Leadership

Growing New Wings

I write this sitting in an airport. Its been a busy time. For the mind, the body and the calendar. My flight is ‘delayed due to operational reasons’ I am told with an honour laden tone and a straight face.

So, I sit here in the airport trying to pluck words off the keyboard. This post has been in the making for a while. In my mind that is! I try to zone out of the ear popping frenzy of an international airport to attempt encapsulating the emotion of the past few weeks, months perhaps, into a coherent set of words.

I am still trying as I type this.

You see, its been a couple of weeks since I demitted office at Asian Paints and have been on the road ever since. After close to nine years with a distributed work remit over the years that included Talent Management, Organisation Development,  Learning, Performance Support, Social Collaboration, Diversity & Inclusion. The years sped away and I am left with a ton of learning, a clutch of memories and a heap of great colleagues and friends!

My decision has been on the works for a while now. It took a large quantum of effort and consumed much of my thought over the past several months.  I thought I had thought through everything.  Informing the organisation well ahead of time, working out a transition and closing my account, so to speak.  Looking back, I am struck by how much I underestimated the emotional ‘sense of loss’ of saying goodbye to an organisation that was is a dear part of me. That emotion devoured well laid out plans! 

I struggle here, sitting in the airport lounge, rummaging around for words.  The farewell blogpost I wrote on the Asian Paints’ internal social collaboration platform, on my last working day, is a classic study in contrast.  Words just flew off the keyboard then.

Wait a minute. I have an idea.   

Heres the farewell blogpost. In full. 

Yes, it is that time for me to sit down, say thank you and write a note of goodbye. I begin with Kahlil Gibran to get myself to switch gears and writing.

How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

      Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

      Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.

      It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands. Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst. “

And so, I am moving on. I haven’t had the opportunity of meeting and talking to as many good friends & colleagues, as I would have liked to. To let people know that I am moving on hasn’t been easy on the emotions!  Asian Paints has been a dear part of life over the last several years. A place which prodded me to change some strong beliefs that I came with, gave me fresh ones to harbour and opportunities to constantly grow. The freedom and space to ‘own’ work has always been stellar and that will always stay fresh with me.

There is something unique about Asian Paints that makes it more than a mere ‘company’. Perhaps it is the company! The company of people. A company of people that has fostered conversations, competence, relationships and a way of community. A collective heft, if you will, in the overcoming of stiff challenges and stern goals over the past 75 years! A sense of community that is unique and one that has made a difference to so many lives. A company that I will forever cherish. A big thank you for that!

As I move on, I draw on all our conversations, the debates & the arguments as much as I draw on all the warmth & love. I am moving on to nurture an entrepreneurial dream. I aim to be beset with the lightness of a beginner and try to spin my arm on a new track, even while proudly sporting the tag of having worked in Asian Paints. In your midst. Your good wishes have always meant much and will do so even more now, as I venture into uncharted territory.

Keeping in touch in the modern day world is ever so easy and I look forward to staying connected with you. ( The online space is something that I have been dabbling with and would also be a line of business for me now!).   My mail id remains Kavis.mail@gmail.com and a few sundry thoughts get aggregated at www.kaviarasu.com .

I reserve no less than the very best of wishes to you and to all members of your family and to this fantastic organisation.

I close with Gibran again. (He is just magical. Isnt he?)

Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you.
      It was but yesterday we met in a dream.
      You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky.
      But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn.
      The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part.
      If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
      And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky.

Heres to great times ahead!  “

That was my blogpost. Written in one emotion filled flow, on my last working day.

If you are reading till here, well, you would know that I am moving to unchartered territory. At least unchartered for me, as I eject from corporate employment and seek to find my feet in the big wide world. In short, growing new wings. 

One step at at a time

So, what now? A clutch of ideas, beliefs and notions power me.  Stuff, that crept in me on over the last several years. Brought to me by virtue of work,  discussions, reading, public conferences, private conversations over strong coffee. Yes, good strong coffee that I have woken up to and smelt.  

Here are some of my beliefs and hypotheses.  There are several. One way to shake up my inertia to promise myself that I will keep it to a pruned list of five points. Top Five, if you will. So here goes. A bit long maybe. But am going to let myself flow.

1. Work and the Future of Work :

All of us see small chunks and hear disconnected voices in our daily way of living and work that points to shifts in work. Not sure? Heres a quick dipstick. How many times have you heard at least two or three of the following?

a. “Our company is not what it used to be. We used to talk to each other a lot more. Where have the conversations gone?”

b. ” The idea of forcing a tag on my performance based on a statistical tool called the ‘Bell Curve’ is beyond ridiculous”

c. “I have to dumb down my digital social life to retain this job. I don’t know how for how long”

d. ” ‘These young people’  do not have any commitment to their jobs. How can you be committed if you are checking your facebook updates every 30 minutes?”

e. “Our engagement survey numbers are a bit of a joke.  What can you expect when they think they can engage me by buying new furniture?”

f. “My boss thinks I ought to respect him and listen to all that he says because he is my boss. Well, sorry.”

g. “Oh you know what, I got nominated to that same silly training programme. Thank God its aleast a better venue”

This is a sample of random conversations across several organisations that come back to my mind. Heard from business leaders, HR folks and other colleagues who I have had opportunities to interact with on various platforms and fora. There are several more that will unfold gradually as themes of my work. Over time. 

A ton of reflection, reading and exchanges of ideas with diverse people across the spectrum has left me convinced that tectonic shifts are taking place in the ground beneath us. These are but early rumbles.

The times we live in are like never before. Enterprises have people born five or even six decades apart working together. Beset with work values and approaches that not only appear different but have created new fault lines that appear as trenches.  Digital tools for their part have accentuated this divide, having changed how different generations approach work, relationships and daily lives.

Work is beginning to look, smell, feel different and is appropriating new meaning. The appeal of the employment ‘contract’ is getting jaded at a fast clip. The seeking for ‘real work’ and ‘agency’ is making its presence felt.

Organisational responses across the board has been to do more of what we are familiar with from Fredrick Taylor’s times.  Fresh minting of behaviour defining dictionaries asking for ( and rewarding ) conformance is common, supported by benchmarking studies that point to ‘everybody is doing this’.

All is not lost, though. New conversations on Whole System Thinking, Emergence, Collaboration is indeed emerging from the shadows, amplified by digital tools and their reach. The right balance between esoteric in-the-air suggestions to changes on the ground needs to be found. Not easy. To move from firewalls & functions to networks and platforms need deep conversations and deeper work. 

2. Learning & leadership in the new world: If society’s ideas on work have shifted, goes without saying that those about learning, leadership & performance need some soul searching with a good dose of imagination.

Certainty centred ‘education’ of the past has given way to the need for learning to handle rapid change. Throwing fancy content, well designed ‘training programs’ and shiny new technology at every problem that organisations face have only riddled us with more trouble than before. Stories of efforts to solve challenges leaving organisations with a heap of new challenges are of everyday lore. 

In a world where the ‘authentic’ continues to gain currency, far more is possible by facilitating people to bring and apply their full selves to work. To look at work as the learning and learning as the work, puts far more in the hand of every single stakeholder. It gives ‘agency’ and a scope to function with choice.

As they lead the charge in the new age, leaders with the best intent, buoyed by thinking and successes from an earlier era can run aground the best-built ships. Thinking whole system, community, designing rich jobs, and choice enabled development platforms  will be needed in tons. Keeping things simple and natural will bring development & change that matters. Keeping things simple is tough. (I realise, even as I type this) 

3. Community. Networks. Collaboration: We come together to converse, to learn and create shared meaning in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. Going beyond notional boundaries of organisations, nations, domains and what not, these conversations can be spawned sans title or position in a hierarchy.  Organisations can get themselves new wings, reimagining themselves as a community. Needless to say, communities can get far more firepower and create far greater impact when they leverage the full power of the eco-system in holistic ways. 

It is by no means easy work. It is a different kind of work.  We need more imagination at play than certifications. More story telling than policies. More conversations than reviews.  More belief in the full person than making rules to extract work from 9.00 am to 6.00 PM. More inclusive work than diktats. 

This change needs the intelligence and interest of networks and hundreds of conversations. With careful nurturing, curation and holding the space for these to flourish, much change can arise.

Networks, collaboration and spawning more of them becomes an important wagon in the change train. The network has always been more powerful than the node (irrespective of what the nodes thought). Even more so now with technology shrinking the world.

4. Spirit of Enterprise: The spirit of enterprise and choice will be the key to help change sustain. Challenges that we are faced with look different when viewed through the eyes of employees with agency.  As hierarchies struggle to come to terms with the scale of change that scalds , the entrepreneurial mindset will both be the balm for change and the recipe for ringing in the change.

Sustaining energies of a restive population for lasting change requires energies from within. The entrepreneurial mindset can power change like nothing else can. For the headwinds won’t be any simple!

5. Other matters: Heres the fifth point. Five points, as I had promised. More for another time perhaps. Now for some ‘other matters’! Important other matters.

I hope to able to drop my daughter and pick her up more often than before and indulge in intimate discovery lead learning. For her. For me.

To write more, read more, travel to places on the map ( and places that aren’t ) and share them with the world is high on the agenda.

New Media is an area of great interest and more dabbling with many of its present and emerging forms will be fulfilling.

To shed some weight and staying light is another priority. In the body as well.

And of course, sitting down with people across the world and chatting up about the weather over our heads and over the organisations we frequent. That will hold sustained interest. The coffee will stay strong.

These are my beliefs and hypotheses. Notions, if you will. ‘Ambitious hopes’ as a colleague called it the other day. I need to question my assumptions and needle my beliefs. It requires, deep work.

My plan is to work in the spaces at the intersection of People, Culture and Technology. My palette has varied hues : Org Change & development, Leadership Facilitation, Executive coaching and the like. Am confident that my experience and understanding of people development, change processes and organisational structures combined with the passion for digital /social tools and social business will find green space.

While the contours of what I will be doing sits pretty in my mind, its translation to specifics requires a good degree of spit and polish.  Conversations, work and diverse experiences will be the secret sauce work this through over time.  I look forward to partner with people / teams / networks around the world who are hungry for making a difference in the spaces they operate in.

The support from the various communities that I have drawn from has always been awesome. I am ever so grateful for that. I will continue to draw on these, even as I attempt to forge new equations and chemistries.  As I start out to question my assumptions and needle my beliefs, a bit of a falter, some hop skip and jump are to be expected. Picking myself up all over again will be possible with the help of the communities and conversations.  Those will be dear as I weave a new warp and weft into my skin.

So in more ways than one, I begin all over again. Wish me luck & watch this space.

That’s it for now people. The honour laden tone that had announced that my flight was delayed due ‘to operational reasons’ just announced that it will soon be boarding.    

The lost art of fine conversations

Conversations after all the binding paste for several things. For a relationship to blossom. For a transaction to take place. History to be passed on. For societies to mature. For lessons to be learnt. Developing people and building a cultures Not to speak of building cultures in an organisation.Of course, The Cluetrain Manifesto took it to a different height altogether stating “Markets are conversations”. ( Incidentally, have you read the New Clues?)If we just hover around the topic of having good conversations, one on one, or even amongst a group of involved friends, how would it be? Think of a good chat you had with someone. Where you spoke and he or she spoke your hearts out?

Flowers

Wouldn’t it be nice? When did you last have such a conversation? How many times in the recent past have you had such involved conversations?If you have had such a conversation in the recent past and are prone to having such conversations often, then you can count yourself amongst a lucky minority in the world. For the world in itself is increasingly bereft of good conversations!It is a travesty isn’t it, when what makes societies and communities accorded lesser importance, in a world where everything is getting ‘smarter’? I have a premise : The power and the need for having deep conversations is seriously underrated.

Oftentimes we feel a vague sense of not connecting to family members, to teams we work in or organisations we converge at, there is a vague feeling of loss. A feeling that something is amiss. Not often, however, is this question pondered over : When was the last time I SPOKE to someone? I write ‘SPOKE’ in capitals, for it is not the same as having a dead ‘how is the weather’ or ‘we should strive for world peace’ conversation.

It could be five minutes or fifty minutes. Maybe five hours, where not much is spoken, and the presence speaks. What counts is how genuine is the interest shown in knowing more about the situation and the person. Its about revealing parts of oneself. Its being in the moment, with the other person.

a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest writes Edgar Schein in the Humble Inquiry. My post on the book is here. That is an eloquent call out for good conversations.

The trouble with an aspect like ‘conversation’ is that it appears very simple! It is indeed simple. So simple, that its importance is missed. Given the distractions that our everyday world offers and the preoccupation that several of us have with ourselves, it is not easy to have good conversations.

Yet, it is at the centre of our modern day existence! Where ‘inter-dependency’ is a necessity that doesn’t require any reinforcement. Good conversations provide us with the opportunity to move from being mechanistic to being truly alive. To deal with ‘colleagues’, ‘family’ or ‘team members’ or ‘boss’ much beyond the shallowness proffered by the literal meaning of the word. It means interacting with another live human being.

 Organisations offer multiple formal opportunities for good conversations. Yes, they carry different labels like ‘appraisals’ or ‘development’ or ‘coaching’. In essence they are conversations!I chanced upon this wonderful Harvard Business Review piece titled “Leadership is a conversation” . If you haven’t read it before, do take the time to read it. If you already have, do give it a read again. . (The same authors have another piece titled “Conversations can save companies“. The aspect making talk happen is a leadership responsibility. That stood out.). The piece by the authors is fantastic on many counts. Putting together a need for a communication model that is ‘intimate, interactive, inclusive and intentional’ is powerful. Those are in any case tenets that make a good conversation between two people. When you imagine conversation as the basic thread that makes the weave of a community, a society or an organisation, you realise that it needs to be accorded far more importance than what is accorded now.

I hope this reaches you. In case it does, we sure must talk about it!

Building an “attitude of interest” – Humble Inquiry


My dad used to always tell me that the virtues in keeping things simple, easy and small was so huge, that it gets often missed. His knack for keeping things real simple and constantly seek beyond what seemed obvious or what were ‘mainstream voices’, got him untold riches. Relationships. Ideas. Discoveries. And a wide spectrum of people who wanted to work with him. The essence of it was all about having an abundance of curiosity and an attitude of discovery. More of dad later.

Now about Humble Inquiry.

HI

When Vivek Patwardhan recommends a book, I close my eyes and buy it.  Thats that. When he recommended “Humble Inquiry” by Edgar Schein, it was no different. Having consumed several of Edgar Schein‘s work in the past (and occasionally foisting it on MBA students who I taught), I was mildly surprised that I hadn’t come across this work before.  That it was dated June 2013, was some consolation!

Schein writes at the end of the book, “This book represents a culmination and distillation of my 50 years of work as a social and organisational psychologist“.  That one comment should be suffice to get anyone get started. But there is more. Here is another quote. “The current book Humble Inquiry brings together all of these trends in showing how culture and individual behaviour interact, and what it will take in the way of counterculture behaviour to deal with the changes that are happening in the world“.

In more than one way, the last few posts of mine have been about changes that are occurring in the world and our ways of dealing with them. Be it facilitation, Working Out Loud or even ‘Social’ for that matter.  This book settles that theme remarkably well for me. My own stumbling across such themes is either a fortuitous consequence or perhaps I am viewing everything that I am stumbling across with my current lens.

From very early on, Schein anchors his argument as an alternative to the popular mainstream culture of ‘tell’. “We also live in a structured society in which building relationships is not as important as task accomplishment in which it is appropriate and expected that the subordinate does more asking that telling, while the boss does more telling that asking. Having to ask is a sign of weakness or ignorance, so we avoid it as much as possible”. 

He drops anchor on curiosity, to explore and a willingness to ask questions to which we do not already know the answer.

The book is insightful in more ways than one. It is a read that I would recommend to any leader aspiring to lead large organisations now. And more importantly, in the future. The examples are lucid and pointed. Before you assume that the book is a set of skills about asking questions, let me hasten to add, that it is far from that. In fact, Schein himself states explicitly at several places. “The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity“.

The book has several parts to it, stretching from building a case for it, articulating what it is and what could be possible inhibitors and ideas about developing this attitude. The weaving in of Humble Inquiry through the windows of simple frameworks like Johari Window and the ORJI (Observation – Reaction – Judgement – Intervention ) model helps in making it contextual and practical.

Its an easy, simple read. Devoid of jargon. Its the best Rs.123/- that I have spent in a long time!

This book is a superlative, if you are in the talent development, culture change arena. If you are an executive coach or are in pursuit of perfecting your skills, this could well be the centrepiece of your practice. Of course, this book holds a bundle of benefits for anyone serious about leading teams in our current times!

The scepter of uncertainty envelopes every leader’s ornamental bauble. Knowledge and expertise are far too distributed within and outside the precincts of the firewall.  The ‘attitude’ of ‘Humlbe Inquiry”, when coated with ‘social skills’ adds another rather potent dimension to the modern day leader’s quiver.

And, dad. It was while reading this book that realisation dawned that what endeared him to many was his consummate practicing of ‘Humble Inquiry’. His innate ability to ask a question with warmth, genuine interest and wait for answers used to have many wanting to talk to him. This book reminded me of him. Thats one more reason that this book stays on my mind.

Tell Well!

The word ‘story’ means different things to people. Am sure an image pops up in your head as well, as soon as you hear ‘story’. In a kid’s world, no other word can bring a wide eyed stare of possibility as much as the word ‘story’ can!

Stories excite children, widens their eyes and brings about a smile, every time they hear the word. Sometimes, they are ready to be lulled into sleep, exchange their favourite toys and have the food that they detest, all in exchange for a good story. The power that stories carry in them, is massive.

Let me pause here and add, that stories have a rather telling effect in the business world too. The same, if not better, than the effect that it has on kids.

Good stories, craftily told, carry with them tenor of playfulness yet manage to stoke imagination and possibly see a future in the mind that isn’t ordinarily visible. Stories help see parallels. Extrapolate the present into the future. Visualise scenarios. Connect a set of disparate events on a timeline. Sometimes, they are wonderful capsules where bitter pills are packaged as interesting accounts.

If they are peeled one more layer and understood better, stories help in translating abstract numbers, concepts and even contexts into more digestible chunks. In that they have a very unique and powerful role.

If stories have such a place of pre-eminence in the business world, imagine the importance of the ability to tell a good story. I could go out on a limb and proclaim that amidst several aspects, the ability to tell a good story is perhaps the most underrated and valued amongst leaders.

IMG_1184

Good leaders instinctively understand this and cultivate great story-telling capabilities. Capabilities that inspire large teams and more many times are successful in engineering hard action today, based on the image a story of the future that the leader is able to paint.

All of us tell stories. To ourselves. To others. We may not see them as ‘stories’ per se. But all of us do! To be able to tell it well for a predefined effect and intended result gives it a very different dimension.

If you are an entrepreneur out there, your power to weave the future, emanates from your story! The Elevator pitch is a story. The pitch to investors, customers, potential employees, employees..well, the list is long indeed. That list can be a story in itself. Joseph Levitt told it like none else, when he said, “The universe is not made of atoms. Its made of tiny stories”

Anyone with an internet connection and a device can find thousands of websites reeling out a zillion ways to tell good stories. Here are three top elements that come to my mind, in all my ears of telling and listening to great stories and working with some of the coolest leaders who were giant story tellers.

1. Preparation is key! As simple as it sounds, sans preparation, even the greatest of stories flounder without good storytelling. Getting the story aligned to intended outcomes is key. Most importantly, constantly staying on the lookout for good stories is what will add to the stock that can be deployed at will.

2. Great story tellers always leave their audience curious to know more. They leave them energized, thoughtful or sometimes very reflective. To keep the stories short, simple and contextual works. A dose of humour, as and when appropriate, works.

3. The stories that go a far longer distance are those that are REAL, told in first person and told with a degree of ‘authenticity.

Story telling is not an optional extras. It sits the very centre of good leadership skills. Besides if you want to build a great cohesive team with a defining sustained culture, stories look no further than the story that’s currently playing loudly and the ones that you would like to hear. That’s a very different topic and a giant story by itself!

Polish your story! Yet again. It helps.

This was my contribution to Sheroes.in a while ago.

The power in conversations

Imagine you have a four year old daughter. All sprightly, playful and extremely fun to be with. Assume that you have been away on work. Making full use of your absence and in her constant quest for exploration, she touches a hot tea pot.

The hot tea pot gets her to pull her hand back in a quick reflex action. Chances that she would go anywhere close to the tea pot reduce dramatically. Some learning has taken place there.

Meaning Making

You get home from work and ask her, ‘what did you learn today baby?’, chances of her saying ‘I learnt that the tea-pot in the corner of the kitchen is hot and can be very dangerous’ is remote. Remote is a mild word there!

In all probability, you will hear a ‘nothing’ or something or about the latest game that she picked up from her best friend or whatever. And getting on to the next game.

This scene is something that keeps repeating all over our lives. We are all learning. All the time. Or rather, continuously making meaning  of things that happen to us or around us. Constructivism holds meaning making right at the centreBut that’s as far we’ll go into that aspect.

In an organisational setup, the meaning making can take a collective hue as well. Most often, leaders abdicate a responsibility to help team members REALISE their meaning making and helping assimilate / moderate / augment the ‘learning’ that occurs all the time.

One key skill that is seeing more and more remote practice of, is the ability to hold reflective conversations with team members. In a high tech, connected world where email and the keyboard become THE interface, having good old conversations is becoming a rarer ‘event’! Yet, it is a such a vital tool in a leader’s arsenal.

If it is so vital, why isn’t it practiced as much as it should be?

For one, it is difficult. It is seemingly easy, but it is difficult. There cant be anything more easy than sitting down and having a good chat, it would seem. For one, it goes beyond ‘small talk’ and exchanging sounds about the weather or seeking basic information about each other!

A good quality conversation which can enthuse team members has a few aspects to it. It means, listening exceeds the speaking not with an intent to convince, but with a desire to bring complete ‘PRESENCE’ to the conversation. And listening happens both with the eyes and ears!

A good conversation means indulging in the lost art of curiosity and staying with asking questions to help the team member discover answers for himself or herself. It means patience. And it also means, living with the possibility that it perhaps will not head the way it was desired in the leader’s mind! Candour and sharing help establish trust from both sides and are great catalysts!

And no, a good quality conversation cannot be had over mail. Yes, ‘conversations’ sounds simple. And ‘simple’ is not always, ‘easy’! Or effective.

Some of the best leaders I have worked with have been great at conversations. Not necessarily, the funny-slap-on-your-back-laughter kind of conversations over a few drinks. But ones where they were fully present. Not for a moment looking into their mobile phones or into their watches. They listened intently, with curiosity ruling the day. And always, always, asking searching questions the answers of which I was in search of, sometimes, long after the conversation was over.

Many a time, these chats didn’t give me straight answers or ‘to-do’ lists but helped me formulate a thought and create my own ‘to-do’ list!

Even as the ultra fast world gets comfortable with clicking on the ‘like’ button, putting down a two line comment and drafting mails as a means for communication, they are just a patch on the power of a simple conversation!

It is a vital skill in a connected world to connect deeply!