13 August 2020

A man is known by the company he keeps

I am not terribly sure how I manage to get into these situations – certainly level of IQ does not explain it – but recently I found myself in a great discussion on COVID and COVID expansion with a few luminaries. It was hosted by University of Virginia professor Dr. Madhav Marathe (under normal circumstances, I would kick that Dr. part – since he and I were college mates in Computer Science in IIT-M). The other luminary was Kiran Vaya – retired telecom executive from Motorola.

And then there was myself, trying to figure out how to spell “C-O-V-I-D”.

I have to say, I am amazed by how Madhav and Kiran were quickly able to draw the parallels between the spread of the virus and how cell packets are distributed thru the cellphone network. For whatever I remembered of Computer Science, that made amazing sense to me.

But what blew me away was Madhav (or should I say Dr. Marathe)’s explanation of why academia holds back from forecasting often. It is what he referred to as variables that are “endogenous” to the system.

If you did not get it in the first blush, count me in.

Here he what he explained lucidly to the audience…

Think of weather forecasting versus pandemic forecasting. Regardless of what the meteorologist forecasts, the weather is going to turn out exactly to be the same.

Not so for pandemic. The forecast of an outcome will change the behavior of the public – which will change the outcome itself!! That is a fascinating feedback-cycle!!

How do you forecast?

One thing I have learnt about great education. It is all about asking the right questions. Not necessarily having all the right answers.

Thank you Madhav and Kiran, I think I left the forum with a lot more questions than I had answers.

And that is the way it should be.

1 January 2020

Lessons learnt as a CEO – part three of three

Last couple of weeks, we used metaphors from childhood life and teenager life to explain my lessons as a CEO. In this third and last lesson, I will take you all the way to old age.

Lesson 3: Get ready to be lonely

This hits you hard when you become the CEO the first time. Especially, if it is not a small start up kind of environment. Till the point that you became a CEO, you always had people you could “freely” chat with. There were some of your peers that you were close with. If you expressed a company-contrarian point of view over drinks with your direct reports, nobody thought the company was thinking of changing direction the next day.

What I learnt is that all that goes away the day you become a CEO.

It is truly – and the only – peerless job. When everything is said and done, it is you and you only who will carry the weight of having to make decisions. You can get all the opinions you want from everybody – and in an ideal world, you should get conflicting opinions – but then you have to close the door, close your eyes (or perhaps go for a long walk if that is your style) and make the decision. All by yourself.

Your ability to express your points of views will be severely curtailed. If you prematurely express your thoughts, it will unfortunately have the effect of shutting down everybody – well, most. The organization does not read your thoughts as merely thoughts. They read it as your commands/decisions. You can ask folks “What do you think if we did….” and rest assured that more often than not, there is a Chinese whisper going around in the organization the next day that “apparently we are headed in the direction of ….”. Communication is tough.

I have heard advise from others about forming a sounding board around myself with current or ex-CEOs from outside and Board members. I have found such folks either not having a great familiarity with the context or of very little operational experience to be of much use. It is good to hear their points of views but I am not sure there are silver bullets anybody will have for you.

So, like it or not, it is going to be you and you only. With often suppressed ability to be open.

Just like in old age, your life (work life at least) is going to be very lonely. You need to get ready for it.

25 December 2019

Lessons learnt as a CEO – part two of three

If last week was about the childhood sea-saw, this week is all about teenager years. Specifically calculus! Yes, calculus!!

Lesson 2: Don’t forget your derivatives from the calculus class in high school

To quote the much hackneyed statement – change is a constant. As a leader, your worry is not change per se. Whether you like it or not, change will happen. Even if you or your company desire not to change, the market will, technology will, customers will and competition will. You simply have no option.

And chances are that as a CEO everywhere you look, you can see the writing on the wall about the changes that you need to bring or would like to bring. That is given.

Change of status is a first order algebraic equation. One of the lessons I have learnt as a CEO is to get a deeper understanding of the first derivative. What is the “right pace of bringing in change”? The rate of change, if you will. (First derivative, if you remember your calculus)

You cannot ride a speedboat like you are steering a ship. You will lose out on the potential progress and fun you could have had. On the other hand, you cannot steer a ship like you are riding a speedboat. A couple of hard turns and you are going to break the ship into pieces.

Setting the direction (change required) is relative easy. You can hire one of those management consulting firms and they will wax eloquent on what change you need. Figuring out at what pace you want to turn the ship and what is the speed you can push the organization to but no more requires a deep understanding of the company and its culture.

As a CEO, this can often be very frustrating. You know what you want and have a rough idea how to even get there. But you cannot dictate the speed. Turning organizations has as much angular momentum as rectilinear momentum. You do not want to spin it out of control – but you want to keep the force on.

You have to apply the right throttle and the right steering. All the while, trying to change the culture, re-equipping the talent inhouse to be able to deal with a little more throttle and a little faster steering.

You will not get all changes right all the time. That is okay. Going back to the ship metaphor – you will pivot and change directions multiple times. But if you pushed the ship beyond its limit of handling change and broke it in two pieces (or even some major component of it), that is irreversible. You will have no chance to pivot any more. Or make anymore forward progress, for that matter.

So, the key lesson is, it is not about the change. It is about the “rate of change”. Not the “delta”. The “d – d – t”, in your teenager math speak.

19 December 2019

Lessons learnt as a CEO – part one of three

Compared to most veteran CEOs, I am still green behind the ears. Six years, two different companies and two different industries is still not enough experience to reflect on for wisdom. However, as the year draws to an end, I am forced to ask myself “What has been the three big learnings once the aperture to the world changed to be that of a CEO”

Lesson 1: Don’t forget how you enjoyed the see-saw as a child

The first lesson, I reckon, as I look back, is “it is all about balance”. No idea is purely good or purely bad. No one decision is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. No opinion is guaranteed to succeed or guaranteed to fail. You have to figure out how to balance out things. Competing points of views is good. Lack of opposing points of views is what you have to guard against.

Every individual’s bias is going to make the see-saw push towards one end. But you have to let it go. There will be conflicting interests. You have to protect investors’ interests, employees’ interests and customers’ interests. You have to figure out how to balance. You have to balance the need to have an environment that employees love to work in and then increase medical insurance costs on their paychecks given the realities of the world.

The strive for balance will ensure that the see-saw is not permanently stuck with one in the air and one in the ground. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a lot of conflicting pulls, restrain yourself from taking a position immediately. Remind yourself that it is a see-saw. You want the forces pulling you in different directions. Find out how to balance things.

If that is not hard enough, wait for this: perfect balance is a terrible thing too. Imagine two of you – absolutely equal in weight, at the exact same distance from the fulcrum on the see-saw. Both of you are going to sit up in the air with no movement. That is not how you enjoy a see-saw. Similarly, as a CEO, once you feel you are reaching balance, introduce some chaos.

I realize that is confusing. Balance or not? My answer is – just remember your childhood see-saw. Having somebody much lighter or heavier than you never got you anywhere. And when you two were reasonably similar and the see-saw was not swinging enough to give you fun, one of you heaved hard to the ground to give it some momentum.

That is exactly what you want when you are in a CEO position. Strive for balance. Till it starts getting balanced. Then you introduce some chaos. Growth in a business is much like the thrill of a see-saw – the fun is in the movement – not in the static end state – either completely unbalanced or completely balanced.

That journey – that swinging on either side of the see-saw – is what business is all about.

(second part will be coming next Thursday)

8 December 2019

What time saving practices do you have?

The new year will soon be upon us. Which can only mean one thing – more New Year’s Resolutions (including that cheesy – “my resolution is to have no more resolutions”). Truth be told, all of us think of New Year’s as an opportunity for a “Restart”, as it were.

And usually, those resolutions start off well. Till they peter out. Research gym membership sign ups for the month of January versus any other month to get an idea for this.

So why do those goals wane? It is not like we feel they were wrong goals to begin with. Inevitably, it boils down to other priorities taking over. We could not make time for our goals.

The fallacy, in my opinion, is to take up new goals without understanding what we are going to NOT do. There are still only 24 hours in our days. Unless we stop doing something, it would be difficult to make space for the new things. It is like the Yin and the Yang.

I am sure I am going to have new goals for the new year. And for that, I need to give up on something that consumes time. Would love to hear about your experiences… what have you given up in the past to make space for your new goals? I am hoping to get some tips and ideas from what has worked for you…