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Archive for October 2011

Coaching: the real meaning

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As an HR leader, I have always been intrigued by the concept of Coaching, as it is practiced in the corporate world. All through my work-life, I have been advising the business partners as to how they can be a better leader and coach. To my mind, skill of coaching is an integral skill for any business leader and it is an imperative for leaders at all work-levels.  However, I have often observed that it is in this very skill leaders do not do as well as they ought to.

While there is no dearth of literature on this subject, I observe there exists a huge disconnect when it comes to actual practice. Coaching means two different things altogether to the supervisor/person coaching and to the person being coached. To the supervisor – it often means giving feedback & correcting. On the other hand, to the recipient, it largely means criticism. This issue of inadequate or poor understanding of the real meaning, purpose and necessity of coaching and our own perceptions of the same cause all the chaos in organizations and leads to a baffled, ineffective coach-supervisor and a disgruntled subordinate.

In this blog, I shall be touching upon the subject of coaching and my experiences with front-end managers and young and aspiring leaders, and their understanding of meaning of the word ‘Coaching.’

In a retail organization, where we try to build leadership talent at all levels, roles of front-end managers like Store Managers and Team Leaders are very crucial. These are the key leadership roles; represent the first line of leadership of the company. They are responsible for managing more than twenty employees, who are extremely diverse – demographically, culturally, educationally and intellectually and largely belong to lower-income/education strata of the society, thereby requiring all the more support and guidance from their leaders. Thus, the store managers and team leaders need to train, guide and coach their subordinates towards running a highly process-oriented business unit. Keeping in view the low learning agility of this sect of employees, coaching & mentoring is one of the key skills a frontline manager must develop. Thus, company’s investment in their learning and building their leadership skills is an imperative.

Over a period of several years, I have been involved in imparting the skill of coaching to the newly inducted as well as to the experienced front-end managers, who join us in batches of 25 trainees or so. These are young women and men, with an average age of 27 years, an average work-experience of 5 years and less – largely as individual contributor, and are just starting to learn the leadership skills. Since their role is highly dependent on people management skills, it becomes very critical for them to appreciate the basics and fundamentals of coaching. I have spoken with close to a thousand such managers and team-leaders on this subject.

Easier said than done…

When I was confronted with this challenge years ago, I thought of making them revisit the very core of the word ‘coaching.’ To do so, I have been using an extremely basic example. However, it has proven highly effective, as far as my purpose of making them appreciate the real intent and purpose of coaching and their role of a coach.

To every set of trainees, I ask two simple questions:

  1. During your school education, did you attend any coaching classes or tuitions?
  2. If yes, please share what is your perception of the word ‘Coaching’, as you experienced during your school years.

Batch after batch, (I must have spoken with more than 50 such batches by now), more than 75% of the trainees share that they attended coaching classes or tuitions during their school education years. They go on to share ‘their own perceptions & thoughts’ of the word ‘Coaching’. All this while, I have come across several words & phrases, which trainees shared as answer to the Question 2 above. To these managers, coaching meant:

  • Guidance
  • Support
  • Training
  • Mentoring
  • Improving skill(s)
  • Learning new skill(s)
  • Learning to pass, at least!
  • Learning to top the charts
  • Improving upon the weaker subject
  • Getting additional help
  • Learning tips and tricks
  • Getting feedback

During this part of the discussion, I purposely avoid adding my thoughts and encourage each trainee to share their own individual experiences and perceptions. However, batch after batch, I observed that these young leaders echoed very similar words to describe coaching, as mentioned above.

We also discuss the need for coaching classes during school years – the need of every student appeared different from the other. Those who scored marks less than 50 attended coaching/tuitions to at least keep passing! Those scoring 50 plus aspired to secure a first division – 60%. The one’s who scored above 60 aspired to obtain a distinction – 75 and above. Those securing 80 plus, aimed to top the charts. All desired coaching, albeit for different reasons!

All of a sudden, better appreciation of the word gets build…

Then comes my third question: “During your school years, in coaching classes or tuitions, how many of your were subjected to corporal punishments, taunts and even derogatory remarks about your abilities as a learner?” Please raise your hands, those who did.

Initially, no one responds. Slowly and gradually, some trainees start raising hands. Some were beaten up by their coaches/teachers, some were subjected to taunts and unflattering remarks and some were even abused with derogatory language. Batches after batches, I have observed that more than 70% of trainees share these sentiments.

However, when I ask as to why they didn’t share above views while they were describing their experiences with the word ‘Coaching’, there falls a dead silence. Largely, I could see trainees amused. Their reasons come out gradually – they shared only positive things, they shared what they thought was right; they shared what they felt good about.

They say, “We didn’t like what happened and hence, we stayed away from sharing the same. While we did experience negative behaviors, we only shared what we believe is real meaning of coaching for us.”

Meaning of the word couldn’t have been clearer!

You may think – what’s the big deal in me doing this whole exercise? What am I trying to say through such a simple example? Well, there IS a big deal. My purpose as an HR leader is to create leaders at every level; to establish connect between the coach and the subordinate, a skill that may not be well-ingrained by preaching via a power-point presentation on coaching and mentoring. By making these young leaders re-live their own experiences, I only make them reflect upon their own coaching styles. They get to respect the whole purpose of coaching for success, in a real and humane way.

Over a period of all these years with all these batches, I have started to see a pattern of thought-process and introspection. These managers look back and review their thoughts about their role of a coach. Subsequently, when they reach their stores, they remember most of this exercise and the learning. Often, I’ve noticed that the well-intentioned managers become better aligned to the key principles of coaching. They relate to the relevance and purpose of coaching, in the similar simple manner as it was in school days. They learn to exercise caution in words and tone, while coaching. They respect their subordinates’ feelings and expectations during the whole process of coaching. They learn to view each individual’s need for coaching differently and guide accordingly. They turn into more empathetic mentors; and coach just the way they themselves like to be mentored.

Above all, I observe they start becoming kind, gentle and generous to faults…this has helped me create first generation retail leaders at this pivotal work-level of frontline managers.

How do you prepare young leaders to be a successful coach? Do share your views.


Photo-credit 1: CNN.com

Photo-credit 2: how-to-draw-funny-cartoons.com

Written by RRGwrites

October 22, 2011 at 11:07 PM

Leadership and Failure

with 6 comments

October 15, 2011. It is 10pm in India. Indian cricket team has just won today’s ODI against England! Hurray! Dhoni scored a match-winning knock and was awarded “Man of the Match.” He rocks!

Don’t you feel strange? This very Indian team was written off only a month ago – obituaries were writ all over. I remember reading how the team has let the nation down and that Dhoni needs to review his captaincy, he needs rest!

A month ago, they had all failed, and their leader, Dhoni, failed miserably…

Strange is this word, failure. I have always found it even stranger when linked to the failure of a leader. We love to crucify our leaders when they fail. Analysis-paralysis is done to see what went wrong, and most often, the leader of the pack is packed!

Our corporate world is even more incriminating. It just doesn’t allow people to fail – there isn’t a room of acceptance or acknowledgement of failure. In case a leader fails, she is impeached brutally. We just don’t read the two words – leadership and failure – together.

I have always found this ironical. I my view, leaders must fail. They must learn to fail and sometimes, fail spectacularly. I know you may find it stupid for me to say so. Let me explain…

A leader is often considered above the followers. A person of higher skill, intelligence, authority, command and even a master of the trade. She shouldn’t fail – she has to succeed in everything she does – that’s why she is the leader and that’s why people follow her. She can’t fail…

Only, if that were true…

Leaders are very human – just like the rest of the humankind. They are not leading because they are BEST at everything their followers do and know; they lead for they are good with people, good with managing their talent and ambition. There is no guarantee that a great software engineer would become a great Project Leader too. And we would all agree, even the ones so called best-in-class fail to lead a team, unless and until they know how to manage people and make them deliver their best. Now, that has no bearing altogether on the leader’s expertise of the craft in question.

In my view, all leaders have a right to make mistakes, right to fail. They just need to have a will and skill to recover faster than other who failed, and document the learning immediately for others to learn from it. I remember reading somewhere, “One fails faster towards success.” Failure is a part of winning, and if leaders are the one who guide us towards success, they must be allowed to falter, to bite dust. More so, because every failure is a mere event and not a person called Leader. What matters is the lesson, the learning, the will to accept the failure and the resolve not to repeat the same mistake. Now, if failures aren’t tolerated at all, there won’t be any learning and improvement too. Won’t that be too dangerous a situation for the growth of the organizations, nations and humankind?

My fundamental belief is – failures make leaders appear a little more vulnerable, a little more human and much closer to their followers. We connect with people who are like us. We don’t want our leaders to be necessarily infallible; we want them to standby with us when we fail, and pull us out of our debacles. Now, if we could witness our leaders rising from their ashes, I believe, our resolve in them would increase manifold. Then, shouldn’t we allow our leaders to fail at times?

In modern day organizations, we keep hearing words like ‘risk-taking.’ We attach considerable merit to this phrase, and also call it a leadership quality. We encourage risk-taking and offer rewards for successful outcomes; praise the leaders for taking well-planned risks. Now, don’t we fail sometimes when we take risks? We do. But the same modern day organizations impeach the leaders without a second thought, when they fail. No wonder, average shelf life of a CEO in the USA is close to only 2 years! Why would any leader take risks then? And we all know, how slow the pace of growth would be, if leaders wouldn’t take risks!

Samuel I. Hayakawa once said, “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, “I have failed three times,” and what happens when he says, “I am a failure.”” 

I allow myself to fail. I have failed on several occasions in my life, even failed spectacularly at times. And each time, learnt an invaluable lesson – of not repeating the reason of my failure. Each failure has made me stronger, better, enriched. It brought new learning, it made me braver. My failures opened the new doors too. I am a better leader by allowing myself the freedom to fail. Today, I allow my team-members their share of failures, their share of mistakes. I already see them doing the same with their teammates…it is absolutely infectious, a matter of culture, and translates into an inevitable quality of a leader – to try to do better, to fail, to learn from that failure, teach others how not to fail at the same thing twice, and to keep pushing the envelope.

Do you?


Photo-credit: ashepherdsheart.blogspot.com

Written by RRGwrites

October 15, 2011 at 2:18 AM

Managing Diversity at Workplace

with 5 comments

Last week, I was discussing the subject of gender diversity at workplace with a bright management student, who is specializing in human resources. During the discussion, I shared with her how I believe gender-diversity is a key business imperative and not a mere fad.

However, she expressed her doubts on the overall subject of organizational initiatives promoting gender-parity.

According to her, an organization’s prerogative should be to promote meritocracy and establish processes that induct and manage talent irrespective of gender. She vehemently asserted, “To provide a pedestal to women and promote their cause in order to maintain gender parity would result in the male workforce feeling threatened and maybe even frustrated. A business has to be lead by people who have proven their worth and allowed metrics, numbers and tangible results to speak for them. Hence, ideally an organization should only make sure that equal opportunities are being provided to both genders and that women are supported and given an environment where it enables them to compete and prove their merit just as well as their male counterparts.”

She also raised the subject of female employees balancing the role of ‘care-giver with career-builder’ and raised an argument of it being matter of choice of the women. She asked, “please help me figure why should it be a business imperative to ensure gender parity at leadership roles, give that the organizations should necessarily be unbiased against any gender and provide equal opportunities?”

I am sure many of you may opine sharply to the thoughts expressed by the student above. Some of you may also say, “How dare she say all this?”

However, her confident argument and thought process behind it made me think. I am an HR professional; as a leader of several bright young women and men, I am responsible for hiring, building and promoting talent at all levels across functions. In all my years of working, I never observed any kind of bias towards any element of workforce diversity, including gender diversity. I worked with some of the great organizations of India and the world, which promoted & extended an inclusive, fair and open work-culture to all their employees, and always advocated & promoted talent and merit. Thus, I didn’t face any such situation where I would have experienced any undue bias towards any gender whatsoever.

Having said that, I am aware that this isn’t a universal phenomenon. We do keep hearing issues like ‘glass-ceiling’ that may still exist in some sectors and organizations. We do observe there exists certain discomfort with women working in manufacturing facilities or sales units. Often, this discomfort is not expressed in words, but a careful perusal of the body language of the hiring manager says it all. I have infact seen job-descriptions, which clearly say, “Only males apply”.

I often feel surprised at such discomfort or classification of gender, for I always thought Sudha Murthy broke the myth way back in ‘70s, by knocking the doors of a famous manufacturing company and opening it for women employees on shop-floor.

The difference of attitude of the society towards the women-folk has always left me confused. As a school student, I grew up with my female batch-mates studying much harder, being more sincere towards education, and participating in all events – indoor and outdoor, and competing with equal passion. However, right after the Class 10th, we could observe the change in society’s approach – boys aspired for engineering and girls often ended up taking ‘Bio’ – the aim being an apparently safer, or less riskier career in medicine! In those years, a very miniscule section of women applied and studied at the engineering colleges. This was way worse in pre-‘80s, where home-science and humanities were the key subjects for the girls. Either no career at all, or teaching or government jobs were the limited careers women aspired for! Thanks to this mindset, only a small creamy layer of women-folk pursued higher education or even joined the ITIs to pursue technical qualifications.

The late ‘90s and early 2000 changed it to a considerable extent. We witnessed a lot of women applying to and studying diverse fields like engineering, law, hotel-management, etc. Gradually, the percentage of women in such courses increased. The management colleges too started to have a good one-fourth and more of the batch as females and society started to change the outlook towards women opting for ‘riskier’ careers. However, largely this change remained confined to the metros and other large cities, and more so in the upper-middle class families.

Hence, the disparity in workforce remains at all levels to this date. Our factories do not employ women – they are considered a male bastion – due to the so-called physical labour required, perceptions of safety norms and also due to the mindset of the employers. So, at the workmen level, we don’t see many organization employing female workers. Law of the land doesn’t help remove the disparity either. It still doesn’t permit a large section of female employees to work before 6pm and after 8pm, and hence, poses a strong challenge towards organizations that aspire to promote work-force diversity to its fullest extent and benefits. Also, at this stratum of the society, male-members are still considered the breadwinners, and women run homes and look after children and elders.

I could never understand this dichotomy, for the fact that all our Indian homes that could afford a home-help, women of only the above mentioned stratum of the society work as maids, earning a substantial potion of their household incomes! Our farms always employed women, engaging them in harder physical labour than our factories merited! I always wonder if women can move around the town till late hours, why can’t they work inside offices and factories till late? After all, providing safe working conditions is what law and order is all about, and restricting the working hours only appear unfair to me.

On the other hand, at the knowledge and management workers levels, disparity is certainly decreasing. We see women performing exceedingly well in such roles. However, the numbers still do not stack up at all levels in the same manner. There are two broad reasons for this – one, still the number of female candidates studying in professional courses is far lesser as compared to their male counterparts. Blame the fact that old societal norms still exist in a large part of our small towns and rural areas. A very large segment of women do not get parental/societal approvals to move out of hometowns to pursue quality education elsewhere. Even those who do, often move back to hometowns, either working at whatever is available or yet again applying to ‘safer’ public-sector jobs, banks, et al. Hence, the modern, private-sector organizations get to receive a very small amount of applicants, and thus the poorer gender ratio at workplaces in lower and middle-management.

The second reason is that the women who get to obtain quality education, receive family support to pursue careers, join, work & perform in organizations, face another challenge – managing the dual roles of homemaker and career woman. Ironically, the age between 25 and 35 years when one can and has to concentrate on the career the most, most women drop out to get married, give birth to and raise kids. While both law and organizations extends support in such cases, this support is often inadequate. The pressure from society is often back breaking, many a times not allowing women to continue with their careers. Of course, this varies from family to family and society to society as a whole. However, we often see that such women resume work, if at all they do after a long break, only to find their roles being replaced by others. They are offered to take up whatever roles are available at the hand, which may or may not suit their skill or liking. In this hyper-competitive era, such gaps can be terminal for any employee, and thus jeopardize the rise of an otherwise competent performer with even higher potential. Consequently, we see furthermore skewed gender-ratio at senior leadership levels.

Keeping in view the above aspects, it becomes imperative for all well meaning organizations to encourage gender-diversity by employing focused strategic initiatives and provide cultural & infrastructural support to all female employees. In my view, these initiatives & opportunities in no manner subjugate the interests of and opportunities available to the male employees. Human capital is way too precious an asset to be forsaken at the altar of any diversity-initiative. In order to support diversity, no sensible organization would blindly entertain unacceptable quality of talent on its rolls and the subsequent loss of productivity.

I strongly believe that merit and talent is primary and cannot be compromised upon at workplaces. Having said that, creating an unbiased culture of opportunity, consideration to the physical and personal attributes of the female workforce and building concerted & innovative working possibilities that support women across ages and work-levels is an organizational imperative and must not be viewed as any special favour towards them.

I am reminded of this small piece I read very long ago in a book based on World War-II. It still holds a lot of meaning in the current times, when the value of partnership is even higher for both genders. Quoting here:

Rosie keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little frail can do,
More than a man can do,
Rosie, the riveter.
Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie;
Charlie, he’s a marine.
Rosie is protecting Charlie
Working overtime on the riveting machine.

I rest my case…please do let me know your views.


Photo-credit: McKinsey Report

Unusually Excellent

with 2 comments

by John Hamm

I recently completed reading this excellent book on leadership. In last 9 years, I have read several books on the subject; this one is arguably the best one.

‘Unusually Excellent’ provides an effective framework – 9 necessary skills required for the practice of great leadership. John takes you through each skill in a well-structured and elaborate, yet simple and compelling manner. He makes you think and ponder on your leadership style, without sounding preaching. He builds his case strongly for each skill, his stories make you identify your gaps, without making you feel miserable about them.

What made me read this book with considerable attention was John’s immaculate presentation of the 9 essential skills – unlike the rules that many other authors of leadership arena insist upon. I have always believed there aren’t any rules of leadership; leaders are born, not made. However, we can always acquire the quintessential skills of this art, making us more effective leaders by the day.

In recent past, many authors have stressed on leaders not focussing on basics; John explains this in a very effective manner through an excellent example of TaylorMade adidas Golf’s Performance Center in Carlsbad, California – ‘The Kingdom’. It was really an ‘Aha’ moment for me to read how great golfers, when face failure, learn to revisit basics of golf at this state-of-the-art facility. John builds a strong pitch here for CEO’s, by comparing them to professional golfers, and asks them to keep revisiting their basics. Really good…

This book is meant for both experienced and aspiring leaders, and is highly accessible & practical in approach. For me, there were some very compelling stories and examples featured in the book, and I picked up some great learning from each one of them:

  • Page 5, Carl’s story teaches us humility in a special way, a must have skill leaders often take for granted
  • Page 16, Jim’s story is really insightful…as a leader, “I am not above you. I am with you…”
  • Page 49, how a digital camera teaches us to fail, and do it better next time…
  • Page 61, “There is no such thing called bad weather, only inadequate clothing…”
  • Page 67, message from a great leader, “Connect with me. I know what to do. Together, we will accomplish something great that you will look back on with pride.”
  • Page 68, Born-again employees – this one is this incredibly important – “to keep your employees engaged, you must regularly re-create the original passion, simulating the reasons they first joined the team.”
  • Page 158, David’s story on ‘Talking Trust’ – how to resolve audience’s reluctance to ask questions when there is power in the room

and many more…

A key factor that John insists on is leaders’ personally spending considerable time hiring their team. He argues that “hiring great people is the highest leverage activity that leaders undertake.” I fully second this part. This is the first and biggest investment any leader would make in creating a great team, a worthy investment that has far-reaching effects and results.

Another great insight I picked up was on Page 134 – concept of “84 Great Things.” Superb example of ensuring flawless execution and very implementable…I have already started to practice it.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on John Adler’s story, on page 167-68…the Solitary Touch…how every word that a leaders speaks makes an impact, how their all words carry a message, an actionable for all…

‘Unusually Excellent’ is an unusually excellent work on the subject. This book is for the leaders, and not on leaders. It helps you build a perspective on leadership over a long career, and does not offer any tricks to be a leader. I have really benefited from this book…it has made me think, reflect, improve…I am on the path to being a better leader and will keep coming back to consult this book. I am sure, this will be one of the most thumbed books in every well-meaning leader’s library.

Highly recommended…


Photo-credit: endeavor.org

My first blog…

with 7 comments

Over the period of last so many years, I have been running away from making best use of technology. For me, computers meant using MS Office or email, email meant Outlook or Yahoo!, BlackBerry translated into using email/call/sms, and at the max, I tried my hand at some handheld games – ‘bricks’, if I could recall right! All this while, I stayed away from all tech-discussions, simply ignored all comments that said books shall be replaced by e-book readers, and kept adding them to my library in hoards…you’d say, pretty much 17th century stuff.

With all these years of me escaping technology, I also was learning to be the leader to new generation professionals – the GenY! Flummoxed at my escapism, they kept coaxing me to turn to the new age networks. It didn’t help that my wife turned out to be the greatest tech-savvy person I know! Still, I kept evading technology, basking on the old-world glory of pen & paper.

Then LinkedIn dawned upon me, in 2011! Months later, the better-half literally threatened me into buying a MacBook Air…Voila!!! This is some machine! Steve Jobs, you rock, man! Some work of passion you created…May you rest in peace…

This new machine opened my eyes…I have been reading online, and have stopped printing hundreds of pages, as earlier, to read them while I travel all over the country…I am starting to enjoy it, somehow.

Now, here I am, learning to find my feet in the world of blogs…trying to shamelessly feel belonged to GenY, to ready myself to learn new avenues and to keep up with the rest of the world…it seems to have reached too far ahead…

No Facebook or twitter yet for me…old habits die hard, don’t they?


Photo-credit: founder.limkokwing.net

Written by RRGwrites

October 6, 2011 at 7:31 AM

Posted in Life

Tagged with , , ,

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