Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A trek - like life

As I completed a year of entrepreneurship, I decided to, coincidentally - take a 5 day trek across a part of the Himalayas. In this process, I learnt many a life lesson.

Though there is a goal, the goal has to be attacked in small chunks and stages. Most of the the time, the goal is not visible - at least not in the exact shape envisioned by you.

Climb the first mountain only to see the second tower ever so taller in front; climb that and see the third show a daunting face; and so on...Each time the view gets better...

When you reach the goal, you will know.

The route is never visible, you will only know it as you go forward.

The terrain keeps changing - be prepared.

The terrain is never the exact way you imagined it to be...

It is hard work - and there will be times when you will feel like giving up. At those points, just keep putting one step ahead of the other- and slowly, you will reach your destination.

Dont forget to enjoy the sights along the way.

Rest. Take a break. Then start over. Again.

Soak in the sights. The breathlessness. The tiredness. Soak in the tough parts as much as the rest parts.

Each day, pick up your stuff and keep moving.

There are ups, downs, straights, curves, winds, rain, blizzards, slips, ascents, descents - mostly these are all mixed - very rarely is it a cruise control mode.

Keep talking to your guide - they are of great help.

Find companions along the way - sometimes ahead, sometimes behind - but there are companions along the way - though it is often a lonely walk.

Sometimes it is a bull, sometimes a shepherd, sometimes a flying bird, sometimes a flower... 

Yes, it is a comforting life outside the trek - and many a time you will wonder why you are doing this at all - but that is life - the experience of doing it is unique - thats why. It is, therefore I am.

Reflect. Stretch. Prepare. Each day.

Give. Happily. Freely.

Respect the gods/values along the way...

And I promise you, you will have a great trek - through life and in trek.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Lessons from a trekking guide

A few weeks ago, we went on a fairly arduous (by our standards) trek. We had a guide taking us over somewhat difficult terrain. None of the trekking team members were experienced - they were as good as first timers with varying levels of fitness. There were many challenges - distance, climb, weather, terrain, language - and he had no idea who this team was and we had no idea who he (and his team) was.

The trekking team was 5 members plus 7 helpers (cook, porter, helper) led by a guide.

The team started with a lot of enthusiasm - as all teams do and burnt themselves before the first rest stop. Not that we realized it - except for the huffing and puffing - but he gave us an unscheduled stop and asked us to have lunch. That automatically slowed us down. Lesson: Pace your team

Day 1 night there was a terrible storm - the kind of which I have never seen in my life. It was a blizzard, rains, strong winds, tents threatening to get uprooted - and while the team panicked, this guide was captain cool. He did nothing - not even stepping out of the tent - but when we walked up to him - in the middle of the night, he was awake and asked us to stay put and reassured that they were around. Lesson: Stay calm in crises. Dont Panic.

Post storm- the next morning, we all went to him and asked him if the trek has to be called off. He said, we will take a call based on the weather - worst case, we will wait out a day till the weather clears and do a day hike. But he said, with a little effort we can still complete the trek as planned. Either way he said, lets wait for a few hours and take a call based on the situation. And a few hours later, we were on our way - shaken, but he said, I will get you there in 5 hours - and he did - to the minute. Lesson: Do not dismiss the fears of your team, but do not encourage them either. Lead from the front with confidence.

There were people of varying fitness levels - almost Level 1 to 5 on a scale of 5. Whenever Level 5 went too far or Level 1 lagged behind, he took a break (mostly at some turning point) to ensure the group stayed compact. Sometimes he was ahead, sometimes behind - leading from the front or encouraging from the back, but he was never out of eyesight for too long. Lesson: Be visible - on the front.

There were foreigners - and he was not the most comfortable with English - but he communicated with the team at every point. He sat to learn English from the foreigner (thats the only way my English will improve, he said), he spoke about the topics of interest to each team member as the trek went along. Lesson: Communicate - with empathy. Most of the communication was about us - not him. And learn. So what if you know everything - the guide knew the terrain inside out - he was still learning from every trek he went on.

Each day after the trek ended - he took care of his staff - talking to them, encouraging them, getting them to mingle with us. His staff was hardly comfortable with Hindi - leave along English - and were very simple rural folk, but he ensured that we all bonded over a bonfire. Lesson: Bonding of teams needs to be worked on constantly.

At no point, did he assert his superiority over us - though he was vastly superior in terms of terrain, fitness, knowledge. He made us feel comfortable at every stage. Lesson: Take your team with you.

When each of us asked how we were doing - his answer was the same - you are doing well to your capacity. "Theek hi ho" - was his lingo for "you are doing well".  Lesson: Keep the encouragement going.

Each day his team started with a prayer to the "Devta" to assure the safety of the trek. On the way, if any "devta" was not in good shape - the small shrines along the way - he ensured that it was made alright. Lesson: Abide by the values of the place.

Was it tough? Yes
Did we enjoy the journey? Yes
Did we reach the goal? Yes

Epilogue: At many parts of the trek, the goal seemed unreachable. At no point did he scare us of the enormity of the goal (it was big for us). He broke the goal into small chunks, made us aware of the time it would take (based on his assessment of us as a team), kept us going, encouraged at every step without being in your face and celebrated the success each night with a bonfire and a good dinner.

And we enjoyed being led by this man - a simple young man from Himachal, who though uneducated by our standards -  was practicing many tenets of leadership that we find difficult to practice. Hats off to you Sanju.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A year of entrepreneurship

One year ago, to this date, was my first client meeting. And just the day before was my last day at my corporate job.

The meeting went well - without a real promise of anything coming my way (I had to get used to this - meetings are only a first step - though the getting used took a long time.)

As I waited at the bus stop after the meeting, I reflected on how, if this was a corporate meeting, a cab would be waiting for me and all I had to do was ask the cab to come to the entrance. And in this new avatar, frugalism was the name of the game.

So, with the job, gone was the cabin. The position. The title. The designation. The corporate privileges which we get used to and sometimes feel entitled to as well. Gone was a huge team who would be the force multipliers, the executors, available for every discussion - now there was nothing.

Just the wide world and a traveller with a bag and a journey.

It was a new road, a new identity, perhaps a journey to find myself as well.

At the start, beginners luck was good. But soon, the beginner ran out of luck. And then the inevitable trough happened. And then, after riding through the dip, there was promise...All this sounds good on paper, there were quite a few reflective moments (and they continue).

Much water, bridge from that meeting - and a year later, here are my learnings, mostly to myself...

Once you deliver, customers trust you. All Outthinc customers are repeat customers.

There is work out there. Go fish. Everyday. This is my observation since I started off on this journey. And it remains.

There are underserved areas in the market and such areas exist. Like in real life markets, gems are hidden.

A true differentiator needs to be created - if you dont, the market will do it - without differentiating. In careers, within companies as well in the outside world  - if you dont create your career, the market will and that may work out both ways...

It is good to try out different types of work, but it is important to know what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The range of experience one gets in the outside world is no match to what you get to do within a firm. In the last 12 months, I have worked with more companies and industries and levels than in my entire career (well, almost).

The journey can be lonely, especially if you are a one man enterprise. It can be stressful, it can be anxiety ridden and while people mostly focus on the freedom part - they miss out on the discipline part. It takes discipline - lots of it. To work when there is no immediate payoff. To work on every proposal as if it is your first. To get up and work each day - and believe in yourself and do things that you are not comfortable or not used to.

There is goodness and good news in the market. Unlikely collaborators. Friends. People. Yes, there is goodwill out there. There are good companies and good people to work and collaborate with. And yes, I am lucky to have found a few.

Some months people dont care if you exist, other months everybody wants you (and usually 3 separate clients want April Eleventeenth second half in Jaipur, Mumbai and Chennai - not Bangalore).

There is space to try out of the box approaches - I personally follow my 20% time. And with the help of a great intern, I was able to try out a new concept.

Some unscrupulous elements take proposals only for ideas and then vanish promptly after that. This is an occupational hazard. So a balance between original ideas, googled ideas and very erudite ideas (completely non googleable, only mine, out of the box) has to be kept.

For all those who have been with me in this journey (you know who you are), thank you!

Post script: The first meeting did result in work and remains my first customer.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alan Mulally and The fight to save Americas Icon

The book is a story about Ford. And how Alan rescued Ford from the doldrums. What I liked about the book is the level of detail - not just in the story of Ford, but also in the details of the execution - as to how it happened.

At one point, Alan notes - compelling vision and ruthless execution - and simple as that might seem, it is difficult in small firms, so imagine doing that in a gigantic firm.

One of the remarkable features for me was the fact that in turning around Boeing in the post 9/11 scenario and in turning around Ford - Mullallys toolkits were the same. He continued to hone and use his core strength, he was technically sound, an engineer and took that level of interest and it paid. At each level - from appointing the right person to giving them the autonomy - measuring - building transparency - this is a story over a few years of both the vision and the execution and both of these would come under question.

The second remarkable feature is the time he took to start moving on big ticket items - there were many big decisions which one is tempted to take as soon as one lands in the top chair.  But Alan took his time.

I loved the principles enunciated for the weekly meeting - can apply practically anywhere:

People First
Everyone is included
Compelling vision
Clear Performance goals
One plan
Facts and data
Propose a plan, 'find-a-way' attitude
Respect, listen, help and appreciate each other
Emotional resilience - trust the process
Have fun - enjoy the journey and each other

Data sets you free...

And as is often shared - Culture eats strategy for breakfast - Mulally had to work on changing the culture at Ford - almost as much as he had to work on changing the strategy.

And, yes, he had to take many 'decisions' along the way. And many of them were tough decisions including to lay off workforce, shut down factories, ask executives to leave - but on each decision was his stamp and responsibility.

Overall this is a good book to read if you want to go over the nuts and bolts of how Ford was turned around - it is one of those rare books that gives a fairly deep insight into the 'how'.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Learning from games

We are part of a Clash Royale clan. This clan is led by a 12 year old. This guy is the clan leader. He interacts with the 'clan', often pumps them up when a 'target' is to be met, 'promotes', doles out 'kicks'. And the clan has been in action for well over a year now - so he learns about keeping people together, getting them motivated - and this clan is a multi-national, diverse, intercultural clan. How cool is that?

A mid sized manager in a company wont have this kind of diversity and team to deal with. You can argue that it is not the same, it is a game and whatnot - but the fact is that this kid is learning serious leadership skills from game...

On the other hand, the boy at home is learning to negotiate with the leader and managed to get a promotion by persuading him a few weeks ago.

As I read about Digital natives and how these guys will grow up into future leaders (even as we speak, they are entering the workforce) - it is interesting how they cut their teeth on technology, how they learn, how they seek growth, their human and non-human interactions - which are way different from the way earlier generations did.

Are they effective - well, we can be skeptic, but I think they will figure their way around - like we figured our way around from a physical world to the digital one!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Enable your managers

This has been in circulation for a while. The story of Project Oxygen at Google. As per this research, there were 8 things that managers do to a team.

1. Be a good coach
2. Empower the team and does not micro-manage
3. Expresses interest and concern for teams success and well being.
4. Is Productive and results oriented
5. Is a good communicator
6. Helps with career development
7. Has a clear vision and strategy
8 . Has technical skills that help him or her advise the team

In the above blog, how does it apply to your company, two points stood out for me.
One: A manager has to be a great coach. And this does not mean an executive coach certification though that is worth it. What one wants is a manager who makes every team member think for herself. How does that happen? By letting people be. By asking them the right questions. By encouraging them to think. Work on things they like to work. Enable their ideas.

The second point (mentioned on that link) which in my view is a fairly big thing is Feedback Culture:  All too often feedback is reduced to a 'This is my feedback to you', if at all. But connected with the above, what if your managers also made each of those feedback moments - moments of truth for the employee.  What if there were enough moments of positive feedback as opposed to only critical/constructive feedback? What if every such interaction were energy giving, positive and solution focussed? And also receive feedback in the same manner.

Combine both points above and you have a thinking team!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Vapourware and Pumpelsdrop

The entrepreneur life can get quite lonely. My views  come from my perspective as a newly minted learning consultant entrepreneur. There are times when the market doesnt care if you exist. And like any other entrepreneur, such times have to be navigated.

Here is where the story of Pumpelsdrop (previous post) comes in.

Suddenly, out of the blue, one gets a phone call. To make a proposal. For a company you have always wanted to work with or sounds too exciting to be true or some work which you have always wanted to do or a new opportunity to learn something. And then, the works begins in right earnest. There is a flurry of activity, a few phonecalls, data, research, books to be read and much reading about the current state of the company, industry, concept.

It elevates the energy to a different level. Powerpoints are made. Structures are created. Frameworks are conceptualised. Meetings are arranged with alacrity. And with that last minute scramble, the said proposal is sent on mail.

This often leads to some other long pending work also being completed - lifted along with the rising tide of energy. In preparation for this new work, decks are cleared off other pending work, dates are finalized, moved and kept available in case this great new shining piece of work comes in.

And then, like the story of Pumpelsdrop, the work vanishes. The proposal makers, collaborators, requestors, company -everything. Like an illusion. Gone. And gathers the proverbial dust in a forgotten folder on the machine. And occupied space on the cloud in a forgotten folder. The whatsapp group created urgently for the proposal is deleted as part of the clean up.

But by then the vapourware has served its purpose. The work has been done. A few days lull has been taken care of. New concepts have been created - and they are unused. And they go into the ideas store.

Until the next one.