On life…and learning

Posts Tagged ‘Feedback

True Feedback

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Over the last few days, the whole world heard a victorious Barack Obama thank his wife of 20 years profusely for the encouragement and support he received from her during the presidential elections he contested in the USA. While he proclaimed his much stronger love for the first lady, we observed a thunderous uproar, cheers and applause, not only from those who watched this incident unfold while being present at the ceremony, but billions who watched it glued at their television sets.

This is arguably the most powerful man on the earth speaking. And mind you, he is speaking in the full public view, acknowledging the role that only a spouse can play. This is not the first time we have heard Obama express his thankfulness towards Michelle – and don’t you mistake him – he is not only expressing gratitude for her being a wonderful wife or a mother or a homemaker alone. He recognizes the role of a strong person backing him; aiding him not only with reinforcement, but also with feedback and most probably, with much needed constructive criticism at times. Well, we all know how much we need that one in our lives and careers…

I am a big fan of one taking well-intended criticism in his or her own stride, and working upon bettering self. And trust me you, no one gives a better, sometimes harder-hitting feedback than a spouse. In the times we live , chances are that our spouses are far more educated and successful than us, and chances are even higher that they are wiser ones, specially in the moments when we choose to lose it!

And why to only speak about the need of feedback when one is at the wrong end of things and needs what is now most fashionably termed as ‘developmental feedback.’ Criticism, well meant one, is most crucial at the times when one is rather powerful, successful and flowing with the good times. That is when the chances of converting our 99% good-looking results into a solid, sustainable 100% performance gets overlooked. Along with support and care that a spouse extends, that moment of her pointing at a new way, guiding towards that blind side, hinting at newer risks to be taken and higher reward to be achieved, showing that under-achieved angle of personality, hitting on hard towards that one key area of focus that we may have been missing inadvertently… all these moments and feedbacks in turn become the seeds of our future success as a whole.

R Gopalakrishnan, the celebrated author of bestseller, ‘The Case of the Bonsai Manager’, in his latest marvel ‘When the Penny Drops – Learning What’s Not Taught’, lays considerable stress on the role a spouse plays in explicit feedback, much differently than all other people you give you feedback:

“It is often said that if you really care about somebody, you give them constructive feedback. If you do not care about somebody, you say only positive things. However, in reality, that is not the way the world works.

He explains:

“Very little is told to you by your boss or colleagues about the negative manifestations of your bonsai traps. Why should your peer do so when it is none of his business? And why should your senior do so lest he be regarded as a nagging senior? Why should your subordinate risk his career by doing so?

Gopalakrishnan asserts further:

“You can become aware of your dark spots by someone holding a mirror to your behavior and by looking deep into the mirror…

…Wives are known to render a unique service to their husbands by telling them what no one else dares to. The explicit feedback that a leader can get from the spouse can be harsh, but very valuable…”

Now, isn’t that so true? I am sure, deep inside our hearts, all spouses agree to this one. Think of it, who would in Obama’s staff, dare risk giving a critical feedback to THE President of THE US of A! The same feedback, I am sure, the first lady would render so easily to, what we now know, much willing ears…

I lead a pretty large team – women and men who are strong & competent individuals. To every one of them, when I interviewed, asked a question…

Have you gone back ever and asked your spouse this question – Hey mate, what are the two areas of mine that if I work upon and improve, I would become a much better professional?”

Every time I asked this question, I have observed amusement writ large over the face of the person. Nearly all of them don’t answer, as they have never asked this question to their spouses. And yet I can tell you, all well-meaning ones have gone back that day and asked this question for sure…

I am sure, they heard something really sound and useful that time…

I am leaving you with what R Gopalakrishnan calls the Clementine Mirror; he produced in his book a letter written by Clementine Churchill to her husband, Sir Winston Churchill – the Clementine Advice.

It is indeed a worthy read:

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner…if an idea is suggested, say at a conference, you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished and upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with and under you, loving you – I said this, and I was told ‘No doubt it is the strain’.

My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner; and you are not as kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders…with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness, and if possible Olympic calm…I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you…

Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness…

Please forgive your loving devoted and watchful…


(June 27, 1940)

Now, isn’t that the most sound business advice a leader can get? Do think about it.


Photo-credit 1: skillsconverged.com || Photo-credit 2: Flipkart.com || Photo-credit 3: Lettersofnote.com

PS: You can access the complete letter here.

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

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