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Today I came across a reaffirmation of something I had heard even earlier. It’s all about what is valued most in aspiring/practicing engineering-leads/managers by (product) companies in US.

A is a smart young man who has made rapid strides in his professional career in the few years he is employed in a very well-known product company in the west coast. He was recently promoted as the champion of a futuristic platform slated to serve as the bedrock for the company’s flagship products in the pipeline (or maybe it’s already deployed).  

Not surprisingly laudatory messages flowed in on his promotion, coming from his team, peers and others mostly congratulating him for his achievement. The manager’s message was a little different and more insightful. I understood in gist it went something like: ‘Besides being a genuine person, compassionate in his approach and frank without being brutal in his feedback, he was recognized for being a great help to his team and its success…’

My eyes lit up. Interesting, how did/does it happen? May be there was something in here waiting to be dug up and aired for broader good.  Or, like at other times, it might throw up some ‘Drinking milk is good for health’ kind of statements. Try I did and this is what I came up with.

At this point I must point out my digging – a short exercise – was not with A directly, but with a very articulate professional close to him and in the know. In a way it was a blessing because I was being served with sum-up’s without the obfuscating details (always available if needed).

A had in his team a good number of youngsters faced with and fazed by humungous amount of code thrown at them. Much as he might have wished, there was simply no way he could sit with them one-on-one and help them in their work.

Ye huyi na baath, ab batao, batao, kya kiya A? Tell us, tell us what did A do! 

No magic, here. He would give them pointers to what, where and how, induct them into a few structured processes (and possibly tools and techniques), and leave them alone to work on the details. It made them happy they did the work on their own, boosting their self-confidence. Soon they learnt to do some part of the analysis too all by themselves. Result: faster learning, quicker ramp-up, better productivity and a happier team.

While this may work with the younger lot, how did he handle the seniors in the team?

Firstly, he quickly appraised himself of their background, their skills and strengths. He would then place before them a few questions that needed to be resolved for the job at hand and challenged their mettle. They were free to research, analyse and figure out the answers for a discussion. It included bringing their prior experience and knowledge, wherever relevant, to bear up on the problem. It was thus an interesting, useful and tedium-breaking problem-solving cum learning exercise for them and for A too. Once again, the result of having tail-up seniors on one’s side: enhanced quality of the solution, better productivity and a happier and motivated team.

While the above may not be an entirely new read to many, it’s nevertheless an interesting insight into a) how a young successful engineering-lead on the rise in a product company made it work for him and b) what product companies value and recognize in their engineering-leads/managers.    

It’s clear while individual excellence may well be a prerequisite for other pieces to fall in place, it’s not an end in itself. Enabling and empowering others in the team to perform gets far better results for the organization and for oneself in terms of recognition and reward.

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Source: Image from here.

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Peer Review

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Source: Fawzy Elsharkawy‎ in Science Memes

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A recent article in Inc dramatically reports:

‘In 1 Powerful Sentence, Mark Cuban Just Gave Every Company in America a Harsh Wake-up Call’

It’s a simple statement, with profound implications.

Mark Cuban – GETTY IMAGES

Goes on with:

Mark Cuban, Shark Tank investor and outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, recently took to his personal blog to comment on a major issue facing the NBA — and every employer in America.

There’s been a lot of talk regarding how NBA players have really taken control of their league, with the most talented players teaming up behind the scenes to play together or asking to be traded to a different team if they’re not happy with their situation.

Quotes Cuban saying:

Some feel that the player movement we have seen … is a problem, I don’t. I think it is exactly what we should expect, and it reflects what is happening in the job market across industries in our country.

“This reality has changed what it is like to be an employer. In the past, the default was that the best employees would want a long career with their employers, because that is what you did. You kept your job as long as you could. No longer.”

And then, the 1 Powerful Sentence:

“Now the onus is on employers to keep their best employees happy.”

Don’t we guys in software industry of 1980-2010 vintage know? Talk to us and we’ll tell you horror stories to fill many tomes. With attrition soaring amok, further aggravated by shortage of talent pool, it wasn’t about keeping ‘best employees’ happy. One had to amuse whoever walked by within six feet of the front gates to lure 

Welcome to the Party, America – you’re a few decades late though. Invite us to talks – we can tell a thing or two – on how we coped up, kept the show going, our customers served without disruption!

To be fair, it’s not new to them either – I recall from many years ago a senior executive from HP,  wise to our predicament, mentioning it was no different in those early years in California. May be long forgotten with its learnings.

The article goes on to talk about the How’s of the sentence, covering all bases: coaching, empowerment, inclusivity, communication, career development…besides remuneration.

Coming back to the real subject of this post, ‘1 Powerful Sentence’:

“Now the onus is on employers to keep their best employees happy.”

You thought happiness is more for pets given to by their masters?  

Sorry, am being irreverent and flippant.

Years of working with colleagues at all levels and of all hues in good and bad times has taught us one thing that I share with you here – a perspective adding to (and not in any way invalidating) the professed sentence and its How’s:

Make it a journey with them – feasible, authentic, involved, worthwhile, interesting and enjoyable for them, for you and the organization. Happiness ensues and a lot more…

To cite a parallel, of relevance – Just as caring for community’s safety and earning their respect and the adrenal rush of running towards (and not away from) danger to save life and property are identified as the two pure and strong turn-on’s in the lives of fire-fighters who in many surveys end up high to very high in job satisfaction.

Each of those words feasible…is purposeful, non-overlapping and worthy of deliberation.

Well, I can tell you – and my colleagues out there would also vouch – it has been shown to work for its practitioners.

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“Customer experiences are being harmed because business efforts to improve employee engagement are fundamentally flawed” – Neil Davey (Managing editor, MyCustomer.com)

As a result, there has been increasing attention paid to the employee experience in recent years, with growing focus on areas such as wellness, diversity, inclusion, mental health, capability development and training.

Yet despite the proliferation of these projects, estimates by Temkin Group suggest that the number of engaged employees still remains disturbingly low – with its research indicating that only 33% of staff are highly engaged, and that number dropping to as low as 26% for those aged 18-24. This last statistic is of particular concern because this demographic is amongst the most likely to be serving customers, whether in contact centers or in other customer-facing roles.

He identifies a few reasons why engagement continue to be so low despite the surge in employee experience effortsincluding the mistake of treating money as an overriding motivator.

Among them are two crucial areas, I thought, that go a long way in strengthening employee engagement and in turn CX:

“Failing: Not engaging staff with the company’s wider purpose.

If understanding employee motivations is crucial, there is also the other side of the coin to consider: do employees understand the organisation’s motivations? Do staff know what the company’s purpose is, and do they buy into it…

Whatever the purpose is, it has to have meaning and connect with the employees in the organization…whether it’s a customer-centric purpose, or a profitability purpose, it has to be something that employees want to rally behind to achieve…

And then the leaders need to translate that purpose to every part of the business in a meaningful way.

Reminds me of an inspiring anecdote SU (a Division head) shared with us years ago:

In his days as a salesman, on one occasion, he moved heaven and earth to fix a problem on a IBM 1403 (a legendary line printer) he had sold to a customer – the awry drum and fan-fold paper movement was ultimately traced to dampness in the paper, fixed by heating up the stock with an electric bulb before usage! For him, a mere salesman, and his organization, the sale did not end with invoicing and collecting.   

Needless to emphasize the purpose needs to be authentically reflected in both thought and action at all times. Any incongruence at any time in this regard on part of the leadership, careless or otherwise, seriously undermines the cause.

This leads us to the second significant failing which is a little more of a challenge.

“Failure: Not connecting day-to-day tasks to the bigger purpose.

…As well as understanding and being engaged with the organization’s wider purpose, the employees also need to understand how their basic, daily activities contribute to that purpose.

The most famous and possibly apocryphal story that best demonstrates this, concerns President John F. Kennedy’s first visit to NASA headquarters in 1961. During his tour of the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” came the reply.

The janitor understood his employer’s wider purpose, and also understood his daily task’s contribution to it – by ensuring everything was spotless, all of the sensitive equipment could function without fault. The cleaner did not view himself as simply a janitor, but a member of the NASA space team with an important role.

Without this important connect, the purpose remains as a lofty statement enshrined on some plaque. The tail does not go with the head!

For instance, it’s necessary and important to ask and answer How does having a customer-centric purpose translate to a call center agent? At the meaningful level, how does that tell you to behave and operate in a certain way? Does that tell you to smile more often, or to say please, or thank you, or does it help you answer the telephone in a slightly different way?

Of course it is not always so simple when it comes to those daily tasks that often appear dull and of non-strategic value. At this point it is important to realize even these tasks are connected; else they would not be performed in the first place. The trick is to uncover and present the connection that exists in right context.

Guarding against these two failures significantly enhances employee engagement.

And, how does an engaged employee perform?

Here’s a short and timely anecdote from Seth Godin:

“The $50,000 an hour gate agent:

Conventional CEO wisdom is that top management is worth a fortune because of the high-leverage decisions they make.

But consider the work of Wade, an unheralded Air Canada gate agent. Yesterday, I watched him earn his employer at least $50,000 while getting paid perhaps .1% of that.

The microphone was out of order, but instead of screaming at the passengers, he walked over and spoke directly to the people who needed to hear him.

On his own, he started inquiring about the connection status of a family of four. He could have cleared the standby list, closed the flight and told the four that they’d have to find another way home. Or, he could have saved them their four seats, which would have flown empty if they hadn’t been filled. Instead of either path, he picked up the phone, organized other staff to find and expedite the family and get them on board.

And then, in an unrelated bit of valor, he tracked down a lost wallet and sent his #2 to fetch it from where it had been left–getting it to the plane before it left.

Most of all, in an era when loyalty is scarce, he probably increased the lifetime value of a dozen wavering customers by at least a few thousand dollars each.

Krulak’s Law states that the future of an organization is in the hands of the privates in the field, not the generals back home.

In conclusion, when Godin asks, “Where is your Wade? What are you doing to make it more likely that he or she will bring magic to work tomorrow?” you know where and how!

Davey may be read here and Godin here.

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Source: Pinterest, Wikimedia.org and huffpost.com.

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In my long career in hi-tech, there were two HR chief’s I was fortunate to observe from close quarters though their tenures were short. Both ladies, early in their career, graduates from TISS. In the years that followed we went different ways. But I continued to measure the HR chiefs I encountered subsequently and they all fell short by lengths in comparison.

This post is about one of them, U.

Passing out from TISS, she joined the org as an Executive Assistant (EA) to the Big Boss – not sure if this was her first job in the industry. Several months later she was sent to the Division dealing in hi-tech and also the most profitable of the many in the brick-and-mortar company as the HR chief, essentially a one-woman team.

A hurricane on the move, only benign.  Some saw her as a very useful ally and others, an overbearing youngster, often going beyond her brief running smack into know-all senior line-managers.

Was she ‘successful’ in the traditional sense? I don’t know, for, can’t recall her being feted in public as such in her short stay. During which time, all the same, some magic she had wrought, I thought. 

What did she do?

  • In all her thought and action, org’s interest was the first and foremost, possibly the only preoccupation, I suspected. Yet, not wearing it on her sleeve.
  • Abs fearless, she thought nothing of taking up issues with and questioning pet theories of the senior executives until satisfactory closure. Of course this was possible because she sought and got the crucial support of the Big Boss, all credit to him. In this regard, perhaps her earlier stint as his EA helped.
  • Though young, she had the maturity to go for the doors that were open to her rather than bang her head against walls that wouldn’t budge (some seniors). She could live well with both kinds.
  • Most part of her time she was out sitting one-on-one with employees. Like with the bosses, she would mix her praises with provocations to get them spill out their guts, all work-related of course. She would herself address many of those problems by offering solutions, work-around’s or through counselling with, yes, subsequent follow-up’s. And the more complex issues would be taken to their bosses. If you’re not happy, why are you working here still…? OrWhy are you still doing the same work you did over the last two years? Aren’t you good for anything else? Or Why are you not getting promoted? Not doing good, eh? are not unusual in the provoking sessions which, to be sure, did not end in destructive fire-works. Her disarming and bonafide ways let her get away. These sessions revealed the swirling under-currents and provided useful inputs to the manager, otherwise impossible to get. And she would take points-of-view from the boss back to the employee. Yes, playing politics it was, but constructively. Issues often got fixed before too late.  Of course the bosses too had their sessions with her.
  • She would play it likewise with peers running their feuds to the detriment of the org.
  • She was no cat’s paw nor did she play favorites. Nor cowed by heavy-weights.
  • A high-energy person with an infectious enthusiasm in a team, also good to talk to when chips were down.
  • In her own role she was constantly wanting to do more. I remember going with her for campus recruitment of trainee-engineers. After watching me a few times from the side-lines, things came to a point when she carried on with the technical interviews all by herself rendering me superfluous!

That’s what a capable and empowered HR can deliver. Want to settle for less?

Neither the land nor the heavens would ever be the same after her premature and unfortunate transition a few days ago – she was one to stir up the stew wherever she went for the larger good.

RIP, U.

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“…that pernicious nonsense about being a leader and not a manager. Your challenge is to help the team and team members succeed. The only way to succeed at that is to do all three kinds of work. Lead. Manage. Supervise. Do them all well. “

Read this short post from Wally Bock to know what each entails.

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The article ‘Wisdom at Work: Why the Modern Elder Is Relevant’ appeared in Wharton’s Knowledge publication (Jan 24, 2019) here. It’s a transcript of an interview wherein Airbnb executive Chip Conley discusses the benefits of having an inter-generational workforce (He argues his case in detail in his eponymous where everyone brings something to the table).

This post is almost entirely extracted from the interview transcript, lightly edited and heavily re-sequenced for clarity and easy reading.

Here we go:

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A new challenge for the org:

The fact that almost 40% of workers have a boss younger than them — that number is going to be the majority by 2025.  In fact, some studies show that power is 10 years younger today than it was 20 years ago. But we’re all living 10 years older. So, if power is moving 10 years younger and we’re living 10 years older, society has created a new 20-year irrelevancy gap for people in mid-life and beyond.

It means that we need to start asking ourselves, how do we create an ‘intergenerational potluck’ so that people bring what they know best? And what do they now best?

A challenge for the elders:

The three-stage life of the past — you learn until you’re 25, you earn until you’re 65, and then you retire until you die — that model is evaporating. Also, as the pace of technology innovation increases, companies promote more tech-savvy younger workers into supervisory jobs. Meanwhile, older workers are staying employed longer due to such things as the disappearance of early retirement schemes, recession, etc.

With the power shifting to the young and the irrelevancy gap threatening to widen, there is this period of life, bewildering and anxiety-producing, unless people constantly remake, reinvent and repurpose themselves in ways to make themselves relevant for the second half of their life. It’s not easy because it requires you to shift out of some of your habits and mindsets that you’ve held onto for a long time.

Conley’s proof of his own continued employment and what he brought to the table:

“For 24 years, I was the founder and CEO of a company called Joie de Vivre based in San Francisco that created 52 boutique hotels. We were the second-largest boutique hotelier. In the Great Recession, I decided to sell the company. I had been doing it for a long time. I was ready to move on. Then I spent a couple years thinking about what was next [for me].

There is a great Robert De Niro quote from the movie The Intern [about a senior citizen who became an intern at a shopping startup], which is, “Musicians don’t retire; they quit when there’s no more music left inside of them.” I knew I had music inside of me; I just wasn’t sure whom to share it with. I was lucky enough that Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, asked me to be his in-house mentor and then come in as the head of global hospitality and strategy, which was supposed to be a part-time job but quickly became full time.”

“Younger people who are digital natives have a digital fluency that may be greater than someone 25 or 30 years older than them — that is true. But to think that someone’s acuity and fluency in one particular scope of work means that they can apply that to anything else is forgetting about all of the human element of business, which requires a certain amount of collaboration and emotional intelligence and leadership skills. Brian Chesky is an amazing CEO. But when I joined, he was 31 and I was 52, and I was his mentor and he was my boss. That was a fascinating relationship — to be mentoring my boss. But five and a half years later, I’m still here.”

“When I joined Airbnb, I think I had been brought in because I was a seasoned expert in my field, which was boutique hotels, hospitality and the travel industry. When I joined five and a half years ago, Airbnb was a very small company, and there was not one person in the company who had a travel or hospitality industry background. I was brought in initially because of that knowledge. That was helpful, and a lot of my networking of people I knew helped. But ultimately, what I think I was able to offer them was this sense of emotional intelligence…”

On Wisdom:

“There have been a number of studies on this, and they’ve shown very little correlation between age and wisdom. As a guy who’s 58, it’s hard to hear that, but there is some evidence that shows that it is not necessarily a correlation. What is correlated is that people actually make sense of their life and their mistakes and their experiences along the way. If you have a process for doing that, then age is correlated with wisdom because you create a pattern recognition.

Wisdom is about being able to see the patterns in things faster than when you’re younger because you’ve seen a lot of patterns and you’ve seen the implications or results of certain things. I think wisdom can be correlated [with age], but it isn’t necessarily correlated. So, just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re an elder.”

“I think knowledge worker is a term to retire now because knowledge is in the computer, it’s in the cloud. You can get out there and find knowledge. In fact, we’re sort of awash in knowledge. But what we could use a little more of is wisdom.

Wisdom is not a plus, plus, plus equation like knowledge is. Wisdom is more of a division equation. You distill the essence of something into what’s important, and that’s what is valuable. I really think that we should change the term knowledge worker and replace it with wisdom worker, because wisdom includes a certain amount of intuitive and human quality that you don’t necessarily get from AI or from your computer. The idea of wisdom making a comeback at a time when we’re so technologically advanced is not that surprising.”

On cognitive diversity:

“And there’s no doubt that cognitive diversity is hugely valuable on teams. If you just have a bunch of 25-year-old guys on a team together, they’re going to compete with each other and try to one-up each other to see who’s the smartest. Put a couple of women in that group, people of color or some older people [and the dynamic changes]. When we think of diversity, we often think almost exclusively of gender, race, and maybe sexual orientation. We don’t think about age very often, even though age is one of the most obvious demographic changes we see.”

On collaboration:

“People go, “Oh, it’s a tech company. It’s just all engineers and individual people in their cubicles doing their work.” No, actually it’s full of teams. And to operate well, teams need to collaborate. Google did a famous study two or three years ago called Project Aristotle and found that the No. 1 common factor among successful and effective teams was psychological safety — people feeling like they could collaborate well without any kind of retribution.

So those collaborative skills are a really important thing that someone in midlife or later can bring to the table – because we have more emotional intelligence is pretty well empirically proven and emotional intelligence is something that can grow with time.”

His message:

* To his generation: “Listen, you can mine your mastery. And while you may not be running the company, you certainly can be an ally to a younger person, as long as we figure out how to create a fluency where we can learn from each other.”

“The hierarchy of the past that says the physics of wisdom only flows from old to young doesn’t make sense anymore. The physics of wisdom moves in both directions; it just depends on the subject matter.”

“The modern elder is appreciated for their relevance, not their reverence, because they’re as much of an intern as they are a mentor.”

* And to the organization: “I started to realize that there are some things they could teach me, like digital intelligence, and there are things that I could teach them, which is emotional intelligence, leadership skills, strategic thinking, etc…”

I recall a story narrated to me some time ago by a young man working in SF based software company offering sales-force automation solution.  It was review time with his boss. He expressed he wasn’t too happy in his current position, role…desired a change to more interesting positions he saw opening up in other parts of the operation. Discussion ensued, the boss tried his best to retain the talented young man. When he (the boss) saw latter standing firm on his move, he ended the discussion and gave a good letter of reference helping him find quickly a new position of his liking in the organization. Which he did before long. As he was settling down in his new role, he got his review results – a promotion, coming from a boss to a youngster who no longer worked with him! And quite predictably the young man till date is doing very well working for the same organization.

The boss had the emotional intelligence to ensure the man got his just due and the organization did not lose the talent.

On Tesla founder Elon Musk:

“He’s 47 years old, if I’m not mistaken. Could he use someone like that? Sure. But he’s relatively far along in terms of his career. He’s a bit of a genius. The thing we have to put to rest is the idea that singular geniuses do this alone. There’s always more than one person involved. The question is, who are you surrounding yourself with? To me, the answer is that you should be surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people, including some people who have some seasoned wisdom at the table.”

**

In conclusion: All is far from lost for the modern elder as long as he brings his strengths to bear on what he is doing at the workplace.

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