Category Archives: Careers

The Two Sides of a Random LinkedIn Connection Request

I am certain that I am not the only person on LinkedIn who has received a random connection request from a complete stranger. Over the past few years, I have received several hundreds of such requests and, yet, at each request, I can’t help but wonder why anybody should send me a blank connection request.

In the initial days that I noticed a sizeable number of random requests in my mailbox, I would ignore them. If I came across a profile that resonated with my own interests, then I would write them a note not unlike the one here. Most times, I would never hear back from the sender of the request. But every once in a while I would receive an answer.

The senders could be classified in three major categories:

  1. People who ran networks of experts on specific business areas and wanted to expand them
  2. People who wanted some help, usually some consulting advice, career advice, connection with somebody I knew, a new job in an industry that I was familiar with and such
  3. People who were ‘impressed’ by my profile OR thought this was an alternative to Facebook and Twitter where random people called each other ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ OR ‘just wanted to add connections to their network’ OR believed that LinkedIn is meant for ‘getting to know people’

 

Let me first talk about ‘MY side’ of this story – how it began and how it evolved.

As one can imagine, the last category was reminiscent of the times in lower secondary school when schoolmates would run up to one and say, “I want to make friendship with you!” I usually politely diverted requests from this category or simply ignored them.

With the first two categories, however, there seemed to be merit is considering the requests with more than nonchalance. The first one was easy to deal with – I’d check out the authenticity of the sender with a visit to their website, understand more from them about their model, and, after a couple of exchanges, ‘Add’ the connection…or not.

With the second, however, I often had a mixed bag to handle. The requests seemed carefully thought out at best (“I run a VC fund and often require the help of consultants with the companies in my portfolio.”) And immature and naïve at worst (“I am a graduate of instrumentation engineering – could you help me find a suitable job?”) Err…What?!

The interesting statistic here is the split of requests across the three categories: 15% | 60% | 25%. While my eventual interactions with these ‘random connections’ drove to their respective logical conclusions, I learnt something very important from the analysis – There are a LOT of genuine people out there that I CAN help.

From then on, I made a simple but significant tweak in my first-response strategy. Instead of asking these random connectors, “How do I/you know you/me?” I began to ask, “How can I help you?” And that tiny change in perspective and tone has made a HUGE difference to the quality of my network.

At the most trivial of times, it has led me to a lost connection from my past life or exposed me to a whole new cohort of potential clients. At the most significant of times, it has set off a series of conversations that converted into a business relationship or helped me hone my skills in an area from the level of a practitioner to an expert. Talk about seeing the world differently…

Despite the richness in the quality of network that I’ve been able to derive from random connections, I do have a tip or two that I think the other side – ‘THEIR side’ – should use. When you do feel the need to connect with a complete stranger via LinkedIn, PLEASE follow these steps, and follow ALL of them:

  1. Add a brief note to your request (yes, LinkedIn does allow you to do that even in its Basic version)
  2. Say something meaningful in that note (‘hi, can we connect on LinkedIn?’ does not cut it!). Explain who you are and what (help) you are looking for. Even if you went to the same University as that person, don’t assume that (s)he would want to add you to their network for that reason alone.
  3. Mention briefly why you would like to connect with this person in particular.

 

If your need is genuine and the person you write to is even remotely concerned with the area in which you need help, you are far more likely to get a cogent response to such a request than to a blank one.

 

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Six Ways to Make Your Sabbatical Productive

Corporate roles in the twenty-first century offer several perks, from paid sick days, paternity leave, and free meals, to cell phones, on-site massages, and free medical check-ups. An important and exciting one on the rise is the sabbatical policy. Typically offered to long-timers, but sometimes to newer employees too, the sabbatical represents a vision of tranquility and calm, or energy and rejuvenation to many a corporate employee.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to utilize a sabbatical myself. Since then, several colleagues and friends, who have considered the possibility themselves, have asked how I used my time while on the sabbatical. Now that taking a leave of absence from regular work duties has become acceptable, even coveted, I wanted to share some thoughts on how one could come out at the other end of a sabbatical a happier person.

These six themes could, of course, be part of a regular routine, but given the high propensity with which we tend to find excuses (of not having enough time) not to do them, the sabbatical, with its fabulous promise of offering you ‘time’, is a great opportunity to put them into action:

  1. Get fit.

The older I get, the one piece of wisdom that only seems to get reinforced is how important it is to be healthy to be able to enjoy life and work. If you’ve had this on your list but never had the motivation (or time) to make a start, grab this chance to make it happen. There’s a plethora of information and options out there on how you could begin. Even if you are wondering whether you’d like a gym environment or not, or whether you can achieve this goal in a short timeframe, you’ll likely find sufficient help both online and offline to set up a regimen that works for you.

  1. Learn something new.

The learning curve often suffers after several years of a working life. The sabbatical can be a fantastic opportunity to add new knowledge or even a new skill. You could pick up online courses, set up some time regularly for a new activity, sign up for a language course or a web-design course, join a virtuoso as an apprentice, or take a sculpture class – basically anything that catches your fancy and you’ve been meaning to do but had not had the time for.

  1. Do something you are afraid to do.

The sabbatical is as much a time for expanding your mind, your known limits, as it is for rejuvenation and education. Use this time for doing something adventurous. For some it could be skydiving or bungee jumping. For others it could be living alone or living without creature comforts. For yet others it could be public speaking or scaling up an offline hobby into an e-business. The exhilaration at the accomplishment is bound to be memorable. And the confidence you gain will be for keeps.

  1. Meet people – old and new.

It is unfortunate but true that the regular workweek usually leaves little time for the really important people in your life – spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends. The weekends are often consumed in putting the house in order (literally) and catching a breather before (manic) Monday arrives. The sabbatical is a great window to spend some quality time with the people who matter to you. You could plan an elaborate vacation or an adventure trek with them, or simply spend your days together doing regular things such as cooking, catching a play, shopping, attending weddings, or visiting family members.

This stint is also an excellent time to meet new people and expand your network, whether through interest groups, alumni groups, hobby classes, or social work. Meeting people from different walks of life will give you new perspectives on problems and issues that you may be working to resolve.

  1. (Re)create something.

The joy of creating something is hard to replicate. The humdrum of typical corporate careers allows few opportunities for creating something from scratch. You might be enthused by something ordinary such as writing a blog, sewing a tablecloth, or cooking a new recipe. Or you might be motivated to do something less ordinary such as growing a patch of organic vegetables, or starting a new business. In both cases, you will feel productive and accomplished.

If creating something from the ground up seems too daunting, you can always focus your efforts on re-creating something. A sabbatical gives you the blank canvas you need to take on somewhat long-term projects such as de-cluttering your home, or renovating (a part of) it.

  1. Give back.

Having spent a lot of time in the world of entrepreneurs, whether social or not, I’m amazed to see how many business ideas are spawned from altruism, from wanting to help others. Your sense of self-awareness is bound to reach a new high when you give back to your community and your environment. The sabbatical can be a good time to give wings to your altruistic side. Again, you can choose from several options. Your efforts can be concentrated at the local level – planting and growing trees in your neighbourhood, coaching school students in mathematics, or spending a few hours each week at the elderly care centre nearby. You could also consider global causes such as volunteering in Africa or initiating a research program on renewable energy.

You are bound to receive advice from several well-wishers on how to be conscientious in your use of time while on the sabbatical and how you will risk wasting your ‘holiday’ if you don’t. You will also likely hear how you absolutely MUST use it to advance your development professionally.

To such advice I’d say, following any or all of the routes above can only help your development. And who is to say that one of those activities won’t turn out to be your dream occupation?!

The Input-Output Continuum of Innovation Metrics

Much has been said about the need to measure innovation and how companies must have input and output measures for their innovation programmes. Yet, only about a third of Fortune 1000 companies have any formal metrics for innovation. As more and more companies institute innovation programmes and focus on making innovation an integral part of their strategy, the appearance of innovation related metrics on corporate dashboards is increasing.

Output metrics, aka impact metrics, have always been an important part of measuring business outcomes from innovation. But input metrics, including activity/ process metrics or organisational capability metrics, have also gained significant currency. Now, a third bucket, called leadership metrics, is on the rise. Whereas output metrics speak to the commercial outcomes for a company, and input metrics drive investment, resources, processes and behaviours, leadership metrics indicate the intensity of executive learning and focus on innovation programmes in the organisation.

Companies have used a mix of all three types to drive their innovation agenda. But what is the right mix? Can it be a common mix for all corporations? Should there be an equal proportion between the three types?

Peter Drucker famously pronounced, “What gets measured gets managed.” To address the above then, the right question to ask is, “What do you want to manage?” At the end of the day, the aim is to make innovation systematic and sustainable.

Defining the innovation intent (not unlike strategic intent) of a company is a good starting point. Does your company want to increase revenue from innovation in the short-term? Focus on the input measures related to incremental innovation and output measures for revenue from new products. Does your organisation want to be seen as a thought leader in an emerging space? Drive input metrics related to experimentation and knowledge management, output metrics related to creation of intellectual property, and leadership metrics related to executive sponsorship of incubators. Does the corporation want to transform its culture? Build input metrics into individual performance contracts and maintain a wide-ranging dashboard of leadership and output metrics.

The balance between the three types of metrics has to be an evolving one. Even within each type, the metrics that are relevant to a particular situation may not be so in others. 3M applied the Six Sigma model to its creative process and were none the better for it.

The balance must shift as an organisation matures in its integration of innovation into its strategy, structures, processes and systems. As an organisation grows and matures in its innovation capability, so must the balance between metrics. It is important to frame the priorities between different types of metrics based on the maturity of innovation capability in an organisation.

In the early days of the innovation journey, when a handful of innovation programmes are identified with some budget allocated to such programmes, the highest priority for an organisation is to activate the right resources and incentivise the right behaviours for innovation. Do bear in mind that input metrics introduced in a phased manner are likely to find greater acceptance than an all-at-once approach. This is also a time for leading innovation from the top. Hence, leadership must be seen as driving programmes intently. While incremental innovation is possible in short cycles, breakthrough and radical innovation can be tracked only in the medium-long term, over 3-5 years. Thus, the metrics portfolio should be skewed largely towards input metrics with a moderate dose of leadership metrics to highlight the extent of executive sponsorship or support. So as not to lose sight of strategic business outcomes, it should include a few output metrics too.

Once the innovation-related activities have gathered some momentum, where innovation has been woven into key strategic initiatives and funds clearly earmarked for innovation programmes, the focus of senior executives becomes more critical to sustain and institutionalise innovation in the organisation. Input metrics remain important, particularly with respect to training people on innovation skills and deploying them appropriately for enhancing output. Output metrics could start taking on a bigger role on the dashboard of innovation metrics. Thus, the metrics portfolio should have a healthy balance between leadership and input metrics and a smaller but significant presence of output metrics.

As the innovation machine in the organisation becomes well oiled such that all employees are accountable for innovation, and the funding for innovation programmes is seamless with the budgeting process, the benefits of building a culture that values innovation truly start accruing. Since the innovation agenda is also the strategic agenda and innovation outcomes the strategic outcomes, output metrics take centre stage. The role of leadership could now transform from sponsorship to new business development due to the opportunities for radical and white space innovation. Input metrics would require reduced focus because alignment of resources is embedded in the performance management system and the code of conduct by this time. Hence, the metrics portfolio should be skewed towards output metrics, with renewed leadership metrics and a token presence of input metrics.

The key to the usefulness of any measurement scheme is the inherent success of the activity being measured. Thus, it is critical to capture the aspect that matters most to the innovation philosophy of your organisation.

 

The Four Legs of a Holistic Model for Corporate Innovation

From being considered a downright accusation, to connoting invention, the term ‘innovation’ gained currency in its contemporary form, thanks to Joseph Schumpeter, in the 1940s.

For the corporate world, it has since meant a luxury, a tool for growth, a tool for differentiation, and more recently, the only way to lead and stay relevant in the market. In this context, the animal called innovation architecture requires four legs. In my work, I often deal with one or more of them and the questions they pose.

 

  1. The Agenda

The Innovation Agenda of a firm is closely connected to its brand position. What does the firm stand for? Why has the firm chosen this path? How is it different from any other firm out there?

 

  1. The Strategic Vision

The strategic vision includes the sketch of what innovation should achieve for the firm. What are the main goals of the business – for the long, medium and short term? What type(s) of innovation will the firm focus on – product, process, business model, delivery? Where could innovation draw inspiration from – technology, customers, partners, internal synergies? How will innovation be measured and monitored – metrics that take into account new products, new markets, productivity gains, financial gains, and intellectual property?

 

  1. The Process

The innovation process is the engine that keeps the focus on outcomes detailed in the vision. What is the method for ideation and funnelling of ideas? What are the rules for team-formation, collaboration, resource authorisation and crisis management? What is the planning and measuring mechanism for prototyping and in-market launches? What is the mechanism for risk management? What is the mechanism for ensuring sustainability of the new introduction?

 

  1. The Enablers

These are the behind-the-scenes workers, often termed the ‘input factors’ for innovation. What are the knowledge management systems and learning tools for the enabling innovation? What is the common language used for innovation within the organisation?What are the elements of organisational culture that are conducive to innovation; how are these being inculcated and multiplied? What are the organisation structures and governance mechanisms that allow innovation to germinate, proliferate, and become self-sustaining? What are the reward mechanisms for those who contribute to the innovation economy of the organisation?

 

For most companies, building this architecture is a serendipitous journey. And with each successful journey is born a successful model of innovation.

Corporate Email Writing, the Science and the Art

Call it a boon, call it a bane, but emails have become an integral part of modern work life. Even so, I am often surprised at how little training one receives at the workplace on how to write an email. One cause for this neglect is perhaps the way that the email first came into our lives – as a medium for social connection. It did not start out as a replacement for formal letters.

 

I recall vividly the section on ‘letter writing’ at every language exam while in high school, where points/ marks would get added or deducted depending on whether certain elements of letter-writing were in place or not. Now that emails have largely replaced office mail, it behooves the question, ‘what should be the critical elements of an email?’ That’s the science…

 

Then there’s the question of what function an email must serve. What does one want as a result of an email? Communication, of course, but to what effect? If an email has not had a desired effect, it has essentially failed as a piece of communication. Writing an email must achieve the desired result. That’s the art…

 

The Science of Email Writing

 

To, CC, BCC

 

The first field, ‘To’, is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Not really…because it often overpowers the ‘CC’ field, when really the latter needs to be used. Add people to the ‘To’ list when they are the specific persons who need to respond to your email.

 

Anybody else that you might think of should be in the CC field because they probably fall into one of the following categories:

  • to be kept informed because of common goals, such as a team member;
  • to be kept informed because of hierarchical relevance to the subject, such as an immediate boss, yours and/ or the addressee’s; or
  • to be kept in the loop because of the potential for influencing the outcome of the email, such as a super-boss or a critical senior executive. ‘Influence’ is a big catalyst in achieving the desired response to corporate email.

 

Learn to curb the temptation to add people to the CC list – not everybody needs to be in on each email. Similarly, don’t hit Reply All unless it is necessary.

 

The BCC field, unfortunately, is just a bad idea for corporate email because it has ‘sneaky’ written all over it. It is best reserved for social/ unofficial email or mass ‘forwards’ where it doesn’t matter to the addressees what the identity of the other addressees is.

 

Subject

 

Despite the number of times that each of us has probably had points deducted for not having included a subject for our letter-writing assignment while at school, many people don’t realize that they MUST have a subject line in an email. It makes it easier for the reader to read, prioritise and act upon your email if (s)he knows what the topic of discussion is. Use the Subject field to your advantage by making it as relevant to the communication as possible.

 

Greeting/ Sign-off

 

Choose your greeting based on the following criteria:

  • The rapport/ relationship that you share with the addressee(s)
  • The frequency of interaction with the addressee(s)
  • Whether the interaction on the current subject is an ongoing one or an initial one
  • Whether the email is likely to be sent forward to other persons, internal or external to the organisation

 

The Art of Email Writing

 

No, I didn’t forget to include the Body of the email. That is actually where the ‘art’ comes in.

 

Human beings tend to see the world in terms of calendars and clocks, i.e. in a chronological sequence. This is a great tool, psychologically, to keep track of things. However, it is rather antithetical to corporate prioritization (Is this email important?) and decision-making (How should I respond?) The email writer has a huge opportunity to make these two processes more efficient.

 

Conventional wisdom tells us to follow these steps:

  • Provide the ‘Background’ for the email;
  • List the steps that have already happened in the sequence of events since the background, often accompanied by the evidence to prove that they happened;
  • Put forward the current situation and circumstances, and, finally,
  • Raise the request/ question or state the directive, etc.

 

Very common sensical, isn’t it? But here’s the catch. Depending on the context, such an email could be four lines (at least) to one and a half pages (or more) long. Who wants to read page-long emails before they are told what is expected of them? For all the time-saving hacks that corporate productivity gurus talk about, shouldn’t shorter emails be on top of the list? I signed up to the email charter five years ago and it has saved me a lot of work and I’m sure it has saved the recipients of my emails a lot of time.

 

Alternative wisdom would use the same elements but in a different flow:

  • State the main reason for writing the email – raising the request/ question or stating the directive, etc. This is the main response desired/ action you want taken as a result of the email.
  • Provide the rationale (at most five points) for the reason above
  • List the attachments, if any, that you’ve provided to be read for anybody who needs more details, with a short description of what’s in each attachment. These attachments could include the ‘Background’ and the sequence of relevant events, among other things.
  • Plug in the attachments.

 

Voila! Your email is now two brief lines with, perhaps, a small set of bullet points for support. The best part about a short email that states the desired outcome at the top is that is it has a higher chance of actually being read and, hence, responded to.

 

Get more from less with your next email.

 

 

Four Keys to Cracking the Case Interview

“How should I prepare for a case interview?”

 

For anybody considering a career in management consulting, this question would’ve popped up at one point or another. I’m often asked this question by eager beavers raring to don the consultant suit. As all management consultants will tell you, preparing for a case interview and cracking one can often be different experiences.

 

Here are four keys (because you do need all of them) to cracking the case interview:

 

  1. Define the Problem Situation

 

To be able to define the problem as accurately as possible, call in your listening skills. When in doubt about what you’ve heard, seek clarifications. Your aim will not be to gather deep understanding of the industry in question, but to gain a reasonable appreciation of the critical business decisions that must be made.

 

Once you have assimilated the information, verbalise your understanding of the problem situation. Let the interviewer know that you will be driving the interview from here on; summarize the problem statement and proceed.

 

  1. Solve the Problem

 

Take a minute or two to think through the key issues at hand. Identify at least two and at most five issues for the deep-dive.

 

Now, think aloud. Here’s where the ‘S’ word figures – Structure your analysis of the issues, ideally 3-4 levels deep, not more, based on a flexible framework. Where frameworks are concerned, incorporate them, adapt them, merge them, but do not be constrained by them. Do ensure, however, that your issue tree is mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). Hypothesise the direction of the solution and begin your analysis of the issues.

 

Bear in mind that you are not only a problem solver but also a presenter all this time. The interviewer needs to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ how you are thinking. Take her along with you in your analysis. Signpost as you pass each step of your journey.

 

Collect evidence for each issue by seeking more information. Where it is unavailable, explain the assumptions you would be making. Be data-driven; correct your course if the information provided is contrary to your hypothesis.

 

  1. Make Recommendations

 

Develop (ideally) more than one solution and provide the ideal scenarios for use of each. Step through the key actions required to execute each solution.

 

  1. Summarize

 

End well. Finish in time, without requiring prompting. Summarise the case problem, what issues you identified, what evidence you collected for your analysis, what your key findings were, and what your key recommendations are.

 

Throughout the interview, remember to stay composed, look confident, and make eye contact. Show strong logic and stick to your guns.

 

Go ace that case!