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Called to Coach
Keeping the Tempo Going: Coaching and Startups
Called to Coach

Keeping the Tempo Going: Coaching and Startups

Webcast Details

  • What are the challenges startups (and coaches of people in startups) face?
  • How can good coaching make an impact on entrepreneurs in startups?
  • How does the younger generation view CliftonStrengths, and how can coaches engage their interest?

Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series -- Season 10, Episode 41.

Below are audio and video plus a transcript of the conversation, including time stamps.


Starting a business, especially a technology business, can be daunting. The majority of startups fail. Startup challenges include how to onboard people, how to recognize their talents and how to find the right roles for them -- not to mention how to develop and scale the business. Sundara Nagarajan, a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach based in India, says many of the small and medium-sized enterprises he works with have found the CliftonStrengths assessment "extremely useful" in keeping the "tempo" of their enterprises moving. Sundara's experience with CliftonStrengths in smaller organizations -- and entrepreneurship generally -- has brought a sense of perspective to his coaching that you can benefit from as well, as you join us for this webcast. 


Most startups fail because the entrepreneur is underprepared for it.

Sundara Nagarajan, 12:10

Coaching is a calling. So anyone who wants to become a coach ... must have the orientation to developing others and making others successful. And most of the time, the coach may not be as good as the player. So that is something people have to accept.

Sundara Nagarajan, 54:47

Very few startup leaders are really concerned about engagement, whereas they should be. In my opinion, probably the 5% who succeed are very concerned about engagement.

Sundara Nagarajan, 23:57

Jim Collison 0:00
I am Jim Collison, and this is Gallup's Called to Coach, recorded on October 11, 2022.

Jim Collison 0:19
Called to Coach is a resource for those who want to help others discover and use their strengths. We have Gallup experts and independent strengths coaches share tactics, insights and strategies to help coaches maximize the talent of individuals, teams and organizations around the world. If you're listening live and you don't see the chat room, there's a link right above us there to that; it'll take you there. Sign into the chat room. We'd love to have your questions live during the program. Or if you're listening to the recorded version after the fact on YouTube or there in the podcast, you can send us an email: Don't forget to subscribe to Called to Coach on your favorite podcast app or right there on YouTube, so you never miss an episode. Deepanjan Deb is our host today. DD is a Market Leader for Gallup and is located in our India office. His Top 5 are -- Context, Individualization, Learner, Strategic and Achiever. And DD, always great to have you on Called to Coach. Welcome back!

Deepanjan Deb 1:11
Thank you, Jim! It's a pleasure to be back after a little bit of break.

Meet Our Guest on This Episode

Jim Collison 1:15
Oh, it's always, it's always good to take a break. And it's always great to have you. Why don't you take a second and introduce our guest.

Deepanjan Deb 1:21
Thank you, Jim. Good morning, good evening to everyone who's watching this from different parts of the world. My name is Deepanjan, and I, along with Jim, it's a pleasure to do this again. Today's guest is a very senior member of the coaching fraternity, Mr. Nagarajan, or SN, as we popularly call him. He has been a Gallup-Certified Coach way back when we, when we launched this about 9 years back, you know, and has been actively involved in, you know, using the Gallup philosophy in his, in his domain of work, both in the enterprise, you know, part when he was working with a large organization, as well as then he moved on, and he has been helping technologies develop and scale their innovation to, you know, thrive businesses and, you know, create a positive impact. He works a lot with, you know, startups and helps them scale their businesses. He's also helped a lot of people go through, you know, a positive experience in coaching, the, the, the younger generation. We'll hear a lot from him. Welcome, Mr. Nagarajan, into another edition of the Called to Coach.

Sundara Nagarajan 1:22
Good morning, and good evening to those who are in the other time zones. It's nice to be here.

Deepanjan Deb 2:52
Great. Mr. Nagarajan, so let me start with, you know, you have been a Gallup proponent for a long time. And let me start with your Top 5, rather. If you can tell us a little bit about, you know, your Top 5 and what I would want this is you have been someone who has taken this a long time back, and you have been using this for a long, long time now. How have you seen your Top 5 evolve, as you have seen your working portfolio evolve, right? So what we would want to hear from you is a little bit about your Top 5 and How have you seen each of these themes, at least, in a brief way, evolve over the period of time?

Sundara Nagarajan 3:41
Yeah, that's a nice one. See, I got introduced to Gallup Clifton StrengthsFinder in the late '90s, perhaps around '97, '98, when I used to work at Philips -- First, Break All the Rules book, and then what followed that, and there was an, also a consulting engagement with Gallup. We went through the Q12® employee engagement surveys. And as part of that intervention, I also came across the StrengthsFinder. And I had taken a StrengthsFinder assessment at that time. However, I, it was in '97, perhaps '97-'98 time frame. But I lost it. I did not have the report with me until 2015, when I went through the assessment again for the certification. February 2015 is when I got certified as Gallup coach. So after several years, I did that assessment. And as luck would have it, I found the old report. I'd been searching some archives.

Sundara Nagarajan 4:41
So it's very, it's just a coincidence. It was not an experiment that I was trying to do. But what was surprising was, this is a question that typically people ask: What happens to your Top 5 -- would they change over time? So it's, surprisingly, I found that I had only the Top 5 report for the '98 time frame; I did not have all 34. So I could have done a much better analysis. But Top 5 definitely were within my Top 10. So, it was quite interesting that it was only shuffling a little bit here and there. But in the 2015 report, which is what I now consider as my golden report, and perhaps, if you take one now, it may probably be somewhat similar to that, my No. 1 is Learner. And I have been a lifelong Learner and, in my younger days, I was probably an indiscriminate Learner and started becoming more mature as I grew up and started focusing on what is relevant and what is immediately required, and so on.

Sundara Nagarajan 5:41
And the, No. 2 is Activator. And the combination of Learner and Activator is that I will register for every training curriculum that comes along and drop off most of them. But nowadays, I don't do that, because I start regulating my Activator a little bit more. So Learner-Activator. And No. 3 is Significance. Significance always made me look for bigger things to do, bigger challenges to do -- not that everything has succeeded, but always the interest is to look at larger, difficult challenges, which is what I'm also doing now: trying to help startups scale. And most of the startups fail, right, they don't scale. So it's a, it's a game, which is a tough game to play. And trying to help them to scale up is not an easy thing to do. So my Significance always wanted me to do things which are challenging and bigger to do and create a larger impact, and so on.

Sundara Nagarajan 6:32
And No. 4 is Relator. And probably that's what also brought me to the coaching as a calling to myself. So I could relate to people much more closely one on one, and I have a big set of friends who are pretty close to me. And No. 5, Futuristic. And Futuristic as a technologist is a good combination to have. So you start understanding what's coming and what's the implication of that, and so on. So these are my Top 5: Learner, Activator, Significance, Relator and Futuristic. It's also nice to talk about my Top 10 just to sort of round up this, because I feel the Top 10 has a lot of impact in what you do. And particularly the Manager Report, which is a recent product from Gallup, is an outstanding effort to get, you know, people to see all their strengths together.

Sundara Nagarajan 7:21
So my No. 6 is Responsibility, I like to keep my word. Strategic, where I like to create options. And my overall domain is Strategic Thinking. Maximizer, which was in the Top 5 in my '98 time frame, which I can easily think about that now. And I have probably started regulating it very heavily. And that's why it came to No. 8 now. And Ideation, and being an R&D person and a creative type of person, Ideation was always my strength. And finally, Self-Assurance in the Top 10. And Self-Assurance was also in my Top 5, in the '98. So that's the level of shuffle that I've seen; it was No. 5 in those days. So that's about my Top 5 and 10.

Deepanjan Deb 8:06
Now, a follow-up question to that is, excuse me, you've, you've been working with different sets of people, right? You know, when, when I think you got certified, you were with a large technology company. And then you've moved on. So as you started applying this, what are the changes that you've seen in yourself, as you have evolved as a, as a coach and a mentor?

Startups: Why They Fail

Sundara Nagarajan 8:43
OK, so let me speak first about myself, and then maybe, you know, the clients that I work with, right? The point that you said that I was earlier with a larger company, whereas now I'm working with smaller companies, and so on -- by the way, I also work with larger companies even now. So the larger company context continues to be there; small and medium enterprises are also in my client base, and also startups. But what is common among all these is they're mostly involved in innovation programs. So these are either startups or intrapreneurships that have programs that are internally starting a new product initiative, or they're digital transformation initiatives, which are also having a lot of characteristics of startups.

Sundara Nagarajan 9:25
So in terms of the kind of work people do, it's related to innovation, related to technology adoption with customers, and so on. So that space doesn't change much. I don't try to, say, for example, use Gallup for, say, life coaching, I try to stay away from that because that's not my area of preference or strength. I try to do more of performance coaching and competition results within the enterprise and business context. That's where I have stayed ... . About myself, in fact, knowing the aspects of Learner, Activator, Significance, Relator and Futuristic, it's a very interesting combination of talents, which I thought over a period of time was very appropriate for doing the kind of consulting business I do now.

Sundara Nagarajan 10:17
So, when I was thinking about what should I do in my later part of life, because in India, people retire at the age of 58 -- that is the government age for retirement. So, I had planned for myself that at that age of 58, I'll come out of corporate jobs, and then spend about 7, 8 years -- as long as my energies will cooperate with me -- to do something for the society, which is impactful; at the same time, probably, I will never retire as such. So, it should be something that I can continue doing for a longer period if required. So, I was wondering what should I do, and that is how I got into the current business I do, which is primarily to help innovations to scale. So, this could be complete startups; people who are considering to do a startup are also welcome to contact me. Or these could be large companies who are doing transformation work inside their firms.

Sundara Nagarajan 11:05
Now, how these talents helped there is very clearly, Learner is an excellent strength to have in such a road, because in, to be able to help in this space, you have to be continuously learning. Because the domain of technology continuously changes, be it deep tech or be it digital technology. Either way, it's continuously changing. And also the methods used for helping innovation to scale are also continuously changing. Not many people realize this: post-2010 or 2015, you can say, is roughly when there is a lot more organized help, in the form of incubators and accelerators, etc., available globally to startups. And that's a help people must take, because I always wondered why most startups fail. The, the cliche people use is 95% of startups fail. Whether it is 70% or 95%, that's a matter to argue and kind of business that relates to us all, but majority of the startups fail.

Sundara Nagarajan 12:04
So the insight I got out of my own learning about this through my career was that most startups fail because the entrepreneur is underprepared for it. Because one day, the entrepreneur just comes out and starts a company, hoping that it will scale. The few people have the talent for it; very naturally, they're blessed. It could be a Bill Gates or it could be Dhirubhai Ambani in India or Tata. We can take any such cases where people just started companies and became very successful. Those are the natural talented people, right. But most of the others who could also potentially do it well are completely underprepared, especially in their first startup, right. So I thought there is an opportunity to help that particular community -- people who are attempting this for the first time. So the Learner aspect and the Activator aspect, where we can help them, help in getting the sense of urgency, sense of decision-making, and so on, and creating the impact, which is primarily from the Significance side. And Relator, particularly useful in the customer interactions, customer development and those kind of areas. And Futuristic is your ability to chart a roadmap as you go forward.

Sundara Nagarajan 13:13
So I felt the combination of talents that I have is something which will be helpful for me, that I'll be able to say like, going back to the Q12®, question No. 03: At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day. So that was the motivation for me to start what I do now. OK, so that's the way I started this particular venture. And we have been using both CSM -- and by the way, I'm also certified on BP10, Builder Profile 10, which I have personally found to be a very powerful tool for entrepreneurs to learn about themselves and understand where their gaps are, and what they can very clearly take as action points to improve themselves in their roles.

Sundara Nagarajan 13:55
So both these models are used with early-stage leaders who, through my work. And I have found that to be very, very effective for them to know about themselves. And particularly in the case of any of these startup initiatives, be it in a big company or a complete startup, the teams are always growing and changing. So you're, you're not having a static team to start with; you're getting a small team to begin with, and then you add people, and then you grow. So how you onboard your people into the team, how you understand them, their capabilities, and how do you recognize them in their talents and strengths and put them into the right roles? So in all of these, the, both these tools were extremely useful, particularly the Clifton StrengthsFinder, where it's a lot more general than specific to entrepreneurship context.

Sundara Nagarajan 14:43
So that's the way I have been using it with my clients. And most of them have found it extremely useful, especially in the particular small and medium enterprises that I've worked with, based in Mumbai. They have almost made it mandatory for everybody in the company who are in the leadership position to go through the CSF and publish their strengths across the organization. And they do very regular interventions, in terms of keeping the tempo going, keeping, keeping the reminder, when people, you know, that these are important tools that you can use in your organization to develop people, and they take actions using that as well. So I have found some of the teams using it extremely effectively. And early-stage companies, particularly, have found it very useful in building their teams, building their culture, and so on. In the case of digital transformations, the experience is relatively new. I have not had too many of these experiences yet. But even there, we have started using it where the change management, the cultural change management that has to come in, and how we can use the CSF as an intervention tool is being currently experimented with one of the SMEs that I'm working with.

Deepanjan Deb 15:59
Thank you so much for a very, very detailed, and a very, very interesting angle to this, you know, domain that you would associate yourself with. Jim, any follow-up questions that you have on this?

India: The Business Culture, CliftonStrengths Post-COVID

Jim Collison 16:19
Yeah, let me, let's go back a little bit. I felt like I had a good handle on India pre-COVID. And then the world was disrupted. And I don't, I've had a hard time, in the circles that I run in, kind of getting a feel for how India is doing post-COVID. And how's the business culture? And how are you feeling about, SN, how are you feeling about the, the uptake of strengths culturally? And I'm not asking you for the whole country, but in a general feeling there, how's India feeling about itself post-COVID?

Sundara Nagarajan 16:57
OK. India, if you notice the press, particularly, what is published across the world, that India has been very big on vaccination. So that has been a big help for getting people back to work. And being a nation at the stage that India is in, getting people back to work was very, very important. So that has been a priority. And things have happened positively in the direction. And if you see overall, economy-wise, we have bounced back reasonably well. Most of the businesses are back online; most of the companies are calling employees to office. And personally speaking for myself, the 2 years of COVID, I was entirely working from home. My business was able to continue without any disruption because it's consulting business; it was not very difficult to do that. And we are set up for situations like this. So all our data is on the cloud. And it was pretty easy, therefore, to continue the business without any disruption.

Sundara Nagarajan 17:59
However, when I am now back in front of my customers in physical form, I'm really able to appreciate the value of that, even though remote working and videoconferencing and all that has been there forever. But this kind of a continuous, intense 2 years of working, which was entirely remote, and it is as good as watching a TV on a daily basis. And from that back to real human beings and working with people was really refreshing. And I'm seeing that, that trends will continue further, because most of the companies are likely to move more into hybrid models. And I don't think entirely remote will be sustainable; that's clearly what I could see that. From the Clifton StrengthsFinder and the coaching-related aspects, I'm continuously getting inquiries for these. So I must say that there is more interest. So after the COVID, there has been multiple inquiries for helping in these areas -- for coaching as well as for interventions as a group. So definitely there is interest and sustained interest in this space. That's what I could gather.

Jim Collison 19:08
One of the things we've seen in the United States, of course, is managers suffered the most during this pandemic. From a, from a managing enterprise standpoint, our overall numbers on managers are the worst, when we think about engagement in that. And yet they've had the least amount of time sometimes to recover from this, plus are maybe not getting as much training and education as they need on how to manage and how to manage with strengths. Are you seeing the same thing? And as you're working with teams and with managers, are you getting an opportunity to kind of help them and help their teams with this?

Sundara Nagarajan 19:47
Yes, of course. In fact, during the last phase of the pandemic, I had a request from one of the large MNCs who was in the operations. They wanted my help for wellbeing, because they found their employees stressed out, managerial relationships stressed out, many of them anxious about their careers. It was pretty much of a negative, very strongly negative team. And it was not against the company; it was not against any particular person or anything like that. It was more the isolation and all the anxiety that was pent up over, over a 1 1/2-year period. So I used the wellbeing book, particularly, as my reference there and did my own small wellbeing survey and used CSF to sort of bring them through that entire experience of wellbeing through a workshop. And they, it was really appreciated overall. So there was a lot of follow-up after that. Individuals contacted me and got some help from me, and so on. So my feeling is the whole aspect of wellbeing, which is now being brought up also from Gallup through support materials and so on and application of CSF to wellbeing, is certainly being of high interest that I could see towards the end of the pandemic and the early uptake of the pandemic -- postpandemic.

Strengths, Engagement, Wellbeing in Startups: The Pressure for Performance

Jim Collison 21:13
Let me, let me ask one more question, DD. And then I'll pass it back over to you. Since you brought up wellbeing, one of the things we've seen kind of, kind of postpandemic -- if we can call it that; I'm hoping we can now -- is the emphasis both on wellbeing and, and then adding engagement and strengths as a, kind of as an entire package program. I think, sometimes we used to think of strengths, kind of its thing, and engagement was its thing, and then I think the world ignored wellbeing, for the most part, we wrote a book 10 years ago; nobody read it. During the pandemic, of course, it got really, really popular. What are you seeing from your angle, and for the folks you're coaching with, what's helping the most with those connective tissue between strengths, engagement and wellbeing? Is there something where that's coming together, and that's working really well for people where they're, as we're coming out of this time, it's, it's, it's, you know, it's, it's clicking with them, it's working.

Sundara Nagarajan 22:14
OK. In fact, what I am observing is, unfortunately, No. 1 priority is performance; not the others, right. Most of the requirements that come is team-building effectiveness among the team members, and performance and results. So that seems to be the pressure in most of the companies I work with, perhaps because they're all startup initiatives; they're all initiatives where they're to show results quickly. So the focus is lot more about how to work together more effectively. I'm distinguishing that from engagement, because engagement, in my view, is a slightly different context to that. So the pressure is definitely, the requirement and the pressure is mostly for the performance side. Now coming to engagement, that is No. 2. People are concerned about attrition and how to reduce attrition, particularly in India, the attrition numbers have been very bad postpandemic, because of the opportunities that were there, particularly from the startups. A lot of startups became unicorns, almost one per week, in 2021, right. And these companies were flushed with money, and they were able to hire people, paying whatever they could. And that caused a huge amount of attrition at the companies, and this was a problem many of them couldn't know how to deal with. So there were questions about, Can this be an issue of engagement? Can this be attempted? Can this be done? And so on.

Sundara Nagarajan 23:50
But genuine interest in engagement is only from a relatively smaller part of the population. That's what I can see. And very few startup leaders are really concerned about engagement, whereas they should be. In my opinion, probably the 5% who succeed are very concerned about engagement. That's what we can always correlate to, because if you see any of the successful companies, the employee engagement priority is very high, right? But because we are dealing with a large volume, and it's always the statistics that is in front of us, I find most of them are less concerned about engagement. And finally, coming to wellbeing, that I have seen only in multinational corporations. Because MNCs seem to have a higher interest for wellbeing and work-life balance and so on. Whereas even Indian SMEs are not that strong on that. I would have liked them to do more, but it is relatively low. So the interest was, performance is most of the time the No. 1.

Deepanjan Deb 24:51
I think, Mr. Nagarajan, you mentioned a very pertinent point around the fact that most of the startups are not concerned with engagement, because they're concerned with so many other things around -- you know, I get to speak with a lot of startups who have, who want to do engagement work, but eventually, they also realize that they, you know, they're, they're open about the fact that we just have to do it. It's not as mature as it is with the, you know, standard organizations. However, engagement, you know, I think it, during one of your points, you said that, you know, people are so much engrossed in the work, and they eventually end up burning out and all those things. Engagement becomes a very critical factor in sustaining what you're doing. And that is where, you know, somewhere, strengths also has a correlation to it. Because when you look at, you know, in the startup space, you would want people to, you know, give the best of their own ability, maximize their ability, right, you know?

Deepanjan Deb 24:51
If you remember, Jim, if you remember the experiment that we talked about on the University of Nebraska on speed reading, where, you know, people who could read about 350 words per minute, after they've given, been trained, they've been trained, they can read about 2,900 words per minute, right? That is what the StrengthsFinder talks about, right? Identifying your natural areas of strength, and then maximizing it. Because you, Mr. Nagarajan, you talked about performance coaching more, because, and StrengthsFinder is all about performance, maximizing it, and allowing it to be, you know, function in a way that it doesn't, even when you're working, it doesn't feel that you're working. Right.

Helping Startups Thrive Through Strengths

Deepanjan Deb 26:53
So my follow-up question to you would be to share a few experiences around how have you seen this whole, you know, as you've coached people, leaders, how have you seen this being a part of a culture transition that you've see -- you, at least you have observe in a few organizations? And, and the follow-up to that is that, What do you think can help, you know, startups thrive more if people start identifying their strengths and, you know, work on it, both at an individual level as well as at a team level. Because, you know, startups also thrive a lot on your team giving you the synergistic output. And that is where knowing your strengths definitely helps, because you know what you are good at, and you also know what others are good at. Right? Chances of conflict becomes less. So this is the two-part question that I have now, with respect to culture and with respect to how do you think things can be more mature, more structured, as we, as we see the application of StrengthsFinder?

Sundara Nagarajan 28:09
So the, when I said that the engagement is not a priority, it is also somewhat natural for startups. Because when you're talking about startups, most of them are small teams. Even when they are in a large company, this may be a small team of less than 10 people, right. So when these teams are small, broadly, everybody's performance and results and engagements are directly visible, right, and whether it is positive or negative, directly visible. And the, most of the actions and interventions happen without any systematic approach. So the leader tends to take calls, based on what the leader finds to be working well and not so working well. But as they grow, when they grow, say, beyond 25, 30 people as teams, that is when they start considering these kinds of tools -- can I bring in a StrengthsFinder coach to help us create team buildings, and so on? So that kind of thought process happens differently in this smaller, smaller percentage of companies. I'm not saying that nobody does it; there is a smaller percentage of companies which are forward-looking -- they do bring up those things early. But there I would have liked to see more people doing it. That's No. 1.

Sundara Nagarajan 29:31
And the, to the culture part of the question that you're asking, most of the time, culture is what the leadership behaves to be, right. So whatever you say as values or whatever you publish on the wall as these are our values and so on, end of the day, it is the behavior of the leadership team. And their actions is what builds a culture at least initially. Right? That practice, when you become reasonably big, which very few companies get -- they fall into the chasm, as they call it; most of them fall into the chasm in about 3, 4 years, right? So many companies go through the pain of the 3, 4 years, dropping off. And at that time, they are not going to pay attention to any such formal tools, because you're on a slipping slope, right. So the ones who are looking up, the ones who are getting the support to grow to the next level, they're certainly taking interest in taking interventions that can be helpful for them to build their culture and grow. So to set the expectation right, if we have to calibrate it, the companies who are continuing to grow, they seem to be taking the interest, and when they are able to have enough money that they can invest in these kinds of interventions, they're willing to do that. OK.

Sundara Nagarajan 30:51
However, most of them are also impacted by the lack of resources. That, you know, most of the time, they are strapped on resources, and they will probably not be able to spend too much time on this. But it is not so much about money and time alone. It's also the attitude. In fact, in my view, I think it is more the vision of the leader and the, the way the leader looks at things that matters most of the time. And I have had instances of startups who have invited me seriously to do some of this work, but said, we can't really pay you much. And I have taken that offer. And I've gone and helped them, because it's not so much about the fee you get; it's much more about the impact you can make. So there are cases where the individual startups have approached me by saying that, you know, we can't really pay you much, but we'd like to get your help. And I've given that help -- so whenever they reach out. but the percentage is relatively low. I would like to see it higher.

The Impact of Coaching in Startups

Jim Collison 31:47
SN, can you talk a little bit about that impact? Like what's been your favorite impact? Like, it's low pay; it's hard work. You know, but you're going in and helping them with this. Where are you seeing the greatest impact on these teams in the coaching that you're doing?

Sundara Nagarajan 32:06
Yeah, the most interesting impact is their own ability to understand themselves. Because one of the first things in entrepreneurship is you have to know yourself best. The better self-awareness or the higher self-awareness that the person can develop, that much more, they'll be effective in building their teams and building customer relationships and everything. So I can see that that process is getting help. Many of them are able to learn about themselves as well as their team members better. And some of them have acknowledged that, you know, the impact of the coaching has been improving the teamwork. And there were misunderstandings among people about -- people interpret things as attitude. So that guy is always asking questions, or this guy is taking too long to do anything. So they don't really understand until they know about Deliberative and Analytical, that these are basically the way they are, you know, and they need to get those needs satisfied.

Sundara Nagarajan 33:05
And most of the time, in the, in these kinds of interventions, what I have found most profound is, unless I give you what you need, you will not be able to deliver what I need. You know, that, that aspect coming out in surface, and people recognizing that and then start using it and applying it. That I've seen happen in multiple contexts, multiple companies. So that will be the biggest satisfaction, and as a result, they grow.

Introducing Strengths Gradually

Jim Collison 33:35
Do you, do you find with startups that you could you could take a strengths approach like a startup? In other words, not try to introduce it all at once, but, but little bits at a time? Like they're, like they're consuming a product or like they're working on -- Do you find that's a little more palatable with them since they, since everybody's trying to do 15 jobs? Does, would that work a little bit better?

Sundara Nagarajan 34:02
Yeah, exactly. In fact, what I do is typically three sessions, each one-hour sessions, because most of these are remote nowadays. And I find more than 1-hour sessions are pretty hard to do. So I do this as three 1-hour sessions. And I've started following up after one year, because one of the observations I had was it's all nice in the beginning, and everybody understands their strengths. And then they get some Aha! moments. And they are, "This is nice," and so on. But then you see that the interest slowly wanes. It's not top of their mind anymore, right, after some time. So I was also wondering what to do for that, because initially, it gives some help.

Sundara Nagarajan 34:46
And then there has been relatively lesser interest when some of the conflicts come, because I'm continuously engaged with them on, as a coach. So they bring up some of the team conflicts, some of the challenges in performance. Then I said, Don't you think, you know, you can apply this particular strength here? Don't you think that individual has this kind of a profile and so do not consider that? So they just kind of remember it at that time, because it's not something that they have been applying it themselves. Right. So now I have started kind of systematically writing to my clients, after about a year, saying that, you know, we had the sessions earlier. How is it going? And how can I help you further? So, that kind of intervention I've started doing. Some of them are responding. And some of them are indeed wanting to do another intervention with them, at a slightly advanced level, and so on. So, but I think it looks like I may have to do it more often. That is the takeaway I'm getting; maybe I should reduce the frequency a little bit.

Jim Collison 35:47
Well, always, you know, keeping that in front of people is always beneficial, right, the more you can do it. You have to find, I think you got to find that sweet spot. And I think what we're, what we're finding in most cases is that the managers, right, are the ones to reach kind of first, right? The, the more time you can spend -- maybe an 80/20 rule, where you're spending most of your time with your managers, and then teaching them how to have that downward, you know, influence on those that they're managing has been, I think, something we've been talking about for a while. Is that, in the work that you're doing, how, how often do you get access to the, to the managers or to the management team?

Sundara Nagarajan 36:37
Yeah, that's right. It has to be with the leadership team.

Jim Collison 36:47
Go ahead, SN. Did you want to say anything on that?

Sundara Nagarajan 36:50
Yep. So what I was saying is, these interventions have to be with the leaders. Because in our context, it is not just the managers; it also be technical leaders. These are senior individual contributors, architects or senior designers, people like that, who have an influence on people; or people who are on change management, somebody who's trying to do a digital transformation across the organization. That individual may be relatively junior in the hierarchy of the organization. But that individual will have to influence CEOs, board members and sometimes the finance people or other commercial HR, those kind of people. So they, knowing their own talents, they knowing others could also have similar talents; sometimes everybody's talents are not known. So that seems to be really helping, and refreshing that, especially at the management level and the leadership level, is very important.

Jim Collison 37:51
DD, I'll turn it back to you.

CliftonStrengths and the Younger Generation

Deepanjan Deb 37:53
Sure. One, one of the very, very, so this is what we've seen around how StrengthsFinder gets applied in organizations is the, is the role that managers play. And I think we've, we've spoken about it right. Jim has raised a very important question. Now, one of the things that I want to know from you is, when we talk about StrengthsFinder, one of the, you know, the primary thing that it revolves around is awareness. Right? You have been doing certain things subconsciously, now that you are aware of certain things, you know, the way you do it changes and how your coach then frames things change a lot. So how have you seen the younger generation accept that awareness? And what have you done a little differently with them to create a better path after they have been aware?

Sundara Nagarajan 38:57
See, surprisingly, or maybe it is not so surprising, the younger people are easier to work with. So they really find it very refreshing to know about themselves, their awareness. And they catch on to this much more easily than people who are older. But not that they argue, but the ability to change their behaviors, their patterns are easier for the younger people. So that's exactly what I have seen: the older people will appreciate it, but most of the time, they will say, "Yeah, that's how I am, and maybe I may not be able to change much. That's how they conclude. And they just kind of use it as justification rather than using it as an awareness to change themselves. But the whole fundamental here is you cannot scale you, yours, unless you scale yourself. You cannot scale others or you cannot scale an organization. So you have to scale yourself faster than your organization can scale. OK.

Sundara Nagarajan 39:57
So for instance, any startup person, irrespective of the age, irrespective of the experience, anybody who starts up an organization has become the CEO of that organization by default. OK? They are responsible for the entire firm building. They're not just building a product; they're building a firm. They're building a sustainable firm, which can have a repeatable business over a long period of time. So first of all, that awareness itself takes time. Most of them start with a project. They are always very full of their own product idea. They're very full of what technology can do. The first surprise they get is, yeah, I have to now talk to a customer; I have to really discover a customer. And how do I work with a customer? And how do I deliver customer experience? All of that becomes a first, first surprise.

Sundara Nagarajan 40:46
And then they get the surprise of growing the organization. So sometimes these kind of coaching interventions early prepare them for this better, and therefore they are able to also scale themselves ahead of others. And many of them have that awareness. They have the awareness that they need something. They may not exactly know it is Clifton StrengthsFinder, but they know that they need some help. And when they see this, they catch on to it much more easily. And then they start scaling them. And they sometimes come back and ask for feedback as well, as to what are you seeing? And do you see them being more effective or things like that? So the, my experience is the youngsters are probably catching on to it easier than people who are elderly.

Deepanjan Deb 41:34
Perfect. Jim, any thoughts from you on this at a global level? Because you, you've interacted with so many people across the world.

Jim Collison 41:41
Do you think that, do you think that age difference is just pliability? Or do you think there's the, I've been very aware of this group of students that has experienced the pandemic. They've got, you know, college students that went through college here in the United States during the pandemic. And it was, it was pretty hard on them. Do you think that experience among, you know, folks under 30 has shaped them in a way that makes them more open? Or do you think it's a stage?

Sundara Nagarajan 42:17
Ah, no. In fact, the point that you're saying about age and also the person as the individual, absolutely agree with that. Because one of the things that we look at is coachability. So I follow a process that I call as enrollment period. So whenever I engage with a completely new person, or a team, I don't immediately discuss commercials with them or create a commercial engagement with them. I have a concept, which I call myself as enrollment, where we both work together for a while to, for me to assess them and for them to assess me -- whether this coach-client relationship is likely to work. So that methodology has been pretty helpful. So I've seen different levels of people working out or not working out. So there, there is no correlation, particularly to the age. So it could potentially be something to do with the coachability of the individual. Right.

Sundara Nagarajan 43:16
Now, specific to the question on pandemic experience people, I have not had enough data to give you a comment on it. But I only seen students who are -- in fact, I'm associated with an institution for almost 25 years now, where I'm an adjunct faculty and I teach there. Their students have been experiencing the pandemic-related down issues. And what I've noticed is yeah, they do have a lack of practical understanding, because they have not gone through a lot of practical courses and so on, and also interacting with people. But for that, their ability to find jobs or executing on jobs, at least I have not seen a major difference. It is an IT institution, because probably IT is still possible to do a lot of things remotely,

Jim Collison 44:10
It may have played in, like, the pandemic may have played into the strength of that role anyway. I mean, in our, in our organization, our IT folks started working from home; they never wanted to come back. You know, they're like, No, this is the, this is the most -- they were fighting for that pre-pandemic. They got it during the pandemic. And then bringing those, those resources back in has been, has been difficult. I'm not sure we need to, just to be 100% honest, in some regards. There are some roles that do better working together. I've noticed a little bit of grit, a different kind of grit with these students, with these younger individuals that experience the pandemic maybe differently than, than others did. Certainly in the startup world, grit is really, really important in, in being able to, to, you know, get things done. Do you think that the, that students coming out or the, or these younger professionals coming out may have a better sense of grit, because they've just been through this? Had, do you get that feeling at all?

Sundara Nagarajan 45:24
I don't have enough sample to give an assessment on it. And at least speaking for the Indian population, my broad feeling is maybe I'm not able to really come into that it made a big difference. That's basically what I feel -- particularly to the students or people in that. But competencywise, I do hear complaints about that. In some jobs, people feel that, you know, the 2 years of pandemic has really pulled the data competencies down and things like that.

Jim Collison 45:57
Yeah. Yeah. No, it's, it's a good --

Strengths and the Perfect Customer Experience in the Tech Space

Deepanjan Deb 46:00
Good question. Very, very, very interesting. Mr. Nagarajan, in the last section, we'll, we'll talk about something which is very, you know, I know you you've worked a lot in this space. And we will also want to hear from you around, What do you think, you know, the dimension of customer experience? Because in the world of Gallup, we talk about something, which is The Gallup Path where it talks about employee engagement eventually leads to customer engagement, and that leads to your business outcomes. So where do you think, you know, customer experience has played a vital role? And you can share some experiences both from the enterprise world, as well as from the startup world around how you know, that, eventually, that is something which is what we're all doing, right? Creating the perfect customer experience. So your thoughts around that?

Sundara Nagarajan 47:02
OK. See, particularly speaking of the technology space, the space that we work in, which are deep technology, or digital technology. In fact, I make a distinction between the two. By digital technology, what I mean are businesses like Uber or Amazon, where using digital technologies, you are transforming a different business process, right, which was a retail business process, or a hailing a taxi business process, or entertainment business process, or whatever, you're using digital technology to transform it. That's it broadly, what I call the digital tech. And the deep tech are technologies where you need to do substantial amount of technology development before you can actually offer the product. So here, typically, the market already exists, if you can actually do it.

Sundara Nagarajan 47:47
To give a very simple example to illustrate this, if I can fly between Delhi and San Francisco in 4 hours, there is a market for it, OK, there's definitely a market for it. I have to bring it to an affordability level that is practically possible and all the technical issues associated with that I should be able to solve, so that there's no health issues for the individuals in the plane. And the overall business is viable in that level, right. So most of the time, deep technology is concerned about viability of the technology. And the invention takes perhaps years before it can actually happen. So these are the two spaces if you look at it.

Sundara Nagarajan 48:26
In either cases, the cycle times have come down very drastically compared to the past. How quickly can you introduce a product to the market? The cycle time has been always reducing very fast. So the consequence of this is, if somebody is first to the market, that doesn't mean they will be first to the market too long. Because somebody else can bring something close enough or even with some improvements very quickly. Or if they try to bring something to the market quickly, the number of people who will enter into the market very quickly as competition is also very high. So the customer experience that you can deliver seems to now become more important than the product itself. So the product is kind of getting taken for granted. And the customer experience that comes with it becomes more critical. And if you really look at customer experience, it is nothing but emotional. OK, it's all about the emotional aspects of the customer.

Sundara Nagarajan 49:22
So StrengthsFinder, how it nicely fits in here is if, if I as a person interacting with the customers to understand their problems, I need to have a high degree of Empathy to their problems, understand their problem space, so that I'm able to create a solution to the problem space pretty quickly, right. So people who have the right talents for it tend to do that much, much better than people who don't have the right talents for it. So any amount of training will not really make somebody grow leaps and bounds. Just the example that you talked about a few minutes ago, about the reading training, you know, the speed-reading training example. So that that plays in a lot, because people with natural talents have a higher level of Empathy to the client, understanding the client's needs and so on. They tend to make much better customer experience as a result. And for that, they have to collaborate with somebody who's probably more Analytical, more technical kind of a person to create the solution. So you have the need for talent- based understanding of themselves, and the talent-based interaction between team members and building the customer experience that you'd like to deliver becomes very important.

Sundara Nagarajan 50:39
And the second thing is, traditionally, we did things like surveys to understand the customer requirements, customer preferences and so on. And progressively, at least what I'm seeing is, surveys are becoming less effective in the customer experience world. Because here it is a lot more sentiments that matter, a lot more feelings and emotions that matter, than a set of options to choose from or things like that. So I'm also seeing more and more surveys are becoming qualitative, like the Net Promoter Score survey or questions that come with it are more open-ended questions where people respond to that. Or even better, people are trying to do interviews through a remote medium like videoconference, or the best thing is to meet them in person, OK, and understand what the customer is looking for. So there is a lot of increased activity as well as increased challenge in designing for customer experience. And customer experience has become the No. 1 purpose for a company now. So if you're able to deliver customer experience, and as you're delivering it, everything else is like a table stake, which makes you eligible to deliver the customer experience. So that's exactly how it is working.

Deepanjan Deb 52:01
This is very insightful, you know. Jim, any follow-up on this from your end, especially on -- ?

Servitization and Customer Loyalty

Sundara Nagarajan 52:08
I have just one more point to this before Jim interjects. The whole movement to as a service model, things are becoming as a service. So the idea of as a service is you're either delivering a software or a utility as a service. You're also probably delivering an asset as a service; that's they call servitization, they call it, where you are delivering an asset as a service. I'm not, I'm not interested in air conditioner, but I'm interested in air conditioning. OK, so can I get air conditioning as a service? So the financial implication is you're moving capital expenses to operating expenses. For many companies, that's a better way of working. And people are moving in the business model into that aspect.

Sundara Nagarajan 52:51
But what goes with that is also the switching costs are relatively low. So people don't have to have a long-term loyalty to a particular brand or a particular service, and the switching is progressively becoming better and better, because that's the only place where companies have hold on the customer, where you keep switching difficult. But if you make your switching difficult, people may not even subscribe to you in the first place. So customer experience is starting to ride even because of the servitization of the way value is delivered. So making value delivered as a service also is making customer experience critical. I just thought I will add that additional thought.

Encouragement for Strengths Coaches (in India)

Jim Collison 53:31
It's, it's super important why acquisitions are as big as they are, right? Because if all those things are true, if it's easy to switch, if the options are plentiful, the winner is the one who, who acquires the most, right, who has the corner on the market. And so you always see these things roll up. I got, I have to tell you, SN, you've, you've, you've discovered my secret. Nine years ago, I started podcasting so we could hear from our customers. This is a form of survey. Like I, initially had started these, one, I wanted to create great information for people to listen to. But two, it was a great way to hear from our customers. Like I get an hour of an interview, you're sharing great stuff with us. But I also get to hear from you in both the time we have in the beginning and the time during and the time at the end. And so I agree with you -- that's been a lot of my method in doing what we do is to hear from our customers. So I appreciate that. I'll ask one final question on the way out, as we, as we get ready to wrap this thing up. If you were going to encourage coaches in India doing this, this is a hard business. What's a few words of encouragement that you would give to them right now, just, just as we look ahead to the future? How would you encourage them?

Sundara Nagarajan 54:46
Yeah, so as we say, coaching is a calling. Right? So anyone who wants to become a coach first should naturally have that calling. They must have the orientation to developing others and making others successful. And most of the time, the coach may not be as good as the player. Right. So that is something people have to accept. I have seen a lot of people become coaches, because they are coming out of corporate jobs, and they feel that that's a good way to spend the rest of their time. But before they jump into it, it's a good idea to check whether they are really interested and they are motivated by that. Like you were asking some time ago that question, that -- Would you do this even if you were to do this for free? That's a good check question that you would like to ask. So would you coach, even you get nothing for it? Right.

Sundara Nagarajan 55:43
So if you if you have a reasonably good commitment to that, then definitely at least I have found Gallup to be one of the best tools I could find. And it fits my temperament, it fits my way of working, it brings certain level of objectivity to what we do, use a framework to work with. So what I have found is that, in fact, I've been using Gallup now since 2015, after I got certified in a very formal way, and my interest has only increased. So I would like to work more closely with Gallup, if there are opportunities that I can learn even more from Gallup on how to use it better, you know. So, so that, that would be my advice, because they should essentially get trained on some methodology first. And if people do only common-sense-based coaching, it is, it's quite possible that they may be successful in some areas, but they can also get into some troubles.

Sundara Nagarajan 56:36
For example, I had a very interesting client. This, this client particularly had a problem of not sticking to any job, not able to take or keep commitments, all kinds of issues. And, and he kept changing lines and all kinds of practical problems that he was going through. And what I found was, in his Top 5, he had Deliberative and Activator together. Right. So his No. 2 was Deliberative and No. 1 was Activator. So, in fact, it was very strange to understand this, like someone who has these two together, how would that happen? So what was happening was he was being Activator in important decisions, which would hurt him. And he was being Deliberative in decisions that you should have taken quickly and moved on. OK, so you may get a situation like this. Sorry. DD, did you say something?

Sundara Nagarajan 57:40
So situations like this, unless you are genuinely interested as a coach to go and understand the depth of these kinds of talents, and what these talents are going to do for you. I don't think I could have even diagnosed this problem without the help of CSF. So if I had just had a conversation with him, and he would probably answer my questions. I have not been able to. "So why did you leave the job so quickly?" "I don't know. I didn't like it; I left it." Right. There was a fight with his boss; he left it. "But why did you not join for that course, which is very important for you?" "Yeah, I was thinking about it." So this is the kind of answers I'm likely to get. But once the talents are revealed, then it is easier for explaining to him what to regulate, what to be aware -- so that self-awareness probably helped him. So he also said that, yeah, it looks like I'm not being discreet about it. I myself should probably apply it correctly, and so on. So having a good tool with you is very, very important. So not just general coaching.

Jim Collison 58:40
So what I hear you saying is if it's, it's, it's good for the coachee, it's good for the coach, and understanding, and understanding the, the, your own strengths in that as a coach is just as important. Is that what I hear you saying?

Sundara Nagarajan 58:55
Exactly. So it is possible to go and do trainings on coaching programs where they don't particularly use any underlying tool. But it is essentially to help you how to be a coach, how to ask questions, how to, what kind of questions. And you get a set of 100 questions to ask and so on. So that may not be good enough. That's essentially what I'm saying.

Jim Collison 59:21
Right on, well, we will, we have, we have DD back. DD, welcome back.

Deepanjan Deb 59:25
Sorry, there was some technical, technical issue from my end. You know, as we just near the end of it, I would just want to say something that, you know, this has been a very different experience of speaking to someone who's, you know, used this in multiple ways, you know. So thank you, Mr. Nagarajan, at least from my end, because this gives us a lot of understanding around, you know, innovation work, how you've been working with young people in the, in the world of startups, customer experience, the importance of managers, and making this much more mature. So this has been one of the better experiences from my end, you know, having done this for a long time now. Thanks so much.

Jim Collison 1:00:04
And I'll say, Thanks for coming out and being a part of this. You, you joined us back in, you, I think you said 2017. I didn't go back and look, but you were on Called to Coach, and it feels almost like a different time. You know, just like, it's, it almost feels like it's a lifetime ago, and yet so much has changed. And so much has stayed the same with the human condition. And so thanks for all the work that you're doing. And thanks for joining us today -- this morning for you; very late for me. Thanks for coming on. I appreciate it as well. Thanks for coming out.

Sundara Nagarajan 1:00:38
Thank you very much for the opportunity. And Jim, particularly late night and struggling through this and making it happen. It shows your commitment. Thank you very much.

Jim Collison 1:00:48
You're, you're very welcome. DD, always great to see you as well. And thanks for jumping back in here, getting on your phone and making it happen. That's showing some grit and determination as well. You guys hang tight for me. A couple reminders on the way out. We want to remind everyone to take full advantage of all the resources that we talked about today. Many of them are available at For coaching, master coaching or if you want to become a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, you can contact DD; he'll help you with that. Or you can send us an email: And actually, any questions, that'll work for us. If you want to join us for the 2023 Gallup at Work Summit, we just released all that information on that. We'll have both in-person and virtual opportunities this year; this will be the first time. This, this actually is, is my dream, because we were all, we were all in person for a while. Then we were all virtual for a while. And now we're going to do both, which is pretty great. All the details -- not all of them, but many of the details are out now: You can find us on the Facebook or on our Facebook groups: And we want to thank you for joining us today, whether you joined us live -- and a few of you out there doing that -- or if you joined us through the podcast. Thanks for doing that. We appreciate you guys listening. We'll be back with more podcasts, if you're in the podcast channel. Thanks for joining us. With that we'll say, Goodbye, everybody.

Sundara Nagarajan's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Learner, Activator, Significance, Relator and Futuristic.

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