Round Tables

One of the “features” of being in a job is that you get invited to conferences and “industry events”. I’ve written extensively about one of them in the past – the primary purpose of these events is for people to be able to sell their companies’ products, their services and even themselves (job-hunting) to other attendees.

Now, everyone knows that this is the purpose of these events, but it is one of those things that is hard to admit. “I’m going to this hotel to get pitched to by 20 vendors” is not usually a good enough reason to bunk work. So there is always a “front” – an agenda that makes it seemingly worthy for people to attend these events.

The most common one is to have talks. This can help attract people at two levels. There are some people who won’t attend talks unless they have also been asked to talk, and so they get invited to talk. And then there are others who are happy to just attend and try to get “gyaan”, and they get invited as the audience. The other side of the market soon appears, paying generous dollars to hold the event at a nice venue, and to be able to sell to all the speakers and the audience.

Similarly, you have panel discussions. Organisers in general think this is one level better than talks – instead of the audience being bored by ONE person for half an hour, they are bored by about 4-5 people (and one moderator) for an hour. Again there is the hierarchy here – some people won’t want to attend unless they have been put on the panel. And who gets to be on the panel is a function of how desperate one or more sponsors is to sell to the potential panelists.

The one thing most of these events get right is to have sufficient lunch and tea breaks for people to talk to each other. Then again, these are brilliant times for sponsors to be able to sell their wares to the attendees. And it has the positive externality that people can meet and “network” and talk among themselves – which is the best value you can get out of an event like this one.

However, there is one kind of event that I’ve attended a few times, but I can’t understand how they work. This is the “round table”. It is basically a closed room discussion with a large number of invited “panellists”, where everyone just talks past each other.

Now, at one level I understand this – this is a good way to get a large number of people to sell to without necessarily putting a hierarchy in terms of “speakers” / “panellists” and “audience”. The problem is that what they do with these people is beyond my imagination.

I’ve attended two of these events – one online and one offline. The format is the same. There is a moderator who goes around the table (not necessarily in any particular order), with one question to each participant (the better moderators would have prepared well for this). And then the participant gives a long-winded answer to that question, and the answer is not necessarily addressed at any of the other participants.

The average length of each answer and the number of participants means that each participant gets to speak exactly once. And then it is over.

The online version of this was the most underwhelming event I ever attended – I didn’t remember anything from what anyone spoke, and assumed that the feeling was mutual. I didn’t even bother checking out these people on LinkedIn after the event was over.

The offline version I attended was better in the way that at least we could get to talk to each other after the event. But the event itself was rather boring – I’m pretty sure I bored everyone with my monologue when it was my turn, and I don’t remember anything that anyone else said in this event. The funny thing was – the event wasn’t recorded, and there was hardly anyone from the organising team at the discussion. There existed just no point of all of us talking for so long. It was like people who organise Satyanarayana Poojes to get an excuse to have a party at home.

I’m wondering how this kind of event can be structured better. I fully appreciate the sponsors and their need to sell to the lot of us. And I fully appreciate that it gives ¬†them more bang for the buck to have 20 people of roughly equal standing to sell to – with talks or panels, the “potential high value customers” can be fewer.

However – wouldn’t it be far more profitable to them to be able to spend more time actually talking to the lot of us and selling, rather than getting all of us to waste time talking nonsense to each other? Like – maybe just a party or a “lunch” would be better?

Then again – if you want people to travel inter-city to attend this, a party is not a good enough excuse for people to get their employers to sponsor their time and travel. And so something inane like the “round table” has to be invented.

PS: There is this school of thought that temperatures in offices and events are set at a level that is comfortable for men but not for women. After one recent conference I attended I have a theory on why this is the case. It is because of what is “acceptable formal wear” for men and women.

Western formal wear for men is mostly the suit, which means dressing up in lots of layers, and maybe even constraining your neck with a tie. And when you are wearing so many clothes, the environment better be cool else you’ll be sweating.

For women, however, formal wear need not be so constraining – it is perfectly acceptable to wear sleeveless tops, or dresses, for formal events. And the temperatures required to “air” the suit-wearers can be too cold for women.

At a recent conference I was wearing a thin cotton shirt and could thus empathise with the women.

 

Hanging out on Hangouts

The covid-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way we work, and I thikn some things we are not going to get back. For the foreseeable future, at least, even after official lockdowns have been lifted, people will be hesitant to meet each other.

This means that meetings that used to earlier happen in person are now going to happen on video calls. People will say that video calls can never replace the face-to-face meetings, and that they are suboptimal, especially for things like sales, account management, relationship management, etc.

The main reason why face-to-face interactions are generally superior to voice or video calls is that the latter is considered transactional. Let’s say I decide to meet you for some work-related thing. We meet in one of our offices, or a coffee ¬†shop, or a bar, and indulge in pleasantaries. We talk about the traffic, about coffee, about food, do some random gossip, discuss common connects, and basically just hang out with each other for a while before we get down to work.

While these pleasantaries and “hanging out” can be considered to be a sort of transaction cost, it is important that we do it, since it helps in building relationships and getting more comfortable with each other. And once you’ve gotten comfortable with someone you are likely (at the margin) to do more business with them, and have a more fruitful relationship.

This kind of pleasantaries is not common on a phone call (or a video call). Usually phone calls have more well defined start and end boundaries than in-person meetings. It is rather common for people to just get started off on the topic of discussion rather than getting to know one another, cracking jokes, discussing the weather and all that.

If we need video and phone calls to become more effective in the coming months (at least as long as people aren’t stepping out), it is imperative that we learn to “hang out on hangouts”. We need to spend some time in the beginning of meetings with random discussions and gossip. We need to be less transactional. This transaction cost is small compared to the benefit of effectively replicating in-person meetings.

However, hanging out on hangouts doesn’t come easily to us – it’s not “natural”. The way to get around it is through practice.

On Sunday night, on a whim, I got onto a group video call with a bunch of college friends. Midway through the call I wondered what we were doing. Most of the discussion was pointless. But it gave us an opportunity to “hang out” with each other in a way we hadn’t for a long time (because we live in different places).

Overall, it was super fun, and since then I’ve been messaging different groups of friends saying we should do group video chats. Hopefully some of those will fructify. Along with the immediate fun to be had, they will also help me prepare better for “hanging out” at the beginning of my work meetings.

I think you should do them, too.

Selling yourself for job and consulting

So for the first time in over eight years, I’m looking for a job. This was primarily prompted by my move to London earlier this year – a consulting business where you rely on networks rather than a global brand to get new business cannot be easily transplanted. Moreover, as I’d written a year back, a lot of the objectives of the “portfolio life” have been achieved, so I’m willing to let go of the optionality.

While writing a “Cover Letter” for a job application yesterday I realised what makes selling yourself for a job so much harder than selling yourself for a consulting assignment – in the former case, you need to also communicate a “larger purpose”.

For the last 5-6 years I’ve been mostly selling myself for consulting assignments, and while it hasn’t been easy, all I’ve needed to do to sell has been to convince the potential client that I’ll do a good job solving whatever problem they have, and that my fees is a worthy investment for them. And to some extent I’ve become better over the years making such arguments.

When you’re applying for a job, you not only have to convince the counterparty that you’ll be good at whatever you need to do, and that you are worth the salary that you are asking for, but also need to argue how the job will “improve your life”. You need to explain to them why the job fits in to the list of stuff you’ve already done in your life. You need to talk about where you see yourself 5/10/50 years from now. You need to actually express interest in the job, and irrespective of how mundane the job description, you need to act like it’s the most exciting job ever.

And this is a part I haven’t been good at, basically since I haven’t done any of it for a long time now. And in any case, this is a part of the cover letter that people routinely bluff about, so I don’t know if recruiters even take this part seriously. In any case, I’ve been filling most of my cover letters so far with explanations of how I’ll do an awesome job of the job, and keeping only a cursory line or two about “how the job will improve my life”!

Countercyclical business

I realize being a freelance management consultant is countercyclical business. For two years in succession, I’ve had a light March – both years I’ve ended up finishing projects in Jan/Feb. With March being the end of the Indian financial year, most companies are loathe to commit additional spending in March, and it is a bad time to start new projects!

This is counter-cyclical because most other businesses end up having a bumper March, since they have end-of-year targets, and with a short sales cycle, they push their salespersons hard to achieve this target in March!