Excellence


As I read and listen to the debate on education in India, there is much appreciation for the Right to Education Act. The concern is about the quality of that education. Following are voices that directly or indirectly address the issue.

  • An ESL scholar to a doctoral candidate on teaching English in India: Nobody has any idea of what the children know, what they don’t know and what they need to know.
  • A senior American software consultant on Indian software professionals: They don’t ask questions. Nor do they know what questions to ask. Is there something in your education system that discourages students from asking questions?
  • A senior manager on Indian industrial workers: We don’t want them to think! When they think, they ask all the wrong questions and make a mess.
  • An academic dean: The students lack curiosity.
  • A government schoolteacher: Even if a student hands in a blank answer sheet, we are expected to write answers and pass the student.
  • A young graduate at an interview to an MBA programme: Hitler is my role model among leaders. He was a greater leader than Gandhi.
  • Google search: 60% to 85% of Indian graduates are unemployable

While the student’s words are dismaying at the very least, the responsibility lies with educators. Clearly, we need a better understanding of curriculum development and quality in education at all levels.

Two weeks ago, I came across the question, “why it’s so difficult to find an excellent employee?” , on a LinkedIn group. When I read your question, my initial response was to ask, “Why are there so few excellent employees in most organisations?” . Even, “Why do excellent employees find it difficult to find employment?”

However, on further thought, I believe that to get to the answer to the question that posed for discussion, I would respond with the following questions:

  • What are the employee attributes — character, behaviour, competence, and certification — that qualify as excellent? What are the attributes that employers value and reward? Do the two lists overlap? Or is there a disconnect?
  • And, using these criteria, who are the excellent employees in an organisation?
  • What steps do employers take to retain an excellent employee?
  • How do employers nurture excellence in employees?
  • What do employers do to encourage the recruitment of excellent employees?

Even as I write this, the Peter Principle comes to mind. I found these articles on the Internet: How the Peter Principle Works and Beware of Your Super Performers. The first article discusses the pitfalls of assuming competence. The second article cautions against super competence.

As I see it, excellence depends on employers and employees alike. In short — could we and how do we edify one another?

I came across the tagline ‘fight poverty through trade’ for an international NGO. As I browsed through the organization’s website, I thought about that tagline in the context of India. The Indian economy has grown spectacularly, touching $1-trillion in 2007. This would suggest a healthy trade environment in the country which then should have secured poverty reduction. But that has not been so. As we all know from the World Bank’s statistics, over 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line.

Given these facts, I would insert the word ‘fair’ in the tagline, i.e. ‘fight poverty through fair trade’. It is the lack of fair and ethical business practices that hinders poverty reduction efforts in India. While the poor are the worst affected, the problem of unethical business practices affects even those higher up the socio-economic ladder.

For instance, it would be easy to assume that I, an urban, educated professional, wouldn’t encounter the kind of unhelpful business practices that the NGO is working to change. And yet, I have. For instance, a client expected me to handover all my training material – without compensation – for its internal trainers to use. Meanwhile, this company’s CSR and green initiatives are widely publicized across its offices.

In interactions with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) the complaint is always about delayed payments by customers. Countless small businesses struggle to stay solvent as their large business clients just simply refuse to honour the mutually agreed upon credit period. A 30-day credit limit can extend to six months. With expected revenues not being realised, but with expenses continuing, SMEs are pushed into becoming non-performing assets for the banks. The SMEs receive no help. Instead they are regarded as the problem. After all, they are bad debts.

Earlier this week, I was interviewing an applicant to an MBA programme at a business school in the city. The candidate described how his job had become uncertain because his employer’s key client was taking long to make payments. He then wryly smiled and added, “We are now doing to our vendors what our client is doing to us”. Sooner or later, those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid will be impacted and face far worse instability than the loss of a well paid job. Which is why I say, ‘fight poverty through fair trade’.

Following on from the post, Take a Walk, a reader shares two creative approaches to problem solving:

In past years as a director of application development, I often mentored junior developers through the creative process of designing the solution to a problem we were faced with. The first radical approach was to have Friday mornings be a free-time. By that I mean my staff was to pick an idea for an experiment that they were intrigued by but which had no direct application to any work they were currently assigned to. This process was to stretch their minds to try things whereby there was no risk of failure. Simply experiment and see what happens.

The result?

Often, someone would rush into my office on Friday mornings all excited because they inadvertently solved a problem that was totally unrelated to what their experiment was that morning.

The other approach I took was to call my staff into an orientation session where I would use a large white board to diagram a problem that we had been asked to solve. I expected each participant in the session to copy down exactly what I drew on the board and ask any questions as they thought of them. After spending whatever time needed to completely frame the problem on the board, I would ask that the last person to finish note taking erase the board when they left the room and then instructed the group that when finished note taking, they were to close their notebooks, and not reopen them to the diagrams, nor discuss the session with anyone. In essence they were to “forget about it” – Not give the problem another conscious thought.

Any guess as to what happened after I instructed everyone to forget about it?

Nearly 20 years ago, an undergraduate student received a scholarship from an unknown benefactor.  This young woman was the gold medallist in her graduating class.  She then went on to do an MCA, at the end of which she was hired by a software company and sent to its client’s site in the US.  That Christmas, she sent a cheque for $100 to her alma mater requesting that the money be used to support a student.  She wrote in her Christmas card, “Just as someone helped me when I needed help, I now want to help a student who needs help.”

A friend wrote, “Your latest post on “Hiring: Character or Competence?” was rather interesting. Might I add that as much as both Character and Competence are indispensable, so is the Calling? Without the passion, drive or desire towards the duty or function, it’s all futile.”

I totally agree.  For instance, yesterday’s editorial page in The Hindu had an excellent article on the missing ‘Es’ in medical education.  These include empathy and ethics – both being the outcome of calling or vocation.  It is calling that determines our academic choices and our career paths.  Or, at least it should.  Too often, when interviewing candidates for higher education programmes, I find their choice of subject is decided by whether or not a course has “good scope”.  

Perhaps this is a reason why two Hewitt consultants, Mick Bennet and Andrew Bell, write in their book Leadership & Talent in Asia, “The reality is that one out of every two employees throughout Asia-Pacific aren’t excited about getting out of bed in the morning and heading off to work. . . . They feel stuck and constrained in jobs that don’t stretch or challenge them, and where they see organizational values written in two-foot-high letters on the meeting room walls – but people actually behaving very differently.”(p.2)

The focus then is on certification – like the business executive who bragged that he was working on his 10th degree.  The next degree was going to be a doctorate. And yet, with all this certification, there was at best limited evidence of calling, character, and competence.

A final word on Ricardo Semler!  Semler as well as other management writers I’ve read talk about hiring staff based on their cultural fit with the organization.  I would consider it differently.  When hiring, is the priority character or competence?  The instinctive choice is competence.  Yet, whenever I’ve hired for competence, the outcome was conflict.  On the other hand, whenever I’ve looked for character first, the outcome was always positive. 

For instance, when hiring my administrative team, honesty was vital as money was being handled.  For my sales team, I looked for motivation in applicants.  The difference between the two groups was telling.  With the latter group there were constant problems such as staff reporting sales that were not closed, failing to fully brief customers on the product, etc.  The support staff on the other hand were highly motivated, self managing and efficient.

Of course, I write this with the benefit of hindsight.  It was Semler’s books that got me thinking.  And when I looked back at my hiring choices and the results, I realized character made all the difference. 

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