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

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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Put Employees First to Win More Customers

Hal F. Rosenbluth

Hal F. Rosenbluth (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

Waiters at French restaurants— maybe only at upscale French restaurants in the US—have a legendary reputation as unfriendly and at times downright disdainful. Of course, waiters across the social spectrum in India could easily teach their French cousins a thing or two about treating customers shoddily. And these are folks in the service business, where how you treat the customer is supposed to affect your business directly. Yet each of us can easily recount horror tales of poor customer service—be it with airlines, banks, call centres, retail outlets or telecom services—in practically every sphere of our personal lives. To be fair, customer service in India has come a long way since the early days of liberalization. The sheer choice of suppliers and healthy competition in the marketplace has done wonders to improve the manners of most frontline employees of service providers.

However, old habits die hard. A recent popular advertisement for a mobile service provider features a cantankerous old man who is bent upon ignoring, irritating or ill-treating his customers. And, as the Indian economy slows, the impact on businesses shows up first in the fraying edges of their customer interface. India is by no means alone in the decline. From the time of the Roman markets to the gleaming retail outlets of a resurgent Asia and gloomy malls of North America, customer service—good, consistent, delightful—has been a challenge.

Growing up in Chennai, I recall that nearly any retail store I went to had a small sign with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.” As with many other signs that dot the Indian landscape, such as No Entry—One Way Street or Do Not Spit or Cause Nuisance, Gandhi’s exhortation is “more honour’d in the breach than the observance”.

The service mindset has to begin at home. Indians, much like the Chinese and Japanese, like to pride themselves on being respectful to their elders. However, from our daytime soaps on TV to our overcrowded roads, thoughtlessness and rudeness, particularly towards elders, seems the rule. This behaviour just as easily spills into our malls and stores. If you’ve ever seen a parent admonish or worse yet slap their child at the supermarket, doesn’t it make you wonder how much worse they’d treat that child at home? Similarly, when you receive poor service from any professional service provider, you wonder—if this is how they treat their customers, how badly must they treat their employees?

Again, we needn’t wonder too long. Managers, at supermarkets certainly or even banks, don’t hesitate to dress down their employees right in front of the public. Many large Indian businesses, even when publicly listed, are often run as though they are proprietary firms where employee empowerment is largely absent. Multinational firms have succumbed to an Indian version of the Borgia families where politics and intrigue take much more of a manager’s time than advancing the business cause. However, as with every challenge that we face in India—and they are not only innumerable but often large—this itself presents an opportunity. An opportunity to provide exceptional service—to delight customers, differentiate a business and thereby thrive even in these difficult times.

The secret to achieve such exceptional service forms the very core of Hal Rosenbluth’s The Customer Comes Second. Co-authored with Diane McFerrin Peters, who works with Rosenbluth’s eponymous travel firm. His formula for creating an organization that provides exceptional service is to put your employees first and your customers second. Before we dismiss this as simplistic, it’s worth noting that Rosenbluth Travel has clocked more than $6 billion in annual revenue and has better than 98% customer retention. So clearly they must be doing something right. For the hard-nosed, what-can-I-actionize reader, the book offers specific tips and tools starting from finding the right people and training them all the way to using technology. Any book that talks unabashedly about culture and happiness in the workplace as this one does is a keeper and you should steal it from your nearest library.

This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint.

 

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Getting rid of our Sir-ji culture

Kids salutin

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via cc

“Saif sir and Shah Rukh sir, I appreciate your question…”

I had turned on the television soon after getting home from work in the hope of wiping out a rough day. The FilmFare awards — Bollywood’s tribute to its own – were on. The speaker was Neil Nitin Mukesh, an up and coming heartthrob in Tinseltown. He was addressing superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the comperes for the awards ceremony.

The two Khans, in an attempt to inject humor into the proceedings, were posing questions to other actors in the audience. Those questioned, in turn, were expected to respond with creative insults, tongue-in-cheek, to the two Khans — all in good humor.

Shah Rukh is in his mid-forties and Saif, I suspect, just turned 40. Wikipedia tells me Neil Nitin Mukesh is 28. When I heard Neil speak, it made me stop and wonder why a grown man was addressing the two Khans as “Sir.”

My first thought was that it was the sheer inadequacy of the English language. In Spanish there is usted — a respectful form of you. And of course nearly every Indian language has the Hindi equivalent of aap — a pronoun reserved to demonstrate respect to someone senior, elderly or even, at times, a respected colleague. The use of these forms, from Bhojpur to Chettinad, is rarely about status or inequality but largely about courtesy and culture.

But there remained a niggling feeling: What if this is not a linguistic shortcoming but something deeper?

I shared my theory the next morning with my two business partners, who were actually working instead of wondering about Bollywood’s sociological makeup. I felt that the movie industry was far too hierarchical. Even Shah Rukh, at the same event, referred to Mani-sir (Mani Ratnam, the award-winning director). And, I asserted, this was emblematic of Indian society at large: far too much groveling and far too little respect.

To their credit, my partners argued in reasoned tones that it was language rather than any feudal attitudes or the need for social debasement that lead to the use of the word “Sir” when addressing an industry peer. They went on to propound their own theory — by which time you can be sure all pretense of work was done away with — that this is likely an urban phenomenon.

Did not most Tamil folks in Chennai use “Sir,” abandoning the more archaic (and potentially feudal) “ayya,” they argued. The Tamil movie industry, too, is rife with Rajni-sir and Kamal-sir, though I wasn’t sure if that bolstered their case or not. By that point anyway they had returned to doing real work.

What is my gripe with “Sir,” you ask? Yes, it is perfectly serviceable for class 8 students to use it when addressing their English or even their Hindi teacher. Possibly it works for the maitre d’ at a fancy Euro restaurant since his snooty attitude does away with any illusion of who’s the master.

Any other time, there’s far too much of the servile tone of a colonial job applicant imbued into “Sir,” which 60-odd years of Babudom have only cemented further.

Spend an afternoon sitting in a bank manager’s office, on a manufacturing shop floor or in a police or income tax commissioner’s office and you are likely to encounter “Sir” enunciated in every imaginable accent. If you have been in a hospital, you can’t but help see the doctors get their share of “Sir,” many a times as “Dr.-Sir.” Even within the information technology industry — despite its global exposure and purported performance-based culture -– deference, at times even subservience, follows the “Sir.”

I am by no means advocating the use of first names alone. When my good friend, college buddy and now nearly-50 year old university professor tells my 12-year-old to call him by his first name, I will be the first one to admit that I am not at all comfortable. I’d rather my daughter call him Uncle Jaap. Yet when 25-year-old engineers address me as “Sir,” I squirm. While I choose to think that half the mails I get addressing me as “Sir” have merely misspelled my first name, I know I am fighting a losing battle.

I’d like to imagine that borrowing the good old Hindi suffix “ji” — or for those of you opposed to Hindi dominance, the Japanese suffix “san” — would do away with “Sir.” And create a work culture that’s respectful without having to be deferential or, worse yet, servile. If the central government ran a contest for a Hinglish term to replace “Sir,” I suspect it would find more support and takers than trying to come up with an international symbol for the rupee. And, for sure, it’s likely to do far greater good – for a whole lot more people – than a rupee symbol will.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online as To Sir Without Love.

Indian Standard Time Warp

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center - Nobility of Time

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center – Nobility of Time (Photo credit: wallyg)

“I’ve already spent more time on this than this deal is worth to me.”

That’s what a prospective business partner said to me, complaining about the 45 minutes we had spent in a meeting together.

I was taken aback. I had just flown most of the previous 20 hours (from Bangalore to Chennai to Frankfurt then onward to Stockholm before taking my final transfer to get to Gothenburg, Sweden) to get to the meeting.

I had merely asked him to help me understand why I should pay $100,000 to represent his company in India (but that’s another story). While I did manage to keep my cool that day, it brought home to me how direct people can be in a business setting.

Having worked most of my adult life in the U.S. – most of that in California’s laid back Silicon Valley – I was used to plain speaking. However in the year I had been back in India before the Gothenburg trip, I had clearly lost the habit of being direct. I had acquired a more fluid sense of both time and speech.

The move to India opened my eyes to the way things are done in the Valley, sort of like watching an unflattering video of myself at a stag party.

While working in San Jose, I had never quite noticed how rude we were when we failed to return voice mails or in moved meetings at the last minute, even when people had flown in from overseas to attend them.

This was in stark contrast to Japan where a great deal of my business was coming from in the first years back in India. In my first business meeting in Japan, two managers from a $40 billion firm spent two hours with me (the marketing guy from a $5 million dollar Indian company) to understand why we were charging “so much more” than the competition.

Of course, many people have apocryphal stories of negotiating in Japan or China where indirection and opacity seem the norm. In one, two-day session I found out only at dinner that the guy that seemed to spend most his time taking pictures was actually the key decision maker and the two people we hadn’t been introduced to were competitors

India, in many ways, straddles these two very different business cultures. The almost unquestioning acceptance of seniority, the acute awareness of hierarchy and near-obsession with not losing face that Japanese businesses are known for can be found in Indian companies as well.

Still, the Japanese put much more importance on time schedules. In India you could never imagine a client instructing you to take the 7:52 express train to the transfer station where the client would join you at 8:24 to reach their office at 8:50 – the requisite ten minutes before your 9:00 a.m. meeting. I regularly get detailed directions like this from our Japanese clients.

In India “Let’s meet at 11” is generally a suggestion. It means “We should connect around that time and it’s likely that I’ll call you at 10:45 to tell you I am stuck in traffic and will be late by 30 minutes or more.”

This has been the biggest lesson for me about doing business in India. Time and communication (and even space if you try to drive here) take on a sponge-like quality here.

In my unending naiveté, I initially believed that the inability to stick to schedules was the fault of the sales and marketing folks or overburdened C-level executives. That illusion didn’t last long. I started to understand what really happens after sitting through a weekly customer call with my engineering team.

“How can the deliverable slip by a month when we were on schedule last week?” the customer asked. I could visualize the apoplectic look on the client’s face even without a webcam.

Our engineers, I found out, were well aware of the delay that was accumulating daily but had redoubled their efforts to crack the problem on time. They had been confident they’d solve the problem and recover the lost month and wanted to avoid causing anxiety to the poor client.

The most positive way I have found to look at this delivery dilemma is to figure we Indians are eternally optimistic. We are optimistic to a fault. We are certain that we will clutch victory from the jaws of defeat much like a Bollywood hero gets his girl at the end of the movie, just as the police drag away the dastardly villain. When we say the report will be done this evening or we’ll get there in 15 minutes, we believe it – the laws of physics be damned!

As with all understanding about India, there may be exceptions. You might meet an ex-military type or maybe a Bengali or Tamil gentleman who will confound you by always being on time. Worse still, they might expect you to be on time like the Japanese or direct and brash like the Valley types.

Fortunately India is so vast that such encounters are likely to be rare.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal

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Culture in Companies and Business Success

In November 2007, in what’s becoming an annual event (okay, it was two years in a row), I attended a workshop titled “Values-based Leadership” lead by Richard Barrett. Despite the slow start, and initial misgivings when Richard quickly put on a video of his that’s available on YouTube (hey, I have come to hear you in person, was my first thought) – the day proved to be thought-provoking and productive, for two reasons. Firstly a full day away from the daily grind at the office, just thinking and discussing things from the sublime, (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?) to grimy reality (What is the culture in your company?) was a much needed breath of fresh air. Secondly the workshop turned out to be completely about culture, ways of measuring it and the role culture and values play in the business success of organizations. Many thoughts that had been stewing below the surface of my conscious mind or even the few that had cleared the surface and were still nebulous at best, began to get some definite shape and dare I say, validation through the course of the day.

Before I push ahead, its worth stepping back and trying to get a working definition of culture spelled out. Many serious thinkers have come up a variety of definitions – ranging from the anthropological all the way to organizational – I will confine myself to the rather simple assertion, that culture is how people in an organization behave and expect others to behave, on a daily basis. This behaviour is almost always driven or at the very least most strongly influenced from the top, down. In other words the leaders (in small enterprises these are almost always the founders) set the culture and the everyday actions of the people in the organization reinforces this culture. Here again, I use the term actions to include explicit inaction or lack of action as much as deliberate actions taken. For instance, not confronting (constructively or otherwise), or avoiding conflict is as much an element of organizational culture as action such as yelling at your subordinates or sharing recognition and praise as well.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should also state my position – that I believe that culture trumps all other considerations in building healthy, dynamic and long lasting successful organizations. Yes, all those things we learnt in business school or at our fathers’ knees are still true – operational excellence, technology and R&D, financial performance, killer products or services are all important for success but culture is critical to sustain and build upon the gains made. After six years of running a boot-strapped software company, from the giddy optimistic start, through axing one entire department and having those folks out-placed, asking the remaining team to take 10-15% pay cuts, even as we worked to deliver newer products, fend off competitors and keep those fickle customers who hadn’t yet gone out of business in the downturn or been gobbled up , to achieving market leadership in our niche and finally selling our own company, the number one insight I have gained is that culture is the critical ingredient for organization success.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of the lessons I have learnt from my journey as an engineer, manager, CEO and general factotum (they are nearly the same thing, you sometimes have a little more freedom as a factotum) and in the bargain, I hope to learn as well. The journey continues!