Thursday, May 30, 2013


I know it's a strange title for a post in this blog. And with this post, I am coming back to blogging after a longish hiatus. I had planned a month's "blogging leave" which has stretched to almost four for various reasons--some of these being the absolutely new and challenging world of work I am currently in. And this new world brought me into contact with Umesh--the inspiration behind this post.

But before I sketch out who or what Umesh is and what I learned from him, I have to set the context of my work. I currently head the Learning Design and Development for Future Sharp which is one of the partners working with National Skills Development Corporations (NSDC), India to design vocational skills programs to achieve the "overall target of skilling/ upskilling 500 million people in India by 2022, mainly by fostering private sector initiatives in skill development programmes and providing funding". This is far removed from my earlier world of corporate workplace learning and community management but that is the subject of another post.

To cut back to Umesh, suffice it to say that in the course of my new work, I travel a fair bit and meet individuals I would normally not meet in the humdrum routine course of my neat and predictable life. One of the current projects I am working on required me to meet the well-known Neelam Chhiber of Industree/Mother Earth fame. During my visit, I was fortunate to meet Umesh at the Mother Earth workshop. And got insights into life, learning and leadership from him.

My first impression of Umesh is of his bright, inquisitive eyes. He appeared to be not more than 28 or 29. He is the group leader of one of the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) working at Mother Earth. The group is involved in creating exquisite mats, boxes and other gift and household items from natural fibers like river grass, barks of the banana tree, etc. It would be an understatement to say I was floored by the beauty and intricacy of the work as well as the dexterity demonstrated by the women working in the SHG. The purpose of my visit was to understand their workflow and process and speak to the group leader to understand how s/he inducts/trains members into the group. When I asked to meet the group leader, a tall, slim young man with bright, inquisitive eyes set against chocolate dark skin and a head full of well-oiled, curly hair stepped up. "I'm the group leader. My name is Umesh" he said in his broken, highly south-Indian accented Hindi.

After preliminary introductions, he informed me that he had dropped out of school after the 10th standard because he didn't feel like he was learning much (sounds familiar?) and that it was boring (read not relevant to his life). Subsequently, he undertook a series of odd jobs from selling newspapers to working in the construction industry as a daily wage laborer. "How was the experience," I asked him. "I learned a tremendous amount," he said. "Much more than in school." What he went on to say after that completely blew my mind.

Umesh's Story and Lessons I Learned
He joined Mother Earth about 7 years back as an SHG member. He had come to the workshop with his elder brother and decided he wanted to work there too. The sight of 100+ people working together making mats, baskets, and other knick knacks excited the young boy's imagination and imbued in him a deep desire to learn everything that those 100 odd people were doing. Umesh had found his calling though he didn't know it then. I was watching him closely as he narrated his story. Seven years down the line, his eyes still sparkled with excitement and enthusiasm for the learning and the adventure. I am not skilled enough a writer to do justice to his simplicity, passion and drive through narration; hence, I have summarized what I learned from him.

Spotting Talent and Leadership: One of Umesh's responsibilities as a team leader is to induct new people into the group, help them learn the skills and get them started. The workshop requires people with varying skill sets ranging from cutting and sewing to doing quality checks. He has a unique way of gauging who has a natural aptitude for what. He lets each new individual work at each of the tables (each table in the workshop is devoted to a specific kind of task) and observes them. To my question of how long does it take for him to identify someone's aptitude, he gave me a rather quizzical look and said, "Sometimes 5 days, and sometimes 5 months." He goes by the premise that everyone has some talent or the rather and it's the responsibility and duty of a group leader to spot the potential. He keeps rotating a new joinee from job to job--within the workshop or even without--till he finds what the person is good at/enjoys doing. 

I asked, "Isn't it time consuming to spend so much time and effort on one person just to spot their skill/potential?" His remarkably simple and profoundly deep response came in the form of a question, "It took me more than five years to find my own talent. Why can't I give a person five months?" I was awestruck before this boy who didn't have any formal degree under his belt but had all the makings of a leader--natural empathy, persistence, vision and a willingness to grow his people. 

Learning: "What excites you the most about your job, Umesh?" I asked. "The learning of new things," was his short and simple response. Here was someone who had gone from cutting squares and rectangles and following instructions to leading a team of more than 20 people. His keen desire to learn had not only helped him to pick up the required skills but also understand the complex operational process of manufacturing. He now knew everything about sourcing of raw materials to shipping of the finished goods to the retail outlets and all the steps that go in between. 

"In your role as group leader, what is the most critical aspect of your work," I asked, expecting him to say planning, prioritizing tasks, allocation and so on. Once again Umesh completely knocked my socks off by saying, "To help others do their work as smoothly and effectively as possible." I silently chastised myself for my presumptions. 

"How do you keep track of all the orders, who is doing what and all of those things?" I inquired looking around for a ledger or something similar. He smiled and beckoned to me to follow him. I went with him to the back of the room, away from the work area to a small table in the corner. On the table was a desktop, and he showed me the excel sheet he was using to capture all the necessary workflow related information. I came back humbled and inspired.  

Here was someone unspoiled by institutionalized education. Someone who had the gumption and courage to follow through and turn his work into his passion. And embodied what Harold Jarche says: Work is learning. Learning is work. 

Although used in the context of knowledge work, I realized it applied very well to what Umesh did. He had acquired all his skills through observation, apprenticeship, feedback loops, questions and conversations. He had not been formally trained and he didn't train anyone either. He observed, gave feedback and coached. He was a natural at growing and developing people. 

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

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