Perils of Blind Spots in Human Resource Management (Part 1)

During the early years of my consulting career, I got associated with a small, but rapidly growing family owned, traditional organization. The leap in growth (where it was preparing to go Public) had its own perils. It painfully brought home the glaring inadequacies in the manpower of the organization – both in terms of the numbers as well as competency. During our discussions, we identified an immediate need for a Chief of Finance (in those days, this position was called General Manager (Finance), only later, it started being referred to as CFO).

The proprietor, who operated with an old paternalistic style of management, was keen to promote his existing Finance Executive to this position. Reasons for his choice were many – he was a trusted person of proven integrity; was very loyal and dependable; had been with them since early days.

I had a major difference with his reasoning. According to me, all the above qualities were essential yet not sufficient for the position being considered. In my view, this position required a Professional with an adequate understanding of the complexities of the modern corporate financial world. He should be able to talk and understand the language of Bankers, Institutional Investors and Analysts.  

But the owner was not willing to listen to my reasoning.  After many lengthy discussions, I decided to better explain my point of view via an old story which I had read in my childhood and was apt in this situation (my search engine !!).  

The Story

A King owned a large garden, on the outskirts of the city. Along the periphery of the garden grew large trees of exotic fruits. In the middle, it was full of ornamental shrubs and the best of flowering plants. Overall, it was a pleasure to walk in this garden. Since it was away from the city, the King used to visit the garden only periodically – may be once in a month or so. He had given strict instructions that no one except the members of the Royal family or their guests be allowed in the garden. Also no fruits or flowers were to be plucked when he was not visiting.

A trusted gardener used to look after the garden. Since no fruits were plucked, the trees were laden with sweet ripe exotic fruits. A group of monkeys saw this and started coming every day to eat fruits which had fallen on the ground. The good hearted gardener allowed them to eat these fruits as long as they did not harm any tree or plant. Over a period of time, the gardener and monkeys became good friends.

One day, the Leader of monkeys (let us call him M) observed that the gardener was looking very worried. Out of concern, M asked him what the problem was. The gardener explained that he had got a letter that his old mother (who lived back in their ancestral village) was very unwell. He wanted to go to the village for a week to meet his mother but did not have anyone who could tend to the garden during his absence. M assured the gardener that he and his troop of monkeys will sincerely take care of the garden during his absence and he can, without any hesitation, go to his village. After all, a good friend must always come forward to help his friend.  Assured by this promise of monkeys, the gardener thanked them and left for his village.

Now M called all the monkeys and deputed each one to look after a part of the garden, with strict instructions that they all had to work very diligently. All of them readily agreed as they were indebted to the gardener for giving them shelter and fruits.

The main task was to water each tree, plant and shrub.  The monkeys went to their respective designated areas. But soon they were back before M asking, “Boss, we do not know how much water should be given to each plant? We have heard from the gardener that too much or too little water could be harmful”. Now M realized that he also did not know the answer. So, they had a brainstorming session. One wise old monkey came up with a scientific suggestion. “Plants absorb water through their roots. Therefore, the amount of water should be proportionate to the length of the root.” Seemed like a reasonable suggestion and was readily accepted by all. Soon, the monkeys started plucking each plant, measuring its root, replanting it and then put water in proportion to the length of the root.

This way, despite the best intentions, in the absence of proper knowledge needed for the task, the sincere, hardworking and loyal monkeys caused the destruction of a beautiful garden.

The proprietor immediately understood the relevance of this small story to his plan of promoting the employee of his choice (who had all the good qualities but not enough knowledge required for the position of CFO).

Let me assure you friends, I have seen quite a few CEOs  (even in large and so called professionally managed companies , including MNCs) who get into a blind spot when a loyal, dedicated, hard working employee’s career is discussed.

Perils of Blind Spots in Human Resource Management (Part 2) – A Conceptual Framework

Based on the experience mentioned in Part 1 of this story, I developed a remarkably simple (yet in my view a very powerful) model consisting of a 2 X 2 matrix, which can help senior management to map their executives and devise some meaningful strategies for their development.                            

 (I am a great fan of a simple 2 X 2 matrix to easily understand the relationship between 2 attributes – I am sure some of you will recall the famous BCG matrix of Product Portfolio – Star, Cash cow, Problem child, Divest).

Here I have tried to map executives on 2 sets of attributes.

Y Axis refers to what I call “Qualities of Head” – somewhat equivalent to IQ. This refers to a set of qualities like – Basic intelligence, sound conceptual and academic background, being able to understand and navigate complexities, analytical and cross functional capabilities, ability to learn new skills and look for unconventional and innovative solutions, ability to see the leaf without missing the forest, and self-motivated.

X Axis refers to what I call “Qualities of Heart” – somewhat like EQ.  This broadly refers to the personality – willingness to learn and expand horizons, interpersonal relations, leadership and motivational qualities, integrity, loyalty, empathy and dependability.

I am unable to give a precise formula for calculating these. Senior management has to decide on where does an executive fit in this matrix based on the variables mentioned here.

Once different executives are plotted on this matrix, we get some clue on how to work out development strategies for them.

Quadrant 1 (high EQ and IQ)

They are the “Stars” of the organisation – present and future leaders. They should be given challenging assignments, sent for development programmes, should go through structured job rotation programme, should be mentored, work in multifunctional task forces on special assignments. In short, every opportunity which challenges their intellect, widens their horizon, and broadens their knowledge of the organisation, industry and products, should be thrown at them. For a vibrant organisation, normally around 15 – 20% of the executives should fall in this Quadrant.

Quadrant 2 (High EQ, Lower IQ)

Bulk of the organization – may be around 60% of the executives (largely in middle and lower management) belong to this Quadrant. They are the backbone of the organization and implement on day-to-day basis, the strategies laid by the top management.  Their knowledge needs to be kept current with periodic training. Also, some of them will show potential to move to Quadrant 1 and hence need to be encouraged with regular training and mentoring. Such persons will have an important role to play in the succession planning for the senior management.

Quadrant 3 (high IQ, lower EQ)

People in this Quadrant are perhaps the most difficult in terms of management. Due to their poor behavioural skills and yet superior intellect, they are Mavericks. They work best in situations where they have to work alone. They can do well in jobs like research, special and innovative projects. Many of them can come up with brilliant ideas (even ideas leading to disruption). But it is difficult for them to work in teams or managerial positions. Company needs to identify them and come up with suitable projects for them where they act as specialists. Their number in any organization has to be kept under check. If disgruntled, they can become diabolical and can cause immense harm to the organizational fabric.

Quadrant 4 (low EQ and IQ)

These candidates are not an ideal fit for the organization and should be let go from the head count.

CAVEATS

I am suggesting this approach with the following caveats:

  1. This exercise of plotting persons in this matrix is not an exact science. It is based on the perceptions of people, who know well, both the organization and the personnel. Ideally it should be done by more than one person, after adequate discussion and moderation, so that biases are minimized.
  2. With time and with changing situations, we all change in terms of our personality. Hence the exercise needs to be repeated periodically to revalidate the data.
  3. The exercise must be confidential. It should not be used to Label people. Its purpose is to identify development needs of people to meet requirements of tomorrow. It can also help in Succession Planning.

Above all, this should be seen as a Conceptual (Directional) model and is no replacement of regular Performance Appraisal.

A Final Word

While working on this model, I also realized the need for Balance in Life. Often, we have contradicting choices to be made. For example, do we give preference to Quality of work life OR Quality of personal life. I am sure, everyone will say that we need both and need a balanced approach. Where that ideal balance lies, will have to be determined by each of us, for ourselves and for our circumstances.

We can take many other examples – do we impose strict discipline on our children OR leave them totally unsupervised. Again, we need both and need a balance between the two extremes.

Hence in my view, we must convert “OR” into “AND” in every sphere of the life. A balanced approach between two extremes is the key to happiness and a rich meaningful life.

After all, everything in the world is not ‘BLACK’ or ‘WHITE’. We should be comfortable with ‘Many Shades of Grey

The Activity Trap

This is perhaps the first humorous story which led me to start looking for management concepts in humour. Here goes the story:

In a small town lived a famous sprinter who had represented his country in the Olympics. Let us call him Mr. Sprinter (Normally I would give him a real name but in this age of political correctness, any name I give may unintentionally hurt some groups of people in the name of religion, country, province, class, caste etc etc).

One night, a thief broke into the house of Mr. Sprinter. While stealing valuables from the house, some metal item accidentally fell down from the thief’s hand, making a loud noise. This caused Mr Sprinter to wake up with alarm and accost the thief. The thief, sensing danger, made a dash out of the house. Mr. Sprinter immediately gave chase.

After about 15 minutes, a Police Constable on beat duty saw Mr Sprinter running on the road in his night dress. Since he was a well known person of that small town, the Constable recognized him and politely asked, “Sir, why are you running on the road at this unearthly hour”. Mr Sprinter explained that he was running to catch the thief. Now the Constable looked a little puzzled. He said, “But sir, I have been standing here for the last one hour and have not see any thief running away”.

Mr Sprinter gave a hearty laugh and said, “ The thief thought that he could run fast and that I will not be able to catch up with him. But he did not realise that I am an Olympic level sprinter and can run much faster than him. I have already left him far behind.”

After reading the story, I started reflecting on the situation and realized that often, in real life, we start an activity to achieve an objective (running to catch the thief) but soon we get so entrenched in the activity that we lose sight of the objective, and the activity itself becomes a goal.

This was a Eureka moment for me. Looking around, I found thousands of Mr. Sprinters, lost in running, forgetting why they started running in the first place.

In management literature this is called “Activity Trap”. We get lost in the Activity (often in our zone of comfort), forget about the goal and yet feel that we are working hard.

I will leave you with one example. In my first job, I had a boss who was very proud of his command over English language and the grammar. Whenever I took a draft of a note to him, he would painstakingly go through its language and grammar. A lot of time was used in discussing whether some noun should be preceded by “a” or “the”. But he would never go into the details of the facts or the matter of the letter.

Many companies have voluminous Management Information Reports (MIS) which have long lost their relevance, and nobody reads them. Yet the MIS department continues working diligently on these reports. If you observe closely into the innards of any large company or Government, you will find hundreds of Mr Sprinters living and thriving (adding to cost and inefficiency of the total system).

We all need to recognize the Mr Sprinter in us and ensure that we never lose sight of the objective and do not get lost in Activity trap (because that is where our comfort zone lies).

Out of Box Thinking

Out of Box thinking is a well-known cliché in management jargon. It is used for innovative, nonlinear, disruptive original thinking beyond what appears to be  obvious. Such thinking has led to major inventions and innovations both in technologies and processes. For example, in most businesses, annual budgets used to be drawn up by extrapolating pastContinue reading “Out of Box Thinking”

Customer Service

We all have had our frustrating moments dealing with the customer service departments of companies. The experience usually leaves one more confused or riled than ‘serviced’.

In my capacity as a business consultant, I was once talking to the Customer Service executives of a large company which sold some Industrial Products.  The number of customers was relatively small and most of them were large organisations.

This is the story I told them to illustrate what effective customer service should be.

A King once commissioned a well-known Master Sculptor to make a 20 feet high marble statue of his late father (which he wanted to install at a prominent place in the city).

The Sculptor worked patiently and completed the statue in 6 months. He then invited the King for final inspection. The statue had come out very well – almost a life like similarity with the late King. The King gave the statue a thorough scan. He appreciated the hard work done by the Sculptor but said, “I think the nose needs some rework. It is not straight and appears slightly tilted towards one side.”

The sculptor agreed with the King and requested him to wait for some time while he rectified the defect. He got on to a tall ladder to access the nose and started working with his chisel and hammer. Small pieces of marble, which he chipped away fell, to the ground. After 10 minutes of working, he came down and requested the King to inspect the statue again. This time, the King was satisfied, calling it “A Perfect Statue” and gave the sculptor a large sum in reward.

An assistant of the Sculptor was watching all this carefully. After the King departed, he asked the Master, “Sir, did you actually agree with the King’s comment that the nose of the statue was bent to a side? Because to me it looked perfect.”

The sculptor smiled and said, “when a client or customer complains about your product, it could mean many things. Some complaints, where functionality of the product is involved, may be because the product may not be performing to his expectations. Its reason could be a defect in the product itself, or a problem in his method of using the product. For a product like a commissioned statue, a complaint may be a matter of his perception. In any case, we must give respect to the customer’s perception or feelings. Perceptions can not be changed by rational arguments. Our first reaction should be to show empathy with the customer and his feelings. If our actions could convince the customer that we fully understand and share his perception, half the battle is won. In this case, if I started an argument with the King and tried to prove to him that the nose was perfectly shaped, perhaps I could convince him, but I would have lost my goodwill with him. By agreeing with him, I showed respect to his feelings.” 

The Master Sculptor then gave a hearty laugh and told his assistant, “Do you know what I did? I went on the ladder with my chisel, hammer, and few broken marble chips in my hand. While on top of the ladder, I acted as if I was working on the nose but, in fact, I did not even touch the statue with my chisel. I just kept throwing some broken marble chips down to convince the King that I was working on the nose.”

After narrating this story, I had a long discussion with the Customer Service department on how to address customer complaints with minimum arguments or bad feelings. Showing respect to the customer complaint is always the first step towards building a relationship of Trust. Later we could sit with the customer, analyse various specifications, observe how the Product is used on customer’s shop floor and then come to some joint conclusion.

One more request from me to this group was, “try to understand who your ultimate customer is. While the Purchase Department of the customer company is your first point of contact, your ultimate customer is the person on the shop floor who uses your product. By talking to shop floor persons, you could get many pointers on how you can increase “value” of your product to the customer.

Late Mr Moolgaokar, who is known as the architect of Tata Motor’s success story, would often travel on highways, visit some roadside eateries (Dhaba) where truck drivers would be having their lunch, mingle with them over lunch and get their feedback about Tata trucks. That is how he built a highly successful company.

In the end, here is some humour. I often asked marketing executives whether “CUSTOMER” was an English word or a Hindi word. Obviously, everyone replied that it was an English word. I would then tell them that in my opinion, it was both an English as well as a Hindi word. Till a deal is finalized and money exchanged, Customer is an English word as the customer is treated as King. Once the transaction is over, he becomes a Hindi “Kasht-mar” or customer (In Hindi, the word Kasht, which is phonetically like Cust, means pain. And the word Mar, which is phonetically like Mer, means Die). So, if Customer were to be a Hindi word, it would mean Die with Pain. And that is how a customer is treated after he has paid for the goods.