Mr. Ed Cohen
Global Talent Leader Ed Cohen tells Jisla Xavier the need for corporate and academic worlds in India to have a greater connect with each other.
Mr. Ed Cohen has over 30 years experience in strategic leadership, influencing change and culture, and talent development. He is a leading business coach and has authored a best-seller titled ‘Leadership Without Borders’. Mr. Cohen has also helped two companies attain the number one ranking in the American Society of Training and Development BEST Awards. In an exclusive interview with The Human Factor, he talks about career, the lessons learnt and much more.
Q. You have played different roles in diverse businesses. Did you always know that this is what you wanted to do in life?
A. I did. I always knew that I wanted to do something in education and learning. Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor but when I got to college I did not want that, so I got into the business line. I did accounting for a couple of years and found out that the thing that I really loved was working with people. So, I left accounting and joined the education and learning world in 1982.
Q. What attracted you towards HR?
A. What initially attracted me is not the thing that actually kept me going throughout my career. When I was six, I was injured in a fire and had to spend six months in a hospital. My first grade teacher would come to the hospital every day after school and tutor me. She did it without any extra pay. This drew me towards teaching. When I went into learning, I discovered that I was able to articulate and communicate in a way that people could learn effectively, and it excited me.
Q. You are among the most sought after speakers on corporate training. What preparation do you do before delivering lectures on leadership?
A. Whenever I am working with a company, I do something called the discovery phase. I read what is happening with the company, look at its website and read news about it and also talk to at least 8 to 10 persons within the company to get a better understanding of what is important to them.
Q. Which of your assignments has been the most challenging and why?
A. My most challenging assignment was when Ramalinga Raju confessed to cooking the books at Satyam. As the chief learning officer, I was responsible for employee engagement and that incident turned my world upside down. Anything that comes remotely close was on September 11, 2001 when I was with Booz Allen in Washington DC. The challenge that came out of it was how do you care for the people and how do you help people realise that, because of a few people who did this, they are not guilty by association. How do we take care of these people and how do we save what is left of the company became my biggest challenge.
Q. How important is learning for businesses to succeed in today’s times?
A. Technology is changing fast and if people are not keeping up with it, the business is clearly going to be obsolete. If leaders today lead the Gen X people the same way as they did with people before, they will not be successful. The reason is that Gen X grew up with computers, media and entertainment and have a certain level of wealth that the previous generation did not have. So they have higher expectations when they come into the workforce; they expect their leaders to treat them with respect and to include them in business. It is an employees market now, so leaders need to be constantly thinking what they need to learn.
Q. Tell us about your experience of living and working in India?
A. Coming to India, in 2005, was a unique experience for me and my family because I really believed in the Satyam vision and we felt like this was the place where we wanted to be. Though I was initially sceptical, we were quickly surrounded by people who were friendly and cared for us and really became a part of our lives.
Q. Do you think Indian businesses have it in them to compete in global markets? What changes are required to counter competition?
A. Indian companies are already competing globally and buying foreign businesses in other countries. The question is whether it can be sustained; that can happen if the business world in India wishes to nurture leaders capable to take good decisions and not sacrifice ethics for short-term gain, which is happening worldwide. Another thing that needs to happen in India really fast is that the corporate and the academic worlds need to have a greater connect with each other because universities are not producing talent as the corporate world needs. This is why we see all these statistics about graduates who are not employable.
Q. Your book talks about managing people in different parts of the globe. Your thoughts on a diverse workforce?
A. I think having a geographically diversified workforce is incredible! What it means for a leader is that you cannot do one size fits all; you have to build a relation with each individual and understand the influences he or she is bringing.
Q. Today talent hunting is like never before. How should employers deal with this situation to ensure they retain the best talent?
A. Organisations should spend less time on hunting for talent and more on how they make the place a great place to work. There are lots of companies that do not find it hard to find people and the reason is that they make their place the one where people will do important work and enjoy it and also rewarded for it. When other people hear about it, they will also want to come.
Q. Share your experience at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Corporate University. Do you think the in-house learning trend is here to stay, and what are the cost-benefit factors involved?
A. My experience at Booz Allen was very interesting and was a great learning opportunity because they were going through a time of significant change. The competition for talent was very high and people were getting offers from all over and retaining them was important. One of the things they did was that they embarked on a people strategy so that the company’s name remained on the employees’ business cards rather than being added to their resumes. As far as in-house training is concerned, I think it will never go away. However, I would like to see more partnership with learning providers because there are some skills that you can go out and buy openly in the market. It is much more cost effective to hire a company from outside to teach management and other types of skills to your people. But you need people who understand the culture and tell stories of the organisation.
Q. Tell us about the most interesting project you are working on, and your plans?
A. I am most interested in working on employee engagement, around creating more awareness for the concept of the war for talent. It aims at helping people realise that the war for talent is a global phenomena and that we all have to deal with it. As companies are facing talent shortage, it has become cost effective to move people from one country to another. Borders have become irrelevant as we have access to them through Facebook or LinkedIn, and we have the ability to work with talent all over the world. I think, the war for talent is self imposed as we have people with unfulfilled expectations.
Q. Share your views on Indian management style?
A. Actually, it cannot be classified as a true Indian management style because in any given eco-system, where you have millions of people, it is difficult to say one style exists as it would be discounting that person as an individual. I think that every country has great leaders but Indian leaders come from a family orientation; they are raised in a collective society where people realise that it is about taking care of a family and you are a part of that family. When you go to an individualistic society like the US, it is about how you can make that person independent quickly. This is one difference which gives Indian leaders an edge. They see it from a “we” perspective than just a “me” perspective.