Social media has revolutionised the way people connect and if utilised well can revolutionise the way people learn
Indian corporates still have a long wa y to go in promoting women in the workplace. There is still a significant in equity in many areas
While we do a great job of measuring performance, we don’t hold people accountable for their behavior – but that is the real secret behind a successful L&D strategy, global L&D guru Ed Cohen tells People Matters
After an eventful seven years in India, global talent management guru and renowned L&D specialist Ed Cohen moved back to the US recently. His last Indian assignment was as the Chief Learning Officer, HCL Technologies. Previously, he was the Senior Vice President, Talent & Learning at Satyam Computer Services. He is the author of Leadership Without Borders, and co-author of Riding The Tiger: Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times. In an exclusive interview with Deepshikha Thakur, Cohen talks about his experiences in a Satyam-under-crisis, at HCL, and how beginning his career as a swimming coach helped him in his L&D career. Excerpts:
Early on in your career, you were a swimming coach at Nova Southeastern University. Did this stint help in any way in your career in L&D?
As a swimming coach, I had to work with people who had varying levels of motivation, talent and potential. I soon discovered that regardless of the effort I put in, the outcome depended on the people I was coaching. From the moment they got into the water, and started to swim and compete, it was all their responsibility. That is when it struck me that a Learning and Development (L&D) professional can only be a catalyst for learning – she can’t force learning, and neither can she ensure that learning is taking place.
People are resistant to change, especially when it involves technology. What was your biggest challenge when, as a programme manager in IBM, you were helping the transition to desktop computers?
The biggest roadblock was that it was so new for everyone. People couldn’t turn around and ask others if they had a problem -- they had to figure it out themselves. Secondly, while some employees were excited about it, others were not. The third challenge was that there weren’t many computer programmes available, and the ones available were not as sophisticated as the ones we have today – so they were far more difficult to use and learn.
In the 1990s, you were training people who trained others to use computers. This was a unique phase in the history of the global economy, as it marked the emergence of the digital era. What would be the equivalent of “teaching people to use computers” in today’s business environment?
The trainers that we trained were technical people who had no experience in training. We had to train them on adult learning methodology, on how to teach, and especially how to teach adults. That was our biggest challenge then.
The equivalent to that phenomenon today for learning professionals is to embrace social media and leverage it in learning. Social media has revolutionised the way people connect, and if utilised well, it can revolutionise the way people learn. The power of networking, and the opportunity to mentor an apprentice, is greater than it has ever been before, thanks to the instant access we have to people through social media.
There always seems to be a wide gap between taught and practiced leadership behavior. How should organisations bridge this gap?
Organisations do not really focus on communicating and measuring the core values of their company. Even today, we do a fantastic job of measuring people’s performance, but we do not focus as much as we should on people’s behavior. That is the real secret. We need to hold people accountable for their behaviour. If you hold people accountable for their behavior, then you get the outcome you are looking for.
But how do you measure behaviour & hold people accountable?
That is where the core values of the organisation come into play. If you have clearly defined values, then it is easy to measure behaviour, because people’s behaviours are either going to be aligned or not-aligned with the values of the organisation. For example, in order to measure service orientation, we need to measure if people are demonstrating the behavior that is in alignment with service orientation.
Are there any leadership challenges specific to Indian organisations? If yes, what are they? How do we address those?
Yes, there are leadership challenges that are unique to India, primarily because the culture is going through a transition. Managers need to be aware that a new generation is entering the workforce, and they will need a lot more, and a lot faster, than the previous generation, because they have had access to technology while growing up.
Besides, many of them have had access to a stronger economy than their managers did when they joined the workforce. And in the age of the internet and social media, people grow up as equals since you can voice your opinion, irrespective of your age or qualification. Therefore, in the workplace, too, they expect the same level of equality they have grown up with.
Next is the gender challenge. Indian corporates still have a long way to go in promoting women in the workplace. There is still a significant inequity in many areas. And this is not just about the workplace – part of it has to do with the culture in the families people come from. This cultural dimension is reflected in the behaviour of managers, and in the workplace.
Can you tell us something about the L&D function in HCL? How has it changed since the time you joined?
The biggest change was that we integrated the learning function with the organisation’s goals, and created an HCL learning strategy focussing on the overall development of employees. A major initiative was the entire ‘Employee First’ value proposition. The ‘Employee First-Customer Second’ methodology developed by Vineet Nayar empowers individuals. Managers become enablers, and employees, the drivers. When people are empowered to take decisions, they need to learn how to take decisions, how to solve problems, and our learning strategy focusses on that.
In India, managers find it very tough to handle difficult conversations related to performance, etc. You were part of the leadership team when the Satyam crisis happened. How did you communicate with employees about what was going on, especially when the answers weren’t evident?
There were times when we had no idea what the answer was, so we told people that we had no idea what the answer was. It’s better to tell people honestly what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are waiting to learn, rather than say nothing, because long periods of silence during a crisis actually creates more panic. You need to communicate constantly, and not hold back anything that can be shared.
In Satyam, we shared a lot of information and that worked out very well in the crisis. We had a daily news programme that people could tune into; we sent updated emails multiple times during the day. People could get information when they wanted to, they could share their thoughts with each other, and speak openly with each other. Consistent communication is critical when you are going through such a situation.
At Satyam, approximately 10,000 people went into a ‘virtual pool’, with reduced salaries and an uncertain future. This was quite unusual in India. How did you handle it?
We provided counselling and peer support for employees, and worked with them to help them get placed. However, I should tell you that despite the turmoil, people were strong, positive, and wanted to be part of the turnaround of the organisation. Where they did end up leaving the organisation, it was when they understood that the company would not be able to support them. I think it was a very unique situation, one that hopefully no one else has to go through again.
Are Indian organisations culturally different from the rest of the world in the way they operate?
Oh, yes. In India, the teams are larger; companies tend to have more people as compared with Europe or the US, where organisations are very lean. It’s a self-service type of atmosphere overseas, whereas in India, there are still people in roles that involve things like setting up a room, getting coffee, etc.
The other difference is that managers and leaders are far more accessible in India than they are in the rest of the world. For example, in India, my doctor gives me his mobile phone number, and when I call that number, he answers. This would never happen in the US. Over there, if you had the phone number of the doctor and you were to call, you would get the answering service, you won’t get to speak to your doctor.
When I was working in India, my executive assistant was not a gatekeeper for me. That person did not stand between me and others getting in touch with me, whereas that is the primary role that you would see an executive assistant performing in the US and in Europe. She is there to basically screen calls, answer the phone, and help manage your schedule. In India, it is more flexible, leaders are more accessible.
If I were a CEO about to frame an L&D strategy for my organisation, what should I look out for?
The first thing you need is a people strategy. Secondly, the people strategy needs to be supported by the right technology. You need the right kind of Human Resources Information System (HRIS) that can track all the relevant information. Once you’ve built your competencies into that system, you can build a learning strategy that matches the needs of the business. It is much easier to do this when you have defined the jobs and the career paths for those jobs.
Executive coaching is gaining prominence in India. Do you think an L&D person can become an executive coach for a CMO/CFO/COO? If yes, how, for example, would she, without any marketing expertise, help a CMO become better in her decision-making?
Coaching is when you are working with someone and helping them to move forward, identify a plan, and identify the resources. You are not necessarily the expert resource. If you look at the different types of coaching, there is expert coaching, where someone who understands the function coaches the incumbent in the actual functional competencies of the job. Then there is non-expert coaching, which is about asking the right questions, so that the person being coached can figure out what they need to do.
The more senior the leader is, the less functionally-oriented the coaching is. In other words, coaching is not oriented to their roles as much as it is oriented towards the relationships they are building, the teams they are building, and how they bring all of those together. So, the expertise I would expect a coach to have are: in the organisational aspect, the relationship aspect, and the strategic aspect of the business, and not necessarily in the functional aspect.
What would you consider the three pillars of a talent management strategy?
What are the three pillars of a successful professional? They are people acumen, business acumen and functional acumen. So a talent strategy should support people management skills, business acumen, and the functional proficiency that enable professionals to do their jobs better. Early in one’s career, there is more emphasis on the functional aspects, but as you go higher, the emphasis needs to shift to business and people acumen. Having a talent management system that aligns to this is absolutely critical.
How would you sum up your experience of working in India? Why did you decide to return to the US?
Working in India was the highlight of my career and my life, because it gave me the opportunity to experience a rapidly growing economy, to experience a culture that is evolving rapidly and yet rooted in traditional values. Me and my family learnt a lot, and we have brought tremendous amount of value back with us. We will continue to come back to India because of that, as it has become our second home.
After seven years of working in India and going back and forth, I had some health issues over the past year. Because of that I was advised to travel less. I am not permanently out of India - I may come back in the future.
Your message to young HR and L&D professionals in India?
It is very important to balance the administrative aspects with strategic aspects of the role. HR and L&D people tend to get a broader view of the organisation because they are exposed to more people in different parts of the organisation. They need to soak up that knowledge and find ways to give that knowledge back to the organisation.