05 Aug 2021 21:27 IST

Do we measure up as leaders?

The leaders who have the courage to measure progress are the ones who will measure up

There’s an interesting anecdote in Brian Wassink’s book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. A prison guard made a shocking discovery in a Midwestern country jail. Inmates were always complaining about the terrible food but those who had been sentenced to around six months were gaining an average of 20 to 25 pounds during their stay behind bars. A research team was brought in to ferret out the reason for this strange outcome. After ruling out lack of exercise — since all prisoners had access to the exercise yard, food — the prisoners confirmed they hated it and after eliminating other reasons — the culprit turned out to be the baggy orange jumpsuits the prisoners wore as uniforms. They were so loose, that the prisoners had no way of knowing how much weight they were unconsciously putting on. There was no tight waist to alert them to the fact that they were starting to bulge.




It was only after getting out of jail and trying out normal fitting clothes that reality suddenly hit home. For most of us, ‘my clothes are getting tighter’ is a sure warning bell that we’re putting on the calories. But the prisoners were missing that tripwire or measurement.

Our leadership in our personal and professional lives needs this constant measuring if it is to be impactful. Without it, we could be dangerously short or over and just not realise it? How does measuring help?

Mapping progress

There’s an old saying, “When you deviate an inch on the map you lose a thousand miles on the ground.” While we’ll go into the specifics of different metrics in a separate article — the importance of a map and compass or in our modern-day, our GPS is a given. But we often hesitate to use a map and compass in our personal and professional lives.

I remember a tough country in a client outsourcing engagement we had. Whatever we did, it was never enough. Not only were they unhappy — they were loud and vehement in making a noise that threatened the very direction that both the client and we had set for the engagement. We were always accused of ‘falling short of what we used to do internally.’ Service was always ‘bad’ or ‘not good enough.’ This, in spite of most of our service metrics being Green. I finally had a long conversation with the client’s country lead.

My questions kept nudging on “What numbers would have to look better for service to be acknowledged as great,” “we have bad service here, ok — what number should we achieve for this to be called great service,”— whenever she’d use words like good, bad, average I kept pushing back to identify a number and a benchmark of what we could all universally acknowledge as excellent service. Once we had that locked down, every stakeholder at local, regional, global levels got a weekly dashboard with a progress report on the three numbers. Soon the noise died down and there was a grudging acknowledgement that things were better. Of course, some things had to genuinely be executed better but ‘good,’ bad,’ ‘better,’ ‘not better’ was the worst language for that.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it is more than just a trite saying. It should be something leaders live by.

Scope for growth

As the prisoner story we began with, indicates, when we don’t have something showing us where we are, there’s a good chance we’ll end up where we don’t want to go. Constant practice of measurement sets up a pattern of learning and growth. A refusal to face up to reality, to ‘believe our press’ often ends up creating what Pulitzer-winning drama critic Walter Kerr would call ‘delusions of adequacy.’

I remember when I started a resolution of trying to cut down on sweets, I went through the first month gloating with pride that I was actually doing very well. I estimated I was close to 75 per cent compliance. The next month I started measuring using an app — ticking off each day I successfully stayed off sweets and humbly acknowledging a miss when I gave into the craving. By the end of the month, my delusions of adequacy were adequately shattered when the app showed me only a 33 per cent compliance rate. I was now able to really try to improve — something that would have been impossible without the measurement.

Setting the right standards

When our TalentEase team was recently training a partner’s team of Bahasa speaking facilitators, there was a hesitancy to have them attempt their practice activities and exercises in English. But I insisted that they do give it a shot in English even though all of them preferred Bahasa. What we noticed was that as they developed and grew their confidence in English, they achieved a leapfrog improvement when they switched back to Bahasa. A much bigger improvement than I think if we’d let them stay in their comfort zone.

I remember my daughter, when she was still very little, and when we played cricket, being quite annoyed when I used to bowl at a deliberately slower pace to her. “Bowl as fast as you’re bowling to Marcus” — her older brother — was her cry. I admired her willingness to test herself against a tougher standard, rather than lull herself into believing she was batting well, but against friendly bowling. Today she is a fearsome bowler herself, who can uproot your middle stump with a mean yorker, and I believe she got there, in some way by refusing a comfortable measuring rod.

One of the disappointing goals that our own space agency is trying to get us excited about, is sending an Indian to the moon. By choosing in this case the moon rather than a genuine moon shot like a Mars landing, the agency has set itself up for a less than innovative journey over the next few decades. Our choice of how we will measure ourselves creates the moon shots we aspire for. A recent video doing the rounds, shows Jeff Bezos’ listeners bursting out into disbelieving laughter when he speaks about space exploration in a 2000 interview. No one was laughing when he actually did it this year.

This is not to say we go berserk on moon shots — there’s a difference between a dream and a fantasy. But by imposing on ourselves a tougher measuring standard we create a journey for ourselves that is bigger, better, and often more fulfilling than the easier road. This is one of the things Steve Jobs excelled at — by forcing a tougher standard, Apple eventually ended up being transformational in their design, their engineering, their marketing — everything ended up far better than if they’d chosen to build just smarter computers and phones. This is why the wariness with which some Indian electric vehicle makers are treating the prospective entry of Tesla is misplaced — they’d be better versions of themselves if they geared to do battle with Tesla rather than just with each other.

Confucius once said: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” And the best way we can achieve that is through a habit of constant measuring. This holds up a mirror far better than kind words and well-intentioned feedback. The leader with the courage to measure is the one who will finally measure up.