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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Some advice on keeping your 2015 career related New Year resolution(s) real!

At this point in any year people talk about taking up resolutions in the upcoming new year. These resolutions can be either personal or career oriented. I have a pretty bad track record with New Year resolutions as I tend to run out of steam within a few weeks in the New Year. I attribute this ongoing failure to a tendency to overload future planning with the carcass of my failed expectations from the past. I also believe that most of us are good at outlining the “what” of our resolutions but leave the “how” to chance or divine guidance!
If I look at the objectives or resolutions that people typically outline around careers at this time of year they are predictably about getting a raise or a promotion or for them to look for another job or role. There is a great list from Jacquelyn Smith (writing for Forbes) that you should have a look at!
Typically, the majority of us who fail at keeping our resolutions in our personal lives tend to attribute that failure to ourselves; however, change the context to resolutions related to careers and I notice that for each failure the “resolutioner” invariably apportions blame to someone else (boss, peers etc.) or something else (economy, office politics, performance of company etc.). Yes, there will be a few that can truly attribute their career related resolution failure to a circumstance beyond their control but conversely there is a vast majority that needs to be honest when assessing or attributing failure.

As we approach 2015 and if you have adopted career related resolutions then my advice would be to step back and spend some time on the “how” you will go about achieving your career related resolution and also determine the criteria against which you will judge achievement or not.
It is critical to define achievement against a resolution. More importantly when you focus on the "how" you will start realising that sometimes an over-arching resolution may actually need a series of interim resolutions. This advice also highlights the unnecessary nature of pegging your resolutions to either the start of the year coupled with the artificial boundary of a year! We do severe injustice to ourselves by adopting a resolution at the start of the year as career related resolutions are not akin to how we celebrate Valentine’s day (i.e. once a year!). My wife views Valentine’s day as follows - “What is the point of celebrating your love for one day when the remaining 364 days are spent in disrespecting or not paying attention to the one you love?” The first prize would be to link your career related resolutions and link them up in a “build-on-the-last resolution” basis rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to the emotional need to do better than the past year or gain “closure” to the past year.
For me a great career resolution would be developed keeping the following in mind:
  • Get some purpose into why you are taking up a resolution. Purpose is critical. It is something that makes you wake up at night and makes you clench your fist in anguish or triumph! Having a clear purpose will help guide you through the darkest of times. Do you want a career for money? Do you want a career to create a reputation? Some want a career that appeals to an inner voice or calling. What is that inner voice for you? No need for a glamorous answer or a definitive answer as one’s purpose in life can be fluid. I am sure Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa perhaps only figured it out or firmed up their purpose during their respective journeys?
  • Anticipate that the outcome of a resolution may not be static or binary. It can be a series of dynamic achievements or indicators showing positive directional progression. Commit to a learning schedule and sign a personal contract with yourself. An interesting way to assess progress is to check your resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV) every 3-4 months. If you don’t see progress as evidenced by achievement or skills acquired then you are stagnating as your CV is stagnating!
  • Making resolutions is easy. Achieving them requires time and resources, which needs sacrifice. It means swallowing your pride, less time with your friends, less time at the movies, less time for holidays [But within meaning as I don’t want you to blame me on your death-bed when you realise that my advice made you miss out on the good things in life!]. Assess the sacrifice required carefully and deliver it!
  • Be realistic in your resolutions by knowing yourself very well. Don’t be frustrated by any limitations arising from your DNA as it is difficult to change it, however, you can use your personal strengths to overcome what god did not give you (this is important as it comes from a bald, average looking guy with a weight problem!)
  • Validate your resolutions with mentors and other like-minded people. Leverage your network of relationships in and outside of your organisation to assess the realism of your resolution and to seek guidance on how to achieve it. Find a sounding board. If you are not leveraging this aspect then it is likely that your resolution will remain on paper
  • Does your resolution position you uniquely and makes you distinguishable in how you go about building your career. This is critical as the manner in which you develop skills and take steps towards your resolution then that sets you apart. It may take time but eventually the inner light will shine through and position you for that next move forward. Have passion in how you go about working on your resolution. Always remember that passion trumps expertise. People want to be around people that exude passion. Passion exudes commitment. Passion excites. Passion ignites. My advice “run to the fire”! and remain slightly paranoid about your career!
Hope this helps. Have a great 2015!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

What I know now that I should have known when I was 22!

The notion of giving guidance to the graduating class of 2014 (#IfIWere22) seemed simple enough, however, as I started writing I realised that I would need to dig deep into my memory as I was 22 years old 22 years ago! Interesting co-incidence indeed!

At 22 I started studying for an MBA at Virginia Tech, USA. I was very naive coming straight out of my undergraduate degree with no professional experience to talk off! Have a look at the only photo I could find of me at 22 that has me has me lurking behind a few of my class-mates from my MBA days at Virginia Tech!

I came from a small town in India (Jodhpur) and attended University there as I wanted to be as close as possible to my mother and a safe environment. Nothing wrong per se but the reality was that I had high-school grades that would have got me into some prestigious institute, however, I did not take that path as I was not bold or courageous enough to venture out of my comfort zone. In hind-sight, that was a wrong decision.  I delayed becoming a better person by not embracing change slightly earlier. This brings me to Lesson # 1:

"If life offers you an opportunity to do something that goes against the grain or forces you out of your comfort zone then take it! Think about the opportunity cost of your decision and think long-term. I realised this during my Bachelor studies and then made the decision to leave 'safe waters' to do an MBA far from home.It was one of the best decisions I ever made and is the same philosophy that I retained as I moved into my professional life. Keep asking yourself what is the opportunity cost of not using courage and conviction to do something different and stretch yourself!"

My time at Virginia Tech was one of the high-lights of my life! I did poorly in the first semester as the style of teaching was different from what I had learnt during my bachelor's degree. My mother asked me to come back home as she thought I was going to have a nervous break-down but I persevered and the next 1.5 years of intense focus and social interaction with other students ('sufferers') made me realise that education is not what resides in books but is learnt by applying what you learn in books. I was very naive in the way I approached my MBA and realised that those doing better in it were those who could see beyond the obvious in a case-study and were applying practical and common-sense approaches to resolving issues. I gained a huge respect for experience and common-sense applied in a practical manner. Even after gathering four degrees from four continents I am always focused on understanding events and information from a practitioner point of view. This brings me to Lesson # 2:

"Studying for a degree will give you knowledge and make your resume/CV longer but applying what you learn and creating 'magic' out of it will get you respect. Always focus on being a practitioner of your academic learnings. Keep asking yourself, how does what I learn make an impact at my place of work! If you are unable to answer that then you have just wasted your education."

During my MBA I did courses across a broad spectrum. I focused on Marketing & Finance but today realise that the most important subjects that actually moved me forward in the real world were the 'softer' subjects on ethics, human resource development, management and organisational behaviour. To me the 'harder' courses showed me the 'what' to do but the 'softer' subjects tried to teach me 'how' to do it. This brings me to Lesson # 3:

"Realise that the softer aspects of life that are 'wishy-washy' or abstract (vs. the 'harder' aspects) are the very aspects that will move you up the corporate ladder. Working with people and getting them to support you is the single biggest learning that I can share with you. Being ethical and a man of integrity allows people to congregate around you and support you. You can go far without these attributes in the corporate world but for me the key question is what do people think or say about you behind your back!"

One of the most critical elements of my MBA was the reality that one has to balance their time and prioritise. Doing an MBA is like drinking straight from a hose! You have to choose your 'battles' or you will lose the 'war'! This brings me to Lesson # 4:

"My simple request to you is to consider developing structure in how you go about doing things. Structure implies control. Control reflects capability. Capability moves you up in the corporate hierarchy! The ability to say 'no' and the ability to balance your 'yes' will ensure focus and improve the chances of delivering what you say you will deliver. Purposeful choice-making and sense-making is the need of the day!"

Doing an MBA was an emotional roller-coaster. Sometimes my grades made sense. Sometimes they did not. As I moved into the corporate world I realised that the emotional agility and maturity that got me through my MBA was not enough. Not all of us are born leaders. Some of us develop traits and characteristics along the way that make us who we are. One of the constant challenges I faced was the inability to differentiate feedback as being positive or negative. This brings me to Lesson # 5:

"Understand that the most important ability that you will need to take with you into your professional life is to never take things personally and always maintain mental strength! Even today I find myself reacting to events at a very personal level. Self-esteem is a major asset and the confidence needed to keep breaching into the higher strata of the corporate hierarchy will be decided by how you handle negativity, emotions and keep cool/calm under stress or adversity. Emotional agility and the ability to accept criticism as well as bouncing back after an adverse situation is one of the strongest capabilities that one has to figure out in the 'real' world. I would argue that this is the one area that most people fail in thereby limiting their progression to the next highest level."

As I progressed through my MBA I realised that the marks and knowledge that I gained reflected the effort I put in. For me I was in total control of my own fortune and the same is a trait that I took to my professional experience as well. For me the notion that building your career is your organisation's or your manager's responsibility is the biggest 'lie' hoisted upon employees who are shown advertisements telling them (i.e. you) how great an organisation would make their employees ("We make your dreams come alive" or "Today’s talent. Tomorrow’s success"!). This brings me to Lesson # 6:

"No one will give you your career on a plate. Building your career is your responsibility alone! Your manager or your organisation can only facilitate it. In the end, it is critical to know that you are not indispensable. Keep your skills relevant and keep reinventing yourself. There is no text-book or teacher that can give you the secret ingredient to a successful career. I actually believe that there is no secret ingredient involved besides you!"

[Explained in simple terms in Kung Fu Panda!]


Sincerely hope that the above six lessons are simple enough for you to think about and to put into action. What you are learning during your educational experience is a solid foundation to work from. Your degree is not offering you only a parchment with your name on it but also offering you an opportunity to prepare yourself better for the professional world through the lens of hind-sight as offered by this write-up.

I was also asked to outline if my career had developed the way I had hoped it would. Wonder what that means! Five years ago I did not know what I would be doing today. I am also sure that five years from now I will be doing something that I cannot predict today. Would I have tried to do something different? Did others do better with their careers than I did? Why bother answering that question! I may believe I could have done better but then there are many others who look at me and think I have done better than them. There is no end to comparing yourself to others so I think it best not to answer this question.

And before I sign off I wanted to share a picture of me at age 24 (1994) with a few work colleagues from my very first job (post my MBA) based in Johannesburg, South Africa. That's me in the centre with the 'funky' glasses and wine glass in hand. Even then I enjoyed putting a smile on people's faces!



In the end, life is nothing but a series of memories. Good luck and best wishes!


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Thursday, 1 May 2014

Being downsized doesn't mean being capsized!

Have been reading about career curveballs (#careercurveballs) and how they have impacted others. My thoughts wandered back to an event far in the past [the only hint I can give is that my wife was pregnant with our first child]. I walked into work (early in the morning) and was bundled into a meeting room (with a few other colleagues) where we were introduced to our "new" manager. We were advised that our earlier manager had resigned due to differences in "vision" with the board.

Things went fast and they are still a blur for me as I was advised that I had been "let-go" as the organisation needed to "down-size".The meeting lasted fifteen minutes and then our new manager rotated smartly on his heels and left the room. He had spent the same time and energy in the event that someone at a fast-food joint does when asking you whether you would like to "up-size" your meal!

I was confused and disappointed. For some reason I had believed that this happened to "others" and to those who did not put in an effort in their jobs. Some element of naivete existed on my part. I checked with the others to understand what had just transpired. One of my colleagues, looked at me in exasperation - "Brother, wake up and get ready to walk out. You don't have a job. Get your CV (resume) ready." As the rest walked out I remained seated expecting someone to walk back in and shout "April fools day joke" but then it sank in. I was ashamed at that time as there was an inherent cultural bias that made me feel that it was my actions that had led to this outcome. At that time I could not understand the emotions I went through but today can truly empathise when I see the same in the eyes of others as something similar happens to them!

I walked out of the room with a glum expression on my face and met one of the senior executives in the organisation. He took one look at my face and asked me what was on my mind. I opened up and started telling him about what had happened. The martyrdom on my face was visible and the lack of trust towards him was evident (as he was a senior executive of the same organisation that had just "breached my trust"). He listened for a few minutes and then calmly put his hand on my shoulder and leaned forward. His words were exactly what was needed to pierce the the fog in my brain - "Screw them, they made their move and now what are you going to do about it?"

He gave me a few pointers on starting the job search; checked on how long I could survive on the package; what did I want to do etc. He then called three recruiters that he had worked with before and told them that I came highly recommended. To make a long story short, five weeks later I had a job. In fact, I started working for a new employer without a firm offer in my hand as they needed more time to convert their verbal offer in writing but I wanted to get back into the saddle asap. I worked for 48 hours and only then got a written offer. The HR department in that organisation was not impressed with the flexibility shown by the hiring person (who I deeply respect to this day!). People work for people and I sometimes wish I could take this for granted but ever so often I do meet a manager/peer/colleague who still does not get it!

I could not sign-off without giving some pointers to ensure that your downsizing experience does not mean that you capsize your career or your aspirations:

1. Build your reputation beyond your immediate manager. Work high and work wide. Let your value be seen broadly. When the chips are down you will need the support of many others!

2. Act and behave to prove that man is a "social animal" in the work environment. Build relationships and leverage networks. In bad times, those you treat with respect on the way up will treat you with respect on the way down (or out!).

3. Always maintain a level of paranoia in how you approach things. Don't take your success for granted. Keep looking for signs and remain grounded in reality.

4. Keep an eye on your skills and learning. Did you learn or do anything in the last quarter that could be added to your CV? If not, then you are not showing growth or learning. A promotion is not the only proxy for growth, what you learn from that promotion is what needs to be visible or articulated. Learn to describe yourself eloquently.

5. Building on point 4 above. Build a clear understanding of who you are. Can you describe your strengths and weaknesses? Are you actively working on them? Do you have a view for where you are going in your career? This will help you react positively with a set-back as you would have clarity of purpose.

6. Manage upwards. Managing your manager ("boss') is not "politicking" but rather a means to ensure alignment. Done appropriately it can bring sensitivity of you and your strengths, which can help in a down-sizing scenario.

7. Please don't spend too much time feeling "sorry" for yourself. It is not likely to change where you are but will definitely impact where you want to be! Move on. Wake-up. Look forward. Be positive. Worse could happen..right?

Hope this helps you in handling such an event (if it happens) but more importantly it should help those who are lucky enough to not have this happen to them, as I believe that everyone needs to gain an appreciation of what it means for those who do end up on the receiving end.

I sometimes wish that organisations make it mandatory to only promote managers into people management roles that have been down-sized or laid off or retrenched or made redundant or impacted negatively by a "right-sizing". My innermost belief is that empathy, respect, care and compassion are critical ingredients at work that we are not investing enough on!

PS - The son referred to above is now a strapping lad and when I finish writing this I will be walking over to him to talk about his future, which is far better than reminiscing on the past!

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Monday, 24 February 2014

Handling narcissists and alpha males who insist on public floggings : Stay cool. Stay calm. Stay low.

A conversation with a colleague led me to recall an event from many years ago where I was part of a team being reviewed by a senior executive. 

During the session a peer of mine was presenting on the state of affairs in his department and related key performance metrics. The discussion started to derail when I noticed that the executive being presented to was not visibly comfortable with what was being outlined. After sitting through most of the presentation with a pained expression the senior executive finally started giving input on the content and how the presentation was inadequate to allow him to make sense of the business. His tone was negative and very soon he (the senior executive) commenced giving negative feedback to my peer in a fairly public forum. At that point another peer turned to me and muttered “If I were presenting I would give him (the executive) a peace of my mind!” This comment got me thinking and my first reaction was that confrontation is usually not the right way to handle a senior executive who is playing the role of the 'alpha male'.  In the corporate hierarchy (as in the army) there is a command hierarchy and managing upwards is a delicate task but has to be done. Most of us are not lucky enough to choose who we work for! And on those rare occasions where I have managed to do so I have found either my boss or myself ultimately moving on to other roles and assignments (where a new boss awaited!). That is the reality. The other reality is that ultimately how you handle senior executives will either build your career or start dismantling it. Life is not fair and the corporate world is not an entity set up for charity or social welfare.

So how does one react or more aptly what choices are available when one is facing tremendous pressure from one’s manager or senior executive in a public forum where we are being subjected to verbal projectiles that reflect the senior executives desire to provide direct feedback. Feedback which the senior executive is likely to call as being constructive! Do we speak our mind irrespective of the consequences? Should we speak our mind?


Despite the politically correct term constructive criticism, my own experience is that the human ego finds negative feedback disenfranchising. Many of us ask for feedback from others but not many of us are skilled or mature enough to handle true constructive feedback as invariably the term constructive is clearly indicative of the negative nature of such feedback. The one thing I have found out in many years of corporate servitude is that the term constructive is not really understood by the giver of the criticism and where you get a good giver then the receiver does not get the essence. In general, the probability that both the giver and the receiver will be able to do justice to the opportunity is limited!


Let me point out at this point that my peer did a remarkable job of keeping his cool and actually making an attempt to break through the impasse by providing short and precise answers to the constant verbal challenge being thrown out by the senior executive. 

The general advice I have for handling objections or public criticism of your presentation (usually while presenting) is to maintain your calm and not go on the defensive or try to explain yourself in detail as a counter to the 'constructive criticism'. Whether you like it or not an objection has been raised and unless it is a genuine request for clarity such objections are usually designed to score brownie points (by your detractors) or in the case of the alpha male executive is aimed at ensuring that the presenter and all present in the room can see who the boss is! I use the term alpha male to refer to an aggressive, highly-ranked person in a business setting. These are usually individuals with high narcissistic tendencies but “what’s troublesome is how far we take the analogy, even if we don’t particularly like the alpha males in our office, our circle of friends or our sports league. Because the power dynamic is reflected in the natural world, we’ve internalised the notion that dominance by an alpha male is the natural order of things. As such, we’ve come to recognise the characteristics of a classic alpha male as virtues. Though unseemly at times, we accept them as necessary traits for effective leadership.”

Clearly this write-up is not about alpha males or narcissistic bosses and was more geared to give you insight into how best do you handle an executive or manager who is publicly belittling or deriding you during your presentation? Note the use of the term belittle or deride. I am not referring to hard questions being asked to test your knowledge but referring to comments that are designed to impact the presenter’s dignity and/or confidence. The first truth is that narcissistic tendencies amongst senior executives makes them have little empathy for others, therefore, to assume that plain logic or attempting to explain yourself is pre-ordained to fail. If your feelings were relevant then they would not engage in such behaviour. So don’t expect the obvious or use your hurt feelings as a basis to seek understanding. The smartest way to handle such individuals is to actually ask them what they would want you to show or want you to do in response to the query or question. I usually ask such individuals what guidance or advice they would have for me if they were in my situation. Typically it is also a good idea to try to move away from being defensive to exploring the angle or options being opened up. For e.g. if you are being told that your presentation is too lengthy, then seek input on what elements could be cut out from the presentation or ask for a few pointers on what the executive would like you to talk about. Make him or her the centre of attraction rather than yourself. Handling a narcissistic person during a public debate or presentation is likely to leave more dirt on your face than theirs. Arrogance and haughtiness are particular traits that are lobbed at unsuspecting individuals by such persons. This is where another tip that I offer is have high levels of self-esteem. The more you believe in yourself the higher the wall you build to ensure that a narcissist cannot penetrate you to the point where it hurts. Take this advice seriously. Build yourself up so others cannot tear you down!

Another gem of valuable piece of advice from Karen Leland is reproduced verbatim as I did not have the heart to outline this in my own words - “Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.” 


Another valuable trick is to thank them for their feedback without acknowledging whether the feedback is negative or positive. Where you are unsure or want to buy time then ask the individual to restate their input or to elaborate on their comment. Seek out particular pointers about what exactly is bothering them. Asking questions also gets the detractor (the synonym egoist came to mind also) engaged in a conversation rather than driving down the one way road in the guise of 'constructive criticism'.

Avoid checking and/or validating the given feedback with others in the room as that is bound to trigger further negativity on the part of the alpha male! I have seen this happen and the reality is that there are not many courageous people who would stand up and say that the alpha male executive was wrong. Frankly, it is not needed to be said. Just voicing the slightest dissent is sufficient enough to derail the entire discussion. A narcissist is not going to allow others to repudiate his or her stance that was shared in public! Breathe hard and bite your tongue if you are in dis-agreement with the feedback. Rather wait to frame and create your response by using data at a later stage. Wait for the emotions to have subsided!

Hope this simple guidance is worth your while. Do check with others on strategies and tips. Handling a narcissist and alpha male is not easy but given the likelihood that you will cross swords with such individuals on an on-going basis as you climb the corporate ladder there is a benefit in mastering this art. Good luck!

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Sunday, 2 February 2014

Handling unfair criticism from your manager. Remember to listen, then think and only then react constructively!

“Don't think for a minute that bad publicity and endless criticism don't leave their claw marks on everyone concerned. Your friends try to cheer you up by saying lightly, "I suppose you get used to it, and ignore it." You try. You try damned hard. But you never get used to it. It always wounds and hurts.” - Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story

The above quote is a reality. Your friends might advise you to "take it on the chin" but nevertheless it requires tremendous effort and maturity to handle unfair criticism.Rather than give a generic write-up I am using a true yet unfortunate event from the real world to help you make sense of handling unfair criticism from your manager. The situation is offered in good faith and my request is that you focus on the principle being outlined.


I had a discussion with a people manager ("Joe") who was seeking guidance from me on an unfortunate situation where one of his direct reports ("Unknown") had spoken ill of him directly to his manager ("Devi"). Joe outlined that he was called in by a visibly agitated Devi who proceeded to tear into him. She outlined that Unknown had approached her and outlined how Joe had used bad language when discussing how Unknown had handled an assignment. The discussion that emanated between Joe and Devi was intense and placed Joe on the back-foot. Devi would not divulge the name of the individual who had given the feedback, whereas Joe ended was arguing that she should divulge the name of Unknown. This ultimately led to Devi cutting the discussion 
short and telling Joe that he must shape up or he would found himself shipped out from his leadership position. Devi's assessment was that Joe was not living up to the standards expected of him by the organisation.

Joe was visibly upset and agitated while outlining the event to me and I could sense that he was hurt. Joe felt that there was some political agenda involved as there was an ongoing discussion on him being moved into another assignment. Joe admitted that he had lost his cool during the discussion and told Devi that he might be a people manager but ultimately he was also an employee and that he was aware of his rights as an employee. He felt that Devi not revealing the individual’s name was indicative of a conspiracy and unfair but importantly placing him in bad light. It was clear that Joe had left the meeting with Devi under a dark cloud.

Joe asked me whether he should seek advice from an external person to understanding his rights. I knew that this was a delicate situation but rather than I pontificate I felt that the way forward should be decided by Joe himself. I then had the following conversation with him.

Deepak – “What would you want to achieve or take away from this discussion with me?”

Joe – “I want to know whether I should file a HR complaint against Devi for accusing me without giving me a chance or opportunity to explain. I am sure this is being done to ensure that I don’t get the next assignment.”

Deepak – “Has Devi in the past ever complained or raised a concern on how you behaved or handled subordinates?”

Joe – “No. This was the first time that this has happened. I am going to wring the neck of Unknown, that lying twit!”

Deepak – “Joe, I need you to focus on the issue. Wringing the neck of unknown is of no consequence at this point! Let’s go back to your point about filing an HR complaint against Devi. What do you think that will achieve?”

Joe – “That will teach Devi a lesson. I am not going to let her walk over me! If she can react to lies and falsehoods from Unknown then she is a bad manager. She should have been fair and given me an opportunity to explain rather than pass judgement in such a cavalier manner!”

Deepak – “OK. Clearly you are hurt that an assessment or judgement was passed about you without you being given an opportunity to explain. Can I ask you a simple question?”

Joe – “Of course you can.”

Deepak – “If you were Devi how would you have reacted to Unknown's complaint against you?"

Joe – “I would have called my subordinate in and told him to explain to me what was going on in a calm manner.”

Deepak – “Ok so assuming that she was shocked and surprised from Unknown's revelation. Is it possible that her reaction was because she was not expecting this at all from you? And her first reaction was the wrong one?”

Joe – “What do you mean not expecting this from me? Of course, this is not me. I have been a people manager for eight years and this is the first time that a manager of mine has told me to mind my language and manners with subordinates!”

Deepak – “Ok. So you were surprised by her reaction. If so then surely, you can see that she is reacting to something that she did not expect from your or about you? For one second, let us assume that she was caught by surprise and genuinely did not know how else to handle this situation. How could you have calmed the situation down and ensured that you managed to give her your point of view?”

Joe – “Calm her down! Why should I calm her down. She took off like a rocket and forgot that I an an employee also. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander so I gave it back to her!"

Deepak – “I repeat my question. Could you have calmed things down and ensured that you managed to share your point of view?”

Joe – “What is this? Of course I could have stayed calm but do you understand what it means to be accused of something like this! I am livid that you are asking me to stay calm when my reputation is at stake!”

Deepak – “Ok, so you left the meeting with your reputation intact because you handled the situation very well?”

Joe – “Hmm…I guess I did not”.

Deepak – “So knowing that your reputation still lies in 'tatters', why don’t you think of a better way to have handled this with her? Perhaps, you need another meeting with her? Right?”

Joe – “Ok. So I am man enough to sit down with her again and work this through.”

Deepak – “What do you think needs to be said or done here to ensure that she feels comfortable about your leadership skills? Making amends is now part of the agenda. Remember you want to keep your reputation intact but more importantly need to assess whether you do need to escalate this into an HR issue?”

Joe – “Fine. I get the point that I need to meet her again and state my point of view.”

Deepak – “Hold on. What is your point of view? Is it enough to remind her that you did not behave that way or that Unknown is lying? Or perhaps you need to take a different tact in restoring her faith in you”

Joe – “I guess I cannot suggest that I be put head to head with Unknown? If I go into confrontation mode with Unknown then I am sure that I will come out on top but not sure whether I would feel any better about all this.”

Deepak – “So what do you think your conversation with Devi should look and feel like?”

Joe – “I guess I could go back and sit down with her and apologise for my earlier outburst? I am sure she will understand that I reacted as the accusation was serious enough to put me on the back-foot. I can also tell her about my relationship with other direct reports. Should I talk to HR about this also?”

Deepak – “Nobody can stop you from talking to HR but you have to make a call whether you want to seek informal guidance or formal intervention. If it is informal guidance then what is your assessment on HR’s understanding of you as a people manager from past interaction with them?”

Joe – “My HR Manager Sue is someone that I have worked with extensively and I am sure that she can be very helpful in making sense of this for me or even having a word with Devi about me. What do you suggest?"

Deepak – “If you believe that Sue is someone that you respect and feel can vouch for you as well as able to put Devi’s mind at ease then you should do so. Would you consider asking Sue to seek out the name of the direct report and perhaps have an informal chat with Unknown to understand the context? The reason I say this is that once in my career I had used an expletive during a conversation with a direct report and my subordinate was unhappy as they felt that I had used the expletive directly at them. Luckily for me I was able to close that immediately with the direct report rather than have them go to my manager or HR."

Joe – “I am not too sure whether having Sue speak to Devi would be of value but I do think that Sue speaking to Unknown to understand the context would be helpful. But I can see that Sue would have to speak to Devi to know which of my direct reports spoke ill about me. Right?"

Deepak – “Joe, your options are limited since your reaction post the meeting with Devi does not leave you with too many avenues to explore. The corporate world has its fair share of back-stabbers! I am assuming that this might be the case here but context is critical. Sue can help on that count. At the same time, I think you need to give some leeway to Devi and not confuse her message with her tone. She may have reacted more out of disappointment with the situation rather than just pass judgement on you. It could be genuine surprise on her part.”

Joe – “So if I understand you, the first meeting itself could have led to a better outcome if I had spend more time in understanding Devi’s frustration and giving her peace of mind about my relationship with my direct reports. Hey..would asking her to speak to Sue at that point itself helped?”

Deepak – “Joe, I think you already know the answer to that. I believe it would have given you a natural exit from that conversation and led to a better outcome than you storming out of the meeting talking about your rights as an employee, which by the way you still have but let us look at that further down the road. Hope that makes sense?"

Joe – “Yes it does. I feel a bit better now. I think the context is relevant and I also realise that as a people manager others expect more from me and I need to be careful in how I react to such situations in the future. Just that I was furious to learn that I could be accused of something like this!”

Deepak – “Joe, think about it this way. If Devi was convinced that you had done what Unknown said you did then she would have met you with HR or perhaps convinced the employee to put a complaint against you. She did not do that. Perhaps because she trusts you but at the same time did not expect the conversation with you to end the way it did! You better not wait for her to resolve this. You need to resolve this. Also start thinking that perhaps you may have also indulged in criticising Unknown in the same way that Devi has upset you it is possible that you upset that individual also?”

Joe – “Not sure why Unknown could not speak to me before speaking to Devi, but I guess that does not matter at this point. Good I spoke to you. I will immediately work on making amends and getting the necessary clarity. I will ask Devi and Sue if they want to work with Unknown directly or I meet unknown face to face.”

Deepak – “Can I ask what you might say or do when you meet Unknown face to face? I do agree that ultimately this needs to happen as this is a serious allegation but how you conduct yourself can either establish you or destroy you at this particular point in your career!”

Joe – “I had a feeling you would say that. Clearly confrontation is not warranted. It is in my interest to make sense of this and if this is a misunderstanding the make amends. If necessary, I am ok to apologise if something I said or did was misconstrued. I think I was too caught up with the allegation and focused on the fact that my manager was thinking less of me. Good we spoke.”

Deepak – “Yes. Good we spoke. You know what needs to be done so go and do it asap. Keep me updated on how things work out.”


The above scenario can be played out in many ways but the gist is that one needs to be aware that there is a need to moderate any reaction to a situation of this nature. In the end remember that unwarranted criticism is a recurring theme in the corporate world particularly as you move upwards in the hierarchy. My advice is that you learn to listen to the same. Don’t get defensive too early as this only makes your listening skills go to the back burner! I know this is difficult but the trick is in listening and asking clarifying questions (as needed). Your intent is to 'build' up to a response rather than rush into a 'response'.

People are capable of resolving misunderstandings and concerns but leave behind a bitter taste due to their initial negative reaction, sense of victimisation and failure to see the delicate balance being played out by managers like Devi. If no politics are involved then Devi is also on the back-foot as ultimately Joe’s direct report is part of her organisation. It is in her interest to get this matter sorted out. What Devi could have done is not in scope for this blog but I am keen on hearing any input or guidance on how Devi could have handled this. Also feel free to give any input or guidance on the possible variations on my conversation with Joe that could have helped.

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Friday, 17 January 2014

The human tendency to short-change the decision-making process is a given. Keep that in mind when making decisions at work.

The word decision is one that is used so frequently that one would assume that people are adept at making good decisions. Unfortunately, I find it fairly common to see people take the wrong decisions. Decision making is a cognitive process whose outcome is the “the selection of a course of action among several alternative scenarios. Every decision making process produces a final choice. The output can be an action or an opinion of choice.”

We are aware that the typical decision-making process starts with framing the decision to be made; gathering information on the alternatives and how to evaluate them; taking a decision i.e. picking an option from the alternatives; and finally sense making of the decisions outcome so that our decision-making ability can learn and mature from what we learn as feedback from the impact or outcome of our decision(s).

My desire to write on decision making arose because I am constantly amazed to see how decisions are made and the uncommon nature of common-sense that rears its head at times in the corporate world. The human brain is a potent weapon and due to the nature of its talent also has inherent biases that can help in suspending common-sense that is much needed when making a simple decision! Decision-making in the corporate world is challenging. Those at the top do not typically consult with those lower in the hierarchy and when they do what flows back up is usually not honest enough to help in the decision. I particularly am focused on rechecking and realigning top-driven decision-making process and enabling a transparent honest process that helps senior management. The larger the organisation the higher the probability that a 'Dilbert-moment' awaits where the decision-makers i.e. the ‘strategists’ are out of sync with the ‘tacticians’. However, that is for another blog and another day. The focus at this point is on the individual sense-making undertaken by my fellow employees and corporate citizens.

Decision making is both an art and a science but despite building rigour into the process or using a frame-work to structure one’s thoughts I see outcomes that fall short of expectation. Trying to get yourself or others to understand how to weave through a decision making process is always confounded by being unable to relate to the underlying current of how your thoughts or biases get the better of you. In general, the single biggest cause of improper and weak decision-making is because individuals do not attempt to understand or adopt decision making frame-work(s) or processes or because most decisions that we make do not allow for using structured processes or we just don’t have the time or patience to apply structure to the decision-making process! Applying one’s mind is fine but applying it in a manner to ensure that we eliminate guess work and/or cognitive biases that are inherent to rational man is the real challenge.

I can assure you that most individuals may state that they are going through this cycle of decision-making but the reality is that a good decision outcome is still elusive as the negative consequences of the decision have been potentially weighed down by sheer optimism or some inherent bias. In simple terms, we are programmed to naturally incline towards a desired outcome. This is typically more pronounced when the decision outcome leads to gain for the decision making individual rather than a loss for him or her. We are wired towards gain and will rate our chances of success far higher than our chance for failure i.e. we have an inherent optimism bias!

Decisions are impacted not only by lack of vigour in any process but because we selectively downgrade the vigour as many of us have already got a bias towards an alternative or there is a bias to be seen to be acting immediately and with fervour. This could be cultural but in general I notice that some organisations have an organisational culture that values speed over deliberation and an active fear of ‘analysis paralysis’. However, a 'bias to action' is not undesirable but it becomes undesirable if it is a trade-off to manage perceptions and/or rush an agenda when making a decision!

Another critical aspect of flawed decision-making is the motivation and incentive inherent in the outcome of the decision. I feel that if we force a better review of the motivation and the incentive for the decision-maker then it forces clarity and honesty in the decision-making process. Sometimes acknowledging this takes away the angst arising from hidden agendas and personal desire to achieve an outcome that is what one wanted in the first place but then forced the outcome in any case. If your internal or hidden agenda is moving you away from a sensible outcome then force yourself to think of the desirability of the outcome and what would be needed to fix the mess arising from the wrong decision being implemented or encouraged. Consult openly and freely. Get as much insight to ensure that you understand what is needed to get to the right decision. The notion that “I know it all” or that hierarchical positioning has given you a divine advantage is at best a misnomer. How many failed decisions have led to a post-mortem where someone senior has admitted to having made a mistake? Many managers suffer with a “decide-first-then-advocate-later" model of decision making. This is the classic situation where the decision is made but now all facts are to be arranged to ensure that the decision appears to be the logical one! How relevant is data in the decision? Do you have the data? Do you understand the data? Poor data analysis is the best foundation stone to inappropriate decisions where the decision is being made that would impact the very data in the future that is being used for the current assessment. The issue is usually not the absence of data. It is the absence of information. Additionally, at times people hesitate from making the full or total investment required as they are fearful of taking risk (even if it is a calculated risk). This is a function of the corporate culture that is geared towards either encouraging risk or actively dissuading risk. To me this is like an artificial 'speed-throttle' that kicks in just when you need to speed up on the competitive highway. Not many admit to this but this is another reason why some decisions stop short of achieving 'greatness'.

Human beings tend to frame options in a binary manner. It appears to be a choice between two alternates but given the bias for action we need to understand that on many occasions a new option emerges that was not foreseen or is a variant of one of the earlier options. To me the need of the hour is to develop the ability to identify emergent options and have the wherewithal to incorporate the same into a highly flexible decision-making process that is dynamic and not static. This is where the feedback loop and on-going learning can do wonders to how one thinks about a decision and evaluate options.

If I could summarise my own approach to decision making then I would offer the following simple guidance:
  • Be transparent and seek guidance to the extent needed
  • Figure out 'hidden agendas' and the intent of the different players involved in the decision-making process
  • Focus on data but also focus on deriving information from the data
  • Understand if there is sufficient risk factored into the process or are you applying illogical constraints (will help in out-of-box thinking)
  • Evaluate alternatives besides binary options. Did you evaluate potential contingencies or emergent options
  • Develop solid feedback mechanisms to your decisions
  • If using past intuition or experience just confirms that the rules of engagement and the characteristics of the same problem are actually the ‘same’. It is surprising how people expect the same style or decision outcome to work on a consistent basis over time and space
  • Be aware of any inherent biases in your thinking and actively consult to bring the same down. Having a devil’s advocate or mentor involved in the process can help also
  • Are the objectives of the decision in line with the organisation’s objectives and goals. What are you aiming for needs to be clearly defined and understood by yourself (before you try to explain them to others).


In the end, I concede that you will be party to many bad decisions at different points in your career journey. No shame in that. The shame would be to be an on-going party to bad decisions and to not learn from them as you move forward in your career. Right?


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Monday, 30 December 2013

What is your career related New Year resolution? My advice is to keep it real in 2014!

At this point in the year people at work are talking about making resolutions that are either personal or career oriented. I have a pretty bad track record with New Year resolutions as they always run out of steam a few weeks into the New Year. 

As I thought about this I felt that this was because I (like most of us) tend to overload future planning with the carcass of failed expectations from the past and because most of us are good at outlining the “what” of the resolution but leave the “how” to chance or divine guidance.

If I look at the objectives or resolutions that people typically outline around careers at this time of year they are predictably about getting a raise or a promotion or for them to look for another job or role. There is a great list from Jacquelyn Smith (writing for Forbes) that you should have a look at!

I am constantly amazed by the high proportion of individuals who fail at resolutions in their personal life but attribute that failure to themselves; however, change the context to resolutions related to careers and I notice that for each failure the “resolutioner” invariably apportions blame to someone else (boss, company, peers etc.) or something else (economy, performance of company etc.). Yes, there will be a few that can truly attribute their career related resolution failure to a circumstance beyond their control but conversely there is a vast majority that needs to be honest when assessing or attributing failure.

As we approach 2014 and if you have adopted career related resolutions then my advice would be to step back and spend some time on the “how” you will go about achieving your career related resolution and also determine the criteria against which you will judge achievement or not.

It is critical to define achievement against a resolution. More importantly when you focus on the "how" you will start realising that sometimes an over-arching resolution may actually need a series of interim resolutions. This advice also highlights the unnecessary nature of pegging your resolutions to either the start of the year coupled with the artificial boundary of a year! We do severe injustice to ourselves by adopting a resolution at the start of the year as career related resolutions are not akin to how we celebrate Valentine’s day (i.e. once a year!). My wife views Valentine’s day as follows - “What is the point of celebrating your love for one day when the remaining 364 days are spent in disrespecting or not paying attention to the one you love?” The first prize would be to link your career related resolutions and link them up in a “build-on-the-last resolution” basis rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to the emotional need to do better than the past year or gain “closure” to the past year.

For me a great career resolution would be developed keeping the following in mind:

  • Get some purpose to why you are deriving the resolution. Purpose is critical. It is something that makes you wake up at night and makes you clench your fist in anguish or triumph! Having a clear purpose will help guide you through the darkest of times. Do you want a career for money? Do you want a career to create a reputation? Some want a career that appeals to an inner voice or calling. What is that inner voice for you? No need for a glamorous answer or a definitive answer as one’s purpose in life can be fluid. I am sure Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa were not sure of their purpose and perhaps only figured it out after they had achieved it?
  • Understand that the outcome of a resolution may not be static or binary. It can be a series of dynamic achievements or indicators showing positive directional progression (For e.g. losing a small amount per week rather than a large number over an abstract timeline!) Commit to a learning schedule and sign a personal contract with yourself. An interesting way to assess progress is to check your resume or CV every six months. If you don’t see progress though achievement or skills acquired then you are stagnating as your CV is stagnating. 
  • Making resolutions is easy. Achieving them requires time and resources, which needs sacrifice. It means swallowing your pride, less time with your friends, less time at the movies, less time for holidays [But within meaning as I don’t want you to blame me on your deathbed and you realise that my advice made you miss out on the good things in life!]. Assess the sacrifice required carefully!
  • Be realistic in your resolutions by knowing yourself very well. Don’t be frustrated by any limitations arising from your DNA as it is difficult to change it, however, you can use your personal strengths to overcome what god did not give you (this is important as it comes from a bald, average looking guy with a weight problem!)
  • Validate your resolutions with mentors and other like-minded people. Leverage your network of relationships in and outside of your organisation to assess the realism of your resolution and to seek guidance on how to achieve it. Find sounding boards. If you are not leveraging this aspect then it is likely that your resolution will remain on paper
  • Does your resolution position you uniquely and makes you distinguishable in how you go about building your career. This is critical as the manner in which you develop skills and take steps towards your resolution then that sets you apart. It may take time but eventually the inner light will shine through and position you for that next move forward. Have passion in how you go about working on your resolution. Always remember that passion trumps expertise. People want to be around people that exude passion. Passion exudes commitment. Passion excites. Passion ignites. My advice “run to the fire”! and remain slightly paranoid about your career!
Hope this helps. Have a great 2014!
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