Friday, December 24, 2010

People Always Leave People!

In the IT services industry, one of the key metric is “attrition” and most of the firms have their own formula for calculating it. In simple terms, it’s the number of people who have left the firm in a particular period by total number of people that that firm has in that particular period. It is usually expressed in percentages and it gets featured in quarterly earnings for public listed firms and for private firms, it is given as a MBO to the senior management to curb it if the number goes high. Customers track this and highlight it as a concern if it goes beyond an acceptable level.

There is always a conflict between professional managers and HR on who should own this metric. In some firms, it’s a shared responsibility, in some; it comes under the ambit of managers KRA. Again, I don’t want to get in to this dynamics -That’s a separate blog by itself. I strongly believe that people management falls under of ambit of professional managers and they must do whatever it takes to retain people or “talent”.

After having retained a lot of people and have lost a lot of people, I wanted to blog about this for a long time!

Why do people leave firms? What can be the reasons? Is it for?

  • Better pay
  • Better Lifestyle
  • Better job profile or a challenging role
  • Better boss who has basic human values
  • Higher Education
  • Marriage
  • Start on their own!

Most of the times, I believe that, “people always people” and they do not cite this as a single most reason during exit interviews but it is more implicit. When I mean people, it refers to their immediate boss most of the times and some times, the leadership team in general.

Given this view, how do we tackle this? There are again multiple ways to achieve “nirvana” here but we will attempt on couple of pointers or hints as this is an evolving area [feel free to add your comments after reading especially in this area]:

  • Behave like a “manager”- I am smiling while I am typing this but this is something I think is missing most of the times. Most of the promoted managers don’t even know what they should do as “managers”. The field of management is so extensive that they don’t even want to read about it. They believe that they have got the title and hence they are capable! They have got the title because they did well in an individual/team capacity most of the times and due to that, they got elevated to handle a team. GE had clearly defined this in 4 E’s long back [Energy, Ability to Energize, Edge, and Ability to Execute]
  • Your role is different from your personality- You as a manager are in a “role” and it is not a role given by a firm to “please” everyone. It’s a role that has clear result areas and objectives- So you have to ensure that your “core” personality does not conflict with this role. For example: Your core personality does not like arguments or conflicts whereas in your role, you need to do that day in and day out. The ability to differentiate this is very critical as it benefits your team. Your team will get suffocated if your core soft personality comes in the way of the role or vice-versa.
  • Solve Problems for your team; don’t delegate and expect to get solved- If a problem does not get solved, chances are that your team is looking up to you to get your hands dirty. If you think you also cannot solve it, then don’t route the blame to the team. Essentially eliminate the “blame game”- You are being a manager to take the blame and not to route it! Very obvious point but do you do it?
  • You are under constant observation by your team- This is the hard truth of being a manager! If you are uncomfortable on this aspect, you should tend to remain as an individual contributor. You need to bring dignity to the role- Any degree of prejudice or nepotism or any default practice done by you is observed, recorded, archived and will be retrieved by your team for future use!
  • Respect from your team comes because of your actions and not because of your title- Again everyone understands this but few track this consciously!
  • Respect your word- Some times manager’s commit something to an individual team member or a group of team members and it’s important to respect that word! I have seen managers committing something to solve something in the short term or for the immediate term and forget about it. This jeopardizes the role once again.
  • Focus on being a good human being yourself- This encompasses your personal “value compass” and the shared values like Empathy, Compassion, and Integrity etc.
  • Courage and Passion- This is important as these two are inter-related and very contagious. You need to have courage to encourage “dissent” in your meetings rather than surrounding with yes-men. The passion that I am referring to is not your personal passion- You might be heavily interested in photography or painting but you have a day job; so it might be worthwhile to inject some passion in your day job so that you can make it joyful for you and others!
  • Teach a new thing for yourself and for your team- They will remember you for this for eternity!
  • Read, Read and Read- Again the common excuse that I hear on this are:Lack of time
    -No interest to read
    -What do I gain by reading?
    -I have around 10 years of experience- So why read? I know? [this is the know-it-all syndrome]
    -What to read? When to start? Which book? Management or Non-Management?
    I think reading anything helps you to kick-start the habit and also get in to the “connecting the dots” and “association” trait which is very important for aspiring leaders.

I can go on and on for managers but if we understand some of these practical aspects, we can and will retain people and talent. Even if they leave, they will come back for you! Again, we are not attempting a recipe here but the above factors can be taken in to consideration while you are in the “retention” business.

Given the advent of millenial’s entering the workforce and globalization creating more options for everyone, it has become a necessity to retain good people/talent. Fortunately, there is no shortcut for this and meticulous understanding and diligence is required on people management!

Would love to hear your views and perspectives on this!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

While I was surfing books in a book website, I came across, “Running the books- The adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”. I loved the cover of this book- It has the face of Avi Steinberg [My assumption] on a collage of book stamps of lending date and submission date. Somehow it reminded me of my college and MBA days where I have never read any book within the return date and always paid some penalty or the other. The cover itself is so creative- full marks to whoever thought of it as it blew my mind! Mindblowing- I don’t know how a kindle can replicate this joy of seeing this cover! I also liked the manner in which the pages were attached- It was as if a journal is made in to a book! Too cool.

Now coming to the book itself, Avi Steinberg writing is humorous, intense, and impressive and he takes a conscious attempt to keep the boundaries! It’s a thin red line and there is always a temptation to talk about the author’s life in addition to his role as a prison librarian and his protagonists in the prison. I think that line has been clearly drawn and it is visible only when you look at it deeply- Otherwise it flows seamlessly. That way, Avi has done a fantastic job.

The crux of the book is simple- Avi takes up the job of a prison librarian in a tough Boston prison from being an obituary writer and the people he encounters in the prison- pimps, psycho-killers, ex-stripper who has estranged her son, drug pedellars, gangsters etc; their desires, their idiosyncracies, their perspective on things more importantly on books especially reading and writing! The stark contrast is the fact that a prison librarian like himself genuinely tries to impart reading, writing skills to the society outcasts- Is’nt contradictory or counter-intuitive. Well, you got to read this to understand where it is leading. The protagonists are fairly intense- A pimp who is looking at writing his biography and taking tips from Avi, An ex-stripper who has estranged her son who himself is an inmate and tries to take Avi’s help in meeting her son in the prison, A thug who aspires to be a world popular chef- In fact he wants to name his show as, “Thug Sizzle” and ofcourse the whole tension between inmates, prison officers and the staff [people like Avi]. The staff; people like Avi have to maintain a balance between inmates and prison officers. He cannot be completely compassionate or empathetic to the inmates as it spoils the prison equilibrium but at the same time, he has to comply to his human values of compassion! Avi also gets to know these societal outcasts so intimately that he unconsciously helps them or takes sides which by itself is crossing the line from a prison rule book!! That dilemma is very well captured especially in the areas where Avi helps out Chudney [character who aspires for Thug Sizzle] or the C.C.Too Sweet [Pimp who wants to write his biography] or Jessica [ex-stripper leaving her son estranged]. The character of C.C.Too Sweet is very colourful and his theories are reasonably hilarious- Too Sweet feels that pimps are the kings when it comes to rhetoric and the fact that Malcolm X was able to move people, large crowds, use knowledge from books comes from the aspect that he can be possibly be a pimp!! :-)) This is again C.C. Too Sweet theory- Form him, everything originated from pimping which is nothing but street swagger!!

This is a great book for book lovers as the writing is kept at a level where it does not bore with multiple characters in the prison and the layers are peeled off one by one like an onion! I would recommend this book to aspiring writers to get a feel of multiple tracks.

Essentially there are 3 tracks in the book:

  • There is this track on the prison characters, their aspirations and how Avi enables or facilitates them in a small manner. His dilemma on taking sides!

  • There is this track on Avi’s observation how the prison is run and how the library is run- The whole aspect of inmates communicating through “kites” [short letters kept in the books for others] and inmates writing poignant poems and summary in the writing classes. The aspect of Protective Custody unit which is the outcasts of the outcasts and how inmates view them as prisoners within the same prison! The whole concept of time inside a prison- I have always read this, “I am doing time”. Time means doing with your hands [a repetitive task, organizing books, cleaning things et al]- There is a difference between doing time and being in prison. Also, you can wish “Happy “anything”” for the inmates as there is no concept of festivities! There is also a small track on his orthodox Jewish background; I wanted to explore some of those topics and I have made a note of it. Very Interesting.

  • Finally the track where it converges to the ending of the book which in my mind was fabulous!!

I was constantly wondering how Avi is going to end the book as the onion peels were coming again and again- Its tough to create an abrupt end but Avi’s accidental meeting of a prison inmate in a common place like Boston public library where that inmate narrates Avi’s joke back to him: It goes this way:

A merchant bought a sack of prunes from his competitor. Opening the sack, he saw the prunes had begun to rot. He went back to the seller and demanded his money back. The seller refused and the two men went to see the rabbi to settle their dispute. The rabbi sat down at a table between the two men and emptied the sack in front of them. Then he put on his glasses, and without saying a word, he went to work, slowly and carefully tasting one prune after another and each time shaking his head, After some time had passed, the plaintiff finally spoke up, “So rabbi, what do you think? The rabbi, who was about to consume the last of the prunes, looked up and replied sharply: “Why are you fellows wasting my time? What do you think I am- a prune expert?

The inmate emphasized this joke in the context of the fact that in this life, you don’t have all the answers!

This was a poetic ending to this book whereby Avi clearly dissects each of the prison inmate life history, their aspirations and why things were happening in a certain manner. I LOVED this ending and there was no other better way to end this book. I have become a complete fan of Avi Steinberg because of his ending!

PS: This reminded me of the movie, “Secret Window” where Johnny Depp [writer] emphasizes on ending of the book!

Friday, December 17, 2010


Disclaimer- This is not a philosophical post but something that recently happened to me and I am just articulating those thoughts!

DEATH- DELIVERY OF EXTREME AGONY TO OTHER HUMANS!!- This is how I expand “death” given the limited words that I know in English language! But more importantly, death is something that nobody has conquered so far and cannot conquer in our life time. It is so easy to see, visualize, understand how, why death happens everywhere but when it happens in your family or in your close vicinity you come to terms with this beast! It is so sudden that everyone is dumbstruck and mind numbing- It is like as if you are hanging in air after having a controlled life so long. All your controls are gone the moment you hear the news of death of someone who is closer to you!

You feel that you have achieved everything but cannot achieve anything in front of death coming to you. Given this lingering thought, I have some philosophical questions [ofcourse introspective]:
  • Why do we have super-ego’s when someday it is going to be crushed and turned in to ashes?
  • Why do we hurt others when they will be engulfed someday?
  • Why do we want to amass so much when it is of no value while one is facing death?
  • Why do we do anything and everything to acquire a title or a designation when death does not care to wait for that relevant title?
  • Why are we killing ourselves before getting killed? That is the million dollar question that came to my mind when I encountered death of one of my close family. The shock is sudden and very prevalent that it numbs the mind for some time and you start thinking about the statement, “Life happens when you are busy with other things”. Today a lot of stress happens in work place and outside of work place and I think it’s not worth the trouble! A lot of marriages are broken because time is a precious commodity and people don’t have it. Is it all necessary?

Long back, I saw one hallmark card in the US that had a sky and a lake in the front of the card- The image on the front card was very serene and the second portion said, “the best things in life are not things”. Thought-provoking by itself, we never tend to enjoy leisure and always try to be in a race which we think we have won but in the end have lost it completely. Lot of folks have argued with me that this line of thinking is taken by “losers”. :-)). Don't get me wrong- I am not advocating to be non-ambitious and take leisure seriously as we will be perishing one day. Thats not my point and thats the skeptical line of thinking after reading this post. My point is to balance our ambitions with basic goodness of life. Well, at the end of day, you lose something and gain something- I think whatever you earn in life is meaningless if you don’t have “goodwill”. Rest of your earnings are useless and are of no value- The only thing that will remain is the “goodness” of your heart and how much of difference you have made to others in terms of any little action. It can be financial, educational, social but we need to make a start-Time is ticking and we all will have this “delivery” of death and there will not be any effort or schedule over-run with this!!

I started this blog on a pessimistic note and am ending with an optimistic note stating that all of us have limited time and it’s important to help others in need in whatever way one can. Let’s bring more smiles amongst other humans as the moment will never come and we all have to contribute that bit!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why "Value Thinking" is important for being innovative?

I work in a IT service firm and there is a continual expectation from our customers on “innovation”. The target audience are customers who outsource or offshore IT, business arena of work to save costs, leverage value and focus on their “core” area. We all know this very well and this is the story of outsourcing in general- Let’s not get there as that will fill another 20 pages! :-)). In this blog and in this context, I am only picking a subsection which is “innovation” and that seems to be the expectation from everyone. Fair one, is’nt! When they are outsourcing millions of dollars, the expectation from them on firms to innovate is obvious, right? Even when I am paying continual $$’s for my vegetables-fruits-on-demand-service provider, I am expecting him to be innovative. Don’t ask me how but I am expecting as I am paying some $$’s. :-))

Here is the small disconnect and the premise of my blog- All Indian and US IT firms can definitely innovate on process and technology but to innovate on customers business requires “value thinking”. IT firms have “operations/delivery” folks and “relationship/engagement” folks – These folks seamlessly integrate the fabric of delivering services to the customer expectations. The disconnect on innovation comes specifically on “value thinking” as you move upwards to innovate on customer’s business, “changed mindset” from the service providers/customers and “courage” [required leadership trait]. All these three are interconnected and it’s important to join these three so that we get the holistic picture!

Let me expand on “innovation”- I agree with everyone on customers valuing business result or outcome of applied innovation but the issue here again is related to courage. IT service firms core business is system integration, technology integration, consulting on aligning business and technology- IT Service firm’s core business is not necessarily always improving the “customer business” [atleast from a balance sheet perspective]. Firm X (IT Service Firm) may win a large outsourcing contract with a healthcare giant- Firm X cannot set up new hospitals or create a revolutionary way of handling physicians or create cutting edge surgeries or attract patients/payers for that healthcare giant under innovation [that is the core business model for healthcare giant]- Here is what Firm X can do under “innovation”:
  • Can definitely innovate on “process” and “technology” as they are experts in that area and they are contracted for that!·
  • Can definitely brain storm with the healthcare giant on their areas of business innovation- 5 W’s[Who, What, When, Why, Where] and 1 H [How] should be triggered for Firm X’s involvement in business innovation? Most of the business innovation will have some IT component to it and Firm X can facilitate that IT part for that business innovation and be a part of the healthcare giant’s innovation eco system. This definitely requires “time” and “energy” from the healthcare giant and its not a one-way street. Companies like Walmart, TESCO, P&G have spent enough time with suppliers to enable them in their innovation eco-system so that they can reap benefits.
  • Firm X also need to baseline the current state of process and technology innovation [which is a “hygiene factor”] and sign off on the customer expectations and prepare a road map of future expectations with the healthcare giant on innovation. This has to talk about time and energy required from both parties etc. Now without all these, just talking about innovation either with the customer or internally does not make sense and it will join the league of over-abused jargons in management or leadership! We definitely don’t want Scott Adams have “innovation” in the buzzword bingo contest where “Wally” records these from the pointy haired boss!!

I believe the traits required for “value thinking” for a customer is as follows:

  1. Keep on reading on the area that you are working- It can be analyst reports, It can be google alerts on your area, It can be books etc. Because at the end of the day, all are inter-connected and the ability of the leader to connect the dots become super critical in an age where there is no information asymmetry. Reading and Connecting the dots is an important trait- For example, hypothetically speaking, this healthcare giant would have created a revolutionary mechanism on pricing with payers on outcomes or would have created a unique way of doing surgery. How do we leverage Firm X internal knowledge or expertise to enable healthcare giant’s business innovation? Can we explore that? It can be a sensitive area but internally we should be able to connect the dots. Can we do an innovation introduction as outlined by “Michael Schrage”:
  2. Have the courage to face failure- Firm X engagement/relationship/delivery folks should go to a customer and propose something new. It can be a failure but the attempt to “challenge the status quo” has to be there in action. It should not be there to give advice to the team- it has to be there in practical demonstration. This is not a enlightenment session where the team should know how to challenge the status quo but it has to be a practical demonstration on how it is done to the team. Most of the times, we tend to have self-doubts about our approach or idea and the whole thing dies before it is presented. I define “courage” as the ability to face criticism from customer or internally and still have the confidence in your idea or approach. At the end of the day, if you present 10 approaches to customer and if 3 are treated as failure, you still emerge at 70% success rate on new things. That requires enormous homework, connecting the dots and courage. As you can see, all are inter-connected.
  3. To expand further on courage, we should think of us as tiger in the mirror and not as sheeps- if we think we are sheeps infront of the customer, we will behave like one. This is a direct analogy but it is applicable- What will happen finally? Will the customer eat us? No- we have to create an impression where we are genuinely trying to do the thinking part along with the customer. And whenever you do thinking, you always have the possibility of going wrong- Its okay. Check out a tiger- Even if it makes mistakes, it does not sulk. :-) don’t know whether it is a right analogy but I somehow like the posture of a tiger.
  4. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish- there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog. It was created by Stewart Brand in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s- On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

To summarize, the key traits for “value thinking” which is essential for innovation are:

  • Read and connect the dots
  • Stay Hungry and Stay Foolish
  • Have the courage to face failure and challenge the status quo
  • Make mistakes as it indicates that we are trying rather than just order-taking
  • Always baseline quantitatively and involve the customer genuinely- This helps in showing improvement or progress