The Role of a ‘Role Model’

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any role models in my circle of family and friends – folks who had achieved the heights of success in their professional lives, and could serve as a guiding path to those who are just starting out on their journey.

I had to overcome several obstacles and navigate uncharted waters, to graduate from one of the top colleges of the country (St. Xavier’s) with honors. Soon after a brief stint in Sales, I pursued a Business Management degree in Marketing, and once again, found myself with more questions than answers. Once more, there was hardly any one I could personally approach to seek guidance from, in terms of the significant life choices that lay ahead…

Should I join a small firm (with a wider exposure to work) or a large, well-known brand (with a much smaller role in it)? Will industry X have better growth prospects than industry Y? If I wish to ultimately head a function or department, what’s the best path to it? What does one actually do in senior roles in a mid-large size organization?

Do bear in mind that this was circa 1990-1998, well before the Internet had democratised information access for all.

Even in later years, as my awareness of the world improved and I had better access to organizational resources, there were many questions I faced as a young professional. In these situations, I wished it was possible to seek help from other, more experienced, role models.

The sad reality is that, even with all the information we want, now available at our fingertips, some of these answers are still hard to come by.

If we come from privileged backgrounds or families, we don’t quite realize how hard it is for many folks to get good advice, or shape their career paths & aspirations on the lines of senior (and successful) professionals that can ‘show them the way’.

This post is an attempt to fill some of those gaps.

As someone who has experienced organizations of all shapes and sizes, and worked across many functions, I am often asked for advice from students and junior colleagues. I do what I can to encourage and address those questions to the best of my abilities. That’s a big part of why I teach as Visiting Faculty in business schools, and occasionally take up a budding, young professional to mentor him/her through a difficult phase.

I urge you folks to do the same – use every opportunity to help others who are struggling to find answers to the tough questions. Speak to young professionals (and students) regularly. Ask questions, so you can understand their reality better. Encourage questions, so you can help them navigate their dilemmas. Make some time for this in your busy lives, even if it means weekends, so you can be accessible to them.

If you are past 50 years of age, seriously consider ‘reverse mentoring’ in your organization to stay in touch with changing realities – it will only enrich your own Life and perspective. If you are in a desk job, take the opportunity to get out more and interact with your channels & customers – it will give them a chance to reach you. If you have forgotten your modest beginnings, take a moment to remind yourself where you came from and what you used to struggle with – it will enable you to offer help in a way that is relevant to others.

Providing jobs is not the only way to help people. And, you don’t have to be a CxO to be able to offer good advice. Every one can make a difference – we only have to commit ourselves to it.

2020 is behind us… It’s time to set some worthy goals and get cracking, don’t you think?

Designing Processes That Work

When you start designing a process, what do you aim for?

You might think the answer is obvious, but it’s not. A process can try to be the most efficient at what it’s doing (speed/time/cost), or robust enough to handle exceptions with grace (think: moments of truth), or just be a “process” – a set of rules, where none existed before.

The tradeoffs we choose, matter…

A text message might be the best solution for one situation because it’s instant, easily digestible, cheap and convenient.

However, a hand-written thank-you note on high-quality paper, FedEx’ed overnight from the other side of the world is way more effective than an email because of the discretionary effort and expense involved.

… But most improvements are neither efficient enough to be noticeably more effortless than alternatives, nor inefficient in a way that conveys discretionary effort, thoughtfulness or attention to detail.

Matt Watkinson, LinkedIn

I’ve seen many organizations put words like ‘Customer First’ in their Vision and Values posters. Some even commit resources to the CX function, by staffing up a team dedicated to improving Customer Experience, and then asking them to lead a bunch of initiatives. But, when it comes down to it, most enterprises lack a clear understanding of what it means to do right by the customer.

And, unless that clarity informs the design of the processes inside, chances are the people that work there will only be able to do so much.

It’s not just CX – every function can benefit from doing this right. Here’s how you should ideally approach it…

Step 1 – Articulate clearly what you are trying to maximize for
Step 2 – Define when and how to deploy exception handling
Step 3 – Design your processes to accommodate both the above
Step 4 – Communicate this design to the people entrusted with delivery

Without it, a process is just another process.

With it, you get a powerful engine that helps you get closer to your goals.

The Say-Do Gap

Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. And, work life is no different.

Take the case of wanting to improve on existing standards. Most organizations – and senior executives – would ‘say’ that they would like to see an improvement in the status quo. Some would even argue that significant improvement is the only way to beat the competition – after all, change is the only constant. However, most avenues of feedback and improvement are often ignored by well-meaning folks.

No, I am not talking about Customer Satisfaction surveys or NPS numbers here. There is only so much that a ‘formal’ system of feedback from a select set of customers can tell us about how, where and when we need to improve our products and processes.

Let me take a few examples that may seem strange to entertain at first…

  1. Subtraction

    Take any business conference you’ve attended in the past few years. Most will hand you a docket at the registration desk that is filled with sponsored content, marketing collateral and white papers on topics of industry relevance. Each item is carefully crafted by Sales and Marketing folks who do this for a living. Yet, at the end of the conference, the tables will be littered with leaflets and brochures that were left behind by the attendees – material that was not relevant enough for them to carry all day, or take back with them.

    Imagine how insightful this information really is – your target audience telling you by the end of the day what doesn’t really work for them! But almost every conference organizer (or client) ignores it.

  2. Addition

    Take the case of the auto accessories industry. We buy cars, and then we buy accessories that fill the gaps that the new vehicle didn’t already address. Nowhere is it more apparent than in India which is famous for its jugaad approach.

    The accessories industry fills these voids on many different levels, from basic elements like floor lamination (hygiene in monsoon-affected markets) and leather-like seat covers to luxury elements like parking cameras and Android Auto enabled touchscreen infotainment systems. In each of these examples, either the equivalent does not exist with the original dealer, or is only offered as a bundle when you buy the next variant, or is available at a price point that is unacceptable to the customer.

    Each element is an example of what the customer really wants – and is willing to pay for it, if the price is right. But, almost every auto manufacturer (or dealer) ignores it.

What is ironic is that, in both these examples, the enterprise in question spends a considerable amount of resources in collecting ‘Customer Feedback’ through formal systems that hardly ever yield such insights.

As I said before, Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. If you really want to do something about improvement, there is plenty of opportunity all around us… All we need is to open our eyes and minds.