Progress, not perfection.
It is an oft-quoted phrase in fitness and motivational videos celebrating the tiny victories in overcoming adversity. We know that incremental improvement is powerful yet we still find ourselves wanting nothing less than perfection. But gaps exist whether we want to address them or not. Convincingly so, leaders demonstrated an inflated sense of self by rating themselves better and more engaging than their employees did in a 2016 study. 86% of leaders claimed they believe they modelled the improvements they want their employees to make yet in the same year, a poll indicated that 82% of managers are not very good at leading people1.
I had a chat with Puneet Gambhir, Head of Risk (User Trust and Identity) at Grab and we talked about how identifying our weaknesses can be an indicator of growth. From a technical role, he now leads the Risk Analytics, Strategy, and Operations teams. His role in Grab ensures that the platform is safe, fraud-free, and trustworthy. He shared his enlightening journey in recognizing gaps and forming a humble but healthy response towards them.
Recognizing the Gap
In an ideal world, teams are formed with the intention of finding people with capabilities to fulfil the organization’s goals. But most of the time, these two do not align perfectly and this space – the messy middle – is the gap we need to address. For Puneet, being an empathetic leader is all about understanding and respecting your employees' capabilities and helping them reach their full potential with the ripple effect that also helps the organization.
The presence of gaps is a constant, and goalposts will keep on moving as we progress in our careers. Maturing in our roles, there will be new milestones for us to achieve and surpass. Despite the regularity, gaps are best measured in short intervals of time when we can determine the growth we have experienced.
Puneet experienced this when he moved from a technical role to one in strategic leadership. In the past, he approached problems scientifically. He came to discover that the move up also required a higher plane of perspective and mindset. Some problems cannot just be dealt with objectively. A vital set of problems in the business need so much more: creativity, organizational understanding, situational awareness, context, connections, networking. He was already exercising these skills in different capacities so the challenge for him was to consciously see these things as strengths and weaknesses and leverage them in his new role. He no longer focused on one area of the business. Rather, he developed and cast a wide net of problem-solving skills that would best address the complex challenges of the organization.
Addressing gaps intentionally requires us to first identify them. Self-awareness allows us to look at the situation with clear eyes. The honest assessment of our problems, limitations and strengths directs the steps we take to resolve issues. Applying the right methods and resources to problem-solving is a task that often falls on the shoulders of leaders.
People come in different gradients of self-awareness. Like any other skill, it can be developed and there are different approaches to doing this. For example, Google created Whisper courses. They are on-the-job microlearning weekly nudges in the form of e-mails with a simple suggestion (a ‘whisper’) for a manager to try in their one-on-ones or team meetings.2 The company rolled out email prompts for managers relevant to areas they scored lowest in personal surveys. Improvements in these management behaviors were recorded at 22-40%.
I asked Puneet how he finds his own gaps. “Your instincts should tell you what you need the most, and those are the things that are developed over time”, he said. He found that introspection helped him with this. Intense pressure-cooker situations like meetings and high stakes conversations make it clear to him where he is doing well and where he wasn’t. He recommends building self-check mechanisms, theoretical or conversational, to process these moments and create nudges for yourself. He found that he also learns best through experiences, interactions, and observations. He may take inspiration from the way a peer presented or how someone solved a problem. From there, he adapts the situation to suit his needs and implements it. These changes are small, slow, and not straightforward, but they amplify through consistency over time.
Some might start with low self-awareness or take little to no time for self-reflection. They still are likely to have other channels for receiving feedback like performance assessments and 360 feedback. This can be a good starting point. There will also be situations where we know something is missing but can’t quite put our finger on it. In others, we may know our growth needs but don’t know what steps to take next. In both cases, openness towards building awareness is essential to unlocking growth potential. We may not have the answers all the time but by being open to feedback gathered from different points of our professional life, we can identify blind spots and address them. If in need of some guidance, we can look to our one ups for help.
Curate and Contextualize
Organizations can help their people grow into roles, equipping them to rise to the challenge of meeting evolving business goals. For Puneet, it’s the responsibility of the company and HR to provide the support and structure needed for a learning ecosystem to feed and fill in employee development gaps. This usually comes in the form of creating policies, forming relevant teams, and offering courses. These more formal methods of training are necessary and effective, but still fall short. There are always limitations that come with the structured way of doing business.
Puneet uses the analogy of organic food which is best produced in small farms. It cannot be mass-produced in factories as that would entail the introduction of chemicals into the process. Likewise, anything that must be of high quality cannot have a factory approach. Formal methods made for thousands of professionals across the globe cannot go deep into a person’s psychology or individual needs. It leaves out the subjectivity and personalization needed to address the nuances of an individual. That is why Puneet believes that having a relatively small number of directs is ideal to maintain quality in their development.
Ideally, managers should be part of the company’s learning ecosystem, the component that allows them to scale training without losing intimacy. Puneet differentiates the two roles a manager takes in this regard: One has to do with pushing teams to deliver output within a specific period of time. The other involves soft nudges towards professional development over the course of their careers. He curates and contextualizes mentoring approaches based on his direct reports’ challenges, needs, and fears. Their professional growth is felt when the gaps are closed or minimized to a certain extent.
Puneet recognizes that his professional development has been accelerated by self-awareness but understands that the process is not exclusively inward. It is the result of multiple feedback, mentorship, training, interactions, support from higher ups, and countless experiences and observations. He considers himself lucky to have had great mentors and bosses. He pays the enlightened gesture forward by mentoring others with understanding and empathy of their gaps and helping them form a healthy sense of self-awareness.
Identifying our flaws and weaknesses without pulling ourselves down and working towards ways to address them is an indicator of growth.
- Understand that gaps exist and our goalposts will change as we grow.
- Be open to feedback from yourself and others, and learn how to ask for help.
- Customize learning approaches based on each person’s needs, including your own.