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Friday, July 29, 2011

Do you have the skill set of a Manager?

Madhukar was very happy when he got promoted as a Manager of a bank branch. He had waited for it very long and was already planning to take many initiatives in the branch. After six months, Madhukar was so unhappy with the job that he sought for a change.

This phenomenon is so common in organizations that HR executives call this a double jeopardy for an organisation. They say " When we promote a good performer, we lose a good asset and acquire a liability ( a bad manager)'. It is a total loss for the organisation.

Recently i read about Dilip Vengsarkar's loss of elections to head Mumbai Cricket Association- MCA.Following issues were brought forth in the various articles: Can cricketers become good cricket administrators? Can cricket administrator do a good job without knowledge of cricket? It is the same question we face in organisations: Can a good sales performer become a good sales manager? Can one become sales manager without any skill of selling a product?

First difference is between the skill-set of cricketer and administrator. I have used Sanjay Dixit's article here to list the skill-set of cricketer and cricket administrator. A Test cricketer learns the art of batsmanship, the nuances of bowling, the finer aspects of cricketing strategy and all about the modern developments in training methodology. A cricket administrator has to learn the politics of managing different stakeholders, the legal complications involved in the job, the financial aspects, Income Tax and Service Tax issues, and liaison with various agencies. As the cricketer has no opportunity to learn these skills while playing cricket, he is a novice in using these skills. He is more than likely to fail as a cricket administrator !

Some cricketers, on the other hand, pronounced Mumbai cricket dead after Dilip Vengsarkar lost the elections. Does this mean that sportsmen alone can do a great job of running an association? A good example to contradict this view is of S K Wankhede who was MCA's president during the best of Mumbai's cricketing years. He was not a cricketer, much less a Test player. Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium was his handiwork. He spawned a system in which the cricketers did the specialized jobs, such as coaching and selections and he promoted a fair system where only the best could represent Bombay.

Options for learning the job of manager

What is the lesson from the above story? Both skills are necessary - the skill of administration and the skill of nurturing cricketing talent - to head a cricket association. What can you do?

If you are a cricketer, for instance, what options do you have to become a cricket association's head? You have to acknowledge the skill you do not have, and find someone else in the team who has the complementary set of skill, the skill of administration. This is one option. However, if administrative part of job generates the 'power' required to perform the full role, you cannot handover that part of job to someone else without jeopardising your basic role. In other words, some parts of job cannot be 'delegated' to someone as easily because it sacrifices the integral component of the role.

This happened with Madhukar. He tried to delegate the job of 'man-management' to his deputy in his branch, but that slowly robbed him off all the power he required to perform his role of 'branch manager'. At the end of six months, he knew he cannot function effectively as a branch manager, even though his understanding of banking industry and customers ( business domain) was bringing more business to his branch. However, if Madukar was in Army, he would not have faced any such problem. Army is a very hierarchical organisation with clear differentiation of superior and subordinate. Managerial rule-set of Army is different than in Madhukar's bank. Managerial rule-set determines how things are done in an organisation, how performance is monitored and disciplined, how power is displayed and how 'authority' and 'knowledge' are intertwined in an organisation.

In other words, Madhukar failed as a Manager, because his option of delegating part of his job did not 'match' with the managerial rule-set of his bank. As you would have guessed, this managerial rule-set of organisation is not written explicitly in any manual. One has to be skillful in 'inferring' this rule-set from working in an organisation. Often individuals fail in managerial roles, because they cannot 'read' this managerial rule-set and therefore misalign with the organisation ! An experienced sales manager, moving to another organisation, in the same industry ( which means he has the same domain knowledge of the product and industry) may also fail because he could not align with the implicit managerial rule-set of the new organisation.

Please note that we are here discussing about the first level of manager who synthesises the work of 'doers'. ( Please read my blog of 'Paradox of doers' of 4 Aug 2006 to understand the characteristics of doers) More than skill-set, it is the mind-set of Manager which is very difficult to adopt for a performer when he is getting promoted. Job of Manager is to 'synthesise' the task output of different performers, like a orchestra conductor who synthesises the instruments of different musicians. The job of manager is therefore 'ends-driven', while the job of performer is 'means-driven'. For a performer, this orientation is very difficult to change because it means ignoring talent if need be, sacrificing quality when the time is critical, and promoting interdependent working instead of independent working.

What can you do?

If you are a performer - be in programming, design or sales - and you do want to become a manager in your function, plan for it. Preparation is helpful, because it reduces the 'surprises' and gives you more time to respond.

First, understand the differences in skill-set of your current role and the manager. If you do not know it, talk with HR person. Because managerial positions are defined differently in every company, it is necessary to understand the precise role in your company. Do not use book definitions of managerial roles. Secondly, get introduced to some of the skill-sets even though one cannot learn them by 'reading' a book about them. Talking with some mentor is useful. Thirdly, practice some skills, if possible. For instance, skills of man-management cannot be learnt only by reading a book of 'how to delegate'. It requires practice. Seek support of mentors or coaches to do the practice. Fourthly, in a skill-set, focus only on a particular aspect of the skill which you think may be difficult for you. For instance, if you think that 'confronting your subordinates on their lack of performance' is a big challenge for you, learn that specific skill.Fifthly, understand the mind-set required by talking with a manager. Mind-set cannot be adopted just by listening to someone, but it helps to become aware of the requirements. Sixthly, find a manager-mentor or coach and interact with him very often in the initial transition period to fine-tune your approach and actions. Planning alone is never enough.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to make experience count? (Version 2)

(I am writing this blog again, because of the feedback i have got on my last blog. Many readers told me that they found it very difficult to 'apply' the ideas of 'deliberate practice' research that i talked in the blog. So here is another attempt.)

Typically, when we learn something new, we go through the learning phase and try hard until we master the activities well enough. For instance, take the example of driving. Until we learn to drive in the traffic, drive up on slopes while stopping, and can park well in small paces, we practice hard. As soon as we reach that stage, which the researchers claim to happen in approximately 50 hours of practice, we stop working on it further. We reach our comfort zone. That happens with our job experience too. Be it presenting to the customers, persuading a difficult subordinate, or convincing the superior on a tough plan; we all learn enough to do the tasks reasonably well, and then remain at that level. That is our comfort zone. And once we reach that comfort zone, we just go through the paces.We stop learning from our experience, because we stop practicing.

Researchers(1) however have found that the excellent performance - whether in sports, music, surgery or writing - is produced only when one goes beyond this comfort zone and practices deliberately. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not innate talent that produces excellence; it is this 'deliberate practice'. Despite the huge talent of Tiger Woods, for instance, he could achieve his excellence only after he practiced deliberately for 10,000 hours ( which researchers call as 10 year rule). His innate talent did not help him reduce the hours of deliberate practice; instead it helped him start early in his practice. In other words, excellence is produced through experience of a deliberate type. It is the way performers practice, the areas they practice that produces excellence.

For corporate professionals, who develop only through experience, learning the tools of deliberate practice is not just necessary; it is almost essential. Let us understand how to use this research for excelling in corporate world.

Excellent performers, be in chess, surgery, writing or sports and music follow these four rules that are useful for corporate professionals:

1. Excellent performers know their 'areas' of practice
: Excellence is produced not by practicing on anything: they practice very very specific things. Often, it is very different than what is considered typical. For instance, expert violinist concentrate on practicing 'solo' instead of performing in actual orchestra or playing with colleagues. Sports person work more on off-the-game routines instead of getting match practice ! Expert cooks practice on the activities 'before' cooking, not on the activities 'during' cooking.

Corporate professionals must find their 'areas of practice' to become better programmers, sales managers, design engineers or financial analysts. For instance, application developers have to practice understanding 'non functional' requirements of an application before they start coding. Every individual needs to find his 'areas of practice'. For instance, a sales professional may need more practice on 'understanding customer specs', while another sales professional may need more practice on 'convincing customers'. Coaches and mentors are helpful in identifying the right areas of practice.

2. Excellent performers practice for the future role, not just for the current position: In other words, excellent performers do not wait for the problem to come to them.They anticipate the next mountain to climb, and prepare themselves for it by practicing before hand. If you have watched the career of Rafael Nadal, you would have observed the application of this rule.

I am always surprised to see that corporate professionals miss this rule more often than not. Even when they are waiting for promotion ( developer to module leader, or sales officer to sales manager) they rarely think through and work on practicing the new role before hand. They just walk into the new role unprepared, suffer a performance dip and spend disproportionate time and effort to undo the damage.

3. Excellent performers perceive more than average performers: Excellent performers do not have high memory to perceive more. When chess pieces were kept randomly, researchers found that excellent chess players remembered only 7-9 positions of chess pieces, which was similar to average chess players. But if the board of a actual live game was shown, excellent chess players remembered much more ( > 20 positions) than average chess players ( about 10). In other words, excellent chess players had higher 'long term working memory' because their mental model remembered the 'interactions of pieces'. Because excellent performers perceive more, they react faster, they notice smaller differences, observe warning signals faster than average performers.

The same is true of Jack Welch or Jeff Immelt. They are known for their fast reflexes and reading between the lines. But they also perceive more things because their mental models of 'business elements' ( how industry functions) and 'management elements' ( how their company functions) is more accurate ( and therefore reflects as-is reality better) than average performers. Business element model is also called as domain model in general parlance. Building this domain model and perfecting it regularly is therefore a critical practice for becoming a top class corporate professional.

Depending on one's hierarchy, every top corporate professional has a mental model of both - domain and management - to function excellently. A highly effective project manager, for instance, also has a rich working model of 'project management' to manage a project effectively!

4. Excellent performers seek constant and quick feedback to improve: Without quality feedback, there is no improvement. This is one of the basic rules that differentiates average from excellent performers. In sports and music, getting objective feedback is possible, even though difficult.

In the knowledge work of corporate professionals this is even more difficult. At lower heirarchy, one can innovatively seek feedback from colleagues, superiors, or even through usage of HR tools. I know of a senior manager in a multinational company who seeks feedback from his subordinates every quarter in a formal setting. But at higher levels, getting feedback is almost impossible without learning 'meta-cognition'- it is the ability to see yourself performing, while you are performing. Coaches can be helpful not only in offering accurate feedback, but also in designing 'crucibles' that will offer better quality feedback.

Are you using these four rules in making your experience count?

(1) Dr Anders Ericsson's work is described in many of his books. For a short summary, read this article.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to make your experience count?

One often assumes that experience will automatically create an expertise that will become difficult to replace. However you would have also met professionals whose 10 years of experience is 1 year multiplied by 10 years ! What differentiates the two professionals?

Dr Anders Ericsson's exhaustive work on expert performers helps us understand what can be done. He has discovered that innate talent does not cause excellent performance; instead it is achieved only through conscious practice, what he calls as 'deliberate practice'. Deliberate practice is a kind of training in which the person concentrates on one item at a time, constantly listens to the feedback, and then corrects himself. This is done continuously. His 900 page book cites cases of excellent performers from varied professions: surgery, music, firefighting to computer programming. If you have limited time, you could read his short article.

Here are four actions you can take to make your experience count ( all four actions are not independent, but co-related):

1. Break your objective of gaining 'expertise' into different behaviours: If you are a project manager, for instance, bifurcate your expertise into small and manageable outcomes such as Manage customers and Manage internal team. Bifurcate these outcomes into visible behaviours, such as 'Confront customers when customer fails to meet his side of expectations' or 'Understand customer's business' etc. If you are a design engineer, you may bifurcate into 'Capture customer requirements correctly' and ' Understand the limitations of technology-in-use'

2. Find time to engage in deliberate practice of this behaviour: Dr Ericcson has found that uni-dimensional performers like violinists spend at least 10 hours every week. For a multi-dimensional performer like a corporate professional, who is working on many different 'skill sets', this time limit may not be relevant. What is however important to remember is that developing expertise requires practice every day with 'concentration'.

Dr Anderson discovered that violinists took a nap after lunch. "The argument they made," says Ericsson, "was that the real constraint on how much you could practise was not the number of hours in the day, but the number of hours in the day you could sustain full concentration. If you couldn't sustain your concentration, you were wasting your time."

For a corporate professional who is working on numerous items simultaneously ( multi-tasking is supposed to be an in-thing today!), this is important to remember because he will have to find time to concentrate only only on 'one item'.

3. Set up careful experiments to practice Unless corporate professional, like a golf player, learns to set up 'experiments' to practice different shots from the same location, he cannot learn.

If a corporate professional is successful say in negotiating with customers, the corporate professional has to find 'why he is successful' to know 'the various actions he unconsciously does' to succeed in negotiations. He won't find this until he experiments with different 'variables'. If he does not experiment, he may 'fail' one day not knowing 'what went wrong'. If he experiments and knows why, he can replicate his success 'confidently' in different settings and situations. Like a expert performer, he can even do 'damage control' when the negotiation seems to be lost.

4. Get constant feedback on your actions ( behaviour) to correct and improve. Getting quick and accurate feedback is the most difficult task in a corporate setting, because there are too many variables 'on the table' in a complex corporate setting. For instance, how can one evaluate one's skill to negotiate with a successful customer who is satisfied with the past record? The performance goal exercises conducted once in a year in companies provide feedback that is 'too late' and 'too gross'.

A corporate professional therefore has to use lot of ingenuity in getting feedback on his intended actions. 360 degree appraisal is a good feedback tool on perfecting some type of behaviours. This is why ability to set up experiments is critical for assessing one's performance and getting accurate feedback on a specific behaviour or action. It is not surprising to observe that even solo performers like sportsman need coaches for setting careful experiments to get quick and accurate feedback.

Due to the difficulty of setting experiments and getting accurate and quick feedback in corporate setting, it is natural that one cannot use this method for mastering all type of behaviours. Instead, one has to choose the specific set of behaviours which are meaningful and critical for your career. It could be mastering the skill set of Program manager; and that too a program manager who can manage, say clients, of Healthcare. Even that mastery of small skill set is enough to provide you a platform from which you can explore many more options.

If you however ignore this, you will become like Sreenath. I met Sreenath a year back. With an experience of over 12 years ( and that too in good organisations), he came to me because he was not getting a job, not the job. Isn't that surprising?