28 April 2022 12:30:15 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Software matters more than hardware 

My brother came in last week on an Air India flight from Sydney to India. The flight sat on the tarmac before take-off for hours because of that ever infamous ‘technical fault.’ Landing in Delhi more than three hours late, most passengers had missed their connecting flights. Expecting at least some decent rest for the night, the passengers were horrified to find themselves deposited in a terrible hotel — though ‘lodge’ would have been the more appropriate word.  

Who made that decision? Who prioritised a short-term cost cut over winning customers for life? After the experience, many passengers swore never to fly the airline again. As the Tatas take over the airline, it looks like they have their work cut out. With Chairman Chandrasekaran’s TCS background, a big part of their strategy will be, as he stated in a media interview, “to be the most technologically advanced airline in the world.” 

Fleet upgradation and technology innovation is high on the agenda. This is critical. But we could call that the ‘hardware’ upgrade. The real challenge and opportunity I would suggest lies in the ‘software’ upgrade. Leaders often face this dilemma — “Should I invest in what can be seen so there are visible signs of my legacy? Or do I invest in what lies below the surface, the software of the organization that often becomes the real legacy?”

Several leaders fall prey to the temptation of grandiose ‘hardware’ neglecting the ‘software’. Investing in the software of an organisation could involve many things, but let’s look at three. 

How we hire

In an earlier piece, I’d mentioned how a candidate we were interviewing for TalentEase had mentioned his role model as Hitler. We eventually did not hire him and ‘Hitler as a role model’ became a kind of tripwire. Recently another candidate said the same thing and the team decided that other factors were in his favour and decided to go ahead and hire him.

Within a week of his joining, however, they were throwing up their hands at his completely inappropriate behaviour. We immediately let him go and the team renewed their trust in the ‘Hitler’ tripwire. More than anything else, how we as leaders hire, creates the software of the organisation.

It decides how we will treat our customers and each other. It pre-destines how we will innovate, how we will deal with success, and more importantly, failure. All these create the operating system of the team and organisation. Leaders must recognise that each person they bring onto the team is one more line of code in the software being fashioned.

The complementary set of strengths and personalities is what will create the synthesised strengths and personality of the organisation. This is why author and speaker Jim Collins would say that ‘getting the wrong people off the bus’ is an even bigger priority than getting the right people on. Leaders cannot hesitate on this, because like a virus in the software, they can distort how the organisation lives and breathes its mission and values. 

How we train

At one of Hyderabad’s leading eye hospitals, the treatment standards are world class, the calibre of the doctors outstanding but you would think you were visiting a high-security establishment in the way you were treated by staff. There is a fortress like defensiveness in every encounter. The only smile you will ever encounter is when you meet a senior doctor.

The staff is transaction-focussed; moving the patient through the high-volume, factory-like assembly line. For any call made to their customer service number, perish any thought of actually speaking to someone. Staff training clearly has been focussed on process and not on people.

There’s an almost whispered but clear message: we’ve got great doctors and high-quality treatment, isn’t that enough, you don’t honestly expect us to care?! Again, the software is created that defines the brand and how stakeholders are treated.  

It is the leader’s job to define the outcomes that training must achieve. It cannot just be abdicated to learning and development. The leader must take responsibility for first defining the software she wants and then ensuring that training mirrors that. 

In his book Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg gives the example of how the US Marines had to revisit their training approach. Decades of the old approach had worked well, but as the profile and caliber of incoming candidates changed, the training system had not adapted or kept pace.

As Commandant Charles C Krulak who led the effort to transform basic training said to Duhiig: We were seeing much weaker applicants. A lot of these kids didn’t just need discipline, they needed a mental makeover. They didn’t even have a vocabulary for ambition. They’d followed instructions their whole life.”

But the expectation of a marine had changed. They needed to be able to think for themselves, they needed to be able to make independent, sometimes controversial decisions, and they needed to be self-driven. So, for the software to change, the training needed to change. Krulak led one of the most comprehensive overhauls of the training to ensure that the new marine would reflect the new software. 

How we measure

It was easy for me to see when the performance metrics for my Bank Relationship Managers had changed. The conversations change, and the focus switches from you as the customer to cross-selling targets, to product coverage targets. The flavour changes from servicing a customer to constantly selling him. T

The good RMs learn to navigate past the metrics and do what’s in the best interest of the customer, but the majority become tools of the software. As they are measured so they behave. 

One of the important roles for a leader in creating the software of her team is thinking about what to measure. Poorly designed metrics create the wrong software, and hard to undo consequences. 

At one of India’s leading hospital chains it is quite obvious how doctors are measured. Their approach to patients is to treat them as ‘wallets’. Squeezing patients for the maximum revenue overrides real patient care and doing what’s best for the patient. I remember my brother who had a knee injury.

He made the mistake of going to this so-called leader hospital and watched gobsmacked, as he was taken for a stomach scan!! (It’s part of the package he was told, and the insurance covers the package, so what’s your problem!!)  

The doctor who consulted would pop into his room, shake his hand and leave, with the only purpose of ensuring that a hefty consulting charge could be added to the bill. When he visited for follow-ups, the only focus of the doctor was to try to talk him into one more expensive surgery.

My brother fled the hospital, never to return. Perhaps some good doctors did join the hospital with idealistic visions of making a difference to patients, only to be transformed into medical Frankensteins by the ruthless metrics that prize profits above patients. 

Leaders must build infrastructure, invest in technology, and ensure best-in-class equipment, but the hidden asset of every organisation is its software. A great leader begins with the software. She recognises that great hardware can never mask poor software for too long.

The hardware may be what is seen and touched, but the software is what is felt and experienced and that is what creates the impact a team makes. It’s simple, but not easy. As always, the ‘soft stuff is the hard stuff’!