Monday, January 27, 2014

Brand Value or Unbranded Value

Out of the blue I got this call from a friend who I remember was doing quite well as CIO of a large company where he had spent more than a decade. He had decided to hang up his boots and get off the corporate rat race and treadmill to become his own master. Curiosity getting better of me, I asked him about his decision and what prompted him to leave his well-settled and visible corporate avatar ? When did the entrepreneur bug bite him ? How had the first few months been ? He promised to meet and catch up.

We met over a cuppa; he had been asked this so many times that he started narrating his story. His planning had started almost a decade back with financial goals and family commitments post which he had his succession plan executed and made a clean break. I admired his long-term planning; consciously he took no extensions, no being a consultant and lingering on, no special assignments and no burnt bridges too. He wanted to pursue his passion and thus took the plunge; early results had been a mixed bag.

His new venture focused on a vertical which did not have too many people focusing or investing on; his early meetings got him good traction and agreement to work together with almost every stakeholder he met. He had chosen well and used his expertise and knowledge to create options and solutions. He had also thought of offering his experience as CIO to work with other CIOs towards research and analysis, benchmarking, and KPI review or aid any other activity where CIOs needed additional capacity or bandwidth.

Most CIOs he met knew him or knew of him and the success he had created; they would hear him out, agree they needed help but were reluctant to sign him up. The story repeated itself with the same outcome until one CIO candidly mentioned to him: I know you and I know the quality of work you can deliver; but how do I convince my team and management of the value proposition ? They need a credible brand which can withstand scrutiny from any quarters. It is not about where you have been or what you have done or can do.

Many moons later I met another CIO who had trained to become an executive coach; he too had sold his Ferrari and followed his desire to coach and mentor people. He was successful as a CIO and being highly vocal about his views, it made him a popular fixture in conferences. He was getting along with some training, workshops and coaching for aspirant leaders for a couple of companies. His branding was strong and as a mascot for his chosen industry, he wanted to encash the branding. He too had met with similar fate.

Quickly he realized the reasons behind the lack of conversions from proposal to projects. His CIO brand was well known, his consultant skills not so; his potential customers wanted a management consultancy or a research organization to provide the required respectability and branding. Most of them took his inputs and then went along to the tier one providers to provide the slideware that they could use within their organizations. He was disheartened and was mulling the option to join hands with one such firm; if you can’t beat them, join them !

Is branded advice such a big thing that differentiates it from what an independent consultant would offer ? Is the person offering his/her expertise reduced when there is no stamp of endorsement ? The reality is in almost all cases is yes ! Consulting and research houses have wealth of knowledge gained over hundreds if not thousands of engagements available to all their consultants. They are able to use this and also bounce ideas of a group of experts that gives them an edge over a lone ranger. This cannot be replicated by the individual.

If the strategic parts were to be separated with the operational, tactical and execution, there could be some traction that individual professionals branching into consulting could leverage. Collectively some individuals representing a company, their own outfit has a story, alone it’s a nonstarter. There are some who have done this and are gaining traction in the small and medium enterprises; they are not pitching to big enterprises. If you are on your own, think about joining hands with someone.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to (not) make presentations

I became a fan of presentations from the time office automation tools came into existence a couple of decades back. It was exciting to be able to put together slides so quickly when compared to the earlier chore of writing everything on transparencies with permanent markers or sketch pens only to realize that any change required the entire slide to be recreated. Later, I could print my slides using inkjet printers or laser printers if I was careful of the sheet quality. They looked better than the handwritten stuff.

The advent of projectors changed the paradigm again though initial quality was far removed from the current high definition displays, the software evolution provided the bells and the whistles which people used effectively and ridiculously depending on their fancy. Soon presentations became the standard way to conduct a meeting. And with the ability to add loads of text, images, animation, transitions, charts, videos, and what have you, the presentation puts an Oscar winning director to shame.

Then why is it that now the general reaction to presentations is far from enthusiastic ? Why have they become torturous to sit through ? It does not matter where the presentation is, what the subject is, and in many cases who is presenting (conditions apply); they have reached the limits of endurance for a normal person. Every time you see someone on the stage or in a meeting opening up his/her slide deck, an audible groan emanates the room. Having been subjected to zillions, I have kind of become an expert on analysing grueling presentations.

Here are some quotes that bad presenters use during their time in front of their audience:
1.       I know it is a busy slide, but let me ….
2.       I think the people in the back may not be able to see clearly …
3.       I believe that the font is a bit small for you to read …
4.       The color combination is not how it appears on the screen …
5.       Let me skip some of these slides in the interest of time …
Now I am sure if they made the slides themselves, they knew the lacunae to begin with; then why did they go ahead with not clearing the slide or making it visible or for that matter reduce the number of slides to fit the available time. What were they thinking when they allowed the above to happen ? Is the audience going to sleep through the time or that the audience is too dumb to notice the difference. Glaring at the laptop screen or turning the back to the audience and playing with the laser pointer on the large screen is another irritating trait.

If they did not create the slides, then it gets worse as they have no clue what the content is about or what is coming up next. They just read the bullets and get off the stage quickly. This happens a lot of times in conferences and events where the original senior presenter decides his/her priorities lie elsewhere and passes on the mantle to a junior colleague thereby insulting the senior audience as well as creating a situation that the time, effort and money spent by his/her company is totally fruitless and a waste of time for everyone.

Coming to the exceptions where the audience is in rapt attention and soaking in every word with their eyes glued on the person in front of them, what has changed ? In most cases there are no slides, or just a few pretty looking pictures, or clearly visible few words or bullets that convey a thought or a clear message that connects with the listeners. The body language is confident, their tone of voice crisp and clearly articulated, their eyes connected with every person in the audience, their mastery of the subject clear, and their passion visible.

Is it difficult to make the transition ? For many the answer would be yes as they do not understand the impact they create on the audience. Those who seek feedback or are able to perceive the connect with their subjects do improve over time with practice. Keep it simple, rehearse the presentation many times, have someone listen to you present before the D-day. Don’t use the slides as a crutch, work upon the subject and research it thoroughly. Those who stumble through the motions because they were pushed on stage will need to conquer stage and content fright.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Data, data everywhere

“They want 78 new reports from the EDW and Big Data which has taken more than a year and a major part of my budget to build ! They already have hundreds from the transactional systems which are printed on reams of paper which no one reads. All the Excel sheets that they were churning out from data dumps from various systems and a bit of external data get into management meetings where everyone has a different number”. Looking at the CIO I sympathized with his predicament, it was a familiar story.

We all have at some time or the other been frustrated with endless requirements of reports and data dumps from all and sundry; lot of effort is spent in analyzing the past and validating hypothesis on what worked or what did not. Requests flow like rainwater on a slope, never ending stream many similar to others from neighbors at workplace not talking to each other. Reports get built for a casual question in a meeting never to be used again; when another one pops up from new quarters, the effort is repeated.

We hear of associations, correlations and insights not possible in the past as we did not know how to combine an apple and pineapple to get a watermelon. Structured data was easy until we started going to multiple sources with limited commonality. Even then with statistical models diving through seas of data, the proverbial needle could be found in the haystack. People buying napkins buy beer, not vice versa; owners of red cars have a higher propensity to be rash drivers, and so on. You could correlate anything to sunspots !

Not too long ago the need to explore unstructured data began and with social media explosion the dimensions for analysis changed. Thus Big Data began its journey to challenge conventional way of looking at data and information. Jumping on the bandwagon the term was hyped by one and all to include variants that stretched imagination. Came along new skills everyone thought were important for the future: Data Scientists and Chief Digital Officer to name a couple; did such a species exist or it was glamorized plain old profiles ?

Moving from hundreds of GB of data to thousands of GB does not make it Big Data. The amount of data being created and added to corporate storage is growing exponentially. Data types are also expanding with technology offering ways to mine it. Dashboards and cubes work well in selected situations, their action-ability is still wishful thinking. Enterprise manager thinking has yet to evolve beyond reports from transactional systems; thus the data scientist continues to remain a glorified report writer.

The CIO narrated his woes which started with the Company Board approving a really large budget and unrealistic expectations from the project they called BBF (Bigger Better Faster). With much fanfare the project was kicked off, many people inducted into the team and a few pretentious youngsters hired to lead them to gaining insights thus far unknown, from this prestigious first of a kind in the industry Big Data project. The CIO kept his reservations to himself knowing his meanderings would not be given a kind ear.

The project team got bigger faster than anyone thought possible; the technology they bought was deemed better than what they had. Everyone loved the progress they made in the initial months. Then started the reality check with the target audience (managers) putting across what they wanted to run their business better, to grow bigger and reach out to customers faster than their competitors. Challenges with technology and data consistency appeared small compared to the change required in the mind set within.

Activity Reports on social media, portal registration, access reports, keyword searches and some more were the peak of expectation. There was no marriage between the old and the new as if they lived in separate worlds. What could have been remained buried somewhere while everyone wanted better and faster transactional or tactical reports. The rich stream of data that could have been big for the business was diverted and converted into wasted effort. In the corporate world, I believe that the overwhelming data deluge is far from being tamed.

Do you know different ?

Monday, January 06, 2014

Talent Magnets

Seasons’ Greetings and a Happy New Year 2014 !
Last week I met with two old friends who I had not met for a long time; one for more than a decade, the other a little less than that. The first was a successful technology entrepreneur; the second had made a successful global sales career. After the nostalgia was behind us, the dinner conversations ended up exchanging notes on attracting and retaining good talent. Across different geographies and specialties, both berated the fact that finding good people had become even more difficult with passing years.

We agreed that the situation had deteriorated with increased competition and changing aspirations of the newer generation. Not too many were thinking of long-term careers, most worked like mercenaries willing to change allegiance for an additional few pieces of silver amongst other things. The new talent pool does not want to wait for grass to turn green; they look at the other side and whenever the grass appears greener, with no thought except of them, off they go gallivanting leaving their companies in a lurch.

Ruminating over these thoughts it also occurred to me that there are a few individuals in the industry who are never short of talent and are able to retain their teams with ease. They took on existing teams changed a few ingredients, added some fresh blood and within no time had a great team working like Swiss clockwork and delivering to promise. Whenever they needed resources, skills or expertise, magically they found the right people. In almost all cases, attrition within their direct reports was tending to zero.

What makes these individuals better leaders equipped with an ability to create success oftener ? Why are people willing to join their teams leaving behind whatever shade of green their grass was ? How do they keep their teams motivated as to not look for alternatives ? Their teams consistently deliver and are seen as a cohesive unit which knows where they are going. Do they do things differently that the team is always charged and willing to stretch ? What is it that makes them talent magnets ?

Talking to many such motivated team members over the years I found the big difference was the aura of credibility these leaders had carefully developed around themselves. They were themselves highly motivated, principle-centred and self-driven. Across companies they were able to engage CXOs in meaningful discussions around outcomes and then disseminate the messages within their teams. The resultant momentum between their peers and teams rarely found budget challenges or reluctant users.

The team members were coached and mentored by the leaders with continuous feedback and feed forward connecting them to the vision, the goal and the tasks. With freedom to take risks and fail, the teams found themselves pushing their performance with rigor that they did not know they possessed. Thus they found success more often with lesser bottlenecks because they knew that their leader would always stand alongside. They respected their leader’s ability to help them find answers when they needed.

Their ability to sell a vision and the direction they were taking the company and the function was unparalleled; they created excitement with their stories; industry case studies validated the fact that these were not fiction. The message that I got consistently was that they were passionate about what they did and the passion was infectious. I was surprised by the commitment levels and connect with what the team members were doing and the fact that without exception they looked up to their leaders as role models.

Can this be emulated ? I believe so as many such team members have risen to become leaders in their own right and practice the same principles that they were subjected to. The multiplier effect is not yet high; the roots are taking shape and they are themselves becoming talent magnets. Picking some of these learning I have been fortunate to find hidden reserves within teams and attract talent from outside over the years. I hope that the force of attraction and cohesion is stronger than another force applied by someone else.