Saturday, 17 December 2011

A small glass of milk each or a tall one together ?

Ever seen a job advertisement or an internal job posting that reads, “we’ve clubbed the roles of sales manager and marketing manager into one … please pair up with someone and apply … the selected pair would share performance accountability and performance rating” ?

Most likely not.

Because, free market liberalism is based on the ‘liber’, the individual. With individual freedom, come individual responsibilities, individual aspirations and individual life. That’s what we are all comfortable with. Even if we cry ourselves hoarse about teaming and collaboration.

And, because, there is a role of sales and marketing director to which these two roles report. Such an arrangement is common, and exists for very good reasons. It enables job-autonomy, job-focus, and command-n-control. Under the watchful gaze of the director, both the managers don’t rub too much against one another. When the director goes on vacation, the managers manage J.

But I’ve often also heard stuff like, “we now have too many sales and marketing directors”. Or, “it’s a nightmare to make the sales and marketing managers see eye to eye”. Or even that, “the sales and the marketing managers are very good, but none fits the bill yet to become the sales and marketing director ... so let’s hire someone from outside”.

Then I begin to wonder about possibilities and experiments.

And examine job-sharing. The most common way to job-share is to split a role into two distinct roles and staff each with a part-time resource. Split the territory. Another way to job-share is to staff one role with two part-timers. Split the time and effort, and combine complementary skill sets. The latter is easier said than done, and such examples are hard to find even in the most progressive of organisations. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Looks like it will happen anyway, given its merits, and given the direction our world of work is taking.

If we could staff one job with two part-timers, then we could surely combine two jobs and make a full-timer pair do the combined job. The model is exactly the same; of making two people do one job, share accountabilities and outcomes. The advantages are the same. So are the rough edges we need to iron out to make both these types of arrangements work. What if the two people don’t collaborate ? What if one is viewed as better and overshadows the other ? What if one carries the load and the other fence-sits ? What if they privately demarcate territories and return to old ways ? Etc.

In the example of the pair of managers, the minimum advantages are those of learning from each other, collaborating for better results, and feeling secure in the company of the other. The maximum advantages could be all these. Plus the pair doing their combined job and also that of their boss. Far-fetched ? Ok. So the pair could do theirs and some of the job of the boss. Numerous such pairs in the organisation adding their respective deltas could mean at least a few bosses less. Or leave those few bosses with more time to take on more responsibilities and deliver more results. Or even take care of some complaints of a peer's role being better in comparison to one's own.

That brings me to a job-share experiment that may sound even more far-fetched. We all know of good people who turn underperformers at this or that time, for this or that reason. What if each of them could bring in a deserving person who they job-shared with to turn things around ? Assess the newcomer against organisational standards, offer a contractual position, pay from the salary of the underperforming employee, limit and review the period of association – whatever.

Don’t be so surprised. I know a person who had regular job-related conversations with a pensioner dad to turn things around for himself. Ask him if he would gladly pay a part of his salary to his dad or not.

It's not just about under-performers. The rapidly changing business environment demands new skills from the best of performers. Limited or extended duration job-shares with folks who already have such skills might relieve them, their superiors and their trainers. At least in a few cases; don't you agree ?

Two minds are better than one.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Diversity by design

There’s a university and an organisation I know about which promote and protect diversity. Much more than some others do.  And consistently deliver results. Also much more than some others do. Whether their performance is because of the diversity in their fabric, or in spite of it, is a matter best left to your wisdom and dispensation.
The university promotes and protects diversity by design.

If you have a graduate degree in any discipline you can seek admission to any of the post graduate courses there. Admission tests for different courses are conducted on separate days to allow the applicants a shot at many of them. While the question papers are in English, you can choose to write your answers in any of the listed languages. You have to answer any five out of the twenty five questions asked. Even without prior background or preparation, you will always find your five questions to answer, since seven or eight questions usually pertain to topics of general interest.
Such open practices and other unrevealed algorithms of the admissions process guarantee that every new batch has a fair representation of students from different regions, ethnicities, social classes, and income groups.
Attending classes is not mandatory. You can take books to refer to during the exams. If you miss a test, professors will be quite comfortable to have you write a term paper and assign grades.  You can register for elective courses in any other department. There are neither curfew hours nor boundary walls in the hostels. The academic, administrative and financial councils of the institution have student representatives. Spontaneous teacher and student support against injustice and wrongdoing is a common sight. Talent is on full display all the while and everywhere. Dissenters turn into collaborators and yet again into dissenters with ease.
Pick any student, and ask what is best about the place. Most likely, you will get the answer, “I can be me”.

Ask any teacher whether every student's 'I can be me' adversely affects the university's basic character and purpose. Most likely, you will get the answer, "not at all; the elements of our core remain unaffected, since, no student, even while acting and thinking alone, is against them".
Switch your attention to the organisation now. It is a multinational, which gradually turned diverse in the course of entering and growing in different markets. The more diverse people, practices, views and ideas it assimilated, the more it appreciated the needs and benefits of diversity.
In recent years, its focus on diversity has become sharper, since it serves a more diverse set of stakeholders and customers, needs diverse skills, and seeks to grow its sources of talent. That much is by design.
In its operations in a particular country though, the promotion and protection of diversity happened by accident. The organisation grew so fast there that it hired good people of all types from just about anywhere. As a result, it now has lots of different models of success and ways of working for any employee to emulate. Lots of stereotypes stand broken. Every person finds at least some like-minded, even non-like-minded, supporters. And concludes, “the place does support me to be me”. The organisation has one more step to take, from ‘supporting’ its people to be themselves to ‘desiring’ that they be so.
Other organisations, where such an accident hasn't happened, and who are focussed exclusively on improving the diversity demographics, need to also get to a point where an employee would say, “looks like people here really want me to be me”.
By design.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Make the future work

Yesterday, one of my friends called me to say, “I have taken the advice that your elder brother gave you. To get a loan from a bank and buy another house”. I laughed out loud. Because, I knew instantly what the words behind his words were.

When things are comfortable, thoughts about future life distract from work. A biggish financial liability burns excess libido and brings back the focus to earnings and therefore to work. And life goes on as it is generally supposed to. That’s what my brother told me over a year ago.

Other memories surfaced.

A proclamation by someone, “professionals who aren’t brands in their own right shouldn’t even think about going on their own … they’ll trigger little recall and won’t get anywhere”. True enough.

An admission by another, “I get work done by others and focus on macro items … if I were to start off on my own I would either have to invest in a firm and pay people to do different levels of work … or stay by myself and be content with work that doesn’t use my full abilities since potential customer organisations would have their leaders to take care of the macro stuff … it’s like frying pan and fire”. Sure is.

Preferences - people making choices, doing different work and working differently. Evidence - organisations experimenting with different models of engaging skills. Direction - networking platforms and collaboration technologies.

A task at hand distracted me from these memories. Work towards launching my website - attractive design, super functionality, reader convenience, socially known. Big agency costs were prohibitive. Boutique firms were too focussed on getting big-agency-like customers and would put me on lower priority. Freelancers would have only one or the other of the skills I needed.

A boutique firm that charged fair money, and believed that our collaboration would get them a great credential plus enjoyable work, should be my choice. But why would such a firm sway from its set ways ? Yes, most likely not. Then, how about if there were a platform or association where I could find two or three great guys with the sum total of the skills I needed ? And they collaborated with one another and with me to deliver a great product ? Wishful thinking.

I don’t know why I thought about a group of cabbies we know. It’s been four years since we’ve been using their cabs. It’s an informal association that now has over twenty cabbies. They have a few simple rules. More customers for the association means more customers for each individually. So they pass on business to one another. Retain and grow the customer base for the association by a service offering that easily beats the individual cabbie and also takes on the big daddy cab companies. So they have good and polite drivers. Different cabs to suit your need of the day. Fair but flat price agreed in advance, where loyal customers get lower rates and an exemption from paying waiting charges. A guarantee, that they would reach customers at the appointed time and place. So they make sure that one of them reaches you, even at odd hours, and even if he could afford not to.

Now they do not wait at taxi stands nor ply about in search of business. They get familiar, quality customers who give them respect and admiration. They are open but choosy about which other cabbie they accept into their group. When members rub against one another they iron out issues as a collective and move on. They offer employment to willing and able relatives and friends as their assets multiply. Each can solicit business for himself but doesn’t anymore. Everyone can leave the group at will but very few have.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Seen that cook lately ?

Just as I was about to speak to my cook of ten years, my brain began sending this live feed to the rest of me. "Control your expression ! You do like his work, loyalty, sincerity, attitude and appearance. Ok, look away when you talk to him. Moderate your speech ! You only want him to know that these days he's taking too many calls while he's cooking ... and he's spending more time away with friends which pushes out the time when the kids should have dinner and go to sleep ... and he's routinely dishing out stuff which we have mostly accepted in our history together. Ok, ok, sound fair but firm when you tell him".

I finally said to him, "why don't you cook something different that is nutritious yet appealing to the kids "? The look he gave me, only Jack Nicholson could. Part confused, part amused, part defiant.

And I had hesitated about telling him that, after many recent reminders, he had not made a habit of replenishing the stock of items that were now important to us. Recommended in our book on 'food as medicine'. These would help our parents. Couldn't he imagine how happy we would be if he stepped-up or got a bit more flexible ? Couldn't he imagine how happy he would be with a higher place of pride in our household ? What had happened to that spark that prompted him to learn driving so that he could help with errands in the absence of our regular driver ?

Never mind. He had been good. Even now he was good. It's not even that he was beginning to burn out or reach a plateau. There wasn't a fat chance that we would misbehave with him or contemplate his replacement. Or would we, at times, if only fleetingly ? No, no. We shouldn't. What guarantee did we have that another new-age expert of healthy and interesting recipes would have all the other qualities that we so valued ? Of course our cook would continue to stay and work with us.

But our parents had changing needs and our children had changing preferences. If only he could also give us what the winds of change demanded. If only we could get rid of the faint feeling that we were just a little stuck with him. If the wind blew harder and he got blown away, whose fault would it be ? Ours, that we didn't tell him like it was ? Or his own, that he didn't realise it in time ?

Deja vu. When and where did I have the same experience ? Intensely similar feeling ? Vivid image ?

Many, many times ! Even at work ! Sometimes I was that cook and sometimes it was others who were. Have you been such a cook lately ? Have you seen one of late ?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Marching song

Two things are top of mind for me these days. Well, there are others; but for this show, I want to spare you the distractions of a multi-starrer film, and save myself the obligation of granting each star some screen space.

One, from the advice and opinions I got when I planned to take a break from an active corporate career. "Now you'll know who your real friends are". "Now you'll realise what you are not good at". "In three months time your shelf life will expire and you will be labelled as unemployed". "It will not feel good if others are not interested in what you are saying or doing". "Are you ready for some harsh treatment"? "What about your lifestyle"? Etc etc etc.

It's not just what others say or do; its also my own fears and who I am, that keep bringing me back to the thoughts about humble pie. What does it taste like ? Is it easy to digest ? I don't know. Neither might you, I think. If you have, like me, done reasonably well for the most part, and spent a good portion of time in the company of people who have commensurate lives.

The second, which is top of mind for me these days, is mortality. Pretty commonplace after one crosses the forty mark, I am told. There's so much unfinished business I have with regard to my family and myself. In little and significant ways, I get signals about what two decades of smoking, no exercise, and bad routines have done to me.

Earn my sleep and regain lost ground. So I began with daily walks. From my house, to a nearby hill, and then uphill. Those of you, who have experience with an outdoor physical exercise of some degree of difficulty, will understand how I also began to get clear thoughts, images and feelings during these walks.

One day, while I was struggling to negotiate a particularly steep bend on the road uphill, I heard a voice from within. "I'm ready to eat humble pie but not ready to die". What was that again ? Nothing. But I thought I heard something. Never mind. All I could hear were my breathlessness and creaking shin.

Next day, instead of walking uphill, I tried the impossible. Jogging uphill. At the steep bend, that seemed nastier that day, I heard a voice. "I'm ready to eat humble pie but not ready to die". This time it didn't go away. Perhaps because its rhythm was in sync with my breath and step. "I'm ready to eat humble pie .... huff huff huff .... but not ready to die ... puff puff puff". What was that again ? "I'm ready to eat humble pie ... huff huff huff ... but not ready to die ... puff puff puff ... hup one two three four ... one two three four". I smiled and jogged up the nasty bend. A marching song to help me on subsequent days, eh ?

I have attended college for longer than I needed to and have two post graduate degrees in humanities. And a love for models and constructs therefore.

My marching song seemed incomplete. What if my jogging uphill could be compared to the beginning of my second innings at work ? Would the lines of the marching song change in the medium term ? The long term ? What if it weren't me, but someone else just beginning a professional career? Would my lines for the short, medium and long term still apply ? And help ?

Couldn't get my answers. Went for my walk-cum-jog. Clarity hormones got triggered again. I knew at once what my line in the medium term should be. "I'm not getting that much humble pie, looks like I'm not going to die". And that I would like the song to eventually end with, "I long for some humble pie, I'm quite ready to die".

There was my marching song ! Complete with a model. A happy song that gave me direction. The next day I sang it silently. In full.

"I'm ready to eat humble pie ... huff huff huff ... but not ready to die ... puff puff puff ... hup one two three four ... one two three four".
"I'm not getting that much humble pie ... huff huff huff ... looks like I'm not going to die ... puff puff puff ... hup one two three four ... one two three four".
"I long for some humble pie ... huff huff huff ... I'm quite ready to die ... puff puff puff ... hup one two three four ... one two three four".

I smiled and jogged up more nasty bends that day. Go ahead and make your marching song. If you can't, take mine.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Live-in with an organisation

Someone comes up to you and says, “I want to be in a live-in relationship”. And you begin to think.

Does this person want to choose convenience over responsibility? Keep an exit option open and be focussed on the short term? Make an unconsidered choice and follow the trend? Is influenced by what is increasingly heard or said? Had a bad experience with marriage or witnessed dear ones go through a rough patch?

You may get surprisingly similar thoughts if someone comes up to you and says, “I want a flexible work arrangement”.

Now imagine that it’s my child who comes up to me and says, “I want to be in a live-in relationship”. I can’t just have thoughts and opinions. I will have to act. Do something for my child’s happiness and welfare.

Sure my child can make a choice. Just like she has in the past and handled it well. And be happy. Like I have been with my choices. Then, as an ordinary parent concerned about her welfare, I would want to ensure -

·         that she is making a considered choice and is doing it for the right reasons;
·         that she continues to respect and believe in marriage, to either consider it at some point, or at least, to be at peace with her choice and get peaceful vibes in return from married people;
·         that her partner scores well on the points mentioned above;
·         that she lives in a place that has people who are respectful of people and their choices.

Indulge me. Replace ‘live-in relationship’ with flexible work arrangement. ‘Marriage’ with full time regular work. The ‘person choosing to live-in’ with the candidate desirous of flexible work. The ‘live-in partner’ with hiring manager, supervisor, team mate or family. The ‘place of residence’ with an organisation.

And you might just hit upon the ingredients of making flexible work arrangements work ! Ask your questions, use the four points listed above, and get some answers. As an organisation, check to see how much you generally respect your people and their choices. And you might be able to predict whether and how beneficial it could be to offer flexible work. As an individual, introspect if you continue to appreciate that, all else being equal, the career advancement opportunity should go to the other person on regular employment. And you might temper your insecurities about getting victimised while on flexible work. As a line manager, assess how much you are willing to partner with an employee on flexible work. And you might get the direction to make it work. 

Since our individual and community experience with live-in relationships is more than it is with flexible-work arrangements, we could use the learnings from the former to inform the latter and push it in the right direction. Faster.