Article (September-2016)


Learning to glide in rough waters

Birjendu Gupta

Designation : -   Regional Director

Organization : -  Center for Creative Leadership,Gurgaon


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Many reading this story, specifically those working in the L&D Function will connect strongly. Cinderella was a young bright girl who just passed out of one of the prime B-schools of the country and got her coveted role in the L&D function of her dream organization. Unlike many of her friends she decided to specialize in HRM and super specialize in the L&D function. True to her caliber, Cinderella started proving her mettle in all aspects of the function starting from reaching out to business, developing relationship,discovering the learning needs of members of different functions, diagnosing what would be the likely problems, researching best in class practices, designing learning solutions, implementing them and also measuring effectiveness. She even sat through business meetings and observed how people behaved. She went a step ahead and assessed the learning agility of a large population of the organization.

At every step, she was mindful of delivering a flawless job. For instance, at the discovery stage she researched on what was happening in the market, how her company was doing and how the vertical of that business leader who she was meeting was performing. Post discovery she used data available from her 'learning agility' assessment and designed solutions following the infamous 10:20:70 principle of leader development. At the time of measuring effectiveness Cinderella did not only follow the Kirkpatrick levels but also referred extensively the works of Dr Jack and Patty Phillip ( She could prove effectiveness at various levels and not attempt determining Return on Investment for all programs.She was enjoying, playing the game with poise and elán and performing the tasks in a copybook style. 

Cinderella completed the first 90 days with flying colors and even got a commendation from her Chief Learning Officer. At the beginning of the fourth month, the Chief Learning Officer entrusted Cinderella with the task of creating an intervention on innovative thinking and customer centricity. This requirement had come from the CEO of the organization. He believed that the General Managers who were primarily client facing were not demonstrating their skills to think innovatively and be more customer centric. This was a critical success factor for the organization. The launch date exactly thirty days from the date Cinderella was informed about this requirement.

Having tasted success, being a super serious staff Cinderella started the journey with dedication beyond anyone's imagination. Diligently she started her discovery process from the internal and external stakeholders, inferred the core elements of the program, reached out to several specialists from all over the world and narrowed down on the external partner. Together they presented theoverview to the CLO and a few other senior leaders. Everyone unanimously appreciated Cinderella's conceptual clarity, ability to deal with senior members, research bent of mind and herbusiness understanding.

Cinderella got the opportunity to present this to the CEO. The CEO was very impressed but had only one question, "how would this yield more revenues". Cinderella had even prepared an estimate on the likely return on this learning initiative.The CEO was very pleased and stamped his affirmation. Cinderella and her CLO got in the task of contracting with the external vendor. This process of vendor empanelment was a tedious one and she could learn a lot from this experience. 

Young Cinderella was about to taste another success of having developed a solution for the General Managers of the organization who were at least 15 plus years of experience. She could visualise that many senior leaders would benefit from this. It was a personal win and she made a call to her parents to share her anticipated success. Cinderella's parents were from a small town and they had both toiled to bring up Cinderella to what she was today. 

The second quarter results of the organization were abysmally poor and there was mayhem in the firm. Board members were hounding the C-suite leaders, job losses were rampant, people were transferred across geographies, functions, every possible expenditure was frozen and budgets were slashed ruthlessly. Cinderella was told by her CLO that be happy if your job remains and forget about the initiative that you have worked on. Remorse was an understatement to explain Cinderella's condition. Within six months of her passing out from school, she experienced the scourge of poor organizational performance.

One evening as she was walking down the corridor with drooping shoulders, she met the sales head of the organization. 'Mr Strongman' as he was known was a gentleman of mid-forties who had seen many such 'quarters' and still surviving fit and fine. He was one of the sponsors of this program and a great well-wisher of Cinderella. He pulled her aside and told her that he found no difference between his function i.e., Sales and Cinderella's L&D. So his first advice to her was to be 'resilient'. Strongman went on to explain how resiliency has helped him sail through storms like this. He had learnt to find options of going past barriers.

Strongman's second advice to Cinderella was look from "Outside In" and not from "Inside Out". Hearing this Cinderella was indeed flummoxed. Strongman explained so what if the design was ready and she could not launch that program. In this situation when the company is undergoing such tough challenges how can Cinderella add value by detaching herself from her role, looking at it from the lens of the business leaders, CEO and then redesign another solution.

The last piece of advice that Strongman gave to Cinderella was 'Push back but back off'. Cinderella exclaimed, "Strongman, it is going above my head." He again simplified the message. He told her that there will be several moments when she has to push back to her leaders irrespective of their seniority. She has to learn 'how' to say that and back-off as well. Since the leaders had a view which she might not have it is prudent to think and act in the best interest of the organization.

These three advises on that evening had triggered different innovative thoughts in Cinderella's mind and anyway she was working on topics like innovation and customer centricity she even thought of writing a caselet on this situation. She thanked Strongman abundantly for holding her hand through troubled waters. Strongman was happy that without any special effort she could enliven Cinderella in that short conversation of ten minutes.

Amid all this, a question was bothering Cinderella which she felt safe to ask Strongman. She asked why in a family, if the primary bread earner loses his or her job, the first thing the family does is to rally around resources and ensure children's education and the bare necessities of a simple living are met." She narrated her experience when her father was out of job for a few years yet he managed to lead the family from that situation. He did not stop her education. However when an organization performs poorly why does the L&D function's budget get slashed. How would people learn to deal with change, navigate through rough waters and yet emerge successful if they do not constantly unlearn and relearn? It was Strongman's turn to get baffled. He couldn't answer this question.

Years later Cinderella became the CLO of an organization and was reporting to the Chairman. The Chairman believed that during turbulent times whatever be the condition of the organization's performance budgets of the L&D function cannot be slashed a penny. His philosophy was if we stop learning newer methodologies and tools how will we survive. Cinderella had joined an organization where she had to never face this issue of her budgets getting cut due to poor performance of the organization. She learnt a new way of leading the L&D function.