When Your Biggest Strength becomes Your Biggest Weakness

Premise: 

Once advice that almost everyone agrees to, when it comes to defining our strategy (personal, professional or organisational) is that we need to

“Play to your strengths”.

If you are a business that has already seen some amount of success, the chance is that you know what your core strength is.

So, you build on it. You continue to invest in your strength to get even better at it.

You continue to invest until you are the best-in-class on this topic in the whole wide world.

This strategy works really well, until it doesn’t.

The  irony is that most of us still want believe that continuing to invest in our strength is the best investment. So, we double up our investment. But, it still doesn’t work. 

And when it doesn’t work anymore, this erstwhile engine of growth & competitive advantage becomes our biggest liability and weakness.

The fact is that this will happen – sooner or later.

Why? 

In all likelihood, the world has moved on. You might still be the best in the world at this one thing, that is your strength. But the problem is that the market doesn’t need or value this strength of your’s.

Unfortunately, you haven’t invested in building strength in anything else either. So, you scramble. Some, are fortunate enough to still have enough time and the culture that supports the transformation, but most fail, falter and die.

Solution: 

The only way to avoid this situation and at the same time, fully capitalise on the “Play to your strength” strategy, is to follow a dual strategy:

  • Continue to invest in and build on your current strengths (65%)
  • Continue to explore what new skills or capabilities that you might need in the future and invest in building them (35%)

The exploration and investment in new skills is critical in order for the organisation not to get blindsided when the market shifts. Also, the point to be noted is that we need to invest in building multiple skills or capabilities for the future and when the time comes one of these will become our core strength and propel our growth.

Conclusion: 

Playing to our strengths is a great strategy until it is not. As organisational leaders, we need to be constantly in the “sense and respond”, where we are looking at potential areas which might have the potential to become our core strength and propel the next level of growth.

 

Why Are Meetings so Important and How to Make them Effective and Fun

Premise:

Not a day goes by when I dont hear someone complain about yet another meeting that they need to attend and how it is such a waste of time, money and effort.

Yet, there is enough written about the way Alan Mulally, the ex-CEO of Ford, turned around the company in his stint as the CEO, primarily using a weekly cadence meeting with his entire leadership team , called The Business Plan Review. You can read more about this and how he ran these meetings here.

What he has shown is that meetings can be extremely productive for organisations and have the potential to even transform an organisation. So, if we think our meetings are not effective, it is the way we run these meetings that is the problem.

Meetings Are Reflections of the Culture

Also, I believe that the way we run our meetings is reflective of the culture of our organisation. If we think that our meetings are not effective, that reflects on the culture of our organisation. Ineffective meetings are the symptom of a much deeper cultural issues within an organisation. Just as meetings offer a peak into the functioning culture of an organisation, they also offer a way to transform that culture by transforming the way meetings are run.   

I recently read “Read this before our Next Meeting” written by Al Pittampalli. In the book, Al talks about 7 principles of Modern meetings: 

The Modern meeting

supports a decision that has already been made.

moves fast and ends on schedule.

limits the number of attendees.

rejects the unprepared.

produces committed action plans.

refuses to be informational. Reading memos is mandatory.

works on alongside a culture of brainstorming.

Issues with Meetings

In my opinion, there are two issues with meetings – They are boring and they lack accountability. 

Meetings are Boring:

Most meetings are boring because they follow the same pattern. There is no clear agenda or preparation behind the meeting. The responsibility of preparation rests with both the host and the guests of the meeting.

The host of the meeting, the one who calls for the meeting, is responsible for:

  1. The host should have a clearly defined purpose for the meeting, shared with all the participants.
  2. The host should prepare all the background information that is needed ahead of time and shared the same with his guests.
  3. The host is responsible for driving the meeting and achieving the result that he/she expected from the meeting.
  4. A meeting is the scheduled as a last resort. The host has to first explore if the purpose can be achieved either by an email discussion, an online poll, a survey, 1-1 meetings or a combination of these. As this is the last resort, this needs to work and it is the responsibility of the host to make this work.
  5. It is the responsibility of the host to ensure that only and all relevant people are participating in the meeting. 

If we are invited to attend a meeting, it is our responsibility to:

  1. Read all background material that has already been shared and come prepared based on the purpose of the meeting. We should not attend a meeting, if we are not prepared for it.
  2. If we don’t get all the background material for preparation, we should not attend the meeting.
  3. Be on time and be prepared. Be present in the meeting and offer our full support to the host in achieving the purpose for which the meeting was called for.

Meetings lack Accountability:

Any meeting that doesn’t enforce accountability on all the participants of the meeting is bound to be ineffective. It is the role of the host to ensure that everyone in the meeting is held accountable for their part in the meeting and the actions that come out of the meeting.

Most meetings are convened to

– either decide on something,

– discuss on a decision already made,

– debate about a specific situation or

– Assign roles and responsibilities

It is the role of the host to ensure that roles are defined and agreed upon before or at least at the start of the meeting.

Roles in a meeting – Scribe and a TaskMaster

We need a scribe (who makes notes) and a task master (who makes a note of all the action that someone has either volunteered to do, has been assigned to do or has to get done). Having the second role ensures that there is nothing that gets missed. It is then the role of the host to circulate these notes and the tasks to the relevant people and the role of the task master to ensure that everyone who has some action that they need to do know what it is and by when it is due.

Post Meeting follow-up

The role of the host doesn’t end with the meeting. It is the responsibility of the host to ensure that every deliverable and action that was committed in the meeting is actually completed in the time frame that was agreed upon. In case, this is not the case, it is the responsibility of the host to escalate this with the right people until the action is completed.

In conclusion:

As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that our meetings are not only effective but also reflect the kind of culture we want in our teams.

If we want a culture of experimentation, our meetings need to reflect that. Click To Tweet

If we want a culture of accountability, our meetings need to reflect that. Click To Tweet

If we want a culture of fun and community, our meetings need to reflect that. Click To Tweet

Zetland magazine starts every team meeting with community singing. They even started their customer event with a song. In this blog post Stephanie Vozza, shares some examples of how teams are making their meetings interesting, effective and fun, all at the same time. 

As we can see, meetings are a great way to define the kind of culture we want to create in our organisation, while at the same time can serve as an effective way to move forward.

Meetings don’t have to be a waste of time or suck energy out of all the participants.  

So what do your meetings tell you about your culture? Click To Tweet

This post was inspired by a post on the David Guerin Blog.

10 Things to Practice Everyday

Move:

If there is one set of actions that can have disproportionate benefit for us, then it has to be movement. Our body is not designed to remain seated for long hours. It has been known for ages it is better to keep moving through out the day rather than exercising for an hour and not doing any physical movement for rest of the day.

Our body craves movement.

It is well-known that women around the world outlive men and are also less likely to suffer from fatal chronic diseases. There are many theories for the reasons this happens, but in my opinion one of the reason they do so is because they move more than men do. They are physically more active (not necessarily) through exercises but by generally moving about much more than men do. Even Simple activities like cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping and spending more time standing than sitting everyday can have significant impact on their health. So, even if you can’t find more time to do exercise, find reasons to move about through the day.

Practice Gratitude:

We live in a world that allows for constant comparisons with everyone else that we know of. Social media allows us to create a facade of happiness and success even if we don’t feel the happiness or success in our real lives.

There is an illusion that there is always someone who is more successful than us, who vacations in better places than us, has a more loving spouse and is happier than us. We can’t help but compare ourselves with those around us. This is an inbuilt function that is extremely difficult to switch off.

What we can do is to counter the feeling of inadequacy  with a practice of gratitude.

We could also look at all that we have with us that we can be grateful for – a stable job, decent health, a caring family, three meals a day, a home to stay, a smart phone and a Facebook or Instagram account to stay connected with our friends, the ability to make a difference in millions of lives and a peaceful city to live in.

We can also be grateful for good books, great pieces of art, soul wrenching music, beauty around us in nature… We get the point.

If we go looking out for things for which we can be grateful for, there is an abundance of these. So, lets start a practice of being grateful for at least 3 things every single day. This by itself has the ability to make a significant impact on our stress levels.

Be Present:

We are living in a generation where there are a million things that we could be doing at every given moment. The combination of a smart phone and its ability to connect to the internet has enabled this single device to offer us a never-ending stream of information that can both keep us entertained or engaged.

Add to this the proliferation of screens connected to internet all around us, which can identify who we are and tailor what they show based on our likes and preferences.

Add to this our very own conditioned minds which either worry about something could potentially happen in the future or about something that just happened.

All of these forces work to make it extremely difficult for us to stay in the present moment. It not only takes practice but we also need to plan and work towards living in the present moment.

This is not very difficult as every child can do it with ease but as we grow older, we tend to lose this ability as we don’t use it as much as we used it while we were kids.

It’s not that difficult as people make it out to be, if we learn how to do this.

The trick here is to use a reminder to check if we are fully present in the moment or not. It could be as simple as our watch or even our phones. We just need to train our minds to think of this question every time we see, touch or think about this item. Once we check, we just bring ourselves to the present moment. 

Plan:

Life is full of paradoxes, some apparent and some not so apparent. While it is very important to live in the present moment, we also need to be able to deliberate about what we want to pay attention to and what we need to avoid.

This means that we need to have a clear idea about what we want to achieve on any given day. This goes on to show that we need to have a goal we are working towards. We need to have an overarching destination towards which we are moving and we need to identify the most important actions that we need to take every single day that will move us closer to the goal.

If we are not deliberate about how we spend our time and our daily activity, we can be sure that our destination will most likely remain out of reach.

So, have a plan. We can change the plan as we go along through the day but we need to have a plan to start the day.

One of the best way to plan that I have seen work really well is the one suggested by Stephen Covey. We start with an overarching goal, then break it down into yearly, quarterly and monthly goalposts. Then we identify the actions that we need to take on a regular basis and block them out on a weekly basis. This becomes sacrosanct and everything else can take up all the other available time. We work on the big rocks first. 

Say No:

I know too many people who are stressed out and constantly anxious as they take on much more than they can handle.

They either haven’t learnt to say no or are afraid of saying “No”.

This is another one of the skills that if developed well can have significant impact on our stress and happiness levels.

Saying “No” is by itself an art that we need to practice and learn.

The better we get at this the more opportunities we will have to say “Yes” to the things that we really want to do and can provide meaning to us.

Have Fun

Having fun as an adult is under-rated.

As we grow into adults, there is an overbearing expectation that we need to behave in a certain manner and all other behaviours are not acceptable. This need and compulsion to comply to social expectation has meant that we have forgotten to find happiness in the smallest things in life.

I used to love getting wet in the first rain of the rainy season while growing up. I still would love to do that. The moment I bring it up as an option, people around me immediately respond with the quip – “Grow up” or “Stop behaving like a kid”.

Somehow, as a society we have set expectations that adults can have fun only in certain activities. All other activities are banned for us once we grow up.

How absurd!

Now, I am not advocating that each one of us needs to go out and start behaving like kids again. What I am advocating is that we need to find out what fun means for us and go have fun that way.

What I am advocating is that

We should not just plan to have fun during the weekend or holidays or after office hours. We need to plan and have fun every single day.

Learn:

Research has shown that we can continue to grow brain mass and new neural connections even after we have grown up. Research has also shown that someone with an active brain can avoid diseases like ALS or Alzheimer’s.

Add to this the pace of change around us. Every day, there is something new being invented. Everyday there is something new to read about. Everyday there is something new to learn.I have a long reading list that I try to cover every single day.

One of the ways to learn every single day is to reflect on the day at the end of the day.

This is a process by which we can learn from every single day of our lives. We can learn about people around us, we can learn about our own decision-making process, we can learn about how our teams think and act. We can learn about the challenges that we faced. We can learn about patterns that we would otherwise miss. Let’s try and learn something new everyday.

Empathise:

One of the qualities that make us inherently human is our ability to empathise with our fellow humans.

This is a unique ability that if honed and used well can help improve our relationships significantly. We don’t need any research to know that the biggest stress for all of us arises from our relationships with others – spouse, parents, kids, employees, managers, government officials, etc.

If we are able to empathise with others, we can significantly reduce the friction caused due to mis-understandings cause within relationships.

Also, this can help us build better products, make us better leaders, sell more effectively. Overall, great RoI for a simple skill.

The key is that this is also similar to any other muscle that we have in our body. The more we exercise this muscle, the stronger it becomes.

With daily practice, we can continue to get better at empthizing, irrespective of how good we are to start with. 

Be Patient:

We live in an era where we want everything instantly. We like instant coffee. We like instant entertainment (streaming music/video wherever we are). We like instant knowledge (Google, Wiki, Books on Kindle). We have lost our ability to wait for anything. The moment we have to wait in a queue to get our groceries billed and it takes a few minutes extra for the clerk and we get impatient and reach for our phones.

Most good things in life take time. 

It takes time to write and publish a good book. It takes time to give birth to another human. IT takes time to plant and grow a vineyard. It takes time to make a movie. It takes time to build a business. It takes time to convince and move people. It takes time to transform an organisation or a nation. We need to learn to be patient. This is again a muscle. The more we practice, the better we get at it.

Travel:

It is well-known that travelling is good for us in many ways. When we are travelling and in an alien land, our ability to stay in the present is heightened.

We allow ourselves to become our curious self.

We observe things much more than otherwise. We move outside our monotonous auto-mode of existence. This is exciting. It can also be a lot of fun.

You also learn a lot through these observations. You are also able to build a database of ideas which you can then mix and match with other ideas in your mind already and come up with new ideas when needed.

Travel also teaches us humility and a lot about ourselves and our comfort zones.

This post was inspired by a post by Anthony Iannarino on his blog here. 

 

The 12 Stages of Burnout

Premise:

As leaders and entrepreneurs, we are people with a lot of drive and motivation to do stuff. In our hustle to make progress, we often don’t realise if we start suffering from burnout until it’s too late.  So, when I looked up for a reliable way for us to find out if we are suffering from burn out, I came across this white paper written by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North.

12 Phases of Burn out

They have divided burning out  into 12 phases. You can read their entire paper here.  The 12 phases are as below. The important thing is that they need or may  not occur sequentially. So, if we are showing multiple symptoms from this list, we need to take care of ourselves.

The Compulsion to Prove Oneself;

This compulsion is often found at the beginning as excessive ambition. This is one’s desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and later into compulsion. While determination is good and is a positive indication, compulsion is not.

Working Harder;

When we enter a phase of our life when we find ourselves unable to switch off and are driven to prove to others and start believing that we are indispensable, we are in dangerous territory. This generally means that we take on too much work. This is also characterised by inability or unwillingness to seek help or delegate.

Neglecting Own Needs;

This phase kicks in when we start experiencing erratic sleeping patterns. Lack of sleep or signs of tiredness when we wake up is a clear indication that we should take seriously. Similarly, our eating pattern is also disrupted. This phase is also accompanied by a lack of any kind of social interactions.

Displacement of Conflicts;

We are in this phase when we become aware that what we are doing is not right, but we are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed and we may start to feel threatened, panicky and jittery.

Revision of Values; 

In this phase, our values get skewed. We are no longer spending time with our family and friends. We lose track of our hobbies and think of them as irrelevant and consider them to be a waste of our time and attention. The only remaining focus of our lives that remains is our work.

Denial of Emerging Problems;

We become intolerant towards everyone around us. We start perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined. All social contacts become difficult and social conflict becomes extremely difficult to handle. We turn into permanent cynics and become aggressive. We start blaming every problem to be caused by time pressure and demands of our work. It becomes difficult for us to see that we are responsible for this state of affairs.

Withdrawal;

We are in this phase when our social life is extremely small or even non-existent. We want to feel relief from stress and turn to stimulants like alcohol or drugs or something similar.

Odd Behavioural Changes;

We are in this phase when our changes in behaviour becomes extremely obvious to our friends and family. They start showing their concern and we seem to be totally oblivious of these changes in our behaviour. They start getting very concerned for us. This is also when friends and family might start asking us to seek professional help.

De-personalization;

We are in this phase when we stop seeing neither ourself nor others as valuable. We are no longer able to perceive own needs. We lose touch with ourselves and what we want. This is the phase when we are not sure why we are doing whatever it is that we are doing.

Inner Emptiness;

We are in this phase when we start feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. In this phased all our activities are often exaggerated. We tend to move towards extreme forms of expressions and behaviour.

Depression;

We are in this phase, when we start feeling lost and unsure. We start feeling exhausted – mentally, physically and emotionally. The future feels bleak and dark. We dont see any reason to get up and go do what we were doing all this time. We stop seeing the value in everything that we have done so far.

Burnout Syndrome;

When we are in this phase, we can have total mental and physical collapse. This is also the time when we might have panic attacks and might even start contemplating leaving everything behind and moving on. This is time for full medical attention.

In Conclusion:

When we push our creativity and productivity to its limits, we can easily find ourselves teetering on brink of burnout. And there’s a fine line between being in the zone and falling down the slippery slope of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Therefore, we would do ourselves a favour by occasionally referring back to this list to self-diagnose. And when we see multiple symptoms, to start seeking help. It would also be a great idea to share this list with someone close to ourselves – spouse, business partner, friend or a mentor and ask them to let you know if you wander close to any of these phases so you can take corrective action.

In the same white paper, both the authors also share some coping mechanisms that are worth exploring.

If we find ourselves burnt out, Andew Ayres-Deets, wrote insightful and practical blog post on how to bounce back after burning out, that’s worth a read.

Some other very interesting posts on this topics are as below. Do take some time to read through them.

3 Kinds of Burnout

 11 Ways to Avoid Burnout.

How Overachievers Stay Sane

How to Spot Burnout (and Recover).

Nik Shuliahin

How can We Encourage Experimentation and Risk Taking Among Our Employees

This is one of those stories that we hope never happened with us.

I was a fresh graduate with no experience and in my first job. I had decent success in my first job and had reached a point where I had built enough trust with my boss that he allowed me to run one of his branch office. As part of the role, I was supposed to handle sales and procurement both. And in my eagerness to do well for my company, I sold a specific product to a customer at a price that was deeply discounted (I quoted the price of a different quality of the same product) and so got the order confirmed. It is only when I informed my boss, that he realised the mistake I had made. What he did then has shaped my entire career.

First, he asked me if the customer has confirmed the order. When I said that I have a confirmed order, he asked me to dispatch the order as per the agreed terms. He asked me to talk to the customer to check if he could make some payment upfront as an advance, if possible. Try to get this done, without any discussion of the price or the mistake that was made. If it works, it works, if not, it is fine as well. As it happens, the customer agreed to pay 30% of the invoice value as advance. We dispatched the material as per the price I had quoted.

When I met my boss the next time (he was in a different city), I profusely apologised for my mistake as the loss on account of the single order was more than 10 times my annual salary. He said, it is ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from the mistake and don’t repeat it. Your making mistakes shows that you are willing to take risks and push boundaries. This is good for both you and the company.

This one conversation helped me realise (now when I look back) the importance of taking smart risks and that it is ok to fail and mess up, as long as you learn from them. This also taught me that as an entrepreneur, it is important to teach and allow our employees to take smart risks and push boundaries.

The question is what can we do to create a culture where not only is this ok, but is encouraged.

Before we go ahead, we need to understand what I mean by smart risks. First step is to redefine the term risk. Instead of calling it taking risks, we are much better off, calling them experiments. So, what kinds of experiments are smart experiments that we want to encourage our employees to take.

S – Simple:

We need to teach our employees what a simple experiment is and what is not. Any action that the employee takes that is self-contained, the risk associated with that is a simple risk and the experiment is a simple experiment. Any action that can have an impact on multiple sides of for business and can’t be self-contained is a complex risk or a complex experiment.

M – Manageable:

Any experiment that if failed, has the potential to threaten the business or a significant part of the business is non-manageable and the employees need to come us as entrepreneurs with such ideas and we should decide if we go ahead or not. Any experiment that is small enough that even if it fails, it doesn’t threaten the business, is a manageable experiment. It is always a good idea that we start encouraging our employees to start with experiments that have minimal downside and then  continue to increase this limit for employees as they become more experienced. We can also start with certain limits within which employees are encouraged to experiment.

A – Astute:

Any experiment is an astute one if it has a potential upside irrespective of what the actual results of the experiment are. This only comes with experience and we need to teach our employees to design experiments which are astute. Once they learn to design such experiments, we can allow them to continue to increase their scope, gradually.   

R – Retractable:

If the experiment is designed in such a way that they are retractable as and when needed, they are retractable experiments. These are by nature simple and contained and can be easily retractable. These kinds of experiments serve as good starting point for employees to build their experimentation muscles.

T – Teaches something (irrespective of failure or success):

The goal of every experiment is for us to learn something valuable – irrespective of the experiment’s results. It is important that these teachings are not contained with the employee who ran the experiment but the learning is shared with all the employees, so they all learn from the experiment.

It is not enough for us as entrepreneurs to define what a SMART experiment looks like and how to design one for our employees to start experimenting. We need to walk the talk.

It is in this context that I would like to share this analogy:

Are you a Lifeguard or a Swimmer?  

Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks this great metaphorical question about whether or not you are walking the talk.

He explains: 

“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” (pp.14-15)

We need to model the behaviour that we expect of our employees and at the same time, recognise and reward the behaviour that we expect from our employees. Without reward and/or recognition, this will just become one of those things that we say and everyone listens with both their ears (in from one and out from the other) and nothing changes.

The reward for having enterprising employees who are willing to design experiments to learn and push the envelope is something that all of us entrepreneurs yearn for as this gives us leverage like no other action can. Suddenly, we can find that employees are engaged, trying new stuff and learning from them.

One key insight here is that while we want to encourage risk taking through experimentation, we don’t want to rock the boat. So, it can also help to identify certain areas of our business that are ripe for experimentation and unleash our employees to design and run experiments in that specific area. This restriction and focus at times brings out the best creativity amongst our employees and has the potential to bring in game-changing results for us. This area can change every quarter or half-year, depending upon where in our business do we need a burst of creativity.

One of the most important thing that we can do to encourage SMART experimentation is to acknowledge every effort and coach the teams at the end of every experiment. The coaching can be very simple things like asking them some very pointed questions like the following: 

Coaching Questions at the end of every experiment

1. Why did you design the experiment the way you designed? What other options did you consider before finalising this design?

2. What was your purpose of running this experiment? Did you achieve what you set out to achieve? How? Why not (if the experiment failed)?

3. Given that you have now finished your experiment, what could you have done differently? Did you think of that while designing the experiment? IF yes, why did you not go with that option? What assumptions did you have that indicated you go with the design you went with?

4. What have you learnt from the experiment, that you did not already know? Why?

5. Based on what you have learnt, what can we do differently going forward?

Conclusion

These questions will help the team reflect on their experiment and internalize their learning. Knowing that they will have to answer these questions at the end of each experiment will also force them to document their thinking while designing the experiments, which when they revisit at the end of the experiment will give them a very good sense of what they were right about and where they were off the mark to start with.

This will also show people that we value both successful and failed experiments equally and thereby will encourage more smart experimentation amongst our employees.