Learning & Change

Wheels of Change!

Its a bright, brilliant Sunday. My nephew, who is all of seven years, is up and about. As I slip on the running shoes, he wants to smell the outdoors with me. ‘Lets walk’. He says. It isn’t often that such privileges nudge me. I agree in a flash

His seven year old legs are growing stronger. I notice. His limbs are slim. His hair in one irreverent lock that is bouncy and chirpy. Just like him. ‘How long are we going to walk?’, he asks, a few steps into our walk. As our incessant chatter steals a march over the energy expended on the walk.

Soon, I realise, like all of us he too has several windows to the world. His school. His friends and of course, his dad’s tablet.

Today, he paints a ‘I am a super hero’ picture to me. As you can imagine, I am remarkably pleased. Its been ages since anyone has tried to impress me. I let him know how impressed I was. We walk another fifty meters and I think he is slowing down.

‘Are you tired?’, I ask.

‘No’. He says. With the same singular chirpiness. ‘It is now 99’ he adds. My brain scrambles to assemble some sleepy resources to figure what the ’99’ is all about. After a bit of silence, I ask him, ‘err..but what is this 99?’

There are points in time, when kids lose all their respect in an adult’s prowess. The taller the pedestal they put the adult on, the harder the adult falls. When that moment comes, its not a pleasant feeling. This was that moment, when the push from the pedestal happened. He stopped walking. Put his hands on his hips. An expression that left something like ‘You didn’t know this….?’, largely unnecessary. He merely says, ‘My battery’. (Pronounced BAH-TTERY. With suitable emphasis for effect). “My body battery, when we started out from home it was 100. Now it is 99′.

Of course the ‘battery draining’ and ‘recharging’ have established themselves as common everyday living and lingua that are well woven into modern day language. But this quantified expression from this 7 year old, hands me a knock out punch.

We carry on with our walk. Speaking of other things. He with some of his questions and me with mine. The words he uses reveal the depth of his questions and the rich texture of his worlds . We speak of his sports day and the medals that his track running got him. The super hero in him emerges. Again. ‘I beat them all’. ‘By a lot of distance’. He says.

‘A lot of distance?’ I ask. Sensing an opportunity for a lesson in English grammar.

‘Yes. yes.’ He says. Vehemently. With a flourish, he adds, ‘They haven’t upgraded their bodies’, he says. I smile. Now that is profound, I think. I drop the idea of English grammar. I pursue this ‘upgrade’ line of thought. Having lost all of my respect on the battery front, I can afford to play dumb.

‘What does that mean?’, I ask. ‘Upgraded their bodies’?

In a seamless flow, he begins. “They are not becoming stronger, faster. And they don’t come upto me and say, ‘ I will beat you in the race’ ” That is what is ‘updgrade‘ is” he says. This is getting profound!

Our talk meanders on a straight road. Gradually the topic drifts to ‘what is the one most interesting thing that you can spend hours on end doing?’

‘I like cars’. He says. Almost impatient to allow me to complete my sentence. I too was greatly fascinated by cars in days of carefree boyhood. Perhaps it runs in the family, I think. I tentatively ask him, ‘Which cars?’ thinking that I would hear the the likes of BMW or an Audi!

He takes off.

“There are 183 different types”. He then rattles of a names that to me sound like random assemblages of vowels and consonants. Finally, resting on, “and sometimes, the ‘Dodge Viper.’ “

Dodge Viper

Thats the only car I am familiar with from his list. His dad had gifted a scaled down model to me many years ago. A model that sits on my desk to date. It was my dream car for a long while, until someone educated me on how many arms and legs I would have to give up to turn the wheels of something like that!

Today, I hold onto the Dodge Viper. And ask him, ‘Dodge Viper? But where have you seen the Dodge Viper?’

In ‘Asphalt 8’. He says. With a shrug of his shoulder. With a ‘I hope you know where that is’, look on his face. Hesitatingly adding, ‘I am sure you have seen it there’.

I am lost. I say, ‘Hmm’. Like an amateur boxer who is recuperating in his corner bleeding from three cuts that a friendly jab of a professional boxer caused.

Of course, ‘Asphalt 8’, ‘Need for speed Most Wanted’, are all video games. I am blissfully unaware of an entire ecosystem that is powering the world of my own nephew! He is unstoppable now. ‘There is Henessey Venom GT’ he says. And speaks about how fast it can go, how good looking that is and how expensive it is too. The prices he quotes are the prices of the video games. He seems confident.

Here is a guy who doesn’t like to sit in a real car, yet someone who prefers to play with them via a window. Me and brother were very different. We had to see them. I used to go to friends houses, because their neighbour had bought a new car. Touching the new car, just lying down and checking out the undersides and rushing to scarce books to read up more seemed so worth every passing second.

We have covered significant distance. 3-4 kilometers. I ask him, ‘Are you tired?’ It takes a while before he answers, ‘NOooo’.

The obvious and most common narrative that emerges from the previous generation talking to a younger generation, is often about how glorious the past was! And as a natural extension, how broken the present is. To see the present as a lament would be to view it through the lens of a time that is gone by.

The greater chance of living a fulfilled, productive, joyous life is to embrace the change and start off by speaking a different language. The onus is not on the newer generation to change. It is for the older generation to reach out and embrace the new. To make sense of the what is coming and to help the new flow well, learning from the mistakes of the old!

The world will belong to the new. In a short while! The first change perhaps is in how I think. Maybe language is a good point of synthesis. I ask my nephew, ‘Is the battery about 48?’ I ask.

Hmm. ‘Noooo. Its about 30′ He says. Ah. Thats a lesson learnt well. The next time, I wont ask him ‘Are you tired?’

The wheels of change. They keep spinning. If we need to get somewhere, we need to keep steering! We walk for a bit in silence. He drifting, perhaps, into his world of cars. I drifting into the world of change and how much more I have to! Bringing about substantial change within, is after all no walk in the park!

The lost art of fine conversations

Conversations after all the binding paste for several things. For a relationship to blossom. For a transaction to take place. History to be passed on. For societies to mature. For lessons to be learnt. Developing people and building a cultures Not to speak of building cultures in an organisation.Of course, The Cluetrain Manifesto took it to a different height altogether stating “Markets are conversations”. ( Incidentally, have you read the New Clues?)If we just hover around the topic of having good conversations, one on one, or even amongst a group of involved friends, how would it be? Think of a good chat you had with someone. Where you spoke and he or she spoke your hearts out?


Wouldn’t it be nice? When did you last have such a conversation? How many times in the recent past have you had such involved conversations?If you have had such a conversation in the recent past and are prone to having such conversations often, then you can count yourself amongst a lucky minority in the world. For the world in itself is increasingly bereft of good conversations!It is a travesty isn’t it, when what makes societies and communities accorded lesser importance, in a world where everything is getting ‘smarter’? I have a premise : The power and the need for having deep conversations is seriously underrated.

Oftentimes we feel a vague sense of not connecting to family members, to teams we work in or organisations we converge at, there is a vague feeling of loss. A feeling that something is amiss. Not often, however, is this question pondered over : When was the last time I SPOKE to someone? I write ‘SPOKE’ in capitals, for it is not the same as having a dead ‘how is the weather’ or ‘we should strive for world peace’ conversation.

It could be five minutes or fifty minutes. Maybe five hours, where not much is spoken, and the presence speaks. What counts is how genuine is the interest shown in knowing more about the situation and the person. Its about revealing parts of oneself. Its being in the moment, with the other person.

a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest writes Edgar Schein in the Humble Inquiry. My post on the book is here. That is an eloquent call out for good conversations.

The trouble with an aspect like ‘conversation’ is that it appears very simple! It is indeed simple. So simple, that its importance is missed. Given the distractions that our everyday world offers and the preoccupation that several of us have with ourselves, it is not easy to have good conversations.

Yet, it is at the centre of our modern day existence! Where ‘inter-dependency’ is a necessity that doesn’t require any reinforcement. Good conversations provide us with the opportunity to move from being mechanistic to being truly alive. To deal with ‘colleagues’, ‘family’ or ‘team members’ or ‘boss’ much beyond the shallowness proffered by the literal meaning of the word. It means interacting with another live human being.

 Organisations offer multiple formal opportunities for good conversations. Yes, they carry different labels like ‘appraisals’ or ‘development’ or ‘coaching’. In essence they are conversations!I chanced upon this wonderful Harvard Business Review piece titled “Leadership is a conversation” . If you haven’t read it before, do take the time to read it. If you already have, do give it a read again. . (The same authors have another piece titled “Conversations can save companies“. The aspect making talk happen is a leadership responsibility. That stood out.). The piece by the authors is fantastic on many counts. Putting together a need for a communication model that is ‘intimate, interactive, inclusive and intentional’ is powerful. Those are in any case tenets that make a good conversation between two people. When you imagine conversation as the basic thread that makes the weave of a community, a society or an organisation, you realise that it needs to be accorded far more importance than what is accorded now.

I hope this reaches you. In case it does, we sure must talk about it!

Building an “attitude of interest” – Humble Inquiry

My dad used to always tell me that the virtues in keeping things simple, easy and small was so huge, that it gets often missed. His knack for keeping things real simple and constantly seek beyond what seemed obvious or what were ‘mainstream voices’, got him untold riches. Relationships. Ideas. Discoveries. And a wide spectrum of people who wanted to work with him. The essence of it was all about having an abundance of curiosity and an attitude of discovery. More of dad later.

Now about Humble Inquiry.


When Vivek Patwardhan recommends a book, I close my eyes and buy it.  Thats that. When he recommended “Humble Inquiry” by Edgar Schein, it was no different. Having consumed several of Edgar Schein‘s work in the past (and occasionally foisting it on MBA students who I taught), I was mildly surprised that I hadn’t come across this work before.  That it was dated June 2013, was some consolation!

Schein writes at the end of the book, “This book represents a culmination and distillation of my 50 years of work as a social and organisational psychologist“.  That one comment should be suffice to get anyone get started. But there is more. Here is another quote. “The current book Humble Inquiry brings together all of these trends in showing how culture and individual behaviour interact, and what it will take in the way of counterculture behaviour to deal with the changes that are happening in the world“.

In more than one way, the last few posts of mine have been about changes that are occurring in the world and our ways of dealing with them. Be it facilitation, Working Out Loud or even ‘Social’ for that matter.  This book settles that theme remarkably well for me. My own stumbling across such themes is either a fortuitous consequence or perhaps I am viewing everything that I am stumbling across with my current lens.

From very early on, Schein anchors his argument as an alternative to the popular mainstream culture of ‘tell’. “We also live in a structured society in which building relationships is not as important as task accomplishment in which it is appropriate and expected that the subordinate does more asking that telling, while the boss does more telling that asking. Having to ask is a sign of weakness or ignorance, so we avoid it as much as possible”. 

He drops anchor on curiosity, to explore and a willingness to ask questions to which we do not already know the answer.

The book is insightful in more ways than one. It is a read that I would recommend to any leader aspiring to lead large organisations now. And more importantly, in the future. The examples are lucid and pointed. Before you assume that the book is a set of skills about asking questions, let me hasten to add, that it is far from that. In fact, Schein himself states explicitly at several places. “The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity“.

The book has several parts to it, stretching from building a case for it, articulating what it is and what could be possible inhibitors and ideas about developing this attitude. The weaving in of Humble Inquiry through the windows of simple frameworks like Johari Window and the ORJI (Observation – Reaction – Judgement – Intervention ) model helps in making it contextual and practical.

Its an easy, simple read. Devoid of jargon. Its the best Rs.123/- that I have spent in a long time!

This book is a superlative, if you are in the talent development, culture change arena. If you are an executive coach or are in pursuit of perfecting your skills, this could well be the centrepiece of your practice. Of course, this book holds a bundle of benefits for anyone serious about leading teams in our current times!

The scepter of uncertainty envelopes every leader’s ornamental bauble. Knowledge and expertise are far too distributed within and outside the precincts of the firewall.  The ‘attitude’ of ‘Humlbe Inquiry”, when coated with ‘social skills’ adds another rather potent dimension to the modern day leader’s quiver.

And, dad. It was while reading this book that realisation dawned that what endeared him to many was his consummate practicing of ‘Humble Inquiry’. His innate ability to ask a question with warmth, genuine interest and wait for answers used to have many wanting to talk to him. This book reminded me of him. Thats one more reason that this book stays on my mind.

Facilitating a conference on facilitation!

There is one conference that I make it a point to be around, it is the India conference of the International Association of Facilitators. For a variety of reasons. For one, it is a brilliant community with loads of equanimity. For another, there is no question of sitting back, staring at a deck of PowerPoint slides, slickly produced corporate videos and listen to suave speeches or a panel discussion, which is the staple fare of most other conferences. Nothing wrong with that.

Just that, the IAF conferences require active co-creation, reflection, and meaning making as an integral part of every minute. IAF events are truly immersive experience for everyone in the room. Never a dull moment. Perpetually inclusive and trusts the wisdom of the community to keep it moving along. That is a rich wisdom and I have always been enriched after each meeting!



To share, learn and grow with the community is a narrative that is dear. We (Me and the L&D team from Asian Paints) were there this time around too, to share our experiences with facilitation, but more importantly to co-evolve along with all participants, a ideas and thoughts alongside our experience.

We ran a concurrent session and here are some highlights and reflections that we shared and helped co-create

a. The detachment that is necessary from labels & tools and in order to attach ourselves to outcomes seemed to resonate with many. The ‘lightly-tightly’ way of working. There were several models that got built atop that vector.

b. Every tool has a place and needs to be respected for that. Overuse can undermine, and under use can be a travesty of what is possible if that tool too had been used. Training, Facilitation, Coaching etc are different tools. ( Tools that carry different meanings in the minds of many). Attachment to outcomes, can bring about a focus on interplay and ownership.

c. Questioning of assumptions can alter the dynamics of how the future (and organisational processes like ‘reviews’)  can be differently built. To begin working on a problem as its stated, but to enable reframing of the ‘problem’ by all stakeholders, with imagination, can cause considerable shifts. We shared a couple of examples, the group constructed a few that were neat.

d. Of course, there were multiple rounds of discussions on ‘dismantling the hierarchy’ and the imaginative ways of co-creation that can be enabled by simple sharing and ‘letting go’. I would reckon the ‘letting go’ bit is a difficult but necessary pill (if it were to be one), for outcome effectiveness to reign.

e. We had begun by getting the group to imagine ‘all interactions’ within an organisation. The choices made by random diverse groups reiterated to me, how common organisational dilemmas are. And more importantly, for how long they have been around. We need new ways of working with and resolving these dilemmas. The old ways don’t work, for they were meant for an old time. And of course, we ourselves are new.


Another feature of IAF Conferences is the open, transparent way of gathering and collating feedback. What you see above was feedback sheet of participants from our session. It left me smiling, while serving as a pointed reminder of the work to be done.

The world and the #FutureOfWork, need an inclusive approach to life, living and work. The foundations of ‘facilitation’ stretch far beyond a clutch of skills. It presupposes an inclusive, generous, mindset that is not bound by ‘control’ but lead by ‘a letting go mindset’ and get everybody to take responsibility. It is a key skill to imbibe and get proficient with, for now and the times to come. With an emphasis on community, common ground and development. Skills to stitch together the future in the face of ever widening differences, are critical. Now, more than ever before.

It was in 2011 that I first attended the Asia Conference of the IAF in Bangalore. There were delegates from many parts of the world and every corner of Asia. It was 2011, the world was still reeling from the shock of the earthquake and Tsuanami that hit Japan. That conference had a number of facilitators from Japan, who detailed and demonstrated how ‘facilitation’ was getting deployed to rebuild the community in Fukashima. It was a deeply moving and a very thorough experience.

The conference provided perspectives, a clutch of skills and a sea of global friendships. I remember leaving that conference thinking if facilitation could aid complex community building work (like the Fukashima example) from the ground up, adapting it to the precincts of organisational  realities required a dash of courage and oodles of imagination. Nothing more. In more ways than one, it sparked a fresh bouquet of thoughts and has kept us busy for a long while.

Heres some news : The Asia Conference of the IAF is coming back to India ( It went to Schenzen in 2012, Tokyo in 2013, and Singapore in 2014).  Sometime in August 2015, Mumbai will play host to the IAF, Asia Conference. Thats the best news I have heard in a long time.  Watch this space for more.

In the meanwhile, here is Brig.Sushil Bhasin’s generous take on our session. Do read and give him a shout! 🙂 His energy is infectious.

Connecting dots

There are several riches the internet has offered me. One such is the opportunity for coffee and conversations with a multi hued spectrum of people that makes the mind soak colour from a rich palette. The limitless pleasure of conversations with a ton of interesting people is quite something. A fascinating array of stories have been exchanged.  Stories that bring alive our coruscating lives of arresting colours, often glazed over by the sad tint of the daily humdrum of existence. Needless to say, much coffee has been drunk, with this as an excuse. But that’s a story for another time.

For now, here is a story about stories.

Filter Coffee

Last week, work took me to Bangalore. Meeting Jaya (@nohrgyan on twitter) was forever on the cards and circumstances lent themselves rather well. Soon a filter kaapi flowed down the alimentary canal as the stories that we told each other filled the air and hogged her tastefully done up home. In the flicker of a few lamps with many wicks, characters, instances, incidents all seemed to flutter to come alive with a spontaneous flutter.

Her story. Her mom’s story. My story. Our dilemmas. Our hopes for the future. Our origins. Speaking of origins, I spoke, like I usually do, of Madurai. ‘Madurai’ adorned prima donna status, in the conversation for  a bit. In some time, a gentleman that Jaya and her mother knew, drifted into the chat. The man they knew was from Madurai.

This gentleman, called Krishnan, had beaten the odds before the odds got even with him. Many accounts of the awesome man he was, flowed, while I listed in awe. Like his dogged determination to learn. Of how he would assemble kids to spread the word about the environment. His doing his PhD and his quest to learn in rather trying circumstances, to put it mildly. His cycling to work and his innate grasp of what it was to learn and to be of value to any and everyone around.

One particular story of how he guided Jaya’s mom to watch birds fly in formation at 5.45 AM from a particular angle at the terrace was narrated with such energy, that what was left was hearing birds flap their wings, in the warmth of the home. He seemed to have created so much difference not only to his body of work, but to an entire community.

“And then, one fine day, he went home to Madurai, had food, watched a movie and went to bed”. In a matter of fact undertone she said, “He didnt get up the next day morning”. A gasp broke free. He was all of 35. The memorial service had people from around the world pour in their messages. Jaya said she too went to the memorial and spoke about his helping her mom to spot birds fly in a formation. As I got more and more curious about the man, she fiddled with her phone and pulled out this page. A tribute of sorts.

My heart beat faster and beads of sweat congregated from nowhere. I went still, when I read on. For the Kannan she was talking about, I knew as Ramesh. I knew him pretty well. He was in the class I used to teach more than a decade ago. Memories of him came flooding back. A tall handsome bloke, with sincerity as a middle name and a bright outlook to life and living. Twelve years ago, I taught a class of awesome students pursuing a Master of Science in NGO Management, from Madurai Kamaraj University. I went blank for a bit.

He and the conversation stayed with me long after we said our goodbyes and moved on. Many cobwebs in the mind got cleared as I had a dull dinner at the airport.  As the plane took off that night, the pilot announced a thunderstorm had hit Bangalore. He could have well spoken of what was happening within me.

The next day, Jaya called me. She said she had bumped into Ramesh’s wife and told her about me and my visit. ( She was a student in the same class as well). Apparently Ramesh’s wife had some very kind words for me and my work and went on to say Ramesh had great regard for me, citing incidents. And as Jaya narrated the incidents she had heard over the phone, I noticed them emerge from piles of other memories that were stacked on top.

As we were hanging up, Jaya said, “I wanted to tell you this, for otherwise there is no way you would have known”. I couldn’t agree more. Since that rainy evening of Bangalore, my mind constantly darts to wonder how small yet how large, how simple yet how complex, how similar yet diverse, how cruel yet joyous, our world is!

The thrill of the success that Ramesh, a small town young man, had achieved, hasn’t died down. Not in a merely materialistic way, but in a much larger wholesome way, making a difference to an entire community of people around the world. Even as it stands tall, the fragility of life makes its silent presence felt.

I will never ever forget Ramesh now. Or how we met and later took different paths, only to emerge at an intersection caused by an interaction! The tapestry of our lives is often a fast moving assortment of people and moments. Every interface is a dot that we leave somewhere. Sometimes, the dots come back to connect and spark a fire of wonder. That fire is often lit by two flint stones called ‘Stories’ and ‘Conversations’. The insanity that surrounds our routines, can nibble our souls. The wounds that are laid bare by the nibbling, are often soothed by gestures like Jaya’s and in the power of sharing and listening to each others stories.

So people, heres something you could consider doing. Sit down and talk to people. After they have shared their story, go ahead and share yours. Talk to someone. You never know which dot will connect or what it will lead you to.

PS : You may want to give this a read sometime. I wrote it in a seamless flow a while back and realised that it tethered emotions together, more than thoughts.

The bowl

Ever since I can remember, the men who roamed the streets asking for alms had one thing in common. The begging bowl. Or the ‘Thiruvodu” as its called in Tamil.  Its made from a shell of a fruit. It gets painted black and its possession proves beyond doubt the status of ‘renunciation’ of the erstwhile era.

A couple of years back, while travelling the interiors of Tamil Nadu, in a small temple, there was a line up of men seated on the ancient stone floor. Sacred ash smeared all over their body, layers of beads strung around their neck, chatting around. Every one of them had the bowl in front.  As we walked by, one of them stood out. Him and his bowl, both stood out.



He smiled, wished me well and was game for conversation. The bowl was bedecked with  striking flowers, inviting an almost reverential parting of a small sum from the wallet.  More importantly, we got talking. Within a few minutes the conversation veered to his Thiruvodu or the bowl. “I am not particularly interested in how much people give, but am particularly thankful that they do give, when there is a choice otherwise”. I remember him saying, something to that effect. But this line I remember verbatim : “Whatever they give, my bowl must be worthy and ready to receive”.

That was then.

Two weeks ago, in the middle of a talent review discussion, someone in the room quipped ‘feedback must be received with a begging bowl’.  Of receiving it fully and comprehensively, sans judgement. In a jiffy the mind ran to fetch the conversation with the old man and his flower decked bowl. I wondered when last was the time I sought feedback with that attitude?

The number of people who want to ‘give’ feedback far outnumber the people who are proactive in ‘seek’ing feedback. Many want to ‘tell’ others what they think of how others are doing. Very few go out on a limb and ‘receive’ in the first place and ‘receive sans judgement’ for it to make complete sense.

In the social, connected and collaborative world we live in, feedback is ubiquitous. It keeps coming our way all the time. Every interaction is a source for feedback. My own hypotheses is this : it is dealing with this public ‘feedback’ that puts the fear into many and gets them stay away from Social tools.

Staying with real world,  here are a few aspects that the leaders who I have worked well with, do well while seeking feedback.

a. First off, they seek feedback. To commence the discussion, they ask very pointed questions. At least, that’s what they start with. Starting by directing the feedback to a defined area, on which the feedback is sought on, vastly increases the quality of the feedback received.

b. They remain very open to any and all feedback that is given. No defensive ‘but you know..’ questions. Questions, if at all, are more asked for amplification or clarification.

There is a strong difference between what they seek and what they accept and do. Listening in carefully sans judgement doesn’t mean that feedback is readily accepted in full. Its just that the processing of it takes place much later.

c. They always provide feedback on feedback. For starters, writing feedback down while it is being received, communicates a level of seriousness A business leader told me once, that writing helps him give a direction to all the energy, when all the feedback is coming his way. Simple stuff like nodding the head and staying attentive to feedback that is coming their way helps them get more!  Another business leader who I talk to more on the phone, makes it a point to paraphrase the feedback at the end of the conversation, beginning with a ‘for my own understanding..’

These to me are aspects that I have noticed in successful leaders who genuinely seek and work on feedback. To have it in one to seek, receive, process and work on the feedback sought is perhaps one of the greatest gifts that superlative leaders are endowed with. Thats something I have noticed.  I wonder what you have noticed.

Tell Well!

The word ‘story’ means different things to people. Am sure an image pops up in your head as well, as soon as you hear ‘story’. In a kid’s world, no other word can bring a wide eyed stare of possibility as much as the word ‘story’ can!

Stories excite children, widens their eyes and brings about a smile, every time they hear the word. Sometimes, they are ready to be lulled into sleep, exchange their favourite toys and have the food that they detest, all in exchange for a good story. The power that stories carry in them, is massive.

Let me pause here and add, that stories have a rather telling effect in the business world too. The same, if not better, than the effect that it has on kids.

Good stories, craftily told, carry with them tenor of playfulness yet manage to stoke imagination and possibly see a future in the mind that isn’t ordinarily visible. Stories help see parallels. Extrapolate the present into the future. Visualise scenarios. Connect a set of disparate events on a timeline. Sometimes, they are wonderful capsules where bitter pills are packaged as interesting accounts.

If they are peeled one more layer and understood better, stories help in translating abstract numbers, concepts and even contexts into more digestible chunks. In that they have a very unique and powerful role.

If stories have such a place of pre-eminence in the business world, imagine the importance of the ability to tell a good story. I could go out on a limb and proclaim that amidst several aspects, the ability to tell a good story is perhaps the most underrated and valued amongst leaders.


Good leaders instinctively understand this and cultivate great story-telling capabilities. Capabilities that inspire large teams and more many times are successful in engineering hard action today, based on the image a story of the future that the leader is able to paint.

All of us tell stories. To ourselves. To others. We may not see them as ‘stories’ per se. But all of us do! To be able to tell it well for a predefined effect and intended result gives it a very different dimension.

If you are an entrepreneur out there, your power to weave the future, emanates from your story! The Elevator pitch is a story. The pitch to investors, customers, potential employees, employees..well, the list is long indeed. That list can be a story in itself. Joseph Levitt told it like none else, when he said, “The universe is not made of atoms. Its made of tiny stories”

Anyone with an internet connection and a device can find thousands of websites reeling out a zillion ways to tell good stories. Here are three top elements that come to my mind, in all my ears of telling and listening to great stories and working with some of the coolest leaders who were giant story tellers.

1. Preparation is key! As simple as it sounds, sans preparation, even the greatest of stories flounder without good storytelling. Getting the story aligned to intended outcomes is key. Most importantly, constantly staying on the lookout for good stories is what will add to the stock that can be deployed at will.

2. Great story tellers always leave their audience curious to know more. They leave them energized, thoughtful or sometimes very reflective. To keep the stories short, simple and contextual works. A dose of humour, as and when appropriate, works.

3. The stories that go a far longer distance are those that are REAL, told in first person and told with a degree of ‘authenticity.

Story telling is not an optional extras. It sits the very centre of good leadership skills. Besides if you want to build a great cohesive team with a defining sustained culture, stories look no further than the story that’s currently playing loudly and the ones that you would like to hear. That’s a very different topic and a giant story by itself!

Polish your story! Yet again. It helps.

This was my contribution to Sheroes.in a while ago.

Talking about conversations

This was a guest post for Sheroes and originally published here

Let’s face it. The “noise” of all the advice, thoughts, exhortations, comments and the stuff of that ilk, which comes our way in our daily life, is of a huge order. What’s worse, that scale is only going to increase in the times ahead. Technology has enabled putting our thoughts out there in the open so much easier, simpler and cheaper.

Of course, all the sharing and chatter has huge benefits. As with everything else there are downsides too. Here’s the big question that stalks us relentlessly: How do we make sense of it all? How do we sift through the mega stuff to find the most appropriate pearls and consequently apply them to our contexts?

Amongst the few lessons that I clutch on to, after working with a fantastic array of professionals and partners, the one that stands tall is this: the loudest voice or the narrative that is most often heard is not necessarily the most appropriate to me. Sometimes the most loud and most often heard, can be so far away from being ‘true’, that it can well be called ‘strange’.

Many times what we hear can well be conflicting pieces of ‘advice’. Each of which is a perspective from the person who delivers it. Each of which comes with all the experiences, backgrounds and expectations that is exclusive to the person who advises. The ability to sort the noise out and zero in on aspects that would work for each one of us, is a skill that each one of us needs to build.

It gets complicated when the inordinate emphasis on speed that the world lays out today overrides the high place that reflection and deeper understanding had in society. The ability to entertain a thought, without accepting it (or dismissing it) is critical to our modern day living. Obviously, this is often missed. ‘Who has the time’, you see!

The truth of the matter however is this: Our success depends on new ideas. Superior ideas. Pragmatic solutions. Answers to problems that stalk us on a daily basis. The power of ideas and solutions needn’t be emphasised more.

Hearing a diverse set of ideas from the right people, making sense of them all and working on a few that applies to our contexts works me.

So here is a simple formula that I put together that works for me. May you consider this for a brief bit before you dismiss or accept it! (This obviously comes from reading, speaking and talking about it aloud. I must also disclose that I read and follow the works of Harold Jarche and that has had its impact. So, if you this rings a bell, well, it is meant to)

Strong Ideas / Solutions are a product of
Interactions with a Diverse set of People X Frequency of the interactions X Depth of the interactions.

For purposes of ease: Ideas = Diversity X Frequency X Depth

Let me hasten to explain.

a) A Diversity of People: Seeking ideas and insights from a diverse set of people is important. Nationalities, gender, backgrounds, ages, professions etc. More the diversity, more the contexts that emerge. Regularly meeting people from diverse backgrounds, who have perspectives to share, features in several successful leaders’ calendar.
Of course, the online world multiplies those possibilities infinitely, for all the experts and more are already having multiple conversations on a open format. Listening to those conversations online can in itself be enriching.

My personal preference is for people who do not waft in jargon or a certain ‘prescriptive Do’s and Don’ts. I look for the open minded people, whose strength lies in their outlook of sharing their thoughts and being open to be challenged. Making it a point to talk to at least two people with different perspectives that are working on diverse projects or solving interesting problems, every week is a good start.

In addition to in person connection the digital world spawns millions of tweets, podcasts, youtube videos, blogposts etc, all awaiting a sifting through. Some ground work and searching can be enticing. From my experiencing plunging in and using these make a big difference.

b) Depth of interactions: Many times, it’s not a straight forward answer. More often, its not even an answer! Interactions often cause reflection. My answers often come from talking about what I hear, aloud. On blogs, or to other people in the context of my challenges. Deeper the conversation, going far beyond the immediate problem always leads to greater understanding of current day problems. For me, I always prefer keeping conversations open and often, aimless.

c) Frequency of interactions: How often a person is able to hear diverse points of views and has the opportunity to reflect on and talk about these to a personal learning network has brought in results of a far higher order. The regularity of conversations with a set of people helps relationships and a learning network to blossom. These conversations and interactions build a good support system over time

All three of the above, don’t provide me with perfect answers. For, the answer is something that I have to construct. Something that fits my needs.

Every interaction is at best a thread. The answers are best woven from different threads that emerge from multiple interactions. Each thread is a thought that is entertained without accepting or rejecting initially. The weaving of the threads according to my requirements of fashion and fit is for me to do. The warp and weave of every garment that we wear can make us stand out or slink into the obscurity of one more person.

To sustain this and make it part of our way of being is important. One way to do it is to weave this pattern of meeting different people and talking, into daily rhythms of life. As this talking flourishes, realization dawns that when ideas and problems are discussed, reflected on, and contextually thought of, rich solutions emerge. Even to problems that weren’t discussed.

Such is the power of conversation. Who are you talking to next? 🙂

Women in Leadership

The invite from Gurprriet and YSC to a discussion on titled “Cracking the Code” – Women in leadership came at the most opportune time. For one, the decibel levels on the topic have been forever rising and for another, here was an opportunity to clarify a few thought strains that were on, in my mind, that needed resolution.


All of them didn’t get resolved, but the morning was well spent. Listening to both the YSC team and the case study presented by HSBC. Each provided good pointers to explore further.

First off, here are the myths that the research by YSC sought to bust.

  • Women don’t aspire to senior leadership roles
  • Women don’t stick it out to make it to the very top
  • Childrearing stops women getting to the top
  • Women don’t get to the top because they lack confidence
  • Women lack the leadership qualities needed at the top
  • Women don’t have the networks that open doors to the top
  • Senior women leaders pull up the career ladder behind them
  • High potential programmes are fast-tracking women
  • Formal flexible working arrangements ease women’s route to the top
  • The business case for gender diversity is working

Am sure you have heard of these, or variations of these stated not as myths but rather assertions of the truth!  I say “sure’, not as a cliched expression but from personal experience of having heard these and statements of this ilk many times over before. Now there is some research that seeks to dispel these myths.  Before you get all too excited : the data for the research is UK based. But, this can serve as a huge direction pointer to your thought.  The report is here. Obviously the people that you would need to connect up and understand more are the folks from YSC.

Am writing this post to kind of ‘work out loud’ on what sits on my head now.  The TOP five thoughts, if you will, that stays with me even as existing thought got refined and newer ones emerged. Let me know what you think and lets keep the conversation going.

#1. At the heart of it all is a topic that I am quite passionate about : Conversation. There are several layers to conversations and there are hardly any topic that escape its reach! Gender Diversity, is a topic that centres around conversation.
Trouble brews at every level. At a very basic level, yes the space where small talk occupies a big deal of airtime, sometimes see male managers and leaders in an organisation, fumble. “I cannot hang out with her as I hang out with the boys”. “What do I talk to her about, shopping?”. These and comments like these run amok. At another level, far deeper conversations where pointed feedback needs to be taken and received, the discomfort gets only further accentuated. As simple as it sounds, conversations and comfort with either sex can be a deceptive deal breaker!

#2. Recognition (& accepting) that men and women bring a different work rhythm and dynamic to work is a great start, relative to odious blanket pronouncements of ‘there is no difference” etc. Yes indeed, men and women can deliver great results in equal measure. But the tone, tenor and rhythm of achieving these can be fundamentally very different. To stand up, recognize and state that these differences exist, is a great start to uncovering the biases that prevail in us. In most cases, unconscious biases. Valuing such differences and leveraging it for better forms the principle edifice of gender intelligence. That is an area of work that needs to pervade across line managers.

#3. If there is one particular interface that can make or break an organisation it is the interface between the line manager and the direct report! Irrespective of what the policies state and programs hope to achieve, it is the line manager who can make, break or enhance the work and the workplace. If, for example, fostering gender diversity is an important agenda, every line manager’s part is key. Infact, more important than fanciful programs and launches that are sometimes so woefully ‘targeted’ at ‘women’

#4. An organisation can make all the programs and policies. But what will ultimately get done is what the leaders do. ‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cant hear what you are saying’, must be remembered. Especially by those in senior leadership roles. Role modeling of whats ok and whats not ok can easily set the norms for functioning. Several leaders lose the plot with inappropriate comments and inconsistent behavior.

#5. A business case for diversity is often presumed to exist. There obviously is research that points in this direction. But unless a contextual business case is evolved, obvious ones of ‘research proves that men and women working together produce better result..’ etc will continue to sound remote. is seen as distant. Contextual business cases however needs to be evolved, in my opinion, by every organisation. Several pointers & papers (including the one by YSC ) point to making a ‘personal case for diversity’ by the CEO as a great start point.  A good mix of personal leadership and a sound contextual business case can go a long distance.

A myth that sticks – Mehrabian Myth

Several years ago I was exposed to this statistic when it came to communication. People understood and made meaning of someone’s speech using three components. Plus there was a percentage distribution as well. It went like this.

7 % of understanding/ meaning came from Words / Content
38 % of understanding / meaning come from Tonality
55 % of understanding / meaning came from Body Language

It was called 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking. Needless to say, the importance of ‘body language’ and ‘voice’ were emphasised.

For several years, these numbers stuck. Why wouldn’t it?  It was repeated many times over. Seemed entirely plausible. It was attributed to a Stanford research. All was well with the world. Those were the days of innocence. Then came the internet and the truth was far more accessible.
Some preliminary reading revealed that the original idea and research was completely twisted and taken out of context.

The numbers themselves are said to have appeared in 1971, for the first time. By a gentleman by the name of Albert Mehrabian in his book titled ‘Silent Messages’. But the context and even the subject of what Mehrabian said is vastly different from what was being bandied in the open.

What Mehrabian says ( as quoted in here )

* Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

* Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling

Albert Mehrabian seems to have been getting at is advocate consistency between action, message and the real self. And also between words, voice and body language. Any inconsistencies between these is going to make it difficult for the audience. And more importantly, the audience will believe ‘less’ of whats being said.

His pronouncement that the audience will perhaps rely more on the actions that are seen than the words that are spoken, perhaps have been converted simplistically into this 7 % + 38 % + 55 % theory that prima facie alters meaning.  There is ‘nothing said about the relative contributions in general speech’ ! 🙂

So, here goes.

a. Words are as important. (as ever)
b. Consistency between words, actions and tone is very important for the belief quotient to be high.

Some of these myths stick far too longer than warranted. The other day I was amidst a set of trainers, who laid bare their affection and regard for the 7-38-55 rule. Instantaneously I knew I had a topic for a blogpost.