The Weekend Muse

Random thoughts from my daily experiences

Strategy vs. Execution… can they exist without each other?

Posted by Shrini on May 23, 2011

According to Warren Bennis, “Managers are people who do things right, while Leaders are people who do the right things” . At the Big Opportunity event, Itay Talgam illustrated the difference between Leadership and Execution in an amazing way.  Itay is a world-class conductor, and in that moment he was on stage conducting a professional orchestra. He asked the cellist to play a part of a tune.  The cellist took up her instrument and played a few magical notes.  Itay then asked the flutist to play something, and they played a little solo. Itay then asked a few more to play their favorite tunes.  These were all very skilled and capable musicians, so Itay then asked them all to play their favourite piece of music.  They all picked up their instruments, began to play their favourite tunes, and what resulted was cacophony, as the uncoordinated notes competed and clashed with each other.  And so here’s the point – Even the most talented people in the world need a framework to guide performance.  There are boundaries.  In the case of an orchestra; we call this “the score”, in the case of a business; we call this “the strategy”.

I recently came across someone who felt that I am great at execution – (in the corporate sense and definitely not at the Mafiosi circuit), which lead me to immediately conclude that Strategy is certainly an area I need to focus on. But then on second thoughts, I was wondering, why is strategy so glorified while execution is almost an afterthought?

The real question however is –  are Strategy and Execution mutually exclusive? Can they exist without each other? What is the point having a Strategist, removed from reality, deciding on the course of action, with no skills to implement his ideas? Ask anyone for their idea of the ideal car, job, electronic gadget etc., and am sure most people, with interests in the particular area, will have an opinion. Ask them the next question on how they will deliver that idea or product, and the challenges will surface. Most of the product launches that fail and are later dubbed by analysts (with a 20:20 hindsight vision), for being “ahead of times”, or “poorly conceived” and “not thought through”. This is where the role of the Tactician comes in. You need a good Tactician paired with a Strategist in order to achieve your business goals.

Tacticians or the Executors are experts who know what it takes to implement an idea. They know what works or what does not work. An experienced tactician brings to the table immense value in terms of being able to think through all the options, back-up plans and points of failure. So does this mean that if you are a great Tactician, you will be able to drive your team, department or organization to success? The key word in the last sentence is probably “drive”. Unless one knows where to go, how will you drive towards that goal? Unless you have an idea, a vision, what will you make your team work on? Sustaining the status quo will not help much, if you are ambitious and want to move up in life. Does this mean that the tacticians are good order-takers only and do not bring value to the organization beyond execution of orders?

A good CEO will have a strong Strategic team or a think tank but will also back them up with a robust tactical team or an implementation team. The key is to ensure that these two teams (or individuals, at the smallest level), work together in giving life to an idea or concept.

A truly successful professional, in my mind, needs to be a bit of both – Strategist and a Tactician. You start off by mastering what it takes to implement and also understand the big picture at the same time. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. How is it helping the Organization in the larger sense? Over time, you should be able to come up with ideas yourself that can change the way your business works.

In the corporate world, what matters is whose idea was implemented – no one comments on the brilliant execution of the idea itself. That explains the phenomenon dominating our corporate scenario today – there are more (wannabe) strategists but there is a serious lack of executors, who can be relied upon to get the job done.

Posted in Organizations, Thoughts | 2 Comments »

Towards the (annual) Judgement day…

Posted by Shrini on March 20, 2011

Having been part of various corporate crusades for over 19 years, I’ve picked up some lessons – both from my successes / failures or by simply watching others. What I mention in the next few paragraphs, is nothing new to the corporate denizens of this great nation. We have internalized these experiences to an extent where lack of these would render us completely lost and directionless. Most of us are quite happy slaving for a salary that is constantly reducing in real terms – a situation arising from the fact that our salary hikes do not keep up with the galloping inflation rates. We happily sacrifice all other aspects of our personal life – a quality time with the family and friends, pursuing a hobby, travel on a holiday etc., in favour of spending more time at the workplace – doing something “over and above” their contracted or expected deliverable, so that they can be branded with an adjective like “Outstanding”, “Exceptional”, “Strong”, etc., by our bosses. We will discuss more about this branding in the next paragraph.

To begin with, I would like to start by defining our ilk as this growing army of wealth creators of our great nation, who are considered fairly smart, industrious and successful. We are the shining examples of a new breed of Indians who are well educated, are willing to work long hours, and are extremely competitive. We do not mind being graded like cattle on a three or four point scale, besides being slotted (in some organizations) into a 9-box matrix based on our “Performance” and “Potential”. It’s of course, an entirely different discussion on the credibility of those who slots us into these categories – and we shall certainly pick that up later. For this article, we will briefly touch upon the exercise and its outcome.

This classification is done on an annual basis, in an elaborate corporate ritual called the year-end performance appraisal. There are interesting theories around how corporates take extreme precautions and install tools to make this exercise “transparent” and “inclusive”. The truth however is something else – where the person annotated “The Boss” has already formed his opinion, which he shares with his “Subordinate” in an elaborate justification exercise called “the annual appraisal discussion”. These formal courtships involve predefined moves where the boss is expected to first praise the subordinate for all the positive actions and attributes displayed during the year in question, only to follow it up very quickly with a laundry list of his pet gripes – stuff that the subordinate ostensibly ignored to achieve during the last year. The length of either of these lists is usually inversely proportional to each other and depends on the “rating” the boss has decided for his victim. The length of the discussion itself lasts anywhere between a few minutes to sometimes a few days – all depending on the foolhardiness of the subordinates who on most occasions, harbour notions of being capable of deciding the outcome of these sessions. The subordinate, of course, has the recourse to go “one-over” to his bosses’ boss! But what the poor fellow does not realise, is that usually, the superior boss has no opinion and is just happy to go with – and justify – the status quo.

To the un-initiated, the moot question troubling them would be – why the farce? Why does one have to subject themselves to this meaningless ritual if it is not worth the while? Well, ladies and gentlemen, what makes this entire annual exercise significant for all the parties involved, is that it culminates into the “the Rewards” exercise. This Rewards exercise is an interesting sequence of moves involving dissecting and sharing “The Pot” (not to be confused in any manner with the one at the end of the rainbow) of money between the entire team – this is the “Annual hike” and the “Bonus” paid by the management to its employees once every year. For the employee, the receipt of these pay raises and bonuses may or may not have the same positive connotation as suggested by the words “Raise” and “Bonus”. However, let’s concede they are usually better off than where they were, before this exercise and so we will leave it at that!

The good news is that the above branding (euphemistically called a rating) is applicable only for one year. We are back into the race, without a breather, at the beginning of the next term/year, slugging it out with our colleagues to remain at the “Top 20%” of the pack or at best resign to our fate and be rated amongst the “Valued 70%” – even God cannot help those who slide to the “Bottom 10%.

Many a times I have dreamt of escaping from this endless cycle, and stop making money for someone else sitting on top of the food chain. One of these days, I will be free of this self-inflicted slavery and either do “something on my own” or build a “nest egg” large enough to retire to a peaceful life. Till that day is reached, my wont is to continue struggling to find that elusive dream job in the corporate jungle that is going to deliver me the elusive combination of job satisfaction and a handsome remuneration.

Posted in Humour, Organizations | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Of Deja Vu… Nostalgia… and all those good times

Posted by Shrini on September 26, 2010

The other day, while I was trying to push my two sons out of the house, to go and play outside, instead of being glued to their Nintendo Wii, iMac or some inane Japanese cartoon on TV, I couldn’t help but compare my childhood to theirs – something, I’m sure, all of us have done at some point in time!

Those days, our options were limited to far simpler games with little or zero access to sports gear. We played cricket with home-made bats and hardened sponge balls or with hockey sticks carved (personally) carefully out of stout sticks salvaged from the neighborhood brush! My brother and I had a minor celebration or sorts when our dad bought our first cricket bat and the same festival arrived again when we got our own football. We got our first bicycle – a blue BSA SLR – when I was in 10th class. We gawked in awe at the small “dinky” cars (Matchbox® series) that my classmate with Pakistan connections, used to show off – the Hotwheels® version of the same were not launched in India for at least a couple of decades.

In contrast, my sons have Reebok Cricket gear, Football and Basket ball besides Baseball gear imported from the US of A, besides individual bicycles for the two – and these are not their first cycles. Between them they had over a 100 Hotwheels® cars, numerous remote-operated toys including a Robosapien V2 mini-robot. Needless to say, the average lifespan of any of these toys, is not more than 3-5 days. Well, there is no point in complaining – we will continue to give in to their demands and they will continue to disregard the utility of their acquisitions, beyond a few days. I guess, we are buying them stuff that we could never get ourselves, while we were kids.

In spite of all the gizmos, gadgets and new age toys available to the modern kids, I sometimes wonder if they have the same quality of fun we used to have. In our days, our games used to help us bond better – “teams” really existed in schools or in the residential neighborhoods, who were bound by a single culture or learn how to make the most of scarce resources. For instance, in our “colony” only one boy had a cricket bat and we all looked forward for a chance to play with it in the evening. The owner of the bat invariably used to call the “shots” and was therefore the “natural leader”. Compare that to the current scenario where almost every boy has at least one cricket bat if not more. With so many leaders, who would follow, I mean – bat and bowl? The best way to play cricket now-a-days, I notice, is in the (paid) training camps.

Well, change is a constant and all that we know as of today, will eventually be replaced by something new. I wonder, when my kids grow up, what will excite my grandchildren? Would they rue the disappearance of “wholesome” entertainment provided by the PS2s or X-Boxes? I shudder to imagine the social life my grand-kids would lead in a couple of decades from now.

My brother and I spent our childhood in various parts of the country as a result of which, the experiences we have had are a rich mix of various cultures. Before the games that I grew up with become folklore or vanish from peoples memories completely, I am putting together this list and encourage readers to add ones that I have missed.

The Games we played

1. Kites – These have survived the vagaries of time with very little changes. But the ones we flew were made out of various papers, including news-papers by ourselves and had long tails. People would engage in duels high in the sky using home-made “maanja” (yes – though some of our parents may still not know but we crushed glass and used home-made glue to make potent and probably lethal stuff). And then there were armies of kids who would chase the kites that lost, with long sticks to which a small dried branch was appended – the kid with the longest contraption had the highest chances of capturing the spoils of the aerial fight.
2. Gilli-Danda – Practically extinct in large towns and cities, I hope this fantastic game has survived in rural India. What made it more exciting was that it was considered dangerous by our moms, who forbade us playing this game. It’s true that any unfortunate soul who happened to be in the path of a flying “gilli” would remember the nasty experience for some time to come.
3. Marbles – Each part of the country had their own games that employed these versatile little glass baubles! Almost all boys used to have a sizeable collection of these glittering little marbles, which came in myriad colours. The boy with the best aim – one who could strike down a marble from a distance, with another marble – was the champion and the one to defeat if you wanted to swell your collection.
4. The Original Top – No, they were not made out of plastic with flashing lights inside nor were they obscenely expensive, packaged in do-it-yourself pack, fashioned after Japanese cartoon serials with ridiculous sounding names like “Bey-Blades”. These were aerodynamically designed beauties carved lovingly out of wood by some expert Indian craftsman, painted in brilliant enamel colours and came in similar shapes but many sizes. You were expected to drive the pin – which was like a two-sided nail, blunt on one side and sharp on the other – into the top on your own, without splitting the top. The games that one could play with the top, once again varied across the country, but each one, essentially tested your skill in winding the thick cotton string around this wondrous toy and release it with a flourish in such a manner that it lands spinning on either the ground, or an already spinning top, or your extended palm.
5. Pithoo –Yet another extremely inexpensive yet engaging game that can keep a horde of 20 odd youngsters busy for hours. We played it when we lived in Uttar Pradesh and am not sure if this game was played nationally. All it needed was a soft ball and a set of 9-10 stones that are flat and chipped down to be round and progressively smaller sizes, so that they form a crude pyramid when stacked up. The idea is for one team to strike the stack down with the ball and run! The other team hits out each team member of the striking team with the ball (who then gets out of the game), while the striking team is trying to put the stack back together – by members who run, swerve and duck the ball all the while. If even one member survives long enough to put the stack back, the team wins!
6. “French” Cricket? – I seriously doubt if the French have ever heard of this game but again, I suspect this version of cricket was invented by an ingenious Indian who felt, his game would get more credibility if he called it French – a la “French Vanilla Coffee” by the Americans (which is the single biggest reason the French hate them Yanks). But then, back to the game – it was created for small groups of kids with limited space and is generally economical when it comes to physical exertion – and therefore remained very popular till Electronic Arts came up with the computer version of the game that boasts of even lesser fatigue!
7. Tyres – Boy, did the good times roll! Almost all the boys in the neighbourhood used to roll cycle tyres with a stick, till the scooter tyre emerged as a status symbol. My brother had a reputation for being able to keep the tyre rolling or stationery but upright, for hours at end. It is said that this game died a natural death when the cost of the used tyre started to challenge the cost of brand new one.
8. Hide-n-seek – Probably one of the most popular games across the world for its simplicity, and guaranteed hours of fun, as long as there are enough number of people and more than enough places to hide.
9. Hopscotch – Yet another unisex game, known to be popular across the globe, we boys agreed to play it only when we were outnumbered by the girls and had nothing else to do.
10. Festivals – The festivals brought with them their own compliment of seasonal fun. Listed below are a few and what they meant for us, back in those times.
a. Lodhi: A festival of massive bonfires which called for cutting down trees, without the elders being aware. But on the night of the bonfire, everyone joined in – kids and parents alike – with no questions asked about where all the firewood came from.
b. Dusherra: Plays and Drama with the Bengali camp and Ramlila and ultimately burning down Raavan with the north-Indian friends.
c. Holi: I cannot claim to have enjoyed applying muck and Paint on others or be the victim yourself, but the fun was unlimited.
d. 24 hour “Akhand-Ramayan path” – more than the puja itself, it was the opportunity to stay awake late and play, while the elders were immersed in religious pursuits.

One common trait of all the games mentioned above was they were very easy on the pocket (read: our parent’s pocket) and helped us delve deep into our collective ingenuity. They helped us utilize meagre resources and still have a great time. They helped us bond as friends and form endearing relationships that lasted a lifetime.

Posted in Personal - Reflections | 3 Comments »

The choices we make

Posted by Shrini on February 17, 2010

I have always laughed at people who, in a fit of nostalgia, wish they were back in school again. They reminisce about the carefree days, the bunked classes, not-so-favourite teachers and old buddies and so on. To me school always meant those horrible trigonometry classes, the avoidable organic chemistry lectures or the never-ending parade in the sun under the watchful eyes of the sadistic PT teacher. And in the end, there was always the inevitable exams followed by the single page nemesis of a report card!

Man! Was I thrilled to break away from this hoodoo and enter the crafty world of Corporate politics!

However, for a political novice like me, who had a reputation, at least during the initial years, for opening my mouth – just to change the feet, life has not been too bad! I may not be at the pinnacle of the corporate ladder, but coming to think of it, given my impetuous decisions, I could have done far worse!

If ever there is a decision I rue, and actually wish, I could travel back in time to change, it was the day I resigned from Citibank! I had spent about 4 years in Collections and after a shaky start, had actually done quite well for myself with a decent posting to Mumbai in a high-visibility role, et al. I loved the city, used to stay on Pali Hill, one of the best addresses in the suburbs and worked in Andheri – which meant I commuted against the traffic! Till date, I am not sure if it was arrogance that I could do better than where I was “struck” or maybe plain fatigue that drove me to start exploring alternate options outside the world of Collections. One of my favorite bosses that I had left behind in Chennai, helped me in my quest for a role in Card Sales – outside the bank rather than within. I wish he had rather pumped some sense into me and made me stay on.

With his help, I got a role as Manager Card Sales for South, in ANZ Grindlays Bank. With prejudice towards none, all I will say is that my stint there was the darkest period of my career. I managed to wriggle out of it quickly though, to a good role with HongKong Bank (HSBC) which lasted 3 years. I got married during this period and my first son was born while I was in Mumbai. Yes… life was good and my only complaint was the Salary account which would be sucked dry by the third week and stay dry till the a fresh infusion of cash happened every month-end.

Those were also the days of the internet start-up and mega-buck buy-outs. Financial tabloids like Economic Times ensured they fed us with enough masala on how young nobodies were turning into millionaires overnight. For a commerce graduate, I have always been Tech-savvy and somewhere along the way, I too was bitten by the internet/IT bug, which I mixed with the desire to go down the path of entrepreneurship to create a concoction that lasted a full six months. It would have lasted longer but for the untimely crash of the NASDAQ (which should have waited till I had made my millions)!

Here I was, desperate to get back to the safety of the Corporate world, when I heard about a company called GE, which was setting up a Operations unit. Frankly, I was not too impressed about working for this “Electric” company, which was putting together a Customer Service team for some of it’s group companies. For an ex-Banker, who had grown on liberal dose of ego and misplaced conviction that only “Line” roles were worth the salary that you get paid for… “Staff” functions were for the “less fortunate”. Nevertheless, my entrepreneurial streak was at a low ebb and this company did seem to have a very plush office. Our discussions lasted over a month, by the end of which, they made me a handsome offer.

While this was happening, I was in the process of rejuvenating my old links with Citi and was successful in getting an offer in the Technology Dept – that of an RM, which was more or less the same level as GE, albeit at a lower CTC. This offer came my way courtesy my ex-Boss, who had helped me exit Citi in the past.

So… here’s was my question… which offer should I pick up – go with GE which was offering a better financial package, or go back to Citi – a “known devil” and correct any error I might have committed by leaving the organization in the first place.

definitely not the end.

Posted in Personal - Reflections | 4 Comments »

Fear… or Respect?

Posted by Shrini on October 31, 2009

How does one gain respect? Of course, it through demonstrated Capability, Strength of Character, their Good deeds, ability to Motivate, and a host of other characteristics – universally acknowledged or recognized by the people working around the individual. The question is – does the ability to instill fear, automatically generate respect?

For instance, take Bob, a Manager in a BPO, who is seen as a typical “Type A” personality – hugely impatient for results, aggression, public bouts of anger directed towards team-members who fail him, contempt for mediocrity and at times, publicly humiliate people who fail to live up to his high standards of performance. It is no surprise then, to see the team cover in his presence, and defer to his will, under most circumstances. Such managers, it is said, do not do too well for themselves in the long run and are the prime contributors to the attrition statistics of an organization.

Fear, in the corporate world, can manifest in many ways. While it may mean an extreme case of losing one’s job, it also includes fear of a bad appraisal, fear of missed opportunities/recognition or the fear of being shouted at in public.

Which leads us to the question – is fear really so undesirable? Would you really care about your boss if you believed he was incapable of harming you in any manner? How many times have we not seen individuals “take on” their superiors in public forums, in well “calculated moves” to establish themselves in the pecking order? I can’t imagine anyone attempting such hara-kiri with a ferocious boss! If you were not tracking your teams’ deliverables, do you think they would really work towards maximizing productivity and improving quality – on their own?!

It therefore transpires that… Respect exists in the domain of Fear! An employee who fears the Boss or losing the job that he/she holds, is seen to be more driven at work and aligned to the Organization (read… the Manager).

I know most of my readers would recoil at the thought of “Attila the Hun” as the next team leader… well I would not want to report to him either! But then… what’s the harm in theorizing a bit over the weekend… as long as my boss doesn’t get to read this?

Posted in Organizations | 3 Comments »

When having more choices works against you…

Posted by Shrini on October 1, 2009

Most of us have encountered change – some of us more than once, in our careers. A lucky few amongst us actually had the luxury of choice, when it came to these changes. The options presented to us could have been within the Organization or there were multiple job offers, each with their own unique offering, making the process of selection quite challenging. My experience tells me that often, if not always, the bounty of job offers often leads to results, least expected in such a situation.

Take for instance Tom, who has two roles to choose from, within his organization. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume he has no competition and either of these roles is his for the taking. Dick works in the same organization and his department is being wound up. He is presented with the remaining role discarded by Tom and has no option, other than to look for a job outside, in a shrinking market.

After much deliberation, Tom picks up the Marketing role which seems to be far more promising compared to Operations role, which he feels is relatively staid and low profile. So by default, Dick ends up with Operations.

Once again, for the sake of simplicity, we will ignore the deciding parameters for the job themselves, as these are unique to an individual and no single job parameter appeals in exactly the same manner to two different individuals – much less a combination of these.

Reverting to our friend Tom, we find that all is not too rosy on the job front. A few weeks into the role, he realizes that all is not too well in the new role. What starts off as a few minor irritants are fast morphing into bothersome traits that are making him regret his choice. All of a sudden, the Operations role that he let go of, seems more endearing. Before long, he hates his job, as nothing seems to be going right for him – leaving him convinced, that he made the wrong choice. Soon enough, he is back in the market looking for a “better job”.

On the other hand, Dick who was on the verge of losing his job has come to terms with his new role and has decided to make the most of it. Soon, he realizes there are opportunities waiting to be tapped, which he exploits to the hilt. Needless to say, at the end of the year, Dick has a better appraisal than Tom.

What went wrong…

When Tom took up the new role, subconsciously he kept comparing his role to the one that he had let go. While we would all like to believe that our “dream job” exists out there somewhere and spend half our lives looking for it, the truth is that the so call dream job needs to be built and developed within our current roles! Tom lost no time in identifying his pet gripes within his role while ignoring all the opportunities that presented themselves to him. His imminent loss of interest in the role started a downward spiral, from which he found it very difficult to extricate himself.

Dick on the other hand, knew he had to make the most of what he had. Very soon he started liking the job and his positive attitude helped him achieve better results, leading to a much more satisfying outcome.

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