Friday, April 30, 2010

The "Heavy Hitter" and the "Big Guy"

You would have heard the Term "Heavy Hitter" if you've worked in an American company.  Some others use the simpler "Big Guy".  Typically used in an Operations context (and hence my interest), these are Managers who head and manage large teams - read head count or FTE.  I heard of these and, possibly, even used these terms in GE and other companies I worked for.
Nice informal terms in themselves.  The problem lies in their association with head count.  Recently, I came across this term again.  Nothing wrong you might say, its only a name.  Disagree.

I think it reinforces the wrong kind of behavior.  Measuring only the size of the team you lead to identify the big guy, is all yesterday.  If you really want to drive a culture that focuses on core competency, global sourcing / out sourcing and sub-contracting, measuring a managers potential or experience by the number of people s/he handles can only result in building large teams, turf wars and politics.

Chatting informally with Nagi Nagendran, Managing Director of Operations at Citi, Kuala Lumpur, just confirmed this! He notes that while on the one hand, large banks and financial institutions encourage headcount and cost reductions, when it comes to grading operations jobs, number of people managed still plays a big role- an intrinsic disconnect! His personal take is that with increased digitization and and spreading of work across multiple sites and entities -including captives and third parties- senior operations managers will really be managing a 'network' where it is tough to employ 'people managed' as a primary measure of job size. Other factors, taken across the network as a whole, will become more important in his view.

The 'only a name' logic doesn't work either.  As the wag said, a rose may be a rose by any other name, but order a bunch of bougainvilleas for your girl friend and you'll learn something new!   More importantly, a name connotes a brand.  Also, give a name to anything and you begin getting attached to it.  Inversely, give something ugly or undesirable a nice name and you start accepting it.  I am reminded of "putting a pet to sleep".  You get the drift...

I am not arguing a case for banning the terms.  My attempt is to re-define them.  "Heavy Hitter" and "Big Guy" should, may be, look at the budget a manager controls, or even better, the change he is able to make in key ratios: say, revenue per head or profit per head.  And don't just use these ratios in absolute terms.  It is even better to measure the year-on-year change in these ratios.  Now, if you increase profit per head by 15% over previous year, that's a Big Guy, ready for the bigger job!  Agree?


Friday, April 16, 2010

The Power of Feedback

Feedback is one of the most under-utilized tools of leadership! There is, of course, lots of literature on customer feedback and how that helps product development, relationship management and the like; but precious little on its importance in Performance Management, and therefore on the criticality of feedback in leadership training.  Now, I would not be so vocal about it if I had not learnt of this MNC taking up feedback training as a strategic leadership initiative across all its global offices.

Today, I want to focus on management feedback.The ones we (are supposed to) give to and take from our teams.

The more I dig into this, the more I am convinced that it is a critical part of a performance improvement program.  If you have a Performance Improvement program or training going on in your company, I’d advise you to dig into it and ensure there is a big chunk that talks about the importance of and the 'how to' of giving and accepting feedback.

Most of us do use some types of feedback extensively.  The problem is more to do with the adequacy and the richness of the feedback we get and give.  Lets focus on that for a moment.

Technically, feedback describes the situation when output from an event in the past will influence the same event in the future.This is enabled by informing the performer about the outcome and the manner in which the outcome was achieved (or missed). The idea is for the performer to appreciate, both intellectually and emotionally, the manner in which s/he put in effort and how that effort impacted the outcome. The idea is for the performer to use the new information to do a better job of the next effort s/he makes. Thus, feedback can be said to be effective only if the information provided changes performance in the desired direction. To look at it differently, one really cannot (it, really, is impossible to) improve one’s performance without feedback.
The most common form of feedback we receive is in the form of the outcome of our effort itself, i.e., whether or not our efforts have resulted in output that works. Whether we have passed or flunked. This is great and definitely qualifies as the first and primary form of feedback. This level of feedback is OK for the most basic of activities. Activities that are so simple - or where one's understanding of it is so deep - that the mere binary information of good or bad tells me what exactly I should change to get it right next time. Unfortunately, most often this is far from adequate. Lets call this Level Zero feedback.
Six Sigma teaches us that finding a defective unit, in itself, can do very little in terms of improving our performance. At best, we can remove that particular unit or activity from the pile of finished goods (or our CV) to ensure that it does not bother the customer (or employer). We still may not know how the defective result came about in the first instance, and much less about how not to repeat that part of the process. So, we do need a deeper analysis or insight into the process to make out where exactly we went wrong and what it is that we need to change.
This is where feedback can be most helpful. If you can use your experience and expertise in helping your team member identify the ‘Defect Opportunity’* in the process, you are adding significant value to his/her learning. The cognitive element of understanding where exactly I went wrong and the emotional element of generating a new hope that I will definitely do better next time, gives me a massive boost of adrenalin. That is the power of feedback. That is the spring action that effective feedback results in. That motivational aspect is the reaso feedback is so important from a leadership perspective as well.
Importantly, the Defect Opportunity does not lie in the output. The output only tells us of defects present, if any. The Defect Opportunity lies in the Input and / or the Process. This means it lies either in our knowledge or understanding of the process or its intended outcome, or in the actions taken to achieve it.
If you, like me, are hooked to visuals, I would picture it as shown in Figure 1.

Of course, you can do better than merely pointing out the defect opportunity where s/he went wrong. You can help analyze and diagnose it for him / her. This can help even better in avoiding the same mistake next time. This means, through your past experience you have learned the various points in the process where one could go wrong and you share this with your team. The idea is that your protégé will be able to use this information to be more ‘careful’ at these points, to avoid making defects. We may call this Level One feedback.
The fact is, you can do even better! To make your feedback even more effective, you can also share how best s/he could avoid going wrong at each defect opportunity. The tips and tricks you have learnt from your own experience and received wisdom on how to avoid making those mistakes in those circumstances. When you do this effectively, you have achieved Level Two feedback. You are now clearly on the journey of performance improvement.
Finally, the very best kind of feedback I know is where we coach our ward on how s/he can analyze his/her own performance to improve results… teaching them to fish, as it were. This is what kicks off a virtual feedback cycle for your protégé; where s/he builds this analysis / feedback phase into the core process. That is Level Three feedback! Figure 2 depicts the feedback Maturity Model.

Let me also sound a cautionary note. What we have talked about above is assuming your protégé cannot perform these tasks him/herself. This is important for the leader to understand. If your team member is shrewd enough to do this analysis by him/herself, you will only end up killing their enthusiasm by going through the four levels routinely.  As a good leader, you need to be able to effectively assess the capability, energy and enthusiasm of your protégé / team to give the right level of feedback and back-off at the right time!

Hope this helped... I am waiting to read your feedback!


* The element, action or event that gives us a chance for making a defect.