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Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

Both in startups and large companies—heck in any company—culture is critical to success. This is something that I’ve been waxing about for close to 20 years now. And the criticality of storytelling in businesses is another favorite and recurring topic in this blog. So I was tickled this morning, to come across an interview of Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge (and formerly of Eloqua) being quoted saying

culture eats strategy for breakfast, and business culture can be built through storytelling.

Paul teshimA

What was particularly gratifying about this was his assertion was made in the context of marketing and sales. Sales folks have always understood that relationships are critical to their success. However their challenge has been to quickly identify and nurture the most promising ones, as they balance their need to deliver on results on finite timelines with the lead times of building meaningful relationships. Good marketers recognize that their job is to help sales shorten their selling cycles, by getting qualified leads to them consistently. Storytelling is a powerful to achieve this and a culture that promotes such consistent storytelling to customers and serving sales’ needs will always will the long game.

Hear Paul tell it in his own words here.

Paul Teshima of Nudge.ai on Sales Pipeline Radio

3 Steps to Create a Culture of Innovation

InnovationYesterday I was part of a panel discussion on innovation and entrepreneurship at the opening of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Center (IEDC) at the Dayanand Sagar College of Engineering. One of the first questions the moderator posed was “How does one create a culture of innovation and what role does leadership play?

To me this is not that different from the question, How does one create a culture of ______ (fill in the blank) – for instance courtesy and consideration. You start by being polite – kind and courteous. Similarly creating a culture of innovation within our companies, divisions or teams is to start by being innovative. What does that mean?

To me it means three things

a] INSPIRE Talk about, share and celebrate innovation – set aside time, whether a Friday lunch or before your weekly team meeting to show what you mean by innovation. Bring in a mechanical water sprinkler and share with your team why you think it is innovative or better yet ask them what is innovative about it. A clasp on someone’s chain, a pain-free blood sugar measurement tool – in other words – “the ordinary” and the extraordinary that’s around us every day. Allows you to discuss and develop a shared sense of what is innovation and over the common misconception that only a cure for cancer can be innovation. Over time this can be things that your own team or company are innovated, but don’t wait for it to be done in-house

b] MEASURE Put in a process, where the team can spend time focusing on problems – which allow scope for innovation – could be in technology, internal processes or methods or any other function within your business. Intuit for instance created a process for employees to share ideas and seek inputs which has eventually become a product they now offer their customers. And most importantly put in measures — only that which gets measured will get done. So when you talk about it, ask about it, measure it, everyone begins to pay attention to it and that’s how a culture of caring about innovation gets slowly built up.

c] REWARD & RECOGNIZE Nothing works like recognizing the work people are doing and rewarding innovative behavior. A critical element here is not to celebrate success alone or what is commonly perceived as success – ie a new product that launches or a new idea that’s implemented, but to recognize and reward risk taking. Unless we create a culture within our companies of tolerating mistakes and viewing them as a way to learn and do better, it will be very hard to create a culture of innovation. As Gordon Moore, founder of Intel put it “I view this year’s failure as next year’s opportunity to try it again. Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can so you can make progress rapidly.”

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Culture, people & other imponderables

Don’t worry that your kids don’t always listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.
— Robert Fulghum

taste [choices]Startups & founders have enough to worry about without adding culture to the mix. Or so it would seem. As Fulghum points out in his own inimitable style, culture is what is being built as you worry about execution, hiring or product market fit.

What most of us don’t realize is that we are actively, even if blindly building culture in our companies every waking moment. The trouble is when we do this without being mindful or engaged, we usually end up building a culture that we are surprised about as it invariably bites us in the rear.

Starting from the moment you step into the office, people see if you greet the security guard, whether you get your own cup of tea or put it away when done. Whether you text in meetings or worse yet when you answer the phone during a 1:1 meeting. Even if you answered yes, yes, yes and no & no, they see what you do or say when a senior team member flames another, or a team member screams at a vendor. When you are quiet about a white lie to a customer or don’t question why a payment is being withheld, you are communicating loudly and shaping culture – though not necessarily the way you want.

So culture in a startup is not an option – but what sort of culture you want is a choice you can make.

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Getting rid of our Sir-ji culture

Kids salutin

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via cc

“Saif sir and Shah Rukh sir, I appreciate your question…”

I had turned on the television soon after getting home from work in the hope of wiping out a rough day. The FilmFare awards — Bollywood’s tribute to its own – were on. The speaker was Neil Nitin Mukesh, an up and coming heartthrob in Tinseltown. He was addressing superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the comperes for the awards ceremony.

The two Khans, in an attempt to inject humor into the proceedings, were posing questions to other actors in the audience. Those questioned, in turn, were expected to respond with creative insults, tongue-in-cheek, to the two Khans — all in good humor.

Shah Rukh is in his mid-forties and Saif, I suspect, just turned 40. Wikipedia tells me Neil Nitin Mukesh is 28. When I heard Neil speak, it made me stop and wonder why a grown man was addressing the two Khans as “Sir.”

My first thought was that it was the sheer inadequacy of the English language. In Spanish there is usted — a respectful form of you. And of course nearly every Indian language has the Hindi equivalent of aap — a pronoun reserved to demonstrate respect to someone senior, elderly or even, at times, a respected colleague. The use of these forms, from Bhojpur to Chettinad, is rarely about status or inequality but largely about courtesy and culture.

But there remained a niggling feeling: What if this is not a linguistic shortcoming but something deeper?

I shared my theory the next morning with my two business partners, who were actually working instead of wondering about Bollywood’s sociological makeup. I felt that the movie industry was far too hierarchical. Even Shah Rukh, at the same event, referred to Mani-sir (Mani Ratnam, the award-winning director). And, I asserted, this was emblematic of Indian society at large: far too much groveling and far too little respect.

To their credit, my partners argued in reasoned tones that it was language rather than any feudal attitudes or the need for social debasement that lead to the use of the word “Sir” when addressing an industry peer. They went on to propound their own theory — by which time you can be sure all pretense of work was done away with — that this is likely an urban phenomenon.

Did not most Tamil folks in Chennai use “Sir,” abandoning the more archaic (and potentially feudal) “ayya,” they argued. The Tamil movie industry, too, is rife with Rajni-sir and Kamal-sir, though I wasn’t sure if that bolstered their case or not. By that point anyway they had returned to doing real work.

What is my gripe with “Sir,” you ask? Yes, it is perfectly serviceable for class 8 students to use it when addressing their English or even their Hindi teacher. Possibly it works for the maitre d’ at a fancy Euro restaurant since his snooty attitude does away with any illusion of who’s the master.

Any other time, there’s far too much of the servile tone of a colonial job applicant imbued into “Sir,” which 60-odd years of Babudom have only cemented further.

Spend an afternoon sitting in a bank manager’s office, on a manufacturing shop floor or in a police or income tax commissioner’s office and you are likely to encounter “Sir” enunciated in every imaginable accent. If you have been in a hospital, you can’t but help see the doctors get their share of “Sir,” many a times as “Dr.-Sir.” Even within the information technology industry — despite its global exposure and purported performance-based culture -– deference, at times even subservience, follows the “Sir.”

I am by no means advocating the use of first names alone. When my good friend, college buddy and now nearly-50 year old university professor tells my 12-year-old to call him by his first name, I will be the first one to admit that I am not at all comfortable. I’d rather my daughter call him Uncle Jaap. Yet when 25-year-old engineers address me as “Sir,” I squirm. While I choose to think that half the mails I get addressing me as “Sir” have merely misspelled my first name, I know I am fighting a losing battle.

I’d like to imagine that borrowing the good old Hindi suffix “ji” — or for those of you opposed to Hindi dominance, the Japanese suffix “san” — would do away with “Sir.” And create a work culture that’s respectful without having to be deferential or, worse yet, servile. If the central government ran a contest for a Hinglish term to replace “Sir,” I suspect it would find more support and takers than trying to come up with an international symbol for the rupee. And, for sure, it’s likely to do far greater good – for a whole lot more people – than a rupee symbol will.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online as To Sir Without Love.

Talent, training and trust – building culture person at a time

This evening I read Peter Bregman’s blog post about his experience at the Four Seasons in Dallas. It brought to mind my own experience at the ITC Windsor Manor in Bangalore.  The family and I had been visiting some friends in the northern part of town. It was late in the afternoon, when we headed back. Of course the kids waited till we were a fair bit down one of Bangalore’s interminable one-way roads, before clamouring to use the restroom. Usually, the chorus of “I’m hungry” or “I need to use the bathroom” from the backseat would result in much heated discussion between my lovely wife and myself. Luckily we were right in front  of the Windsor Manor, so no discussion was needed. We pulled in, parked the car and dashed to the front door.

The liveried doorman, the one with the enormous moustache, held the door open. “Which way to the rest rooms?” I asked as my eight-year old wiggled in front of me. The wife was still walking from the car, dragging our reluctant ten-year old behind her.  “Straight ahead sir, through the arch and turn left. You will find the restrooms in the first corridor on your right.” We made it safely with time to spare. As the girls and their mom, took their time powdering their noses or discussing Dad’s driving – I hung around the corridor, admiring the Raj era landscapes on the wall.

“Can I help you sir? Were you not able to find the restrooms?” I looked up to see the liveried doorman, who was clearly headed for his break. I assured him that I had already availed of their fine facilities, was merely waiting for the family and thanked him for his concern. After ensuring I had everything I needed he finally headed out the staff door. It was only then that I noticed the discretely designed staff door down the corridor, through which another staffer had just passed.

I was just blown away – there must have been 15-20 people at the front portico, as the family and I had passed through the front door. It was a good ten minutes or so later, when the doorman and I met in front of the restrooms. We were not guests at the hotel and I am sure that his job required him to manage matters primarily near the front porch. Yet, the care and sincerity with which stopped to inquire after my needs and the way he tried to address the matter of my possibly not having found the restrooms clearly reflected the sense of ownership he took over helping visitors and guests. Elsewhere at the Windsor Manor, at their incredible “Jolly Nabob” restaurant, I have seen the same excellent sense of ownership and pride with the maitre d’.

As anyone who’s been in the hospitality business knows, finding good help – the talent – is hard. Training them and inculcating in them the sense of ownership and service mindset is even harder. And institutionalizing it requires trust! This is a lesson all of us could use and Windsor Manor and the Four Seasons teach us well to use in our own business and lives.

Communication and culture in organizations

Discussion

Photo Credit: [phil h]

A few months ago, I wrote about the need for communicating early and often and a recent article by Toni Bowers, Senior Editor, TechRepublic titled “Say what you mean, mean what you say” highlighted the sore need for clarity in these communications, even if done early and often! The readers’ comments to that post, due to their specific nature were extremely illustrative, reinforcing the core message of how critical clear communications are, particularly when it comes to individuals and dishing them unpleasant news.

Less than ten days ago two of my long-time colleagues, sat me down and after some initial politeness (“you have issues rather than you have a problem”) they got down to their core message “We don’t believe you handle unpleasant stuff well, what do you think?” Talk about a topic for reflection! The reflection has made me particularly receptive to Toni’s post and the discussion thread thereof.

Toni’s core message is –

  • Be direct and specific when giving feedback, particularly relating to problems
  • Don’t be heartless but use simple statements that preclude misinterpretation

Key points the commentators added include

  • Communicate expectations up front (my early and often mantra) to avoid misunderstandings
  • Don’t tell the team they have a problem, when you want to communicate to a particular person – do it one-on-one
  • Be open and interested to find out reasons for why you are where you are (ask and listen, not just talk)

As with all good advice, once stated it seems simple and self-evident. The fact that more of us don’t practice it consistently only points to the need for periodic reminders. Which brings me to the whole running water and rock metaphors of many Zen koans. The Buddha said (with regard to cultivating virtues) diligent practice will work like a “… small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows.” Alas this is true not just for virtues but for bad habits like poor or no communication, a constant stream of which can wear down the enthusiasm of even the most motivated team member.

Even one dinosaur brain manager or toxic teammate when not dealt with direct and clear communication can start a tear in the fabric of your organization’s culture. Subsequent failures of communications, however small, only grow this tear till soon all we’ll have left will be shreds! So whether rock or fabric, our organizational culture needs continual renewal through simple, clear and sustained communication – to grow and prosper!

A Stake in the Outcome – Building a Culture of Ownership

These last six months, I have been doing a good deal of reading; on average maybe two books a week – at least one of which has been a business book! I have gone back to reading books that have been in my library a long while such as Paul Hawken‘s Growing a Business as well as reading new (to me) ones such as A Stake in the Outcome by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham.

(c) livemint Stake in the OutcomeI ran across A Stake in the Outcome (ASitO) while browsing business books at the Easy Library (a great online library with a brick & mortar presence in Bangalore). Having read and been influenced by Bo Burlingham‘s more recent Small Giants, I began browsing ASitO at the library itself. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the Master will appear!” Certainly that’s how I felt as I scanned the book quickly right there and subsequently brought it home to read.

Chapter 3 titled The Design of a Business, begins:

Most people, I know, don’t think about the company they’re designing when they start out in business. They think about the products they’re going to make, or the services they’re going to provide. They worry about how to raise the money they need, how to find customers, how to deal with salespeople and suppliers, how to survive. It never occurs to them that, while they’re putting together the basic elements of the business, they’re also making decisions that are going to determine the type of company they’ll have if they’re successful.

I felt someone had just hit me on the head with a two-by-four. Every week I meet someone who is thinking about starting something. Nearly every last one of them talks about their product or service idea and if at all they talk about their company, its only when they intend to “flip-it” (“Built-to-flip” as Jim Collins speaks of as does Sramana Mitra in a recent blog entry). Jack Stack in contrast, states clearly that

Ownership Rule #1
The company is the product

It is worth pausing here and reflecting on his assertion. All too often I see entrepreneurs, young and not-so-young, pitch their businesses as I have heard Hollywood scriptwriter’s do! “Think Netflix but for Indian movies,” “Waiter.com meets iTunes,” “Google but for contextual search.” I’ll refrain from speculating whether the internet bubble begat this or this begat the bubble and what role VCs had to play in this. This focus on what a company does, rather than what a company will be, Stack asserts misses the opportunity to explicitly design your business from ground up. If you haven’t figured it now by now, I agree whole-heartedly.

In many ways, the practices of visionary companies that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss in their book Built to Last have been explicitly operationalized in Stack’s company Springfield Remanufacturing (SRC). The big difference is that Stack’s direct writing style and first-hand experience makes this a gripping read rather than an dry business book. Also unlike most business books that appear to document management’s clever (often infallible) strategies, Stack walks us through both the good and poor decisions they made, as they set out to remake SRC. In the end (in fact in the epilogue), Stack quotes Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines responding to The Wall Street Journal’s question on what he meant when he said Southwest’s culture was its biggest competitive advantage.

 

“The intangibles are more important than the tangibles,” Kellher replied. “Someone can go out and buy airplanes from Boeing and ticket counters, but they can’t buy our culture our espirit de corps.”

 

ASitO walks us through SRC’s journey of building such a culture of ownership from that day in 1982 when Stack and his managers did a management buy-out of their struggling engine remanufacturing factory to twenty years hence when their 10cent stock was worth $86 (since then has grown to over $136). Most importantly the authors don’t romanticize the journey and are explicit in periodically setting our expectations with insights such as “Stock is not a magic pill” (ownership rule #4) and “Ownership needs to be taught”(OR #7).

ASitO is a must-read for any one contemplating starting a company or looking to effect change in their organizations through employee participation and a culture of ownership.

A much more detailed summary of the book itself can be found here

Storytelling and Culture in Companies

Storytelling

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

I was lucky enough grow up with a paternal grandmother, a maternal grandfather and even his mother, my great grandmother (GGM), who were always ready with a story. My GGM’s life story itself is worth a whole separate post – widowed at nineteen, while pregnant with my grandfather, she raised him, through a polio attack (when he was two, that left him crippled in one leg), saw him through college, then when he was widowed with ten kids, she then in her sixties, raised the kids, (and the first grandkids) while managing the household, ten cows and a small farm sized garden.

Some of my favorite memories of my GGM are from dinner time. Six or seven of us kids, cousins and siblings, would be sitting in a semi-circle, on the floor of my grandfather’s dining room. GGM would be seated with her back to the wall, at the center of the half circle, with a large stainless steel bowl of mixed steamed rice and yoghurt. Each night, she’d narrate a story as she fed us dinner. She’d scoop up one handful of the rice and drop a dollop in each of our outstretched hands, going clockwise. And with each handful or mouthful, she’d narrate what happened next, in the tale for the evening. Oh, on so many nights, we’d have to stop eating and console her, as at particularly poignant moments in the tale she’d stumble, stutter then sniffle before a stream of tears would run down her wrinkled face. At other times, she’d have to stop the story to urge us to continue eating or close our mouths as we’d listen to her all agog, our food and outstretched hands totally forgotten.

Those local tales of lions that came as bridegrooms and sparrows that stuffed themselves and the longer tales from the Indian epics have not only stayed with me but taught us the values that my GGM held dear. In a very small way I have tried to share that with my own two children. However, the larger lesson I have learnt is the value of stories and storytelling to imbibe culture in families and companies.

There is a large swath of didactic and somewhat intimidating academic research done in recent times on the role of storytelling in business. Leaving that to the experts, in every company I have worked with, there has been storytelling – of dream deals that were saved or won by heroic individual or team efforts; customers from hell or my own favorite, of a customer who insisted on paying by Sep 30th ahead of our delivery milestone, as his budget would vanish on Oct 1st, but wanting a handwritten personal note from the CEO assuring that we’d still deliver on our commitments; our own story of how we asked engineers and managers to have their pay raises deferred and then to take a pay cut and my wife’s favorite, of how I was a zombie the day we lost that truly big, already-in-the-bag and company-saving quarter million dollar deal and the mourning we went through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – all in a day.)

Of course storytelling need not be just in front of the fireplace, over dinner or by the water cooler. Books, emails and memos can just as powerfully share stories and values. The best examples I can think of include

    • Memos from the Chairman” by Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman of investment
      banking firm Bear, Stearns & Co. In a series of memos, many at less than 150 words, he has shared his views, thoughts and narrated tales (with a fictional protagonist) in an informal and easy style
    • Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work” by John Cowan – a collection of fluid essays that narrate tales from John’s personal and work life and lend tremendous insight into our own lives, without hitting us over the head

I’d recommend both these books for a hearty good read, even if storytelling and organizational culture are not your favorite topics!

Culture in Companies and Business Success

In what’s becoming an annual event (okay, it was two years in a row), I attended a workshop titled “Values-based Leadership” lead by Richard Barrett. Despite the slow start, and initial misgivings when Richard quickly put on a video of his that’s available on YouTube (hey, I have come to hear you in person, was my first thought) – the day proved to be thought-provoking and productive, for two reasons. Firstly a full day away from the daily grind at the office, just thinking and discussing things from the sublime, (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?) to grimy reality (What is the culture in your company?) was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Secondly, the workshop turned out to be completely about culture, ways of measuring it and the role culture and values play in the business success of organizations. Many thoughts that had been stewing below the surface of my conscious mind or even the few that had cleared the surface and were still nebulous at best, began to get some definite shape and dare I say, validation through the course of the day.

Before I push ahead, it’s worth stepping back and trying to get a working definition of culture spelled out. Many serious thinkers have come up a variety of definitions – ranging from the anthropological all the way to organizational – I will confine myself to the rather simple assertion, that culture is how people in an organization behave and expect others to behave, on a daily basis. This behavior is almost always driven or at the very least most strongly influenced from the top, down. In other words, the leaders (in small enterprises these are almost always the founders) set the culture and the everyday actions of the people in the organization reinforce this culture. Here again, I use the term actions to include explicit inaction or lack of action as much as deliberate actions taken. For instance, not confronting (constructively or otherwise), or avoiding conflict is as much an element of organizational culture as an action such as yelling at your subordinates or sharing recognition and praise as well.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also state my position – that I believe that culture trumps all other considerations in building healthy, dynamic and long lasting successful organizations. Yes, all those things we learned in business school or at our fathers’ knees are still true – operational excellence, technology, and R&D, financial performance, killer products or services are all important for success but culture is critical to sustain and build upon the gains made. After six years of running a bootstrapped software company, from the giddy optimistic start, through axing one entire department and having those folks out-placed, asking the remaining team to take 10-15% pay cuts, even as we worked to deliver newer products, fend off competitors and keep those fickle customers who hadn’t yet gone out of business in the downturn or been gobbled up, to achieving market leadership in our niche and finally selling our own company, the number one insight I have gained is that culture is the critical ingredient for organization success.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of the lessons I have learnt from my journey as an engineer, manager, CEO and general factotum (they are nearly the same thing, you sometimes have a little more freedom as a factotum) and in the bargain, I hope to learn as well. The journey continues!

Values – Putting Them Into Practice

Culture in organizations has been a favorite topic of mine for many years.  The recent discussions of harassment in Uber and Thinkx or the management style of the Trump Organization are all rooted in the underlying culture of these organizations. Most organizations have a vision, mission and even set of values identified – and even displayed in public place. Yet, like many of our own new year resolutions, shall we say, there’s often a gap between what’s stated and intended and the reality employees, customers, and partners experience. So how you build the culture you seek in your organization through a set of values.

Dan Rockwell (aka Leadership Freak) whom I’ve followed religiously for several years now, shows a simple yet effective way to put your values into practice. Such a practice will help you build the culture you seek. Here’s the bulletized version of Dan’s method (I’d call it the 3As) that he discusses in the video below.

  • Articulate your value
  • Act on that value – such as in a specific behavior
  • Applaud the behavior – recognize and highlight when people act on it

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