges that you are facing.

4b. It is a great sounding board. Outside of your board meetings, you or your team can feel comfortable getting some quick feedback.

4c. Great networking opportunity. You get access to more people – perhaps some of them can become your customer some day, some may join you in your company some day.

4d. Finally, my experience is that your team will find the whole exercise innovative and highly energized. They would love the exposure.

5. What to sell potential board members on – OR – what the board members get from this:

5a. Networking opportunity. They get a chance to meet perhaps future customers, future employer or future employees.

5b. Great Resume Value – especially if you company has a reasonable brnad name in the market, this would be great to get on their resumes.

The best way to utilize these boards are to pose certain business challenges you have at a reasonable abstract level and see what the various learnings have been.

So far, my experience has been very positive on this.

Have you any history of having tried this or being part of such a board. I would love to hear about your experience.