Saturday, July 26, 2008

Getting older (wiser)?

I turned 27 yesterday and for many reasons its a birthday I will find difficult to forget. For one it fell on the day of the serial blasts at Bangalore. It has been followed by the serial blasts at Ahmedabad - one of which shockingly, has taken place in the trauma ward of a hospital. I also lost my forthcoming baby as my wife suffered a missed abortion. While I know these are circumstances beyond my control, I find it unfortunate that the day when I was celebrating my presence in the world coincided and was followed by a personal mishap and some very cowardly actions. Its going to be a memory that will take some time to fade away.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Support Functions - Careers in a growing organisation

There's a rule of thumb that you'd often hear - stick to a growing organisation and you'll grow too. While this is true for billable roles, this often may be complex in case of those skilled in support functions. I was recently reading Saager's post about Versatilists. Now while organizations should be looking to hire Versatilists for all roles, traditionally support functions haven't grown people to the Versatilist standard. I've been thinking about how organizations can encourage employees in internal roles to be Versatilists.

Most organizations formally or informally classify employees under role bands. These role bands could be indicative of salary, breadth of impact, prestige in the organization, career positioning, etc. Lets try to name these bands:
  • A (Executive) - Performs a set of functions that are limited to a particular functional area. Over a period of time, people in this role can generalize solutions to certain problems. For example - Recruiters, Administrators, Tech Support Personnel, Employee Relations Personnel, etc

  • B (Specialist/Small Team Leader) - Performs a set of functions at a high degree of specialization and can usually be in an internal consultative role for team-mates. In specific situations, a person in this role can be called upon to be a leader for small teams.

  • C (Generalists/ Large Team Leaders) - Displays exposure across a variety of functions and has the emotional intelligence to lead large teams. In specific situations that require management skills, this person could provide consultative support and could handle expectations of the organization for responsibilities delegated to his/ her team.

  • D (Strategists/ Functional Leaders) - These people should ideally be capable of handling a generalist profile, and should demonstrate the potential to provide strategic direction for the function that they lead. This person should be able to evaluate the organisation's plans for a given period of time and be able to break it down into actionable projects for his/ her function.

Now pardon me if I am making naive assumptions here - this is purely my observation and not a result of any focused studies in organisational development. That said, I've spent time in three separate organisations with very different cultures and business models, and my observations stem from what I've seen there.

Coming back to being versatile, the challenge that support personnel face is the wide range of work "support" could mean - admin, human resources, infrastructure management, marketing, sales, etc. Now consider a Recruiting Manager moving into a Sales Lead role. When it comes to providing leadership and doing all the good things that a leader should do, maybe this person wouldnt have any trouble. Then again when it comes to learning the nuances of being a capable salesman, this person may need some mentorship. Given this, it becomes easy for an organization to say that this person "needs to start from scratch". While it may seem fair to say this when looking at the problem from A perspective, it may not be the right thing from the perspective of the protagonist (in this case, the Recruiting Manager). In this case, the Recruiting Manager has all the skills/ competencies that he/ she needs to be able to manage expectations, lead people, provide visibility to the organisation -- the skills that he/ she needs to learn are about the art of sales itself. Given this, how fair is it to ask this person to take a couple of steps backward in his/ her career and start at role band A? Similarly, lets say an IT manager wishes to move into a Project Manager role in consultancy firm, would it be fair to say that this person needs to begin at a role band A, simply because that person doesnt have consultancy experience? Or is it important for the organisation to support this person in his pursuit of being versatilist, by providing mentorship on a small offshore project and then moving him/ her into an independent position?

This is obviously a dilemma for most organisations, especially when operating margins are low and we see a shift towards small, high performing teams. A competency based approach to role definition could perhaps be a systematic solution to such problems. I have often found that separating behavioural competencies from technical competencies often helps a lot. When adopting this approach, its important that role bands are defined on the basis of behavioural competencies and not technical. It should be left to different departments to define technical competencies beside each role band. Therefore when looking for growth options it becomes easy for employees and the organization to look for possible alternative roles. Lets consider the following example

Recruiting ManagerSales Manager
Behavioural CompetenciesCommon to bothCommon to both
Technical CompetenciesSpecific to the role (could have an overlap)Specific to the role (could have an overlap)


Now depending on the individual's ability to learn and adapt, the organization and the employee can choose a role that has less or more overlap, without having to take a step backward in his/ her career. Here's what this approach could do for an organisation:
  • Increase the number of Versatilists in all functions - as a consequence look at a huge pool of multi-skilled, swiss knife like people.
  • Increase job satisfaction for those stagnating in a particular function/ profile and thereby increasing retention and lowering recruitment (rehiring) and onboarding costs.
  • Ensure that leadership capabilities are not lost in the pursuit of providing job enrichment.

Once again, I must point out that this rant isn't a consequence of any focused study of human resource development, but more a consequence of my observation and resultant views about the topic. I find it funny sometimes, how complicated career advancement models can end up being, with different measures for compensation, role prestige and growth. Its unfortunate (though undoubtedly practical), that organisations have to choose to define career options for billable functions first and support functions usually end up being second class citizens of the corporate world. I hope though, that organisations also recognise that both these functions share a symbiotic relationship and despite the visible importance of the former, neither can exist without each other.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Teacher Training - my beliefs

Training is something I feel very passionately about and I realize that I of all the things I do, I enjoy my time in a classroom the most. In recent years my interest has primarily been teacher training. Having trained first time trainers that were pushed into the role; moving on to training lecturers in a room with no electricity and then coming back to train subject matter experts with a passion for training; I've come a full circle with this interest. I still ask myself a few questions about what "every trainer should know". I've often faced the dilemma of what's too little or too much and I've realized a few things that Teacher training is about:

  • Methodology over Content;
  • Thinking beyond Techniques;
  • Pre-Exposition;
  • Reflection

Methodology over Content: When training trainers, I've realised that sometimes its not the content that is as important, but the method you use to pre-expose, present and teach it. On separate occasions, I've used extremely simple, elementary content to demonstrate different teaching techniques and I've found it useful to invite some critical commentary on the method right after.

Thinking beyond Techniques
: One of the things I always think teacher trainers should urge their students to do, is think beyond the techniques presented. I've run Facilitation Skills Workshops purely based on my reading and my own limited experience. That said I believe that the collective experience of the group could potentially overshadow my own, provided they can attune themselves to "Facilitation Mindset". Once this happens, people can usually come up with their own techniques and my tricks remain just a part of their inventory. To me that means believing:

  • there's no failure only feedback;
  • every action's preceded by a positive intention;
  • people already possess all the resources that they need -- a trainer/ coach/ mentor only needs to guide them to a resourceful state;
  • there are no unresourceful people - only unresourceful states;
  • if a training goes badly off course a trainer can always bring it back on track and learn a lot in the progress;
  • learning is self driven -- the trainer should be willing to support the process and create the right environment for learning;

Pre-Expostion - I have found that some thinking takes time to anchor and I take the liberty of pre-exposing topics by either placing pointers on flipcharts or making introductory, exploratory and culminating references over a period of time. By introducing the topic early and revisiting it at relevant sections, I've progressively anchored some thoughts that I'd have otherwise found difficult to explain (and make them stick with) to the new trainers.

Reflection - A Teacher Training course isn't meant to take noob trainers from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence. I've often found that depending on the duration, the stage you achieve is between Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence. Given this, its important that aspiring trainers spend time reflecting on the day's activities and ask themselves:

  • What did I learn?
  • How was the content presented?
  • What teaching methods did I find interesting?
  • What are the mechanics of these methods?
  • What should I plan to do differently?

While this isn't all that you need to consider when training new trainers, its a set of guidelines that has helped me prepare for every new workshop and refine my approach to building training capability. I am still learning and I hope in time, I can do a progressively better job at this.
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