A light hearted take on my profession, through the eyes of my 7 year old.
What do you and your friends really do at office?
We help people.
Do you give them money?
We help in other ways. We help them become better.
Why? Are they sick?
Oh, one doesn’t need to be sick, to want to be better. You already run fast, but still want to run faster, don’t you?
Yes, and I want to swim faster too. And jump higher. But Appa, what do adults want to do better?
Some want to think better and solve problems.
So they can do jigsaw puzzles like I do? Bigger puzzles?
Yes, something like that. To solve bigger puzzles in office, they need to have something called holistic thinking and we help with that.
And I always complete my puzzles, and don’t leave gaps and I see that the pieces fit together properly, and I keep the puzzle back in its box properly.
Super! That’s called ownership, and adults need that too.
But do people in office do jigsaw puzzles all day? Don’t they play other games?
Sure they do. There are games where they need to do something courageous, on their own, without asking for permission.
Courageous? Like when I went to school on my bicycle, on my own?
Absolutely. Adults use a different word for it… Initiative.
Adults always have big words for everything.
I’m afraid so, son. And it confuses them. So I make it simpler for them to learn.
Mommy says: To make it simple, do only one thing at a time. When you eat, you eat. When you play, you play.
That’s how we do it too, son. We get them to focus on one thing at a time, while they are learning. Then we show them how they can do it better. When they try it, we stay near them to help if they falter.
Falter? Do you mean fall? Like when I took off the trainer wheels on my bicycle, and you ran with me, to catch me if I fall?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Except that you learnt very quickly. But adults are slower… we stay with them for a few months.
Next time when someone asks me what you do, I’m going to say “My dad helps office people play their game better. And he doesn’t leave till they are able to”.
Sounds good, son!
Shirish Kher offers advisory services for L&D teams, where he helps them create impact for the businesses they serve . He is also the Founder of HumSarathi, a network of people who help Entrepreneurs find time for priorities, by developing their L2 cadre. Shirish brings with him 15 years of in-the-trenches L&D experience, as a trainer and coach. More about his work at www.shirishkher.com
Lessons from interviewing 60 executives and writing half a dozen case studies over 4 months.
I’m writing a blogpost after a 5-month gap… but I was gone for a good reason: writing a few case studies for a client.
It involved conducting extensive interviews (about 60 of them), ranging in duration from 30 to 90 minutes each. Then, putting together everything I’d heard into a coherent stories, spanning about a decade of time.
It has been an immensely enriching experience and I feel like summarising some things I learnt on the way.
When collecting source material…
1. Audio-recordings or typed notes?
For most interviews, I got permission from the speaker to audio record. But for some, I opted for hand-written notes. Later, when I went back to this source material, the difference between the two was stark. The audio recordings contained vastly more information, even the pauses quite revealing about how the speaker felt about the issue. On the other hand, whenever I took notes, I tended to record only the most important information as I was unable to keep pace with the speaker. Apart from the obvious loss of detail, what I choose to record reflects my own biases. So, there’s no doubt about it: If your interviewer allows it, go for audio recordings. They yield superior material, in both quantity and quality.
2. Unfamiliar subject?
At the start of the assignment, the business and its terminology were unfamiliar to me. Most speakers told the story in words they were used to, and this made it difficult for me to make sense of it. Though it is possible to ask interviewees for clarifications, doing too much of this tends to break their train of thought and leads to unsatisfactory conversations.
What helped were ‘follow-up’ interviews with other people, conducted with the express purpose of seeking clarifications. For instance, after I interviewed the CIO, who wasn’t likely to grant me time again, I met another senior manager in his department twice, over the next few days, with the express purpose of ‘decoding’ the first interview.
3. How closely spaced should interviews be?
Should you accept back-to-back interviews or allow large time gaps between them? Well, I experienced both, so I have a view. On occasions when I had sufficient breathing time between interviews, it allowed me to listen to the audio files and digest the information. Armed with that enhanced understanding, I could go beyond the basics in the next interview, ask more probing questions, cross check facts and so on. Back-to-back interviews only look efficient, but aren’t. It’s like drinking from a hosepipe, without imbibing much.
4. Bringing balance to the narrative
I learnt this one the hard way. In one of the case studies, I happened to interview all the right people… those that were in the thick of the action. From them, I got an impressively coherent set of mini-stories. The problem surfaced when the case study faced its first real test… being discussed in a room full of people from various backgrounds. They pointed out that the case study was a narrow, one-sided account of events. The lesson: there are multiple sides to every story, and ‘bystanders’ see things differently from those in the thick of the action! An interviewer needs to broaden the base of people used as sources.
When writing the case study…
5. When do I start writing?
If you have 10 interviews lined up, should you start writing after all 10 are completed, or sometime earlier? This one can swing either side, but I’m tending to say… write as you go. It offers the advantage of having a skeletal structure to ‘fill in’ with subsequent interviews. Second, discovery of gaps in the story occurs early on, and you can use the later interviews to fill those in. Third, it allows you to show people early drafts, seek feedback and make course corrections… a ‘fail fast’ approach. But do be mindful of this trap: missing out on other significant angles to the story, because you got too fixated on just filling in the gaps in the first narrative.
6. Chronological or Theme based?
Say, you want to chronicle the building up of a business over a 10 year period… you could give a year by year account; or you could describe the same events thematically (team organisation, product building, marketing, distribution, price-value decisions). Which is better? I got my answer when I had people read early drafts of the case studies I wrote… people grasped the chronologically written stories much better. Themes ‘look’ organised, but are harder for people to piece together in their mind… in hindsight, I suppose its because there’s no thread running through themes, whereas a chronological account has a “this happened, due to which that happened and then…” kind of flow.
7. To Quote or not to quote?
It’s always possible for the writer to re-cast what was said, in his/her own words. But something is lost…. the emotion, the drama and the directness. As far as possible, and at the risk of the case study sounding more like a movie script, I found that case studies with liberally sprinkled quotes commanded more attention from readers. Some of them said things like, “While reading, I could almost see that face from 5 years ago”. I think an engaging classroom contributes much to the enthusiasm and quality of discussions, and any device (like quotes) which engrosses readers (while staying true to facts) is valuable. In the cases I’ve written, verbatim quotes have occupied anywhere between 15% (typical) to 30% (one extreme case!) of the total word count.
8. Opinions versus facts?
As a stakeholder proof-read an early draft, he came to a sentence which went: “The department adopted the unique approach of …”. He immediately exclaimed “I don’t think that approach was unique. I know of some others who have done it the same way”. His sharp eye had latched on to the offending adjective ‘unique’, which was my interpretation from what I was hearing. One way to avoid such errors creeping in is to quote people verbatim, if they allow it. The other is to go over the draft with a fine tooth comb and root out adjectives/adverbs inserted inadvertently… For example, replace “Sales grew impressively thereafter at 25% YOY” with “Sales grew thereafter at 25% YOY”. That way, you let the readers make their own conclusions about whether this rate of sales growth is impressive or not, given industry benchmarks.
These days, as the tail-end of the writing assignment approaches, I am watching these case studies ‘in action’. Watching them being read by critical eyes, discussed threadbare in enthusiastic classrooms and critiqued by people who say “I was there. I have a different view of what really happened”. All of these inputs enrich and enlarge the case studies: new facts, nuances and opposing points of view get inserted. I feel like a painter getting to ‘touch up’ his creation every night, once the chatter of art aficionado has faded away. What fun!
Armed with data and tact, Lilette manages to extend the intervention to the next level
Flashback (Parts 1 & 2): Six months have passed since the 8 Heads of Businesses at Millennial Motors participated in a 4-month long learning journey. That program was about learning to build a credible 2nd line of leaders, and about communicating with their teams in a more coherent way. Pemba Tsering was the faculty and coach for the intervention. Using a highly individualised learning plan, she went all out to move the needle, giving reminders for practice, shadowing and observing the learners and giving them candid feedback. Slowly, learners saw their intensive efforts paying off and their teams started to rate them higher on leadership behaviors.
For a more complete reading experience, read Part 1 and Part 2 first
SIX months after the leadership intervention. Meeting between the MD (Dipankar), HR Head (Ardeshir) and L&D Head (Lilette).
Ardeshir: Thanks for making the time, Dipankar. Dipankar: No problem. What’s it about? Ardeshir: Lilette showed me some very interesting data, and we thought you should see it as well. Go ahead, Lilette. Lilette: You’re aware of the intervention we started with the 8 Business Heads a few months ago. Dipankar: Yes, I am. Lilette: We ran 2 interventions concurrently. One was aimed at Business Leaders creating a 2nd line of leaders. The other was about them communicating in a coherent way so that the entire team is in sync. Some people participated in both programs; the others chose to participate in just one, when given the option. Dipankar: Both programs went down well with them, I’m told. Lilette: Yes, but there’s more to it. I’ve been keeping a close eye on some metrics to track the effectiveness of the intervention. We measured behaviors of the Business Heads as well as the impact on business. I wanted to share the latest figures with you. Dipankar: Go ahead. Lilette: We took dipstick measurements before the program, immediately after it and then 6 months after it ended. The last one was meant to allow short-term effects to wear off… and for longer term effects to be visible through the metrics. Dipankar: I’m with you so far. Go on. Lilette: Let me pull up the metrics for one of the programs… here they are.
Lilette: We surveyed Branch Heads who report to each Business Head. We asked them to rate the intensity of leadership behavior displayed by their leader, on a 10-point scale. On these charts, we’ve plotted the average of the ratings they awarded. Dipankar: I see. There’s a remarkable rise immediately after the intervention. That’s good. And then I see that things have plateaued out. Lilette: Yes, after the program ended, their abilities have plateaued on average. If you look closely, some have continued to improve while ratings for some others have even dropped. Dipankar: What do you make of that? Lilette: It’s hard for everyone to keep the momentum when support is withdrawn. But we can’t be scaffolding learning forever… it has to end sometime. What I’m happy about is that the reductions are minor. Also, the big gain as compared with pre-program ratings is what really matters. Dipankar: Yes, that is still significant. You mentioned business impact data as well.
Lilette: Yes, I have that too. Here’s the first metric: Attrition.
We measure the attrition data for the first half and second half of our financial year. And we measure it band-wise… separately for Branch Heads and for Frontline salespeople. Dipankar: We seem to have made a dent in the attrition for Branch Heads. Lilette: Yes, the number is down to 6% after many years. Dipankar: And you’re claiming Branch Heads are staying with us longer due to the Leadership intervention that their managers participated in? There could be other factors driving this. Ardeshir: We haven’t changed any other employee policies significantly, which may account for this dip. Also, the attrition for frontline salespeople hasn’t changed much. The Branch Heads are directly affected if Business Heads change their ways. Frontliners wouldn’t be affected by our intervention. That also tells me there’s a strong link between this intervention and retention of Branch Heads. Dipankar: Hmmm… which of the 2 programs contributed more to this outcome? Lilette: That’s hard to say… it’s probably a combo of both. Giving Branch Heads room to grow and coherent communication by leaders… they are both important factors which affect their decision about staying on or leaving.
Dipankar: Is there any other business impact you’ve noticed? Lilette: Impact on Productivity. Here’s the data.
Dipankar: Very nice to see that. It’s more than a 10% jump in the last 6 months. Nothing beats getting higher revenues from the same resource pool. Ardeshir: It’s a 12.5% jump. The productivity number has been rising for the last couple of years, but at a slow rate. This intervention seems to have freed up something inside our workforce… they’re really going for it now. Dipankar: Well done, then. Is there anything else?
Ardeshir: We want to roll-out this intervention one level lower. If the effect on attrition and productivity is so stark and immediate, then I’d like to arrest the attrition level amongst frontline salespeople … 20% on a half-yearly basis is extremely costly for us. Dipankar: Sure, go ahead. This seems worth the money… given the business impact. Lilette: There’s an issue. The numbers at the next level are 6-fold. Dipankar: Yeah, so lets hire a bigger room. It won’t cost six times as much, will it? Lilette: Actually, its not so simple. This wasn’t really a classroom-type program. Most of the faculty’s time was spent with learners individually. It was mostly individual observation and feedback. So the budget will balloon up quite a bit. Dipankar: In that case, I’m going to hit the pause button. Will you check with the faculty once more about the cost for this? Then lets meet again in a bit. Ardeshir: Yes, lets do that.
Leaders as keepers of the flame!
Lilette: Welcome, Ashok and Pemba. Ashok: Always a pleasure to be here, Lilette. You mentioned an interesting email you’ve received, when we spoke on phone. Lilette: Yes, and that’s a good way to start today’s meeting. The email is from Imran Haidari… a Branch Head who reports in to Shaan. I’ll read it out verbatim.
Hello Lilette. A few months ago, Shaan (who is my manager and also the Head of our business) put in place some new processes in our department. They involved things like mutual agreement on how he would run different initiatives and more regular meetings with us individually. I gained immensely from this change, in terms of goal clarity, more support from Shaan where I need it, as well as more autonomy where it was needed. Shaan later told me that all this was the result of a 4-month program that he and other business heads participated in. I would like to replicate the same model in my branch, where I head a team of 12 salespeople. But I think it will help if I learn the process formally. Could you suggest how to do this?
Lilette: That’s a vote of support for the intervention. And for you, Pemba. This company has seen a really effective L&D program after a long time. Pemba: Thank you, Lilette. Lilette: I’ve been thinking about rolling out this intervention to the Branch Heads. Pemba, would you have the time for it? I mean, this being quite an intensive intervention and all? How do we handle 50 learners instead of just 8? And would your fee go up many fold? Pemba: Actually, Ashok and I had discussed the possibility of assisting the next level of leaders. And we think we shouldn’t be the ones conducting the program. Ashok: That’s right. We think your Business Heads should now shoulder this responsibility. Of course, we can handhold them a bit, and develop their ability to teach. But beyond that you’re better served if they act as faculty and coaches for their own businesses. Lilette: I have heard that argument before… leaders as role models and teachers. They know the business context better, they have a stake in succeeding and it would be a force multiplier… 8 faculty instead of just one. Pemba: And? Do I hear a ‘but’? Lilette: (Smiles) There is a big ‘but’! Will they agree to do it? I suspect some will plead lack of time. Ashok: I wish to disagree, Lilette. I think they already have a sense of the impact they’ve had on attrition and productivity, by changing the way they lead and communicate. You may find them willing and eager to take charge of this initiative. It just makes business sense for them, especially if you’re going to load any costs on each business’s separate budgets. Lilette: What’s the downside of having them do it? Ashok: They may get waylaid by pressures of everyday work. They may shift focus away from this interventoin. And there won’t be any impact then. Lilette: So that’s where someone like you could come in? Ashok: That’s possible. Or L&D could play that role too. Collect feedback from the trenches every month, share it with the Business Heads, nudge them to stay on track. Lilette: Hmm… we could do that. And we could lean on you to help them teach effectively. Being able to do something is distinct from being able to teach it to somebody else. Ashok: Yes, we’re comfortable taking on that role.
Dipankar: So you’re telling me it won’t cost much because Pemba restrict herself to a support role. And that our 8 Business Heads will do the heavy lifting. Lilette: Exactly. I have the concurrence of the Business Heads for this. Dipankar: You know, this top-down journey is proving to be so much smoother. The last few times, when we tried a bottom-up approach for L&D initiatives, there was so much resistance. Lilette: My thoughts exactly. Every cadre would complain, “Teach this to our managers first. They won’t let us try this out.” They turned out to be right… their managers wouldn’t have much patience when they started to implement new learning, often making mistakes along the way. Without the sponsorship and support of senior leaders, such initiatives always run into rough weather. This time, I fully expect our Business Heads to show more empathy as Branch Heads learn… after all, they’ve experienced the struggle of learning first-hand. Dipankar: I’d say, its a go. When do we start? Lilette: Actually, its already started. When I met you last week, I didn’t know that 3 of them have already started urging their Branch Heads to adopt the new practices. This train is already on its way… what it needs is a little formal push… so that all businesses benefit, and the momentum can be sustained. Pemba is going to be working with them in different intensities… some need more structure and handholding, others may already have their own way of going about it. Dipankar: Sounds good. Let’s roll!
Pemba, faculty and coach, takes over. She supports learners to apply theory to real life
Flashback (Part 1): At Millennial Motors, it has been felt that though top level executives are very capable, there isn’t a credible 2nd line of leaders. Lilette, the Head of L&D feels that business heads must learn how to do this, and asks Ashok, an external consultant to help through an intervention. After some persuasion, 8 Heads of Businesses agree to participate in a 4-month long learning journey. Ashok brings in Pemba Tsering to act as faculty and coach for this intervention.
April 15th (Workshop, in a hotel’s conference room)
Pemba: Good morning, all. I am Pemba Tsering. Since you’re familiar with the background of this intervention through the emails we exchanged, I’ll get to business right away. This intervention will help you create second level leaders in your teams. Lilette confirms to me that this program is different from previous ones you’ve attended at this company, in several ways.
It will be longer and more intense than others you’ve experienced. There’s a reason for the change. This time, we’re unwilling to say, “Lets provide some inputs and hope something changes”. We’re aiming at nothing less than ensuring that every participant in this program makes a significant leap.
Secondly, it also allows you to opt-in to whichever of the 2 objectives you feel drawn towards. So, your learning journeys will differ, based on what you’ve chosen to learn. You will notice that 3 business heads aren’t here… they’ve chosen to attend the other program which will run simultaneously, the one on communicating effectively so that your entire team is in sync with you.
Third, for an intervention of this size, our learning as a group is unusually short… just a single day. After today, I will work with you individually, sometimes in person and at other times, over telephone.
Meanwhile, in the Hotel Lobby
Lilette: You know, Ashok, I have to confess… when I met Pemba for the first time, I wasn’t too confident that she could handle this intervention. To be honest, I’m still apprehensive.
Ashok: Perfectly understandable… she doesn’t come across as your typical trainer or coach. Doesn’t have a swagger. Doesn’t spin tales. Humour isn’t her forte either. But she’s got what it takes for this intervention. I assure you.
Lilette: I’m worried about how the learners will take to her. She’s younger than they are, by a full decade. And our leaders are all alphas… opinionated, skeptical. Some are probably hoping to prove that they know their stuff already and this program is a waste of time.
Ashok: Pemba has the gift of drawing people out so that they can see reality. She can look people in the eye can deliver candid feedback without being offensive. I’ve seen it happen before. On that occasion, she faced a skeptical group of learners, but very soon, they were eager to hear her out. This is a program where practice and feedback is the key, rather than shock and awe during the initial workshop. I’m confident she can handle it.
6 pm that evening (Lobby of the hotel)
Zubair: Hey Shaan, I was expecting we’ll have some role playing, but we had none of that here.
Shaan: Oh, I asked Pemba about that during a coffee break. She says practice is best done on the job, where the situation is realistic. That’s why she focussed solely on conceptual understanding today, through demos, explanations and FAQs.
Zubair: I guess that makes sense. I wasn’t in the mood to stay away from business for longer than a day.
Advika (joins them): Hi there. Not checking the urgent emails you missed, Mr. BusyMan?
Shaan: Speak about yourself, Ms. RisingStar. You seemed quite focussed on the workshop today.
Advika: That’s true. After a long time, I’ve seen a facilitator who’s intent on helping, not just talking down to us. She may not be an impressive speaker, but who cares about that? I personally think the design of the program will be helpful… the many cycles of practice and feedback.
Shaan: But the keeping-a-daily-journal bit? That won’t work for me.
Zubair: How about the other option Pemba offered? Recording the developmental conversations with the team… I think I can do that using a phone app.
Shaan: Yes, that’ll work. Actually, having an observer present during the conversation is ideal. But since my team is spread all over, having an observer turn up every time is impractical. So audio recording and transmitting it to Pemba is fine.
Advika: I’ve scheduled 2 conversations this week.
Zubair: I got one this week and another next week. Actually, I kind of liked how Pemba had us call our team today and fix these appointments on the go. Very action oriented, no?
Advika: Yes, I like the pace of the whole thing. Have a conversation, upload it using the app, listen to the playback together with Pemba and get feedback right away. All done in a 2-hour slot. Quite neat!
Shaan: And if you don’t repeat it next week as scheduled, you get a reminder call from “The Pemba”!
Practice and Feedback!
Two days later, 17th April. A phone call.
Advika: Hi Pemba. I was expecting your call. Did you get to hear the audio file I sent?
Pemba: I’d rather that we hear it together. That way, we can pause it when we want, discuss a bit and continue.
Advika: Sure thing, lets do that.
Playback of audio recording
Advika: Savio, don’t worry too much about me recording our talk. I’m doing this so my coach can hear it.
Advika: I’m assuming you’ve seen the one pager I emailed?
Savio: Yes, I did. What I’ve understood so far is this: there are 4 different ways of working together. I recall there is one where you closely monitor everything, there’s another where its up to me how I do things… I can’t recall what the other two are.
Advika: We can quickly go over it again, if you wish.
Savio: Yeah, we can. But I have a question… what are we doing differently? I thought we’ve always worked together like that.
Advika: I think the difference is that we’ll keep reviewing it more deliberately. We’ll schedule these conversations into our calendars, instead of leaving it to chance.
Advika: I think I can delegate the branch-audits to you. You’ve been doing those for a while now.
Advika: And for the hiring task, I think more hand-holding is still required.
Savio: All right.
Advika: Ditto for the…
(Pemba pauses the playback)
Pemba: Advika, do you sense a change in Savio’s responses in the last couple of minutes?
Advika: Hmmm… well, he seems to be agreeing with what I said. So, it seems okay to me so far? Did you catch something more?
Pemba: He could be agreeing with you. Or he could have turned passive, given up, and he’s just going along with what you’re saying.
Advika: That’s possible too.
Pemba: If that’s the case, it could be due to a deviation from the script, that I noticed. Do you want to hear about it now?
Pemba: A developmental conversation needs to be a two-way affair. For example, Savio and you need to agree that for the hiring task, he needs handholding. My observation is: you decided this on your own and announced it to him.
Advika: I see your point. But what if we have a disagreement. My concern is, Savio might just want everything to happen in Delegation mode… that’s not right. I don’t think he’s that ready yet.
Pemba: He may well feel that way. It’s his prerogative to self-assess; just like it’s your prerogative to assess his readiness. Ask yourself this: What can both of you gain, if it’s a two-way conversation, and you arrive at a consensus after some struggle?
Advika: Well, if there’s consensus, then… he won’t resist later. Also, I’ll rest easy if I know I have his concurrence. But honestly, reaching consensus isn’t easy.
Pemba: That, I agree with. Do you recall what we discussed about the art of consensus building?
Advika: Actually, no. Let me leaf through my workshop notes… found it. It says, “Ask for their expectations. Listen. State yours. Find common ground.” So, what do we do now? Have I blown it for good?
Pemba: Far from it. I’d say, have another chat with him.
Advika: Er… maybe I should just leave it as it is… learn from this, and do the conversation differently with the next team member.
Pemba: And why would you leave it as it is?
Advika: (after a longish silence) You know, its not practical. It would weaken my position if I admitted that … Pemba, this is not easy!
Pemba: I can sense your discomfort, Advika. But think of it this way… if you re-opened the conversation with Savio, what would it give you?
Advika: I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’d lose respect or whether he’d respect me more, knowing that I’m willing to seek his opinion.
Pemba: That’s true. We cannot predict which way it’ll go. There’s only one way to find out, which is…
Advika: I know… I know. I’ve got to try it out.
27th April at 9am, A Phone call
Pemba: Good morning, Shaan.
Shaan: Hi Pemba.
Pemba: I called to remind you about having a chat with Dileep, one of your regional managers.
Shaan: Oh, yes. I know it was due yesterday… the reminder did pop up on my phone.
Pemba: I didn’t hear from you yesterday, so I guessed you might have missed it.
Shaan: I appreciate the call, Pemba. This week has been crazy, and I got caught up in something else yesterday.
Pemba: Ideally, I’d like that conversation to happen today, and in the afternoon, we can review it together over phone.
Shaan: I’m travelling with a string of meetings lined up. Today won’t be possible, but tomorrow I’ll do it for sure.
Pemba: And my notes here say that this is your second conversation with Dileep. Is that right?
Shaan: Yes, it is. And I remember your feedback from last week… it is okay to push back gently, when Dileep comes to me for answers he can find out on his own.
Pemba: Nice. So we’ll speak tomorrow, immediately after you speak to Dileep. Bye.
15th June, two months after the workshop. At the office of Millennial Motors.
Pemba: I had a telephonic chat with the 4 people who report to you last week. I repeated the questions we had asked them before this program was planned. As agreed, we’re not sharing with you what they said individually, but just the summaries.
Advika: Yes, that’s fair.
Pemba: If you compare the pre-program and mid-program ratings, the biggest improvements are in the areas of delegation and involving them in decision making. I’m referring to questions 2 and 4 in the questionnaire.
Advika: That’s good to see. This was the hardest part for me. I’ve run my team with very close supervision for many years. Only recently did I consciously start trusting that some things can be left to them. Frankly, its getting easier by the day… it’s quite a relief not to follow-up all the time, you know.
Pemba: Not just for you, but also for them, I imagine!
Advika: That’s so true. Our interactions have become … how shall I put it? Lighter and more relaxed.
Pemba: I also noticed that the rating has dipped in response to question 1. The change is small, but it may help to remember that there are still some areas where strongly directive leadership is called for.
Advika: Right. I need to guard against going from one extreme to another.
Pemba: And the last question is really about the outcome of it all… your team is feeling that their leadership ability is growing.
Advika: What’s the 5th question about… ‘conversation about progress and learning’? How is it different from the 4th one?
Pemba: That refers to the kind of conversation we’re having right now.
Advika: I see. It’s a discussion at a broader level. Like asking them “Are you growing as a leader”, “What support do you need” and so on.
Pemba: Correct. Sometimes, people need to talk about their progress in an open way. It lets them know that that you’re thinking about them. Could you start doing that from now on?
Advika: Will do. So far, I’ve been talking to them about specific tasks in their roles, but not about their overall growth.
Pemba: I’m going to be speaking with you regularly for a couple of months more, while you try that out.
Pemba: Moving beyond this status report, do you have any concerns you’d like to talk about?
Advika: Hmmm… it’s not a concern, but a general comment. An insight, if you will.
Pemba: I’m all ears.
Advika: For the longest time, I’ve worried that if my team becomes too capable, too independent, I might lose relevance. I’ve tried to avoid that fate by being proactive, intruding into every decision, rushing into every conflict. I didn’t give my team room to play their game their way.
Pemba: Yes, that showed up in the pre-program survey.
Advika: Now that I’ve started to let go, I find that the sky hasn’t fallen on my head.
Pemba: I like that metaphor. Go on, please.
Advika: This new way of managing has freed up my time, so I can look at some projects that have been gathering dust for a while. You could say, I’ve found other avenues to stay relevant and contribute in this organisation.
Pemba: And in that way, invest in your own growth?
Advika: Yeah, that too. It’s like I was rooted to a spot for a long time, and now there’s some movement ahead.
Pemba: Cheers to that. And that reminds me… I’ve got to move on too. I’ll meet Zubair next.
—————- Next fortnight in Part 3:
– Conclusion of the intervention and Results obtained
– Replicating the intervention organisation-wide
Ashok advocates a flexible approach to leadership skills development. But the L&D Head has doubts.
In previous blog posts, I have written about how L&D interventions should be, from a ‘first principles’ point of view. Now, I give all of that a concrete form. I show how a specific intervention can embody principles like objective-led design, learner engagement, implementation support and effective metrics.
I will do so over 3 parts: Part 1: Starts at ‘learner need’ and pauses at a prototype intervention design. Part 2: Describes testing of the prototype intervention with a pilot batch of learners. Part 3: Moves the intervention beyond the pilot stage, to the larger organisation.
Some readers may have already discerned the Design Thinking thread (Empathise- Define- Ideate- Prototype- Test- Share), running through the 3 parts.
So here goes Part 1.
It is early afternoon, and Lilette Lalwani, Head of L&D at Millennial Motors, is already tired. She’s met two L&D partners since morning, described to them an initiative she wishes to run and winces at the thought of doing so a third time today. She hopes to choose the best proposal, the most economical proposal and wishes that these two things go together!
She walks into the spartan-looking meeting room: grey walls, white furniture, absolutely no evidence of fanciful spending whatsoever. And quickly gets to the point, “Hi Ashok. As you know, we want a leadership skills program for our business-heads, about 8 of them in all”.
Ashok: What’s the outcome you want?
Lilette: We think not everyone is playing to their potential. In terms of providing direction to the ranks, agility in approach to business, also developing a second line of leadership, I think there’s work to be done.
Ashok: And I assume some of these leaders are already good at some of these things.
Lilette: That’s right… we’re hoping to raise the bar for everybody; but also support them with an intervention which ups their abilities in these areas. We really hope for an intervention which improves each of these 3 abilities, in each of the business heads. I wonder if that’s too much to ask.
Ashok: I think if we create a one-size-fits-all intervention, maybe due to cost and time constraints, then it really is too much to ask. It’s like taking 8 people to the same movie, and expecting everyone to like it equally. But its a reasonable expectation if we go completely bespoke… like allow each one to choose their favourite genre of movie.
Lilette: You don’t seriously mean that… it sounds like 8 interventions running in parallel. I have a feeling our budget won’t allow it. But let’s see… we’d like you to present a concrete proposal.
Ashok: Right. Will do. I want to start by speaking to them. Since its a small number, I’d like to speak to all eight people. Ideally, i’d like to spend an entire day at your office, speaking to them for 30 minutes each, designing something, checking back with them to make course corrections…
Lilette: Checking back with them? You mean, check with L&D, right?
Ashok: No, I mean checking back with those eight. Unless the intervention design has their buy-in, I’d be wary of going ahead.
Lilette: That’s unusual, you know. (Frowns… Ponders…) So you’re going to present to me a proposal which already has the backing of our business heads. This could get interesting… I’d like to warn you, getting them to agree on anything is going to be tough.
Ashok: Hmmm…okay. So when do I start?
Feb 10th Ashok marvelled at the quiet efficiency of a young intern at Millennial Motors, who stitched together back-to-back meetings between him and 6 business heads. The seventh was on personal leave and the eighth had firmly refused to meet citing more important commitments. It had been a fascinating series of conversations. Six people carrying weighty responsibilities admirably, yet each presenting a different picture of where she saw herself or where he thought he needed support.
Ashok thought about Rishika, the youngest business head in this company’s 25 year history. She had said: “I don’t think there’s any problem as far as setting goals for my team. As my business’s metrics show, we’re in tune with the customer too, so I assume we’re as agile as needed. That 3rd aspect you mentioned… developing leaders… I’m not doing it consciously, but I also think it’ll happen on the job. That’s the way I picked up things; nobody taught me. So will the 4 regional managers who report to me. Do we really need a training program for this?”
And then there was Shaan: “I’d really like a course on strategy… going global, I think. It will also tie in with our company’s ambitions to expand beyond national borders. The other 3 aspects that you mentioned… I don’t think there’s a problem there”
And so it went… Ashok recalled Lilette’s warning about the leaders not agreeing on an agenda. It also struck him that her version of what the business heads needed, and their own assessment of it were poles apart. “Back to basics. Back to first principles”, he muttered, getting a little worried. What was the ‘first principle’ here, really? To go with what the customer said!
But who was the customer? Lilette or the 8 learners? And how could common ground be found between those two? It occurred to him that the 3 abilities Lilette had outlined were all on a continuum. There’s always room for improvement; and a learner is never ‘done’. But how does one get the learners to accept that, and show enthusiasm about learning? The answer appeared quickly: establish the baseline, the truth. He needed to act on it now.
Feb 15th, 10 AM
Shaan: So you’re telling me, I fare poorly in setting a direction for my troops?
Ashok: What do you make of this data, Shaan? I simply asked 15 of the 38 people in your team ‘What’s the team’s goal? How is the team going to achieve it?’ Now, we’ve got their responses. What is your interpretation of this data?
Shaan: I can see that the answers vary widely. But it could very well be their inability to understand, rather than my inability to communicate.
Ashok: The question is: would you like to enhance your ability to communicate so that your entire team gets the message?
Shaan: No, but they… there’s been some miscommunication midway. I can simply pull up those who directly report to me and ensure future messages from me get transmitted without distortion.
Ashok: The data from your direct reports (5 of them) also shows great variance. What do you make of that?
Shaan: (Pauses. Looks at responses from his direct reports). I’ll tell you what. Let me give this a thought.
Feb 15th, 11 AM
Ashok: The attrition numbers in your business are higher than usual. Would you like to revisit your thoughts about developing leaders in the ranks?
Rishika: Our business is tough, not everyone’s cup of tea. My business especially is in a formative stage, so higher attrition is to be expected. I think it will settle down soon.
Ashok: How about this: If you could have lower attrition, even at this stage of business, would you like it?
Rishika: Of course, who wouldn’t? Attrition is always a spanner in the works. But it isn’t up to me, is it?
Ashok: Oh, then I have good news for you. I think in your position as leader of this team of 50, you can influence attrition significantly, whatever the state of your business. One good way to do it is to focus on developing leadership abilities of your people, so they see value in continuing here. And it is something that can be learnt.
Rishika: Really… I’m not so sure. If someone gets a plum salary outside, won’t they leave? And so on it went for a while…
Feb 15th, 4 pm (Back at Ashok’s office, with Ashok’s colleague, Rita)
Rita: So how did it go today at Millennial Motors?
Ashok: I don’t see any buy-in yet. Lets give it a little time, and ask them again in a week. But there’s also something else I want to talk about.
Rita: Go ahead.
Ashok: I think we should drop agility of approach from the agenda for this intervention.
Rita: Drop it ?!? But the client needs it. (Rita thinks: And we need this business!)
Ashok: I have 2 reasons why we should drop it. One, the business units headed by the 8 BU heads are all doing fine right now. The numbers show it. Each business is number 1 or number 2 in its market. So its possible to argue that the business heads are agile enough for the competition.
Rita: But they could still be better, no? Lilette thinks that they should be. Dropping it from the agenda is like leaving money on the table, a bit defeatist, if I may say?
Ashok: Sure, they could still get better, and there’s no end to it. But here’s my second argument… I don’t think I’ll be able to get their buy-in for this. I don’t have any data which will convince them that their business agility is flagging. Is there a point teaching them?
Rita: Look, I see your point about willing learners being more receptive to new concepts. But you see, it is a business need, identified by L&D. We can’t just wish it away because the learners won’t have it.
Ashok: So, what do you suggest?
Rita: I think we should include it, and maybe they will see the point when we get going.
Feb 24th: A phone conversation.
Lilette: Hi Ashok, I heard from the business heads. They want to go ahead with the intervention. Except that they don’t want the same agenda. Rishika, Srinivas, Mohd. Shahid want to work on the “setting direction” piece. Shaan, Advika and Zubair want the “developing leaders” bit. And the other 2 want both components. You said you would like to cater to this diversity… so there you have it now”
Ashok: And do we include the agility piece?
Lilette: Now I’m thinking, maybe not. When I spoke to them, I could sense they’re just so closed-off to it. It didn’t even figure in the discussion, as if its fallen off their charts already. With all this customising, I’m already expecting us to go over budget… lets compensate by reducing the agenda where we can.
Ashok: Honestly, this is music to my ears, Lilette. Thank you for being flexible about this.
Lilette: C’mon on now. I’m not being flexible… it’s more like our resources are limited and we want to have an intervention that works.
Ashok: I’ll visit soon, run the design by the learners as planned and then lets finalise.
Lilette: OK, I’ll get Roopak, our intern, to set up the meetings. Just 10 minutes with each leader, like you said.
Ashok: Here’s the design. I made a few changes after speaking to everyone this morning.
Lilette: You still work with paper? Kind of old fashioned, huh?
Ashok: Yes, er… just helps me think better, when I see the whole thing at one glance.
Lilette: Okay. I see 2 sections here… titled AS-IS and TO-BE. That’s pretty self explanatory. On the left, you’ve listed how current status of the learners.
Ashok: Yes, I’m happy that they were quite candid about this, once they agreed to have the intervention.
Lilette: And on the right: the knowledge, attitudes, skills or habits we’d like them to develop.
Ashok: … that they would like to develop. I showed them a list of capabilities and let them choose. We’re addressing two broad capabilities here: “setting direction” and “developing leaders”. People will attend whichever they’re interested in. So Rishika, Srinivas, Mohd. Shahid the “setting direction” piece only, and so on.
Lilette: That’s the unusual bit … like ordering food from a restaurant menu. Aren’t we stretching the customisation too much?
Ashok: Well, we want them to eagerly eat what’s on their plate. I mean, really imbibe it, learn it. And to get them to choose what they want to learn seems to be the way to go.
Lilette: Fair enough, at least in theory. Now I’m curious to see how you’re catering to everyone’s whims through the design of the intervention. Is that on the second sheet of paper over there?
Ashok: This is the design of the “developing leaders” bit. Let me lay out the big picture here. As we move from left to right, we’re moving across time, across 4-plus months of this intervention.
Lilette: And I can see the 4 familiar tracks here too.
Ashok: Yes, the recipe for each is different.
Lilette: Let’s take one example and run through with it. How do we tackle the attitude bit?
Ashok: We first get people to question old attitudes, like “Leaders will develop on their own”. This we do by showing them counter-evidence. In this case, we’re giving them anonymous feedback from their teams, which says clearly: ‘We don’t feel we’re developing as leaders’. After a while, when they’ve had some practice, we go to the second step: examine incoming, fresh data from their teams, which hopefully affirms their new attitude, that consciously developing their people pays off.
Lilette: Is it any different for the knowledge component?
Ashok: There are 2 steps again, but we handle them differently. The knowledge we’re talking about here is the Situational Leadership model. For any piece of knowledge to be retained, we need two things: first understanding it and later revisiting it. Those are the 2 events you see in the knowledge row.
Lilette: I see. And the third row, “skills” seems to be about a lot of repeated practice.
Ashok: Practice which is frequently done, and also supported by a coach. We’ll have them either audio-record or journal their development conversations with team members. That becomes the basis for feedback from the coach. It’s not a one-time affair… there are several cycles of practice and feedback.
Lilette: How did you decide whats the right amount of practice?
Ashok: There’s of course no way to precisely ascertain it. But simpler skills like delivering a monologue develop faster… if you look at the other band “giving directions to team”, I’ve budgeted only 3 rounds of monitored practice. But the skill of implementing a Situational Leadership model is a very long term game… there are several moving parts like the follower’s developmental level, the task at hand, business context, time available etc. That’s why I’ve chosen a 4-month time-frame. It will give a fair opportunity for various situations to appear along the way; and for our leaders to feel confident about handling whatever their 2nd line throws at them.
Ashok: Moving on, the 4th row is Habits. Our leaders have to remember to apply their newfound knowledge and skills. Its no use having the capability and not using it. Habits require a rhythm so we’re nudging the learners every week through a quick phone call. We will remind them to have developmental conversations that week, and avoid this agenda get washed away by regular work pressures. We really don’t want to hear them say, “Oh, I meant to practise, but something else came up, and I simply forgot”. After a while, we’ll expect them to set up their own reminders on their calendars.
Lilette (walks around the room, thinking): You know, I would describe this intervention as… as… (clenches her fists)
Lilette: Right! Intense. We haven’t done an intervention like this, ever. It’s usually been the typical 2-day workshop, with a few coaching sessions post that.
Ashok: And have those worked for you?
Lilette: Well… we both know the answer to that! But tell me, isn’t there an easier… lighter way for our people to pick up these skills?
Ashok: Learning on one’s own, on the job, is surely lighter and self paced too. That will work for people who are diligent enough to keep observing, reflecting, changing themselves week after week. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t need organised L&D interventions.
Lilette: Hmmm… I see what you mean. So how much time is each participant investing?
Ashok: There’s a 1-day workshop which they attend as a group, face to face. After that, it’s just a couple of hours of telephonic conversation every week, scheduled at the participant’s convenience. A large part of the intervention is learning on-the-job. Very little of it is ‘teaching’ or in a classroom. It seems heavy on paper because you’re seeing the entire 4-month journey on a single sheet. When this is spread across 4 months, its actually not very heavy.
Lilette: I can see the budgets here… this will take up more money than I planned for, but let’s give it a go. What’s the next step?
Ashok (smiles): The boring part… dates, logistics etcetera.
Lilette: Thankfully, that’s a breeze for Roopak. By the way, who’s going to be the faculty or coach for this?
Ashok: A very capable lady called Pemba. I haven’t spoken to her in a while, but a visit is due now!