3 February 2008

Courage in Leadership

What does it take to be a courageous leader? Courageous leaders differentiate themselves by how they take on new challenges. It does not take a lot of courage to run day to day operations. No doubt, running day to day operations is pretty challenging too. But leaders exhibit their true courage on how they deal with adverse and contentious situations. Here are the top 10 traits that I have observed in the leaders that I have considered to be truly courageous:
1. Exhibit Optimism: Courageous leaders are calm and have a “can do and will do” attitude that permeates a steely resolve in the teams.
2. Inspire and Influence: Courageous leaders focus on inspiring and influencing people by showing them the higher goals and giving them the resources to reach them instead of falling back on the command and control model. Command and control often gives quick results but the results have a short life.
3. Avoid Saying “Both”: Courageous leaders are not afraid of prioritizing. Faced with a myriad of choices, they adroitly focus the organization on a few goals.
4. Seek to Understand: Courageous leaders cut across teams and tie them together to a greater goal. The most valuable trait in building cross-organization teams is the ability to seek to understand before seeking to be understood. They understand that opposing views are necessary to make any forward progress.
5. Guts to get into the details: Courageous leaders do not consider themselves “above” certain operational details. While they do not unempower their teams, they have no difficulty into diving in whenever they need to. This rule is possibly the one that I have seen most managers fail on as they climb up the corporate ladder.
6. Willing to admit there might be a better way: Courageous leaders are willing to take risks, fail early (and cheap) and learn from them quickly. It is this openness to the idea that they might be wrong that makes them far more capable of adopting change. This trait also tends to make better listeners out of them.
7. Avoid going for the “perfect decision”: Courageous leaders understand that the trick to making the “right” decision is to make a decision quickly and then executing on it like crazy to make that the “right” decision. Nobody runs a control experiment side by side with the alternates. Get enough data and use gut rather than wait for all the data – is their usual motto.
8. Being “Right” versus being “Successful”: Faced with contentious situations, courageous leaders focus individuals and teams on what will make all of them “successful” rather than how they can be “right”. In today’s intelligence-based industries, where individuals are valued for their personal intelligence, it is often difficult for one to give up on what one believes is “right” for the greater good of being successful as a company.
9. Personal Ego: Courageous leaders focus on not aligning personal ego with a particular viewpoint. At the end of the debate, the leader thus, does not believe that he or she fell in grace by “losing” a point. This prevents him or her from arguing beyond a logical point (where making forward progress becomes more important than going more threadbare on the arguments). Conversely, they are careful to criticize viewpoints and not people.
10. Org charts: Finally, courageous leaders have scant respect for positions, roles, business cards and org charts. They realize that the right people – regardless of their position – need to be brought in to craft solutions. They understand that most problems cannot be solved by “re-drawing” boxes. So, they focus on getting teams across organizations to come together, get aligned on a common goal and give them the support and air cover to make mistakes to achieve those goals.

What have you learnt in your career as true courage in leadership?


5 January 2008

Exit Interviews

I had some interesting inputs from one of the earlier blogs about reference calls. Most of them – including people from HR department – seem to think that the standard process of checking references (asking the candidate for referees) is probably not very effective. Emboldened by that, I thought I would like to put forward one more question I had. This time it is around when an employee leaves. There is this thing called exit interview that happens. I myself had to give a couple in my life.

This has made even less sense to me than reference calls. For one thing, I doubt that an employee is very unbiased in giving opinions before leaving. Either he/she left under duress – in which case, all inputs are going to be overly negative. Or he/she found a great opportunity in which case, most likely, responses are going to be – by and large positive so as not to burn any bridges.

In any case, even if the opinions are on the mark, I would rather get inputs from people who have decided to duke it out in the company than somebody who has decided to part ways. There is nothing wrong in parting ways (you have to look after quite a few things in your life including your career, family etc) but seeking organizational inputs from such a person is less interesting to me.

There was an article I read about a month back in the Wall Street journal. I forgot the name of the company – or what they even called the process they had adopted. But the essence of the process was instead of interviewing candidates “why are you leaving?”, they regularly interview existing employees “why are you staying”. Jarring at first as a concept – it gets to the heart of what we as organizational leaders need to understand. What are the careabouts of an employee and where do stand on them?

I say jarring because I think it is easy for us to say why we are leaving (we have gone thru a thorough process in our minds and with our families before we made the decision – and also chose what will be the public explanation of the decision 🙂 ) but if somebody walked up and asked “why do you stay” – answering it would be interesting, to say the least. I am sure the usual ones “great work” “great team” will roll out of our tongues almost immediately. In reality, we do not regularly sit back and debate with ourselves “why do we stay”. Most of the days in my career, I stayed because I was too busy to even think about not staying. And it was comfortable not to keep questioning why am I doing what I am doing 🙂

But I think regular introspection lets us understand who we are and what really gets us going. Then we can really help ourselves and our managers and our organization to see how to create opportunities where we will be self-actualized. It forces us to realize that keeping ourselves motivated and challenged is more of our individual responsibility than the manager’s or the company’s.

In any case, anybody care to throw some light on what could be some upside of doing exit interview? As always, looking to learn from your experiences.


20 December 2007

80-20 rules. Intriguing thoughts

I am not going to bore you by explaining what the 80-20 rule is. Rather I was going to point out some intriguing implications of it which makes it somewhat not believable.

If you have an organization of 100 people, 20 of them are doing 80% of the work and the rest 80 are doing the rest of the work. If you do the math, on an average, any individual from the former group is 16X more productive than any individual (on an average) in the second group. (4X units done by an individual group compared to 1/4X units done by an individual in the second group).

16 times more productive???? That seems a little extreme to me. I can understand one or two individuals being very very productive compared to a couple of “bottomers” but 20 people each (on an average) being 16X more productive that 80 other people (on an average)? Sounds a little far fetched.

Carrying on with that example, let’s say you had 200 people in your organization. 40 of them are doing 80%of the work. Apply 80-20 on that 40 people (it is large enough a size). Now you have 8 people doing 64% of the work and the rest 192 doing 36% of the work. This makes your top 8 people – on an individual basis – 43X more productive than the average individual in the rest 192!! That seems even more far fetched to me.

And if you want to play with it a little more, apply 80-20 to the bottom 80% of your 200 people. Now you have 64% of your people doing only 4% of the work. So top 8 people in your 200 people organization is 256X more productive – on an individual basis – than the bottom two-thirds (64%) of your organization. Wow!! That is something.

I think the philosophy still remains the same – people contribute dissimilarly to a goal. And a larger portion of the work is done by a smaller portion of the people. But 80-20 may be extreme when it comes to people and what they produce in a team.

If you say the rule is 60-40, now you have your top players about 2.25X more productive than the rest.

And if I have my math correct, in the last two examples above, your top 16% is 2.95X more productive than the rest and the same group is about 3.375X more productive than the bottom one-third of your organization.

Honestly, intuitively, this seems to be more in line with what I have experienced. Being 4X more productive is a big number. You will do in weeks what the others are taking months to do.

So what is it? 80-20 or 60-40?


2 December 2007

Reference Calls

If you are like me, you probably get about three or four requests to take reference calls every month for somebody you know who is looking to switch jobs. Like me, you probably agree to take the call.
By and large, I have not been able to convince myself yet regarding the big value of the reference calls. A few observations before I get to that, though.
There are different kinds of reference calls that I have seen. Most of them are very perfunctory – either done by recruiting firms or sometimes personnel from the HR department. Usually, they want to ensure that you indeed worked during the time in the stated company as advertised in the resume. More over, this is also more of a “negative check”, I feel. In other words, they have made up their mind to go forward with the candidate – now they are checking if there are any “gotchas” that they should be aware of.
There are occasionally a few reference calls that I really enjoy. First, they ask some very thought provoking questions. One smart person once asked me “If you are so high on the person, how come you have not tried hiring her into your company”. I was impressed 🙂 And then there are some who at the end of the call push to find out more about me and ask if I am interested in looking. I get impressed by them to (not because of their instinct for talent 🙂 ) but by the fact they are always trying to sell their company.
A few questions I find uncomfortable answering are like “Would you think the person will be a good fit in the company” or (recent example) “Would you recommend this person for the position of a Program Manager”? These questions require far more knowledge on my part about the target company (and their definitions) to answer the question. On the last example, I remember asking the lady to explain what does the Program Manager role entail in the company and she struggled to explain that to me. Imagine my struggle to answer that question then.
In any case, if any of you are HR specialists, maybe you can help me understand one point. What do reference calls really achieve? Don’t the candidates anyways pre-select the calls by making sure only those people who give the best reference about them actually get to talk? Does that not give a very much skewed view, anyways?
The only value I see is in finding out what kind of person they have been able to agree to take a reference call on their behalf. If a candidate comes saying the CEO of a large company is one of his references, that probably tells something compared to somebody who puts up a co-worker at a low level as a reference. Beyond that, it beats me.
I would think, by now, with all the professional networking (LinkedIn, Xing etc) and personal networking (Facebook, Orkut etc), we should be able to quickly find out common contacts and make some discreet calls to get a better idea about the candidate.
Anybody has any insights?

24 November 2007

Partnership Myths – part 2

Partnership Myths – Part 2

6. Partners usually embark on a simplistic Go To Market: This is probably what I am most passionate about. Great business plans are almost never worth anything once the partnership has been announced. The go-to-markets vary from the banal “I will take you to my account and vice versa” to more lofty “we will integrate our products/services”. Simple integration usually does not lead to too many gains. Part of that comes from the fact that now you have two companies fighting for the same (or nearly the same) budget that the customer has. And inherently, each will try to maximize their share.

7. Making a partnership work takes a lot of hard work: If anything, this is the single most reason why partnerships do not pan out. It is not easy to keep so many divisions of two different companies in constant touch points and ensure are working [part of their time] on common goals. It takes a lot of commitment and trust from each partner. Setting up a Partners division usually does not do anything other than the fact that you at least have somebody who will try to follow up on action items and try to keep the “relationships” live. However, this organization usually has absolutely no authority to get anything executed thru the line managers. Successful partnerships have commitments right from the top who is willing to demonstrate it too.

8. Success from partnership requires patience: This goes with the previous point. My experience has been that C-level executives expect results – in terms of sales dollars – too quickly from partnerships. It takes a few years to get a coherent story to the market that customers find appealing. And this assumes all the backend from sales commission to product integration has been worked out. However, usually, executives start questioning or second guessing within 6 months of announcing a partnership.

9. Successful partnerships take very deep skins in the game: The only kind of “deep skin in the game” I know of is hard money. There are two cases where I have seen partnerships have the rare success. The first is where a company not only announces a partnership but at least one of them takes a stake in the other (sometimes both take stake in each other). This is commitment at the highest level. There is a tangible way of benefiting from each other’s success. In case of vertical partnerships (e.g. one is a software company and the other is a services company), it gives the much sought after “exclusivity”. The second model – which I have seen lesser number of successful cases – is when the sales organization is commissioned on selling the partner’s offerings. The reason it is less successful is pretty obvious – at the end of the day, a company will pay more to a sales person for bringing green dollars to the company.

10. Two and Two has to add to Five: Finally, a partnership, from a customer’s point of view is something interesting (and the whole partnership will eventually come unstuck if customers do not buy) if the sum of the two is truly more than the parts individually. Other than the marketing slides, the customer needs to be convinced that this truly solves their business problems more and at an advantageous rate. Most importantly, the two teams together can do a better job than if the customer has to buy them separately and put them together.

I do want to point out that there are partnerships in software world that have succeeded. I consider the Big-5 partnership with SAP as a big success. From what I saw, I think Accenture with Retek was a good success too. I am told IBM and Dassault had a very successful partnership too. But they are few and far between. If you or your company are thinking of getting into a partnership that is to bring in any meaningful money, think about it carefully and convince yourself that you are willing to put in the money and the effort. For the fun truly starts after the initial euphoria of PRs and handshakes are over…

11 November 2007

Partnership Myths – part 1

Most of my commentary here is based on my experience in the software sector. It perhaps can be extended to other sub-sectors in the IT world but probably not any further. However, in the software sector, I have seen the patterns repeat often enough to convince myself these are not accidents.

If you have ever led a software company or even worked in one, you definitely are aware of your Partner/Alliance organization. I have not come across too many companies where this department has been a very effective department. When I was a senior manager, most of the time, these were huge drains of time in attending meetings, making presentations and all that – and very rarely a lot of bottomline revenue to show for it.

Having said that, there are a handful of small companies I am told have made this succeed and I had the pleasure of setting of one very successful partnership myself (but that’s all 😉 )

Here are my Top 10 observations (in 2 parts):

1. Most partnerships are between “unequals” : The basic reason why software/service companies partner is to get access to each other’s customers or technology. Usually, the higher priority need is access to market. Therefore, the smaller partner is more interested in getting the partnership going. The bigger guy has little interest unless access to this technology opens up a large market for them. (which is rarely the case). When the bigger partner is a service company, they have even lesser interest to tie themselves to only one technology vendor. It is in their revenue interest to partner with any number of technology competitors – hoping they can win in either situation. More often than not, the smaller company keeps trying hard and eventually loses interest (not totally though – they need the big partner’s logo on their website J )

2. All partnerships start with a “feel good” factor: Regardless of past experience, all new partnerships start with a lot of expectations and self-deluding visions of conquering the world. For the larger company, the deal maker senses that a great line item has been added to the portfolio for the sales people to sell to everybody. The smaller company, of course is highly elated that finally the doors to the entire world has been opened up with them. While a few do work out that way (in a very restrictive model though), after a few of those “Steering Committee” meetings, reality starts setting in reasonably quickly.

3. In a large number of cases, partnerships start because of a personal relationship at a high level: Big or small, most of the partnerships are put together because somebody high up knew somebody high up in the other company. In general, business runs that way – through networking and personal relationships. In cases of partnerships, this is even more important since the trust and faith factor is taken care of from the word get go. In my experience, some of the more successful relationships have that one common thread. There is a deep personal relationship between the two persons who put it together in the first place.

4. There are enough second guessers on any partnerships: The above point has some unintended consequences. Since two partners often are brought together because of some existing relationships at high level and some truism behind Murphy’s law about “there are as many deeply rooted beliefs as there are possibilities”, there are always other people with different opinions on the partner. Unfortunately, partnerships take a unified line of execution across multiple divisions of a company – marketing has to support with marketing materials, sales has to support by educating sales/presales and pushing the partner, development has to work on integration etc. Unless this is driven right from the top, usually there is enough passive opposition that these get slowed down. Usually a few quick wins at account level helps speed things up

5. Most partnerships are opportunistic: At the end of the day, everybody wants a free ride. An ideal scenario for the companies is “I do not have to spend too much time on you but your sales will bring me to a lot of accounts”. And if that is not happening in the next 2-3 quarters, we need to think about it. I once worked for a reasonably large size company which was known to be a very opportunistic partner. This used to be held against the company. Contrary to what most people think, I do not see why this is a great problem. My view is business is business. Companies partner for a good reason – not because they feel good about each other. As long as there is no unethical or illegal behavior, I personally do not see any problem with partnerships bring put together driven by market opportunism

(to be continued)

21 October 2007

The Internal Customer

I am sure you have encountered the concept of the “internal customer” in your organizations (especially if you are in delivery organizations). This happens when one group or team in an organization believes that they essentially serve to another group/team internally which in its turn, exist to serve to another team and so on till the last team actually serves up the real customer.

This happens when Development thinks Product Management is their customer or when Product Management thinks Sales is the customer and so on. A few weeks back I overheard a variation of the same concept in a meeting “we will completely outsource this to you – let’s agree on the budget and SLAs”.

The theory is if each team performs to its best level in delivering to the next team and the chain continues in that fashion, the real customer will get the best performance.

In reality, this is a very simplistic view at best and delinquency to the real customer at worst. The fallacy of the thought process are many. To name a couple,

• This gives rise to “buffer bloat”. Each team, in its desire to meet the agreed upon SLAs and metrics, will build in its own “safety” buffer. (also known as sandbagging). By the time these buffers are compounded across the chain, it can be scary.
• This also loses the straight line of sight to success. Which means you will find situations where the customer and organizations closer to the customer are not meeting success critieria but other organizations (usually further away from the customer) meeting their numbers and declaring success.
The best culture to grow is recognition that there is only one customer. And that is the person who pays up the money.
Nobody else is the customer. Everbody else is part of a team that delivers to that one customer. To compare with a football (soccer) team, no one player passes the ball to the player ahead of team and declare his/her job is done. Everybody has a position to play – even when they do not have the ball. But they have only one common goal to meet – no interim internal goals.
To mix the metaphor a little, to compare with the American football team, everybody plays on the same game plan. No doubt there is going to be one quarterback (I like to think of that as the sales organization). But there are running backs, tight ends, punters, wide receivers each playing their own position in tandem with each other to meet exactly one goal. But nobody in the team is trying to “satisfy” some other player in the team. Nobody is measured on any other term than the one score that everybody else is measured on.
In summary, dissuade people from thinking they serve some internal teams.
Establish a clear line of sight for each team to the one real customer – one goal.
Align metrics such that no one of the teams can be successful if they whole chain is not successful.
Would like to hear about your experiences…