Companions of your career—the 4 A’s (TSM Madurai)

Published on 24-7-16

I am delighted to have been invited to be a part of this very important milestone in your careers and lives. My hearty congratulations to the graduating class, the parents and well-wishers and, above all, the teachers and staff of IIM Ranchi.

Published on 24-7-16

I am delighted to have been invited to be a part of this very important milestone in your careers and lives. My hearty congratulations to the graduating class, the parents and well-wishers and, above all, the teachers and staff of IIM Ranchi.

Keeping the relevance of the journey that you all are about to begin, I would like to speak about how high potential managers adapt and relearn skills through what I call the 4 A’s. My ideas are based on a book that I sat down to write four years ago.*

Through your career stages, adapt skills rather than emulate behavior

Sometimes people assume that if you can learn to behave like successful leaders, you can be successful. My experience is that career builders should avoid adopting behavioural models of success but rather adapt basic human qualities for success. I will speak about the 4 A’s and how they play out in different phases of your career–which stand for Accomplishment, Affability, Advocacy and Authenticity.

  • Accomplishment refers to the attribute of reliably delivering results. It has to be learned like all skills and practised periodically.
  • Affability is the attribute of developing agreeable relationships and getting things done in an appropriate manner.
  • Advocacy is the skill of envisioning new ideas and persuading others to debate those new ideas.
  • Authenticity is the perception others develop about you, especially subordinates, and about who they think you are.

These four attributes vary in relative importance at each of the four stages of your career journey.

The first stage is referred to as Managing Tasks, when you have to plan activities to deliver results with the help of people who typically report to you: for example, to achieve sales targets with a team of salesmen, month after month. During this stage, it is crucial to accomplish and to deliver results. The other 3 As take a lower share of importance.

The second stage is when you move From Tasks to Relationships. You obviously still need to deliver results, but now you rely on people who do not report to you. You need to get work done, not through hierarchical power, but through lateral relationships. For example, you are the regional manager, but only the sales managers directly report to you; the finance, personnel and legal colleagues report to head office with only a dotted line to you. During this stage, the importance of affability increases compared to the earlier stage.

The third stage is termed From Relationship to Thought. Your CEO is happy that you are a doer, but he needs to assess the quality of your thinking horsepower. So you are assigned a strategic role such as Marketing Manager, Product Development Manager or Strategy Manager. Your ability to acquire and synthesize new knowledge becomes very important.  At this senior level, you have to imagine the future and create market spaces that are not readily visible to many others.

On the fourth and final stage of the leadership journey, you need to be far more aware of yourself and your society by addressing deep issues about people and community; for example, why does your company exist? What is its unique societal contribution? Does it have ethical or moral standards to live up to, apart from the statutory standards? At this stage, your authenticity and how people perceive your nature becomes very crucial. Can I trust him? If he asks me to jump, should I jump? These are the sort of questions your subordinates wrestle with.

Before becoming a successful leader, it is essential to be a great subordinate.

All successful subordinates are judged by their bosses through observing how well they combine the four qualities of accomplishment, affability, advocacy and authenticity. These are not static attributes or qualities. They are relative.

You must be ‘sufficiently’ accomplished in getting things done, you must be affable enough and persuasive enough to be an excellent performer and you must be ‘authentic’ enough to be accepted as a peer and as a leader in the roles you perform on the way up.

Accomplishment

Accomplishment means being able to execute with efficiency and to deliver results. It is the most important of the skills that any subordinate has to learn. Simple though it sounds, it is a great weakness among many managers. If execution skills were to be found as abundantly as they are expected, then there would not be so much research and management literature on the subject. There are some reasons why the Accomplishment attribute is not as richly found among managers as one might assume.

The expectation of being an accomplishing executive stays throughout your working career. There is never a stage when you are not expected to deliver results. As you rise in the organization, you depend more and more on others to deliver. So, like the oxygen required for staying alive, the skill of Accomplishment is a life-long demand on the manager.

It is not enough to execute, deliver results and demonstrate accomplishment. The results have to be achieved in an acceptable manner. So the method through which you accomplish results becomes the lens through which your actual results are viewed.

Practitioners like Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan have pointed out that execution is actually a formal discipline.Execution has three core processes: the people process, the strategy process and the operations process. This discipline is not actually taught in schools of business. And, to be fair, perhaps it is right to argue that such things are difficult to teach. You learn them through constant practice and self-correction with occasional mentoring from coaches—a bit like how you learn sports or music.

Anyone who has worked in organizations recognises that there is a gap between what the organization knows and what it does. Former Unilever chairman Michael Perry used to say that “it would be wonderful if only Unilever knew what Unilever knows.”  Knowledge that is actually implemented is much more likely to be to be acquired from learning by doing than from learning by reading, listening, or even thinking.

 Affability

The word, affable, is derived from the French word affabilis. Thedictionary defines an affable person as one who is “easy to speak to, pleasant, friendly, and courteous especially to inferiors.”

The word, manager, is derived from Latin (manus) and Italian (maneggio). The dictionary defines the word, manager, to mean “to wield, to conduct, to control, to train by exercise, as a horse).

If you take these meanings too literally, the concept of an affable manager is an oxymoron. It might appear that no efficient and effective manager can qualify as an affable manager. By the nature of work, a manager has to overcome obstacles, which means to convince, cajole, coerce and, if needed, even crucify people into doing things and to coordinate all those actions into a targeted end-result.

That is why affability is a skill to be learnt, practised and perfected.

  • How can you disagree without being disagreeable?
  • How can you separate your rival’s views from your feelings for your rival?
  • How can you listen carefully with an open mind and yet be focused and single-minded?

People like to communicate and that means not just the opportunity to speak, but the right to be heard—in a genuine way. The cause of much strife in the world arises from the inability of people to listen to each other. Even in psychological counselling, practitioners have pointed out the therapeutic effects of just listening to people who want to get things off their chest.

This therefore constitutes a distinctive quality of the affable manager: he or she has to learn to be a good listener. If you look through the training courses run for managers, you will rarely find one on Listening Skills.

Listening is very difficult, especially for managers with authority and a ready audience within their departments or companies. My previous chairman at Hindustan Unilever, the late Prakash Tandon, would exhort trainees to ‘listen four times as much as you speak because the surface area of the two ears is four times as much as the lip.’ This sounded very appropriate, and I remember the advice to this day. But I have spent a lifetime trying to understand how to do so. I finally found the answer in the research findings of a counsellor and teacher of hearing-challenged people.

 Advocacy

Advocacy is a word derived from Latin advocatusand its meaning is “the function of pleading the cause of another, the act of urging something.” The dictionary meaning suggests that it is about persuading without power. Management, on the other hand, is quite a lot associated with direction, hierarchy and power. So where is the connection with advocacy?

In the early stages of one’s career, you are the recipient of instructions and the effects of power. You accept them by adapting. You realise that the boss expects you to exercise your leadership on the people who report to you and make sure that things get done. In the middle management phase, you find the need to influence people without their directly reporting to you. In the senior and leadership roles, you may exercise no control over the people you need to influence. This is the manner in which your skills of advocacy develop.

Every CEO got his first taste of advocacy when he became the head of a faraway factory. He had to influence juniors, peers and seniors at the head office. He also had to influence external people who could impact his factory: officers in the police, the local administration and the policy makers in government.  When he became CEO, he had to meet ministers and political level people. It was vital for the future of the company that he succeeded in persuading them that the policies implemented were killing his company, and with it, the employment of his workers. He had to appeal to their rationality and emotions to get them to do whatever rescue acts were involved. These are the elements of advocacy.

Authenticity

The final attribute is authenticity. This is probably the most difficult attribute to learn and practise. It is easier to recognize its absence in an unauthentic person than it is to define what exactly authenticity is. In this respect, authenticity is very much like beauty and character. In most societies, people are likely to consider politicians as unauthentic, more so than say teachers, doctors and managers.

What is authenticity? It is being who you are. Your colleagues and peers see you as you are, not the way you would like to be seen. It is their perception of who you are and what you stand for that produces their followership. Followership is used here, not in a hierarchical sense, but in an egalitarian sense. It is the voluntary desire or inclination among followers to follow a person, emotionally and physically. Unauthentic people can get others to follow by asymmetry of power, by threat or by coercion. These are not likely to be long lasting.

Genuine followership comes as a result of the person appearing authentic. At a junior career level, there are not many who are following you. So the lack of authenticity may not produce palpable effects. You may not suffer much from its absence in terms of work leadership.

There can be a view that the attribute of authenticity is a consequence of your behaviour and your beliefs. It is not a skill or art that can be learnt. But it is surely helpful to understand the principles that help to build enduring authenticity. Authentic people:

  • Are cast from the crucible of their sufferings
  • Are moulded through formal and informal mentors
  • Are those who try to live out a selfless character
  • Have a sense that they are called to lead
  • Handle privilege with great care
  • Are tenaciously focused on their goals
  • Invest in the lives of those who follow them

We live in an age when there is a tendency to dismiss character, selflessness and servant-hood as weak and limiting. On the contrary, the attribute of authenticity has become the supreme requirement of modern times. Authenticity arises from your sharing your humanity with those that have chosen to follow you.

I have spoken enough. I can only end by wishing all of you God speed and best of luck in your careers and life journeys.

*WHAT THE CEO REALLY WANTS FROM YOU, Harper Collins India, 2012

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