Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Good days and good people

A couple of days ago I went into my favorite coffee shop to get my morning coffee. After I placed my order, the cashier asked, "You have cash right? We're offline today". Ah, no. I didn't have cash. So I retreated, letting the person behind me advance while I rummaged through my purse. I was pretty sure I didn't have sizable bills, though I could have found some coins.

Meanwhile the woman who had ordered before me approached me to ask, "what did you order?"

"A latte." And two croissants, but I didn't add those. I wasn't quite sure what the question was about.

"I will buy you your coffee today", she announced, "I know how it can be when you don't have your morning coffee. I am not even a nice person till I have my coffee"

I laughed and thanked her for the offer, which I accepted. And I told her not to be so hard on her pre-caffeinated self, "You just offered to buy me a coffee before you've had your morning coffee!"

"Oh that," she explained, "I already had an espresso earlier in the day".


I asked for her name. It was either Valerie or Valentine. She was just passing through that part of town. I thanked her profusely.

I am now awaiting for an opportunity to pay it forward.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Looking for Gravitas

Lately, a few female friends as well as myself have experienced career jolts, and in some cases setbacks, due to our apparent "lack of gravitas". Unfortunately gravitas isn't something we can take a class on, or buy off a shelf. We are not even sure what it means, or how to go about finding & attaining it.

So we've all been doing our research. The closest I have come to something interesting has been this article, by David Peck from Goldstone.

I will copy past the article here so that I don't lose track of it if the link goes down, as internet tends to:

How to Command the Room and Get Your Gravitas On

If you’ve realized — or received feedback — that you need to develop your “executive presence,” you’re certainly not alone. For most people promoted to senior positions, it’s not standard equipment. It takes a bit of concerted effort to learn.
I’ve coached many leaders to upgrade their executive presence. My clients know that to operate effectively at the senior level, you need to be viewed as influential by colleagues, and to do that, it’s critical to be mindful of what you say, and how and when you say it. With some investment in finding an authentic and influential form of your own voice, you are more likely to be a member of (rather than a visitor among) your senior colleagues. Having an influential voice among those at the big table is what’s often referred to as “gravitas.”
grav·i·tas (grāv’ĭ-täs’) n. (source: dictionary.com)
Substance; weightiness: a frivolous biography that lacks the gravitas of its subject.
A serious or dignified demeanor: “Our national father figure needs gravitas, [but] he’s pitched himself as the kid brother” (John Leo).
In the context of leadership, here are six practices to upgrade your own gravitas:
1. Be poised and assured in the value of your own contribution
Gravitas requires remaining calm, even under fire, and finding within yourself the assurance that your value at the table is constant and worthwhile, without having to prove it (e..g, trying to be the smartest person in the room, dominating air time, or needing to be right.) It’s natural, particularly when awed or even intimidated by the intellects or accomplishments of others around you, to devalue or marginalize yourself in subtle but noticeable ways. Don’t give in to such fear, but simply notice it in the moment, and dismiss it without reacting to it. Your value to the discussion remains constant no matter who else is in the room.
2. Use great judgment about using assertions, questions, and silence
Being judicious about what and when to assert, when to inquire, and when to use attentive silence is key to gravitas. When asserting your ideas keep it short, simple, clear, and contextualized by the current discussion. Don’t restate other’s ideas. When in doubt, less is more. When you are silent, be present by active listening and staying off your devices. Listen like it matters. When asking questions, keep them on topic or message, short, and oriented toward “what” and “how” and certainly not “why,” and toward the future or present, rather than the past.
3. Avoid unhelpful verbal habits
Minimize verbal mannerisms such as “um” and “you know?” and “you know what I mean?” and “like,” and any other filler words or phrases (e.g., “...at the end of the day,” and “to be honest,” and “In my opinion,” etc.) that may sound like nervous habits or ticks. Watch the tendency to “up talk”—that is, don’t end declarative sentences or phrases with an upward inflection, like a question. I often use video practice to show a client these habits, which tend to hide in their blind spot.
4. Be confident and kind, without being arrogant
Arrogance and gravitas simply don’t coexist. When you’re perceived as arrogant, you’re trying too hard. Others read it as overbearing and insecure. People who deserve their seat at the table don’t have to buy it at every meeting. You have nothing to prove. You certainly don’t have to “win” with any particular idea, point, or deep thought. You don’t want to throw your colleagues under the bus, even when you think they deserve it. Treat those you don’t respect with respect. Remember, others with gravitas are doing that already.
5. Watch your body language
80 percent or more of your communication is non-verbal — while that’s a common statistic, it’s often underplayed or disregarded. How you show up physically — arms crossed or not, sitting back or forward, how stressed you seem, how fast you walk in and out of the room — these all shape or limit your impact among your senior colleagues. Noticing your own body language is critical to establishing a strong executive presence.
6. Observe yourself and the situation as you participate
For all of the above to work, you need to monitor yourself and others as you participate. What’s my role here? What’s unspoken here? Where should we head with this, and how is my participation helping, neutral or hindering that direction? What’s needed here? These are all self-monitoring questions that can help you adjust your impact for the better in real time.
When done right, gravitas is not a mask—it’s effectively adding your unique value to important discussions while minding and maintaining important relationships.
When gravitas is lacking, people know it, and when it’s present, they take notice: “She can really hold a room.” “His ideas are always welcomed by the board, even when there’s debate or disagreement.” “When she speaks, people sit up and take notice.”
Get your gravitas on, and your leadership is upgraded. Your contributions at the senior most levels will have the impact and be given the consideration they are due.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ample levels of disengagement

I was forwarded this article yesterday which calls Ethiopian Airlines the 'Pride of Africa' vs. SAA, which is referred to as Africa's Shame. I do think SAA could probably do better with management, but I also think that SAA does not have the same opportunities that Ethiopian airlines has. For starters, Ethiopian Airlines is based in a country with among the cheapest labor abundance in the world. Working in Ethiopian airlines, even if in the grand scheme of things isn't a glamour job, is a privilege.

To boot, Ethiopian Airlines, having had to survive in a country where it did not have access to ... well, anything, had to build its own expertise in-house horizontally and vertically over many, many decades. It has its own Flight School, churning out enough Pilots and Flight Attendants to service its needs and other airlines on a regular basis; it has it's own technical school for its mechanics, and last I heard, it also handled its own catering services. Recently it also made a move to fold the terminal management into its list of responsibilities -- as the terminal management process was, quite frankly,  an embarrassment to the airline.

Recently, when I was flying to Botswana, I boarded a SAA plane late, necessitating two guys who were already seated on my row to get up to let me access my window seat. As I was passing by I noticed that the seat separator between them had fallen apart. The plastic cover was detached for its metal base, exposing tangled wires and inner workings that probably were never meant for passenger consumption. I pointed it out to them, in case they hadn't noticed, and as they came back in they started putting things back, as much as one can do of broken seat parts.

Right around then a SAA flight attendant walked past our row, so the guy at the isle pointed to their maintenance project to say, "hey, your seats are falling apart!".

The flight attended responded with a sheepish smile, "My seats? I don't own seats. I don't won a plane!"

Right there, I thought, was why SAA was crumbling. Lack of ownership and basic tenets of service bundled into one is the calamity that we all know as SAA.

Still, SAA remains one of my airlines of choice. Let's hope it holds on long enough for a revival fitting its stature.  

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Interim thoughts

I was sent somebody else's blog, and come by to look at how many days it's been since I wrote something here. It's been a while.

Over time I have wondered what stages in my life aren't conducive to my writing here. It's not lack of time. I used to think it was uncertainty. Restlessness. I would like to think that right now there is sufficient uncertainty of where I am, and where I would like to be ... but clearly that's not been sufficient motivation for me to write either.

I am at a stage in life where my job is surprisingly more interesting than I expected it to be (and more time consuming), and my extracurricular activity, to get my own business idea up and running, is turning out to be quite a challenge.

I have been trying to get an idea off the ground, and I am realizing firsthand how hard it is to give life to a concept. I have done a lot of research, talked to a lot of people ... and in the end, somebody asked me a very basic question: what are your options for the actual flow of cash for your business idea? What will be your margins -- when you start, and when you grow?

I didn't have an answer, and I have been stuck ever since.

It is very difficult to grow an idea when you don't have somebody to bounce ideas off of. I started out working on this idea with a friend. Even if we didn't agree on every strategy, it helped to get a rhythm, a cycle and a reason to sound out an idea.

Sometimes you get answers to your own questions just because you have to ask them in a manner that makes sense to another person. In fact, that is my theory about answers to prayers. In Consulting the first rule of structuring a problem is believed to be in how the question is structured.

"A problem well stated is a problem half solved"

Perhaps my business idea has a statement problem.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Center Cannot Hold

I saw a news title today that read, "Tony Blair: Against Populism, the Center Must Hold"

It reminded me an old poem by Chinua Achebe:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Appropriate for the times.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lessons from West

I was introduced to Heben Negatu via her podcast, Another Round. I haven't been an avid follower of the podcast, though I enjoyed it. I guess I am spoiled by the production quality of  This American Life (which, I admit, is actually a radio program with a sizable budget and staff, so shouldn't be judged as a typical 'podcast'), and 99% Invisible, that I somehow can't seem to latch on to conversational podcasts, like Another Round.

Anyhow, back to the video above. She makes some very interesting observations. She starts off joking that the white people in the room may find her talk difficult to relate as it will not center around them. On the other hand she notes that brown people spend their entire lives empathizing with white society. This was recently made evident in South Africa where white South Africans were found to be absolutely incapable of watching popular black shows because they just don't get it. On the other hand, black South Africans can watch popular white shows because even if they come from culturally different origins, they can put themselves in the shoes of a person from another background. Why the difference? I don't know. I will post a link if I find the poll.

Another point Heben men that I really liked was around how "blackness" and explaining and defending it at work is draining. It takes away from your time to focus on your work. It also takes away from your "brand" -- for every other time your name is mentioned for good work, your name will also mentioned for arguing for black causes. I.e., you'll be diluting your "marketing", where the latter cause doesn't help advance your career (it may very well retard it). To have to work twice as hard as your colleagues, only to dilute how frequently your effectiveness is communicated upwards is a waste.

To top it all, she weaved all her lessons into Kanye's lyrics. Ha!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Tell him for what?

I recently went on a business trip to Nairobi. My job gives me a fancy title, and requires me to elevate transnational conversations with our customers into strategic conversations. To do this, typically I have to engage the customer at the C-Level. I do not accept meetings unless high level sponsorship and access is not guaranteed.

So, I dedicated a week for this customer in Nairobi and showed up early last week, only to realize that I had no meetings scheduled.

Fortunately I met an older counterpart from a sister team who had expertise in complementary products who had also come for the same customer meetings.

It turned out he was invited to a few meetings, though some were also botched up. After a number of wasted days, finally the senior person in the local team who held the client relationship fessed up to me, "No offense but I want senior people in these meetings.  I have nothing against you personally, and believe you can hold these conversations, but you just look too young." She points to my hair and illustrates, "See, you have no grey hair!"

Out of deference, and complete shock, I kept my mouth shut. But I was fuming. What made it particularly scathing was that this senior person was:

  1. A woman
  2. An African
  3. Looks older than I do, but has dyed her hair jet black (or has unusually very dark hair)
I fortunately made it to some meetings because the older gentleman from my sister team and I got along very well (while waiting for his botched up meetings), and he was happy to let me tag along. He turned out to be a gem, who I am now considering to ask to become my official mentor. 

By the end of the week I had figured out he's one of the most senior people in our two teams. In fact, I had already noticed that he has an unusually fancy title than the rest of our sub-organization, which I came to understand was a reflection of his tenure. My current boss was hired by him. I also found out that my boss and him were collaborating on another project right after he wrapped up form Nairobi. 

So on Thursday I made a passing comment that I was mauling over what I need to tell my boss about the week and its failures when the guy interrupted me and said, "What? You don't tell your boss that this week didn't go well. You tell him you attended some meetings with me that went very well.  This deal will close, and if it doesn't close it won't be because of anything you did or didn't do. You and I have to collaborate to complete this, so whatever meetings I go to, you'll have the input. If I were you, I'd ride the wave, complete this project, take the credit and walk away."

Mind, blown!

When I got back home, I told friends (all female) about the week, the hypocrite senior woman and my missed meetings, they all said I had to flag it to my boss. 

Then I told them what senior guy told me. After some consideration, they all agreed that his recommendation made sense.  Tell him for what? They also admitted that they would never think of the situation from his perspective. They'd have gone on and raised red flags, and probably caused havoc.  It may not right not to flag the issues, but is it effective?

I was once told by an ex-colleague that a cut throat executive in the organization had once given her an invaluable advice: that there are two types of employees, those who bubble up issues to their manager ("problem makers"), and those who are "solvers". 

I realized what the guy had advised me was to be a "solver", specially because there is very little my boss would be able to do about my grievances without disturbing the organizational peace.  And even after he flagged the issues, what good would it do me? 

Update: I read this account today, written by a female Engineer who had a strange year at Uber. Having been a vocal person with HR in my previous job (which did not NOT serve me well), I learned the hard way that in order for me to succeed:

  1. I first need to survive within the system
  2. Ethics & fairness was not the rule of the game, so I better learn to define my space, or perish

Monday, January 23, 2017

Advice for Husband Picking

I just discovered a show called "Yefiqir Mirchaye" on EBS. I am perpetually surprised by what I think Ethiopian society is like, but by what it then turns out to be. This is one show I would not have expected to air on Ethiopian TV, but what do I know?

In one of the episodes one of the contestants was asked what kind of man she is expecting, and she said, "...beTam qonjo,,,", and it reminded me on an advice my mom gave me when I was young. Most of the advice my mom gave me is from when I was younger than 14. Looking back, I find the tidbits that I remember, specially on topics like how to pick a husband, really strange.

Thanks to this show, now I remember 3 metrics my mom gave me for husband selection:

  1. Never go for a good looking guy: ironic, I used to think. Because my father, in his younger pictures, looks like a pretty handsome guy. But then again, rumor has it my dad had to ask her hand many times before she agreed to marry him. Her reasoning? You don't want to have to deal with all the women who'll be throwing themselves at him. 
  2. When you're considering a guy seriously, think about whether you'll be comfortable with the guy raising your kids alone if you were to die. This is a bit too heavy to tell for a young girl, but thanks mom. My better half's sister is currently going through a divorce and she seems to be very concerned about her (ex)husband's ability to raise the children. I had to ask, but did she not consider what'd happen if she died before she married him? Umm, no, better half explained. Who does that anyway? Umm ... my mom. And me. 
  3. Don't marry a divorced guy: why? because there is no such thing as "it was her fault." True dat! Though, had there been an occasion for it ... I could see how divorce can teach some people to be better partners in life.  If I were to pass on a similar message to my kids, I'd amend it with, "Don't marry a divorced guy who doesn't appear to have learnt from his mistakes in his prior marriage"