Saturday, March 31, 2012

Of Ambys, Splutters and Stutters...

Years ago, there was this senior colleague who I much admired. Let me call him Dr Rajan. A fine man, he used to be especially kind to his car. He owned an Amby – the good old Ambassador – and used to speak to his car in a kind sort of way. Winter mornings were not good for the cars in those days. Fiats and Ambys were subject to a lot of ignition coaxing and cajoling, and the whining of the engine in the mornings was a regular feature of the times.

Dr Rajan used to talk to his Amby, allow for her to splutter and in all the intervening times would say sweet things to her and forgive her whining. Notice the gender here. To Dr Rajan it was a ‘her’. I was very young then, and used to watch him with amusement. He believed in her and was often said that he knew she could ‘make it’.  It appeared as if his car u came to life after his words of endearment. I learnt then that a dollop of kindness here and there worked wonders, even with inanimate objects!

Many moons later, I had the opportunity to meet a fine student called Chandramohan at a campus at Tiruchi. He was a brilliant man and a passionate soul – a whiz with the web and a technophile. He was shortlisted for the final round of interviews on the basis of his test scores. Before the interviews, he met me – something I always evade, but could not avoid this time – and started to speak to me. I noticed a lot of stutter in his speech. I knew that this had its foundation in confidence and told him that he needs to ‘keep his chin up’ and do his best, etc. When he told me about himself and I was confident he would leave a mark wherever he went. He was passionate, intelligent and caring. I liked him a lot for I knew we had a winner on our hands. However, I knew that it was going to be tough for the young man at the interview, what with his minor handicap.

The interviews started and when Mohan came in, I confronted my worst fears. He seemed nervous and was stuttering a lot. He could not do much and despite my support, his candidature was looking at risk. The panel members sat in the evening to discuss the finalists and I guess, it was my lucky day that I was able to persuade them to clear Mohan. He was put into Sales and Marketing – killer job for such a person! His boss was unrelenting and for about two years he silently bore the brunt of her demands that he “should not stutter.” Long story short, Mohan decided to leave and start his own firm. On his last day at work, he came to me and thanked me and I asked him to have belief and faith in himself – he would one day be an outstanding guy. I told him that I trusted him and his abilities more than anyone, and he thanked me for my words of encouragement. I wish I had done more to help him.

Many years later, Mohan tracked me down, and wanted me to address his top team in Chennai.  He was a hugely successful software entrepreneur and was doing very well in his field. He was very upbeat, very effusive of his praise of the company where we worked and recounted in fondness of what he had learnt in the place where we had worked before. I was a bit embarrassed and while he was being a good host, I was lost in the wonderment of his accomplishments. I had no doubt about his capabilities. His team was very passionate about the company and were very competent professionals. The meeting ended, and I came away feeling really on top of the world. As I sat in my car, it occurred to me that in all the time I was with Mohan there was something very different about him. The stutter had vanished!

What a spoon of self-confidence and self-help can do to oneself! We all need to help ourselves. And we need someone who can be in that hour when support is needed most … someone to help get past that splutter – those cajoles and coaxes with a gentle touch – to find that confidence in ourselves. And I remembered Dr Rajan.

Of Androcles and What Goes Around Comes Around

My grandmother taught me to read and instilled in me values, as all grandmas do. I remember her telling me the story of Androcles where this young man was in a cave and he saw a lion in a cave, roaring in pain and recognized it needed help and removed a thorn from its paw. Later, the same lion saved him when he was being thrown to the lions in the arena, as throwing people to the lions was a popular sport then. This story stayed with me for a long time.

Fast forward in time, about 1997, I was recruiting at a campus in Calcutta and made job offers to a few students. About two months later, one of the candidates – and I will call him Sai, an outstanding guy – called me to say that he had failed a paper and so, he would not be getting his ‘Degree.’ His widowed mother made entreaties and asked me to extend the validity of his appointment letter by six months that would allow for him to clear his exams.

Although this was against policy, I took a view that we would allow for an extension that could have Sai join us. His mother was happy, Sai was happy. One day, Sai wrote to us to say that he had found a job closer home and was very thankful that we kept his offer valid as this gave him a big leg up to his sagging confidence. We were sorry that he could not join. All was forgiven and forgotten.

Fast forward to 2011. About four months ago, a colleague of mine called on me with a request to help him find a job for his wife, Sudha, a qualified sales person. I wrote to a good friend – let me call him Ram – a HR head of one of the largest Indian banking institutions in the country and asked that he consider her candidature on merits. Ram responded to me to say he would try and forwarded my mail to some colleague of his.

A couple of months later, Sudha called me to say that she had ‘got the job’ and was most thankful to me. The excitement and gratitude got jumbled in the words that gushed and I was as thrilled she got the job. That is all that mattered. I was very impressed that her resumé got the right attention at the right level and the speed at which it was evaluated and an appointment letter issued, in one of the largest banks!

I was in wonderment of it all, when I got a call at my desk. It was from the Bank, and the head of HR wanted to speak to me. He mentioned that the mail came over to him, had noted where the mail emanated and had gone the extra mile to ensure that the CV got the right attention, etc. I thanked him profusely. He asked me if I remembered giving a helping hand to a candidate who had failed his exams many years ago. It was Sai. I could not believe it. Virtual hugs followed.

Today, Sudha called me and told me that she was awarded the highest order of merit by the bank for her performance and I congratulated her. I started humming Justin Timberlake’s song, “What goes around comes around.” And I remembered my grandmother...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Of Evaluation and Evocation

I can never forget the first annual review of performance of my work in an organization. The appraiser was my boss, my hero, Ravindran G, working with the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), a then leading, UK-based multinational. Being a management trainee, there wasn’t anything substantial I believed I had achieved. I had visited seven departments over the year, observed how they worked, how we could improvise, working on small projects, but had not really done anything that stood out. So, when the time for the review came closer, I was quite worried. What had I to show? How would I be received? And there was money tied to the evaluation. Worse, heart of hearts, I knew it was not a great year. I was feeling really low.

Ravi scheduled a two hour meeting with me for my review, which didn’t make me feel any better! I was totally unprepared about what to say. At the appointed time, he took me in his ‘buggy’ to the club and we sat over a cup of coffee. He pepped me up saying, “Looking sharp, Nathan,” which meant that I had dressed well. This made me feel at ease, and I was starting to feel better. This was going to be easy, hopefully.

Ravi started off by asking me, “How was the year, gone by? Do you believe we have lived up to your expectations? What does your conscience tell you?,” etc. The two hours that were to be my evaluation, actually turned out to be one of the most engaging conversations I have ever had. He kept egging me on with appreciative nods. I told him about my fear of evaluation and my nervousness, and everything I had done over the past year. I admitted my failures, mentioned my small wins, owned my goof-ups and discussed my plans. I spoke like one who didn’t fear evaluation.

At the end of the two hours, I felt a huge burden off my shoulders. I asked my boss what I could do better, and he told me in simple words, “You have done well! Do what you are doing; stay honest and you will go way up ahead. And, by the way, focus on your strengths. Don’t worry about what you are not good at. And, do small things exceedingly well.

From this experience, I came out stronger and enriched, with the knowledge that one needs to put in a lot into the job and not overly focus on evaluations. For years, I strive to conduct meaningful review sessions where I focus on what has been achieved, evaluate performance, not the person, not scare them off, but evaluate to give them developmental feedback, shore up their confidence and be in their moment of evocation of their professional and personal growth ... just as Ravindran G did years ago.