Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Exercises in Mastery Part 2: Them

Self-Mastery is the corner stone of success. It gives you control over yourself, instead of you being a passive result of your environment and situations. It is almost a necessary condition before you can achieve mastery over others. As a master who commands respect and exerts meaningful influence, you:
  • carry a certain credibility and respect with the people
  • can easily and quickly build rapport
  • are a master of empathy, which together with rapport, helps connect with people  
  • can steer people’s thoughts and emotions in a productive direction
  • instinctively know what to say, when to say, and how to say something to make an impact, and equally important, you also know when you remain silent  
  • pull together different people and align them towards a common goal
  • can help your friends, family and colleagues realize their full potential

This Mastery over Them happens in three dimensions:
  1. Coaching, to help people realize their best
  2. Communicating, to make sure the messages sent and received are as desired, and
  3. Collaborating, to maximize the effectiveness of a group of people working together

Let’s explore each of these dimensions and look at some of the activities and exercises you could do to build mastery in each of these. As with the previous part, these exercises are not prescriptive but meant to demonstrate possibilities. It is up to you if you want to customize them or do them as suggested.


In an earlier article on Coaching, I defined it as “…a forward looking, co-creative process where the coach helps fully realize an able coachee's potential towards a well defined goal”. I strongly encourage you to go through the article to understand what is coaching, as I won’t cover its meaning here.

Coaching is not one skill, but several skills applied in certain impactful manner. And the ability to quickly build rapport is fundamental to all coaching endeavours. Let’s explore it further.

Rapport is a state of understanding, trust and openness between two or more people that “connects” them at a subconscious level. There are several aspects which influence rapport, but they almost invariably lead to “sameness” of one thing or another. For example, you have the same goal, speak the same language, have the same attitude towards a problem, have similar jobs, went to the same school, and so on. Naturally, a way of explicitly establishing rapport would need you to look at similarities between you and the other person. Mirroring (read about it here) is a technique often prescribed to increase rapport, but I believe it is important to understand real, deep, natural commonalities before trying to mirror postures or gestures. Find out as much as possible - which companies or departments did the person work for earlier? What is his favourite pastime? Does he follow sports, and if so, which one? Where do his passions lie? How does he normally like to dress? Food? Fashion? Philosophy? … the list can go on. Look for similarities with yourself- do you follow the same sport? Did you go to the same school? Do your hobbies match? May be, he travels a lot and so do you. Use the knowledge to break ice at the very beginning of any conversation. It establishes instant connect. And then you might use subtle mirroring techniques to enhance or maintain the rapport.

Another important connect-factor is priorities. If you share the same priorities in life or work as the other person, you will build rapport quickly and easily. You may not share all the priorities but you can certainly find some overlap. 

Exercise 1

  1. Think of someone in your professional or personal life with whom you would like to develop better rapport. Could be your demanding client, your tough manager, a difficult colleague, an uncertain boyfriend, or anyone for that matter.
  2. Now, close your eyes and focus on this person. Vividly, imagine him or her present in front of you.
  3. With whatever knowledge you have of this person, think of as many things as possible which might be common between the two of you. You might not be absolutely certain about everything, which is fine.
  4. Think of specific things you would say or do to show the similarity if this person was physically present.
  5. If you know this person well enough, think of specific mannerisms, like the tone of voice, body language, eye contact duration etc.
  6. What can you mirror, without making the person feel awkward or inconvenient? 
  7. Repeat the exercise with more people.
  8. You don’t have to do this every day as a religious routine, but you must do it often enough that it comes naturally to you when you meet someone in a party or a conference


Communication is crucial, and I have seen many people fail just because they couldn't communicate well. Or, well enough. Developing in this area is a lifelong endeavor, no matter how proficient one might get. And, like any skill, you are almost guaranteed to lose your magic touch if you don’t keep doing it. How to improve your communication skills is a very large topic in itself, so I will only touch upon a small but subset. For example, I won't talk about Listening skill, even though it is extremely important for effective communication.
As a speaker or writer, you must take responsibility for successful communication. If the other person misunderstood or misinterpreted something, well, don’t blame them and try to set your delivery straight first. In most scenarios, communication (both written and verbal) has to be
  • Comprehensive: covering all the items you wanted to cover
  • Concise: succinct, to the point
  • Clear: to the receiver, that is. Pay attention to your sentences, to ensure the message will be received as intended. So, pay attention not only to language accuracy, but also to content. For example, you shouldn’t use technical jargon when talking to non-technical people. And don’t use sentences that are too long. And so on
  • Timely: Most of the things you have to say lose their relevance, sometimes even meaning, if you don’t say it in the right time. Sometimes, that time is now. Sometimes, that time is later. But you must make a conscious decision on the timeliness of communication
  • Delivered right: Consider this simple word- “OK”. It could imply different things. Your tonality, and your body language determine if it is interpreted as a positive endorsement, or sarcasm, or even a subtle request for more information. So, pay attention to your non-verbal communication. Similarly, using ALL CAPS in a chat or inappropriate colours in a formal mail could change the way it is received. Pay attention to the “attitude” of your message, as it may alter the impact quite drastically

Exercise 2

  1. Take an email that you had sent to someone recently. Preferably, an important one with substantial content
  2. Critique it based on the above parameters, and any other criteria you deem necessary for effective communication
  3. What changes would you make to it now? Re-write the email (don’t send it, just rewrite it for yourself)
  4. Take another look at the re-written version. Can it be further improved?
  5. Iterate over this, until you are satisfied that the email is as perfect as possible
  6. Do this at regular intervals, using different email each time
  7. If you don’t have emails for this exercise, choose some other form of communication. You could reflect upon a verbal conversation, for example. Or an online chat. Or, a group presentation you made 


Collaboration is more than just working together. It is working together towards a common goal, resourcefully, amicably and keeping each other’s interests in mind. You don’t need to become friends to collaborate. You might disagree with each other. You may not physically sit in the same location, or country even, to collaborate. You just need to find a way to work together, productively and effectively. Effective collaboration is about three things done well:
  1. Clarify objectives, opportunities and challenges among each other
  2. Agree on a process that works for everyone concerned
  3. Communicate early, communicate often

If you don the leadership role of someone responsible for collaboration, then it is up to you to figure out how to get these three done. You also need to build rapport with the concerned people- something I covered earlier in the article.
So, how do you develop this skill? Well, honestly, experience is the best teacher. The more you work with different people, the better you get. But, here is an interesting exercise that I am sure will help:

Exercise 3

  1. Imagine that your task is to cross a deep jungle on foot, going through thick woods, a river and grassland
  2. You need to take three animals with you too- a carnivore (say, a tiger), a herbivore (say, a goat) and a bird (say, a parrot)
  3. Imagine that these are intelligent beings that can think and communicate like humans, but their basic survival instincts and dietary habits are intact
  4. You must ensure that all four of you arrive safely at the end of the jungle
  5. Cages and other physical constraints are not allowed
  6. How will you tame the carnivore’s temptation, the herbivore’s fear and the bird’s instinct to fly away to the destination by itself? What will you tell them? How will you keep checks? What systems will you create to force collaboration? Think creatively, and let your imagination run wild, making this an exciting and interesting game
  7. Repeat the exercise with different kinds of carnivores, herbivores and birds. Even assign human personalities to some of them (say, the goat is meek, a rabbit is clever, while both are herbivores; or an eagle is strong willed and adamant, an owl is wise, while both are birds...and so on)

This exercise is a lot more fun when done in a small group of friends or colleagues. If you can think of ways to make a vicious tiger, a meek-and-meaty goat and a flighty parrot work with you towards a goal, do you think you can now work with your team mates and co-workers, getting them to collaborate better? Once you are done with a couple of exercises, you will feel much more confident. Go on. Have fun. We will discuss mastering the environment next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Exercises in Mastery Part 1: Me

No matter who you are, what you do, you are a master. As long as you are alive, you are a master of something. But the efficacy of mastery manifests only as a degree of impact it has on something. So, reflect over this question:

"How much control do I have over myself, over others around me, and over the environment in which I operate?" 

Those are the three levels of Mastery I would like to explore: Me (self mastery), Them (others around us), and This (mastering the immediate environment).

Let's understand these levels and look into a few simple behaviour changes and exercises to move from one level to the next. These exercises involve vivid imaginations and self prose, so find yourself a calm environment and push yourself to a regular regime. Great results are almost guaranteed.

The exercises are based on metaphors, which is a powerful way to influence our minds. I recommend doing this at least twice a week. Yes, this is a form of meditation but geared to improve specific faculties in yourself. Remember that reading a prescription won't cure you. You need to take the medicine. Reading about body building won't give you those six packs. You need to sweat it out. In other words, action makes things happen. And we are going to explore actions you can take to improve yourself. While these exercises can be done in isolation, I strongly recommend pairing up with someone as you can help each other stick to the regime and make progress.

Important Note: The exercises can be run exactly as suggested, or modified to suit yourself. 

The Most Basic Level: Me

The Nobel Peace Prize winning author Eliezer Wiesel said "Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself". Without mastery over oneself, it is impossible to exercise any amount of control over anybody or anything else.

Imagine a car driver. Unless he can exercise control over his own body, he won't be able to control the car. Drinking, and extreme fatigue take away his ability to control himself and react fast enough, thereby rendering his driving dangerous. Same goes for organizations, life, and career. Only after you have mastered your own self, can you seek to master others. Are you constantly aware of your feelings? Can you consciously insert "thought" between external stimuli and your response, both in words and action? Do you know what it takes to succeed, and do you have it in you? Are you sure?

We must try to develop mastery over ourselves in two dimensions:


Unless you are confident about yourself, you won't achieve a thing. Most high achievers are seen by others as being foolishly over confident. But it is the confidence that enables them to take risks- to go where others don't, and do what others can't.

Exercise 1

  1. Close your eyes, and take a deep breath. 
  2. Think of a few things that you feel threatened by. Say, a strong competitor in your market. Or, a nasty boss. Or, a bad economy. It doesn't matter, just think of a few things that scare you. 
  3. Imagine each of them as huge monsters standing around you, much bigger than yourself. 
  4. Now, in your imagination, place your hands on your hips and look straight into the eyes of each monster. 
  5. Imagine a magical power from your eyes physically diminishing those monsters. The longer you stare at them, the smaller they get. 
  6. When they get as small as cockroaches, go around stomping on them. Jump on them hard and squash those little buggers. 
  7. All the time, be vividly aware of the specific monster that is shrinking and on which you are stomping (if one of them is a person, try to imaging their faces as you do this- it is a lot of fun).


Competence is what we bring to the table, in a given situation or setting. For example, a skilled programmer brings his technical know-how and problem solving skills to the software development team. A teacher brings her subject matter expertise, and presentation skills to her classroom. And so on.
Now, in the context of your specific situation, what skills or competencies are you looking to develop? Refer to my earlier post "Be WISE, Skill-wise".

Exercise 2

  1. Write down three key competencies that you need to develop for yourself 
  2. Look at them, and now close your eyes
  3. Imagine you have achieved mastery over each of those skills. How does it feel? Let the feeling come over clearly and strongly to you 
  4. Prepare a plan to do accomplish mastery over those skills. Include as much detail as possible- who, where and when
  5. Review and revise the plan regularly 
  6. Each time, repeat 2 and 3, before revising the plan from the last time
Another important competence we all need in all walks of our lives is mastery over our feelings and emotions. I strongly recommend this third exercise, because even a small improvement in this direction can have massive impact on our interactions with others and with ourselves too.

There are seven basic emotions quoted in most EI literature:
  • Fear — afraid of something 
  • Sadness — sorrow over an impending loss 
  • Anger — typically arising our of our inability to stop or prevent something from happening 
  • Joy — positive feeling over an impending loss
  • Surprise — an unexpected event
  • Disgust — utter dislike towards something unappealing 
  • Contempt — disapproving something or someone's action, usually without showing respect 

Exercise 3

  1. We are all masters at controlling many emotions to a large extent. But, there are a few that often get the better of us. Anger, for example, is something you might identify as usually hard to control. Or, you might say that Fear has typically kept you from taking important steps towards success. Or, it could be that you show contempt very clearly when you don't like someone's ideas or actions. OK. Go through the seven basic emotions above once again, and identify one emotion that you must learn to control better. 
  2. Now, close your eyes and vividly imagine a situation where this emotion arises strongly. For example, if you are trying to control anger then think of a nasty situation (could be modeled from a past experience) and feel yourself getting angry. You must feel the emotion as strongly as possible. 
  3. Say to yourself "I see <emotionrising in me, but I can put it down. And I will put it down". Continuing the previous example, you might say "I see anger rising in me, but I can put it down. And I will put it down". 
  4. Imagine yourself restraining from a negative response. In this case, imagine that you don't react angrily despite the anger-causing situation. 
  5. Vividly, feel the emotion going away. Smile, if it helps, now. 
  6. There are other ways of doing this: imagine that the emotion is a flame lit in front of you. As you restrain yourself from giving a negative response, watch the flame go smaller and smaller before diminishing altogether. In another form, you might imagine the intensity of the emotion as an irritating, loud noise that gets weaker and weaker as you control your emotional response. Find a form that works for you and repeat the exercise. 
  7. If you must, repeat this with another emotion. But, I suggest you learn to beat one emotion at a time. 

It is important that we actually do these exercises regularly to build our mastery over ourselves. They might appear silly when you read them first. They might appear impossible when you try to do them for the first time. But remember, that's how first time gym-goers feel too. Most of them drop out, but some persist and develop health, fitness and a proud physique. Don't be a quitter on your career. Just a few minutes of self contemplation along the above lines can go a long way. 

Next up- mastering our interactions with others. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The best self-help advice

What's the best self help advice you ever got? I will tell you about mine. This happened over ten years ago, in an airport lobby as I was waiting for my flight. I have a couple of habits that usually make my waits not so painful- I read a lot, and I cannot help but talk to people around me. That day, I was reading a book on Emotional Intelligence, and I also struck a conversation with a somewhat elderly man who was sitting next to me.

"EI...that is a great topic and a useful tool in one's kitty" he said, as I nodded in agreement.

"I have read about EI in the past too" I said "I even attended a seminar about it. I am still not sure how to apply many of the concepts. I am hoping this book would have some practical tips"

He smiled and said "Son, what you've had is education about EI. What you need is training"
I looked at him, perplexed, and he noticed my confusion.

"Look", he said "if you read everything about swimming, would you be able to cross a deep lake?"

"Well, I guess not. I need to have practiced swimming"

"Precisely. Practice. You might have had the education but for results you need to train you body and your mind. Same for EI, or any skill for that matter. Actively do it, until it automatically becomes second nature"

He paused for a moment, I guess, to let me digest this. And continued.

"Take EI, for instance. Do you know exactly how you are feeling right now?"
Honestly, I hadn't contemplated my feelings until that question came about. So, I took a few seconds and replied "Yes. I think so"

"Good, but you must actively keep tab on your own emotions. And actively try and understand the emotions of those around you. It might appear to be a bit of a drag initially, but you will get used to it"

And he proceeded to give me a few exercises to practice EI. His flight announcement was made shortly before mine. Getting up, he gave me a final piece of advice.

"Remember, that this is skill which means it can be gained, but also lost. It needs constant practice even after you become good at it. Sachin Tendulkar still spends hours at the nets every day. So should you"

Since then, I have forgotten his name but, I will remember his advise for as long as I live. Every skill, even soft skills, need practice and exercise. We must train our minds by constantly exercising key skills. And exercise simply means doing something repeatedly and regularly. Let me give an example. We all know that we need to calm our minds when we are in stress. But unless we meditate every day even when there is no stress, and train ourselves to control our minds at will, we won't be able to call that skill when a situation demands it. As a wise General famously said, "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war".

I could read tons of self-help books, and listen to hours of seminars. But unless I practice regularly, that skill will continue to remain foreign. And that, I think, is the best advise I ever got. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

What is Coaching?

ICF (International Coach Federation) defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential". Wikipedia has a somewhat simpler definition, which says that "Coaching is a development process via which an individual is supported while achieving a specific personal or professional competence result or goal". I have also heard experienced coaches use terms like support system, or change management to define their trade. Consider the following scenario.

Bill and David are college buddies, who are meeting after several years. Over evening drinks, their conversation steers towards their jobs.

    "Bill, I guess I can tell you..." says David in a soft voice, then pauses, looks around a bit and continues "I have been working here for over eleven years now, but am now considering quitting my job" 

    "Wow! Planning on something exciting, are you?" Bill says with a huge smile "What's up?" 

    "Exciting, my ass. I don't even know what I will be doing. Just not this" 

    Bill gently places his beer mug down, looks David in the eye and gently asks "What's bothering you, buddy?"

    "I don't find the job exciting anymore. It is the same old routine, same old pay and an ass-hole of a boss. Going to office is a drag every morning these days"

    "Boring work, inadequate pay and bad boss, eh? And you've kept up for eleven years?" 

    "Well,, the work isn't that boring, to be honest, and the pay isn't too bad either, though they can be better" 

    "So, what's up with the boss?" 

    "He joined us last year and completely changed the atmosphere in the office, especially for me. He is too micro-managing, and over shadows me in every forum. What growth can I expect here?" 

    "So, you don't necessarily dislike your job or salary. But you feel less empowered and don't see potential for personal growth" 

    "Yeah", David says after thinking over for a few seconds 

    "OK. But you are much older in the organization than your boss. What do you have that he doesn't?" 

    "Oh, a lot", David's eyes light up "I know the ins and outs of our business like nobody else. I understand the job our organization does much better than him- he often consults me, in fact. I have a huge network in the firm, across geographies and up to the very top. And I have an impeccable track record and reputation"

    "That sounds excellent, Dave" says Bill gently patting on David's back "so, why are you quitting, again?" 

    "I know. I built all of that over a decade of dedicated work. But what's the point, when the moron undermines you, and doesn't give you recognition?" 

    "I understand, my friend. What options did you consider before the 'I quit' option?" 

    "I did consider staying back and putting up with the asshole" 

    "You don't want to throw away everything you earned over 11 years, like you just said. So, think again and tell me. What can you do to stay and still be happy?" 

    "Well, stay and happy is not possible working for this boss" 


    "I guess, I can talk to Brady who is my super-boss. I know him very well, but I am still not comfortable complaining about my immediate Manager"

    "I agree. Complaining, like most negative actions, is risky in a corporate environment" 

    David thinks for a minute, while sipping on his lager. 

    "Perhaps, I can start by asking about opportunities outside my team. And subtly show my concerns regarding my boss. What do you say?"

    "Well, you know your people and your environment better. So, do you think that might work?"

    "Yes. If I feel it appropriate at that time, I might even voice my concerns. But, I won't start with it. I will start with opportunities which is a more positive thing to start, I guess" 

    "Is it easy to get an audience with Brady? When do you think you can talk to him?"

    "Yes, he is pretty approachable. I should give myself a day or so to go over the conversation in my head and then talk to him" 

    "That sounds like a plan, mate"

    "Yes it does", says David with a smile of hope 

    "Shall we drink again next week? May be, you can tell me how it went?"

    "Yes we definitely should. And hey, thanks a ton. I am actually so used to this place that quitting it is a frightening thought. Best case scenario, Brady might help me move to a new team. Worst case, I may still decide to leave. But, now, at least I have hope. Thanks again Bill" 

I define Coaching as a forward looking, co-creative process where the coach helps fully realize an able coachee's potential towards a well defined goal. This is typically done as a series of conversations that take the coachee on a journey of self-discovery, deep reflection and focused evolution of an effective strategy and a concrete action plan. 

Let's look at some of the terms I used here, and I encourage you to reconcile them with the sample conversation above:

  • Forward looking: Coaching is not about understanding one's past, but about thinking about the future within the context of the present. The moment a coachee is deep-diving into the ever increasing spirals of history, the coach would gently help get back to the present "where the action lies", with a vision to the future "where the promise lies"
  • Co-creative: The coach and the coachee are equal partners in the process. All reflections, strategies and action plans come from the coachee, with the coach providing critical guidance and support 
  • Able coachee: The coachee is fully functional, and not incapacitated by injury, disease or disorder. He or she is the expert in the field, and the coach is not filling in a gap in her understanding or skill 
  • Well defined goal: Most coaching conversations begin by converting dreams to goals that are focused and tangible 
  • Self-discovery: During successful coaching conversations, many hidden, suppressed or forgotten points regarding one's ability, experience or impact come to the surface. They result in 'a-ha' moments that have a singular effect in defining the way forward. Without a coach, they usually remain in the sub-conscious for ever 
  • Deep reflection: The coach would help the coachee reflect upon several aspects, including motivations, options, actions, and impact. 
  • Focused evolution of an effective strategy and a concrete action plan: (Loaded statement, I know). Successful coaching sessions typically end with clear and precise action steps, usually with deadlines and reviews built into them. They are a result of focused thinking, followed by an unveiling of an effective strategy. 

Coaching is NOT the same as Consulting

Consider the conversation between David and Bill. Bill wasn't consulting, or advising David, right? 
Consultants fill a specific gap in skill or knowledge in their clients' repertoire. Coaches don't do this. Consider the following grid:

Coachees are skillful and knowledgeable in their fields. David did not have a gap in understanding of his situation, nor was Bill an expert about David's organization. Yet, the conversation was fruitful thanks to Bill's coaching. 

Coaching is NOT counseling, or therapy

David clearly wasn't in therapy with Bill. He was being offered support and direction as he himself worked out a strategy and action steps. Look at the following grid to understand how Guidance, Counseling, Therapy and Coaching differ.  

Therapy is needed when clients are facing mental or physical distress. Coaches don't do counseling or therapy. 

However, an outcome of a coaching session might be a realization that the client needs consulting or therapy. But, consulting and therapy are themselves outside the purview of coaching. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

You May Now Kiss the Pride

In several of my discussions with high achievers across industries and cultures, more people said they felt proud of their accomplishments which then graduated into happiness, than feeling happy straight away. Usually, an event of success seems to bring a burst of elation first, followed by pride, which then leads to happiness. So, pride comes before happiness. Interesting, I thought, but there’s more. After some time has passed, recalling those successes most often resurrects the feelings of pride stronger than any other emotion. This is even more interesting, I thought. So, just how important is pride as a driver, or a motivation factor? Also, why is it actively discouraged as we grow up? Heck, it is even one of the seven sins we are taught to avoid. 


So, is pride a motivational driver, or is it a sin? May be, we are talking of different things here? Jane Austen wrote (in Pride And Prejudice): “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

More recently, psychologists Jessica Tracy and Richard Robins delved deeper, scientifically, into the subject of pride, and published an excellent paper (read it online here). They found that there are two kinds of pride, or two facets of pride as they call it- Authentic Pride and Hubristic Pride.

  • Authentic Pride is positive and achievement oriented, associated with ideas such as accomplishment and confidence. 
  • Hubristic Pride, on the other hand, is negative and associate with self-aggrandization and arrogance. 

They further studied people and found that each facet of pride had a different personality of followers. Authentic Pride was found mostly in people who were extrovert, conscientious, and agreeable in nature, while Hubristic Pride was generally seen in narcissistic people, who were prone to shame. Not surprisingly, people exhibiting Authentic Pride viewed hard work as the key to success, while Hubristic people saw success as pre-determined, or largely a matter of chance.

So, what kind of people do you want to work with? If the answer is people exhibiting Authentic Pride, then shouldn't you strive to develop it in your team and organization? Good organizations already do this. At Morgan Stanley, the bar to entry and their career success is very high for employees. Naturally, most employees I spoke to (including myself) have a sense of genuine pride working here. Similarly, a friend who works at Microsoft in Seattle takes pride in his work as he believes he is changing the world for good. 

Institutionalizing Pride

Clearly, pride is an important motivator. So, how can we institutionalize it in organizations? Four simple techniques I can think of are:

     1.   Show the big picture. Always, and at all levels. Make sure that every bricklayer, carpenter and plumber sees the grand building. It is important to know the impact one is having on the world, that one feels part of something that is “denting the universe”. The vision, the values and the strategy should be clear to all. And remind these to people, again and again, because it is easy to forget the big picture in the grind of day-to-day challenges. This is the biggest way, especially in a knowledge economy, to align people with organizations.

     2.   Engage the employees. Everyone needs to feel challenged, with a belief that they have all the support as they roll their sleeves up to meet the challenge. Such trust comes much more naturally in an open culture. Therefore, managers must be inclusive, not secretive and totalitarian, in their engagement with their teams. “Do as I tell you, because I know something you don’t, or because I know better” is simply not going to fly. “Let’s do this, because of so and so reason that we discussed” is a lot more productive way of working in a professional team.

     3.   Celebrate the journey. Many people don’t realize the importance of celebrating the hard work and dedication each person is putting into their work, day in and day out. Yes, it is important to reward them when the job is done, and done well. But, sometimes that job takes a long time to complete. Or, in certain functions, is routine and quite monotonous. It is therefore more important to generously cheer small steps and seemingly insignificant wins, than merely pop champagne at the end of it all. Show people reasons to be proud of themselves, regularly.

     4.   Make people feel special. How you do it is entirely up to you, but make sure you make people feel valued and special. Many companies routinely share “stats” such as “we only make 20 offers for 2000 resumes initially approved”. Others make sure they are always in the newspaper for every small achievement. Still others advertise all the great philanthropy and volunteering efforts of the employees. I even know of companies who hire well known personalities in specific fields, in equal parts for bragging rights and competence.

In Conclusion...

Alignment of people to organizational vision and values happens in a culture where motivation is driven strongly by authentic pride, and not just materialistic reward. As a leader, you must vow to hold your employees in their struggles and triumphs, celebrate the smallest of their victories, be candid and honest, and show them every reason to feel good about working with you. 

Go on. You may now kiss the pride. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Be WISE, skill-wise

Skills, Skills, Skills

After I wrote how you could “Kiss your way to success”, many people asked me why I rated skill so high? And how could one develop specific skills. 

First of all, I think skill is very important because that is what you are paid for, really. You skill is the value you bring to the table. For instance, you may read a lot about swimming and gain decent knowledge about its science and techniques. But, unless you can actually swim very well, you won't have much luck in deep waters. Similarly, not all the knowledge of painting will help you sell your art. You should be able to paint a mean canvas before someone pays for it to hang on their wall with pride. Even if you think that mere knowledge will make you valuable as a teacher, think again. Teaching to a class, however large or small, is a skill in itself- just ask any teacher. 

Which Skills Are Important?            

The value of a skill depends on the context of its application. Let me repeat as this is important- the value of a skill depends on the context of its application. Your swimming skills are useless unless there is a water body around. Your programming skills won’t help you in a boxing ring. The awesome pencil sketching artist in you is of no value to your boss, who expects you to balance his books. So, ask yourself this simple but profound question:

What are the skills valued most in my organization, and in which order?

Be as clear, precise and sure about this as possible. Ask your colleagues, ask your boss. Observe the most successful people around you and try to figure out what skills make them so valuable. And don't just have a laundry list. Have a prioritized list. 

Where Do I Stand?              

So, you have your well researched, ordered list of valued skills? Good. Now, ponder over this:

Of these skills, which are the top three that I can become better at?

Observe that we are not asking "which ones am I good at", but "which ones can I become better at". It is important to have such forward looking, dynamic outlook on skills rather than just a static assessment of your present state. I suggest you pick just top three skills, so you remain focused and have a good shot at success. Once you answer this, prepare an action plan and this is where the WISE scale would help. The bad news about skill development is that is a lot of hard work, but the good news is that it can be done. It requires a generous dose of dedication and a good deal of tenacity. Remember the 10,000 hour rule (Google it, if you haven’t heard of it)? Its numerical accuracy notwithstanding, it just means that you do something again and again, getting slightly better with each iteration, before you become demonstrably good at it. It is all about deliberate practice, and not mindless repetition. 

The WISE Scale

One way to measure your ascent on the skill ladder is to use the WISE scale. Ask yourself

Where do I stand on the WISE scale?

But, wait. What is this WISE scale?  

Let me explain from the bottom-up:
  1. The E on WISE is the bottom-most level of the scale, and stands for “Exposure”. If you have only been exposed to a certain skill, and can do nothing more than extremely basic stuff, then you are at this level. Perhaps you are an accomplished C++ programmer, but can manage nothing more than a “Hello World” program in the Java language. In other words, you are not ignorant about it but can’t do anything useful (yet). This is when you consider yourself as an “E” in the skill.
  2. The S on the WISE scale stands for “Significant”. This is when you have moved beyond mere exposure to a skill, and can now perform acts of significance. And you do things well. Coming back to our programming example, you have practiced Java enough to be able to write programs as specified by your manager or client. If singing is a skill you are after, you can now hit the right notes and manage transitions enough to be able to sing most songs- you can even be quite popular. This is also the “fattest” portion of the scale, and most people spend most of their lives at this level without making the extra effort to go the next one. At this stage, you are useful, impactful even, and can remain happily employed. But you risk stagnation in your career if you stay here too long. You either move to the next level, or if you think the next level is not your cup of tea, you move over to a new skill where you think you can hit that level.
  3. The I on the WISE scale is for “Insightful”. You have developed beyond significance in terms of value in your skill, and can now offer insights to others. Also, you not only do things well, you do things right. As a Java programmer, you can now take one look at your colleague’s code and tell him where it will fail. As a singer, you can give your own special touch to the songs, by adding variations and intonations bringing out the emotions that touch your listeners’ heart. A good indicator of this level is that others around you see you as an expert, and turn to you for advice or feedback. Again and again.
  4. The pinnacle of this scale is W, which stands for “Wisdom”. You are not only insightful, but you see farther than most. You not only know how to do things well, and how to do things right, but also understand the context, options and opportunities around you. So, you are not just deeply skillful, you are building breadth in your skill by expanding yourself into related fields. At this stage, you either make or influence key decisions, and your opinions are extremely valuable- you now wield power. As a master salesman, you not only can close difficult deals but also help others with your experience. As a Java guru…nah, you are now a solution architect… you know precisely how to put together a complex enterprise system using frameworks and technologies that go beyond Java as a programming language.  As a singer, you can read the composer’s mind and appreciate his choice of chords and scale, so you can do full justice to the song. 

OK. You have figured out the important skills that are valued in your organization. You also understand the WISE scale. The next question to ask is: 

What next?

A simple table can help you chart a course. Here is a sample template to get you started (remember, this is just my demonstration of how you can develop action steps from the WISE scale, but you may develop your own way):

Skills of value
(in decreasing order)
My to-dos to move up the scale



Stack up the to-dos and you should have a decent action plan to start with. Refine it. Reflect on it. Build on it. And because it is an action plan, add details like more granular tasks, target dates etc., and act upon it. Stay committed to it. Put it somewhere you can see all the time. Team up with someone so you can push each other. Do everything it takes to ensure that you stay true to the plan. Remember what it takes to develop a skill- dedication and tenacity. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

10 Not-So-Obvious points for successful Coaching conversations

Coaching conversations are very powerful tools to affect changes. And leading those conversations is a specific skill that can be learnt, practiced and honed. There are several excellent articles and videos about coaching conversations, and they are extremely useful (I can recommend this, and this, among several others). But there are subtleties that I learnt or realized over many coaching sessions, and that I didn’t find explained in a single list anywhere. Here are 10 such not-so-obvious points that a coach should keep in mind while coaching. I learnt this skill from masters like Bina Jhaveri and Steve Kiges, who are to be credited for helping me understand and realize several of the points I mention below.

1. Determine early on if the client is ready for coaching. Many books say that the first step in coaching is determining the client’s goal. I think that is the second step, because if the client is not ready to be coached or hasn’t bought into the concept completely, the coaching conversation will be utterly useless. So, don’t waste each other’s time and money. Is the client clear about the goal under consideration? Is the client’s expectation from you well defined and in-line with yours? Is the client motivated and dedicated enough to not only work with you, but also follow up on the action points after your conversation has ended? There are several such considerations to be had before having your coaching conversation.

(I am not going to talk about goal setting here because it does not fall in the “not-so-obvious” category. There are several articles and books that talk about this in an excellent manner) 

2. Let the client lead the conversation. You might have read about the thumb rule that a coach should speak only about 20% of the time while letting the client cover the rest. But, an even more important point is to let the client lead the conversation as long as it is in the general direction of the specific goal or issue in question. For example, if the client has a few options on the table but isn’t sure where to start, do not jump in and suggest a starting point. Prod, tease and elicit a starting point from the client by asking about priorities, relative impacts etc. You could ask “In the one hour we have today, what exactly do you want to focus on?”

3. Be in control, at a macro level to keep the conversation focused, deliberate and challenging. Yes, you let the client lead, but it is also important that all progress is towards the set goal. So, whenever you find the client digressing significantly, you bring him or her back on track. Whenever you find that the conversation has become largely about the past, you help the client’s focus return to the immediate goal. Whenever you find the client get into a complaining mode about people, situations or economy, it is up to the coach to swiftly pull him out of such negativity. Whenever you feel that the discussion is not a useful spend of each other’s valuable time, you steer the conversation back into relevance. Think of this as a child playing with a toy train. He lets the train happily chug along the tiny tracks but the moment its plastic wheels slip off the shiny tracks, the child immediately picks it and puts it back in the right place and direction. A coach must do this too. Ask questions like, "this point seems to matter to you a lot, but how is it relevant to the goal we are seeking today?", "with due respect to your time, we only have 25 minutes left. So, how can you exploit the opportunity you mentioned a few minutes ago?"

4. Focus on the immediate, on the “now”. I have found that most people naturally drift into past to either dwell upon some happy moments, or explain their choices/behaviour, or complain about something that hurt them in the past. While it is harmless to do so to let the client explain the context, such journeys must be quick. You must bring the client back to where the action lies- the present. You could ask “ok, that seems to explain a lot but, what options do you have on the table today?”. Similarly, letting clients dwell too much in the future is also not very effective because, they are generally in a hypothetical dreamland. Everything that the client can control lies in the present, so that is where you should help the client remain. A word of caution- usually these journeys into past or future are emotional in nature. So, be sensitive to emotions while bringing the client back on the temporal track.

5. Be non-judgmental about goals, opinions and directions. Avoid making statements like “that is an excellent goal” or “that is a noble thought” or “I think that was a wrong choice”. If you are a coach, your role is to facilitate the process, and not to express your opinions. I have noticed novice coaches do this quite often, particularly in an attempt to build rapport (I myself am guilty of this). But please remember that you must keep yourself out of the client’s context to be able to provide meaningful assistance.

6. Don’t cross the line between coaching and consulting. Or therapy. I must admit that several times, I am tempted to give specific advice where I have an expertise, or experience. Doing so is not recommended during coaching conversations for two reasons: the client isn’t leading the conversation anymore if you are the one giving advice; and secondly, why give advice if you are not accountable for the outcome? If you were “consulting”, say, a business client about increasing sales by 20% in the next quarter, then in many ways your skin is in the game too. Consultants generally charge a lot more than coaches because they fill a gap in skill or expertise, and are part of the group accountable for the outcome. Coaches on the other hand are taking the client on a path of discovery. Remember that in a coaching conversation, the client continues to be the expert. In case the client feels a need for consulting, then that becomes an action item. For example, "find a marketing consultant with expertise in selling financial products to mid-income salaried people in England". Even if you are that expert, consulting should be taken up independent of coaching.

7. Focus on the positive, look at the possibilities. Especially in the beginning of your conversation. Clients usually come with a tough goal or a nasty problem at hand. The worst a coach could do is take them down a path of negativity. It does not help, wastes times and actually makes matters worse. Focus on the positive. What has gone well? What is going well? Who is helping? What does a happy state of affairs look like? What possibilities exist today, and what can potentially open up in the near future? What are the most likely scenarios, and outcomes that will help progress towards the goal? It is up to the coach to ensure that the client is able to see the possibilities so that he or she is mentally charged to march towards the vision.

8. Focus on motivations, passions early on in the conversation. This is actually a continuation of the previous point about positive focus, but motivations are important enough to warrant their own point. Ask questions like “why is this important to you?”, “what will it feel like, if you achieved this goal?”, “Who else would share your exuberance if this is successful?”. In other words, make sure that the client visits the success in his or her mind vividly and vocally enough, as it will help you nail down the specific psychology behind the motivation. For instance, the client might have stated that his motivation for career change was to make more money. But, you might discover that the real driver behind the specific career choice was an unfulfilled childhood dream that would elate the person in a manner that mere financial success can never do. Or, vice-versa. Also, make sure that the client understands the motivations as clearly as you do. Many a time, the client also discovers the motivational structure that he or she didn’t see in its entirety earlier. Also remember to revisit the vision or goal in the context of motivations and priorities once they have been clarified. So, you should be able to clarify “You want to achieve X because…”, or “Your goal X is important to you because…”

9. After nailing down possibilities, passions and motivations, talk about challenges but only if it helps progress. Many a time, it is enough to talk about the positives to come up with an action plan. If this is the case, don’t spend much time discussing hurdles. When you do think it is important to understand hindrances and challenges, do so only to help find mitigations that can be part of the client’s action plan. You could ask, for example, “if this is a show stopper, what can be done to eradicate the problem?”, “what can you do today to prepare yourself, in the event this happens in the future?”. There are several such questions that will help the client focus on remediation rather than be bogged down by constraints.

10. Make sure that the conversation ends with a set of clear and precise action steps. Be sure to get commitments from the client and plan follow ups. I consider a coaching conversation to have failed if we don't have a clear action plan at the end. The action items must be simple enough for the client to perform in their current context, but also important enough to make a visible difference in their journey towards their vision. Try to elicit as much information about the steps as possible, including the specific action to be taken, who else should be involved, by when should this be done, are there other dependencies that need to be addressed etc. The client must feel confident that these steps are clear and achievable enough to be able to commit to you. It is important to plan your follow ups too- when will you email the client? Will you have a brief, reminder call? If you are going to have a follow up session, decide on the data and time and (if possible, say, for a corporate client) block the time on his or her calendar.