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    Small Companies and the search for talent

    on 10 28th, 2009 by NK

    Someone asked me a question on how small companies innovate on the ground to attract talent and suddenly I was off… write my next post.

    Here are a few observations on how to make an impact in the talent marketplace being a small firm. Longish but honest…….

    Content reigns supreme:
    Every startup has a core philosophy. Its experiences, its challenges, its learnings and its success stories all offer unique insights that help nurture it as a brand. As the company grows in profile, it should draw on this fount of insight in relation to its strategic goals to chart its progress and identify its key differentiators. To “walk its talk”, a company must be nimble enough to spot trends or, better still, pioneer them. It must inject relevance and substance into its business ideas, and execute them without compromising its core philosophy.

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  • We're almost done.) Item eight is the obligatory group of 'companions', that supporting cast of assorted muscular types from various cultures who handle most of the killing and mayhem until the hero grows up to the point where he can do his own violence on the bad guys. He was small, middle-aged, iron-gray at the temples, with a very dark skin, dressed in a fawn-colored suit with a winecolored tie.

  • Jamie took my hand, asking in a gentle voice what was wrong. He was lifted and a pad of cloth wrapped against his back then he could feel them dragging a tunic over his head.
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  • Creating a strong employer brand is vital. Small companies, in particular, should focus on what they can control in order to neutralize the obvious disadvantages of size, scale and recall. Factors that are within the clear realm of control are the impact of executed work and original thinking. By generating and disseminating strong content founded on the twin platforms of ideas and execution, smaller companies can narrow the gap between themselves and the market incumbents. Great work and great thought are size-agnostic and resonate universally.

    Executed work in the form of a great portfolio and high-impact thinking cuts through the clutter effortlessly and reaches the target. Patience is vital to sustain this consistently. Over time, it gains momentum and manifests as a differentiated employer brand.

    To gain prestige, visibility and recall among career-seekers, there is a need to get content “out there” in whatever form – case studies, white papers, participating in well identified events, building a brand on networks such as LinkedIn, and blogging with a view to establishing thought leadership. Additional dimensions of great content are an interesting name, a great business card, and a warm website that communicates to people and not just a search engine. We at Talking Heads can testify first-hand that all the above work.

    2. Organization leaders need to pitch relentlessly

    Small companies, whether they are prospecting for business or scouting for talent, face challenges. It would be prudent to apportion critical leadership time in talking to qualified, skilled potential employees.

    Sometimes the desire to try something different by joining a younger organization like ours lies buried deep within their psyche, and leaders must be willing to identify and extract that quality, and bring it to the surface.

    In addition to the need for skills, we are very high on the right vibe, which means that every candidate must be the right fit. He or she has to buy into the philosophy and attitude of the company in order to realize his or her potential.

    Finally, whether we are pitching for business in competition with established heavyweights or communicating a proposition to a potential employee, our intensity levels are tuned to maximum: We look at them as two sides of the same coin.

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    3. Shares in success
    As with any startup, co-ownership of the company is critical and we are open to the idea of distributed ownership for the sake of scale (both for a healthy offerings spread and number of people).

    4. There are people out there who WANT to work in small companies

    Whether it is the just turned mother who desires a flexible schedule or the elderly professional looking at working for a small company as his swansong or a young successful corporate gravy train rider, there is no denying that a market exists for small companies to source talent from.

    Each of the above types has a different need ranging from flexi hours to being a big fish in a small pond. It is for us to identify those motivators and cash in on them.

    HR and the Board

    on 10 2nd, 2009 by NK

    Companies have Boards. Advisors, Directors, call it what you may. Wise old men, Asterix Soothsayer type, sitting and stroking their long white beards and resolving company dilemmas left, right and centre.

    I was recently in an SHRM and 9 dot 9 media discussion that asked the question

    “How can the HR function make the transition to the board of an organization?”

    The invite list read like a Roman Abramovich on steroids line up and we were lucky to be a part of it. DC pulled a major coup on that one.

    The discussion was facilitated very well by Pramath Sinha, the 9 dot 9 MD, a really cool guy.

    My point there was simple

    The day the Marketing Guy started focusing on his brand and sold to customers what they wanted and not what he had, he became God and eased into the board.

    The moment the Finance guy started focusing on valuations, markets, funding, equity and stock as opposed to contra entries, Batliboi style, he made the transition easily and took his place on the board.

    The HR guy has been looking for his breakthrough through the aeons and is yet to come up trumps. Sure there has been some noise around retention, a great place to work, cult like cultures and so on but the eggs continue to break with no omlette in sight.

    I really like the point Prithvi Shergill, the Accenture veteran made…..there are no free rides, earn your place or die trying.

    I even got quoted. Full happiness. Write to me and I can send the conclusion paper across to you.

    Pop business or Jazz business?

    on 08 9th, 2009 by NK

    “The pop musician plays three chords for thousands of people while the jazz musician plays thousands of chords for three people.”

    Not an original line, no sir…I was sitting with Bruce Lee Mani for a lesson when he spoke thus.

    Personally, I am not into genres….as long as it connects with you deep inside, as long as it makes you want to move, I am cool with it. Al Jarreau to Nusrat, Jeff Beck to Karunesh, DMB to SEL, Cat Stevens to Pritam (yeah Pritam…so what if I have just membership of the “true music lovers club?”)

    Incidentally, Pritam finds his way onto my list because of a guitar line in a track called Chor Bazaari which sounds like an Ehsaan Noorani signature.

    Focus, focus….get to the point.

    Let’s start again

    “The pop musician plays three chords for thousands of people while the jazz musician plays thousands of chords for three people.”

    My ears perked up; here is my spin on it.

    If pop equals mass, jazz equals class, if pop means everyone, jazz means a few, if pop means bottom of pyramid, if jazz means applied thought, if pop means something for everyone, if jazz means everything for someone then….

    Should we build a pop business or a jazz business?

    Should we go the genre route at all? (that will really be the day….imagine folks coming and asking you “what genre is your business?”)

    All the big boys are pop businesses; all the small guys are jazz businesses. I think we should do jazz for the masses. I think there is an opportunity there.

    A bizarre yin yang that could ride the next wave.

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  • Read Comments(0)

    What is a firm’s specialty? What are its associations? What does a brand stand for? How important is USP for customer acquisition? Does USP define what you are and what you are not?

    Questions that always have haunted us, more now than before.

    Before I guide you towards my line of thought here are a few random words and here is the way to read them: Breathe in, read a name, breathe out, read a name.


    Roger Federer, Nike, Swatch, Macbook, NRN, Pink Floyd, Medha Patkar, Sony, Hugh Hefner, Levi’s, Stephen Covey, Dave Matthews, B52, Titanic, Stevie Wonder, Maria Montessori, 26/11, Osama Bin Laden, Michael Dell…

    See where I am going with this? Did the neurons in your brain not fire in different directions with each name? Immediately, you have a frame of reference for each of those terms.

    OK, now here’s another couple of words

    Talking Heads…

    Apart from a rock band that used our name in the past (or was it the other way?) do you even remotely think HR?

    That is my problem. And that is my opportunity.

    We are a “there’s something for everybody” kind of place and folks we meet make it a point to drive that message home.

    So, off we went in search of an answer: Who ARE we? What is our niche?

    We toiled, wrote, argued, debated, tore out our hair, Googled, ogled…

    The mind still boggled.

    This piece is an excerpt from our new HRSutra, which is a part of our newsletter Heads Up. To read the entire document, you may download it here.

    You may also subscribe to our newsletter Heads Up, or view the latest issue in our archives.

    Consider the regular employee, let’s call him Super Srini, the Unix administrator.

    Potential is latent and is visible in obvious signs that Super Srini, can be a cool cat.

    Performance is Super Srini being aware of his potential and doing something about it.
    Proficiency is Super Srini being aware of his potential, doing something about it for 18 months.

    All three need to exist as a sort of a three legged wooden stool to start with and then morph into a tripod that can be used three dimensionally when needed but also can be packed up as one unit.

    Here is the deal. Potential is the single largest important indicator of the ability to do a job well…

    Performance and Proficiency are eco-system things, the environment has as much of a role to play as does the individual in question.

    The mistake that is sometimes made is to ask for all three traits in a person in order to aspire to greater things, be that for Super S to get a promotion, to work on another project or to do something totally unconnected (like being a cricketer)

    Back his potential, if there are latent signs that SS can do a job give him the opportunity, back the powers of the eco system to do the rest.

    Sure there will be Sedate Satish and Simple Sheila who have lost out. What’s more, Satish and Sheila may be higher on tripod scores.

    My thought is that an examination of Satish and Sheila will reveal that although they are high on performance and proficiency, the real signs of potential are missing.

    If you choose Satish or Sheila you are making the safe choice and you are probably right in doing so.

    If you however have the courage to choose Srini and then back him, Srini might just turn the world on it’s head.
    Just to make it easier on you, the decision maker, try and choose one Srini for every 3 Satishs and Sheilas……you will get to a fundamentally better place.


    I recently read an interesting ppt out at the Nasscom blog about leadership and HR and how Leadership issues get couched as HR issues and the finger of blame points on the HR function.

    GC, the director at TC, makes very pointed and interesting observations on the need for leadership to ultimately decide where an organization will head and not chicken out with excuses and externalize the problem.

    I think it is a long overdue thought and GC had the guts to make the point, so kudos!

    He then speaks about the challenges that SMEs face in scaling and graduating leagues and talks about mistakes that entrepreneurs make while making the transition.

    While it is a good articulation of the problem, the presentation does not speak about potential solutions (maybe it was on the voiceover) and then what follows reads a little like a moral science lesson.

    I think it is a function of critical mass and arriving at escape velocity that governs the transition of leagues. Your order book should overflow to such an extent that graduating leagues becomes a matter of detail and not something that is consciously planned.

    Once you hit that velocity, the game will change again and then again and so on…that’s the rule… can run but you can never hide, it will find you.

    Those that advice you to invest ahead of the curve, at it, or behind it should be treated with a pinch of jazz salt. The reality on the ground can never be siloed into one part of the curve.

    There are multiple models of success available out there. Read Joel Spolsky on Ben and Jerry’s vs Amazon to see what I mean.

    Like Malone tells Elliot Ness in the Brain De Palma classic, “The Untouchables”

    “Do not wait for anything to happen, do not want it to happen, just watch what does happen.”

    Reward Systems

    on 06 2nd, 2009 by NK

    Companies that I have seen, smelt and been a part of are on a continuous quest for getting hold of a reward system that works.

    Lots of management deed and some thought over the years returns as under

    1.    Pay- Fixed and Variable
    2.    Stock- Vesting, Grants, Options and their ilk
    3.    Non monetary stuff-Plaques, Vouchers, awards etc.

    He began diverting power around trashed systems, thanking the Fates that he knew how to do it Unfortunately, main life support was one of those now-useless systems. Me, with the box; you, with the cat; to meet here now.

    The rest of the rewards package is just a variation of the above themes and sometimes can seem like a lot in a company rewards manual where you will hear mindless terms like “total rewards” “contribution based pay” and so on.

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    Here is my thought….we are looking at the issue in a wonky fashion.

    Look at your target audience; chances are that they are in the 25-35 age bracket, some single, many married and some with kids. What is most likely to turn them on as reward? What is their single largest pain area? What would really make sense to them?

    The answer is Cash… pay it.

    The single largest cornerstone of any rewards system should be Cash.

    Why go through the rigmarole of RNR days, lining folks up, getting the moody/angry CEO to belt out gyaan, run an employee of the month program, (call it stuff like hero of the month, knight of the month, star of the month…..egad!) get people to smile for a camera…..why?

    Poor HR folk do not like organizing the event, they bitch about it, they hate it….trust me, I speak first hand.

    Unless you run the program in Cannes style, forget it.

    Do not even bother about droning on about the value of genuine teamwork, about making the reward aspirational, about how the average employee will want to make it to the dias next year to claim his award. Do not extend Pavlovian saliva to humankind.

    Do good work, spend time in hiring the right people, give them good money, give them stock (a derivative of cash) give them their space and watch magic happen.

    Role Models and Fog Creek

    on 05 21st, 2009 by NK

    This is third year running at Talking Heads and we continue to do work that excites us. We were, (fact) are, (fact) and will be (hopefully) profitable in times to come as well.

    Among the many pursuits that I have had….business, markets, sales, offerings, products and so on one that has been prime and not very publicly shared, here or elsewhere, is the search for a role model business….that fundamental inspiration that sets a good example, reaffirms faith and energises you every time you look at it.

    Face it, these three years while being the best of my professional life, have been far from stress free….I have discovered hidden parts to me, (some surprising), lost sleep, snored, felt great joy, loss, despair and a range of emotions.

    In this period of time, we have been repeatedly advised by many well meaning people to raise money, build products, build scale, build differentiation, get an experienced leadership team, look at successful start ups and meet other entrepreneurs. The message broadly was “Even though you are doing what you are doing, there is always someone who you should emulate, someone who has done it better”

    I used to secretly be pissed off at that sort of thinking. That’s not why I started out, should rules be always out there in space and our order on Earth was but to follow passively?

    At the end of the day, is building a successful business a prescription combined with luck and the ability to network?

    I used to cuss in private, rationalize in public and unwillingly follow what the world thought of as collective wisdom.

    Secretly, unknowingly, I was on the lookout for a company who thought differently, who thought like me, who believed that genuine talent always found expression and good work, that it was possible to be boutique and wear it like an honour badge, to write your rules, live them and thrive.

    Fog Creek Software is my answer. Killer killer firm…  Joey and Mikey….All hail….I am a believer….nice to meet you!!

    Sledgehammers and Pickaxes

    on 04 8th, 2009 by NK

    This one is on a conversation that I was having with the CEO of a company that Talking Heads does an assignment for.

    It is on assembling leadership teams for organizations. Insightful stuff.

    Traditional wisdom suggests that the leadership team you assemble should be full of people who in their past life/assignment/job have done a superset of the job that you are hiring them for.

    Get a sledgehammer to do a pickaxe’s job.

    You are bound to succeed; the sheer weight of the hammer should see you through. Also helps in getting the money in from the investor community.

    UC, the CEO, turns the game on its head. (He does that often, by the way)

    His view is that one should attempt to get a pick axe to do a sledge hammer’s job over a period of time ie get a set of best in class young guns, (reminiscent of Yul Brynner’s magnificent sharpshooters in the Western Classic) and give them jobs ahead of their time. This kerb jumping thought ensures that people have job descriptions, KRAs et al that are ahead of them over extended periods of time.

    Given that these folk have winning track records, are extremely motivated and are united by a cause, stuff like career progression, emotional ownership and wanting to get on get taken care of by design.

    This is not to say that there are no issues with this approach, sure there are. Scaling and getting individual skill growth to mirror organizational aspirations and maturity is at the absolute top of the pile.

    However, it, without argument, in my view, is a better problem to have than the heavyweight oriented, overkill, “getting a canon to do a peashooter job” problem.

    So by a clever switch of the pickaxe and the sledgehammer, by providing aircover and vision and by questioning traditional wisdom, what could have been a regressive issue becomes a progressive challenge.

    This is first rate thinking; I have seen it first hand.


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    on 02 10th, 2009 by NK

    One of the advantages of having a flexible work schedule is that your mind wanders, aimlessly most times, and every once so often you strike gold and then after that you look up at the skies and thank the one above for shoving this your way.

    Gold for this week comes in the form of Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech at TED.

    This brilliant woman makes an endearing, compelling case for the difference between having genius and being a genius. She traces the history of thought surrounding the genius phenomenon right through from ancient Greece and Rome down to the modern day whilst offering excellent snippets of wisdom on staying sane in today’s life.

    The thrust of her speech whilst remaining strongly focussed on creative pursuit has fantastic principles that all of us can make use of.

    All creation lies out there, you are just the medium. Ole!

    I learnt a lot, I want you to.



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