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Are you making the most of decisive moments?

By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus


Some of the unhappiest people are those who don’t profit from decisive moments

The term ‘decisive moment’ was coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He used it to describe that fraction of a second when a photographer is able to capture the magic of a person or an event he is photographing.

As he put it to the Washington Post in 1957: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know, with intuition, when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever. That decisive moment makes the difference between a good picture and a great one. It is also true of life. Each of us faces decisive moments, when we have to make critical choices in our lives.”

My brother Ivan, when talking to students, explained the difference between memorable moments and decisive moments. He used a few examples. Here’s one — Dhoni’s last ball six to win the world cup in 2011. It capped an incredible campaign and the whole country rejoiced. But was it a decisive moment for Dhoni? No, Ivan explained. It was a memorable moment.

The decisive moment came years earlier when Dhoni, who used to play football, was encouraged by his coach to try cricket. When he made that decision to switch to cricket, that was Dhoni’s decisive moment, which led to winning the World Cup and many more memorable moments.

Choice you make

For many of us — business students and business managers — who are beginning our careers, our decisive moments are happening right now. Are we being watchful of them? Do we recognise them? And more importantly, do we grasp the moment and act on it?

Some critical decisive moments are our choice of academic courses we pursue, of the specialisation within the course, the choice of career and our first job. How do we make the best of those decisive moments?

Jim Collins outlined a great framework, drawing three circles that intersect. It took the Hedgehog concept that he used so effectively in his book Good to Great to demonstrate how great companies, despite their size can harmonise the three circles. He went one step further to adapt it to the personal level. These circles represent something we all have.


This circle represents our strengths, our special skills, our special talents, all the stuff we are good at. How can our strengths inform and influence our decisions? Am I choosing to specialise in HR just because my classmates are choosing it or because I have specific strengths that will help me succeed as a future HR professional?

Are these strengths going to be marketable? Will companies or customers be willing to pay for the benefits I can create using these strengths? In simple terms, it means being aware of these strengths, focusing on them and sharpening them.


The second circle stands for passion. Careers are marathons, not sprints. Passion is what fuels marathons. Sometimes we make choices that are money driven, but self-defeating. But will money matter when we neither find nor lend meaning to life? Will I care enough about this path to stick at it through not just the good times, but also the tough times? Ten years down the road, will I still love going to work, doing this and making a difference?

Steve Jobs, for example, took a decision to attend a calligraphy class at Stanford, and credited that decisive moment with creating the design philosophy that helped Apple become aspirational for the world. It helped him make money and gave him meaning. The relentless focus on it helped draw great talent and build a great company.


Perhaps this is the most powerful circle. Jim Collins explains, ‘It is that which you are genetically encoded to do’. Some people go through their entire lives just living in their proficiency circle, others in their passion circle. But only the rare few get all three circles to intersect.

For example, Elon Musk believes his purpose is to revolutionise the way humans travel. It’s what drives his two companies — Tesla, which is seeking to make electric vehicles the transport medium of the future, and SpaceX, which is literally busting the boundary on travel. His purpose powers his decisions, schedules his time, prioritises allocation of his resources, guides his hiring decisions and governs the risks he is willing to take.

Discovering our purpose is a journey. We need listen to what life tells us, draw lessons from our career highs and lows, mine the field of our competence to dig out nuggets of strength. We need to discover the needs we are drawn to, and read signals others send us. When this plan of action is followed consistently, we unlock the mystery of our purpose.

Walking the wrong path

Some of the unhappiest people are those who have ignored these guidelines in profiting from the decisive moments. They are trapped in careers they hate, in companies they would rather not work for, and do things that give them no meaning. Their sad experiences should prompt us to make the most of the decisive moments that come our way and handle them with care and patience.

One shocking reason people offer to justify a wrong path is, “But I’ve already come so far”. This excuse is re-phrased in different ways. “But I’ve spent years preparing for the entrance exam to get into this course”; “But I’ve spent years in this career”. I have a simple trigger when I’m tempted by a similar rationale — “Just because you are two-thirds of the way down the wrong road, is no reason to continue going down the rest of the one-third.”

As veterans will tell you, when you near the sunset of your life, your regrets are not the things you did but often the things you didn’t. So let’s pledge to recognise and seize those decisive moments in our lives.

They rarely come calling again.

This article appeared in the Column LeaderSpeak on

Leading in a VUCA world


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus


Here’s how you can be a successful leader in a business world mired in uncertainties

‘Permanent white water’ is a good way to describe the world we live in — no calm stretches, no smooth water; just constant change and uncertainty. In fact, the US Army War College coined an acronym to describe this world — VUCA, or Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Learning to lead in a VUCA world is a must. In fact, today’s business students and tomorrow’s managers and leaders will see a world which will have a much higher degree of VUCA than today.

In cricket terms, VUCA is the T20 equivalent that’s always on. It has more twists and turns in a few hours than what five days of test cricket can produce. It needs a different league of players and more importantly, a different type of leader.

VUCA-ready leaders

~ Harness change, don’t fight it: An important attitude to take is to see crisis and changes wrought by VUCA as an opportunity, not a problem. As Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, put in one of his first interviews after taking over, “Never waste a good crisis... It’s an ideal chance to galvanise more the change we still need, to be truly competitive”. Closer home, we heard Suresh Narayan, the new CMD of Nestle India say, “A crisis is an opportunity”, after the Maggi noodle recall crisis.

Both leaders display a willingness to be open to what the change or crisis can teach the organisation, and view it as an opportunity for growth. The thrust is not just on dealing with VUCA, but harnessing it. This attitude energises the team and the leader to create, rather than cope.

~ Get the listening antennae out further and more frequently: Tom Peters coined the term MBWA or ‘management by wandering around’.

The equivalent for the VUCA leader should be MBLA or ‘management by listening around’. The main challenge a leader can face is becoming too used to sitting in the ‘echo chamber’, where they hear their own voice or the voices of those they have trusted in the past and got used to listening to.

A VUCA leader has to be prepared to have her antennae go out further — out of their comfort zones, listening to team members she has not met; dealing with a suddenly dissatisfied customer; reading markets where there are small but eager signs of moving in a different direction.

A VUCA leader also needs to listen more frequently. As an example, even the traditional bastion of annual performance appraisals is being reviewed by several organisations. No longer is one year frequent enough for this listening and leading conversation.

~ Practice ‘creative destruction’: One of the big obstacles to being a VUCA leader is to be too caught up in the past.

We sometimes become prisoners of old definitions of success and achievement, and fall so in love with our products, strategy, and advertising campaigns that these very success accelerators of the past become brakes in the future.

As Arnold Toynbee puts it, “Nothing fails like success”, meaning what worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow. The VUCA leader must initiate and drive some of this creative destruction — a letting-go of the past and an embracing of the new that is more appropriate to the future.

Yahoo’s inability to do this effectively led to the firm getting onto the ‘acquisition list’ of others; Vijay Mallya failed to re-define, believing the success from his liquor business would automatically flow into his new airline — a business with a much higher VUCA.

~ Be prepared to experiment: A VUCA leader is also fearless in experimentation. She reminds herself that the definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. She is willing to create a culture of intelligent risk-taking, then analysing the feedback from the experimentation to assess what the most VUCA-ready approach for the organisation will be. This may be on pricing, on product packaging, on vendors, or on the approach to social media.

Small, short experiments act as pilots for future strategy and as guides on how to best pivot the team. Apple, for example, rolled out its latest small version of the iPhone in response to the VUCA it sees in the market — consumers being offered more and more for lesser.

So instead of just sticking with past resolutions, it now comes across as flexible and willing to change and experiment. The hotel industry is facing a VUCA moment with Airbnb shaking up the model; the automobile industry is seeing the early warnings of a shift with driverless cars; traditional brick and mortar bookstores are seeing footfalls drop as eBooks take off. What would be our VUCA response if we were in those industries?

Are you VUCA ready?

We can start with getting VUCA ready right now — in fact we must.

Let’s say your classmates and you have prepared diligently for a case study that was handed out. You land up on presentation day, and realise that the case study has changed. A brand new one is handed to you, and the presentations are expected to start in 15 minutes. What do you think? What do you say? What do you do? Are you VUCA ready?

Can you experiment taking a different mode of transport home, a different route? Can you volunteer to do to the vegetable shopping and carry only a single ₹1000 note and see how you cope? Can you intern at a start-up instead of a larger, more stable firm?

In short, can you start getting into the habit of thinking VUCA and giving yourself as many opportunities to practice being VUCA-ready?

As you ponder over these questions, remember that business will no longer be impacted by VUCA — it will be defined by it.

This article appeared in the Column LeaderSpeak on

The soft stuff is the hard stuff


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus

What do Ramalinga Raju, Phaneesh Murthy, Mark Hurd, and Rajat Gupta, have in common? All of them are exceptionally competent business leaders. And all of them went from the ‘wall of fame’ to the ‘wall of shame’.
If great leadership is all about competence, then what failed them? What failed them is the ‘soft’ side of leadership — convictions and character.

What they don’t tell you

Business education and media coverage of business successes often highlight only the ‘hard’ stuff — the brilliant strategy, the incisive questions, the sparkling quarterly results, and the ruthless decisions. But the corporate graveyard is filled with leaders who failed not because of flaws in their competence, but because of flaws in their character. Often, all it takes is a single bad choice, and the guillotine falls because as the saying goes: ‘There’s never only one cockroach in the kitchen.’

These are qualities we must make part of ourselves early enough. Let’s look at three areas we could start with.


Mark Hurd, who was CEO at HP, was fired for faking an expense report; Scott Thompson, who was CEO at Yahoo, was ousted for being creative on his resume; and Rajat Gupta did jail-time from trying to profit by sharing confidential client information with his stock broker friend. Each was a fatal failure of integrity.

As leaders, do we believe in ‘walking the talk’? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when no one is watching? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient, even when business results are at risk? What would we have done if we were at Enron, at Volkswagen, at Satyam?

People crave for ‘authenticity’ in a leader. They then know that what they see is what they get — there are no hidden agendas or dishonesty in communication. In a world where fake maps can confuse, people seek the clarity of a leader’s compass that will always point ‘north’.


A healthy self-image may seem like an incongruous choice of leadership quality, but it is the foundation that allows a leader to make one of his biggest contributions — building others up.

Poor self-esteem can make leaders feel insecure the moment another team member achieves some success. This can lead to dysfunctional behaviour — being rude, condescending, refusing to share information, sabotaging another’s plans, micro-managing and, in its worst form, actively plotting to bring down a team member.

This can make the leader feel invincible, but it achieves quite the opposite — it weakens team spirit and performance and ultimately brings the leader down. It’s like a leader chopping the branch on which he is sitting.

A good sense of self-esteem, on the other hand, helps the leader keep working on making himself dispensable. He builds others up, shares credit, coaches and mentors, praises the performance of the team, downplays the ‘I’ and plays up the ‘we’. Ratan Tata is an excellent example.

“I do not know how history will judge me, but let me say that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise. It would, therefore, be a mark of failure if it were perceived that Ratan Tata epitomises the Group’s success. What I have done is establish growth mechanisms, play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the ‘I’. If history remembers me at all, I hope it will be for this transformation.”


Jim Collins, in his insightful book Good to Great writes about the highest level of leadership being Level 5 — the Executive level. He portrays Level 5 leaders as those who have a ‘paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will’.

Think Ratan Tata and Warren Buffet; think Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA who, with a net worth in the billions, still flies economy class and advocates frugality and simplicity). Such humility creates a willingness to listen, a willingness to accept mistakes, a willingness to learn and embrace diversity.

Often, business leaders can barely hide their arrogance and consider it a defining trait of their leadership and intellectual superiority. Consider these lines from the resignation letter of a start-up CEO to his Board:

“Dear board members and investors, I don’t think you guys are intellectually capable enough to have any sensible discussion anymore. This is something which I not just believe but can prove on your faces also (sic)!”

It is no wonder that soon after, the Board ‘relieved’ him, referring to “his behaviour towards investors, ecosystem and the media. The Board believes that his behaviour is not befitting of a CEO and is detrimental to the company”. Notice here, that there is no talk of incompetence or poor results — just bad behaviour.

More than warm and fuzzy

The soft stuff is often dismissed as ‘warm and fuzzy’, but it is the soft skills of the leader, along with his hard skills that make the difference between being a good manager and a great leader.

How do my convictions hold up in the face of deadlines? How do I handle competing priorities? How do I handle failure and mistakes? How do I build networks that I learn from and contribute to? Have I got role models that stand the test of time? Can I lead from my convictions? Do I care for my team and see them as more than ‘people on the payroll’? Do I find myself thinking ‘OR’ most of the time, win-lose or can I creatively think ‘AND’ and go for Win-win?

Jim Rohn put it beautifully when he said, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.”

That’s simple, not easy. After all, ‘the soft stuff is the hard stuff.’

This article appeared in the Column LeaderSpeak on 

The ‘glocal’ leader can open the gates in a flat world


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus

Recently, Tata Motors renamed its soon-to-be-launched car. It was to be called Zica. Then the Zika virus hit – not in India but distant South America. Yet Tata Motors thought it best to rename the car, which now be launched under the crowd-sourced name Tiago — a great example of acting ‘glocally’. We need to embrace this quality if we want to be effective leaders.

Thomas Friedman, in his book The World is Flat, wrote about how technology and globalisation have created a flat world. We do live in a flat world — but one with many gates. It takes glocal leaders to open those gates — those who can seamlessly work across traditional boundaries and effectively lead and influence teams by creating change across the globe.

According to a McKinsey article, by 2025 annual consumption in emerging markets alone will reach $30 trillion — the biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism. Organisations will need glocal leaders to tap that opportunity. In fact, irrespective of the industry type there is bound to be a glocal component that leaders will need to handle and harness.

For instance, in the BPO industry, a single transaction could follow the sun, starting in Sydney, moving to Manila, then to Mumbai, on to Warsaw and ending in San Francisco. Multiple handshakes happen between diverse teams to ensure a transaction is finished on time and is up to the required quality standard. The same is happening in other industries such as automobile, health, travel and so on. How do we go about preparing to be glocal leaders who can lead with confidence in any of these industries?

It’s beyond just culture: Discussions on global leadership can sometimes get limited to points around culture sensitivity and appreciation for local customs and practices. While these are important, focusing exclusively on them is to miss the point. Being a glocal leader is about not being judgmental, but being open, having a willingness to listen and learn, training oneself to look beyond the surface.

I recall times in my own career, when on global conference calls — with people from over 20 different nationalities taking part — I would time how much we Indian leaders spent talking. It was a lot! Very often we mistook silence from a colleague in China or the Philippines as agreement, when actually he or she had quite a different view. But we did not take the time to really ask and listen. It isn’t just about being nice — it’s about avoiding real business problems. Stalled projects, misunderstandings on deadlines, teams working at cross-purposes.

Sometimes, the lack of glocal leadership can lead to companies getting entire product and market strategies wrong. For example, Hyundai showed good glocal sense when it launched the Santro in India, by fulfilling real needs and marketing it right. Some of their American and European counterparts took years of failure and different models to get the glocal piece right. Logan, for example, was a roaring success in Eastern Europe but flopped in India.

So, try a thought experiment: Assume when you walk into your classroom tomorrow and discover that it has suddenly become an all-Indonesian classroom. Everyone is talking in Bahasa. What are your reactions: Do you sit down, do you walk out, are you shocked into silence, do you try to pick up a conversation with the professor, with other students? The answers could give you clues about how ready you are to set out on the path to being a glocal leader.

It’s about being local AND global: Often, we think glocal means learning to adapt global products and processes to a local market. But that’s tapping only half the opportunity. As a glocal leader you are also looking for all the local magic that can be transplanted onto a global stage.

DHL launched University Express in India to help students to send their documents to foreign universities at an affordable cost in smaller packaging, even though it was counter-intuitive for DHL to offer such a service. The idea worked so well that DHL soon took the idea from India to China, Pakistan, Malaysia and other countries it operated in.

Unilever has done the same and so has Tata Motors – applying lessons both from its Indian and UK operations to the benefit of both. Glocal leaders will need to excel at making connections, seeing synergies and harvesting networks.

The trust quotient: Being a great glocal leader goes beyond mastering tips and techniques. The strongest trait of the successful glocal leader is the trust quotient. Are we sincere? Do we mean what we say and say what we mean? Do we keep commitments? Are we authentic in our relationships and transactions?

Take the case of a business leader talking to his client in a different country to close an important deal. He lost the deal simply because he cracked an inappropriate joke at his host’s expense, thinking the speaker-phone was off. It wasn’t and he’d lost trust with his client and the deal. This was a glocal failing with business consequences.

In reality, being glocal is intrinsically about being more human. Kindness, respect, concern for others, common courtesy, a smile. These have no boundaries. Ultimately, it is about being focused not on what separates us through our nationalities, our cultures, and our languages but about digging deep into our core to discover what unites us. That is both the challenge and the opportunity for the glocal leader.

This article appeared in the Column LeaderSpeak on 

India's first castle-themed adventure resort



Every child deserves at least one  camp in a venue like The Hidden Castle.

True to its name, The Hidden Castle is a full-sized castle sprawling over 130 acres of unpolluted lung space, an hour and half’s drive from Hyderabad. Adventure games, water sports, camp fires, secret tunnels…there’s a lot a kid can indulge in at The Hidden Castle. Class rooms with AV facilities ensure the academic sessions go off uninterrupted. Beyond Academics is all about team building and kids get to not just learn, but live it through the cosy bunk bed experience.

All the activities at The Hidden Castle are supervised by well-trained, well-equipped Activity Lieutenants who adhere to strict safety guidelines. Safety gear as appropriate are provided at every activity zone to ensure there are no untoward incidents. A GP is available at hand to provide First Aid if necessary.

Meals at The Hidden Castle are perfectly balanced between nutritious and delicious. They are made by experienced 5-star chefs in an on-campus hygienic kitchen that’s equipped to provide for over 500 persons at a time.

Please visit –



The six levels of leadership


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus
In 1958, renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg initiated a theory that outlined the six stages of moral development. Rafe Esquith, an innovative teacher, used those stages on his students in the classroom. I prefer his terminology to reflect on how these levels apply to leadership, especially in the business world.

Level 1: I don’t want to get into trouble

This is the base level of human behaviour. It is triggered by the need to avoid negative consequences, or punishment. This is the behaviour of the driver who only stops at a red light when there’s a cop at the signal, or there is a camera recording violations. Even though it’s the base level, many of us do not outgrow it in several areas of our lives. I recall how in one organisation, taking an online compliance and ethics course was mandatory for all senior executives. Most treated it with indifference until the message arrived that email access would be revoked for those who didn’t complete the course by the deadline. Employeess instantly complied, but the trigger was the need to avoid ‘punishment’. Today, what aspects of our behaviour are motivated by this fear? Can we overcome such fear?

Level 2: I want a reward

This is a better level, and yet it is not good enough. Here we are motivated by reward. This may be a Grade-Point-Average or the Batch Topper badge when we’re in B-School today. When such a response becomes a pattern, then we risk having tomorrow’s managers and leaders who are only motivated by reward. The reward could be anything - a bonus, a promotion, or perks that make us feel good.

I recall discussing with a colleague about his choice between two roles that had come up in the company. One was an easier, no-stretch, minimal-personal-growth role, but one in which he perceived a faster path to promotion. The other role was the tougher, more challenging role with more potential for his growth and contribution; but he worried that getting a promotion on this path would be slow. I coached him to opt for the tougher role and not be unduly concerned over the promotion. “Go for growth, go for where you can learn best and make a difference” was the crux of my message to him. He hesitatingly accepted my suggestion. A few months later he thanked me — he found the role more meaningful and empowering. He also got a promotion.

B-school graduates, who shun the fatter pay cheque in favour of striking out on their own, or opt for jobs they feel more connected to, are clearly seeing the need to go beyond this level. Both these levels form the basis of the ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach that is the bane of leadership. What happens when there is neither a carrot nor a stick? Then how do I motivate my team and myself?

Level 3: I want to please somebody

In B-schools today, doing something may be about doing something to please a faculty or the Dean; whereas in a job tomorrow, it could play itself out as the ‘please the boss’ game. This is when we do things to enhance our worth in somebody else’s eyes. Late nights at the office to impress the boss, agreeing with the boss’ plan even when deep down we have fundamental questions about it, not asking tough questions of a customer whom we do not wish to displease — all these are toxic effects of this level. As someone put it, character is what I am prepared to do even when no one is watching.

Level 4: I follow the rules

When in Singapore, we Indians walk 300 metres to find a trash bin to throw in trash; or wait patiently without honking, when a pedestrian crosses the road. When in Singapore we follow Singapore’s rules. As soon as we’re back in India, we don’t hesitate to throw the chocolate wrapper out of the car window, or almost mow down a pedestrian on a zebra crossing. As long as there are rules that are enforced, we follow them. In fact, we sometimes exploit a little loophole in the rule. At such times, we follow the rule in letter and violate it in spirit.

A good example is the surrogate advertisements that liquor companies air on television, despite rules that ban it. Both the company and channel slyly follow the rule by ensuring that the advertisements are about a music CD, or mineral water, or playing cards; but break the spirit of the rule. A leader who is driven only by rules becomes an impotent leader. In contrast, real leaders sometimes have to question the rules, break outdated ones, and are consistent in leading by transcending rules.

Level 5: I am considerate of others

This is a very positive level. It means we’ve gone beyond thinking about what is just good for us. In the must-profit business world, companies like Unilever, with their sustainability thrust, are showing how they are profitable and considerate of others at the same time. Worthy of emulation! But can we go beyond this level?

Level 6: I have a Personal Code

This highest level is reached when we are motivated by a personal code. Rafe calls Level 6 the ‘Atticus Finch level’, named so after the hero in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, who fights for what is right, despite opposition from his peers, his neighbours and the threat to his career. He does the right thing, motivated only by his personal code, going beyond being a slave to rewards and popular approval. His personal beliefs light his path. Such leadership transcends perks and promotions and rules and rewards. It springs from within. This is the peak we must aspire to — becoming genuine Level 6 leaders.

From information to insight: How numbers lie


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus
John Godfrey Saxe immortalised the six blind men and the elephant in his poem. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant and comes up with a different answer for what it could be, with the answers ranging from the elephant is like a wall, to the elephant is like a rope. He ends the poem with the words: “Though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong”. It is the same conundrum that today’s business leaders face. Business managers spend a lot of time and resources gathering data, processing it into information and analysing it. One of the defining traits of a business leader is the ability to draw valuable insights from loads of information to drive strategy, and create superior results.

In a world that has moved from measuring data in megabytes to petabytes (1000 terabytes) and exabytes (1000 petabytes, which is a billion gigabytes), the overload of information creates the need for this special leadership skill. How does one harvest the right insights from the enormous crop of information we are confronted with? (Exabytes is not the final term by the way, there’s a zettabyte, and then a yottabyte, and other terms that will soon become commonplace)

As decision making theorists will tell you, more information does not always lead to better decision-making. Sometimes, the overload of information can lead to the exact opposite — decision paralysis or defective decision-making. In this information-intense environment, the leader has to play an important role of sifting the wheat from the chaff, to help the organisation and team separate the important from the insignificant. They can then draw the right insights to drive better results.

How can one do this better?

Microscope and Telescope

Very often, we are so caught up in the nitty-gritty of studying and analysing information that we lose sight of the big picture. It is important to pause peering through the microscope and also look through the telescope, to zoom out and get the complete context of the information given.

Imagine if you had to pick one batsman for your institute or company cricket team. My neighbour and I are in your choice set. We both present our scores in the last five matches we’ve played. My scores read 90, 110, 85, 180 and 77. His read 45, 63, 30, 80 and 70. Who would you pick? Before you pick me, if you did some digging for context, you’d discover that my scores came while batting against the bowling of my son and daughter, while my neighbours’ were against a district-level team. Immediately, the context makes it clear that you must ditch me in favour of my neighbour. The example may be simplistic, but the parallel is played out often across boardrooms and conference calls where information without context leads to the wrong conclusions and bad decisions.

So whether it’s a case study we’re analysing today or a merger and acquisition we’re exploring tomorrow, how can we use the telescope to uncover the right insights with incisive questions? Do the ‘averages’ we read conceal staggering inconsistencies? How was the information measured? Is there a bias in the way it is presented? As Ronald Coase is credited with saying, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything”. The skilled leader uses ‘telescope’ questions, to make parts of the big picture clearer. That allows information to be converted into insights.


With ‘analytics’ being the new buzzword, the danger of organisations being tangled in spreadsheets, trend charts, and algorithms is very real. The leader can help the team by pushing for simplification. They can ask - what are the simple examples that make this approach clear? What simple analogies would help us all understand what is really going on here?

RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan provided a great example of such simplification when he cautioned about the way we measure our GDP. He used the analogy of two mothers acting as baby-sitters for each other’s children. There is a rise in economic activity as each pays the other, but the net effect on the economy is questionable. Complex issue, simple analogy. It allows for a better understanding and insight.

Picking pearls from the pebbles

Very often from all the information available, the pearls of insights shine through to the patient and open leader.

It was bang in the middle of the economic downturn; all the information and data about consumption and demand was gloomy and pessimistic. Mayank Pareek, who was then COO at Maruti, when brain-storming with his team for demand insights, came up with ‘temple priests’ as a group that was bound to be doing well in the middle of a bad economy. Bad times; people pray more and make more temple offerings. They rolled out special packages for temple priests in response to that insight.

Very often, such pearls lie at the intersections of value versus cost for the customer, long term versus short term, standard versus innovative, hi-tech versus hi-touch. Even at business school, as we trawl through case studies, research papers and business theory, we must keep honing the skill of looking for these important insights. This will help not just personally, but also the leadership growth.

Apple and Sony

In December 2000, Sony had a market capitalisation of $63 billion and Apple was a relative dwarf at less than $5 billion. Today, Apple towers over Sony with a market capitalisation of over $500 billion compared to Sony’s $30 billion-odd. In 2000, Sony and Apple both had access to pretty much the same information about customers, technology and trends, but while Sony continued to keep its business in silos; Apple drew the right insights about an integrated approach and charged ahead. The leap from information to insight paid off. Let’s follow their lead.

All about the Learnability Quotient


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus

As students and practitioners of leadership, we are often told about the importance of a good IQ or intelligence quotient, combined with a good EQ or emotional quotient. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy added in the XQ, or Execution Quotient, through their book Execution. This refers to the ability to get things done. But there is a fourth quotient that today’s and tomorrow’s business leaders will need. That is LQ, or our ‘learnability quotient’.

What is LQ?

Simply put, it is the ability to keep learning. To be able to unlearn old skills, knowledge and attitudes that have outlived their usefulness. To learn new skills, gain new knowledge and build new attitudes. Especially in our educational years, we focus mainly on our acquisition of knowledge, the learning piece. But as knowledge becomes rapidly outdated, it is the ‘learnability’ quotient that often counts for more than just learning and will have a greater impact on our effectiveness, relevance and impact.

Why is LQ important?

The pace of change today, has moved LQ from being a nice-to-have to a must-have trait. Our ‘older’ generation saw substantial changes. We saw the first mobile phones, the first email, the first colour televisions. That counts for a lot of change and yet it would still be like ‘rowing on placid water’ compared to the changes that generations of today and tomorrow will face.

Their world would be a ‘permanent white-water’ world - requiring people who can navigate the rapids- constantly. If the ‘older’ generation had business, product and economic life cycles with smooth up and down curves often spanning many years, the generation of today and tomorrow will face cycles that resemble the ECG graph of a person having a heart attack. Their business cycles could rise and fall in months, weeks, sometimes days.

Consider this: The telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users, the radio took 38 years. The internet, by contrast took four years to hit that same number of users, and Angry Birds took all of 35 days!! How would a five-year business plan or strategy survive in this kind of a world?

The shelf life of everything shrinks. Business plans need to be swiftly reworked, start-ups find they have to rapidly pivot, employees find themselves redundant overnight, as new skills are demanded from a new breed of customer. Corporate graveyards are filled with former superstars. Not because they were incompetent, but because they demonstrated poor learnability, coasting on earlier strengths while the world around them required new ones.

This means that we certainly have to keep building our learning, but also focus on constantly building our ‘learnability quotient’ by challenging ourselves to go outside our comfort zone.

How can we build our LQ?

Go off-road: Read outside your area of specialisation. Often, the business student or practitioner can get valuable clues to upcoming changes simply by studying what’s going on in a different area. Can the Finance student borrow innovation ideas from what’s happening in Retail, or in e-commerce?

Do we spend most of our time talking to the same group of friends, fellow-students, colleagues? What learning is possible by picking up a conversation with someone outside ‘my circle’? From someone who is studying something else, teaching something else, working in a different industry, from a different country.

Vishal Sikka is getting everyone at Infosys to learn ‘design thinking’. He considers it important enough to get everyone in the organisation on this learning journey because he sees it not just as a useful new skill, but as a lever to transform the business, to define its new strategy.

Ask ‘What-If’: Ask yourself- what if my entire target customer base disappeared? What if a Maggi Noodles type of situation hit my product ? How does a car company heavily focused on diesel vehicles cope with the sudden push against diesel cars? This activates the ‘learnability’ spaces in our brains — forcing us to question strengths taken for granted, reinvent processes and systems, research new models.

Watch how Indra Nooyi is trying to transform Pepsi from the company that makes ‘fattening drinks’ to the ‘healthy food and drinks’ company? What ‘learnability’ lessons can she teach us?

Define yourself not by what you do, but by what you have: The IRCTC - the booking portal of the Indian Railways, is a great example of applying this. If they continued defining themselves as the portal for booking train tickets, they would have been overtaken by changes around them.

Instead, by looking at what they have — a huge customer database, a great technology infrastructure, high volume visits — they chose to define themselves as ‘people movers’. This drove their ‘learnability’. Today you can book a flight ticket on IRCTC or a hotel, you can track where your train is on an app and book your meals. In the same way, how can learnability create new career options, fast-track a project, drive innovation and bring us to contribute in new ways.

As Alvin Toffler put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Let’s start putting that in our everyday routines — learning, unlearning, relearning.

Gaining the listening edge


By Leo Fernandez

First published in BusinessLine on Campus
I had just moved to Hyderabad from Singapore. One of our dining chairs was damaged, with a crack on the seat. I managed to get the phone number of a carpenter, rang him and explained to him, in my limited Hindi, that the chair was broken and needed fixing. He asked, “The leg is broken?”. “No”, I responded telling him that all the legs were fine and it was only the base of the chair that needed fixing. He repeated, “The leg is broken”.

This ping-pong went on, and I started to lose my patience. I shouted at him in frustration. Finally, in a short gap in my tirade, he squeezed in “Saab, mera taang toota hai, mai abhi nahi aa sakta” (Sir, my leg is broken and I can’t come over right now). It’s testimony to my poor listening that the conversation went on for nearly three minutes before I heard what he was really saying. I had assumed a question when only an explanation was being offered.

Our lack of listening is a very human problem, but in the corporate context can create very real and thorny business problems. It’s best we see listening as an essential leadership skill and start working on it. When we think of communication, we often think of one half of it — articulation, speaking skills, presentation skills, public speaking. We rarely think about and are rarely taught the more important half —listening.

Changed realities

In today and tomorrow’s work world, the need for listening has multiplied manifold. The costs of not listening have gone up. The changed realities of today’s corporate world place a premium on this skill.

Consider these factors — global workforces with a mish-mash of cultures, habits and practices, virtual conferences and meetings, as opposed to traditional face-to-face ones, the shorter shelf life of strategies, products, technologies and customer attention. All these call for better listening, especially from leaders. When we listen better, we make wiser decisions, gain enhanced learning and achieve faster action.

A classic example of poor listening was during BP’s infamous oil-spill episode in 2010. While the world was outraged by the incident and the perception that BP was not doing enough to accept responsibility, BP’s Chairman, Tony Hayward called the oil spill ‘relatively tiny’, even while 60,000 barrels of oil was gushing into the ocean. He was later caught telling journalists, “I would like my life back”, referring to the time he was spending on handling the crisis. Tone-deaf can’t get any worse than that! He was soon ex-Chairman.

Contrast that with Flipkart’s response after its first Big Billion Day sale created many angry customers because of several glitches “We did not live up to the promises we made and for that we are really and truly sorry… Delighting you, and every single one of our customers, is absolutely the top-most priority for Flipkart and we have worked very hard over the last seven years to earn your trust. Yesterday, we failed that trust. We have learnt some valuable lessons from this and have started working doubly hard to address all the issues that cropped up during this sale.” Direct, contrite, honest and reflecting real listening.

How to listen better

Here are some specific ways we can get better at listening

An attitude of listening: Very often, poor listening begins with a poor attitude. A know-it-all, I-am-smarter-than-you outlook creates a shaky foundation for listening — whether in the classroom or the conference room. Real listening begins with an attitude of openness, a willingness to learn, an acceptance that this person or situation can teach me something, can help with my growth.

Earlier this year, Hasbro, the toymaker who makes the Star Wars Monopoly, decided to add in a game piece for the lead female character Rey, after receiving a letter from 8-year-old Annie Rose, who complained about Rey being left out, with the blistering reminder “Girls matter!”. Instead of getting defensive or acting indifferent, Hasbro demonstrated a ‘listening attitude’ and gladdened fans and customers.

Provide questions not just answers: A key skill to better listening is to learn to ask the right questions. Our education system is sometimes obsessed with providing answers that we don’t pay enough attention to, instead of helping us ask the questions that trigger thinking, stimulate change and help with better judgment.

This is a key skill that the business world needs today. Often, an important pivot in strategy, a tweak in a marketing approach, making a game-changing hiring decision come from asking smart questions.

Single-use shampoo sachets pioneered by HUL and the tiny Fevikwik adhesive tubes are great examples of companies asking smarter questions and reflecting the listening in their product design and positioning. So the next time we’re in a classroom or team discussion, could we practice contributing with questions instead of answers?

Abandon assumptions: One of the biggest barriers to real listening is our habit of making assumptions and preparing to reply based on those assumptions. This was clearly demonstrated in my experience with the carpenter. We tend to ‘react’ rather than to ‘respond’. One way to change this is to practice the art of pausing — to hold off from giving an instant answer. To ask ourselves: “What incorrect assumptions could I be making about what this person or situation is really communicating to me?”

Rural penetration of several services and products only took off when companies stopped making assumptions about rural markets and actually made an effort to listen and abandon assumptions. Online lingerie retailer Zivame’s CEO Richa Kar spoke about how they get almost 30 per cent of their orders from small towns such as Dimapur in Nagaland, Bari Brahmana in J&K and Jharsuguda in Orissa. This market would never have been real if assumptions had not been abandoned.

There’s a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth. Let’s start taking the hint and practise gaining the listening edge.

Ed Valenzuela, Accenture, Managing Director, Guest Speaker at HeadStart LEAD@Just Books, Hyderabad


Ed Valenzuela, Managing Director, Accenture USA has an exciting time as Guest Speaker at the opening HeadStart LEAD session at Just Books,Gachibowli. Children and parents enjoyed interacting with him and tapping into his global experience.

TalentEase runs Future-Ready Skills Lab at the Madras School of Social Work


TalentEase ran a 3 day ‘Future Ready Skills Lab” for the second year students of the Madras School of Social Work. The students had an intense and interactive session at which they explored both their readiness for the world at work and looked at ways they could develop future-ready skills.

Don Bosco CERT partners with TalentEase for research study on Samacheer Kalvi ( Tamil Nadu’s consolidated syllabus)


Don Bosco Centre for Education Research and Training and TalentEase recently conducted a study on “The Impact and Effectiveness of Samacheer Kalvi” – the consolidated syllabus introduced by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 2010.

The findings of the study were released on 20th June 2014 by Fr. John Alexander, Rector and Correspondent of Don Bosco Egmore. TalentEase’s CEO, Leo Fernandez introduced the study and the methodology. This was followed by a lively panel discussion led by Mr. Sanjay Pinto.

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