Monday, September 30, 2013


Management lore is full of praise for team work.  Indeed, it is not only unpolitic, but absolutely unacceptable today to say I will go against team consensus.  Having benefited fully from conventional wisdom and “good Management education”, I confess being an aggressive team player; to the extent that I have always looked down upon the typical autocratic bosses, who “know all the answers”.   Yet, the same Management lore is also quite assertive that a true leader should assert himself and listen to his “gut” and be willing to go against the tide, where necessary. 

And therein lies the typical dilemma of the leader – the need to make a judgment call, the need to balance polar view points and struggle with the grey areas, with the help of his grey matter alone.
Three hiring decisions “we” made recently have forced me to sort out my thinking on these issues.   But before I dig specifics, a word about hiring itself.  As a guy, who soaked in a lot of “General Electric” values and training, Energy has been a big thing with me in hiring.  For those new to this, GE places a lot of emphasis on energy and the ability to energize in every hiring decision.  I often talk about this to my team and there have been cases where I have rejected otherwise qualified candidates on the ground that they lacked energy.

Now, we are ready to talk specifics:
Case-1: Low Energy
We needed a “general purpose” “I.T. guy”, to sort out level-one computer issues and handle some admin work on the side.  At that time, we lacked diversity in the team.  So, when this candidate came along with fairly good credentials on paper and from the minority group, I was sold.  Strangely, my team was not.   They felt he was too quiet, low on energy and possibly snooty.  I rationalized saying energy does not always have to manifest itself physically and that, just because he speaks less does not mean he is snooty. 
And so, despite some resistance from the team, I went ahead and hired him.  The guy turned out to be a disaster.  Low energy, low motivation and would almost routinely miss his deliverables.  Eventually had to let him go, in what turned out to be a fairly costly piece of learning for me.  Of course, like a “true leader” I also told my team they should have been more assertive and should have argued with me.

Case-2: High Energy
We needed a Customer Service Representative and were finding it hard to find Mr.
Right.  And then my Head of Ops called to say they had found Mr. Right.  So an interview was scheduled for me the following day.  I found the guy talking non-stop.  For each question he’d ramble for – what seemed like – an hour!  Thrilled with his energy levels and the fact that he could speak so well, my Head of Ops was and had practically told him he’d be hired.  However, I was concerned how a guy who liked his own voice so much, hear the customer?  But this time around, I thought I should hold my own opinion in check and go by the Team’s opinion.  I reckoned, it was proven last time that I am not always right!

So, we made the offer and he was on board.  Within two days, we started getting customer complaints and even the immediate Supervisor protested he could not deal with the guy.  Besides, we also discovered he had lied about his qualifications – and was stupid enough to unwittingly give away the secret on the second day itself!  Luckily, that came in handy and we were able to recover without much loss of time or money!

Case-3: Big Company Halo
This time it was about filling a leadership position.  I had few candidates to start with and needed someone on board pretty quickly.  That was bad enough!  So, when I found a candidate with the right academic qualifications (an IT undergrad + an MBA), I was delighted!  To cap that, she came from several years in a huge multinational I had a lot of respect for!  How could I go wrong?  In fact I argued, she should be able to get us some best practices from this reputed company as well.  This time round, my team was with me as well!  So, we overlooked the fact that her English was off the mark and she seemed rather “old world” in her style of supervision, preferring tighter discipline and focusing on inputs such as time on seat.  This was in contrast to our usual focus on deliverables, while treating things like punctuality more casually.
This one failed too!  I caught myself wincing over her emails going to clients – the few language errors we had noticed earlier were despite the exercise of extreme care during the interview process.  In routine correspondence, the language was completely unacceptable, if not incomprehensible!  The “old world style” also translated to just instructing under performers to ‘buck up’ and giving them a tight target, rather than making an effort to find the cause and working with them to address the underlying causes – whether it was training, competence, or even some other technical obstacle.

So, what are the learnings?  While we had several successes in-between as well, I struggled to reconcile myself to these obvious failures -- afraid they were symptomatic of a hidden weakness in the way we hired or the way I consulted with my team.
All I could come up with are the following.  If you, as an unbiased reader, can suggest better clues, your help will be appreciated!
·        One of a Leader’s top jobs is to cultivate the habit of push back in the team.  Even if the Leader presents his ideas as carved in stone, the team needs to have the comfort with the Leader to present their case / their perception of the situation in an exploratory, non-threatening manner.  This comes naturally to a few – especially those like today’s Gen-Y, who have worked in teams from childhood.  For others, this is one of the most difficult skills to learn.
·        One cannot argue with the need for the Leader to go by his own gut feel / conviction on occasion.  The trick is to ensure these are not only few, but also to practice explaining his conviction to the team (and himself) in as rational terms as possible.  Also, before taking the ‘forbidden bite’ he should practice fully hearing out all the objections.  Hearing them will at least enhance the chance of their sinking through the wall of his conviction.  To claim, “I don’t want to hear any objections” is perhaps the gravest of all mistakes.
·        Going by what you read about the culture in celebrity companies and assuming everyone in such companies carry the same values, can only be at your own peril.  Even the most celebrated companies have large pockets – especially those that are far removed from the cultural center – where practice could be the exact opposite.  Surprisingly, after having realized this, I have come across several companies where the culture that is talked about in the press is practiced only ‘among engineers’ or on the ‘shop floor’ or some particular part of the company while the culture in the rest of the company is spread pretty evenly all over the map!