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 this discussion on LinkedIn: How do expats feel about working in English. In response to one follower’s complaint that companies do not do enough to help employees build their language skills, I wrote:

To get past the communication hurdles in the workplace — make a distinction between business communication skills and fluency in English. As you have already discovered, organisations will spend minimally on the first and often not at all on the second.

You however, don’t have to wait for your company to present you with learning opportunities for either business communication or English fluency. Your plan should be to develop fluency in English first. For that, you can sign up for English language courses at your university or for private tuition with an English teacher.

Once you have built up a larger vocabulary and ease of use with English, the next step is to build your business communication skills. For this there are several excellent college level textbooks by American authors on business communication. Also, sign up for a drama workshop. Drama is an excellent way to learn the mechanics of communications, i.e. posture, breathing, using the voice, etc.

We are all familiar with the expression, ‘walk in another’s shoes’. It is frequently used in training programmes to explain and develop empathy. In the past year, I had been hearing of retreats where participants wash another person’s feet.

The practice itself has its roots in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, particularly in the East. Perhaps the most well known account is found in the Gospel of John (13: 1-15), where Jesus washes the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. This narrative is frequently referred to when describing servant leadership, a term coined by the late Robert Greenleaf in an essay “The Servant as Leader” written in 1970. Several others have since written and commented on this leadership style.

So, while I was familiar with the biblical event I had never actually experienced it for myself until recently – at the close of a one-day retreat for women. We, the participants, were told that the retreat leaders would wash our feet. I experienced a confusion of thoughts and feelings which I will try to describe here.

I was not at all comfortable with the idea of someone else touching my feet. I was then distracted by the mundane – “Will the water be changed?” (For the hygiene minded – the water was changed, soap used to rinse out the basins, and fresh towels used to dry feet.). The lady who washed my feet was senior in years and position. So, I felt even more uncomfortable. I felt unworthy. I then realised this was conceit. Everyday I depend on others for my basic needs to be met. Hence, to resist being served was pride – a less than honest need for self-sufficiency.

Later I asked one of the ‘foot washers’ if I could wash her feet, and she agreed. As I knelt down to wash her feet, I felt exposed, vulnerable, and uncertain. We then discovered that the basin was too small! This was funny and embarrassing for both of us. I also realised that washing another’s feet can tell us a lot about that person. The calluses on her feet told me this was a person who walked a lot – to serve others.

P.S. Take time to reflect both before and after the activity.

Heard of speed money?  I am told this is the term used when payments are made to ‘facilitate’ the issue of required documents when a business meets all the stipulated criteria.  A bribe on the other hand, is for payments made to facilitate business goals even though the organization does not meet specific criteria.  I fail to see the difference.

Does the meaning change if percentages are used instead of numbers and vice versa?  According to the Planning Commission of India, 27.5% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2004–2005. This would suggest that the number of people living in poverty has decreased by nearly half since 1977-1978 when the percentage was 51.3% of the population.  However, going by population number, the actual decrease is less than 10 million people.

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?