Values – Putting Them Into Practice

Culture in organizations has been a favorite topic of mine for many years.  The recent discussions of harassment in Uber and Thinkx or the management style of the Trump Organization are all rooted in the underlying culture of these organizations. Most organizations have a vision, mission and even set of values identified – and even displayed in public place. Yet, like many of our own new year resolutions, shall we say, there’s often a gap between what’s stated and intended and the reality employees, customers, and partners experience. So how you build the culture you seek in your organization through a set of values.

Dan Rockwell (aka Leadership Freak) whom I’ve followed religiously for several years now, shows a simple yet effective way to put your values into practice. Such a practice will help you build the culture you seek. Here’s the bulletized version of Dan’s method (I’d call it the 3As) that he discusses in the video below.

  • Articulate your value
  • Act on that value – such as in a specific behavior
  • Applaud the behavior – recognize and highlight when people act on it

5 Leadership Lessons from Teaching

classroom

Photo:asterixtom

“Help!”

Well, my email subject line actually read “Looking for advice/help.”

I’d just found out that I’ll be teaching a course on International Marketing (yay!) this coming semester. Once my initial euphoria died, I realized teaching a semester-long (14 weeks) course to a class of 21-year-olds was not something to be taken lightly. Hence the call for help to buddies of mine, who’s been molding young minds for more than two decades. The advice I got ranged from, “Oh, you’ll do great!” (fat lot of good that did) to a 90-minute primer on what teaching a course meant. As always I took profuse notes as my friends waxed.

When I went through my notes, one thing struck me – how much teaching a class well, required some of the same skills that any good leader (or startup founder) would need. So if I replaced the words “teaching” with “leadership” the advice was just as useful.

Here’s a quick summary of them.

Discover your leadership philosophy It’s important to understand and more importantly articulate both to yourself and your teams, what your leadership philosophy is. This isn’t as much what is right – Servant leadership or Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun – as much as knowing what works for you best and sharing it. If nothing else, answer for yourself, why are you a leader and how you plan to go about accomplishing this?

Understand your personal style Even leaders who share a common philosophy of leadership can have widely varying personal styles. My own personal style, regardless of the role I play in a team, is one of action – despite my oft-stated intent otherwise. I have seen folks who have a directive even aggressive style be just as successful as those who tend to ask questions and nudge. Recognizing your personal style and how it fits in with your leadership philosophy is important to help your team and yourself succeed.

State your expectations It’s important to articulate what you as a leader expect from your team. Whether what needs to get done, or how it needs to get done, stating this will save everyone a lot of grief. The more explicit and specific you are in articulating your expectations, the more likely they will be met. This is especially important when you take over as the leader of a new project, team or company.

Build on your strengths & share your experience As Peter Drucker put it “Make strength productive.” Building on your own strengths and sharing your past experience would help you be more successful and will give your team a sense of where you’ve been and lend credibility to your inputs. You need to balance sharing your experience against a tiresome telling of war stories.

Recognize people are different A team, whether it’s one you inherit or build, will likely consist of people who are widely different, in aspirations, attitudes, capabilities and working styles. If you have a large enough team, you’ll see something that approaches a Gaussian distribution – even in small teams, especially ones that you inherit, you will see a spectrum of personalities. Recognize this and keep the old adage Different Strokes for Different Folks in mind. You are less likely stumble and get frustrated.

I’d love to hear what your own experience has been both as a teacher and a leader.

Entrepreneurs & Mental Health

This last week, Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group in Boulder, Colorado – shared a video (below) he’s made for an upcoming event about Entrepreneurship & Mental Health. Brad as an entrepreneur who went on to become a VC belongs to the small group of VCs (including Fred Wilson, Mark Suster) who are both prolific and compelling writers – demystifying the venture world, entrepreneurship and often taking a very pro-entrepreneur stand. I’d thought of Brad alway as different given his location in the Rockies (Colorado) rather than either of the coasts (Silicon Valley, Boston or New York) where most of the well-known VCs are based.

Brad’s open discussion of mental health issues, including his own depression, that he’s written about (here) and spoken about (here) makes him a very special person. In India, we’ve seen folks such as Indian actress Deepika Padukone recently talk about her battle with depression (video) and young entrepreneurs such as Richa Singh, who founded YourDost, and Shipra Dawar who started ePsyClinic try to help young people address mental health issues. Last October at the demo day of the Brandery, I saw Jordan Axani present his startup Bounde, which is “Tackling mental health through technology.”

In India, as many folks have commented two big challenges lie in the way of people getting the mental health support they need

  • Social stigma – both ignorance and the stigma (or fear of being branded) mentally unstable
  • Access to good counselors/psychologists and psychiatrists

In the US while neither of these issues is fortunately as big a hurdle, as Brad points out in his video – entrepreneurs in the US (and in India) suffer from the social pressure (real or perceived) of having to be strong leaders, without too much any self-doubt or exhibiting weakness. Also in both countries, certainly in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, there is little or no talk of mental health issues – which is a big shame. With folks such as Brad talking about it openly and with young entrepreneurs who’ve faced mental health issues themselves or seen in around them, we’ve taken the first step.

Entrepreneurship is hard enough without physical, emotional or mental health issues. But addressing these is critical for both individual entrepreneurs and the ecosystem. And talking about it is the first step. So break the silence and talk about it. Doing so gives others both permission and encouragement to do so. What are you waiting for?

Get your hands dirty and other lessons from a friend

You might want to keep your hands in your pockets.

I think I’ve always gesticulated with my hands and I never realized it but I also am a toucher. I touch people when I talk to them. I’d been in grad school for about two months and met Marcel, a fellow grad student in the same department, but working for a different professor. I can’t recall how we struck up a friendship, we couldn’t have been more different. Marcel was this serious Dutch guy with a Masters studying computational Material Science. I had been voted – most likely to be hurt in a political dustup and not graduate – while at BHU.

A couple of months after we’d  become friends, Marcel took me aside and told me, “ Western men don’t usually like to be touched by other men!” I didn’t realize that I had been not just waving my hands but clasping hands or otherwise touching the guys I was talking to. Coming from India, where it’s common to see two guys holding hands or hands across each other’s shoulders, the concept of personal space, was a little alien to me.  I think I was aghast, when Marcel recommended using my pockets to hold my hands. Well that was only the first of many lessons I was to learn from Marcel over the four years we were in grad school together.

Walk in the wilderness Marcel introduced me to hiking. In fact once we even took my unsuspecting mom on a gruelling 5 mile hike in Briones National Park in Northern California. I’ll never forget the day, he let a lizard that was sunning itself on a trail, crawl on to his hand to admire it. We spent days camping in the rain on Pt. Reyes National Park. Having lived all my life in cities and having grown up in India, I’d lost the connect to nature and land – that I saw my grandparents have in rural India and Marcel helped me rediscover in America. Both of our research work, meant hours cooped up in a basement, often in a dark room with a microscope or photo chemicals in my case or in an attic warren for him. So getting out there in nature, spending time walking or even just lying in a tent in pouring rain, taught me to both take a break and reconnect with nature as well as return invigorated to the work at hand. Through out my subsequent startups, most of my 1:1s I’ve had walking in a park in Bangalore and in an open school playground. Stay connected to nature, appreciate and engage with the outdoors is a lesson that I’ve learned from Marcel.

Don’t let little or big things stop you Many months after I met Marcel is when I learned that he did not hear so good in one of his ears. Of course that explained why he prefered to always walk one side when we hiked or otherwise did things together. This ear went from bad to worse till he had to have surgery many years later to try to fix his hearing in addition to using electronic aids. Yet many of our most fun times together was when he played the piano, which he did a great job of – whether for Christmas carolling or at a dinner party. Conferences meant giving talks, attending more and networking. From Marcel’s music or enjoyment of the piano, you could never tell that he was hampered in any way – so he did not let little or in this instance big things around his hearing from doing the things he loved or being able to do his professional roles. So on days when I’m throwing a snit for not getting the right sort of pencil or getting good copy writers I have to remind myself of what I learned – don’t let the little or big things stop me from doing what needed to or wanted to get done.

Get your hands dirty For a guy who’s research involving electronically computing phase diagrams from first principles, Marcel could fix cars like a mechanic. He bought a fixer-upper in Richmond-Berkeley border and really fixed it up – doing carpentry, plumbing and a great deal of gardening. And he could cook up a pretty good storm. Before meeting him, I’d have had a hard time fixing anything beyond checking if the darn thing was plugged in. By no means am I any good at plumbing, electrical work, dry walling or any of the other manly contractor jobs – but I’ve gotten to be darn good cook (even if I say so myself), a semi-decent do it yourself (DIY-er) and odd jobs guy. More importantly I got to appreciate the value of being able to do such work and the people who are good at it. Many years later in my first startup this lesson got reinforced, when we build several teams of sharp kids, but few of whom had actually gotten their hands dirty, building stuff. Marcel was a maker before the Maker movement. I’d like to think i get my hands more dirty these days, and the credit for that goes to Marcel.

Thank you Marcel, for being such a wonderful friend. I don’t think I’d have completed Engineering Mathematics or graduated but for your help and for all the life lessons you’ve taught me. I’m grateful to have you in my life.


This is the sixth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

The Secret to Preventing Email Wars at Your Startup

ConflictWhether a startup or a large corporation, email has become just a fact of our work lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so. Email useful as it is, however seems to create as many problems as it addresses. Beyond the chain letters and phishing emails or spam, flame wars conducted over email is probably the biggest cause of productivity loss, in both large and small companies.

Most back-and-forth email stinkers or flame wars are preventable and many times seem downright silly or petty. Yet they seem to pop up all over the place with near-despairing regularity. Flame wars, particularly between colleagues, is a huge emotional sink, sapping productivity and motivation. This is even truer when the parties involved are in the same office. It is to overcome these that we’ve formulated a simple rule – yep 1 single rule to prevent email flame wars.

The No 3rd email rule Simply put this rule states, if one person has sent an email (#1) and a second person has responded (#2) and it’s clear that they are not agreeing, or not happy – there should be no 3rd email sent. Instead the two parties should talk in person (sometimes this only requires swivelling in one’s chair) or pick up the phone, if not in the same office.

Think about it – most email flaming starts due to one of two reasons:

  • public questioning, accusation or challenge (real or perceived) by usually the sender
  • outright misunderstanding by one party (usually the reader)

In the former case, the recipient responds either defensively, or attacks the sender, as they perceive themselves or their work being undermined or attacked. This may or may not have been the intent of the sender. In the latter, regardless of the sender’s intent, the recipient misunderstands either what is being said or why it is being said (or at times to whom it is being said or copied to) and leads to misunderstanding and grief.

Regardless of who started it, their intent and what was being actually said, the No 3rd email rule works excellently by stopping the electronic conversation, which would at this stage usually deteriorate into accusations, counter accusations and fingerpointing. The beauty of this rule is it is independent of who wields the organizational power between the sender and the recipient and nips the blooming potential conflict in the proverbial bud.

Like all good rules, it’s simple to state and understand, a little bit harder to practice. We are still working on it. What are you waiting for?

What do you do with THAT employee?

“He’s my best sales guy. He makes his numbers quarter after quarter! But everyone dreads it when he comes into the office.” My friend was on the verge of tears – it was clear that he was going to have to do something about his sales guy, if he didn’t want others to quit. But he was worried about his star salesman would react and he was not looking forward to it.

We’ve all faced this issue of what to do with that employee – the trustworthy finance guy, who upsets your team members often over trivial amounts; the brilliant technologist who cheeses everybody off with his superior attitude, or the HR manager, who despite the many years she’s been with you, who’s not pulling her weight any more. The timing is rarely right to confront them and the longer you put it off the worse it’s likely to get. We also worry about how we got here and how best to handle it so we retain them without too high an emotional cost. If you are like me, then you put it off for a better time, which rarely comes.

Hiring people is always one of the top 3 problems I hear managers or founders talk about. Implicit in this of course is that matter of hiring the right people. Yet, even after we’ve hired the right people, as neither organizations nor the people stay constant, we run into all kinds of issues. Gil Amelio, who was an inspiring leader (and CEO) at my first employer National Semiconductor, taught me a very simple framework to both talk about this and to aid action.

Effective v Attitude Matrix

Attitude and Effectiveness Successful organisations look at not just at proven capabilities and experience that would make a prospective employee effective, but also their attitude and fit with your organisational culture. He used the familiar four quadrant framework, with effectiveness along the y-axis and attitude (or cultural fit) along the x-axis as shown in the figure below.

Quadrant 1 – Neither the right attitude nor effective  These are the easiest folks to deal with – they are basically hiring mistakes you’ve made. Ideally you’d not have anyone in this quadrant or if you do, you’d fix your hiring process to minimize recurrence.  Lou Adler, author and CEO of the Adler group in his recent article titled “There Are Only Four Types of People — Are You Hiring The Right Ones?” terms these folks Type 1: Those you should never hire!

Quadrant 2 – Have the right attitude but are not effective Usually this is a sign that these folks are in the wrong job. They may have been effective, even in the same job, but no longer are, because the jobs requirements have evolved or they haven’t. Or you’ve placed them in the wrong role. The ineffective sales guy may bloom in a business development role or inside sales job. The trick is to find them a role that they can be effective in. If your organisation is big enough, you may have one or more such roles – sometimes the right role may not be within your department or even company, in which case its best to help them find the right role, whether inside or outside your company.

Quadrant 3 – Have the right attitude and are effective These are your stars – the people who perform consistently and lead from the front. The trick with these folks is to ensure that they are constantly learning and growing. Folks in Quandrant 3 can fall into Quandrant 2, when your company and your needs grow fast and they don’t grow as fast. These are the folks you want to be hiring and your company and its processes should be geared to finding, attracting, retaining and growing Quadrant 3 folks.

Quadrant 4 – Don’t have the right attitude but are effective This is the hardest group to deal with. The obnoxious sales person my friend had to deal with, the supercilious technologist or rude finance guy we met all fall into this quadrant. Two things make it difficult to effect change with these folks –

  • they are deemed successful and have been rewarded in the past, despite their interpersonal shortcomings.
  • They are often positions deemed critical, that make change not just unpalatable but downright scary. “What’ll happen to my sales, if this guy leaves?” or “Will I find another trusthworthy finance guy?”

Organizations suffer the most, because most of us don’t know how best to handle Quadrant 4 folks. The first step is to recognize not only the existence of these four quadrants but that people can move within the quadrants. This is most commonly seen from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 3 (more effective) through skilling and occasionally to Quadrant 2 from Quadrant 3 (less effective) when the job needs grow and person doesn’t.

Effective v Attitude Matrix

I’ve found talking about the four quadrants and even mutually agreeing with your team members where they see themselves and where their peers or you see them helps immensely. This way when it is time to have the hard conversation, you both have a framework and vocabulary that can help keep the conversation professional. In my experience, almost always folks in the Quadrant 4 will have to be let go. We’ve had the occasional technical person build out their interpersonal skills and make the move from Quadrant 4 to Quadrant 3.

Let me know how this works for you.

3 Steps to Resolving Team Conflicts

Conflict“It’s like we’ve done absolutely nothing these last five years. Everything we’re doing is wrong.” My friend was really upset. His company had just brought on board a new VP of Business Development and looked like the man was not exactly winning minds and hearts.

“Worse yet, he has the right answer for everything. I’m just sick of the guy – I don’t think I can work with him!” It took a while for my friend to calm down and when he did, I realized that he actually agreed with many of the new VP’s observations. In fact he’d been saying some of the very same things, albeit a whole lot more diplomatically and in smaller groups. Why then, was my friend not happy that he had an ally, a senior one at that, to set right the things that he himself thought needed to be fixed?

Team conflicts usually originate when something is said or done. And often, it’s not about what is said, but how it is said. Depending on the level of trust or lack thereof, this gives rise to questions about why it is being said – in other words, motive or intentThe secret to resolving team conflict is to both understand the what, how and why.

Content (the what) As most of our work is done with others, as team mates or in meetings, the ability to communicate clearly with one another is important. What is communicated need not always be agreeable or even acceptable at times. Some of us (or many times our bosses or god forbid, our spouses) go out of our way to avoid disagreements. That’s not a good thing, as healthy disagreements and alternate points of view result in better decision making. So if you don’t like what some one is saying, first examine whether you are disagreeing with the content of their statements. If you are, then a discussion (dare I say argument) or reflection can ensue. If however, as with my friend above, you don’t disagree with what’s being said then it’s time to look at style. 

Style (the how) We’ve all encountered folks who appear to have no filter between their brain and their mouths. So they blurt out things, at times hurtful, make sweeping generalizations and often label – “I can’t believe how lazy he is – why do you let him get away with it?” A lucky few, may be unaware they do this and may require only pointing out to change their communication styles. Other’s may range from a defensive “You know me, I’m blunt!” to combative “That’s they way I’m” all the way to outright denial, “I don’t do that!” What all these folks don’t realize is that the message is lost, because of the their delivery style.  It is critical to address this. People who won’t modify their communication style will not be effective and may be perceived to have an ulterior motive.

Intent (they why) All of us find it hard to hear less-than-pleasant things, especially about ourselves. This could range from the simply social “You have bad breath” to a more career limiting “You never let the other person complete their thought!” When such feedback comes from someone you trust and whose motivations or intent you don’t question, then you are willing to hear what’s said, even if unpleasant.  On the other hand, when the person is either new to us or we encounter a style that’s jarring and not amenable to change, then we question their intent. Why are they doing this – are they being political? Are they actually saying or meaning something else? At this point effective communication has ceased and you have yourself a team conflict.

Successful leaders and teams learn to separate Intent, Style & Content. Once intent is clear and non-negotiable, style issues can be addressed. Then real progress in terms of discussing contentious issues with the necessary focus on content (or what’s being said) can be made.

Addressing style issues will enhancing your team’s effectiveness and not doing so will cause much mayhem as intent is questioned leading to further conflicts. 

3 Steps to Create a Culture of Innovation

InnovationYesterday I was part of a panel discussion on innovation and entrepreneurship at the opening of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Center (IEDC) at the Dayanand Sagar College of Engineering. One of the first questions the moderator posed was “How does one create a culture of innovation and what role does leadership play?

To me this is not that different from the question, How does one create a culture of ______ (fill in the blank) – for instance courtesy and consideration. You start by being polite – kind and courteous. Similarly creating a culture of innovation within our companies, divisions or teams is to start by being innovative. What does that mean?

To me it means three things

a] INSPIRE Talk about, share and celebrate innovation – set aside time, whether a Friday lunch or before your weekly team meeting to show what you mean by innovation. Bring in a mechanical water sprinkler and share with your team why you think it is innovative or better yet ask them what is innovative about it. A clasp on someone’s chain, a pain-free blood sugar measurement tool – in other words – “the ordinary” and the extraordinary that’s around us every day. Allows you to discuss and develop a shared sense of what is innovation and over the common misconception that only a cure for cancer can be innovation. Over time this can be things that your own team or company are innovated, but don’t wait for it to be done in-house

b] MEASURE Put in a process, where the team can spend time focusing on problems – which allow scope for innovation – could be in technology, internal processes or methods or any other function within your business. Intuit for instance created a process for employees to share ideas and seek inputs which has eventually become a product they now offer their customers. And most importantly put in measures — only that which gets measured will get done. So when you talk about it, ask about it, measure it, everyone begins to pay attention to it and that’s how a culture of caring about innovation gets slowly built up.

c] REWARD & RECOGNIZE Nothing works like recognizing the work people are doing and rewarding innovative behavior. A critical element here is not to celebrate success alone or what is commonly perceived as success – ie a new product that launches or a new idea that’s implemented, but to recognize and reward risk taking. Unless we create a culture within our companies of tolerating mistakes and viewing them as a way to learn and do better, it will be very hard to create a culture of innovation. As Gordon Moore, founder of Intel put it “I view this year’s failure as next year’s opportunity to try it again. Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can so you can make progress rapidly.”

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Culture, people & other imponderables

Don’t worry that your kids don’t always listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.
— Robert Fulghum

taste [choices]Startups & founders have enough to worry about without adding culture to the mix. Or so it would seem. As Fulghum points out in his own inimitable style, culture is what is being built as you worry about execution, hiring or product market fit.

What most of us don’t realize is that we are actively, even if blindly building culture in our companies every waking moment. The trouble is when we do this without being mindful or engaged, we usually end up building a culture that we are surprised about as it invariably bites us in the rear.

Starting from the moment you step into the office, people see if you greet the security guard, whether you get your own cup of tea or put it away when done. Whether you text in meetings or worse yet when you answer the phone during a 1:1 meeting. Even if you answered yes, yes, yes and no & no, they see what you do or say when a senior team member flames another, or a team member screams at a vendor. When you are quiet about a white lie to a customer or don’t question why a payment is being withheld, you are communicating loudly and shaping culture – though not necessarily the way you want.

So culture in a startup is not an option – but what sort of culture you want is a choice you can make.

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Discretion – a skill founders and CEOs need in spades

As parent of two teens, I’d like to claim that my wife and I never argue in front of them. I’d of course be lying. That being said everyone with children knows, that even if their kid can’t rattle off the 5 times table, they can recall every last word you said in your last spousal encounter, down to the tone of voice. And if you are [un]lucky, it will be saved for posterity in their biography.

Now as an entrepreneur, founder or CEO why should this story be relevant to you? Basically, this is a lesson on discretion – or the lack thereof – and how it can come and bite you in the rear!

As an entrepreneur, founder and especially as a CEO, you are going to having some rough times out there – being plagued by self-doubts, or worse yet certainty that you are screwing up. You will also wonder why you are doing what you are doing (or not) and is this whole thing a mistake? You wouldn’t be the first one to have had these thoughts nor are they likely to occur only once.  The question is what should you do when you are thus assailed?

What you should NOT do is share it with your partners – immediately or without reflection. Usually it’s best shared with someone outside your founding team – a friend, an advisor and if you are lucky, with a spouse. This last can be tricky and deserves a whole another blog post.

I have worked in and with multiple startups and started two of my own, where the founders were friends, sometimes having known each other for many years and other times, been colleagues who’d worked with each other. Almost in all cases the co-founders had been friends before becoming business partners.

And in almost everyone of these instances, when one or more founders have been plagued by self doubts, voicing it without forethought to other founders or senior staff has caused immense grief. Not unlike arguing in front of the kids (or other 3rd parties) who have no context on my wife and our deep abiding love or other ongoing issues 🙂

In every case, talking about it with a non-stakeholder first would have done away with much thrashing and grief that otherwise ensued. Talking it out with a third party always worked better – in terms of achieving distance which helped in gaining clarity and perspective before looking for answers.

Many a times, our self doubts maybe no more than a fleeting moment of vulnerability – or the result of a bad day or week, a setback. We may bounce right back. At other times, they may be grounded in facts – in that we are operating at the limits of our ability or capabilities, personal life (or the lack of one) may be intruding into our professional lives or we may be avoiding a critical set of actions/decisions at work to avoid unpleasantness.

And if there are real issues at play that need to be brought up to your partners, it should not be done in a flippant comment or regrettable aside that can be misconstrued or worse. It can be presented with some distance and perspective that you’d have gained in discussing it with a non-stakeholder first. This alone is a good reason to seek out a mentor or advisor, but almost any friend, who’s not involved in your business and has no axe to grind will do.

So the next time you think of making a casual remark to the other founders, especially those who are your friends, bite your tongue. You are a parent – or at least need to behave as a responsible one – if you want to keep the job!