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Five Skills Key to Successful Business Operations Management – You Could be Great at Operations if..

Five Skills Key to Successful Business Operations Management – You Could be Great at Operations if..

You cannot be a good business leader unless you thoroughly understand the business operations in your organization and how it links to its performance. I have noticed one big reason business strategies fail – it is the unbelievable reality that senior leadership many a times doesn’t understand the basics of their business. How it runs and what makes it run. An operations mindset is extremely critical for all leaders – No matter how good you are at framing strategy; it also has to get executed successfully for an organization to succeed. This is where the business operations team can play a big role, by not only providing insights to the leadership on the ways to improve business performance through profitable growth and strategic management of costs and risks but also to reduce the gap between strategy and execution through disciplined process implementation. Quite a few big buzz words there. But it boils down to one thing – to succeed in business, you have to understand and be good at operations. I strongly believe an operational mindset is a mental “muscle” that can be developed. For all those who want to develop this muscle or are thinking of a career in business operations, this post is for them.

So without further ado, here are the five top skills/loves that I believe are must-haves for those who want to enhance the performance and productivity of organizations through understanding and improving their operations:

Must-Have #1 – You love people:

Lee Iacocca said:  “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product and profits. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.” Understanding people across multiple functions and roles and leveraging their strengths is extremely important to meet objectives – in an operational role where you have to work mainly in a matrix structure where you have lots of responsibility but not always the required hierarchical authority, this becomes paramount. You must know how to connect with people and energize and enthuse them. Communication skills, beyond the verbal and the written, the ability to listen and read between the lines is an useful asset to align people to your goals. And all this is not possible unless you have a genuine interest and love for people.

Must-Have #2 – You love numbers:

Does the idea of deciphering lots and lots of rows and columns of numbers spread across sheets give you the shivers ? As they say, the devil lies in the details and to be good at operations, making sense of numbers must excite you. Plenty of common sense plus and an ability to derive meaning out of the different ways numbers can be combined or dissected to arrive at the right performance metrics for early warning signals for the business as well as measuring the results is part and parcel of the operations role. Knowing your numbers and the different levers that can be applied to them makes you the master of the game.

Must-Have #3 – You love wearing multiple hats:

In operations, you have to be put yourself in the shoes of different functions on a day-to-day basis – sales, IT, finance, business, delivery – to be able to understand the requirements from all perspectives and execute on it. A specialist in operations with a generalist bent of mind to connect all the dots in the organization for the right solutions.  You have to become the subject matter expert in many things at the same time. Quoting from an article by Vikram Mansharamani in HBR – there appears to be reasonable and robust data suggesting that generalists are better at navigating uncertainty. Professor Phillip Tetlock conducted a 20+ year study of 284 professional forecasters. He asked them to predict the probability of various occurrences both within and outside of their areas of expertise. Analysis of the 80,000+ forecasts found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise. Tetlock’s conclusion: when seeking accuracy of predictions, it is better to turn to those like “Berlin’s prototypical fox, those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.” Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations (which are more prevalent today than ever before).

Must-Have #4 – You love solving puzzles:

Providing smart and creative recommendations for business process improvement is one of the key areas in which business operations team can be key contributors. As an operation person, you have to identify the problems, dig for knowledge in the vast amounts of available data and then analyze it to arrive at the areas of focus. As per research by Gartner, through 2012, 80% of organizations will struggle to recruit the talent required to meet their business analytics objectives. This needs an inquisitive mind, a persistent approach and deduction skills. If you are a crossword or Sudoku fanatic, you are in the right “zone” here 🙂

Must-Have #5 – You love WORK:

Back end work, strategic work, boring work, last-minute deadline work, grunt work,  thinking work, transactional work, delegated work, filling in for someone else work – your work landscape in an operations role will constantly be changing and switching. So, you must have a great love for work by itself and in itself in all its myriad shapes and forms. If you are particular about doing only one type of work and consider certain types of work below you – this is certainly not the role for you. The duties and responsibilities in this role are fluid and are different from company to company or even business head to business head. I have rarely across a defined job description that remains constant over a period of time in my career. So, your guiding principles and measuring stick for your work should be based on what you want to achieve, not what type of work is needed to get there. A passion for work coupled with an ability to set your own standards for excellence is crucial in this role.

In addition to the above, a  business operations person must be able to exude confidence, have conviction and be firm on what he/she believes is the right thing to do. It is only then that by focusing on some of the points where structure, processes, people and systems intersect, and engaging and influencing all the stakeholders involved to work on those critical junctions, the business operations team can release benefits that ripple across the organization.

What other skills do you think are necessary for successful business management and operations? What have I missed? Please share your experiences below. I would love to hear and learn from you.

Image courtesy – http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelheiss/3090102907

Gap Year(s) and Why They’re Trending

Gap Year(s) and Why They’re Trending

When Malia Obama decided to take a gap year before starting college at Harvard, it made the world sit up and notice. The news spread like wildfire, not just because one of the Obama’s’ was involved but also because the concept of a gap year had captured the imagination of the public. A number of questions arose, “ What is a gap year?”, “Why do students need a gap year?”, “What do students do during a gap year?” and so on.

In very simple terms, a gap year is an experiential semester or year “on,” typically taken between high school and college or after college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.

Despite the financial challenges and stigma surrounding a gap year, it has many benefits to offer. Universities today have understood this and as a result they not only accept applicants who have taken gap years but also actively encourage admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel or pursue a special project or activity. According to study abroad organization CIEE, Harvard College alone has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of their incoming students taking gap years!

If you’re a student mulling over the idea of taking a gap year and are wondering if it is worth the effort, then do give this blog a read! Given below are the reasons we think why a gap year will do wonders for your personal and professional growth.


Personal Growth

1.Keeps you from Burning Out

One of the most promising articles on this subject, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation”  by William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard College describes how pressuring K-12 schooling has become and notes how training for college scholarships or professional contracts begins early, even in grammar school. He further wrote,“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

In fact according to an article by Wall Street Journal,  “Burnout from the competitive pressures of high school is one of the top two reasons why students take a gap year.”

If you also face the heat and pressure of your school or college, a gap year could be a fantastic way to recharge your batteries. It is a chance for students to take a breath and do something that doesn’t require them to ask, ‘How will this look on my college application? As a result, rather than losing motivation or study-skills, you come back refreshed and rejuvenated. Data by American Gap Association  which states, “Taking a 1-year break between high school and university allows motivation for and interest in study to be renewed” supports this claim.

2. A Better Sense of Self

An article by Wall Street Journal stated, “ Apart from the burnout, the desire to find out more about oneself is another top reason for taking a gap year.” A gap year will enable you to achieve this in three ways. One, taking a gap year essentially means taking time off from a hectic life of final examinations, preparing for college interviews or achieving professional deadlines. It allows you to take a step back and introspect. Gives you the time to understand yourself, your skills and interest. Challenging yourself while on a gap year is another way . You might decide to go trekking through a jungle, climb a mountain for charity or volunteer in a developing country. These challenges push you out of your comfort zone, make you face your fears, enjoy new experiences and in the process help you discover yourself. Finally, a gap year allows you a unique opportunity to broaden your view of the world.

According to an article by Joe O’ Shea, director of Florida State University’s Office of Undergraduate Research , “We often develop most when our understandings of ourselves and the world around us are challenged, when we engage with people and ideas that are different. Trying to occupy another’s way of life in a different culture — living with a new family, speaking the language, integrating into a community, perhaps working with local youth, for instance are valuable experiences that help young people understand themselves, develop empathy and virtue, and expand their capacity to see the world from others’ perspectives.”

Professional Growth

1. More Clarity about What to Pursue Next

You might have observed your friends or classmates committing themselves to one area of study, and when they realize it’s not for them, they swap to a completely different major. By doing so not only do they lose out precious time but it also increases the financial burden. If you are in the same boat, then a gap year will do you no harm. In fact it will allow you to put things into perspective and make you more certain of the major you want to pursue.

According to Joe O’ Shea, “Many students overseas who take gap years in between colleges end up changing their intended major after returning as their gap year experiences enrich their courses, strengthen co-curricular endeavors, and animate undergraduate research and creative projects. Therefore taking that crucial time off can help give them the direction they need to confidently choose a major, and ultimately, a career they’re passionate about.”

2. Improved Performance in College

Who doesn’t want good grades and shining comments from the professors? Even the“backbenchers” secretly desire it, whether they accept it or not! Attending classes and studying hard is surely one tried and tested way of doing it, however it is not always a success. Sometimes taking a long break from studying can work wonders for your academic performance.

Robert Clagett, who served as a senior admissions officer at Harvard and is also the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College,recently designed a methodology to track gap year students’ over/underperformance of GPA. He found that students who took a gap year almost always outperformed academically in college as they are relax, rejuvenated and as a result more involved in the campus. Most importantly, the positive effect of taking a gap year was demonstrated to persist throughout the college years.

3. Develop Useful Contacts

Taking a gap year will not only help you forge some lifelong friendships, but also give you an opportunity to build your professional network. Throughout your journey you will meet a range of different people from all walks of life who will either provide you with job opportunities or with references at some point in the future.

4. Gain Relevant Work Experience and Skills for Securing Employment

A gap year doesn’t just allow you to relax, travel around the world or help develop a circle of contacts . It is a powerful medium enabling you to gain skills and experiences that would most certainly help you score your dream job !

According to an article by Institution of Engineering and Technology,  “Past survey commissioned by gapyear.com showed that 85 per cent of HR executives questioned, felt that relevant work experience is more valuable to a job seeker than an average non-vocational degree, and 65 per cent believed that a constructive gap year spent volunteering or gaining work experience overseas made a job application stand out.

From the above data it is very clear that employers are actively encouraging people to take gap years to earn skills and ‘life experience’. Some of the key employability skills gained include organization, communication, teamwork, independence, social skills, decision-making, self-sufficiency, time management, budgeting, using initiative, improved self-confidence, leadership and developed maturity.

It is safe to say that what used to be an experiment earlier is nowadays an informed choice. Gap years aren’t meant for sitting idly and watching re runs of your favourite sitcoms. In order for a gap year to be successful, it is very important for you to first understand, why you are taking a year off? If that is clear then the next step would be to create a plan of action aligned with your interests and learning needs . If you can do this, then a gap year might just turn out to be the unparalleled experience you were hoping for.

5 Unconventional Career Tracks Women are Making it Big In

5 Unconventional Career Tracks Women are Making it Big In

Professional spaces today continue to be defined along gendered lines. This means that there are some employment sectors that continue to be dominated by persons of specific genders. For example, the gender balance in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields has traditionally favoured men. On the other hand, jobs such as those in Healthcare and Early Education seem to be dominated worldwide by women. These are sometimes patronisingly referred to as ‘pink-collar’ jobs.

Women over the last few decades have done a lot to overcome these barriers, and the struggle continues. Women making it big in men dominated fields also at times face varied degrees of sexism and this fact is well recorded. If it is not this, then it is the societal pressure on working women to get married, become mothers and shoulder much of the domestic burden, while at the same time taking care of their professional responsibilities. Despite resistance they have had to face, women are increasingly breaking gender stereotypes and making it big in these sectors. Our list of unconventional career tracks women have chosen and have succeeded in, covers a few of these.

Documentary Filmmaking

Male film directors define the norm in our film industry, just as it is in the film industries of any other country.  No doubt, women filmmakers have left a mark on audience’s preferences, but there are too few of them. Of those who have entered the profession, not many of them go on to make a lot of movies.

Gladly, the scenario is much better in the Indian documentary filmmaking space. The commercial documentary filmmaking scene is itself nascent in India and women documentary makers have captured an equal share of the distribution pie. Some of the movies that got theatrical distribution over the last few years have been helmed by women filmmakers. To name few, Supermen of Malegaon, The Rat Race, Gulabi Gang, The World Before Her, When Hari Got Married, Katiyabaaz. It is perhaps something about the independence documentary filmmaking afford women, that they find themselves on the cutting edge. If commercial fiction film industry were to dismantle its oppressive glass ceilings, women filmmakers will enrich it, just as they have done for the documentary industry.

Public Transport

This year, the Indian Air Force inducted its first female fighter pilots. A proud moment as it was, countless women on the ground have been making equally remarkable headway into driving transport vehicles. Defeating that stereotype of women being poor drivers, thousands of women are taking up driving and owning their own taxis. Women-only taxi services (of which both the drivers and the customers are women) run in most of India’s major towns. These include Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and also the State of Goa.

The services offer not just a chance to be self-reliant to the women drivers, they also provide a secure ferrying service to its women customers who have found themselves not infrequently at the ends of harassment by male drivers. Many of these services are supported by NGOs that help train women, most in need of work. These women taxi services have struggled to scale up largely owing to the lack of investors’ interest, but for the good that they do both in terms of economy and security, it is important to give this sector some push. Apart from women-only taxi services, women have also occupied the driving seats of auto rickshaws and city transport buses.

Space/Defence Research and Development

Like mentioned earlier, STEM fields see women under-represented. However, it is interesting to note that women in India may be doing better than those in the US and the UK. As the Guardian piece notes, 30% of the programmers in India are women compared to around 21% in the US.

Amongst those in STEM fields, India’s women space scientists have recently been in news. One photo taken right after ISRO’s Mars Orbiter successfully entered Mars’ orbit became the defining moment of both the mission and women scientists in India and was published and republished several times.

While women make up only 21% the workforce at ISRO, the number is growing. Just like NASA is the largest employer of women STEM professionals in USA, ISRO will do well to perform this role here in India. Government sector has in fact made some strides in making space for women scientists.  Department of Science and Technology of the Central Government rolled out the Knowledge Involvement Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) Programme to induct more women scientist in research and development areas designed specifically to improve the gender balance (http://dst.gov.in/pressrelease/women-scientists). Another welcome news came in the form of the appointment of J. Manjula as the first women Director General at Defence Research and Development Organisation, leading one of its clusters.

Private Detective Work

This has to sound like one of the more unconventional job choices for women, largely because how pervasive the portrayal of a male sleuth is in popular culture. However, unconventional sounding doesn’t mean that women haven’t done well in the business.

A large proportion of the detective work in India involves investigating into marital problems. Women run a large number of the 3,500 private agencies in Delhi alone that carry out this work. While the exact number is not available, many female detectives have seen their share of spotlight. Bhavna Palival, Malathy B.E. (who is said to run the first women’s detective agency in South India) and Rajni Pandit are superstars of the detective scene in their own right and have been written about extensively by host of national and international newspapers, perhaps more than any male counterpart. Rajni Pandit also has some of her more dangerous cases including those of murders written about. Many of the women detectives claim they score better on men in investigating particularly matters related to love! This growing force has also come to be represented in our cinema recently such as in the Vidya Balan starrer ‘Bobby Jasoos’.

Mining Operations

Women-run cooperative societies have had a big impact in financially equipping rural women. A large amount of dairy production takes place through these cooperatives. Similarly, cooperatives like these are present in the garment, handicrafts and other sectors which have historically involved women in production. Today, important banking services to women are also carried out through a similar set up.

Still, women’s cooperatives’ managing mining operations is a feat in itself. While women do work in the production of minerals, commonly in the surface stone and sand mines, taking the management of the mines in their hands involved overcoming the strong and often violent quarry owners’ lobby.

We came across two such examples of this. Around 4000 women came to control various stone quarries in the Pudakottai district of Tamil Nadu. These were the same quarries in which they had worked as bonded labourers. The result – the standard of living for the families improved in both dignity and income, and the State saw an increase in the revenues, which had been bleeding due to the misappropriation committed by former quarry owners. The more recent example is that of the sand mining operations carried out by the all women cooperatives in Andhra Pradesh at more than 300 locations. The women are responsible for dredging, mining and selling the produce and giving its share of the revenue to the State. Just like in the previous example, the women miners of AP are up against the strong sand mafia.

What is an excellent way of increasing the incomes (which went up from around Rs. 60 a day to over Rs. 360 a day) is also a strategy for dealing with illegal mining. The cooperatives are not just accountable in the ways individual male sand mine owners were not previously, but the mining operations are now equally conscious about sustainability and environmental concerns. What a remarkable change right at the ground-level where it matters the most!

We hope this post proves to be as enlightening for you as it was for us while we were working on it! We were just blown away by all the small, yet really significant examples of unconventional career tracks, women – amazingly strong and resilient – are making their way through, slowly, yet steadily! Shattering the glass ceilings one sector at a time. Know any such awesome women? Tag them here!

Five Ways to Survive and Thrive during Organisation Structure Changes

Five Ways to Survive and Thrive during Organisation Structure Changes

It starts with tremors and before you realise what is happening, the ground starts shaking violently under your feet and there you are in the middle of a major seismic activity hanging on for dear life to your seat. Hold on – I am not talking about cyclones, tsunamis or earthquakes of the natural kind. I am referring to the ground-shaking encountered during organizational structure changes. If you have ever worked in the corporate world, you know the kind I mean…. A quarter or two of underperformance and you can almost guarantee that the phrase “need for change” starts appearing in management communication. Unfortunately, this drive for the need for change usually does not focus on looking at the customer value creation, the business strategy or the execution gaps. The target is usually a few leaders and some shuffling of positions and responsibilities here and there at the top levels and maybe an acquisition – all under the banner “organizing for success”.

That’s all good (actually not, this is shifting the problem elsewhere and maybe creating a new set of problems but it’s a topic for another day) but in a hierarchical organization which majority of orgs are still – this is very unsettling for all the layers of people below. And given that org changes are the norm and hiding under your seat or the blanket at home till the dust settles down in the hope that things will turn out ok in the end could be an option, there is a better option as well and that is – to Be Prepared.

I consider myself a veteran at this org change business having gone through some 25 odd organization transitions in my career – some of which I just about survived and some in which I thrived. So here is my checklist of tips on coming out a winner in such transitions:

Tip #1 – Be an Intrapreneur: No matter which layer or function you are in the structure, always be a leader.  The security of a good job in a big company often brings in a sense of complacency.  In today’s scenarios, this complacency is very very risky for your career. If you were an entrepreneur or working in a startup, what would you be doing? Hustling everyday, that’s what – because what exists today might not exist tomorrow. So bring in that hustle factor into your job everyday – work for today. As Jim Rohn said – work harder on yourself than you do on your job or business.  Be an intrapreneur – an entrepreneur within your organisation. My mentor, Entrepreneur David K Williams, shared the four essential traits of an intrapreneur – read here. Do your best work and keep yourself relevant and you become sure of yourself and the fear of changing bosses, changing teams, changes at workplace will not be a fear anymore.

Tip#2 – Be Visible:  Doing great work and no one other than your immediate boss and your team knowing about it is not going to help you when your boss changes or your team changes. Much as you may hate the idea of it, you have to promote yourself. As I have written in one of my earlier posts, this was a hard-earned lesson for me. I had always believed that my work will speak for itself and rewards may be delayed but will never be denied. But then, who knows what tomorrow may bring? You cannot afford to be shy if you want your work to be recognized.  Be aware of your worth and don’t settle for less. You have to be your own marketing manager and actively market the value that you bring in to your manager, department and organization. Make sure people know who you are and what you do. Make your achievements and contributions visible as and when they happen and not just list them at appraisal time.

Tip #3 – Help Others: The single most important thing that you can do for your career is to help others in their careers. Read that line again – it is true. In life or in work, what you give is what you get. Its extra work I admit but the benefits far outweigh the efforts. I have always held the belief that real assets that we build at work are the relationships – you don’t lose these when you switch jobs or lose jobs. All the career advice about having a strong network around you is right – but it starts with an attitude of helping, of giving. Be the go-to person – be the first person that people around you think of when there is an issue to be resolved or a problem to be solved. You become an asset for your boss, your team and you company. And being an asset gives you plenty of leverage during an organizational transition – it gives you the negotiating power to tap the opportunities that the transition may bring.,

Tip #4 – Collect Mentors: A good mentor is invaluable for your career success. A mentor can be someone in your corner when you need some additional support. And if you have one within the company, she can protect you when things go wrong, propose you for great assignments and be your own internal reference. Look around you to find people who you admire and are role models for where you want to be. Don’t limit yourself to one mentor. You might look to one for domain expertise, to another for industry expertise, and yet another for personal scenarios when you need practical and helpful advice or brainstorming. And if you are lucky to find a great mentor, invest in that relationship and make sure that you too offer support when your mentor needs it.

Tip #5 – Be Aware: Of the work that you do, of your worth, of the games around you and of what is right. This Career Manifesto by Michael Wade says it all:

1. Unless you’re working in a coal mine, an emergency ward, or their equivalent, spare us the sad stories about your tough job. The biggest risk most of us face in the course of a day is a paper cut.

2. Yes, your boss is an idiot at times. So what? (Do you think your associates sit around and marvel at your deep thoughts?) If you cannot give your boss basic loyalty, either report the weasel to the proper authorities or be gone.

3. You are paid to take meaningful actions, not superficial ones. Don’t brag about that memo you sent out or how hard you work. Tell us what you achieved.

4. Although your title may be the same, the job that you were hired to do three years ago is probably not the job you have now. When you are just coasting and not thinking several steps ahead of your responsibilities, you are in dinosaur territory and a meteor is coming.

5. If you suspect that you’re working in a madhouse, you probably are. Even sociopaths have jobs. Don’t delude yourself by thinking you’ll change what the organization regards as a “turkey farm.” Flee.

6. Your technical skills may impress the other geeks, but if you can’t get along with your co-workers, you’re a litigation breeder. Don’t be surprised if management regards you as an expensive risk.

7. If you have a problem with co-workers, have the guts to tell them, preferably in words of one syllable.

8. Don’t believe what the organization says it does. Its practices are its real policies. Study what is rewarded and what is punished and you’ll have a better clue as to what’s going on.

9. Don’t expect to be perfect. Focus on doing right instead of being right. It will simplify the world enormously.

10. If you plan on showing them what you’re capable of only after you get promoted, you need to reverse your thinking.

 So what do you think? What tip did I miss? Tell me your story – I would love to hear and learn from you.

Pic Courtesy:  Scott Adams – http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1997-11-22/