The Twisted World of Bullying: March 27 2013

During the holiday season, I sent out a card with pictures of my family. Of more than 100 cards that I sent, one person sent me back a nasty message about the card and how I was an “imperialist pig with aspirations of entering the white-man’s universe!”

Awestruck with this reaction, I decided to “divorce” this “friend” completely from my life and eliminate all connections.

Life’s too short to deal with bullies like these who want you to feel bad about yourself or respond to their twisted sentiments. Whether it’s some sort of personal inadequacy or chemical imbalance, bullying, is not something that should be accepted gracefully.

Picture of bullying

It took me some 30 years to come to terms with the fact, that I was bullied as a child.

I went to a prestigious Catholic school and my parents were completely oblivious to this fact– because I was embarassed  to talk to them about this.

I was not a small kid but was never athletic; having skipped a grade, I didn’t have the physical prowess of most of my older class-mates. For five years, from sixth through tenth grade, I never got into a fight – nor did anyone physically touch me.

A couple of the older, stronger boys would lurk in the school hallways and made eye-hand gestures suggesting that they would physically assault me if they got me alone. I was so scared,  for the next 5 years, not once did I ever use the facilities of my school; I learned bladder control very well.

It was never totally clear to me whether it was just that I was a new kid, or I was picked as the random target of their anger;  I always wondered, whether it was just me that they bullied.

During those days, I used to think of only one thing; one day, I will succeed so big, that those bullies would have to look up at me from their lowly scum of the earth places.

Bullies have a tendency of making you feel smaller; as if something’s wrong with you or that you have inadvertently committed a crime of sorts. Bullies can be assertive and obnoxious in language, or passive-aggressive in nature which leads to taunting, verbal harassment or even non-verbal gestures.

If not stopped early, these young bullies often turn into as adult bullies and bring their belligerence to the workplace.

About 15 years ago, I was a senior executive of a major multi-national corporation and a newly appointed GM tried to bully me into submission. Sometimes it was harsh language – and at other times it was taunting and coaxing at the entire staff. The funny thing is that this individual didn’t just bully me – but our customers, our unionized work-team and his own leadership team. As news of this bullying spread, he was fired.

The questions that must be asked: do we let bullies change us, or our choices enough, to become someone else?  Do we start behaving differently because we let bullies dictate our way of life?

On a grander nation-state scale, imagine the world changing every day to demands of bully states North Korea or Iran!

If you have been bullied, verbally or physically, at school, work or inside your family, the first thing is to acknowledge that you are being bullied and come to the firm conclusion that this bullying is simply wrong.

Once you accept/understand that you are being bullied – the next step is to muster enough courage to stand up and gather the necessary resources/support/courage to confront the bully – and if practical – put an end to this. Sometimes, one has to just verbally confront the bully; at other times, you need a higher authority to step in and put an end to it. I have seen instances of bullying of the perpetrator into a corner and positioning them such that they can’t bully any more.

The history of bullying goes many generations or centuries. It may even be natures ways of promoting the survival of the fittest. We cannot stop bullying just by resisting it; however, we can stop the impact that bullies have on us. It’s a question of how much we are willing to compromise or change.

As a father of two daughters, I am always cognizant that bullying may occur at their schools, play yards or parties. Today, there is also the threat of continuous cyber-bullying. I try to prepare them with tools to deal with bullying – specially the verbal, silent or cyber bullying they are most likely to experience.

My coaching for them is that , if anyone harasses them, the first thing is to tell someone else – someone safe – authorities at school or, me.  For this, they need to know that someone will believe them and not just blow away their complaints as “fiction”. As parents, we may not be able to be present for our children at every corner; however, if they are bullied, they can count on safe places to reach for help.

Finally, if it’s a friend or family member is bullying them, I am encouraging them to end that relationship altogether. History or context of relationships may burden us with a need to remain in contact with a bullying family or “friend”. Once you realize that there are lot’s of good people around to make new friends and one or two bullies in your life can easily ejected from your life.

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(Sometimes) You Have to be a Jerk to Get Attention: March 12 2013

One of those “Aha!” moments at a business negotiation class: the irrational negotiator, often (not always) gets the better deal!

Imagine two race car drivers, who are heading towards each other, in high speed, where, if neither party veers off-course, both are destined to mutually assured destruction. No rational person would allow such an outcome! However, one of those race-car drivers will turn/veer allowing the other one to continue and win his course.

In this predicament, we even discussed the possibility of having a spare steering wheel during the race, that can be thrown out of the window, signaling to the other race-car driver that you have absolutely no control of the car; hence forcing him to veer off-course!

Look at the nations of North Korea or Iran today; the war-signals they are sending to the United States, is very similar behaving irrationally, akin to throwing the steering wheel out of the car!! History will tell one day, if they are bluffing or just acting desperate.

Sometimes, we are faced with such a conundrum at work – to behave irrational – so that people can’t take you for granted or be “predictable” on a day-to-day basis.
Once, at a negotiating meeting, with a senior-leader at a multi-billion dollar corporation, he threw a 30 page document across a long mahagony table, letting me know that he doesn’t care!! Definitely was a theatrical and dramatic move that got my attention.

In business life, often the dramatic, chaotic, noisy bullies get more attention than do the sober, rational, pleasant people. As leaders, we must always be aware of this situation and take measures so that bullies don’t rule the world. Once, one of my VPs would habitually start off every meeting with a negative statement. After cringing at his tirade a few times, he had to be confronted that this is unacceptable behavior and neither I, nor his peers appreciated this model.

Office Jerks

Sometimes, you just have to hold your hand up and say STOP. This behavior is unacceptable! Most of the time, this boundary-setting works; sometimes it creates a bit more chaos at first, but eventually the babble-rouser leaves or simmers down.
In my recent personal history, I have also experienced a similar outcome with individuals who want to raise hell, creating chaos in my life. They come attacking you like a jailed cat – if you don’t listen to their threats – they will create massive chaos and destruction in your lives and the ones you love.

In every instance, personal or professional, I have found that the last thing you want to do is pay too much attention to noise-makers; also you don’t want to be the completely predictable, “dull & boring” (D&B) bosses or partners. Not sure if it’s just our animal instincts, but people react and respond sometimes – when there is measured unpredictability! You don’t have to be a (complete) jerk – neither do you have to be a (really) nice guy; you have to find a delicate balance of both.

In a recent personal crisis, I took the helm of the situation, calmed everybody down – made difficult decisions and most importantly, shouldered the responsibilities of life alone – without help from anyone. At one point, my nicety was taken as a sign of weakness – and some people wanted me to take more responsibility and/or have just taken me for granted.

I have found, just by a “gentle” push back – majority of these situations can be corrected. At the end, there are fewer jerks you have to take on one-on-one in a confrontation. In that case, come prepared with examples, situations and your worst-day, bad-anxiety behavior. Hopefully, that rarely happens to you.

However much we try to remain leveled, and do the right, rational and fair thing – the world sometimes needs boundary-setting. As we try our best to accommodate every one else’s best interest, it’s also very important that we are treated fairly by others.

When the Toothpaste is Out of the Tube

Image

Recently, a student at my daughter’s high school, enquired about a particularly sad and strange incidence that was swooning over our family; Daiyaan quickly texted me, how disappointed she was that someone knew – and were asking her about the incidence. Also, that she (Daiyaan) just didn’t want to talk about it!

Accidents happen; sometimes, things that you don’t want to deal with, engulf you. In the larger storyline of life, the incidence itself, may or may not be significant; the question remains, how you deal with it, and what do you do going forward.

In our Twitter infested and FaceBook encumbered lives, everyone seems to know everything. Do you hide from the reality? Or do you confront it,  and move forward.

One of the lessons I have learned in business, once characterized as one of those Buffet Rules:  “When you put something down on paper, assume that the world knows .” In essence, put as little as possible down on paper (or electronic media).

Often, business leaders are concerned about sharing information that may/not be classified “confidential” with employees or customers.

Most things, we think are ‘confidential’ – everyone usually knows or have a good estimation; they may not know the exact details, but they have a good idea of what’s going on.I have always advocated business leaders to communicate clearly, with relevant facts, and be On Point.

Remember, “Less is More” when it comes to communication. Stick to the point and communicate often. Repetition can be useful in certain circumstances. Repeating the truth is a good thing – repeating otherwise only deepens the suspicion towards leadership and dilutes your personal brand.

Often, as leaders, we simply cannot respond to questions; there was a time, during an assignment, when significant HR issues were engulfing us every day.  Speculation, innuendo and rumor were floating all around us.  As leaders, both for legal and ethical reasons, we just cannot respond to questions about individuals or their behaviors. Staying silent is one of the more difficult challenges a leader faces during a crisis. When people ask me questions about sensitive matters, instead of hiding, I simply say that I cannot talk about individuals or confidential business topics. Usually, they stop asking.

In a very similar tone, when it comes to personal topics, I have found it useful to use the same tactic of staying on point and sticking to “facts” as the best way to get a message across. Often, people will call and ask me this/that and I change the topic of conversation, or just tell people that it’s really not appropriate to talk about this particular topic. Once, I had to tell a badgering “well wisher” that it was none of their business!

I have found, in crisis mode, most of your friends will not even bother you by asking what’s going on and will wait for you to share – whenever you are ready. This crisis may actually turn out to be a good test to see who are your true friends.

When Daiyaan wrote me the other day, about how to respond to this person, I asked her to smile back and just say, “you know, how sad and difficult it is”. This way, she has not shared any more information, and in a polite way, refused to engage in a conversation that need not be had.

When the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to put it back in the tube; try to brush to your heart’s content. Just stop squeezing the tube further!

Once in A Lifetime: A Tribute to the Parkson Team: April 2011

With the Parkson Team at the January 2012 Next Wave Meeting

Once in a lifetime, one gets a chance to do something special, work with a really special team, shape the future for a small part of the world – and, on top of all that, do something truly meaningful for the world.

I got that chance in Parkson.

I got the chance to be part of the Parkson team.

My first salute goes to those, who have been with Parkson, before I came on board in 2007: Mike Miller, Russ Cook, Barbara, Mark Parker, Francisco Camargo, Marianna Novellino, Andrea Gonzales, Jorge Fernandez, Adolfo Gonzales, Dave Mitchell, Irv Rubenstein, Chuck Morgan, Steve Rothenberg, Brian Lykins, Julio Moscoso, Edna Sugden, Chris Hall, Madhavi Batchu, Marty Unger, Mike Jacob, Louise Dunevant, Jean Grenier and many others, and of course, my compass, the one and only, Janie Wintermeyer.

Your support and feedback during these “almost” five years have been tremendous; your guidance has made this journey rich, and ultimately possible.

For all others, who have joined Parkson since Fall 2007, you have shaped this journey – this moment is yours, as it is mine.

Together, we have set a tremendous foundation for Parkson: a rejuvenated portfolio, newly acquired products, new brand, new team, new white spaces,  new world regions, a fresh perspective, a fresh approach to doing business: Treating Water Right!

If there is one thing I feel the best about the Parkson team today, is the completely confident spirit – the spirit that exemplifies that we are all together in this – and, together, we can achieve anything!

I am confident you will build on this.

After completing the 200 mile Ragnar Relay with the Parkson-MiOx Water Boys at Key West in Jan 2012: A Truly Once in a Lifetime experience!

This dream, is more yours, than it is mine. I just happened to be here catalyzing your thoughts.

The best days of Parkson, are yet to come.

In 2013, I am confident, Parkson will set a record for revenues and profitability.

Once in a lifetime, one gets to be part of a journey of this magnitude.

With Antonia Johnson, the owner of Parkson in January 2011

I am privileged that, for five years, the Axel Johnson Family and Michael Milligan invited me be part of this “Once in a Lifetime” experience. I am humbled by everyone’s support over these years.

I thank you for all your feelings towards me and my family.

I expect you to keep in touch. write, email, text, FaceBook, Linkedin or blog with me, and come visit.  My mobile number will remain the same.

At the end of the day, I have learned, life’s a series of snapshots of relationships. I like the snapshots that I have taken with the Parkson Team. I think you guys are a keeper!

Thanks everyone.

Let’s not say goodbye.

Let’s just say, we will see each other soon!

I didn't wear pink on the day the Women of Parkson commemorated the Breast Cancer Day - so someone gave me a pink scarf to wear! That's the Parkson Spirit!

The Lining of Silver: April 15, 2011

 

Accidents happen. Failure overcomes us. Tragedy churns our life into shreds of unnoticeable scrap. Still, at the end of the day, there’s always a Silver Lining. It’s called hope. Hope that shows us the light to something different. It may or not be bigger and better than what one possesses. But, the hope, gives you a light – a path to follow on your next journey.

Recently at work, we sold a multi-million dollar project to a multi-billion dollar international customer – the product not having been tested and approved fully. A large team of engineers and planners worked relentlessly to make the technology work. We had plans B, C, D through Z ready to launch, if the current action item lists didn’t work. The risk of failure was not acceptable.

After more than six months of gut wrenching decision-making, finally the project worked. While every day of the past six months, the team felt as if we were in a cesspool of sticky mud – unable to rescue ourselves, eventually things improved – and the project delivered on it’s expectations. All along the journey, there was a team of people, who didn’t believe that this project could be accomplished. Every excuse in the world was in front of us, why things would not work. The true heroes were a handful of people who persisted that the changes would work and we would overcome the obstacles.

It’s during these times, you see the character of your team and how they react to the level of uncertainty.

Similarly, during a recent personal calamity, a group of my friends and family kept advising me to abandon ship and move forward from my predicament. Then there were those, who advised me to hold steady and move forward within my current trajectory.

The only thing that keeps one going, in a difficult circumstance, is that silver lining – that hope, that things will get better – and the world will move forward. Maybe the topography of the world, as we know it, has changed, but still reason to look forward to a tomorrow – a better tomorrow.

This has to be the indomitable human spirit.

If you remember the Gulf Oil Spill about a year ago – or the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, you see examples of human perseverance to look forward and search for a silver lining that life has to move forward.

In our personal life-journeys, hope is all we have.

It would be very difficult to get out of bed every day, if we only pondered the disease, war or accidents that happen around us.

Instead, if we look at the smiles of our five-year olds when they splash around the pool – or beautiful, loving eyes of our fifteen year olds – and see the opportunities that God gives us every day –one must be grateful – one has to reach for that silver lining that makes life worth living.

Simple Decisions in a Complicated World

There are so many decisions in one’s life that are made alone. You ask others – a friend, relative, coach, partner or a neighbor – to weigh in; but when the decision has to be truly executed – it is your name that’s etched on paper.

Having migrated to the US as a student, I was suddenly face-to-face with life decisions, during a very early stage of my life. Whether to move to an apartment from the dormitories, which roommates to pick, location of an apartment or what furniture one may need – are all simple, yet building-block decisions in one’s life. Growing up, my parents like many others, made most decisions; I was not necessarily prepared to have a “judgment call” on topics like these.

When you are nineteen or twenty, you don’t always understand the gravity of these decisions; there is a need to make a decision– so you make it; sometimes your roommate turns out to be a person who doesn’t share the chores or pay the bills on time – another time, the furniture you buy (from a garage sale) just collapses within a couple of weeks. However simple or mundane, the outcome of such decisions sometimes makes you the person who you are.

I have a childhood friend, who is paralyzed in front of the frozen food section, picking the brand of yogurt that he may want. To me it’s a simple decision; to my friend it’s complicated.  It requires one to make a choice – and to live with that choice – maybe for a day – or maybe a lifetime.

As one grows older, and realizes that the number of decisions we make, during our lifetime, may be growing smaller by the day; however, they may actually have greater impact on more people – and we may have to live with them for a very long time – if not, forever; now, it takes on a whole new dynamic of thinking.  

Today, when decisions have to made, I think of all the different stakeholders in the process – how will my decision affect all of them; I worry about the different outcomes, think of counterpoints – and strategies to balance the potential negative outcomes. I am not certain if the process is complicated – or I make it more so.

Few years ago, at a life-intersection, I had the opportunity to pick from three very exciting career opportunities. Each role was interesting and held the merit on its own. One would allow me to be an entrepreneur in a foreign land – another one would allow me the helm of a multi-billion dollar division of major US corporation; all with handsome packages – required relocation to a different city – and sometimes to different region, altogether.

After talking to a series of people and getting the pros and cons from friends and family, I came to the conclusion that whatever the outcome, the decision has to answer the following:

  1. Is the decision right? Does it feel right for where I want to go in life? Does it feel ethically and morally justified? 
  2. Is the decision fair to everyone involved? To my family, their needs? To my own aspirations?
  3. Is the decision beautiful? Elegant in nature or contrived to fit the needs of a certain time? Does it feel like I am trying to force it – or is it flowing naturally?

I realize that not all decisions require such philosophical pondering; however, there does come times, when it’s important to give the decision-making a due process. I have also found that when I use these guidelines, and, at least one of these criteria is negative, it’s much better to not make the decision.

Not making a decision, often, is a major decision.

Sometimes we get caught in a “false choice” of trying to rationalize that some criteria are met – so we should go ahead with the decision. I have found that, in the long run, with rationalization, I have regretted making those decisions.

I try to imagine where my decision-making skills originated; are they genetically pre-ordained– or did I learn them over time, through many different experiences? One is never certain if Gladwell’s “thin slicing” of decision-making (Blink) is innate or learnt over time.

It’s easy to digress and think how to help my teenager to make the right decisions every time.

The best I can do is to teach her to understand right/wrong in our world view, understand fairness – to consider others around her, and, finally, appreciate the beauty and flow of a river – natural and serene. I also want her to understand the contrast of difficult, contrived decision – that creates conflict, chaos and heartache.

Ultimately, she has to learn from her own mistakes and build her own decision framework. However much I try to protect her from her own circumstances, if I don’t let her graduate into decision-making, she can only make more mistakes.

After all the pondering, some decisions still go wrong – or not exactly as we intended. Like a complex, multivariate, calculation, life takes its own twists and turns and we are left wondering where things exactly went wrong. That’s the time faith comes to our rescue – whatever has happened, has happened for the best.

One can only make decisions about tomorrow. So, we move forward. Learn from our decisions and ardently hope and pray that the decisions we make tomorrow, are slightly better than the one’s made, the day before.

Leadership Optimality in an Imperfect World: August 2010

Once upon a time, a young plant manager of a heavy assembly operation walked through his plant and saw significant risk of injury to the team members; he instituted a required safety shoe and safety glasses policy (that the company would pay for). Next week, the local union filed a “grievance” (formal complaint) against the plant manager. The parent international union had to intervene (and educate) the local union to withdraw the grievance; the union only withdrew in fear of a future lawsuit that may incriminate them for an accident in the plant. As that plant manager, it felt as if I was slapped on the face for trying to do something good.

Different work experiences have allowed me to observe similar mistakes, negligence and waste, in large or small companies, that are difficult to explain.  As engineers, we are trained to attain process optimality; in many business environments, such optimality often emerges from a series of compromises that managers make, to keep harmony or simply avoid making the tough decisions.

This week, I walked to through a large multi-national plant at the cradle of the spectacular mountains in Northwestern Virginia. Recently, we sold them spare parts, to retrofit a piece of equipment; the young engineer, who gives me the tour, believes that it would have been the best option for their company to have us (the original equipment manufacturer) re-build this product and give them a warranty on the re-built equipment. The job was awarded to a local mom/pop contractor who charged them $50k more than my company had quoted. The frustrated young engineer, signals his hand underneath a table to describe an impropriety in their purchasing behavior.

Later, we walk through areas where the yellowish-brown effluent from the paper making machineries flow all over. You notice many side streams of these untreated fluids flowing into the pristine river by the plant where four elegant swans are swimming on this humid mid-summer day.

In twenty-first century America, such scenes of alleged bribery, gross violations of environmental or safety regulations, are difficult to comprehend. Every day, in thousands of  businesses, imperfect decisions like these, are made in a series of small accidents that add up to create our the imperfect business eco-system.

Human beings, intrinsically, want to do the right things – we are aware of consequences of our actions; we still make imperfect compromises with our every-day lives. Having once walked in their shoes, I know that these engineers and plant managers want to do the right things – meet environmental standards of water-discharge, treat their people right – “do good” for their communities. But in a complex world of running a plant, business or service facility, things are going wrong all the time and your reaction is typically dictated by what you are measured by.  In my past manufacturing experiences,  I was usually measured with one objective – make more product.

As leaders, we must align our organizational incentives to “balanced objectives”.

Early in my career, I was trained that businesses have only two goals: Make as much money as possible – for as long as possible. More often, this goal is misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. If one keeps the longer term view of “for as long as possible”, we would not pollute our rivers – treat our teams unfairly or the communities we function in, wrongly.

If you ask a stockholder in any company – would you like to maximize profit of your stock knowing that it hurts people and communities – or have child labor in factories – or destroy our environment – versus, given the choice of “balanced objectives” – profit and doing good – the typical stockholder would pick the balanced scorecard.  But rarely are stockholders given such a choice.

The world doesn’t run on binary choices of 1 or 0; making profit does not need be mutually exclusive of taking care of our teams and our surroundings. We can choose the elegant solution and want both – and deliver both. It’s a choice. As leaders, we have to make that choice – and communicate our dual expectations, clearly.