Superstar: The real deal!

No sooner had I written a post on “Superstars of the corporate world”, my favorite internet time-sink came out with a post on the Real Superstar- Rajinikanth. I am humbled by this. Rajini Saar knows everything, he does. He is making American ezine write about him. Very well Saar!

Saar has been introduced appropriately. Here is the actual quote.

This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, “SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!”

Vatch out Hollywood! Yindian movies are coming to a theater near you…and before you know it, your kultural monapaly will be demolished. Peepul all over the vorld vill be vatching yindian moviej. And singing yindian sawngs. Favorite greeting will be “Abey! Kuttey!”, and favorate gaali vill also be “Abey! Kuttey…main tera khoon pee jaounga”. Just vatch it! Eh!

More seriously, I think Indian movies are becoming slicker by the day, and with arguably better (!) storytelling than Hollywood. I have heard from friends that Indian movies are dubbed and sold in countries far beyond the reach of the expansive Indian diaspora. Obviously, if we can watch Hong Kong movies, they can watch Indian movies. The main problem used to be distribution reach into theaters. Once the Indian distributors figure that out, I am betting that Indian movies will do better than Hollywood in the long run. Indian movies are cheaper to make (the old Rupee-Dollar story), and can have themes more relevant to the developing world than standard American fare. As for the song and dance- well, audiences will have to get used to them! 😉 I’m looking forward to the time when Hollywood films start inserting in a gratuitous song/dance to show a couple romancing. World movie watchers…you are welcome!

Superstars of the business world

I was at Oracle Open World last week, and sat through Larry Ellison’s closing keynote. Twelve thousand people in a closed and dark room, six massive TV screens behind Larry, and the blaring rock music that greeted his arrival on stage. Before he came on the stage, the audience is treated to a montage of Larry’s fantastic yacht race victory in his sci-fi new yacht. His hard-working team, and their hard-charging victory in the America Cup. Thus primed, the audience sat with bated breath, waiting for Larry to speak. And then, he spoke, the audience hanging on to every word. The man can surely hold a crowd.

(You can see clips here). This guy is a rock-star. It is rumored that the IronMan character in the movies is based upon Larry Ellison- that’s how much of a rock star this guy is.

Corporate CEOs need to be rock stars to impress their clients, share-holders and employees, all the while creating fear in the minds of the enemy. It’s all for effect, this audience baiting, this hyper-enunciated speaking, this rabble-rousing. It’s all to good effect.

The question is: Does everyone in the business world have to be a rock star of this variety?

I think not.

It depends on what the person’s strengths are, and what the company needs at the time. Even in the music industry, the true home of the “Rock Star” phenomena, there are different types of musician-heroes. Not everyone is a glam-rocking-fist-pumping-bad-boy! On the contrary, most are not at all in line with this stereotype.

This bad boy image works only for those people who need to reach large stadium-type audiences, and who get their popularity through the media. Exaggerated actions are what will get the attention they want- be it in the stadium, or be it in the press.

There are other types of musicians in the world of music, and in the world of business. All are needed. Here’s a list.

The Songwriter who, like Gulzaar, writes the songs that others become famous for. In the corporate world, this person may be doing all the thinking, allowing others to take the fame.

The band-wallah who, like The Edge or George Harrison is part of successful team, and is not in the limelight, but not too far behind. The show is not about him, but the show cannot go on without him.

The playback singer who, like Sonia-ji is calling the shots but can only be heard through other people. These could be the power-brokers, or the agenda-formers in any company.

Many times the press- even the business press- looks for the rock-stars who can quip in real-time, and who can give fantastic sound-bytes. That’s what the press needs to make their stuff readable. Doesn’t make the “superstar CEO” any better than the effective manager who does not give interviews.

Just a thought! My sketch below. Oh, and the audience soon grew tired of Larry’s pitch. By the end of his presentation, more than half the audience had quietly shuffled out. It was good to have the room darkened!

And the world goes to… Ameerpet!

Did you know about a place called Ameerpet?  It’s a small corner of Hyderabad where a 100,000 people are studying technology at any point of time.  What Kota does for engineering aspirants, Ameerpet does for tech aspirants – namely plug the gap between college education (or lack therein) and what it takes to get a job.  Yesterday’s Economic times had this article.

Ameerpet picked up on the desperation of thousands of students like Sudha when, almost a decade ago, it morphed from a quiet, residential neighbourhood into a renegade IT hub. Every crumbling building here seems to be crammed with institutes offering courses in SAP, Java, Oracle, C, C++ and a host of others. The training institutes range from a hole-in-the-wall place to large sheds converted into classrooms that pack in a few hundred students. There is at least one new institute springing up every day, but most are low on credibility and use unauthorised software.  Every day, hundreds of people like Sudha throng Ameerpet. They come searching for low-cost courses; for the experience of working on ‘live projects’, which are smuggled from all over the world, or for a crash course to upgrade their skills.

Many people come from villages to pick up tech skills and join the employment pool – more on that subject in a later post.  Employees of tech companies come here to brush up their skills (and actually learn what their companies are trying to teach them through e-learning modules).  Many of ï»żï»żthem also teach here, earning a 500-1,000 an hour.

Its a sad reflection on our colleges that students need to go through significant additional training in order to be employable.  At the same time, it’s a testament to private enterprise that finds a way to fill the gap.  Getting to acceptable standards of employment is often good enough.

As a trainer at an Ameerpet institute puts it: “It’s like having a plasma TV and a basic one in front of you. The basic one may not give you the superior quality and status symbol of the plasma, but does it mean it is not doing its job at all?”

Fixing workshop design

This is a continuation of my previous post here. I’m talking in this piece about how to improve workshop and meeting design to get the best out of people.

Start with recognizing the humans in the meeting: It’s surprising how many meetings start without enough time spent in introductions and pleasantries. Many people (of the teutonic bent, perhaps) consider introductions a waste of productive time. Let’s get on with it! That’s a big mistake. How can people speak their minds freely if they don’t know who’s listening to them? How do people get over their natural respect for authority and participate in meetings, if their presence are not even acknowledged?

I’m not suggesting that people spend 2 hours doing ice-breakers and introductions. What I have seen working is to deliberately spend the first few minutes of the meeting in light banter, making sure to address the junior-most person in the meeting directly. Put out name tags in front of everybody. When someone speaks up for the first time, ask them to introduce themselves. Simple stuff.

Amit reminded me of the fantastic anecdote from Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon and fantastic author) about how he saw a notable improvement in operation theater dynamics by simply insisting that the doctors and nurses introduce themselves to each other before the operation began. What this did was to lower the nurses’ fear of speaking up. When they saw the doctors make a mistake, of miss an important observation, they felt they had the permission to speak up. The team made much lesser mistakes as a result.

Imagine the END first: Once again, so many meetings begin with a PowerPoint agenda slide that fails to excite people about the real destination of the meeting. Are we going to walk out of this meeting with an agreement on the key points of difference? Are we going to walk out of this meeting with a fully built prototype? Are we going to end this meeting as friends?

Everyone who comes to the meeting has some expectations of what they’re about to go through. It’s best to start by making sure that everyone has the same picture in mind, so that everyone can work together to get there.

Tell a STORY that sparks imagination: In the same vein as the previous point. It’s not enough to present dry facts and data throughout the meeting. People get bored by these. Instead, be ready to tell stories to spark everyone’s imagination. If we do it right, we could be the BIGGEST account in the company! or This new product will make us all very rich! or We’ll be able to achieve things that people haven’t been able to achieve in the last 30 years. We’ll be superstars! Not everything has to be rah rah, of course. Here’s another story Our company is in deep trouble. If we don’t pull this through, we will soon have to file for bankrupcy. We’re all going to have to look for new jobs then!

Stay Rooted in Reality: Another problem with mindless statistics, stupidly written presentations, and poorly crafted agenda slides is that the conversation can get very abstract. It is very important to have a Laloo-style earthy person in the room to bring everyone back to ground reality. Always keep checking if the data and decisions that are being discussed are connected with reality. If not, someone is blowing smoke in your face.

Pace: Carry, don’t Tarry. The more people you have in the room, the higher the probability that someone is drifting away into daydreamland. The pace of the discussions needs to be slow enough to carry everyone along, but not so slow that the police book you on loitering charges. Carry, but don’t tarry.

Pause and Refresh: Amazing how many people think that the death-march is the best way to get full value out of the meeting. On the contrary, inserting in time gaps into the meeting allows everyone to absorb everything that has happened so far, and be mentally prepared to enter the next conversation. Otherwise, you’re likely to get “stack overflow”.

What does it mean?: In case you haven’t been wasting time on the internet this summer, please put the phrase “double rainbow what does it mean” into Google. You will soon be taken to one of the most infectious internet memes of the year. A hippie dude flips out when he sees a double rainbow outside his house, and then spends the next 3 minutes running around, gasping for breath, invoking the almighty, and wondering “what does it mean”! Humans are a meaning driven species, and it is very important that all meetings end with a “what does it mean” recap. People will derive meaning anyway. It’s best if they share the same meaning as you.

Workshops don’t need to be boring!

I was in a series of day-long workshops earlier last week. These were intense affairs, with about 10-15 people attending in person, and a few folks dialed into the call. The meetings ran non-stop for 7-9 hours with minimal breaks for breakfast, lunch and coffee. In one case, the meeting started at 7am (and in a time-zone three hours BEFORE mine…which means it’s 4am in my body-clock). As the day dragged on, I could see that people were wearing thin, drifting away into daydreamland, losing track of what is going on. Some checked out of the meeting mentally, while others would display a remarkable awakening in the middle of someone else’s piece, speak their piece, and then go back into zombie-land. Workshop design needs a rethink. That’s where my doodle comes in.

The days-long-workshop is one of the evils of the modern workplace. These tend to be somber affairs, and mostly bore the heck out of the attendees. Given how useless these meetings tend to be, it’s a surprise that people continue to organize them in the first place. Maybe they make the drudgery of daily work seem lees boring!

It doesn’t have to be that way. These meetings can be made to come alive through a series of small changes. Spend sometime scanning the note below. I’ll be back with more details in my follow on post.

(c) Rustey 2010

One solution to the teacher scarcity

Import them! Like many colleges in India are now beginning to do.  No longer are colleges content with the occasional NRI wanting to return to India.  Now they’re actively going out and sourcing teachers from other countries.  And in the process, if they are able to improve their brand image (Global faculty!) and enhance their cultural diversity – nothing wrong with that either.  Sure, we will be given a lot of reason for cynicism.  But fundamentally it’s a nice solution.

Full story here.

Acquisition joy and heartbreak

Used to be a time when selling the company was akin to selling the family silver.  Not anymore.  Many companies today are “built-to-flip” – i.e. created in the expectation that they will be bought out by a larger player at some point.

It’s a tricky game.  Sell too early, and you’ve lost a lot of the value.  Sell too late, and you may actually find very few buyers out there (many tech companies in India are discovering that today).

And, how does one position oneself for a sale?  What is the right way to maximise value for oneself?  What are the things that  may go wrong?  Really little literature on the subject – one is forced to go by the advise of people around you.  Hopefully they’re right!

And for those who come close to a sale and fail, it can be heartwrenching.  Years of work, the smell of success, and the numbness of the rug whooshing from under one’s feet.

Which is why this is a really interesting story of joy and heartbreak.  Backblaze – the online storage company went through the roller coaster, and has now told the tale.  Some excerpts:

We Signed The Offer!
Woohoo! Pop the champagne! Well, actually, it was around 2am at this point, so it was more like “woohoo, go to bed”. But, with some trepidation about the decision, we were all excited to have signed and to move on to the next step.

Fast forward a few months:

Saturday. Exclusivity expired.

Warning bells went off. It was possible that Cogswell forgot the exact date of exclusivity expiring and thought they were still under exclusivity. Maybe Cogswell wasn’t worried about it because we were so close?. While both were possible, the paranoid senses were saying something was wrong.

Monday morning I got a call from Cogswell’s CEO. “I’m sooo sorry.”


We were roughly back to where we were six months earlier.

The TAS rejuvenates itself…

… If not wholly, then quite substantially!

In our time, the TAS was seen as the elite within the Tata Group.  They formed a cadre that worked across the group, and were generally seen as future leaders of India’s top business conglomerate.   However, over a period of time the importance of the TAS has probably diminished.  At the IITs and IIMs, the TAS is no longer seen as the top job.  Meanwhile, many of the individual Tata Group companies are now large and strong enough to attract outstanding talent by themselves.

So why have the TAS?  I speculate, but the TAS still has several advantages:

1. Not all Tata companies are able to get the right talent, and the TAS does fill that need to some extent.  Especially in old-economy companies which really struggle to attract and retain fresh talent

2. TAS managers work across companies and industries – and are able to bring in best practices and ideas from across the group

3. Since they may owe some loyalty to the holding company, I would imagine that the TAS also drives the Chairman’s vision and agenda to some extent

It seems that the third point is at play in the ongoing restructuring of the TAS.  This article in today’s ET points out several of the changes being made.  The training period now includes a rural stint as well as international assignments.

On the rural posting:

“TAS was conceived as an elite service of young managers. But this rural exercise shows them the reality that exists in their own backyard which they have never experienced,” says R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons. “If we believe that a large part of our population actually lives in rural areas, we want to build leaders who are relevant to this country and to its future,” adds Satish Pradhan, executive vice-president, group HR, Tata Sons.

And then:

After two months in the villages, the 35 recruits in the 2009 TAS batch were dispatched to many corners of the globe. The next couple of months were spent on projects in the operations of group companies such as Tata Beverages or Tata Communications in countries like South Africa and UK. This ‘village-and-the-world-in-120-days’ break-in drill is a recent introduction to the 53-year-old programme and part of an attempt to reinvent itself to meet the group’s new talent requirements.

The Tata group is clearly orienting itself for two of their stated strategic thrusts:

1. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, and in the villages (Tata Nano, Swach etc)

2. Going global (Jaguar, Corus etc)

And what better to do this than to immerse young recruits in both environments, right at the start of their careers.  Importantly, they are now looking to recruit international staff into the TAS – thereby breaking the India-centric mentality that would otherwise dominate.

How many other  companies are able to use their recruitment and training programmes to drive a strategic agenda like this?

Incentives to learn

Narayan Ramachandran has a column in today’s Mint, talking about India’s missing educators – focussing on absenteeism among teachers in India’s schools (a point we have been referring to on-and-off in this blog).  He states that there seems to be a clear correlation between improving teacher attendance and student learning.  However, teacher absenteeism is a very complex problem.  For e.g.:

* Higher pay is not associated with lower absence

* Para-teachers, who work on contract and whose jobs are not guaranteed, are equally likely to be absent

* Attendance in unaided and government-aided private schools is only marginally higher than at government schools

All this points to a lack of dis-incentives (or, in less polite terms, the stick).   Which is then the focus of most interventions.  Narayan lists out several of the good ideas floating around:

1. Introduce a voucher system that allows households to choose between public and private schools

2. Introduce a credible process of monitoring teacher attendance, and link it to some form of variable pay

3. Create an output orientation that is around student learning and use that to measure quality of teaching (not the input metrics like classroom ratios etc)

The first solution is probably a good one, but has too many complex implications – and will be difficult to push through politically.  The second and third ones are good too, but have limitations.  For instance, measuring the output ignores the quality of the input.  Something that the schools in LA have discovered (covered in our previous post “Scoring the Teachers”)

An aspect I find less talked about is the student’s incentives to learn, and parents’ incentives to make sure they do.  Many people struggle to understand the cost-benefit of a good education.  It’s hard for them to see the NPV of investments in education – and many of them fail to take it seriously.  I’ve encountered a few volunteer groups in Bangalore that try and educate students about this – by displaying heroes from their community and educating them about employment (and salary) opportunities.  But these may be sporadic efforts.

We’ve assumed that there is a demand for education, and are killing ourselves on a supply solution.  But what if we focussed on strengthening the demand instead?  Would that not help create a stronger supply base?

We’ve seen it work everywhere else.  Why not in education?

I’m looking at you, PowerPoint!

Sometimes I feel that there are only two things people picked up from their MBA programs. Making 2x2s, and making presentations.

In the real world, of course, everything is not biaxial. There are some things that you can put into a 2×2, and then there are others that you can’t. Smart people know when then need to move from 2x2s to simple binary choices. Either you get it, or you don’t! 😉

But for today’s post, I’m looking at you, PowerPoint! PowerPoint presentations have become all the rage at the modern workplace. It’s a skill that takes time to master, but no time to fake. Most people fake it. Death by PowerPoint is the weapon of choice for the white collar crowd. Ask my friend, Dilbert!

Last week, there was a famous case of a US Army Colonel who was pulled up for airing his view on “Management by PowerPoint”. Tell me how your workplace differs from the US Army when it comes to the “battle rhythm” described below: (Article called “PowerPoints R’Us” here).

Each day is guided by the “battle rhythm,” which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations. It doesn’t matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the battle rhythm, it has the persistence of carbon 14.

And you can’t skip these events because they take roll — just like gym class.

The start and culmination of each day is the commander’s update assessment. Please ignore the fact that “update assessment” is redundant. Simply saying commander’s update doesn’t provide the possibility of creating a three-letter acronym. It also doesn’t matter that the commander never attends the CUA.

The CUA consists of a series of PowerPoint slides describing the events of the previous 12 hours. Briefers explain each slide by reading from a written statement in a tone not unlike that of a congressman caught in a tryst with an escort. The CUA slides only change when a new commander arrives or the war ends.

I want to see that note in presentation format in next class.