Winning Teams

Winning Teams

For twenty-five years, you paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” When Jack Welch heard this from a middle-aged appliance worker at the first Work out session at GE, he knew GE was on the right track. Work out was born at GE when Welch got irritated after a session with a manager in which it became clear that some problems should have been solved lower down the hierarchy instead of at the senior executives’ level. When I look at some of the research that has gone into what turned out into best-selling management books, I find that there is one underlying theme that makes a winning team.

In their book “Re-engineering the Corporation” written in 1993, Michael Hammer and James Champy said “decisions are best made by the people doing the work” That’s because while people at the top have all the authority, people below have all the information. People’s roles change from ‘controlled’ to ‘empowered’. They work in a self-directed manner, solving problems themselves. Instead of separating decision making from real work, decision making becomes a part of the work. Hammer and Champy narrate an interesting example to illustrate this. A guest approached the doorman of a major hotel and complained that his radar detector had been stolen from his car in the hotel’s garage. The doorman, empowered to perform customer service, asked how much it cost, took the guest to the front desk and commanded the clerk, “Give this man $150”. Everybody gulped but the customer was satisfied. Two weeks later, the general manager received a letter from the customer that stated he had found the radar detector in his trunk. In the envelope was also a check for $150. The postscript to the letter added “By the way, I will never stay at any other hotel chain for the rest of my life.”

When David Marquet took charge of the nuclear powered submarine Santa Fe, the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and the worst retention in the fleet. The Santa Fe was regarded as the worst submarine in the US Navy with the lowest rated crew. One day, Marquet unknowingly gave an order that was impossible to execute, which his crew tried to follow anyway. When asked why his order was not challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to”. Marquet quickly realized that command and control would not work with the men and the best way to turn them around was to give them the authority to make decisions and convey their ‘intention’ to the boss. He pushed for leadership at every level. Under Marquet’s command, the Santa Fe went from being the worst crew to the best rated one in naval history, with 9 out of the 14 officers going on to command ships on their own. All this is beautifully narrated in Marquet’s book “Turn the Ship around”

In his book “Smarter, Faster, Better”, Charles Duhigg illustrates Toyota’s Production System, which would later become known as “lean manufacturing”, that relied on pushing decision making to the lowest possible level. Workers on the assembly line were the ones who saw the problems first. They were closest to the glitches in any manufacturing process. So it only made sense to give them the greatest authority in finding solutions. Toyota agreed to partner with General Motors in the venture New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI, only if GM promised to try their way of working.

It seems evident that winning teams are those where employees who do the work are empowered to and take the decisions. However, the urge to retain control is something that managers need to let go.

Noel Tichy, in ‘Control your Destiny or someone else will’ narrates a story of an incident that took place at GE Plastics factory in Holland. An engineer told Jack Welch “The plant is nothing like it used to be. It is nowhere near as much fun as it was ten years ago. What the hell are you going to do about it?” Welch looked at him and said, “Let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’m leaving for Paris in about thirty minutes and I won’t be back within a year, maybe two years. So personally, I’m going to do very little about it. Why don’t you get fifty people who were here ten years ago, and why don’t you, for the next two and a half days, go and write down, in the left hand column why it was fun before and in the right hand column, put down why it isn’t fun now. And then, why don’t you fifty people change it and move everything back to the left side so you are having fun again. Because you are the only people who can do it.”

And that is what David Marquet did. He struggled against his own instincts to take control and instead achieved the more powerful model of giving control.

Images from Google –

Order and Method

Order and Method

“After you cut my hair last week, I went home and measured each sideburn. As I suspected,
the left one was 3 millimeters longer than the right. Let us make the effort, Monsieur
Bennett not to make a similar travesty today,” That was Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s
famed detective who had a fetish for order and method, speaking to his hairdresser. On
another occasion, he refused to eat the eggs served to him because they were of ‘totally
different sizes’.
We often tend to dismiss such people as finicky and often difficult to be with or work with.
Let us, for a minute, reflect on why these people behave so. Do they simply like to complain
about everything and put people down? Is it to demonstrate their own superiority? Or is it
simply a perfectionist at work? Those in the company of such fastidious people would
surely attribute one or all of these reasons to such behavior but the reality may be quite
something else and I discovered this as I was reading a book “Smarter, Faster, Better” by
Charles Duhigg.
He narrates how a group of psychologists began exploring why some people seem to stay
calm and focused amid chaotic environments while others become overwhelmed. The
researchers interviewed professionals such as firefighters, emergency rescue personnel
and army commanders, who worked in extreme settings. Firefighters could look at a
burning staircase and sense if it would hold their weight; soldiers could tell you which
parts of a battlefield were more likely to be harboring enemies. But when they were asked
to explain their decisions, they struggled to explain how they did it and attributed it to
One of the researchers visited a neonatal intensive care unit where chaos prevailed. What
made it difficult for the nurses in the ICU was that it was not always clear which babies
were sick and which were healthy. So, they were continuously making choices on where to
focus their attention. The researcher wanted to understand how nurses made decisions
about which babies needed attention and why some of the nurses were better at focusing
on what mattered most. One of the first interviewees was a talented nurse named Darlene
who described an incident from a few years earlier. As she was walking past an incubator,
she glanced at the baby inside. Everything seemed to appear normal and there was even
another nurse keeping a watch on the baby. However Darlene sensed something terribly
wrong. The baby’s skin was mottled instead of uniformly pink. Its belly seemed a bit
distended. Blood drawn from a pinprick in her heel showed a blot instead of a small dot.
Darlene immediately alerted the attending physician and said they had to start the baby on
intravenous antibiotics. The doctor deferred to her judgement, ordered medication and a
series of tests. When the reports came, it showed that the baby was in the early stage of
sepsis caused by severe infection. Had they waited any longer, the baby would have died.
Instead, she recovered fully. When the researcher asked Darlene how she knew the baby
was sick, she said it was a hunch. But as the researcher asked more questions, another
explanation emerged. Darlene said that she carried a picture in her mind of what a healthy
baby should look like and the baby in the crib hadn’t matched that image. The other nurse
on duty did not similarly have a strong picture in her head of what she expected to see and
thus focused on what was obvious.

‘People like Darlene’, Duhigg continues, ‘who are particularly good at managing their
attention, create pictures in their minds of what they expect to see. They engage in constant
forecasting and tell themselves stories all the time. Such people build far more robust
mental models than others and as a result are better at choosing where to focus and what
to ignore.’
That explains why, for Hercule Poirot, a speck of dust would have caused more pain than a
bullet wound.
I looked at the letter handed to me for my signature and grimaced. There was no way I was
going to sign a letter that contained three different fonts as if different parts were cut from
other places and pasted on the letter. I am utterly bewildered why people fail to notice
differences in fonts in letters and e-mail they type out and what kind of an impression it
leaves on the recipient of such letters. I pointed out the three different fonts to my
colleague by circling them. He stared at it, trying to make out the differences and walked
away to retype the letter probably wondering why I was making such a big fuss of a minor
issue of typeface !


Image from

Telling it like it is

Telling it like it is

One night, Emperor Akbar dreamt that he had lost all his teeth, except one. He was greatly disturbed with the strange dream. The next morning he summoned all the astrologers of his kingdom and asked them to interpret his dream.

The astrologers held a meeting and after a long discussion, prophesized that his dream was an indication that all his relatives would die before him.

Akbar was greatly distressed by this interpretation and sent away all the astrologers without any reward….

We often come across people who claim to “like” people who are forthright or candid in their speech and yet when it comes to hearing the truth concerning them, they cringe. Why is candor so disliked? Why are people who speak frankly alienated? And why do people fear speaking the truth? To tell it like it is?

In his book “Winning” with Suzy Welch, Jack Welch says, ‘Candor just unnerves people’. And he ought to know because his bosses cautioned him about his candor. He goes on to quote Nancy Bauer, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University that ‘people don’t speak their minds because it’s simply easier not to. When you tell it like it is, you can so easily create a mess—anger, pain, confusion, sadness, resentment. To make matters worse, you then feel compelled to clean up that mess, which can be awful and awkward and time-consuming. So you justify your lack of candor on the grounds that it prevents sadness or pain in another person, that not saying anything or telling a little white lie is the kind, decent thing to do’.She adds that classic philosophers like Immanuel Kant give powerful arguments for the view that not being candid is actually about self-interest—making your own life easier.’

Another place marked by the absence of candor is the workplace. In their article “A Culture of Candor” in the Harvard Business Review, James O’Toole and Warren Bennis say, ‘It’s never easy for employees to be honest with their bosses’ and narrate a funny anecdote. After a string of box office flops, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was said to have told a meeting of his top staff, “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.”

Welch says people ‘keep their mouths shut in order to make people feel better or to avoid conflict and they sugarcoat bad news in order to maintain appearances. They keep things to themselves, hoarding information.’ He rues the lack of candor in performance appraisals and adds that ‘this type of environment slows you down, and it doesn’t improve the workplace’

When I look back at my career, I can list only a few of my bosses and colleagues, who appreciated candor, spoke with candor and lived by it.

It takes guts to speak out frankly. And it takes guts to listen to the truth. One of the six essential leadership traits for hard times is honesty and credibility, says Ram Charan in ‘Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty’. ‘Level with people: tell the how you see the world, acknowledge the limits of your understanding and ask them for their own views,’ he advises.

O’Toole and Bennis narrate another story about Motorola during its heyday in the 1980s that exemplifies a leader’s courage to listen to the truth. A young middle manager who approached then-CEO Robert Galvin and said: “Bob, I heard that point you made this morning, and I think you’re dead wrong. I’m going to prove it: I’m going to shoot you down.” When the young man stormed off, Galvin, beaming proudly, turned to a companion and said, “That’s how we’ve overcome Texas Instruments’ lead in semiconductors!”


My father was a man who called a spade a spade and did not mince words when it came to expressing an opinion. Needless to say, this made him unpopular and alienated and I daresay hampered his career progression to a large extent. Many a time, I thought he could be more tactful, especially in social situations. But as years wore on, I realized the merits of upholding one’s stand, for as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.

To finish the story of Emperor Akbar, later that day, the Emperor happened to meet Birbal, his wise Minister and narrated his dream and asked him to interpret it. He also told him what the astrologers had said.

Birbal thought for a while and said, “It means, O Emperor, you will live a longer and more fulfilled life than any of your relatives.” The Emperor was pleased when he heard Birbal’s version and rewarded him handsomely.

Did Birbal say that because he did not want to cause pain and anxiety for the Emperoror did he fear the Emperor’s wrath if he said it plainly as the astrologers had done and wanted to make his own life easy? Or both?

The question is, should we speak with candor and retain our integrity and therefore be alienated or should we resort to smooth talking and claim rewards?




Image from Google – Grahame Robb Associates – UK.COM



New Year resolutions and track record

New Year resolutions and track record

We are into yet another new year and for many the world over, the beginning of a new year is characterized by resolutions. Resolutions are made in right earnest believing that they will be kept. I came across this statistic on Google – 75% of resolutions will be continued through the entire first week of January, but only 46% make it past six months. University of Scranton also stated that 39% of people in their twenties will achieve their resolution each year while only 14% of people over 50 years of age will achieve theirs. This means more than half of the people do not get past 6 months with their resolutions and 61% of young people do not achieve theirs. I wonder why there is such a high rate of failure in among young people in keeping resolutions. After all, in the wireless world today, there are even apps to help you keep your resolutions (seriously?)

It is believed that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Though this may not hold true in all cases, there are events where at times we go by this maxim and at other times, against it. Take the case if hiring. How many of us can honestly claim that we have recruited a person with a ‘not so clean’ track record in previous jobs? If the person has not stayed long in jobs, he is likely to hop again. Reject. I am happy none of my bosses in the past judged me on this. Else, I would have spent long stints unemployed. If he has not contributed very effectively in his earlier jobs, chances are that he may not be very effective in this organization. Reject. If he doesn’t speak well about his past employers, he will probably bitch about you as well. Reject. While patterns are something significant which cannot be ignored, how many of us have also interviewed glib talking ‘impression managers’ who we hired, only to find out later how hollow they were!

Performance at the workplace is an example where this maxim can be proved wrong. A ‘C’ player, with appropriate coaching can move into ‘B’ or ‘A’ levels and conversely, an ‘A’ player may well slip into a ‘B’ or ‘C’ position. So, how much can we rely on past trends and more importantly, for what?

Business history is replete with stories of people who, having failed once or more than once excelled later. How many people have heard of Traf-O Data? This business was set up to create reports for roadway engineers from raw traffic data.The company did achieve a little bit of success and generated some income. But the machine that they built to process the data flopped when they tried to present it to a Seattle County traffic employee. Two of the people who partnered in the business went on to create Microsoft. The Detroit Automobile Company went bankrupt and the man who founded it later left the Henry Ford Company with just the rights to his name. His next venture, Ford Motor Company succeeded and revolutionized the automobile industry. An editorat the Kansas City Star paper, in 1919 fired a man from his job because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Because he was unable to manage money, the animation studio he acquired called Laugh-O-Gram ended up in bankruptcy. It was with the Walt Disney Company that the man finally tasted success.

Coming back to resolutions, there are two categories of people who are able to stick to their resolutions. One set of people is those who have always finish what they start by sheer habit. The second set of people is those who keep their resolutions even if they have had a history of breaking them in the past. This may happen because of changed circumstances and the person’s representation of those circumstances. The onset of a disease may compel a person to quit smoking or eat healthy and start exercising and continue or even change him to be nice to people. The threat of being made redundant may make a person reinvent himself or learn a new skill. A financial loss or gain may make a person manage his money systematically. It is therefore safe to say that the way a person represents a situation to him/herself influences behavior and in the long term, even habits undergo changes.

Me, I do not make New Year resolutions.





Business stories from

Images from Google –



The Sisyphus Syndrome

The Sisyphus Syndrome

Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology. He was a trickster and full of deceit who offended the Gods. As a punishment for his trickery, Sisyphus was ordered to push a rock up a hill. Each time he reached the top, the rock rolled to the bottom. He was condemned to an eternity of pushing the same rock up the same hill. Over and over, up and down—forever, which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.

For many corporate employees, it is the same story. They start pushing the rock up the hill in the morning and exert themselves until evening, only to find it back at the bottom of the hill the next morning. Sisyphus is alive. The collective effort of employees under the ‘Sisyphus syndrome’ is a company that doesn’t do well and struggles to make a profit. As Jim Collins points out in his book “Good to Great”, these are companies that find themselves in the doom loop. Bad results lead to bad decisions that again lead to more bad results and on and on. Over the years, we have all heard about the difference between the ‘Urgent’ and the ‘Important’. Yet, many people find themselves battling the ‘Urgent’ on a daily basis rather than focusing on the ‘Important’. The need to douse that fire consumes a lot of energy of executives, leaving them with little juice to even think about what the future can be if the important things were executed. What these executives do not realize is that if they do not plant the seeds for the future today, the fires will only grow and consume them one day.

So, going back to the doom loop, these companies have new leaders, new mantras, structural changes and change in direction every year, year after year and they find that they do not achieve their goals and the loop is set in motion again. These are ‘problem centred’ organizations that are moving away from what they don’t want. They become reactive and step into a fire fighting mode of working and the climate inside such organizations is one of worry and stress.

Contrast this with the flywheel, which is a metaphor for actions that take long and take strenuous efforts in the beginning to gain momentum; but once they pick up speed, they fly without any effort. The essence of the flywheel is focus and for this, what companies need to understand is their ‘core purpose’, the reason they exist. If all the people in the organization are aware of this, the energy is focused and they push the flywheel in unison, in the same direction. They then become ‘outcome centred’ organizations that have a clear vision of where they are heading. The climate here is one of energy and excitement as the employees are working towards what they really want.

So, why is direction lacking in companies? Is there really too much pressure on company executives to perform? to make the quarterly numbers? to take the stock prices higher and therefore they seek quick short term results rather consistent long term results? Have they taken the line “Greed is Good” from ‘Wall Street’ to heart and do not want to sow the seeds today for a later harvest that will see the crop grow with flourish on its own? Or is it just plain bravado and good old ego that prevents these executives from looking into the mirror and accept reality? The sad thing is, such leaders also imbue their employees with the same ethos and finally run the organization aground. It takes a visionary leader to see that investors would rather prefer gains over the long term.

It takes long to become an ‘overnight success’. But success will surely elude the unfocused and the inconsistent.

Image from Google –

Life is a Bitch

Life is a Bitch

Do you remember the last time you were sitting in a negotiation trying to pitch a deal and you noticed that the other person seemed disinterested in what you were saying? It may also be that while he was receptive in the beginning, he lost interest along the way somewhere? Do you remember trying to motivate one of your team members only to sense that he was not moved at all? Do you recall a time when you were trying to persuade your child to do something only to find that he/she did not do it later? Even worse, was there any time when negotiations ended in terrible conflict?

You probably were in similar situations also. When your boss was talking about the importance of teamwork, you thought he was an idiot! Or when that salesperson was trying to sell you something, you were not interested. Your partner was trying to tell you how much he/she cared for you and you thought he/she was not sincere.

What was happening here?

When you left home in the morning for that sales meeting, or the meeting with your team member or with the employees union, you may have summoned all your confidence and pitching skills to come out a winner. You may have repeated those affirmations a hundred times. However, from the moment you started talking, it was as if the people you were talking to were in a different land altogether. Why? Did you do something wrong or just bad hair day?

Before I answer that question, we must recall what Albert Mehrabian, the Armenian psychologist concluded from his studies, that only 7% of communication happens with “what” we say or the content. 38% of the communication is with our voice tonality or “how” we say things. 58% of all communication happens through physiology or our body language. Our facial expressions, the way we move our hands and legs, where we look, our breathing pattern, all play a much larger role in communication.

Now, to answer the question why the people we were communicating to were not interested or unmoved or did not change or ended up fighting with us is because of these things called “Metaphors”. Metaphors are the pictures that we see or the sounds we hear in our brains or the feelings that we experience in our bodies involuntarily. These occur without any conscious effort and are often what comes to your mind first. So, for example, if you saw a picture of a vast empty desert when you headed out for that sales meeting, that reflects on your physiology and will manifest in you being alone in a discussion. When you began talking to your team member, you may have seen thorns, representing an impediment or something that may hurt you. Your physiology translates this to your team member as “I don’t want you” or “I need to eliminate you because you will cause harm”. You may have pictured two guns when you went into the meeting with the union. This translates as “I have come prepared for a fight. Bring it on” So, what you say in all the above situations will not be congruent with your physiology and the subconscious mind of the person you are talking to catches this in an instant. It is between the sub conscious minds of two people that most communication happens. It is also possible that you started off with a right metaphor and midway, you changed metaphors to an unfavorable one. That’s when the other person lost interest. And this is exactly what happens with the other person too when you switch off in a conversation.

You may also hear some people say “Life is a battle”. Such people look at every situation in life as something to be won at the cost of eliminating the adversary. These people usually do not look cheerful. An employee who thinks “Work is hell” is unlikely to produce his best because he will always be the “victim” sentenced to this life. Similarly, if a student thinks of school as a jail, he will feel like a prisoner throughout and his teachers as people out to control him and he will miss out on the immense learning and friendships that schooling brings. If a mother thinks of bringing up her children as a chore, it is unlikely that the children develop a warm relationship with her. More likely, they will drift away from her. So, how do we deal with these situations? All of us are likely to encounter some of them in our lives. Is there no way to steer the conversation or interaction in our favor or to be mutually beneficial?

Take heart. All is not lost. There is a way to ensure that you get the outcomes you seek. . This is by altering the metaphors. So when you see the desert, go ahead a picture an oasis where a lot of people converge and happily chatter. When you see the thorns, imagine a lot of roses and you touching those roses and enjoying their fragrance while ignoring the thorns. When you see the guns, see water squirting out of them. You’ll probably laugh then. However, it is important to be aware of these metaphors as and when they occur or else you will not be able to alter them. Better still, why not think of positive metaphors all the time so your physiology emits the right signals to the people who you come in contact with?

So the next time you say “Life is a bitch”, think again.






Image from Google-

The Worry Habit

The Worry Habit

The dictionary defines ‘Worry’ as “to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts”. The question that arises is why would one want to torment oneself when worry can also cause physical ailments? Why would one want to think of disturbing thoughts?

Worry is one emotion caused by thinking of something that a person anticipates to turn out not as he expects it to. A student would worry about how he would do in an exam. Once the exam is done with, he worries about the outcome. If the student happens to be at the turning point in his academic level, he would worry about whether he would get admitted to a college of his choice. A college kid would worry about his employment prospects. An employee in the midst of layoffs worries about his future and an employee who is settled in work worries about his future. A man with nothing is worried as much as a man with plenty. And worry seems to have a processional effect. The assurance “Don’t worry” seldom works because in order not to think of something, we need to think of it first, which only exacerbates the emotion. “Don’t worry unnecessarily” is worse advice because there is nothing like ‘necessary’ worry. All worry is unnecessary.

What is the cause of worry? Is it hereditary? I think it’s more a result of modelling. Our parents may have been worriers and we look at our parents and model their worry habit. These patterns are formed in our sub-conscious mind and over the years, with continuous ‘practice’, we get ‘better’ at worrying. And this spreads. When we get married, if our spouses model us, they would turn worriers too and then, our children.

Charles Duhigg, in his book ‘The Power of Habit’ says, ‘cravings are what drive habits.’ The habit loop consists of a cue and a reward, connected by a routine. For example, the cue may be a ringtone on your mobile phone announcing the arrival of a mail. You anticipate a distraction (the reward) and then the go through the routine of opening the mail. Pretty soon, the craving for a distraction will cause you to look at your mobile phone every time the mobile phone beeps and you will end up opening the mail.

So, this begs the question, what could possibly be a ‘reward’ for the worry habit? Let’s look at the worry habit loop. The cue is an event, let’s say, an exam. What is the reward? It is clearly the relief obtained from a favorable result. The favorable result itself is not the reward but the relief one would experience in the event of a favorable result is the reward. And the routine is worry. Let me give you another example. My daughter steps out for shopping with her friends (cue) and it is now well past the time she said she would return home. I begin to worry (routine) and call her to ascertain her coordinates. She tells me she is at the door. The bell rings and she walks in. I am relieved (reward). Her walking in itself is not the reward. My relief is.

So how do you change this habit? Duhigg goes on to say that to change a habit, you need to keep the old cue and the old reward but insert a new routine. So, instead of the routine of worrying, I would substitute that with conversation with my wife on how responsible our children are. Or substitute worry with faith. The reward still is relief. But the replacement habits, Duhigg warns, become durable new behaviors only when they are accompanied by the belief that change is possible. Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

Thomas Carlyle wrote “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” If you can solve your problem, then there is no need of worrying. If you cannot solve it, there is no use of worrying. There’s no point worrying about the past as you can do nothing about it now. There is no point in worrying about the future as you cannot control it. The present is all you have to influence.

Life is too short to be spent worrying. Mark Twain expressed it best when he said “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” 

Image from Google –

Choices we make

Choices we make

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where ‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘- so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.”

I have often wondered why some people find it so difficult to change, whether it’s their habits, their attitudes, their behaviors or their lives.  It can be as simple as getting up in the morning for a walk or run or giving up an addiction, to changing behaviors at work.  There are some who make the change with great resolve only for it to last as long as the fizz from a newly opened bottle of soda. And there are the others who change and make those changes last.

The dialogue above between Alice and the Cheshire Cat is from Lewis Caroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and pretty much explains the choices we make in life.

It is ultimately a question of choice and what we decide to focus on. All of us have choices. Which one we decide to take will determine our destiny. Simone Biles, considered the world’s best gymnast, possibly of all times said “I could choose to hit snooze…or choose to be awesome”. Isn’t that powerful? Jean Paul Sarte said, “We are our choices”. Come to think of it, from the time we became capable of thinking independently, hasn’t our life been a journey of choices? We choose our friends at different stages in life, we choose to study medicine or engineering or accounting or as most young people do today, choose to pursue our passions, which is the right thing to do. We choose the companies we work for and the company we keep, we choose our partners in business and in life. And we choose our beliefs.

So the question really is, why do we make the choices we do? There are two reasons which Tony Robbins explains in “Awaken the Giant Within”. One is the “pain- pleasure” principle. Everything that we do, we do for either deriving pleasure or avoiding pain. So, unless we associate massive pain with not changing our destructive behaviors and massive pleasure to changing, we will continue to do what we did. So, if you choose to quit smoking, associate immense pain with continuing to smoke and immense pleasure to being fit and full of energy.

The second and the more powerful reason is ‘Identity’. To quote Tony Robbins, ‘what we consider we can or cannot do or what we consider possible or impossible is rarely a function of our capability. It is more likely a function of our beliefs about who we are’. ‘Choosing to believe that one has developed a drug addiction is different from believing one is a drug addict. The former can change, but the person who believes himself to be a drug addict will usually return to the use of drugs even after weeks or months of rehab because he believes that is who he is. As we develop new beliefs about our identity, our behavior will change to support the new identity’.

We also tend to generalize some of the beliefs we choose. For example, if one of my investment decisions turns out bad, and I say ‘I’m bad at making investment decisions’, I have then made that a self-fulfilling prophecy and will forever be afraid of making investment decisions. If, instead I say that ‘one of my investment decisions went bad’, then I have identified the problem as relating to a specific situation and created an avenue for choice.

I lost the ABC deal’ is different from ‘I am a not a good Sales guy’.

I couldn’t get through the Math exam’ is different from ‘I am a failure’.

Sometimes, our choices are influenced by what our friends, family, peers, and colleagues do or recommend. Some of those choices may turn out to be right decisions and some, wrong. The question then is, what should one do when faced with a dilemma of choices? In such situations, I go back to what Paulo Coelho said in ‘The Alchemist’. When you come to the crossroads and do not know what to do, always listen to your heart. You will never go wrong.  It is always best to choose the path most suited to you and what you believe is right rather than choose to go where everybody goes. I’m reminded of the poem ‘The road not taken’ by Robert Frost, which goes as follows

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”





Image from Google-

Once upon a time

Once upon a time


My earliest memories of having heard stories were when I was a small boy and my mother used to tell me, my brother and sister tales from the Indian epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata. My grandfather who I started having conversations with when I was a little older was a great story teller too and being a professor of English, he had the felicity of the language as well. He laced his stories with quiet dry humour and his many tales of his teaching days had me enthralled for hours. When I started reading, I graduated to the illustrated books on these classics and from there on, my reading journey started. However, the charm of listening to those and many other stories from my mother will never fade. I did the same with my elder daughter and she grew up on books later. These days, storytelling seems to be a lost art. With both parents working, children today rarely get to hear stories, unless grandparents live with them, which again is a rarity. When I talk to young people these days, they are not aware of the characters in those great epics or even historical figures or for that matter great authors or poets. When I look back, I realize that a lot of my beliefs and values were shaped from the characters in those stories I heard in my childhood.

Just as storytelling is important is shaping the character of children, I believe it plays a vital role in defining the culture of organizations as well. Stories that promoters tell their first recruits and the senior people, stories that managers tell their team members can galvanize teams to work for a common purpose and fosters a bond that causes them to help each other in situations of crisis. The story telling, however has to have a context and an objective else it will merely be a source of entertainment, which in itself is not bad but when coupled with learning, the impact is tremendous.  In his book “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, Stephen Denning talks about the importance of storytelling in motivating people, building trust, building brands, communicating values and vision and for teamwork and narrates examples of business leaders succeeding or failing or presidential candidates losing elections because of the stories they told.

When I look back at all the managers and peers I have worked with, the people who come to mind immediately are those that told good stories to gently goad people into action. There were, of course the left brained “facts and figures” men (I am one too, by training), who at best were perfectionists, great at their jobs but hardly inspiring or worthy of emulating. I am not trivializing the importance of facts and figures. They are the lifeblood of business, but while numbers work on the head, stories capture the imagination of people and if numbers are complemented with stories, a compelling case is made.

Milton Erickson, the father of modern hypnotherapy used stories or what is otherwise called ‘metaphors’ in treating his patients. Instead of telling his patients what to do, Erickson would let the person get the message from the stories he told them, as if they had figured out the solution on their own. One such incident, narrated by Sidney Rosen in his book “My Voice Will Go with You – The Teaching Tales of Milton Erickson” goes as follows – An alcoholic who came to Erickson seemed a hopeless case. His parents were alcoholics, his grandparents on both sides were drinkers and even his wife and brother were alcoholics. Erickson could have sent the man to Alcoholics Anonymous, but given his environment – he worked on newspapers, which he said encouraged a hard drinking lifestyle – he thought he would try something different. Erickson asked the man to go the local botanical gardens and sit and just contemplate the cactus plants, which “could go for three years without water and not die”. Many years later the man’s daughter contacted Erickson, and told him that after the ‘cactus treatment’ both her father and mother had stayed sober. The image of a flourishing cactus needing little ‘drink’ had obviously been a powerful one.

So, leaders, start telling stories to the people who work with you, to your children, to your friends, to business colleagues, from the heart, in a conversational style. And watch the magic happen. It may not make all your challenges go away but it sure is a great way to lead.



Image from Google –

The Case of the Despondent Young Man

The Case of the Despondent Young Man

When my friend narrated his woes about his son Swami, it ranged from not making his bed in the morning to a lackadaisical attitude to his inability to get through his exams. He was having difficulty in clearing just one paper in his final year of Engineering and had spent a couple of years at it without success. While I understood what a father goes through when the son plods along without much success, I understood equally well what this does to the son’s self-esteem.

Can you talk to him?” my friend asked, hoping I could perhaps bring about a change.

Three days later, I found Swami waiting in my office, head down, eyes downcast, shoulders stooped and a blank look on his face, all signs of despondency. I shook hands with him and got a firm handshake, which was a good sign. From his build, I thought he might be a regular at the gym.

So, what’s going on?” I opened.

I don’t know”, he said, shrugging his shoulders, his voice weak, betraying a lack of confidence. “I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what to think. My father must have told you about my inability to get through the one paper in my course. I just don’t seem to be doing things right and to top it, my father picks on me every time I do something to his dislike”. He looked defeated and was feeling so low, he could have walked under a snake’s belly wearing a top hat. I had to interrupt the pattern.

I asked him what he was passionate about and his eyes lighted up. For the next twenty minutes, he held forth on his favorite subject and from the way he spoke, I thought he was pretty knowledgeable. Convinced that he had sufficiently warmed up to me, I asked him to talk about his early days, right from his schooling, his friends and his goals in life. After listening to him, I discovered there were certain incidents in his early childhood that laid the foundation to a low self-esteem. I asked him to meet me two days later.

At our next meeting, I did some change work with him to erase the bad memories of his childhood and to replace the picture that triggered his failure with one showing him as a successful person doing what he liked to do. He was very clear about what he wanted to do in life. After this, his state changed. An hour after our meeting began, he walked out with his chin up.

Two weeks later, I happened to meet Swami at the airport where he had come to drop his father who was travelling with me. He looked totally changed and appeared very positive, a far cry from the young man I first saw in my office with his head down.

Four months later, my friend, seemingly relieved, called to tell me that Swami had passed his exams and was now confronted with a new predicament – whether he should first gain some experience working in a company or start his own venture. I smiled to myself.

When I reflect upon this incident now, I think I was able to help Swami because while I was coaching him, I genuinely believed that he had the potential and that he would succeed. This, I think is the essence of every conversation you have to encourage, motivate or inspire someone. Our beliefs about the capability of others have a direct impact on how they perform.

Image from Google –