I have always been curious about leadership and what makes for good leader. Leadership as with most other things is easy to talk or read about but harder to demonstrate in action. The events of this last week, since the murder of George Floyd, have enabled me to see some good leaders in action. Most notably, President Aoun of Northeastern University, who not only addressed the issue directly but declared a day of reflection in response to the injustice toward black people.
“We will join together in unity with those all around the world who are grieving and angry over persistent injustice toward African American citizens,”
Of course, as a privileged brown man, the response of the local community to #blacklivesmatter brought to fore the question of my own responsibility to address both anti-blackness within the Indian-American community or caste oppression in India.
Meeting author, Dalit scholar and amazing human Suraj Yengde, who posed the question whether we will [ever] see upper caste / Brahmins come out in support of Dalit struggles the way we’ve seen white people show up for black lives. Talking about caste or discrimination even within families (mine or any other desi) is a challenge; I know I’ve failed miserably many times in WhatsApp groups of even my peers. Yet what we as privileged folks face is mere irritation, relative to the every day mayhem Dalits face (beatings, murder, rape).
Suraj’s own sustained campaign for Dalit liberation in the face of sustained abuse in the social media sphere and his outreach across caste lines which at times draws fire from fellow Dalits is yet another lived experience of leadership in action.
So where do I start and what can we do? As Jane Elliot says in the video below, we can start with education.
I’d urge you, dear reader, to start with these two resources:
For those who have read this far, take a look at this video of anti-racism activist and teacher Jane Elliot. If we were to replace white people with upper-caste, and race with caste wouldn’t it be just as true?
Both in startups and large companies—heck in any company—culture is critical to success. This is something that I’ve been waxing about for close to 20 years now. And the criticality of storytelling in businesses is another favorite and recurring topic in this blog. So I was tickled this morning, to come across an interview of Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge (and formerly of Eloqua) being quoted saying
culture eats strategy for breakfast, and business culture can be built through storytelling.
What was particularly gratifying about this was his assertion was made in the context of marketing and sales. Sales folks have always understood that relationships are critical to their success. However their challenge has been to quickly identify and nurture the most promising ones, as they balance their need to deliver on results on finite timelines with the lead times of building meaningful relationships. Good marketers recognize that their job is to help sales shorten their selling cycles, by getting qualified leads to them consistently. Storytelling is a powerful to achieve this and a culture that promotes such consistent storytelling to customers and serving sales’ needs will always will the long game.
I’ve been reading Getting to Plan B, by John Mullins and Randy Komisar. In it they discuss how one entrepreneur, while at Stanford B-school was inspired by meeting Carlos Ghosn, Chairman of Nissan and Renault, one of the world’s largest automotive companies.
Ghosn, who’s been featured in numerous case studies in business schools across the world and extensively quoted in business media, has unfortunately been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Ghosn was arrested in Japan nearly two months ago for alleged financial misconduct. He’s “accused” of under-reporting his salary for several years. Ghosn says he’s wrongly accused and wrongfully detained. It’s entirely possible that Ghosn is indeed innocent though he might be detained for several more months given how the Japanese justice system works.
“The 64-year-old executive is accused of moving personal investment losses worth 1.85bn yen (£13.3m; $17m) racked up on foreign exchange dealings to Nissan. Mr Ghosn says he did ask the company to take on collateral temporarily for his foreign exchange contracts, but that it did not lose any money through this move. He said if he had not been able to do this, he would have had to resign and use his retirement allowance as collateral instead.”
Media stories abound of misdeeds of corporate leaders such as Vijay Mallya, Chairman of the United Breweries Group, India, who is fighting extradition from the UK for nearly two years. Hardly inspiring for a man who billed himself as “The King of Good Times.” It didn’t help that his name featured in the Panama Papers.
Of course these much like the Enron scandal earlier or Bernie Madoff are only examples of lack of integrity at the highest level of organizations. As was apparent in those cases nothing good can come of such a lack of integrity – unfortunately it is others such as the employees of Enron and customers of Madoff who paid a much larger price in terms of their lost retirement funds and pensions.
“The spirit of an organization is created from the top.”
Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices
As individual job seekers or entrepreneurs, it is important to “evaluate the character of the CEO and top management” be it of the company we seek to join or intend to do business with.
While we may always not be able to determine how a CEO or a Chairman is, each of us can start with the people you interact with. Your immediate managers, your suppliers. Sometimes this shows up in the simplest of ways.
Last week, a young graduate interviewing for a job spoke to me after her interview. She liked the company and the role she was interviewing for. Yet, I sensed she was hesitant. I asked what made her uncomfortable. She said it was the fact that every single person that she spoke with, about their reason for being there, responded that it was “for the money.” Her fear was if money is the primary reason they were there, what would they be prepared to do or not do.
Align yourself with people who have integrity
Ever since I read Drucker’s “The Effective Executive” I’ve been partial to his writings. While there are a few things I find myself occasionally disagreeing, I’ve found few writers with greater clarity on the matter of business and leadership. I’ve begun to re-read The Daily Drucker and once a week plan to blog on a topic from the book. It is a good way to share what I’m learning and reinforce those learnings.
The article asserts “The reason for this high churn rate is that young professionals come to startups for all the wrong reasons.” While understanding why startups, particularly in India, are having this employee turnover problem is important, it’ll have to wait for another post. What should startups do to retain the employees they already have?
As Lao-Tzu (or was it Confucius?) put it “When the student is ready, the master will come,” my daughter shared this video by Amy Cole, CEO of Amy Cole Connect, on 4 Tips to Retain Your Talent. For those of you who are too busy (really!) to watch the 2.5 minute video, here’s the TL;DR version
Excitement – are you exciting your team members from the day they come on board? Many simple things can make the job and your company exciting – do it!
Engagement – how are you engaging your team – making their job meaningful and laying context rather than assuming they’ll stay motivated and engaged
Encouragement – are you explicitly encouraging them – from paying attention to active inputs, are you helping them grow and not taking them for granted
Empowerment – do you trust and provide them flexibility, as long as the work get done? Are you all about control and not empowering them?
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
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.
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 muchany 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?
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 |
Whether 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?
“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.
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.
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.
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.