Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Hate to lose more than you love to win ?

A few days ago, I watched ‘Moneyball’, starring Brad Pitt, acting as a forty-something failed baseball player turned team manager, and Jonah Hill, playing his twenty-something nerdish assistant. If you haven’t watched the movie yet, it’s about an interesting concept. That a high performing team is not necessarily the one with star players. That a team constituted with the appropriate basic skills required for scoring many runs, has more than a fighting chance to win as well. And further, that if star players can’t be bought or retained, then it’s logical to opt for players with the right basic skills that together make a magic formula. Since, as Jonah Hill argues, the latter are “ignored by the richer teams, can be bought cheaper, and are probably easier to manage”.

A remarkable true story, the movie could be an inspiration for all those organisations, groups and teams which find themselves, at one time or another, to be, like Brad Pitt describes, “organ donors for the rich”. Who lose their best people to more moneys and bigger names. The romantic appeal of the triumph of the underdog notwithstanding, it’s the slogan of ‘when in Rome, if you can’t beat the Romans at their game, then do what the Romans don’t’, that captivates the rebel in me. So does the outlandish claim by Hill that, "the best people leaving is the best thing that could happen to the team since it opens up new possibilities".

Many service organisations, in a bid to proactively check the rising employee costs and minimise the possibility of future lay-offs, routinely execute on the principles of ‘push the job down’, ‘backfill with cheaper’, and 'do more with less'. Basically, they keep redrawing their lines of labour division and their lines of skill grouping. Then define and staff roles accordingly. To do that, they keep their processes of hiring, promoting, career moves and succession in step with the new lines. So long as the ‘pyramid and skills refresh’ exercises are done well, the organisations continue to maintain, and sometimes even to enhance their performance levels. Just like Pitt’s and Hill’s team did. Manufacturing and other organisations should certainly take more than a leaf out of this book.
To me, the movie was also about one more thing. During a particular scene, Brad Pitt shouts, “I hate losing more than I love winning”.
That’s probably why he didn’t cut his losses and abandon a sinking ship. That’s probably why he risked his entire future on a whacky new idea from a whacky young kid. That’s probably why he persisted with his direction despite initial failures. That’s probably why the owner of the team supported him when nobody else did. That’s probably why, after the eventual triumph of his lack-lustre team, he didn’t take up the unbelievably lucrative offer from a very rich rival team.
That’s probably also why his daughter proudly and happily sang, “you’re a loser, dad; such a loser dad”.
Pitt’s and his daughter’s words resonate with me. I fancy myself as one, and am drawn to such people, rather than to those who love winning more than they hate losing. For much the same probable reasons. That’s what put the movie right up there for me.
“I’m a loser, guys; such a loser, guys”.
Are you one too ? No problem if you aren’t. After all, it takes all kinds of trees to make a forest.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Of liberty and fraternity, in coaching

Think sports and academic institutes if you want to make coaching in the workplace more effective. Remember we’re talking about adults here. It’s different and easier with children, since someone else makes the decisions and choices for them, and they are good learners. Not so, for adults.
The whole business begins with a person’s choice to opt for coaching or not. Someone could either be opposed to ‘extra’ coaching, confident of imbibing the required learning from the existing system. Or believe that true learning happens via numerous interactions and experiences with several people in uncontrolled settings. Or even that he or she is ‘good enough’ and is not in need of any more coaching. I mean, parents, relatives and friends could impress upon this person the need for and the benefits of coaching. Finally, the choice has to be of the person concerned.
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have opted for coaching in their lives, as those who have not. For coaching in the workplace to have a good start, it is fundamental to provide employees in the target group with this choice. As much as it is, to allow them to change their mind.
The second consideration is this. Someone who desires coaching also makes a choice of where or who to go to for getting coached. That someone has chosen to join a particular sporting or education academy for the purpose of getting ahead in life riding piggy-back on its influential patrons or famous teachers, or out of peer pressure, or because of its convenient location, should be for no one to judge. That someone has chosen to join an academy for the love of learning, or because of a genuinely great coach, or even because of the likelihood of a relationship of mutual trust and preference with the coach there, should not be anyone’s bother either.
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have been the products of the right choices they have made, as those who haven’t. For coaching at the workplace to head in the right direction, it is necessary to allow the employees who have opted for coaching to consider their own motivations privately and then make known their list of preferred coaches. Whether from their organisation or without, from their business group or without.
Coaches also need to make similar choices. Of opting to coach or not. And, if they do make their services available, of deciding who to coach. Again, based on a private consideration of their motivations and preferences. If the choices of the coachees shouldn’t be judged, neither should those of the coaches. That’s only fair.
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have been the products of the right choices and motivations of their coaches, as those who haven’t. For coaching in the workplace to proceed further in the good direction previously determined, the coaches must choose from among all those employees who have chosen them. The idea is to arrive at a coach-coachee matching just like sports and education academies arrive at their admissions lists. The coach is as high on the coachee’s preference list, and the coachee is as high on the coach’s preference list, as the matching process allows for. Too bad, if, as an outcome of a fair process, the employee had to settle for an undesirable or less than desirable coach.
If potential coaches and coachees need more familiarity with one another, the organisation must provide information and opportunities of interaction to them before they prepare their respective lists of preference. There could be application forms, credentials and statements of purpose submitted by the coaches and the coachees. Sounds foolish ? Trust me, it's no more foolish than wasting time in trying to coach people to be better coaches, monitoring if people have had the mandated number of coaching interactions, or pushing the coach-coachee pairs to draft and submit their coaching contracts. Wonderful things, these. Bring back painful memories.
The matching process would most likely throw up a situation where each coach has more than a few people to coach. In sports and in education, coaches handle their coachees in a group, and while doing so, they address the individual needs of each coachee too. It’s efficient use of the coach’s time and effort. The coachees get wider learning from watching others being taught. The coach’s as well as the coachees’ performance and behaviour are out in the open, and public encouragement and shame work wonders for both parties. Besides it’s more secure and fun to have co-travellers.
Given time and support, the coach-coachee group work their own rules of engagement, their own understanding of what’s working and what’s not, their own dynamic teaching-learning methods, and their own standards of progress. Broadly, if things are ok, coachees accept the realities of life that some among them progress better than the others, that some among them have louder voices than the others, that the ways of teaching-learning work better with some than with others, and so on.
There remains the matter of one more choice before we close the deal on making coaching in the workplace more effective. Both the coach and the coachee can choose to disengage with one another at any time. Amicably. As self-respecting adults would.
Didn’t I already say something like ….
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have opted for coaching in their lives, as those who have not;
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have been the products of the right choices they have made, as those who have not;
Perhaps, as many good sportspersons and scholars have been the products of the right choices and motivations of their coaches, as those who have not.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Vote and vote well

A few days ago, during the city’s municipal corporation elections, I cast my first ever vote.

During the run-up to the day of the elections, I was very excited to discover my voter registration details on the election commission’s website. After all, two of my previous attempts at registration had failed, and I had no reason to believe that I would succeed with my latest attempt of a few months ago. I felt a sense of victory against all the dark forces that conspire against the registration of urban middle class voters like me. Politicos of all hues find us unpredictable and unreliable, since we don’t swing to their tunes of region, community and caste, and hence focus their efforts on expanding their base elsewhere. Bureaucracy ‘stiffs’ see us as politically apathetic and individually powerless, and hence direct their energies to other registration applications brought in by eager politicos.
But this time, I was going to cast my vote. Na-na-n-na-na.
On the day of the elections I searched the website again. Half-suspecting that my details would’ve mysteriously disappeared by then. But there I found them once more, beaming at me in all their glory. I fired a colour print of my voter details on high quality executive paper. And proudly carried it to the polling station. “Internet printout, eh?”, asked the polling agent stationed outside my designated polling station. “Let me check if your details appear in the copy of the electoral rolls for this station”, he continued. The more pages he turned over without finding my name and photograph, the more his self-importance increased. And the more mine decreased. I interrupted him, “but my details are from the election commission’s website”. As though my timely interruption would make the record appear in the pages he hadn’t yet flipped through. “I know sir, but ours is the latest and most valid copy”, he declared, as he continued flipping through his papers to locate my name or photograph. Then he delivered his verdict, “your record isn’t at this polling station; maybe it’s at some other”. “Some other ?”, I gasped. “It happens”, he sighed. This was fantastic. I had about four hours before the close of polling time to visit about a half a dozen polling stations in my area and locate my record. But I was determined. Had nothing particularly better to do that day. So I rushed from one polling station to another, only to hear one polling agent after another deliver the same verdict.
As I was about to concede defeat to the dark forces and slip back again into the set that is accused of not exercising their right and duty to vote, I saw some activity at a street corner. Some respectable looking people were speaking in English and a couple of youngsters were working a laptop. I’m respectable, can speak in English, and own two laptops. So I went there too. Representatives of a newish party that hoped to attract young, educated and affluent voters were helping people locate their records and their designated polling stations. I may not be young or affluent, but I am educated, and hence promptly commissioned their services. Lo and behold ! My name appeared, albeit with a different set of voter registration details. I thanked the volunteers.
And, armed with fresh ammunition and a renewed zeal to wipe out the enemy, I jumped into my car. Told the driver about the new coordinates to take me to.
I confidently walked into the polling station, showed the security personnel my identification, and queued up outside the polling booth. My mind was so clouded with the desire and anticipation of the precious moments that were to follow, that it didn’t occur to me that I had missed the most critical part of my war strategy for the day. To ask my driver who I should vote for ! Don’t be surprised. My driver lives in a neighbourhood that knows lots about the local politicos and about their deeds and misdeeds. He used to be a dance instructor, is now married to a school teacher, nurses upward mobility aspirations, and shares my view that people should vote for candidates with great performance and behaviour. Quite qualified to be my advisor.
When it was my turn to, I submitted my credentials before the electoral officer. He said my name aloud. When none of the representatives of the various political parties objected that I was a bogus voter, he directed me to the polling enclosure. Here I was, all to myself, and salivating at the electronic voting machine. When it struck me that I didn’t know who to vote for. That none of the names of the candidates was even vaguely familiar. So I did what I had gone there for. To exercise my right and duty to vote. Beep.
Even if it was for god-knows-who from god-knows-which-party.
I don’t like politics and politicians. I know that our city is going from bad to worse despite electing different representatives and parties to power. I know that manifestos and promises are forgotten by many of the elected. Etc, etc. So I shouldn’t have felt guilty at how I’d eventually cast my vote. But I did.
In the last few years, I have never read the questions in an employee engagement survey. But have always assigned a score of 5/5 to each. I have behaved similarly while responding to leadership surveys about my peers and bosses. I admit that I didn’t feel guilty while doing so. But I should’ve.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Hire, as the wise people do

I’m just back from attending a wedding in my ancestral village. While there, I thought many times about some wise people who were no more. And about what they’d said to me, off and on, over the years. Naturally, I also thought about their views on marriage. A rule, which they had said was time-tested, came to mind.
‘If you want progress for your son and for your family, marry him to a woman who hails from a better family. If you want a secure and dignified future for your daughter, marry her to a man who is a rising star in his family’.
As profound and simple rules do, this one too leaves unsaid the routine but not unimportant stuff that people anyway pay attention to while match-making. It doesn’t say that if the man or woman or their families fail obvious standards, then a mere application of the rule would make for a good marriage. As enduring rules do, this one too allows for a dynamic definition of ‘progress’, ‘better’, ‘secure’, ‘dignified’, and ‘rising star’. So it lets people decide for themselves, and in keeping with their times, whether these terms are to be interpreted on the basis of anthropological, social, political or economic value.

All it says, is that one could use the rule as a supplement to one’s own good sense and judgement. Even if it were the man and the woman deciding by themselves about a life together.
Ok. So a man should marry a woman from a better family. Because she would have higher standards, expectations and aspirations. Because she would want an even better life for their kids. If the man could understand and appreciate that, then he would be propelled forward. And if the man’s family could understand and appreciate that, then they would be propelled forward too. By virtue of a unit in the family getting propelled forward and raising the bar for other units. Needless to say, that an insecure man and his ungrateful family would waste time and effort in trying to make the better woman conform to their lower standards. Also, that a woman with a chip on her shoulder about being from a better family, could never be a propelling force with her condescending ways.
But why would a woman marry beneath herself ? Well, she could, if the family were only a little beneath hers. And she found a man who was a rising star in that family and looked all set to exceed her standards and expectations in the near future. She would be the appreciated additional propelling factor in the early days of marriage and a respected participant in the later days. Besides, the woman marrying a little beneath herself would also satisfy the condition that is good for her man. That he should marry above himself. It’s a win-win match.
A woman marrying above her would need to have high personal qualities to avoid the possibility of being ignored or made subservient.
Sure, there are many exceptions that defy the rule, for reasons I can understand, and for reasons I can’t. But when I look around, and look within, it appears to me that the underlying spirit of the rule applies more often than it does not.
Forget marriage. Forget man and woman. Forget old times and new. Examine for yourself how we hire people into our organisations.
Do we have any theory at all to guide our hiring decisions after we have assessed the education, experience, skills and behaviour of the candidates ? Do we frequently manage to get in people better than ourselves ? Can we prove to them that we are rising stars worth joining with even if it’s a little beneath them to do so ? Often times, not.
It’s very common to want to go into a better family. Therfore it’s very easy to bring in someone like that from a lesser family. It's yet another kind of a match. You decide if it's a win-win. You decide if you want to continue to hire like that.
Or hire, as the wise people do.