Archive for the ‘Take It Easy’ Category

Get to the Point – Have a Fierce Conversation

Communication skills are the most difficult to master and key to success in personal and professional life. I am still on the borderline if it is an acquired or a native skill? I am fortunate to have some great communicators in my professional network and friend circle. They are great story tellers, suave talkers, and interesting conversationalists. I am always mesmerized by such people and look for their secrets to learn and improve myself. However, unlike mathematical equations and scientific facts, there is no one universal style that one adorns to be a great communicator. Everyone has a different way. I am a straight shooter and like to communicate the way it is. I always wondered if it was the right way! Then I read a life-changing book – “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.

The core idea of the book is how most conversations in both business and personal lives are fake with participants avoiding to discuss the “undiscussable”. I found the idea of laying out the issue on the table in first sixty seconds and having a constructive dialog around it to be profound and a game changer. It is simple yet seldom followed conventional wisdom. The example of a tough feedback session generally starting with appreciation and “fake” praise leading to a queasy topic is common place at work. The recipient can sense the negative undertone in praise and wonder what is going to hit him next. Now turn it around and imagine if the same session starts with a candid feedback but with the intent to discuss it honestly and constructively to help the recipient.

I followed this principle in a recent meeting with a very difficult client. This client got into a habit of raising trivial issues to our senior management and complaining about everything. In our call to resolve a recent issue, I asked the client if there was more to this issue that we are not hearing. I told them how much we appreciate their business and want to make them a happy client but can’t achieve it without learning and addressing their real concern. At first the client was struck by my candidness but she quickly opened up to tell us how communication failures in the past led her to directly raise small issues to our senior management to grab our attention. Imagine how much time we saved with this insight! We now have a decent chance to make them a happy client by fixing this problem.

I haven’t yet found the magic potion to be a great communicator but by following some of the advice from the book I will certainly become a better communicator. Simple ideas such as avoid loaded statements – sugar-coated and irrelevant statements, replace “but” with “and”, and use silence in conversations are highly effective to make any conversation thoughtful, and worthwhile. Stop me when next time I try to take a long winded road to my point.

Wish you all fierce conversations!

Techie to CEO Step II: Unleash the Salesman Inside

Sales is the king! I used to hear this phrase all the time and ignored it as a conventional wisdom not applicable to the unconventional technology industry. Isn’t tech all about innovation and cool products? Don’t cool products sell by itself? Products that people line up to buy outside your stores or online. So engineers should be kings and not sales people. After a decade, I am proven wrong.

I am absolutely convinced that irrespective of the industry, sales is the lifeline of any business. Nobody cares how cool your product is if it doesn’t sell. A business is not a viable business if it doesn’t make money. We might consider Apple and Google as exceptions but really they are not. The fact that both are public companies and measured by their financial results speaks for itself. Google is widely known as an engineering centric company but the recent news of their head of engineering and head of sales making the most bonuses indicated the balance of power. We all know how much other software giants like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are driven by sales.

Ok, we know it’s all about sales, but what should we (non-sales) folks do? The lesson I learned is to align yourself with sales if you are not one of them. I am not suggesting being subservient to sales but having your actions help close the deals. It could be as simple as dropping a line about your competition or delivering a product demo, but make sure you are closely aligned with this function. There is a salesman inside all of us; unleash it to magnify your potential.

 

Techie to CEO: The First Step

I spent the better part of my career in technology function, mostly developing software.  It was exciting to write the most efficient program, design complex solutions, and manage large software projects. Even though I always thought of myself as more of a business person, I never paid much attention to the commercial side of technology. The techie inside had a simple business logic–customers will line up to buy the best software. Of course, I was entitled to be paid because I could write the best program irrespective of company’s performance. Then, I moved to presales and it changed everything!

Two years of selling complex software to fortune 1000 companies and working with sales and marketing was an eye-opening experience. The realization that it is not the best software but the best-positioned solution that sells was startling. Customers didn’t care much about algorithms in the software, but how would it solve their business problems and deliver value. Total cost of ownership, payback period and return on investment calculations didn’t factor in the most optimized program or complex design. While software features were important, it was relationships, sales presentations, product demos, and managing client expectations that were critical for a successful sale. Sales and marketing folks–often perceived as “more talk and less substance” were the front and center to close deals and bring money to keep the lights on.

I still believe that development is a very important function of a software business but now I also understand the importance of the commercial side. It doesn’t surprise me when a developer boasts of being the heart and soul of the business while thinking of sales and marketing as just the face. I was in the same boat a few years ago. It is easy for a techie to ignore the importance of sales and what it takes to acquire a client. Most software companies intentionally isolate R&D from business realities, thereby making it even more difficult for technologists to understand business realities. However, if you are a techie with entrepreneurial aspirations or an ambition to grow into senior management, then start learning about how your business sells and makes money. Your superior technical skills definitely make you indispensible for the company but your sales skills will grow you into top management ranks. A strong technical expertise coupled with great business skills is a potent combination. Remember, it is money that makes the world go and your career.

 

Follow Your Passion

I am returning from a very productive business trip and as usual my plane ride is spurring ideas to write. It might sound strange but the plane take-off reminded me of a topic that I was thinking about earlier in the week – passion in life. It is amazing how much force is needed for a plane to break the inertia and build the momentum to take off.  I was wondering if it is same with big initiatives in our lives. We need to put in lot of focused effort to accomplish big things in life. Gas propels planes; what propels us? Passion!

I remember the time when I was preparing for my entrance exam for under-grad school. I wanted to get into the best school in the country but the competition was brutal. One in hundred used to make into the school of my choice. I hear it is even worse now! What were the chances of a student from a small town with no guidance succeeding while many bright candidates were preparing for the same exam from almost four years in advance? Well, I was determined and passionate to get into that school. So for next two years, I never slept more than two hours and studied almost 19 hours daily. Everybody, including my parents thought I had gone mad. While everybody was sympathizing with me for all the hard-work, I never even once felt like it. I was having fun and was in a totally different world. Waking up after two hours of sleep was a piece of cake because I was so eager to go back to my books. It was a sheer pleasure to spend every minute studying. Those were the best two years of my life. The icing on the cake was passing the test with a good rank. In those two years, I learned many things in math and science, but I learned an important lesson of life: if you are passionate about something, you can always achieve it.

There is no greater pleasure than following your passion. It is even better when your passion becomes your livelihood or way of living. I am convinced that one can scale great heights in career or personal life by pursuing one’s passion. I grew up in India, where kids are not [at least when I was a kid] exposed to arts, sports, and  other activities unlike   kids in the West. Studies are the way of life and a good student is expected to pursue engineering or medicine. Many bright students end up being successful doctors, engineers, and managers but it doesn’t surprise me to learn how many of them are still seeking that one thing they are passionate about. Even though the western education system is not perfect, I like the aspect of exposing kids to many different things early on. I hope my five year old will find that one or maybe more things that he is passionate about and will pursue them for life. There is no greater pleasure than living your passion.

What Motivates You: Money or Recognition

A few days ago, a member of the employee committee asked me how would I like the management to appreciate my good work. The options were – monetary bonus, a gift card for dinner for two at a nice restaurant, recognition for my work in employee meeting or others. My choice was very clear – recognition in all employee meeting. I don’t know why but they were surprised!

 Not that I don’t want money, most of us mere mortals would like some extra cash in our bank and so do I. Still I chose recognition because I believe it is the best way for acknowledging my efforts. Well another reason is that I knew they were not talking of big money. Nothing like notorious investment banking bonuses; software companies are generally stingy on cash. I was wondering that even if I was offered big money, would I have still opted for recognition as the most valuable employee? I think I would have.

I recently read a survey of Harvard MBAs about what will they choose between money or respect from fellow employees. As surprising it may seem but more than half chose the latter option.  Aren’t we driven by appreciation right from the beginning? My five-year old will read, switch off the TV, or do many otherwise boring things for a small reward such as a candy, toy or a sleepover at a friend’s place. However, I have seen him pushing himself to limit for appreciation. Last night, he played his first piano streak without looking at his book. We clapped and praised him for his efforts and today he was eager to go to his piano class. Moreover, he practiced many times last night on his own, a routine that otherwise is an ordeal for my wife. I am sure no candy or toy could motivate him as much.

I guess schools have already mastered this act. Class toppers are recognized and made into heroes. That is a great motivation for them to continue to do well. The corporate world also has learned the trick and hence instituted titles and employee recognition programs. Of course, employees like me validate their policiesJ. Hopefully I am not alone to fall for it but I still wonder why the employee committee was surprised by my choice. Well, they never disclosed the bonus!

Maximize Your Efforts: Set, Measure, Correct

We make so much effort to do better in every sphere of life – be it giving the best to our kids, improving our personal lives, or proving our worth at work. I wonder why so often we work hard but get disappointing results. There are many reasons for it but one that happens often is that we lack setting, tracking and improving our efforts towards a goal. Goal setting and tracking is a best practice in corporate world and that’s why there are sales quotas, management objectives, appraisals and not to forget notorious quarterly targets for public companies. Then why don’t we follow the same in personal life?

I have been trying to play golf from almost a decade. Hope you notice the word ‘trying’! But when I look back, I most improved my game when I had a target in mind. My first goal was to score in 90s and then 80s.  I could pretty much do it in the first year with regular practice and coaching. Next eight years were a wash because I never set a goal for myself. It was more of a walk in the park with friends, enjoying beer and an occasional great shot. Setting goals is important.

The next step is to measure performance against those goals. It was easy to measure a three-digit round against a goal of being in 90s. However, many times it is not so black and white, or we don’t think deeply enough to set the right metrics. Moreover, there are times when we don’t want to measure to avoid that extra pressure. Come on, don’t we already have enough on our plate with work and family?  However, I felt the best when I met my goals. I still remember my first round of 81. A great feeling that stayed with me for months! It is great to savor small successes but only if we measure them.

Finally the most important – analyze and correct. Once you measure you know where to focus. While hitting long shots was sexy, I found I was losing most shots in the short game. It made me focus on pitching and putting. While practicing putting, we adjust every putt based on how the previous one did. If it falls short of the cup, then we hit the next one a little harder. If it broke too much to the left, we adjust the angle next time. Similarly, it is important to analyze and adjust our efforts based on results.

Now consider practice putting when you can’t see where your last putt landed.  No matter how many times one practices this way, one can never improve putting. If we don’t get feedback, how can we improve? Exactly that’s why it is important to get feedback to correct it.

Well, you got it. To improve you have to correct, to correct you have to measure, and to measure you have to set goals. Alright, it is time for action.

 

Build Wealth: Make, Save, Invest

There couldn’t have been a better start to Saturday morning than reading Warren Buffet’s 2010 annual letter to shareholders. Although my wife doesn’t endorse this as a perfect start or she might actually hate it because I dropped all the weekend chores for it. However, now that I have resumed the chores by taking my car for a wash, I have some time to reflect on Buffet’s letter and write this blog. As always there is plenty of wisdom in his letter but there is one thing that stood out for me – financial prudence and his grandfather’s letter about savings.

 I grew up in a culture of spending. Rich people show off their money by lavishly spending while middle class try to keep pace mostly through borrowing or mortgaging their future earnings and property. The rule is, if you can’t spend, you can’t get into the elite circle. Fortunately or maybe not, I grew up in a well-to-do family that deeply endorsed this culture. I grew up thinking spending on luxury is the way of life. It was only in my under-grad school that I started thinking about money and how to become rich. I was a Curious George looking for a formula for success. As weird as it may sound, but I got my first life-changing advice about money from a stranger on a train. He told me that it is not spending but savings and investments that make you rich. According to him the rule of thumb should be-a bachelor should save 75%, married couple 50%, and couple with kids 25% of their income. The second step is to invest it prudently to grow your asset base. First time in my life, I learned about the other side of the equation­-savings! Thanks to that man, I got interested in stocks, property and other investments and was keen to start working to make, save and invest money.

Buffet epitomizes the conventional wisdom of the man I met on the train. He is a testament that one can become the richest man and build one of the most prosperous companies in the world through simple financial prudence. However, I am surprised by how many smart people still don’t get it. No wonder in my hometown, many folks still see only the spending side of the equation and continue to get trapped in debt. If only they could meet the man on the train or read Buffet’s letter. Well, I don’t know the whereabouts of that man but you all can read Buffet’s letter here!

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