Monday, October 20, 2014

Lunch-time networking causes indigestion

The new email is a retrograde step and not an upgrade; life was so good with the older system. What is happening with our IT ? The world is moving ahead and we are going backwards. How do you expect us to be effective when we cannot even communicate with our customers ? I don’t know what to do, probably this year again thanks to IT we will have some unhappy customers !

I had approved the investment almost 2 months back and you are telling me that we still have not placed orders ? How do you expect us to work ? What is the problem ? As the Business Head when I have given the go ahead who can challenge the decision ? Why are you trying to save a few thousand dollars ? Do you know that the loss to business due to this delay is in hundreds of thousands ?

These are a sampling of lunch time ranting as described by CIO friends. One of them was a good guy, dedicated, focused, always ready to please; his team imbibed the same ethos and worked hard, always available to the business. He was successful in a typical way with conscious budgets and a fair set of initiatives that kept the engine humming. Inorganic growth and lateral expansion caught him capacity constrained which was beginning to hurt. He did not like the lunch time discussions anymore which ended up embarrassing him most of the time.

A long time back one of my managers gave me an interesting insight; we all typically have our office lunch with our teams. If you look around in the lunch room you will see a finance table, legal table, an IT group, and so on. These groups get together automatically and enjoy shop talk and extended work discussions over the rice, curry and bread. In open organizations there is a reserved table for the Managers where you will find the CXOs quietly having a meal with small talk. Most employees stay away from this table and likewise the CXOs.

My manager who became and stayed a friend believed that the world should not be polarized this way. He too ate at the staff canteen whatever food was served and consciously sought new groups every day to share a meal with. Likewise he expected all of us at C-level to break our comfort zones and network with staff across levels and functions. The discussions though initially polite became a tool to measure the pulse of the company. Employees warmed up to the idea and based on their ease opened up with some of us.

Observing this through the years I realized that the behavior is universal; birds of feather flock together. People gravitate into groups with familiar faces and shun the relatively unknown; if they find no seat within their groups they rather sit alone and not with another group; they did what they did, it was automatic. I saw similar behavior in social gatherings, networking dinners and wherever people got together. Off course there are exceptions who love to meet new people and merge into any group easily.

Practicing what I learned whenever possible, the initially forced experience soon made me welcome into any group. No walls went up or conversations died when I joined a group for lunch. The connect with people created empathy that I could use in various discussions around problems and opportunities as well as driving change which came along with the interventions IT created. We connected beyond work related transactions and built many friends who light up when we meet even in a casual encounter on the streets or a mall.

One of the answers would be that it is all about anticipating requirements, partnering the business and being proactive in your discussions. If you are a good CIO who is aligned to the business, and connected to the customer, blah, blah … lunches can be fun. Your customers’ perceptions are your reality; any change takes a lot of effort and consistency. Another view is that some people will never be satisfied whatever you do; so don’t get impacted by all these ramblings, manage them separately and keep going. Go and sit on another table rather than get indigestion.

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