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Corporate India : The Self-Perpetuating Vicious Conditioned Response

Published March 20, 2015 by vishalvkale

A LinkedIn Question on Managers, and their attitudes towards employee’s mental health triggered a thought process; Do managers really care about employee’s mental health?
No, they dont. I dont think this can be an argued, with; neither is this open to question. There are several documented surveys in existence that bear the proof : that disease of every kind is rising, and fast. Question is, does anyone care? No. Also true. Next question : can anything be done? Answer : No. Concluding Question : Why? Answer : The stupid idiot who tries to do something gets sacked, regardless of level. Statement of simple fact. 

It doesnt take a genius to figure out that you run everyone under incredibly high stress combined long with 14-hour days – there are going to be cases of burnout, breakdown, mental disorders, heart attacks, diabetes, Asthma, etc. That is basic 10th standard Biology. Everyone should and does know this. Still they dont care. If they did, things wouldnt be as they were. That is also an unfortunate truism. People at the top – some of them, at any rate – are also well aware of the range of issues, but shy away from doing anything about it. Why should this be so? And why is bucking the system so damned tough for even a top manager? 

But first, the proof. As proof, in May 2013, The ET carried a damning indictment of Corporate India and its work culture. { Analysed on my blog here : Corporate India, work stress and employee dissatisfaction. } It holds an interesting divergence, and a hint of the key. While the Employer view was that employees value Career, the Employee view was the e.x.a.c.t opposite : they value job security. Another sector specific survey identifies rising mental illness in Corporate India. A third has clearly delineated abnormal and rising rates of sickness – especially lifestyle diseases. Just reading these surveys makes clear the TOTAL disconnect between Top Management and Middle-Lower-Frontline Staff. 


At core of the issue lies a bunch of cowardly middle managers, who are too scared to speak; brow-beaten frontline and firstline managers who know that if they speak, khatam, finish. And at the core of that lies a disturbed authority-responsibility matrix that gives power to people who dont deserve it, or dont train people for the higher responsibilities. And it is this self-perpetuating matrix that is in effect a vicious circle, breaking out of which is virtually impossible. 

This vicious circle is actually indicative of a deeper systemic malaise: the internal systems and processes are not coping up with the changed business reality that is confronting the corporate scenario. And that, to my mind, is the core reason for what we have seen above. HR systems, fist of all, need to be strengthened to cope with the new reality. This has to go hand-in-hand with a more humane treatment to employees, with a receptive ear to their manifest and genuine concerns. 

And the proof of that {malaise} is simple; all you have to do is look, ask the right questions – for example, in the sales function,  just trace sales, cost of sales, distributor and team instability, cheque bouncing, customer complaints, vendor issues etc : all are directly proportional, whereas logic and experience both dictate they should ideally be inversely proportional. This is basis practical experience of tracing numbers. The problem : The PMS does not measure anything except the first parameter, which means that there is no reason to do anything about the rest. Result? Also simple to trace. Trace the brand failures, their number and rising incidence. {To those, esp HR people, who lay claim that the modern PMS does measure other parameters – my rejoinder; no, it doesn’t, but that is another story, for a different blog post. Stay connected}

At one level, people are just plain dumb, and too scared of chucking their jobs; that is admittedly a part of the problem. To that, I can only say  : come on, everyone! You are educated, a post-graduate {at least a graduate}, qualified, intelligent… dont you have confidence in yourself? Just because someone threatens you, you back down and do something against your nature, or the law, or plain common sense, or something that causes a loss to your team or the organisation or both? What that means is that you are good for nothing except what you currently do; that outside that comfort zone, you are a total failure.  

The second level is the rampant and completely one-sided belief that people who stay and compromise are resilient; nothing could be farther from the truth. Resilience does not mean compromising on the virtues and good values that differentiate a human from an animal. True resilience is standing up for your beliefs, and fighting it out. Staying and admitting defeat or compromising is admitting that you are incompetent, that the system has changed you! And, as we shall see later, this is the compromise that actually deepens the problem; it is this compromise that creates a vicious cycle.

What you see is a conditioned response; a response conditioned by organisational policies that are as harmful to the organisation as to the employee, policies that, acting in concert, create a vicious cycle, strengthening one message, and one message only. These policies, acting in concert, selectively build unhealthy competencies, simultaneously undermining the organisation’s internal strengths and capabilities. This is a matter that lies at the door of the CEO, HR heads, OD Teams, Line Functions VP’s and above, requiring deep-rooted policy level action and lots of time to correct. 
The policies in question the entire breadth of the organisation, and together coordinate to co-create what we see, what is evident in the various surveys, suicides, murders, pink slips, anger, heart attacks and lifestyle diseases cropping up. For example, the moment you promote based on end-result alone, without looking at the underlying factors, you are sending a strong message that reinforces the learning that anything goes. 

Even during hiring, the same message : with the focus being on your achievements, not how you did them; background checks also just check the veracity of the written documents, when they should in reality be talking to all concerned to get at the gist of the real performance of the person : has this person left behind a sea of problems, dissatisfied customers / team members etc? The proof is the ease with which people who are sacked for rampant financial irregularity get hired.

The same reinforcement goes into the people during meetings, with the focus being on achievements, with no serious questions being asked as to how these were done. Fact of the matter is that all of us know that there is no hanky-panky / short-cut that cannot be revealed in a set of targeted questions at the so-called high-achiever. Any fool with experience can expose the reality; it doesn’t require either intelligence or extraordinary levels of skill to pull that off.
This message is further reinforced when someone who has not performed is pulled up, usually in public, with no attempt to analyse the reason for the non-performance. This is actually a serious business risk- as a lack of competitive ability in the organization and its products first shows up in the non-performers’ numbers; the so-called performers, skilled as they are at getting numbers any which way, hide the erosion in competitive ability of the offering in the market. Result? Organisation after organization is taken by surprise as the entire edifice crumbles… when all you really had to do is put some time and energy understanding the non-performing areas in terms of strategic offering, not a purely tactical view. 

But this isn’t done – sending, yet again, an exceptionally powerful message. A conditioned response is created. The same thing happens as leaders try to inculcate a uniformity in companies, leading to a team that thinks along a defined line, lacking the perceptive and functional in-depth skills that are built up by diversity. Yet again, the same message. This is further deepened when people compromise, and say “this is the way it happens”…

The exact same thing happens when people hire for stability, or for deep skills in one skill area; you are building a team that can and does crack open under pressure; these so-called stable, or skilled people, in reality have never seen adversity, or have no exposure to other areas, knowledge sets and experiences; this is a vital and needed parameter that builds a vital and strong organisation. In each and every case, a strong message is going : to succeed, this is what you have to do…

Each  and every policy and step taken, rather than engender a positive attitude and out-of-the-box thinking, further deepens the problem in a self-perpetuating cycle.
I have said it before; I say it again… 

In 16 years and counting, in a full 100% cases of failed products and launches, the frontline teams have predicted the outcome with 100% accuracy. Organisations regard them as not having knowledge; my experience at front, first and second line tells me they know more about the business realities than anyone else in the company; this is across functions as well, with faulty policies being rightly called as such in 100% cases by the people who are not listened to. You ignore them at your organisation’s peril. No one speaks for the simple reason that speaking up is not encouraged; I have been told on occasion : teraa aadmi bahut boltaa hai, chup karao yaa nikaalo! Yet again, you are gving a message… a reinforcement…

This requires deep-seated change, and can only happen when people at the bottom start saying no, and give a push-back; which can only happen in a crisis period for the industry, when the bloodbath begins… Examples abound. Sad part is, in the bloodbath, many innocent careers are sacrificed. Hansa chugegaa daanaa…. etc etc… how to change this in any other way? I have no idea… if you do, drop a comment, and educate me! Cant be more honest than that.  
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Skill Gap – 3 : Doing Something Practical About It

Published February 4, 2015 by vishalvkale

The MBA is considered among those courses that are a ticket to a good life and earnings, it is considered among the most-sought after qualifications a person can have – if done from the right institution. To some, it is one of the most hyped courses, while to others, it is the only target and the only qualification. And yet, this course and its degree holders are the one that are among the most challenged. Similar is the situation with other professional courses at the Graduate and Post Graduate Level, in particular Engineering. 
And yet, surprisingly, it is the students of these courses that are finding getting a job to be a tough ask. Outside the top few colleges, placements are a real challenge. Even in cases where placements are done, the right job or a lucrative job is rare, to say the least. Placements usually require a compromise on the part of the student, who is understandably keen to land any job in this tough market. And even then, a good number have to remain jobless
Further, we are seeing a stunning spectacle of seats going unfilled in MBA colleges, and the closure of institutions. For example, as this article clarifies, 147 schools closed down last year. For a nation which is supposed to be going through a skill shortage, this is both sad as well as surprising. On one side, companies are crying skill shortage, bemoaning the lack of quality trained manpower, and on another – the institutions which can provide the manpower to companies- MBA, Engineering and other colleges are going through strain – either closing, or unable to attract students, or are going jobless, in a classic case of the supreme irony! This would even be a laughable joke, if it werent so tragic at so many levels…
This points to a deep seated problem at two levels – firstly on the part of hiring managers and organisations, as I delved into some detail in previous articles on my blog : Skill Gap and Skill Gap 2. In these articles, I noted the sad and pitiable status of training cutting across functions in companies; as well as the reluctance of companies to get into the situation, roll up their sleeves and craft a solution to the problem. 
Given the reluctance of the organisations to do anything about it, I can only conclude that these organisations lack the skill sets required to craft a solution to this vexing issue, something I shall go into greater detail in my next article on this matter. We then have no choice but to look at the other side of the equation, given that the people actually facing the problem have no intention of either solving it, or lend a helping hand in solving it. 
The second level of the problem is within the MBA courses and colleges itself, who in my experience have both the willingness as well as the ability to craft a solution. As a matter of fact, much of what I state will already have been thought of in colleges across the nation, of that I am certain. The key question here should be, what can these institutions do that is doable as well as logical?
Here again, there are two levels : one relatively easy, requiring little specialised knowledge and readily doable over a short time-frame; and the other exceptionally hard and time-consuming, requiring deep specialised knowledge and conceptual clarity of a high degree. The first is increasing industry-college linkages, and the other refurbishing the design of the MBA {or the core curriculum in degree courses} course itself. This article dwells on the first aspect only, given that the second is rather a tall order, especially for a blog post. 
The moot point in this is that the industry has shown itself to be completely unwilling to engage itself with colleges and institutes outside the top few in a meaningful manner, restricting their interaction to giving pointless and empty feedback regarding what students lack : in effect, brushing their hands off the problem and walking away! This leaves the colleges and the students both up a creek, so to speak : hunting for vague meaningless terms like “soft skills”!
The net result is that the people facing the problem in full : the students, the colleges {in particular the placement and administrative cells} – have little precise knowledge of exactly what the industry requires, for the perfectly simple reason that no one in the industry has ever taken the trouble of telling them in function and role-specific terms as to what is required. The reason for that, as we shall subsequently see in the follow-up to this article, is that companies themselves haven’t even a farthing’s idea as to what exactly this ethereal and by now almost legendary skill gap is in practical terms. 
Thus, the people who should know, dont; and the people who are the interface, the people who can link to the students and sort out this mess – the professors and teachers – cannot help in the absence of information. This leaves the gap open for vocational training services, which come at a cost, and, while effective no doubt, can with a little thought be made far more effective and pertinent. 
The solution is simple : catch onto professionals who would like to make a difference. Please note my usage of words, carefully : I did not state hire professionals as teachers and professors. I stated clearly, catch the professionals who want to make a difference. Trust me, if colleges across the nation make a determined effort, they will find ready talent across functions and levels – Engineers, Doctors, Managers, Marketers, Finance Specialists : the whole lot of professions – who would want to make a difference. All they require is an alternative, one which offers them a career option. 
I also did not state increase salaries to the level of the industry; the reason is straightforward. The industry can always pay more, there is zero chance of all institutions matching industry packages. Some might, but certainly not all. Second, there is the hope factor: so long as you are in the rat race, there is always a hope that you will get the promotion or the new job. Third, matching packages will run the risk of attracting people who are in it for the money, not for the love of the profession. What is required is giving entry to professionals, and a decent package that can ensure a decent life. That is it. 
Next, set up expectations from these professionals, in a defined framework; a framework that asks them to give some value addition from their industry experience. These cross-over professionals should be clear in their mind that their task involves both covering the syllabus as well as grooming students for corporate life. Interaction with such professionals in a classroom over a sustained period of 2-3 years is bound to have a powerful impact. This will of course require tweaking in the class allocations, with additional time being given to such professionals, alongwith some performance measurement criteria in terms of deliverables. Critically, for this to succeed, this has to be taken up with an almost missionary zeal. The make or break will be the professionals you hire, who should share this zeal and passion. 
The start will perforce be slow; but it has to be done. For in my considered opinion, as I shall cover in the next article, the industry cannot be relied upon to sort out this mess; it just does not have the requisite skill sets for this. Neither is the training institutes route a permanent solution; these are excellent; no doubt : but are hamstrung on two parameters : firstly, low acceptance in the industry, and second, high resistance to external intervention by industry as well as colleges, which is completely understandable. This will have to go hand in hand with a solution to another problem that is also a core issue : the availability of the proper study material at the right price and in the right language : which is a massive, massive issue… but that is an entirely different story, to be taken up in the concluding article in this series…

Corporate India : Understanding The Ethical Dilemma

Published December 16, 2014 by vishalvkale

This is the second part of the article of Is This Business? Professionalism? Planning? Management?


We looked at some real-world examples of the result of unethical behaviour in the Corporate World in the previous post linked above; these can be easily added to by the simple means of a google search; any number of real cases will appear for ready consideration. As I asked in the conclusion of the previous article, why does this happen? 


There is no simple answer to this; I personally refer to this as the Ethical Dilemma that each new employee is faced with. At this juncture, let us all move away from the oft-repeated excuse that we are a corrupt society, and this is the way things happen. That is not the issue here; the focus here should be to understand the underlying factors that result in on-the-job unethical behaviour, and how are they rooted in core corporate concepts, processes and methods. 


It is only through such an exercise that we can evolve new processes that can alleviate the problem. The objective is not Gandhian or some abstract social change paradigm; I am a hard-core, hard-wired corporate professional, and my objective here is only to assist in creating a more smoothly functional organisation that can deliver better bang for the buck while remaining within legal and moral parameters; in fact – harness ethics and ethical behaviour as an asset, rather than as a liability that most people currently believe it to be. It can be done; that is certain. All it requires is a process-centered approach and an iron-will…


UNDERSTANDING THE WORD ETHICS IN THE BUSINESS WORLD

In this article, I shall focus on the ethical dilemma; we shall subsequently look at some processes in the 3rd part of this mini-series. Before we move into corporates, let us establish the bedrock : our society. Whether we like it or not, the current trend is that morality and straightforwardness is not an asset in the modern world, with corruption being almost endemic, and there being an almost ubiquitous belief in “duniyadaari” or being worldly wise. And most discussions on ethics are brushed aside by saying you need to be worldly wise. Keep this in mind; this is a vital attitude that we will return to later in the 3rd part, as it betrays a lamentable lack of understanding of  a few basic concepts. 


To be frank; such an attitude is neither here nor there, and is in reality totally irrelevant. There are only two terms that are relevant to us : being ethical, and being naive. If you open all your cards in a business negotiation, you are not being ethical; you are being naive, and foolish. This has nothing to do with ethics! As another example, if your channel partner is not giving adequate focus to your business, then the question of how to proceed is not one of ethics, it is a straight and simple business question, and has nothing to do with ethics. 


We need to be specific : what do we mean by the term ethics? By that, let us be clear  that we are referring to illegal behaviour, actions and steps that are against standard societal norms, and such actions that will eventually lead to loss to the organisation in the long term due to their being focused on individual gain. Let us qualify this last point with one caveat : unless short term steps are deemed to be necessary for short-term organisational survival, and documented as such by the concerned management.



THE ETHICAL DILEMMA

Let us start with an example; you are in a negotiation with a prospective business partner. In the course of negotiations, you hold back certain information; as I stated before, that is a standard and indeed essential practice. But this needs to be clarified : all information that is pertinent to the decision of the business partner as well as is vital for a long term association needs t0 be revealed; holding that back is unethical. Such is the fine line between ethical and unethical behaviour in a business situation. 


Furthermore, there is also a very high degree of probability that the above may be against the law, which mandates release of all pertinent information in a business contract. Be that as it may, the decision as to what is pertinent is a very situational parameter, and requires experience. Look at it this way : if the Channel Partner is looking for a long-term association with a solid or upcoming brand with a clear way forward, whereas you are in it only to solve a short-term crisis without having any long-term intentions, there is a potential fundamental disconnect. If your brand then does not have a clear way forward in terms of new products, marketing activities and their range & scope, and you nevertheless imply or commit that you do, then you are in unethical territory. 


So long as you give complete disclosure, that you need a business partner urgently, can provide a solid business case to the potential partner, and can meet objections, you are fine. All you have to do is identify the core non-negotiable points of the other party, and what points can be negotiated on, and build your case on them. But the moment you cut corners, and start lying, you are on suspect ground. This leads to a disconnect between the partner and the organisation upon the start of business when the partner learns that there is no clear way forward – leading to him or her withdrawing from the business. 

This is just one example of the ethical dilemma, wherein professional falter  : my KRAs versus Solid Business Logic. The inability to connect the two is the ethical dilemma; the word dilemma means specifically “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable“. Here the choice is the unpalatable choice of breaking norms and lying to achieve the goal, versus the equally unpalatable choice of having to struggle hard while keeping on the right side of ethics. 



UNDERSTANDING THE ETHICAL DILEMMA


Why should the employee be faced with such a hobson’s choice : KRAs, or Ethics? The next question then comes automatically : Are the two really mutually exclusive under current circumstances? Or is the entire feeling of a totally different origin? Or is it that both the KRAs as well as the other factors need consideration and reworking? And what are these other factors? 

One thing needs to be clear at the outset : the question of ethics is fundamentally an individual decision, an individual choice. And yet, we see the improbable sight of a large number of people sacrificing ethics at the altar of the rat race, the race to succeed, to survive, and to get ahead. This is the single largest indicator that there is something, some fundamental weakness or oversight within the core processes of the companies that either catalyzes or fails to check unethical behaviour. No company states unethical behaviour as acceptable; 100% frown upon it, and yet large swathes of companies are struggling to bring unethical conduct under control, which is a strange paradox. 

Optimally, the ethical dilemma should not occur to employees in the first place; ethics should support and in fact strengthen the business process. That they dont is a manifest reality, as indicated in the examples I mentioned in the first article linked above. Granted that in the real world, there will always be difficult choices and borderline cases; but that does not take away from this core reality. 

Since the choice is one of individual behaviour, and is made with an objective to achieve some business goals, KRAs automatically become a part of the discussion. So does the entire system that the employee is exposed to; why is the employee having to make such decisions on a regular basis? KRAs, Relations with superiors, Support systems, Checks and Balances, external environment all come into the gamut of discussion. For the ethical dilemma may be that of an individual, but it is of an individual who is a part of a larger system, which shapes as well as influences the thinking and decision making of the individual. 

The key point, the way forward is to understand the functioning at an organisational level, and plot the pulls pressures and developments in both the organisation and the external atmosphere it operates in. The reason is simple : we are in business for profit, not an NGO for social development. We need to plot a way forward that is largely ethical, that rewards ethical conduct, and that does not instill a feeling of threat while being ethical; all the while operating in the external atmosphere as it exists in the modern day – and we certainly arent living in a Utopia. 

This is the subject of the 3rd part of this series… 

Corporate India : Is This Business? Professionalism? Planning? Management?

Published December 5, 2014 by vishalvkale

1) An employee of a top Indian firm was physically roughed up and beaten up in the market in 2010


2) An employee of a top Indian firm was held by the local distributor as old claims were not settled

3) An employee of a top Indian firm was held by a channel partner due to old disputes

4) An employee of a top Indian firm was stabbed due to on the job disputes

5) A few employees of a good Indian firm were stabbed due to internal disputes

6) An employee of a good Indian firm was shot to death due to channel disputes




This is Sales? The above is professionalism? The above-mentioned is business? Are we in Business, or are we in a combat unit? If that is the case, then I am better off not knowing such excellent and praise-worthy tactics! I readily admit I dont know anything about Sales! These are not isolated cases; there are the outliers in an extremely disturbing trend that I have spotted in some industries. The trend can be seen in the rising number of scams, exposes like cobrapost, murders, suicides, sackings and pink-slips, lifestyle diseases, divorces etc. Most sales people I know of can readily recount such tales as given above… 







All the cases above are true cases. All the cases above really happened; and there are several others that have happened that I havent listed; like the many arrests of telecom employees, the threats that I have seen and heard in the market etc. Add to this the cases of suicides, harassment, rising work stress and lifestyle diseases that are on the rise in Corporate India. The net picture that emerges is not a very healthy one, as a multitude of surveys have clearly indicated.



Is this why I work? Just to get killed, roughed up, or kidnapped, or arrested due to reasons entirely outside my control? Is this business? Is this professionalism? And most importantly, why does this happen, and why are these incidences increasing by the day? Where are we going wrong as professionals, as human beings, and as specialists in our trade? 



It is important to understand that the cases highlighted above are not isolated cases; they are the product of a brutal system that gives no credence to the proper process, the optimal way of doing business. While it is certain that disputes will arise in any business due to a variety of reasons, these disputes ought also to be settled in a manner that does not create harm for the organisation and its employees. Especially its employees; if in any situation, the choice is between the organisation and the employee, the employee, his health, his career and his safety  has to come first. 



Does this happen? Arguably, it doesnt. Why do I, as a professional, then give my 100% to an organisation that does not care for me, for my family, for my health, and for my safety? People make organisations, not vice versa; and in the modern days’ chase for numbers at all costs, people are the ones who get used and forgotten once their perceived value recedes. With the demand supply imbalance in the job market, there is an assured supply of manpower as ready replacement. This further erodes the perceived value alluded to above; there is no incentive for the boss or the organisation to focus on true employee development; this is why average tenure in an organisation is on the decline.



These words above may sound defeatist, the words borne out of failure or dejection. They are neither; they are simple hard facts, as I shall now proceed to elucidate with categorical evidence and proof. Let us consider the case of the Sales function, and look at some real-world scenarios, situations that happened in the real world, the response and its analysis. 



ONE


It was the month-end in a major Indian company, where pressure sales were the norm rather than the exception. During closing, a few deliveries were punched in without there being any orders from the concerned distributors. In other words, billing without there being any order from the market. The local Sales Person, at a grade of Assistant Manager, had to do it, or lose his job. This person then went to the concerned distributor  to ensure that the material got offloaded into his godown. During the stretched negotiations with the distributor, the State Sales Manager was overheard on telephone telling the transporter – catch hold of the Manager there; beat him, or threaten him, or whatever – but the material wont come back! HR was informed – and no action was taken by them on this rather serious complaint. HO was informed, with a similar lack of action on their part



TWO


In another top Indian company, the local collection team took a full-body scan video of the back-office lady staff at a distributor point. The ladies complained to the Sales Manager in charge of the distributor, who escalated the matter as it concerned a sexual harassment case, and was an inter-departmental matter. The company blamed the concerned Sales Manager for escalating the matter and not sorting it out saying boys will be boys! The Sales Manager was held responsible for the entire matter! 



THREE


For the third example, let us go deep into the sales function, into specifics. In a top firm, fake commitments were made to the entire channel. This led to a situation wherein the balances of the distributors did not reconcile with the company accounts due to undocumented claims. The channel subsequently stopped ordering fresh inventory, leading to outdated products in the market, resulting in loss of marketshare. This has happened in at least 4 companies that I know of personally,  across several states


FOUR


In another top company, fake documents were the norm for case closure. If any document was incomplete, the procedure was simply to fake it. In this same company, fake sales were common, very common – generate fake sales to make your sales numbers look great, and never mind the channel health or anything else. These fake sales would get flushed out later through delayed secondaries or through adjustments, and pretty soon this became the norm. Point to be noted – this is something I have noted in 3 industries and several companies




Each of the cases mentioned above has its causes in one simple habit : The end justifies the means. Be it fake documents, or not taking action against a key employee, or fake commitments, or fake sales, or fake documents – these are all the symptoms of the real disease. These are not the disease; they are the symptoms of a much deeper malaise that needs urgent attention from all stakeholders within an organisation. 



The pressure to deliver on your commitments in the modern organisation is extreme; this is combined with a total lack of a safety valve for outlet of pent-up tensions and pressure. On top of all this is the constant fear of a job loss, and the attendant difficulty of finding a new job and providing for your family. The icing on the cake is the driving ambition of the Managers {at all levels} which does not normally have the safety lid of empathy, teamwork, process-orientation, organisation centricity & long-term orientation.  



And this occurs in an atmosphere with a pressure to conform, where any attempt any individuality is a sign of weakness and a sign of not being a proper “fit” in the concerned function. For example, if an employee has a personal safety valve – music, switching off, or just being mentally strong and not showing tension – he or she runs the risk of being called a misfit! Thus, you have not only to perform, but also conform; or perish! If perceived as a misfit, all mistakes get amplified and  all achievements get devalued…



It is into this pressure-cooker cauldron that the employee steps in and is expected to perform miracles and wonders, and from day one. Please understand : the ultra-competitive modern world means that you actually have very little time to adjust; you have to hit the ground running. This can be a major source of competitive disadvantage if employees take too long to adjust. And this is where organisations go completely awry. A human being isn’t a machine; an automaton. He or she is going to take time to adjust and get used to it.  And rather than evolve systems and processes to mitigate this circumstance and ensure that the employee has time to adjust, organisations place the entire load onto the employee. 



Be that as it may, this person enters, and takes charge. He or she now has to deliver; previous experiences have taught the employee that perform or perish is the norm…



In the concluding part of this article, I shall go into the details of why the cases highlighted in the beginning take place… 


The Skill Gap – 2 : The Way Forward; Focus On What You Can Change

Published July 1, 2014 by vishalvkale

I am penning this article based on my experience as a corporate guy with nearly 16 years work experience cutting across Indian companies, as well as MNCs. What makes me slightly different is that I have been a visiting faculty in 3-4 management institutes, and have managed to develop relationships with quite a few students. These institutes range from top ones to unknown ones, and thus represent the entire cross-spectrum.

I am also an active blogger, and regularly attend blogger meets across platforms like Indiblogger and Blogadda, where I meet and mix with teens, 20-somethings as well as 30-somethings.

Thus, I have seen the so-called “unskilled” people at 4 levels –

* hiring manager;

* team leader / area manager / segment manager / regional manager;

* Professor and/or guide

* Friend, or group member, having been talking to and conversing with them as one of them.



THE BACKDROP

As I observed in my previous post on this – The Great Indian Skill Gap, the so-called Skill Gap is vastly different from the perception. I have read several news articles that wax eloquent on this, as well as a few surveys – all have the same verbiage and meaning; but fall short on specifics, Furthermore, most are a survey of hiring managers, and are frankly based on the gift of gab. This is by no means in the category of an exhaustive research. 


The answers to the questions are based on personal experience, and the background of that experience, the company policies, industry realities, specifics KRA requirements etc is not taken into account. 

The phraseology is wonderfully indistinct, and proves nothing either way. What does “lack of technical competencies” mean in specific terms? It can mean anything under the sun. It needs to be specific, this is just a general statement. This statement can also be construed to mean that companies are setting the bar way too high. This is way too general a statement, and we can draw no conclusion based on this. The technical competencies vary widely with the role, function and the industry. There can be no generalisation; we can conclude nothing based on these reports. 

Frankly, it could also mean that employer expectations are rising too fast, and employer willingness to invest in training is waning too fast. This hypotheses has not been tested; hence, one simply cannot draw the conclusion that there is a skill gap from such data unless the reverse hypotheses is tested, and not on hiring managers, but on a more exhaustive research. Only then can we state anything for certain!


ABOUT SKILL SETS AND COMPETENCIES

It is not about setting the bar high; it is about hiring for skills that are just not required for on-the-job performance! Our intake process does not measure KRA-Specific skills, but rather wavers all over the place, including all and sundry items in addition to job-specific skills in the guise of gauging personality. And the fun of it is that this judgement is passed by people who themselves have precisely zero knowledge of psychology, or personality! The entire process is highly subjective and prone to error which is perhaps why frequently positions go unfilled or hiring gets delayed. 

And the description “technical competencies” cannot be so vague – especially not in a high-level report, on which basis strategic vision documents are created. It has to be specific – and it will vary from industry to industry. For example, for underwriting in insurance, the core skill is knowledge of documents & their veracity; basic finance; insurance theories, concepts and processes; and so on. No college teaches these skills; and oral communication is not a pre-requisite. Neither is an excellent knowledge of English a requirement, given that documents can also be presented in the Vernacular. 

Anything else is frankly immaterial insofaras underwriting is concerned. A similar case can be stated for other functional skills – the moment you go specific, you realise that the organisations are equally responsible for bloating the entire affair out of all proportion. I say this as I have seen all sides of the coin – the college, the young brigade as well as the company side. Whether or not the candidate can speak English is immaterial, as is any other point not mentioned as a core skill. Not all jobs require you to be technically savvy, or speak English at all {let alone fluently}

The focus on hiring managers in survey after survey is fallacious; this requires a deeper research to get a handle on this entire matter, which is far too complex to rely on one set of individuals alone. Few hiring managers are skilled in psychology, and yet “bad attitude”, and “personality mismatch” feature as rejection reasons. How can a person who has zero knowledge of psychology pass judgement on these parameters? Far more critical, how can any decision on future direction be taken on the pronouncements of these people?


TRAINING SCENARIO

How much emphasis is placed on training? How much emphasis is placed on skilling the candidate in specific KRA-designed training programmes by companies? Nil. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Nothing. Cipher. Induction programmes are unimaginative affairs, listing things a simple google search will reveal. You require an induction for that? What for?

How many hours are devoted to periodic training that is KRA specific by companies? Again, very near zero. Training is looked upon as a waste of time by line managers. A training programme nomination is looked upon as a warning, as is treated as a first step to sacking by more than a majority of line managers. Periodic training to refresh skill sets is absent across functions. Simple fact.

How can you blame candidates or universities in such a scenario? The companies are not willing to invest in their own people, whom they call “assets”, and want to earn profits from their performance? Furthermore, no company is wanting to engage with universities and colleges outside the top 10-15, and communicate with and work with these colleges. Arent the companies a part of our society, our culture? Shouldnt they do it – if not for nationalist feeling, then out of a pure play profit motive?

I am not absolving the colleges of the blame – just making a simple point that this is far too complex a matter. 


THE WAY FORWARD – THE CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE  

Let me clarify. I once had occasion, during my tenure as a visiting faculty, to check what my students are using as study material. The non-regular students were using translations into the vernacular; these students were further not in the A-Graders, or even B-Graders. Now companies immediately scream at this juncture : English Problem! No Skills! Prima Facie, this seems logical, and spot-on. Except, on deeper analysis, this is exposed as a fallacious impression. 

First, is the knowledge of English mission critical? In most roles, it isnt. Fact. Then why reject because of this? Next, how do you expect a student from the heartland and hinterland, schooled in poor schools or local languages to upgrade to flowing top-level English in the space of a heartbeat? Impossible – it cant be done! Does this mean that this person has no talent whatsoever? 

The next point follows from this – if the person cannot even understand English, how can anyone expect him to be functionally an expert, or at a par with those who can, given that most top-level books are in English? At this point, companies reject, scream “Skill Gap” and wash their hands off the entire matter. Seems logical – except that it is anything but, as deeper thought reveals.

As Corporate India moves into the smaller towns / smaller colleges in big towns for its hiring, this is going to be a persistent problem. This is not really a problem – it is a signal that Corporate India is not in sync with the ground realities, and needs to modify its processes and procedures, and undergo serious introspection. 

The reality is that only the creamy layer is exposed to good schooling; this is an external reality. Hindi / Marathi / Bengali / Tamil / Telugu etc are the medium of instruction. Corporate India has yet to realise this reality, let alone accept it. Books and quality material, access to resources are absent in this layer. Schools and parents alike cant afford it. This is a hard reality. 

Does this mean that this entire set of people, or a large majority among them, is not worth hiring? Has anyone given them a chance, by proper timely training interventions before deployment on the job / regular interaction with college managements and faculties and such like? No! Then how can you assume that they cant perform, when you are using standards of judgement that they just cannot meet, and are therefore manifestly unfair? 

This isnt socialism – I am talking pure capitalism and perfect business sense. You have a vacancy; you have candidates who have passed an exam pertaining to that required skill set; and you dont hire! You choose – note that – actually choose – to leave the vacancy open in a hyper-competitive market! Amazing! 

Not one corporate in my experience has tried to retrain these people. And, sadly and shockingly, in corporate India itself there are people who have overcome these handicaps, reskilled themselves, and succeeded – thereby proving that this is a gap that can be bridged. And if it can be bridged, it ceases to be a gap, and becomes a ground-level challenge that needs attending to. 

Trust me – there are students who are raring to go, given a chance at reskilling. It is in corporate interest to give them that chance. Either that – or cry skill gap, leave positions vacant and impact your business competence. Corporates are running away from the problem, not trying to solve it. 

They are a part of this nation; they are a part of this society. That they should get in, dirty their hands and get it done is beyond debate. The pay-off? Talent. And there is plenty of latent talent – try interacting with these students. I did. And was stunned, humbled and shameful. 

Remember : Focus on what you can change, the circle of influence. The socio-economic factors, the schooling issues are way too complex and are in the circle of concern. Changing that will require decades- and you want business performance in the near term. 

My point is that this is not so simple, and has many, many facets and roots – Socio-Cultural, Economic, Political, Business etc. This does not lend itself to simple and-or situations. In the meantime, we in Corporate India need people. 

Any youngster will have dreams and aspirations, that is natural. It is the absence of dreams that is a problem, not how tall they are. Similarly, not all can communicate their feelings and thoughts. That is again a human trait. Does this mean that all those who cant communicate are worthless, and have no talent? Obviously no. What is needed in counselling – which is not done, or proper guidance as to what suits which person. This is the most significant gap in educational systems. 

What can WE do should be the question? That is our circle of influence. Remember – we require people as much as they require jobs. Our need is in some ways greater than theirs. We can either sit and cry as to the failures of the system – or roll up our sleeves, plan and execute strategies that will bridge the gap. The latter course is a sure guarantee of success. The former isnt. 

What we can do is step in, fill the perceived gaps in chosen institutes that have the potential of meeting our needs, and work with these institutes round-the-year, through monthly seminars with students, one-on-one counselling sessions,and other such activities. This will cost next to nothing, and give us a strong understanding of the prospective candidates to boot. In the pressure for immediate results, we forget to nurture new talent; we set the bar too high due to our internal deliverables which are demanding, so say the least. The need of the hour is a long-term approach. To be specific, choose and target specific colleges in smaller towns and cities – Indore, Bhopal, Varanasi, Surat, Nasik, Akola, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Bhuj, Agra etc. Work with these places – you will get talent, and at a lower cost. Win-win situation 

This will also go a long way in reducing employee turnover, reduce stress, build engagement. Survey after survey is showing rise of dissatisfaction, unbearable stress, physical diseases, mental diseases in Corporate India. 


In my experience, students do respond to counselling, and proper guidance. Problem is, they dont have anyone to approach for help and guidance. We can play that role. The pay-off? Talent. Assured talent, and tie-ups with institutes that will last years, as also fulfilling your CSR mandates in a sure way.

Should We Judge Attitude While Hiring?

Published June 5, 2014 by vishalvkale

Attitude is increasingly heard to be one of the points to be measured, or appraised or judged while assessing the utility or skills or potential of a person. A number of hiring managers as well as line managers swear by this dictum. A person with a positive attitude is a tremendous asset, and can be far more effective that one with a bad attitude. The statement above is spot-on accurate, and is a manifest truth. A person with a positive attitude is also more receptive to ideas, can think of solutions to problems with a much greater degree of alacrity, that is also a fact. Should we then measure or judge the attitude of an employee or candidate? Or there are pitfalls in doing so?

My experience has taught me otherwise… attitude is easy to fake, and easier to destroy for a boss. Fact. First of all, attitude is not a fixed and defined item that is carved in stone. Attitude changes as a response to situations, and a negative attitude is no certain judgement of ability to perform; it has to be seen in the light of the persons’ circumstance. Quite often, a change of circumstance can lead to a sea change in attitude. Of course, outliers will be there : cases with extreme negative attitude, for example. But these are exceptions, and are relatively easy to spot in most cases.

All too often, “negative attitude” has been used as a one-size-fits-all solution for people in your team you do not get along with. It is ridiculously easy to manufacture a bad attitude through targeted tactics; for example, withholding approvals on some borderline aspect {which can be achieved by provision of additional data, or building a case. In place of such advice, the boss just rejects the approval – either deliberately, or due to a blind spot as he anyways does not like the guy}. This, done enough times, along with other “harmless” practices – like excessive follow-up with an employee who hates being distracted, for example – will manufacture a bad attitude where none existed. 

This in no way implies that a bad attitude is permanent; that it cannot be changed. Attitudes can and do change as per the circumstance the individual is going under, the stresses he or she is operating under both at work as well as at home. Far more pertinent is the observation that why focus on other aspects in a competitive world, when attitude measurement, when taken in conjunction with a basic cut-off of skills and experience is a good judge of a prospective great employee? When you have 3 people applying for each job, it is easy to focus on attitude after initial screening for basic eligibility criteria. Or when picking the ones to keep in a team, and laying off people – why not just let the bad attitude person go?

First, the prospective great employee. That creature doesn’t exist, for starters, Each new hire has to be inculcated and developed into the system such that his potential is realised. Second, attitude is no guarantee that the skill-set needed for the task completion is adequate; positive attitude or not, you will still need skills to achieve your KRAs. Third, by judging attitude, in my humble opinion, the manager is creating a blind spot; in place of judging attitude, the manager’s core task is to select people who can perform the task at hand. The task is more vital than anything else. It is far more pertinent for the manager to create a shortlist based on skill-sets, ability and intelligence, and use attitude only in the case of a tie-breaker, as it were: to finally select in case you get 2 or more with similar or comparable skills.
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If there is a superior,or a suited person whose bad attitude can be logically explained, its makes sense to go in for that person. It is a risk worth taking; trusting the ability of the human being to evolve and adjust to a positive situation is not such a bad idea. As a matter of fact, a down-on-his-luck person, as an example, might actually put in a much greater effort in his or her job if given the chance, as he or she is feeling gratitude at being given a chance, and hope that in this new supportive atmosphere, performance will be rewarded. As I said, the risk might just be worth it.

Next, retention of team members. This is a minefield even in the best of times, and possibly the worst thing you can do is look at attitude over and above everything else. Bad attitude or good, each employee has  a reservoir of knowledge and skill-sets, and is performing a function. As we saw in the examples above, it is easy for a bad boss to create attitude issues in employees. Further, genuine problems and hindrances can also be confused for bad attitude. For example, a Sales Manager complaining of pricing problems is often taken as a person with a bad attitude. In reality, it is within the bounds of possibility that a competing brand has actually launched a test marketing initiative or a local promotion that is undercutting your brand, leading to his feedback. Why brand the guy as a loser, when he is merely stating the absolute truth? 
Why does that guy have a bad attitude? And is it possible to turn that attitude around? If so, we get an asset! Most importantly, if the bad attitude is due to internal politics or vicious targeting, you as a leader will be actually re-inforcing the bad but carefully camouflaged behaviour of the perpetrator, keeping the door open for serious problems in future! That is why, when trying to judge attitude, it is vital to go into the background of the person – why does he or she have a bad attitude? Can it be turned? Under what level of stress is he or she operating? Is there is a personal problem that person is facing? Is it an issue with someone in the team? Asking the right questions can actually lead to unearthing some serious issues, or other pertinent learnings that can be of mutual benefit, as well as ensure that further more serious issues dont arise!

This is why measuring for attitude is always a bad idea – all the time, every time. You have to look at it in totality : the employee’s personality, his circumstances, his achievements, and achievements under what situation, what was the precise individual contribution {all too often, the credit is taken by the wrong person}. There is no shortcut; the supervisor has to know the employee inside out. I have personally seen careers destroyed because some boss screams “that guy has a bad attitude”, without asking one critical question : Why does that person have a bad attitude?


Tackling Employee Dissatisfaction

Published December 9, 2013 by vishalvkale

The trend in Employee – Organisation relationships, as brought out in a few recent surveys, shows a majority of the employees are not engaged with the organisation; that the dissatisfaction levels are very high. Alongside this fact is the lament – or statement from organisations that they are making the organisation more employee friendly. And yet, there is no discernible impact on dissatisfaction levels in general – which are, if anything – rising. 

Reason for that is not one single attempt has dealt with the core issue/s at hand – why are the employees dissatisfied? Why are they disengaged? In my experience no one has even tried to attempt this. As a result, the efforts at engagement are centering around employee activities, rewards and recognition, feel-good programmes, dress-up and dress-down days, cafeteria enhancements, remuneration and emoluments, Saturday half-days which are applicable only to the HO, Gift programmes, intranet links and mailers, parties etc. Not one of these has worked; in fact – the exact reverse. All have boomeranged, and boomeranged big-time.

The reality is that these programmes have either no discernible impact, or indeed serve only to embitter the employee. For example, Saturday offs / Half-Days. These are usually enjoyed only by HO staff; more often than not the branches remain open. At times, even on Sundays – due to the proverbial “driven” boss, who has nothing better to do with his time – and walks in. Result? Your employee-friendly policy goes out the window, and actually causes deep resentment as you realise that the HO staff – or your classmate in Mysore – is relaxing at home! 

Another example: gift programmes, emoluments, Rewards and Recognition. The shoddy implementation of these, in place of acting as motivators, act as severe de motivators due to 2 strong reasons – first, lack of transparency in the process combined with a top-down approach which leaves simmering discontent among the staff, who are not convinced regarding the winners or the people getting appreciation. The general contention is that the favourite got it; its not for us. Secondly, the cut-offs or targets set for appreciation or Gifts is either not communicated properly – or is ridiculously high. The belief is that an unachievable target will drive the employees. The result? More pressure, as the boss makes it a prestige issue. The supposed Reward gets converted into an added target, and more reason for pressure. Result? Good-bye motivation, Good-bye engagement – and Hi There, Dissatisfaction! 

A third example – those lovely cafeterias, game rooms and other facilitators.  An excellent idea, one would think – except the moment the boss walks in – you walk out, or be tagged a loiterer! If that does not happen – in walks the boss, Milk Shake in hand, sees you… Bang! Meeting Chalu! Lets start the meeting. You have no option but to respond. Midway, one of you gets an idea. Out comes the Cellphone, in comes the entire team – and lo and behold, Good-bye game room / cafetaria and Welcome New Meeting Room! Next time, I Me Myself and others at my level make it a point to walk all the way to the cutting chaiwaalaa – individually, mind you (at the most in pairs) – have a cup of tea, spend 15 minutes cursing everyone and his uncle – and back to work! 

There is no systemic check on such blatant abuse of power, and total lack of personal space to the employee. What is worse, most of us do not see it as an encroachment of personal space. Furthermore, none of the relationship improvement efforts attempt to solve the real problems plaguing the corporate world, where what one actually does is in complete variance with our value systems, as well as frequently openly against the law. The lack of Job Security is a further dampener. The total absence of leaves (even if pushed, insecurity forces employees not to take leaves) is an added burden. This is complicated by a lack of security once outside the job. Not only that, a total lack of career planning for employees & no training for skill upgradation is another factor. And, as the icing on the cake, you have the other factors – lack of personal space, too much pressure, constant monitoring etc. The real problems are:

  • The penchant to take unhealthy or even illegal shortcuts; 
  • Pressure to conform rather than be an individual;
  • Pressure tactics; 
  • Hire-and-fire policies; 
  • Lack of proper training and career clarity 
  • Long work hours; 
  • General Lack of transparency unfair PMS
  • Lack of personal time and 
  • Downright unhealthy work atmoshpere cutting across levels and functions.


If you want the employee to be engaged – stop all the frankly ridiculous attempts at engagement – and:

  1. Start enriching his/her job; 
  2. Give him/her security; 
  3. Enable strong checks and balances against misuse of power;
  4. Intolerance towards unhealthy business practices and illegal acts – even at the cost of marketshare 
  5. Shorten work hours; 
  6. Invest in training
  7. Give personal space; \
  8. Empower employees and 
  9. Free from ridiculous levels of control. Thats it.


Nothing else is required. One straight, frank and blunt feedback – whenever such programmes, or measures are announced, I have heard snide remarks as well as foul language. Real foul language. It is a common statement – why should we do anything for the company, when it does nothing for us? Whats in it for me? I’ll stay here for 1-2 years and move on! How can anyone be engaged in such an atmosphere? Impossible!

From personal experience in leading teams – nearly 70-80% of employees respond positively to kind and understanding handling, personal space and independence, time for personal activities, and total intolerance of unhealthy / illegal acts. But once you go down that road, you as the Boss pay for it. Blunt : I have received instructions to commit clear transgressions of law or company rules from Seniors more than once, and oblique hints as a general rule. Further, there is a general statement – if you can do this much with so little pressure, yaar “unki G@#$$ maaro business 20% growth hogaa. You are killing performance! This when the person is already touching 90-100% on targets! That is the reality of Corporate India. 

Things are beginning to change – since, for the first time, people are openly coming out in private conversations, HR confidential emails, blogs, newspapers etc. There is a general dialogue that has started; this bodes well. What is more, those speaking up span the entire spectrum from the juniormost to the seniormost, which is a healthy sign, a harbinger of change – positive change. One might even say that it is only to be expected that some things will go bad in times of rapid growth (such as India saw over the past few years till 2009). Having said that, now is the time to set things right again… here’s hoping that happens…