Sunday, July 22, 2007

Choosing a leader - the 'battle scars' way

There is a huge amount of literature on the characteristics of a good leader. What is not so certain is whether this extensive body of knowledge is leveraged when organizations actually choose leaders. In this context, I remember a story that I had heard a long time ago. It is about an 'ancient method' for choosing leaders. I am not sure if this story is a real one/based on facts. But, as I have mentioned earlier, there can be some things that are too true to be real.

The story says that in some ancient societies, there was an interesting method for choosing the leaders. The procedure was rather simple - count the number of battle scars on the bodies of the candidates. The candidate with the highest number of battle scars gets selected as the leader.

Though this method appears to be rather 'weird', there is an interesting logic behind it. If one has too few battle scars, it means that one hasn't taken enough risks in one's life. Of course, if one took too many risks, he/she would have got killed already, and hence he/she won't even land up for the leader selection process! Hence the candidate with the highest number of battle scars qualifies as the leader.

This makes me wonder if this 'weird' selection principle has any relevance in today's organizations. If we look at the story carefully, we can see that the underlying assumption of the selection process (described in the story) is that 'the ability to take an optimum amount of risk (or the ability to pick and choose one's 'battles')is the key success factor for a leader'. This is true to a large extent even today, though there are many other factors that make an effective leader.

Since the battles in corporate world are no longer 'physical battles' (leaving aside the studies on 'workplace violence' - for the time being !) , 'battle scars on the body' is no longer a valid indicator (even if we assume that there won't be any fudging - say by 'manufacturing' battle scars through cosmetic surgery!). But 'less physical equivalents' of battle scars (say ambitious projects that have failed) can still be found. It can also be argued that if someone takes too many risks and/or 'wild' risks it is likely that it would lead to 'too many too bad failures' in his/her career, which in turn would mean that he/she is unlikely to 'survive long enough'/reach a senior enough position in an organization to be a leadership candidate. So this principle could still have some relevance - at least on the dimension of risk taking!

Actually, if this principle gets widely adopted, it can lead to many interesting situations. For example, job candidates will include a section in their CVs titled 'My key failures' (that list the ambitious moves/projects that have failed, learnings from them & how they have helped in becoming a better leader) in addition to the usual section titled 'my key achievements ' !!!

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden

"Employee engagement" is one of the popular concepts in HR these days. Many organizations have launched new initiatives to improve levels of 'employee engagement'. Some of them have dedicated HR staff to 'handle' this important dimension. I fully agree that 'employee engagement' is very important. There is a lot of research that links higher levels of 'employee engagement' with positive outcomes like improved productivity and reduced attrition rates.

What concerns me is the tendency in some organizations to view 'employee engagement' initiatives mainly as a series of employee communication programmes. Here the term 'employee engagement' gets used in the sense of leaders 'engaging with' or 'speaking to' the employees. Now, this is an important part of employee engagement. The problem is that true 'employee engagement' requires much more than this. Another troubling trend is to equate 'employee engagement' with 'fun and games' activities. 'Fun and games' initiatives are also useful. They provide a temporary distraction from work (especially when they are held during office hours, which sadly is not always the case !). They also provide an opportunity to interact with other employees. But all these do not make any significant change in the basic nature of work or in the work context.

The defining feature of employee engagement is 'discretionary effort' put in by the employees. If employees have to get motivated to put in the 'discretionary effort', just speaking to them and telling them what is happening in the organization (and even just listening to them) won't be sufficient. To get discretionary effort, both the hearts and minds of the employees have to be engaged. Often this calls for interventions to improve the person-job fit, the performance management/rewards system and the organization culture. Of course, it is much easier to hold communication meetings than to ensure that employees are in those jobs that leverage and celebrate their key talents/abilities/interests! But if the objective is to have the type of 'employee engagement' that motivates employees to stay on and to put in discretionary effort, peripheral interventions (like communication meetings, 'fun & games HR' etc.) might not be sufficient.

This brings to mind the 'story of the Sky Maiden'. There are many versions of this story. It goes something like this: Once there lived a young farmer. He used to get up early in the morning every day to milk his cows. This went on for quite some time. Then he felt that something strange was happening. The cows seemed to be giving less milk than they used to. He tried many methods to improve this situation. But they did not work. Slowly he became convinced that someone was stealing the milk. So he decided to stay up all night to catch the thief. So he hid behind a bush and waited. For many hours nothing happened and he was feeling very sleepy. Suddenly he noticed something that left him spellbound. A very beautiful woman came down from the sky and started milking the cows. Initially our young farmer was too dazed to react. Then his anger took over and he managed to catch the thief before she could escape. He asked her who she was and why was she stealing the milk. She told him that she was the Sky Maiden, that she belonged to a tribe that lived in the sky, and that the milk was their only food. She pleaded with him to let her go. Our young farmer told her "I will let you go only if you promise to marry me". She said "I will marry you. But you need to give me a few days so that I can go back home and prepare for the marriage". He agreed. So the Sky Maiden left and as promised she returned after a few days. She brought a large box along with her. She said to him "I will be your wife. But you must promise me one thing. You should never open this box. If you open this box, I will have to leave you". He agreed and they got married.

Many months passed. Then one day, while his wife was not in the house, our young farmer could not contain his curiosity anymore and he opened the box. He was surprised to find that he could not see anything in the box. When the Sky Maiden came back she could sense something was wrong. She asked him "Did you open the box?". He said " I am sorry. I opened the box. But there was nothing in it". The Sky Maiden became very sad. She said "I am leaving. I can't live with you any more". He said "Why are you making such a big issue out of this. I told you that the box was empty". She said "I am not leaving you because you opened the box. I knew that you are likely to open it sooner or later. I am leaving you because you said that there was nothing in the box. Actually, the box was not empty. It was full of sky. Before I came to you I had filled the box with sky which is the most precious thing for me. Sky is the core of my real self. It is what makes me special. It is what makes me who I am. How can I stay with you if you can't even see the thing that is the essence of my Self and that makes me special?"

Now there are many important points here. No deep relationship can thrive unless it recognises and celebrates the factors that define the essential nature of the parties involved and that makes them special. Of course, this is more true for personal relationships and the use of this in a work context is an exaggeration to some extent. But I think that the central point remains valid even in a work context.

Any comments?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Personal effectiveness and wisdom

Ravindra requested me to comment on his new book (Give me back my guitar). This book focuses on 'personal energy management' (which is aligned to one of the key themes for this blog - personal effectiveness) and it explains 'why the wise and successful need not struggle'. The book talks about doing the work that one enjoys, avoiding ego traps, making thoughts powerful, importance of right desires and about choosing one's environment carefully. Ravindra presents these concepts through stories. These are well known stories, though he introduces interesting twists to some of them. For example, he narrates the story of the 'hare and the tortoise' and asks the question - 'Would the 'slow and steady' approach of the tortoise have won the race if the hare had not decided to take a break/sleep before he had completed the race?'. Then he goes on to examine 'why did the hare decide to take a break during the race' in order to show that 'the hare should not have chosen to race with the tortoise at all' (as the hare had nothing to gain and everything to lose in that kind of a race).

Overall, I agree with the concepts presented in the book. But it did trigger a couple of thoughts on somewhat related aspects. For example, can we say that 'wise need not struggle'? I can think of at least two kinds of 'struggle' associated with being 'wise'. While we can learn from others and from the 'wisdom of the ages', I feel that true wisdom (as opposed to knowledge) can be gained only though personal experience. This process of gaining wisdom often involves struggling with (and some times even unsuccessfully struggling with) the complexities in life, often for an extended period of time. The second kind of 'struggle' comes out of the paradoxical nature of wisdom. In a way wisdom (as it embodies 'simplicity on the other side of complexity') does make one's life simpler. But often it also increases one's level of awareness and sensitivity [You might have come across this question : "Which one would you like to be - an unhappy Socrates or a happy pig?". This of course is an exaggeration as happiness and wisdom are not necessarily mutually exclusive - but there is some merit in this argument]. The increased awareness brings in more complexities (and hence ' more struggle'), though these are complexities at a 'higher level'. However, the 'wise' seem to handle this (new) struggle more gracefully(and even gladly). Based on the above discussion, we could say that, for a given set (or level) of problems, 'wise need not struggle' as much as people who are not so wise !

In this context, the Zen concept of 'personalization of enlightenment' comes to my mind. This says that your work does not finish once you attain enlightenment (otherwise there is no point in living any longer !). Actually your true work begins only then. The real work is to personalize the enlightenment that you have attained by bringing in your unique gifts/perspective/life context. This also has similarities with what Richard Bolles says on the three stage process for finding your mission.