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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Successful leaders fail successfully

Back in 2009, when I was more than half way through with my doctorate research, I got an opportunity for participating in a leadership training workshop called “Leaders do not fall out of the sky”. I can still recall the feeling when I first read this title. It was telling the reader that you can also become a leader, if you are not one yet. It made the reader think almost immediately that leadership is a skills that is learned, not inherited. This very thought was convincing enough for me to go and test my leadership potential in this workshop. So, I registered and went for it.

Few days later, the training began. I reached the venue on time and so did every other participant. There were more or less 15 participants joining from different departments of the university. I sat next to a blond innocent-faced German guy named Alexander (Alex). He was below average height (about 5  feet 6 inches) according to German standards, however, quiet well built. One could easily tell that he works out pretty regularly. After a while, the training began.

Normally, one would expect the kick-off of such a training with an introduction round, allowing all the participants to get to know each other better. However, the training instructor, who was a lady in her late 30s, did the complete opposite. She asked each one of us the look at the person sitting next to us. Literally, do not talk, do not ask, do not chat - just look! So, we did exactly that. I turned to Alex and he turned to me and we started staring at one another in an uncomfortable silence between us and in the room. In that very moment, I was thinking what is it that this guy is possibly thinking about me? After about 30 seconds of staring at each other like idiots, we heard our instructor’s voice saying; “Now speculate. Speculate about what you think would be the personality of your partner and quietly take your notes.”. That’s when it started to make some sense. We started making opinions about one another in our heads and jotted them down quietly. This activity went on for about 10 minutes. In just ten minutes, I was able create a long list of personality traits that I thought could be true about Alex depending upon how he looked like. Afterwards each participant shared their notes about their partner’s personality traits and the listening participants expressed if they agree to those traits or not. The person who was discussed also verified how true the observations were about him. Most of us failed to predict each others personality. That’s when we learned the purpose of this exercise. We were supposed to experience failure! The message from this exercise was clear that for learning to lead, the first thing you need is to fail. No one can become a leadership material without experiencing what I call successful failures!

Successful failure is a failure that is inevitable after doing all that's possible to avoid it, resulting in learning what not to do when.

The learning from this entire exercise was that the leadership is an ability to train one’s mind over time through repeated successful failures until you begin to see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve more than viewing it as a liability. This was a big learning. What it meant was that just like we tell our mind to remain optimistic in difficult times hoping things will become better someday, or a baby keeps on training his mind on how to walk in spite of numerous failed attempts; leadership is an ability that is learned after repeated successful failures. That makes successful failure one of the most important prerequisites to become a leader. Every time you experience successful failure, you are one step closer to learning to lead. This learning is a never ending process. No matter how big shot leader one has become, there will always be something new to learn through failure. Many people tend to be part of successful failure on purpose to experience the consequences, so they can improve further. However, those who can learn from failures become leaders. Those who don’t, they remain wondering why they failed. It’s a good thing to experience successful failure. I do not know any true leaders in the world that haven’t successfully failed. Even the most influential leaders in human history experienced successful failure taking it as a learning, not liability.

No one is a born leader. Period.

Everything has a purpose and so does failure. So keep viewing your successful failure as another opportunity to add new learning to your profile. If you can train your mind to think in terms of successful failure being an opportunity, then you are on the path of becoming leadership material. All you need to lead successfully is to successfully fail.

This is a learning from the first 20 minutes of the leadership training. It was a 2 day workshop!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Are you leadership material?

Do you know yourself?

We, humans, are very complex creatures. Every single one of us is different in one way or the other. In spite of our differences, we are excellent at creating social environments for living and working together, because we are naturally made to live in societies, groups, tribes but definitely not in isolation. However, this very social nature of the humans tend to create conflicts - small or big - quite frequently in our daily lives. These conflicts are created mainly due to the differences in our priorities or our ways of approaching the same problem differently. How each one of us handle these conflicts define our personalities. Now, take a moment and ask yourself how you have handled your most recent conflict in your professional or private life, and then assess, if your approach was appreciated by your counterpart or made that conflict even difficult to solve? The way you handled that particular conflict will help you understand your personality. Think about your personality.

Can you define what is it like?
Do you understand it?
Do you know yourself?

Your leadership potential

I know that all of this sounds very philosophical, and many would think that this thinking about the personality thing is just a time waster. However, our personality, which is in fact our opinion on how we should handle situations around us, is by far the most influential and vital part of our leadership potential. Any leadership involves interacting with people, many people; and our personality tells us how do we manage these interactions. Period.

In my professional career, I have experienced many personality traits of the leaders usually demonstrated by my superiors. I’m sure you have too. If you ask me to shrink all those experiences down to find out the very basic building blocks of the leadership potential, I would say that it all drills down to three fundamental personality traits - empathy, respect & guidance.

Let me elaborate.

Empathy is about feeling what others around you feel. In my opinion, it is the most important personality trait for anyone in the leadership role. It’s about understanding people that work for you on a more personal level. For any great leader, empathy must be on the top priority, as it helps establishing that personal connection with your team members that goes a long way and helps establishing trust. In order to lead effectively, a leader must be perceived by his team as an “always there caretaking” team member, not a “commander or dictator”. If your team views you as a go-to person for open & honest discussions about their issues, then it means that they feel comfortable around you. Being perceived like that helps gain the trust of the team, without which no leadership can survive.

Respect is about giving space and listening to your team. Empathy helps you win respect. Although, to be respected is an absolute vital ingredient for a leader (perhaps a separate topic), I am talking more about leaders giving respect to their team members. Many leaders develop a habit of thinking that what they believe is the best way to go, and they must prove it to their subordinates. As a result, they tend to disregard the opinions of their team members, sometimes even without listening, merely to prove their authority on them. I have been in numerous professional team discussions, where the better solution is disregarded only because it came from a less experienced colleague, or a senior colleague is not happy about it. Happening of such events in a team in the presence of a leader shows personality trait of the leader that is very disrespectful toward the team members and ultimately results in individuals becoming demotivated, which is the single most biggest productivity killer for any team! It is easy to end up disrespecting without noticing it. It can happen by not responding to emails & questions asked or not allowing your team members to challenge your thoughts and present their own or being evidently biased toward a single individual in your team or not appreciating contributions and saying thank you or being unavailable at the time when the team or an individual needs you or not trusting the team’s ability and so on. In the end, giving respect to your team will bring the same level of respect back to you. Showing empathy is how great leaders begin to give respect!

Guidance is about connecting the right dots at the right time. It is about providing focus to the team and seeing what your team cannot see. It’s about understanding the big picture, and helping your team to understand it too. Individuals in any team are usually focused on their specific objectives. It’s a job of a leader to monitor those specific objectives of each individual and in the end help them connect their specific objectives together to deliver the bigger objective of the team. This is not an easy job to do. Out of many skills, it requires at least that the leader has a clear focus, good cross-functional exposure, understanding of the overall strategic vision, awareness of the abilities of team members & quick decision making ability. I have seen managers in my career, who indulge themselves into so many different topics that they become completely unaware of the activities of their team members. No one can do everything alone. Any good leader is bound to provide guidance to their teams and help them focus on their goals. People expect to learn from their leaders and this learning is only possible through clear guidance.

Be your own judge

Empathy, respect and guidance are the core traits of a successful leadership. These traits require you to believe that your best strength is your people - your team. They help you establish a line between ego & knowledge. They teach you how to establish trust and rely on the strengths of others that you do not posses yourself. Anyone having these three personality traits has a potential to lead and drive change.

Think you can lead? If so, do you have these personality traits?

Monday, October 6, 2014

We are not doing real M2M, YET!

We all know that Machine-to-Machine or M2M is hot in today's business landscape. It is one of the core concepts that will enable anything to connect to the Internet. However, is connecting to Internet and being able to transmit data all that M2M is supposed to do? If you think a bit more closely, the M2M era that we are living in today has a very specific definition. We put it under the telematics umbrella almost everywhere. Today, any device that offers no or very limited interaction with a user and can connect to the Internet (preferably using a SIM card) for transmitting sensor or self-generated non-rich data to some server is considered part of the M2M telematics ecosystem. Such devices largely drive today's M2M industry by offering the capabilities of generating a lot variety & volume of data at high velocity, the so-called "Big Data". The services that are developed on top of this data require usual software development, which was existent even before M2M became a big-shot in the industry. As a result, today the real value of M2M sits in the creativity that combines the potential of these devices with the software living somewhere in the backend - or cloud if you want some hype! Really! How else M2M operates today? Anyone who can come up with a creative way of using the devices' data and offer it through the software layer gets all the attention. Look around at the M2M products, say in, connected cars, smart homes, asset trackers or similar industries. Most of the companies use similar devices that generate similar data, but they couple these devices with different use case offerings on the software layer to differentiate from one-another. That's it! That's M2M today. I am not saying this is wrong or this is too easy to achieve or something that is not the right way of implementing M2M. All I want to say is that this is not real M2M, and that has yet to come. We are just scratching the surface and the rich M2M era has yet to come.

Real M2M - The times yet to come
So, having said all that, the natural questions that comes to mind are, how do we define real M2M? How would it differ from what we have today? And tons other. To answer all those questions, we first need to tell ourselves that every technological revolution has a strong element of impossibility that drives us to think that something is not going to happen, ever. What this means is that in every era, the future of technology is predicted, and many times things are considered impossible to happen, just because they seem too unusual. As an example, think of those times when there were no airplanes. It would have been miraculous for people in those times to believe that hundreds of tons of steel can fly in the sky with nothing to support underneath, and on top of that, it can carry passengers and heavy luggage across continents. In those times, you would not even bother to explain or even able to imagine the luxury, comfort, speed and entertainment aspects of airlines. I am sure that 3 decades ago, no one would have believed that there would be autonomous self-driving cars today. But now, this is a reality and we may be able to use such cars in our life times. It does not look impossible anymore. In the same way, defining what real M2M could hold for us require us to kill for a while this element of impossibility from our minds. We have to believe that what we think is impossible today, will become a norm tomorrow.

Now, back to real M2M. According to how industry is shaping today, I believe that the M2M ecosystem will evolve itself into a data-rich, rich-data ecosystem that will no more be limited to the raw sensor data from devices, only. It will expand beyond the telematics industry into consumer electronics and products, where it will target industries in every sphere of life, such as, clothing, food, entertainment, care, socializing etc. The devices in M2M arena will become more powerful to take the role of service providers and consumers at the same time, while being agnostic towards the underlying network infrastructure. Rich consumer devices, such as smartphones, tablets and the likes, if still exist, will become M2M terminals, where everyone will be able to offer their own personalized services based on their own content. These device will be able to share each other's resources to optimize computing performance seamlessly. The M2M devices will come equipped with virtualized environments allowing them to host multiple operating systems for various use cases. Everyone will carry their own personal cloud with (integrated) web servers hosting mobile services in their bags & pockets, and will even obliviously spend time in or wear everyday in different form factors. These will be the times when the data from M2M devices will be shared directly, without having to upload it to any 3rd party server in the cloud. The permissions & data control will return to consumers, whereas, the connectivity to the Internet will become a daily life commodity and basic human right. These devices will be able to negotiate service level agreements (SLA) seamlessly & intelligently with one another to provide & consume services, depending upon the control profiles, context & usage behavior of consumers. New server & computing platforms, similar to the one I have hinted in my book, will emerge more widely & evolve rapidly. Business industry will completely revolutionize itself, as the focus will shift more and more on mobility, seamlessness, (autonomous) personal service offerings and access & generation of (context-aware) content from anywhere, anytime and from any form factor. Today, we cannot define and even firmly envisage the business models that could be possible in such technologically rich era. However, our children or their children will live in times that we may not be able to even think of today. In these times, we will find answers to many questions on the privacy and security front, as everyone will literally keep & own ones own data. As a result, everyone will be able to define and own their services, such as, the Facebooks, Googles & Amazons of today, as they walk through the streets carefree, while their devices do the talking! 

This will be the era of real M2M!