What Nobody Told You About Becoming a Manager/Leader

Of the many millennial clients I coach, at least 80% of them aspire for managerial positions after completing 6 to 7 years of work experience. While it is definitely an exciting and exhilarating experience with opportunities to grow and learn, it is not without its challenging and stressful moments. There would be situations that would frustrate you so much so that you miss your glorious and carefree days of being an individual contributor! Managers by their role definition, represent their team before their management and vice versa. Being the mediator is never easy, and managerial positions are by far the most stressful roles one can take on in a corporate setup.

As a first-time manager, I was aware of what I assumed were my expected roles and responsibilities. The first three years were a revelation. There were so many aspects and challenges that nobody told me about. There were days I used to dread Mondays and then there were days I felt like going back to an individual contributor role!

Here are some truths I have attempted to list down, with a few tips on how to deal with these challenges. Some are based on personal experience while others are based on experiences shared by other managers/leaders during our coaching and other discussions.

Fact #1: You are constantly being judged

Like a laboratory specimen, you are constantly under scrutiny. While there are a few who would encourage you, the sad reality is there are many who would love to see you fail. Being a first-time manager, you are likely to make mistakes. These mistakes would be blown out of proportion or used against you.

The one way you could ensure you have more support from your team and your supervisor is to constantly communicate and share your decisions. Admit your mistakes, however do not feel shy about expressing your accomplishments no matter how small they may appear to you. Provide regular updates and most of all – make sure you are highly visible and build a strong rapport with your team, your peers, and your supervisor.

Fact #2: You cannot take people at face value

Our corporate system still follows the age-old hierarchical process where the manager’s verdict holds more than 70% weightage in the employee’s performance rating. Naturally you will fall prey to office politics. The introverts and the shy ones might fall behind while the louder ones will be more successful in attempting to influence you. Some would flatter you while others would pretend to be on their best behaviour when you are around. Being new, you might want to implement new ideas. You may find many Yes-men (or women) agreeing with you. The flipside is, the others who see you succumb to the manipulation would feel disillusioned and become easily influenced by your detractors.

You will have to find a way to have objective yet personalized one-to-one interactions with everyone reporting to you. You will eventually be able to see an emerging political pattern. While it would be tempting to rely on those who seem to be your ardent supporters, it is important that you also focus on those who appear withdrawn during meetings and discussions. If it isn’t already implemented in your organization, you might want to consult your HR department on whether you could conduct an anonymous feedback survey within your team to help them voice their concerns or observations about you. It is never easy hearing negative things about oneself, but you have to bite the bullet if you want your team fully supporting you.

Fact #3: You have to put up with whiners and naysayers

This is perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of being a leader, at least for me. Most of us, (including myself), personally enjoy having team members who bring up counter-arguments to ideas on the table. Healthy opposition and debates, besides building trust within the team, also help in implementing a plan that has everyone’s consensus. It is the whiners and constant complainers who weigh you down with their negativity. A whiner is someone who always has someone to blame for his or her own mistake. Then there are those who resent a new boss and resist any changes proposed. They may not complain, but behave in a passive-aggressive manner that clearly shows their obvious disapproval. Perhaps what is frustrating about them is not the fact that they object to your ideas or suggestions, but that they seem to take everything personally.

You might want to get to know such people and show your willingness to listen to their ideas. Lending an empathetic ear helps – especially for those who might be affected by the changes you implement. However if you find this person constantly against you at every turn, it might help having a heart-to-heart talk with the individual letting him or her know how you need his or her support. You might want to let the person vent their views and listen with an open mind. At the best you might be able to turn around the situation. At the worst, you may have to assertively let them know you are the boss and that much as you appreciate their skills and contribution, you will not put up with negativity. In any case, it is important to keep track of any insubordination and make sure you communicate any warnings to this employee in writing.

Fact #4: You are the bearer of all bad news

Once a manager, you represent the executive leadership and the organization in every way. Be it a performance appraisal review feedback, the sunset of an old technology, organizational changes, or impending layoffs or salary-cuts, you have to be the one communicating unpalatable news in a diplomatic manner. Of course the most difficult job of all is letting people go if the business situation so demands. It would take immense amount of patience, tact, sensitivity, and most of all, compassion in communicating to the people affected by the decision.

Under no circumstances should you ever communicate bad news via email. Always get everyone together and maintain eye contact when you communicate bad news. After the group meeting, set up individual face-to-face meetings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Your team will never forget the way you handled crisis situations, and you will win their support based on how well you faced the crisis and stood up to your people.

As for performance appraisals, I personally believe in monthly reviews. This ensures that your team is provided goals and a performance update on a regular basis. Also, you get to know how your team responds to your leadership.

Fact #5: You are lonely

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Lonely is the employee who wears the leadership mantle. Wearing a mask of control and poise at all times can be quite burdensome. You can never get too pally with a team member. Even a harmless lunch with your supervisor or team member could be perceived as political by others. It is even tougher when you get promoted to a managerial position from within the same team. At least in India, it is difficult for people to separate the role from the individual. You can never be too close to people who report into you. You have to maintain a professional balance in your relationship.

It helps tremendously having a leadership mentor or coach on board, who acts as a sounding board for leaders and enables them to confidently deal with challenging situations and behaviours by coaching them on a regular basis. As a manager, you could also form a forum with other similar first-time managers where you could meet together on a monthly basis to discuss and share common areas of concern.

The Importance of Having a Coach on Board

I can never stress enough on the importance of having a mentor or coach who can be the “go to” person for all managers. Having a robust leadership development vision is not enough. It is absolutely critical for growing organizations today to implement a leadership development framework that not only develops and nurtures budding leaders, but also provides them with need-based and timely support to help them learn from the challenges that arise. Today’s leaders also need to be change agents who influence and facilitate major transitions and transformations within the organization by effectively dealing with day-to-day tactical challenges, similar to those listed above. This can be a very tough role to play. Having an experienced leadership mentor and coach on board is no longer a desirable option. It is a vital requirement for today’s organizations if they want to sustain and grow their high potential leadership talent.


Empowering and Engaging Mid-Level Leaders

A few weeks back, I met my friend (who is also a coach) for lunch where we exchanged our coaching experiences. Our topic gradually moved towards increasingly unhappy and discontent employees who also happened to be managers. These weren’t your eager and new managers, or those at the executive level, but the ones caught in the middle. At least over 70% of these managers in question were those who grew up the ranks through their commitment and high performance in their companies. Incidentally, they also happened to be those “loyal” employees who gave some of their best years and (tenure) to their companies. Here are some of the common challenges these middle managers shared during our coaching sessions. (Of course we never share our clients’ information, but only share common observations and statistics.)

“I’m caught in a rut and don’t find my job exciting anymore.”

“I’m the King of Approvals. After being a technical innovator for 10 years, all that I do is check and approve documents.”

“I’m a referee arbitrating petty disputes and conflicts within the team because our communication system sucks.”

“I attend boring meetings where everyone talks but no one decides.”

“I have no power to execute big ideas or make high impactful decisions. I was happier at the trenches. At least I could add value.”

“Change management? I’m the checklist queen! All that I do is follow up, follow up, and more follow up!”

“I am the bearer of bad news. I hate appraisal time!”

“Our top management is busy attending conferences and leadership summits, and has no time for us. Heck! They don’t even share with us what they discussed in those meetings!”

“Help! I’m trapped in a toxic shark infested sea where politics rules!”

We also observed that a majority of these concerns were voiced by people working for large companies with handsome salaries.

The hazy level

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes, middle managers typically constitute 5% of the unhappy/disengaged workforce population. Now why should we even bother about a paltry 5%? That is because these are the people who manage bulk of the remaining workforce that comprises junior level managers and front-line team players, most of who interact directly with our customers.

If we look at this whole situation logically, a company’s top line is maintained through its marketing and revenue. While the top management drives these strategically and externally, the frontline management executes the day-to-day sales and services operations at an internal tactical level. Both these roles being very clear and well-defined, the middle management layer remains one of the haziest and fuzziest. A case in example is the key performance indicators (KPI) for top and front-line management performance. They are clear-cut and visible. What about the middle management? What are they clearly accountable for?

When we throw in the global and matrix organizational structure into this mix, the middle management is cornered between a rock and a hard place in a no-man(ager)’s land!

A middle manager’s role is pretty indirect. Not only does a middle manager report to another manager, they also have managers reporting to them. While a frontline manager has a mix of inexperienced and fairly experienced team members, and goes through a myriad of basic leadership training programs, a middle manager already has a seasoned bunch of leaders reporting into him or her. Unlike a frontline manager who has her calendar packed to the full with meetings, reviews, and reports, most middle managers barely have a concrete agenda (unless they have newbie managers who need their hand held through their initial startup period.) This is truly the dilemma of the middle manager as nicely articulated in this article.

Breeding ground for discontentment

If enthusiasm is contagious, discontentment is an epidemic! Imagine middle managers coming to work day in and day out in this state of mind. Their enthusiasm diminishes, their energy levels deplete, and over a period of time, there’s a toxic buildup of negativity that eventually gets transmitted by them (knowingly or unknowingly) to their subordinates, teams, and colleagues. What’s one of the biggest reasons for employee disengagement? Bad bosses. So now you know.

The real role of a Mid-level Leader

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a middle manager in most organizations is that they barely get a leadership role. After spending a minimum of 10 to 15 years of their career, all that they seem to be doing is giving approvals, attending meetings, signing forms, following up on top management mandates, mediating in discussions, moderating compensation proposals amongst others. All of these are mere tasks with little scope for leadership. So what are we missing here?

The middle layer actually acts as a channel between the strategic and tactical levels of the organization. Where the top level defines the strategy and high level objectives, the middle layer has to make it happen through the lower layers in the form of concrete goals and action plans. A mid-level leader is actually 4 roles of leadership all played by one person.

  • Change Management Champion—For companies to grow in size and adapt to the external market dynamics, they need to constantly keep evolving, creating, and changing. Here’s where mid-level leaders can take ownership by demystifying the HOWs of the change, and converting them into tangible sets of WHENs by working closely with their frontline leadership. As champions of change they would also need to kick-start and mobilize new projects and processes and see them through completion across the span of different teams under their supervision.
  • Collaboration and Cross-functional Facilitator—Matrix structures are a necessity in today’s complex multicultural work environments. Mid-level managers can help break interdepartmental silos by making cross-functional teams work together, besides keeping a bird’s eye view on the larger scheme of things. As collaborators, they also need to ensure their teams are not encumbered by red tape and naysayers.
  • Culture Evangelist—A frontline leader’s role by definition is all about keeping a close eye on the money and operations side of things. However a mid-level leader can focus on people through skip-level meetings, monthly group meetings to recognize good workers and share the bigger picture, besides planning activities to promote a better work environment. A mid-level leader could also address his group during crisis proactively to bolster their spirits and offer them encouragement.
  • Coach and Mentor—Another huge reason for employee dissatisfaction is lack of visible growth opportunities in the horizon. Succession planning is one of the key responsibilities of a mid-level leader. In fact I believe it should be the responsibility (and KPI) of every manager in a company to identify their high potential staff and build a succession plan in collaboration with HR. Mid-level managers would be the best kind of coaches and mentors to make that happen.

Strengthening the Middle

While top management is the head (and brains) of the organization and frontline level the limbs, the middle level leadership is the heart and core. If an organization wants to gear itself up to meet the market demands of customer service, technology, and innovation, they would need to empower their mid-level leaders with necessary resources, and motivate them to fulfil all four roles effectively. If mid-level leaders are expected to plan their succession, then it is top management’s responsibility to do the same and coach and mentor their mid-level staff. Ultimately, the heart and core need to be strengthened and nourished for the limbs and brain to survive!

Big Idea 2015: Coaching – the key to change and innovation

Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” I would like to add that, “If you want new ideas, you need to stop old practices.”

Our personal and work lives and habits are cluttered with mindless activities and rote practices. When was the last time we ignored the chime of our incoming emails or notifications? Here you are, trying to think of a new marketing plan, and “ping!” goes your smartphone! Rather than ignoring, you pick up your phone to check what it’s all about. You get sucked into yet another never-ending quagmire of responses and actions triggered by that communication. When you get back to the marketing plan, you are back to square one, struggling hard to get started. We run our lives exactly like that in the autopilot mode, dancing and reacting to external triggers and distractions. Over a period, we accumulate a whole pile of useless clutter into our brains and realize we have wasted a huge chunk of our times and lives without a second thought.

Organizational versus Organic change

While organizations struggle to introduce and implement change at a macro level, our old habits, thinking, practices, and judgement continue to remain the same at a micro subconscious level. While the organizational system wants new technologies and new processes to bring about the change, the organic system operates as a monotonic congregation of robotic actions and habits. The result? Acute discomfort leading to total rebellion against changing status quo.

Two of the top burning issues over the past few years include severe talent scarcity and lack of innovation. Could it be because we have stopped thinking too deeply and simply comply with everything around us? How do we attract the right people into our lives and our teams, and how do we attract great ideas?

2015 – A turning point

2015 would mark a significant milestone in corporate history. Baby boomers will be close to retirement, most leaders and mentors will be from Gen X, while the mainstream will be flooded with versatile, technology-savvy, and multi-talented Millennials. There will be a shift of power and roles between these generations. As the population of Millennial will be more than ever before, here’s where bulk of the talent would lie. What worked for Gen X may not work simply because the technological and economic landscape is different. The motivating factors for Millennials to stick around is different as Anne Fisher has explained in this article. It is exactly because of this reason that we need to bring about change at a fundamental in the way we think, work, and achieve results.

Why Coaching?

For successful change management, every individual part of the exercise has to consciously and willingly agree to change either their mindsets, habits, or behaviours.

For change to occur at a micro level, it is more important than ever before to dedicate exclusive time for the brain. Coaching is a unique process where an individual works with a coach to articulate, analyse, detail, and plan their future actions. The coach asks purely open ended questions and facilitates the entire process through activities and exercises to help the individual look at the situation objectively from all angles and perspectives. It is sort of an “out of body” experience where the individual is encouraged to look at problems and challenges without judgement or external influence. The individual arrives at his own ideas and solutions during this process. This makes decision-making a completely mindful exercise. As the individual gets regularly coached, she gets more insights and awareness into her behavior and becomes a willing participant in change.

Benefits of coaching for the organization

  • Promotes a culture for change—Imagine this process happening across the organization where every employee is encouraged to get coached. Rather than pushing changes down employees’ throats, coaching could be a way to get employees to embrace the change after considering all aspects and benefits. This change in mindset leads to an organizational culture that intelligently participates in the entire change process.
  • Builds synergy within all generations of workforce— As millennials take center stage in the next decade, they will need to extract the best out of the more experienced and seasoned Baby Boomer and Gen X workforce, who can be deployed as coaches and mentors.
  • Develops emotionally intelligent leadership—A large part of EQ comes out of self-awareness and mindfulness. Coaching helps leaders and managers to reflect and improve their behavior and actions by enabling them to become more empathetic people leaders and better decision-makers
  • Drives empowerment and active innovation—Innovation already exists within individuals as a tiny unexplored glimmer of an idea. This idea usually gets clouded and eclipsed by legacy processes, assumptions, and indecisiveness and as a result, dies a quick death. As coaching is all about exploring the mind and heart towards newer solutions and behaviours, it automatically helps employees manifest and expand their ideas, and gives them the courage to take first steps towards implementing new solutions. Latent skill transforms to active talent, leading to active innovation.
  • Increases employee engagement and loyalty—It is now known that employee engagement largely depends on an employee’s emotional connect with the company management, brand, and organization. Through coaching, employees not only work on their career progression, they also take responsibility for their overall well-being and self-development. Leaders and managers too demonstrate a willingness to participate in their employees’ overall development and career planning. Coaching at the executive level helps organizational leaders to think beyond quarterly business results, and outline a more holistic and people-oriented vision. Once coaching becomes an intrinsic part of the company culture, over a period of time, employees begin to see a better alignment between their individual goals and the organization’s vision, and feel more invested in the company.

If a company needs to change its strategy, it has to get buy-in from its employees and customers. Unfortunately getting stakeholders to participate in the change process is easier said than done. If questions and ideas are not encouraged at an individual level, any change management exercise becomes an expensive promotional campaign followed by a “my way or the high way” stance.
That said, developing a coaching culture is a fairly long-term strategy and involves whole-hearted commitment from the company’s top management. Merely training managers to become certified coaches is not enough. 2015 should hopefully see companies building, driving, and executing a concrete talent management strategy using coaching and mentoring as key drivers.

The Leader’s New Clothes

(Posted on LinkedIn on Nov 8, 2014)

As a child, I thrived on an endless supply of fables, legends, and stories. Many of them have stood the test of time, and are amazingly profound in their relevance to human behaviour even today. One such short story is Hans Christian Andersen’sThe Emperor’s New Clothes. If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend that you do! It’s a brilliant story about an emperor and his people who are worried about keeping pretences at all costs, even at the cost of denying the obvious that even a child could see through. (Pun unintended!)

As I read this story once again today, I realize we all behave like the emperor and his minister, or his subjects. We look for outward traits and behaviors in leaders and when we don’t find those traits or behaviors, we assume that we are unfit and that something is wrong in ourselves. Overt negative behavior like shouting or abusing is obvious to everyone. But how do you recognize the signs of implicit negative leadership?

We assume that an individual’s title, designation, qualification, or outward appearance or mannerisms indicate his character. We live in a visual world where food is delicious because of the way it is presented, or a woman is beautiful because of the way she looks. Like the emperor and his subjects, when we see something in that individual that does not resonate with leadership behavior, we ignore our inner voice and believe our perception to be incorrect.

How do we become like the child in that story who can clearly see the truth? Like the proof of the pudding is in its taste, here are a few examples of unsavoury behaviours that makes the child in us see the truth.

Expressing helplessness

Leaders are humans, and all of us do feel helpless or powerless during certain situations. But throwing up our hands in despair and shrugging hopelessly when our teams look up to us for a solution, is an extremely disappointing behaviour. There is always something that can be done to improve the situation. The very least a leader could do, is show some signs of optimism and demonstrate willingness to listen and resolve the situation.


As leaders we represent the company to our teams. We all definitely have our moments of frustration with upper management, but it’s pretty uncool when a leader constantly keeps complaining about “the deplorable state of affairs” before his or her team. Similarly, maligning or ridiculing clients or other employees especially behind their backs, is another sign of a chink in the armour. It is always preferable discussing issues objectively with a view to find a solution.

Making inappropriate or unethical requests

Over and above requests that can trigger a sexual harassment complaint, there are other inappropriate requests from a leader that can ring loud warning bells. One of my friends during a coaching session talked about how a high level leader in the company asked for his personal bills to be entered as official bills in the system. My friend who worked in the Accounting department politely declined the request. The leader joked about it, but my friend was afraid about being fired. Of course that didn’t happen, but I did feel sad because the leader in question was very highly respected and admired in the company.

Self-centered or opportunistic behaviour

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I think this describes perfectly what I’m talking about! There are managers who don’t even respond to emails unless you copy someone from the higher rank. Speaks volumes about their character, doesn’t it?

Conflicting messaging

The leadership talks about non-tolerance towards certain behaviour but does not take action when their employees complain. The company boasts of an open culture, but the HR team never proactively reaches out to frontline teams to get their feedback and check whether everything is okay. And so on.

Insensitive processes

We expect leaders to be humane and capable of cutting through the red tape where it comes to employee policies. Layoffs are an unfortunate reality in today’s corporate scenario, but there is always a way of doing it that makes an employee walk out with his or her dignity intact. Your company may have a prolific leader at the helm, but if the exit process is not handled sensitively with empathy, then there are others watching and judging the leadership! These are the employees that the company still needs after all.

Poor response during calamity

I have already discussed this in a previous article “Leadership during Adversity”. Like they say, when the going gets tough, the tough hide!

“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Like the child in the story, we must be able to see things the way they are. There are plenty of clear signs of a mediocre or poor leader if we only look and trust our own discernment. However, rather than passing judgment or worse, getting disillusioned, spotting these behaviors makes us conscious about what we shouldn’t do. There is a moral in every story after all.

#leadership #behaviour #behavior #exit #selfish #opportunistic #leader #topmanagement #integrity #ethics #mediocre

E-learning the right way!


Like coaching and leadership development, e-learning too seems to be a nice-to-have inclusion in the talent management list of most organizations. What really remains to be seen is whether it plays the role it is meant to, or is a mere topping on the learning and development pizza!

Why e-learning?

The basic intention behind e-learning or any technology-based training is to provide a self-paced and personalized learning option to people where they do not need to worry about being slower or faster as compared to other participants of a training program. E-Learning as an option is extremely attractive as it helps organizations cut down the cost of trainers, infrastructure, and other overheads such as travel and hotel costs. However the core purpose or primary goal of the training still needs to remain the same. By the end of the training, the participant should have acquired the skill.

Discontent about content

What was meant to be an exercise in making people happy, sadly ended up being a pain pill. Today we have tons and tons of content shoved into an electronic format with a few navigational buttons and a no-brainer “duh!” quiz, all in the garb of e-learning. The participants (I will not call them learners) are mandated to complete these hundred pages, without which they will not be considered certified for that skill. The makers of the e-learning aren’t happy either. The instructional designers or content writers have to go through a truckload of material and chase subject matter experts before they can extract the “necessary” amount of content for the course. Designers and developers have their own set of woes as they have the daunting task of beautifying the pages, and mass producing and packaging it all together as one unit. It’s like producing an expensive blockbuster sci-fi with a poor script. Neither the production unit, nor the audience is content with the end result!

Here’s an interview by the brilliant Cathy Moore where she says, “…a lot of e-learning uses passive information presentation (or information “dump”), where the amount of cognitive involvement on the part of the learner is nil. You might have quiz questions that ask you to remember what you saw just one screen ago — just testing short-term memory.” Well, she just summed it up!

All roads do not lead to e-Learning

Just as an OTC painkiller cannot be the only medication for every ailment, e-learning too cannot be the only mode of learning. As an L&D consultant, when would you propose e-learning as the learning methodology for your clients? As the HR training head or business leader, when would you identify e-learning as the mode for driving skills within your organization? Here are some of the situations where e-learning makes sense:

  • Introduction to a concept, solution, policy, or product
  • Demonstration of a technical task such as demonstrating the use of the VLOOKUP function in Microsoft Excel or logging into a website
  • Reinforcement of previously taught skills or practices such as cross-cultural or teleconferencing etiquette, listening skills and so on
  • Familiarizing end users of a software solution or product with the user interface and a few basic steps

These are just a few situations. Simply put, e-Learning as a learning methodology makes sense when the learner is expected to gain concrete knowledge or information. That said, a comprehensive audience analysis helps while designing the e-learning, especially when you have a multi-generation workforce.

Making e-learning work

How can we make our people willing participants to e-learning? With so much technology and social networking at our disposal, creating e-learning is no longer difficult. Nonetheless, e-learning in most corporate setups continues to be an arduous chore. Hey, even I’m guilty of wanting to fast-forward some of the courses and hoping they were shorter and more relevant!

Here are few ways we could make e-learning effective and attractive to employees.

Avoid content overkill

It is important to prioritize the learning objectives to help us distinguish between content that is directly connected to the objectives, and information that is nice-to-know. It isn’t necessary to dump all available content into e-learning. You could always maintain a reference document with nice-to-know information for those who are interested. An e-learning course is effective and attractive when it is short and relevant. A 30-minute course? Good. A 15-minute one? Now you’re talking!

E-Book versus e-Learning

Knowledge that is available in the form of books or presentations, are actually reference materials and not e-learning. Remember the purpose of training is to indoctrinate measurable skills. If it is e-Learning, it has to be short, interactive, and test understanding of the concepts. Otherwise it is just an e-book or a slide deck!

Make it fun and meaningful

I’ve endured e-learning loaded with animations and graphics that rather than interesting me, have made me impatient. Relevance and context are very important to e-learning. Introducing rich media is tricky and you need to get it right. The script and treatment will always be king, so always invest in the right development team that puts the learner before everything else. Instructional designers and content developers must go through e-learning themselves to understand what the learner goes through. Another key aspect is personalizing the learning content. Although e-learning is intended to be delivered to a large audience, it should be written in a way where the learner feels it addresses him as an individual. As the instructional writer, if you can bring in the emotional connect to the learner, you’ve got it.

Make it generation-friendly

It’s a well-known fact amongst learning and development professionals that different generations respond to e-learning differently. Most of the instructional design analysis focuses on the objectives and content and leave out the audience and their learning behaviours in the equation. Instead, if we could present the content in a way that it becomes appealing and approachable, we will have better participation and buy-in.

Leverage technology!

People all over the world book their movie tickets via their smartphones and here we have some companies implementing e-learning courses that look like chronicles! If I want to learn more about ALS, would I take a two-hour e-learning course organized as lessons, topics, pages, or Google “ALS” to know more? Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook – all are great digital platforms for learning.

For software products, we could embed e-learning videos or simulations as part of the application Help feature. We could even build a learning cloud for trainers, subject-matter experts, and learners where people could either upload or download short e-learning capsules using their PCs, tablets, or smartphones. Besides sharing talent, knowledge and expertise, this is a great way of exploiting technology for the benefit of the learning community.

Google Glass sounds like a highly promising and path-breaking technology where learning is integrated to the actual work and you learn while performing the task. A lot is being written and said about it, and I’m very excited about its positioning and prospects in this digital era. Imagine that you want to know how to use a new equipment on your factory floor. Instead of attending a training program, or waiting for someone to show you how to use it, you and your trainer can use Google Glass where she could demonstrate the use of the equipment on the go in real time. The benefits of this are many-fold. Not only is the training contextual and relevant, it also makes the employee productive from day one.

Real learning is blended!

There are many methodologies and ways of imparting skills and depending on the audience and the subject, each technique is irreplaceable. Google Glass may help me learn the new application at my desk, but a classroom training enables me to meet other participants face-to-face and connect emotionally.  As a new manager, I might learn how to use a new reporting tool by watching a video, but I would still need a mentor who can advise me on how I could assess my employees during their appraisal. As a customer service rep I might go through an e-learning video to learn how to log cases using the new CRM tool, but a group discussion with other reps would still be the preferred way to share and learn new ways to improve customer satisfaction.

While learning content, methodologies, or delivery mechanisms are extremely critical in delivering effective learning, what is of paramount importance is aligning individual needs with functional business and organizational goals.

Are we hiring people or headcount?


As managers and leaders, one of our most crucial decisions is selecting the right people in our teams. There are decisions to be taken at every stage from initial screening to the final interview stage. Unfortunately, hiring is perceived as a number filling game where we don’t look at candidates as people but as profiles or headcount.

What’s wrong with “headcount”?

Like the words “resources” and “headcount” that have replaced the more humane term “employees” in the corporate workplace, candidates are now called “profiles”. A profile essentially indicates a snapshot of the candidate’s skills, experience, and attributes that help us ascertain a candidate’s suitability, just like resources indicate people with the necessary skills for executing a project.

There’s no problem referring to people as “profiles” or “resources”, so long as they are used in the right context. For instance, when we discuss the suitability of a candidate to an opening while discussing the hiring process, using the word “profile” is appropriate as we are describing the individual. Headcount is fine so long as we are talking about the number of people we need.

However, we tend to forget that we need an individual or a group of people with values and skills that align with the organization’s work culture and business goals. It’s more than just filling a spot, and that’s where the term “headcount” is very limiting.

A whole-brained decision

On the face of it, hiring seems to be a left-brained activity. However when we actually delve deeper, it needs to be a whole-brained activity. Filling a number needs little or no decision skills. Checking whether or not a candidate fits into the required skill set can even be automated. However, deciding whether or not a candidate works for the need and determining whether he is going to add value, involves right-brained thinking.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure

One of the root causes of employee disengagement is lack of long-term alignment of the employee’s skills with the company’s business goals and strategy. Note that we’re talking about goals and not targets. The tendency is to hire people for a project or an immediate business need, rather than selecting them for a long-term purpose. Hire in haste, repent at leisure. Okay so I have twisted an old proverb, but that is so true today! Headcount, profiles, resources – all these are terms that make sense only in a temporary context.

Idle brain YouTube’s workshop!

We hire engineers and MBA graduates for jobs that don’t really demand more than 10% of their prolific degrees. For instance, I know of companies that hire MBA graduates for market research that actually involves collecting information using Google search. I have also heard of software companies that recruit fresh engineering graduates who expect to get their hands into coding but generally end up monitoring reports or testing small functions. As these tasks aren’t challenging enough to keep the employees on their toes, we find them with plenty of idle time. No wonder there is heavy traffic on YouTube, Amazon, Facebook, and their likes! In the haste to complete hiring, managers also end up hiring “white elephants” who no longer serve any future purpose or requirement within the organization. Yes, we are talking about folks who are “on the bench” long after the project is complete.

Negativity and conflicts

Finding the right talent is never easy. It requires painstaking effort and a huge process of elimination at the time of short-listing. Unfortunately, the compulsion to “close the position” leads to short-listing of candidates by only considering their job skills. Consequently, the hiring manager ends up with “problem employees” who have an “attitude problem” or become “bad apples” in the team. Having such individuals puts unnecessary stress on the manager as they become overheads rather than assets.

Immediate gains, long-term loss

To understand the heavy cost of recruitment and its impact, here’s an interesting article on a survey conducted by Careerbuilder in2013. India alone had 84% companies reporting adverse impact due to bad hiring decisions. The loss isn’t the bottom-line alone. Loss of employee morale, loss of time in training and induction, reduced business opportunities, dwindling sales, and reduced repurchase from existing clients – all these are a result of poor hiring.

A dearth of talented successors

The tendency to be hasty in hiring also leads to lack of succession planning. A majority of players with talent and potential leave when they realize the company does not have a long term growth strategy. That leaves us with people who may or may not fit the bill as future leaders. And so begins yet another unconstructive cycle – bad managers leading to unhappy employees and dissatisfied customers, and so on.

Hiring ‘em right the first time!

So how do we zero on the right people and not just add to the headcount? Over the course of my career, I have had my share of hiring blunders that have helped me improve my ability to identify and select the right people.

Versatility versus virtuosity

What kind of team do you have? Is it a startup team that has been newly formed, or a team that is already well-established with a more or less well-defined roles and responsibilities? A startup team needs versatile players who can work with ambiguity and have the ability to lay down foundations for future teams. More than qualification, you need strong entrepreneurial skills and out-of-the-box thinking. People with experience in working for startup or small scale companies would usually best fit this requirement as they have the ability to deal with the unexpected. Mavericks would do a great job here. However, people with this profile are restless and would need to be provided challenging roles once the team eventually settles down to becoming an established center.

If you have an established team, then you probably need people with the required skills and experience for the job. You also need them to follow instructions and be diligent. Knowing that your team may not expand significantly in the coming years helps you pick up dedicated individuals who feed on job security and are happy being team players.

Global skills

If you are hiring for a global team with a matrix reporting structure, then communication and collaboration skills are a must. I would any day opt for a strong and persuasive communicator over a highly skilled individual, provided the job does not demand high-end skills.

Visualization helps!

A job opening is always your need for a problem solver. Look at the job description and try to imagine a person with these qualities. Does it seem like your chosen candidate would be able to solve your problem? Visualize your team working in the office. Can you picture your chosen candidate as one of them? If you cannot, chances are that the person will not fit into the team.

Trust your gut

Intuition is one of the most needed abilities for a hiring manager. Here you have a dream candidate. She has the right skills and the right experience. Except that you are unable to decide. Whether or not you believe, your intuition is trying to tell you something. One of my managers taught me, “When in doubt, reject!” This has always helped me. There are times when I have doubted my gut-feel and felt tempted to close the position. Nine times out of ten, I have hired the wrong people when I did that. Don’t worry about the ageing days or the follow-ups from your recruitment team. Wait for the right person to come along, and no matter what, listen to your intuition!

Leadership Development – Training versus Strategy

It never ceases to amaze me. Organizations today spend a huge amount of their training budgets in putting their employees through the classic Time Management programs where considerable emphasis is placed on being proactive versus reactive, spending time on tasks that are “important but not urgent”, and thinking “out of the box”. Paradoxically, these companies do not have a proactive leadership development strategy in place. They wait for client complaints, dwindling sales, exiting employees, and dropping earnings per share before they conclude that they need to “fix their leadership”.

Leadership development in a classroom?

Sadly though, a majority of leadership programs are designed and conducted like moral science lessons. Most managers being adults already know they need to “walk the talk”, “be a role model”, and “listen to their people”. There is no point in telling them what they already know. Some trainers do manage to make their sessions more interactive with role plays and activities, but once the training is over, the participants go back to their offices – back to square one! No matter how wonderful the trainer/facilitator or how impressive the content or presentation, the question that remains is, now what?

Real problems, real people, real situations

Thanks to today’s matrix global workplace structures, managers have to battle with complex situations like working with international customers, constantly changing processes and dynamics, multiple bosses, employees spread across different shifts or locations, to name a few. The challenge multiplies when teams need to ramp up quickly and star performers leave without a succession plan in place. Ultimately, managers have to resort to promoting the best out of the lot, who are pushed into the mainstream without a lifeguard.

Compare this to the situation even a decade ago when it was possible to observe and emulate your bosses. If you were unsure about which candidate to hire, or which employee to promote, you could check with your manager who would advise or guide you.

When you look at the situation today, who could a junior manager approach when faced with a dilemma? He may have attended the most expensive Crucial Conversations training, but how confident would he be about dealing with a political, back-stabbing team member? What would he know about keeping his team gainfully engaged when there are no projects in the near horizon?

The leadership development training that might have worked ten years ago, would no longer work effectively, simply because the theories remain theories without sufficient scope to learn by observation, or emulation. No matter how good a “high-potential” development plan or a succession plan looks on paper, it remains a mere theory if not supported by a robust leadership development strategy.

Making leadership development real

A strong leadership development strategy not only takes care of developing current leaders, but also aligns leadership with the culture of the organization. This means that every leader puts to practice the core values of the organization.

Here are some of the possible ways leadership development can be a strategy rather than a series of training programs.

Identifying and assessing basic leadership competencies during selection

For this, it is important to identify the top few mandatory behavioral competencies you want to see in your leaders no matter what domain, vertical, or department they manage. These could be People management, Planning, Customer service, Communication, Interpersonal relationship, and so on.

The management leadership in consultation with the executive HR could implement evaluation instruments to assess their leadership candidates on these parameters. All candidates, internal and external should be put through the assessment. These assessments could be 360-degree surveys (for internal candidates), group discussions, or other assessment center instruments, depending on the competencies identified. The management could also select candidates that they feel can be developed on competencies they may lack.

Rather than a face-to-face interview with only the hiring department manager, a behavioral interview round with a cross-functional leadership panel would help better decision making that is not subject to prejudices or bias. Moreover the managers from other departments would be able to exercise more objectivity than the hiring manager, who might feel pressurized to hire who she thinks is the best candidate. It is important that the talent management/OD leadership is also part of the interviewing as they would be able to ascertain implicit traits that others may not be able to spot as easily.

Getting them started

In case of first-time managers, it usually helps putting them through a basic orientation program where they understand the company’s vision and leadership principles. They also need to know about the leadership competencies expected out of them. The talent management team could also form a committee or support group for all first-time leaders and provide them basic resources to get them started. Here, it might also help to conduct instructor-led workshops/programs on leadership basics.

Next, the HR business partner and talent development leadership need to meet with the new leaders letting them know who they could reach out to. This also gives the new manager a sense of pride and belonging. This could be followed by a few months of on-the-job mentoring by his senior manager who could introduce the new manager slowly into the system.

Sustaining the energy

Like I mentioned earlier, even first-time managers already know the core principles of leadership because they have already worked under a manager. Even if they didn’t get to experience a great leader, they would at least be aware of what they shouldn’t be doing as leaders!

The first couple of years are going to be full of challenging situations that would provide plenty of learning opportunities to the new leader. Performance issues, customer escalations, attrition, unhappy employees, performance appraisal, and conflicting project priorities will not only test his willpower, but also his sense of right versus wrong. It is during these critical moments that new managers would need coaches and mentors who have been there, done that.

The talent management team can form a panel of senior management leaders who can act as coaches and mentors to these new leaders. Coaching is an excellent process as that would help the manager find his own solution to his challenges especially where it comes to decision-making and using his own intuition. Being mentored by senior leaders would help him learn other and more efficient ways of dealing with similar situations as these leaders would be sharing their real experiences.

A transition from individual contributor to manager is a painful process. The strongest emotion is that of loneliness as a manager cannot talk about their problems with their team. They cannot talk to their own manager either probably because she is on a different time zone in a different country!

A monthly ongoing series of one-hour workshop could be scheduled by the talent management team whereby one of the senior leaders in rotation could facilitate discussions on real topics and situations like “Dealing with political employees”, “How to keep the team engaged”, “Communicating new compensation policies”, and so on. The emphasis here is on discussion amongst the participants rather than a trainer/facilitator taking a behavioral learning session. Over a period of time, these managers naturally reach out to each other to compare notes and learn better ideas, and form their own emotional support group.

Blended learning in leadership development

A talent management team’s role is not merely limited to conducting programs but to facilitate different ways of developing talent through blended learning ranging from e-learning, on-the-job knowledge transfer, instructor-led sessions, or even activities like group discussions or seminars. All these enable holistic learning – both formal and informal. The talent management team could organize online learning resources in the form of videos, articles, and other presentation material to help leaders sharpen their knowledge on an ongoing basis. They could organize seminars from industry experts. There are so many free webinars out there on leadership that companies could well leverage.

Thinking out of the classroom!

As per basic learning theories and principles, adults learn best when they are put into situations that mimic real life. A classroom is as far from real life as it can be. It’s time we taught new leaders how to think out of the classroom rather than out of the box!

Employee disengagement begins with leader disengagement. A neglected leader will bring down the morale of a large number of employees and customers too along with her. Leadership development cannot be a series of training programs anymore. A solid and enduring leadership development strategy cannot be a quick fix! It is a critical requirement that needs to be revisited and revised on a regular basis to help the organization stay in context.