Article: What’s Your ROIC?

Strategic HR

What’s Your ROIC?

Are luck and karma the only reasons the career trajectories of equally endowed and educated people diverge drastically? Most often it’s because of their vastly differing ROIC.
What’s Your ROIC?

It has been my good fortune to have worked with some of the brightest and best (this is not a Halberstamian swipe) of HR professionals. A couple of them, let’s call them WY and HC for anonymous identification, are test cases for this column because they started off with nearly the same asset stock: a sound understanding of HR principles, a fundamental decency of character as well as an eagerness to work hard and learn. True, WY’s institutional pedigree was higher but then HC was quicker thinking on his feet. All-in-all, I would not have predicted their career culminations would have been too distant. They were. Despite HC’s lack of an elite institute stamp he went on to acquire a national standing in the profession, rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of corporate India and built more than one unique enterprise. WY was not a failure by any means but he remained firmly within the group of people who:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way1  

What had happened here? Luck, undoubtedly: "Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered".2  But, far more important, was the difference of ROIC commanded by the two equally competent and committed individuals. ROIC was not a significant factor in my prediction-set then. Over decades of close observation, I have grown to realize there is virtually no greater differentiator for ultimate career success. I hope my late-won wisdom will help professionals who are at earlier stages in their careers.

The magic of ROIC?

ROIC, in our context, is not Return On Invested Capital, though it is not so different in concept while being infinitely more powerful. ROIC for People (to put an end to the suspense) is the Ratio Of Input Conversion. Understanding the concept requires us to review the key inputs as well as the principle mechanisms for conversion.

Individuals bring a set of Capabilities to the workplace and it is with the hope of using these that organizations employ them. Each person also has a Character which determines the vector along which those Capabilities will (or will not) be deployed. Organizations don’t always do a great job of evaluating Character at the time of selection but the presence of some of these traits (e.g. trust, helpfulness and good humour) can determine whether Capabilities are actually usable and the absence of others (with integrity leading that list) can spell the end of employment and even the beginning of a jail term. Activating Capabilities and Character is the Charge of energy possessed by the individual. Some classify the persistent drive essential for results under Capabilities and place the concomitant diligence as part of Character. I have no issues as long as these are subsumed somewhere. Back to our story. Both HC and WY had roughly equal Capabilities, Character and Charge. Where they differed was in the conversion mechanisms they deployed.

Conversion mechanisms, are like the DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) and amplifier in an audio system. These components determine how pleasing, loud and memorable an impression (of the inputs) is conveyed to the evaluating expert specifically and to listeners at large. Corporate ROIC is no different.

High-ROIC performers understand (either intuitively or after painstaking study) how Comparisons with competitors work in their contexts. Beyond a certain level, all assessments are comparative, much as we may want our cathedral construction to be dedicated only to the glory of god. ROIC depends on presenting the best of the three input Cs (while guising shortfalls) to that comparative scrutiny. Over time, the input signals may themselves be suitably modulated to improve the relative impression. Carried to excess, as we shall examine shortly, such self-modulation can lead to over-amplified impressions and the gaming of goals.3  At this point we simply need to register that, even in moderation, intuiting key assessors’ soft spots, hot buttons and the trusted conduits connected to them are far more important than formal assessment mechanisms. Without this MA (Mastery of Assessment) it is virtually impossible to take the ROIC dial into positive territory.

Nothing confirms the high evaluation made by a key decision maker more than an outpouring of Confidence from the individual himself (we shall soon see why women are less likely to have overly high self-esteem). When questioned, a swig of the easily prepared Dunning-Kruger cocktail can go a long way to preventing self-doubt from raising its ugly head and spoiling the sincerity of the show. 4

To the management of Comparisons and Confidence, we need to add Changeability to complete our trio of ROIC creators. A certain amount of flexibility is essential for all corporate effectiveness. Matters get more tricky as we enter the realm of principles rather than padding. Yet, development demands the evolution of one’s principles as well. It then remains between individuals and their consciences whether mentor-driven change has arisen out of conviction or assessor adulation that has left noses brown. Matters get even murkier when it is the mentor who is swapped for a launch vehicle that can attain a higher orbit.5  As with our previous ROIC tools, there is a range within which Changeability is a sound and salutary signal amplification device. 

Pump up the volume

What is the range through which the ROIC dial can traverse? There are just three legitimate settings for it. The next section will deal with off-the-scale, unacceptable dial positions.

When the dial is set to No-Gain ROIC there is no signal amplification. What You See Is What You Get and in that WYSIWYG lies embedded the code name for one of our opening protagonists. Salutary as it may appear at first sight, as any audiophile will tell you, such a signal will not be audible to the audience. For the horticulturally inclined, we might compare the No-Gain ROIC situation to the uncommended passing of Waller’s rose.6  The evaluation consequences of remaining a minimally heard or seen corporate player are obvious.

The setting can be dialled down further to Negative-Gain ROIC. Such defensive behaviour is not unique to humans. Martin Stevens informs us: "Perhaps the most widespread of all animal defences is camouflage. Here, the colours and patterns of animals (and some plants) either generally blend in with the background environment or resemble some specific object around them (like a twig or bird dropping)… [When the situation is dynamic] colour change enables animals to cope with varying backgrounds and unpredictable environments." 7 Surely no corporate actors would shortchange themselves by blending into the background (and change colours if necessary to make themselves inconspicuous) in this fashion. Reflect back a bit. Those silent wallpaper presences in meetings, who stayed out of the limelight, may not have attracted much applause but they were still around, years later, when the assertive actors had long since ascended to Asgard. Apart from being a survival strategy, there are cultural and gender differences that garble or disadvantage certain communication signals. For instance, "women – like people who have grown up in a different culture – have often learned different styles of speaking than men, which can make them seem less competent and self-assured than they are…. Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. And they are more likely than men to believe that if they do so, they won’t be liked… Studies show that women are more likely to downplay their certainty and men are more likely to minimize their doubts…. [M]en more often than women behaved in ways likely to get them recognized by those with the power to determine their advancement… Furthermore, given the opportunity for a conversation with superiors, men and women are likely to have different ways of talking about their accomplishments because of the different ways in which they were socialized as children. Boys are rewarded by their peers if they talk up their achievements, whereas girls are rewarded if they play theirs down. Linguistic styles common among men may tend to give them some advantages when it comes to managing up." 8 Perceptive readers will have noticed the startling number of ROIC check-boxes scored by men that are missed by women. The plight of disadvantaged sections of society that make it though business portals, despite their initial handicaps, is even worse. At the extreme edge of Negative-Gain ROIC, the capability parity that underlies our paradigm starts to break down, usually in the energy and perseverance scores. We then have the Mycroft syndrome which all readers of Sherlock Holmes will recognize. As Sherlock explains about his brother’s character: "I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points which must be gone into before a case could be laid before a judge or jury." 

On the other side of the No-Gain mark is the High-Gain ROIC setting. The ones who can operate in this domain have a High Conversion (remember the HC we called our better-faring introductory character?) ratio for projecting their assets. Many of us (myself included) feel some distaste about the trumpet-blowing implicit in High-Gain ROIC. Our sympathies tend to rest with the Kentian10  WY of our tale and we would like our marketing guide to be Emerson’s apocryphal mousetrap.11  A little reflection (or a chat with a Sales Director) should convince us of the impracticality of advertisement-less marketing even while insisting on product innovation and quality to accompany it.12  Similar considerations apply to keeping weaknesses out of the limelight. Those who might be tempted to open their speech bidding for (or accepting) a challenge with a disclaimer of their deficiencies should set time aside to read Article 20 (3) of the Indian Constitution (or the Fifth Amendment in the US one) against self-incrimination. 

The out(and out)liers

The High-Gain ROIC we have just recommended should not cross the bounds of veracity or even approach them close enough to erode trust and credibility. When these lines are crossed, we leave the legitimate dial setting limits and enter the realms of distortion, deceit and (at the other extreme) total dismissal of what anyone else thinks. There is a simple three-way test for the individual to know whether s/he is about to enter forbidden territory. It consists in asking whether the contemplated communication or action:

  • Deviates significantly from or distorts facts substantially?
  • Damages other individuals, whether competitors or team members, for one’s profit (or pleasure)?
  • Destroys or degrades agencies and processes that are intended as checks and culture-supporting pillars?

Obviously, all three Ds are Don’ts. Strangely, they occur at both ends of the permissible dial settings.

The Excessive ROIC setting has been described at some length in an earlier column. "I shall not pretend the rest of us don’t manage impressions. What is different about Fake Impression Builders (FIBs), are the deceit they use in doing so and the consequential harm they can cause to trusting individuals and enterprises… [Here is] the methodology that characterizes FIBs:

  • Assessing the terrain, identifying the powerful as well as the not-so-obvious power brokers, who can be potential patrons, supporters and (others who are just) pawns.
  • Manipulating the powerful to enter their Most-Favoured-Persons lists and bullying the weak to cow them. Then going on to 'enhance their reputation, to disparage others, and to create conflicts and rivalries among organisation members…'13  to garner the material, reputational and psychological rewards such 'politicking' yields.
  • Abandoning the people (often including the patrons who protected and promoted them) and, ultimately, the organizations that have been sufficiently parasitized and have no more pickings worth the FIB’s efforts. They almost invariably move on before their gamesmanship and sham are discovered."14  

If the Excessive ROIC setter appears as the snake in the title of the Babiak and Hare book just referenced, the psychopathy of the Destructively Negative-Gain ROIC is more akin to a rabid dog. The Ds are deployed here too, but not with a view to creating a positive impression (false or otherwise). To the contrary, they are used on whim or to satisfy an immediate urge, without any concern for, and frequently with relish in, the image collapse they cause. In the corporate world, such heedlessness is only available to those unaffected, both materially and emotionally, by the opinions of those in their working circle. Thus, one sees Destructively Negative-Gain ROIC most often in:

  • Pampered promoter progeny.15 
  • Expats assigned (unwillingly) to a developing country and enraged by what they consider "sloth and heathen folly bring all [their] hopes to nought."16
  • Paranoid professionals who consider their perches precarious and can only feel comfortable after developing an informant-cum-punishment apparatus and disabling the usual preventives for egregious excess.

As Service points out in the case of Stalin, such characters need not be universally or unvaryingly terrorizers. "He had a vast desire to dominate, punish and butcher. Often he also comported himself with oafish menace in private. But he could also be charming; he could attract passion and admiration both from close comrades and from an immense public audience. On occasion he could be modest. He was hard-working. He was capable of kindliness to relatives. He thought a lot about the good of the communist cause."17  On a separate note, I wonder if there is a parallel to be drawn here to the corporate chieftains who can order large-scale emplocide with smiling faces.18 

A soft spot for mute miltons

Let’s steer back to the ROIC port and make a simple summary. Stick to the legitimate parts of the ROIC-meter and push the dial to its highest setting to get the greatest career success, fame and fortune. What happened to HC in our opening story wasn’t just luck. He garnered the rewards of High-Gain ROIC. And yet, like Thomas Gray, I cannot quite get rid of a sneaking feeling of admiration and affection for the WY I knew and for others like him.

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,

And shut the gates of mercy on mankind… 19


  1. Thomas Gray, An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, R Dodsley, 1751
  2. William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Arden Shakespeare Edition, 2017.
  3. Visty Banaji, Gaming Goals Can Kill Businesses, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 458-467, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  4. David Dunning, The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One's Own Ignorance, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 44, Chapter five, 247-296. 2011.
  5.  Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 451-457, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  6. Edmund Waller, Go, Lovely Rose, Poetical Works of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham,  by Denham and Waller, Forgotten Books, 2018.
  7. Martin Stevens, Cheats and Deceits: How Animals and Plants Exploit and Mislead, OUP, 2016.
  8.  Deborah Tannen, The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1995.
  9.  Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Fingerprint! Publishing, 2018.
  10.  Visty Banaji, The Fortunes of Family Firms, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 185-191, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  11. Ralph Waldo Emerson supposed said in one of his speeches, "If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods." 
  12.  Visty Banaji, Communications can’t clothe CHROs, People Matters, 10 February 2024, (
  13.  Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Harper Business; 2007.
  14. Visty Banaji, Beware of the Deceitful Impression Manager, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 68-75, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  15.  Visty Banaji, The Fortunes of Family Firms, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 185-191, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  16. Rudyard Kipling, The White Man's Burden, Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.
  17. Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography, Pan, 2010.
  18. Visty Banaji, Countering the merchants of emplocide, People Matters, 10 February 2023, (
  19. Thomas Gray, An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, R Dodsley, 1751.
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Topics: Strategic HR, Leadership Development

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