Soaked knowledge

November 23, 2018

Could you tell what the SPONGE Learning Framework is about?

SPONGE is really just a simple acronym for a learning framework I have created in my new book SPONGE – Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients. S stands for Super Active Listening. P stands for Probing and Questioning. O stands for Observing Behavior. N stands for New Behavior to Emulate. G stands for Getting the new Behavior Internalized. And finally E stands for Expanding, Explaining, and Sharing.

When we meet clients or customers, we can all learn a lot if we adopt the SPONGE Learning Framework. The idea is to get out of the ‘sell’ orientation and adopt a ‘SPONGE Learn’ mindset. If we can do that then we can end up getting coached (and mentored) for free by the smart people we deal with. It could be customers, it could be associates, it could be colleagues.

The book contains 25 stories dated between 1980 and 2005, capturing some of the conversations I have had with my clients. And what I learnt from them.

The first chapter, ‘A Shiny New Car’ is about the passion of a leader to visualize and execute a plan. a. Where does a leader/manager draw the line so that he does not end up micro-managing things? b. Mr Tata found an issue with the car that others could not, which reflects his passion for the product. What is the ‘SPONGE learning’ from this?

There is a fine balance between micro managing and being passionate about one’s job. In the story A Shiny New Car, I could see how Mr Tata had identified something interesting and wanted his team to figure out how to do it. They had failed in their first attempt and he had asked them to try again, only if they wanted to. But the engineers at Tata Motors ERC in Pune are a committed lot. They finally got what they thought was acceptable and Mr Tata dropped all that was on his plate that afternoon to see their work.

I was just an innocent bystander when the story unfolded outside Bhabha Theatre in NCPA Mumbai. But I had my SPONGE Learning system working. So I decided to probe and question the engineers on what had happened. And when they explained the story behind the shiny new car, I realized that Mr Tata was helping his team learn new things and was there at the venue to give them a pat on the back.

In my own life, I have tried to balance the two aspects of micro managing and displaying a strong passion for the job. If you are working with a trusted team, then they understand the difference and will not get put off because you are requesting for a particular color of the car, or a particular music for the ad. And you should also be ready to let it go after the first pass. If you continue to badger
the team, then you will end up demotivating everyone around you.

Assuming that one will not always get a ‘sage’ client, can encouraging intrapreneurship be the answer to resolving customer complaints effectively?

In the chapter ‘Sages and Books’, I have explained how sometimes you are lucky to get a client from whom you can learn a lot about all kinds of things. I have been introduced to new books, new videos, new articles by my sage clients. You need to ensure that your team recognizes the importance of learning from sage clients.

The issue of your team members taking on new challenges is not necessarily connected to a sage client’s observations or views. I learnt about the book/concept ‘Moments of Truth’ from one of my sage clients. It speaks about how an employee, especially in a service-oriented industry, needs to be ready to react when in a situation of customer crisis. The employee has to go beyond her defined role to help a client or customer out of their situation. It could be a passenger who had forgotten his passport in the hotel, or an old lady who needs a walking stick in a strange new city. You could call this initiative ‘intrapreneurship’ but I think that is a big word for something that is a lot more simple: empathy. Do your employees have empathy to understand what your customer is going through and are they empowered to act on behalf of the company? Often, companies are rule-bound and this makes the employees also become comfortable within their own little roles. As a leader, you need to ensure that the rules do not become barriers for providing better customer service.

You talk about an interesting idea of bringing Army veterans into the corporate world to manage operations. However, such leaders could indulge in tough decision-making, leading to dissonance. How can they avoid creating an atmosphere of dissonance between them and the employees?

In the chapter ‘After Action Report’, I have spoken about my interactions with ex-Army officers who are doing a great job in Indian industry. We, from the civilian side of the fence, tend to have a biased view of Army men and the much-touted Army regimen. We tend to paint all army folks with the same brush. They are regimented. They are not creative. They only know how to command a team, they have no skills to react to team members in a sensitive way. This is totally incorrect. The ex-Army managers I have met have tremendous team-building skills. They are able to adapt their own way of behavior. Yes, they are sticklers for rules. For instance, Madras Management Association’s (MMA) meetings start on the dot, thanks to Gp Captain Vijaykumar, the ED of MMA. But the same leader is able to motivate a team to perform to peak potential. And that has been achieved not by pulling rank, but by showing your team that you care for them and are willing to roll up your sleeves and do the job in a pinch.

You opine that being open to dissent can lead to success too. In the Indian corporate culture (where flat hierarchy is a rarity), how open are leaders to a team member’s contrarian views?

In the chapter ‘Flying Without a Net’, I have presented the challenge that high-performing leaders need to watch out for. It is easy to stay within your comfort zone and do exactly what you have been doing all the time. But this may very well limit your organization’s potential. However, if you are willing to accept dissent or willing to look at an alternative way of doing things, then you may end up achieving a lot more. When my team recommended that Cobadex CZS be positioned only for patients suffering from diabetes, the company balked. But over many meetings, they got around to agreeing that this could be the right strategy. So in a sense, like a trapeze artiste, they were flying without a net. But they managed to create a new sub-segment in the market and ended up becoming the market leader. This would not have happened if they had done the same old thing. So they took the contrarian view, internalized it, and then ran with it. It is interesting to note that even ten years later, the company has continued the same strategy. And it is still working well.

Organizations, especially those with millennials constituting a majority of the workforce, need to develop an ability to learn better. How can a leader foster a learning culture in the organization?

Organizations of the future will have to become even more diligent at building a learning culture. And not only that, the learning needs to be codified and saved, so that future generations can continue to benefit. I learnt this lesson when presenting a new logo identity for ITC Bhadrachalam Paperboards, enumerated in the chapter ‘The Story Behind a Logo’. The incumbent CMD of ITC took time to explain to me how the logo of Bhadrachalam had been originally presented to the company by the agency design team. I was amazed at the power of that story; it had stayed alive twenty years after it was originally presented. Two things emerged from that discussion. It always helps to build a story around what is presented, even if it is a simple logo. Secondly the story helps to keep the idea fresh and vibrant since it gets shared through the generations.

Referring to the fact that the ‘think tanks at North Block’ listened to your (agency’s) contrarian ideas as also criticism of their beliefs about taxpayer behavior, how important is it for a leader to be a good listener?

When my colleague and I walked into North Block to present our contrarian views about tax payers, we did not know how we will be received. We were ready to be shooed out after the first ten minutes of our presentation. But what we got was concentrated, patient listening. And the senior bureaucrats were all ears, and after our presentation, the discussions continued for an hour or more late into the night. We realized that we had achieved something that we set out to achieve, the fact that the Income Tax department cannot be seen as draconian but needs to communicate better with the taxpayer base. The taxpayer needs to know what is happening to his tax rupees and hopefully, this will bring about a change of mindset. The Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme that followed a couple of years later did incorporate some of the suggestions we had made. And incidentally, we did all this for no monetary gain.

How have product design, packaging, and presentation, among Indian brands, evolved to suit the changing tastes of the consumer?

As described in the chapter ‘The Chaiwala Test’, I saw a client demonstrate to his senior colleague how what we see as a LIG (lower SEC) consumer may actually have better taste that we think. This was demonstrated by showing five ads to the office canteen boy, who ended up picking the one, which the marketing communication manager had rejected as being too classy.

That incident demonstrated to me how the taste of Indian consumers is rapidly changing. The influx of malls in more than 100 cities of India is an indication. If you were to observe the dressing habits of a locality or town, when a new mall opens, and then do the same study two years later, you will notice a perceptible difference. Add to this the power of mass media, color television, and now mobile internet. Let me, however, add that there will be difference in taste across different income classes, different geographic regions, but we need to be cautious before we make drastic assumptions.

For many organizations, attrition is a persisting concern and it leads to loss of revenue and man hours spent on recruiting and training. How do companies fare at making clear their expectations right at the recruitment stage (rather than, say, onboarding)?

The chapter ‘Sorry Please Leave’ is about how a boutique hotel that was struggling to get customers, decided to ask a money-paying customer to leave and give a full refund. Why? Because the customer was making demands that were a clear violation of the avowed brand vision of that hotel. Not many companies will have the guts to dismiss a customer. Let alone a fledgling hotel. But that happened because the founder felt that accepting the client’s demands would damage, in some ways, the fabric of the new concept.

Extending the same logic, we need to decide when to ask a fellow employee to leave. Obviously, the onboarding process is important and it is therefore critical that this is done in the best manner. There is also a need to be a little more tolerant of a new recruit. Most companies have unwritten culture codes. On how to dress. How to behave in meetings. How to address senior colleagues. Even grooming. This could take some time to adopt.

After the initial period is over, if the employee violates any of the rules of good behavior in the company, whoever he or she may be, you need to have the guts to say, ‘please leave’.

How vital is it for a leader to find out where unconscious biases lie in his organization and how can he/she get rid of them?

As a leader, you are to set the example and people around you are looking up to you to show the way. And you may have your own biases. The best way to handle these biases is to have people in your core team who are encouraged to disagree with you. The chapter ‘Biases Biases’ presents an interesting story. If you encourage dissent, then you will get enough inputs from your core team to correct the biases. I also feel that external consultants play a key role in pointing out biases that exist in the company. The consultant says, ‘you have an outdated digital presence’ and many in the company will chorus in ‘we have been saying this for years’. So is the consultant, as the adage goes, ‘borrowing the client’s watch to tell the time’? May be. But as long as the purpose is served, why blame the messenger?

(As told to Ashutosh Gotad)