04 Jul 2016 18:39 IST

Embrace the 'Varshneya Effect'

If your company doesn’t have 360° feedback, as a leader, use this simple approach to improve yourself

Circa 1996, I was appointed as the first HR director with a multinational subsidiary in India, when it set up shop in Bangalore. It grew to become a company that had 1,500 top-notch engineers, who built embedded software for its parent company. This software went into virtually every product it made in the domain of medical and consumer electronics, industrial electronics and semi-conductors.

We had an expat CEO, an Indian who did his higher studies in the Netherlands and joined this company right after his studies at the headquarters. He picked a leadership team that brought complementary strengths to work and avoided looking for clones. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious and the five years he spent at the helm of affairs was a golden time for the company. It set audacious goals and achieved them.

Feedback sessions

A year rolled by and the annual appraisal feedback session was round the corner. The CEO was extremely good at doing the review sessions with style, sophistication and Socratic depth. It was almost like you earned an executive MBA every time he reviewed your performance.

But this story is not so much about the appraisal or the organisation-building he did — it is about how he chose to improve himself.

After employees’ review discussions and documentations, he would ask them to stay back for 15 more minutes, and start his pitch somewhat like this: “Look, we discussed a lot about your performance and improvement. Now is the time for my improvement and I need your time and inputs”.

Then, he would throw at you the following two questions and ask for honest answers.

~ Tell me three things I do well that greatly facilitate your performance.

~ Tell me three things I do that hurt your performance, that I must change or stop doing.

Now, it is relatively easy to respond to the first question, seeing as how most of us are comfortable sharing our inputs on how our boss helps us work better. However, as you can imagine, the second question is harder to answer. You do not know how your boss will take your feedback and you would have serious concerns on how your reply will be used — for his improvement or against you!

Predicament

When I first experienced this, I went through similar feelings — should I reply or should I not? Sensing my hesitation, he said, “You think through this tonight and I will see you tomorrow morning and take your inputs.”

Perhaps he went off to bed and had a good night's sleep, but I did not. I did some reflection and courageously came up with what I thought were possible improvement areas for my boss. Next morning, sharp at 9.30, he came into my cabin asking for my inputs on the second question. And as I was prepared, both with suggestions and consequences, I paraded my points of view. He listened intently, even took notes, and, thanking me profusely, left for his office.

Surprise

The next three to six months, I experienced something wonderful. He really worked on the inputs I gave and demonstrated change. And as the HR head, I knew my CEO did this with all his direct reports, not just with me. This was at a time when our company did not have a formal 360-degree feedback process or system. He designed his own simple approach to improving himself and, in the process, demonstrated that, no matter how big our titles, we can all improve.

The Varshneya effect

For many of his direct reports, such as me, it was both educative and illustrative. Since then, asking these two questions became my approach to self-improvement. And it paid rich dividends that I wish to call the “Varshneya Effect.”

The CEO who lived by example and taught us the simple technique of self-improvement is Rajeev Varshneya. He lives in the US, leading and transforming another company as its CEO.

The Varshneya effect was a technique, yes, but more importantly, it was also a powerful tool for leadership development. I share this Varshneya Effect in many of my leadership programmes and participants get excited at this simple approach.

Many who complain that their company does not have a formal process of getting subordinate feedback and are being deprived of this, will do well to embrace the 'Varshneya Effect' to improve themselves.