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Syed’s blog is brought to you today by the word “Perspective”.

Perspective: a way of regarding situations, facts, etc., and judging their relative importance.

Lots of times, even when we know what’s important to us, it takes something external to give us perspective. With ever-connected, always-on, increasingly busy lives, we get lost in the day-to-day and forget to give the really important things in life their due. We get so caught up in our careers, in trying to be successful, that the little things that become big things slip by without noticing.

Like your kids.

 Syed Ahmed - Father's Day 2013 - My son's perspective of me


So what triggered this post?

I’ve been away sick with a cold last week, so I left home yesterday morning knowing that there would be lots of work when I got into the office. On top of that, some unexpected issues had come up over the weekend, so those would also need to be looked at. Typical Monday morning, except on steroids.

Then, at 9:30, I got a call from my wife, saying that she had just been in a car accident. She was going out to drop my older son to pre-school, and unusually, had also decided to take the little two-year old with her. He’s also got a cold, so she thought she would take him to the doctor for a check-up after dropping the older one off.

As she pulled out of our driveway, a car came tearing down the street and smashed into her from her right, ripping the front bumper off.

Thankfully, no one was hurt.

After calming her down over the phone and dealing with the ensuing insurance process, I got her to take some photos of the damage to the car and send them to me.

It wasn’t until I saw the photos that it dawned upon me how close I had come to losing my family. If she had pulled out a second earlier, the other car would have ploughed straight into her and my two year-old at about twice the speed limit on our street.

Game over.


Nothing I can do at work, no achievement, no success, no insights, no innovation can ever compare to the most important, precious thing in my life. My family.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself (and hopefully to whoever else is reading this) that there are much more important things in life than work. When at work, be at work. Focus, be hyper-productive, kick goals, get it done. But don’t bring it home.

Keep it in perspective. Don’t let your hunger to get that big project over the line force you to sacrifice the really important little (or big) things in your life. Alternatively, if you have to deal with it at work, don’t bring any negativity back home with you and share it with your family.

I’ve been there. Done that. Put in 80 hour weeks. Worked and studied full-time simultaneously. Missed out on life. Looking back, I’m not glad that I did, but I’m trying to learn from it.

Remember what Stephen Covey said:

“Nobody on their death bed wished they’d spent more time at the office.”


Career lessons from riding motorcycles

Syed Ahmed contemplating career lessons on his Suzuki GSX-R600

After seeing how some people had learned invaluable life / business / leadership / parenthood / relationship lessons from The Godfather / Wesley Snipes / dogs / cats / horses / rocks (yes, you read that right), I thought I would write about some career lessons that I had learned from riding motorbikes.

Note: Okay, so I didn’t really learn these career lessons from riding motorbikes. I just got the idea while reading an article with some pretty generic and tenuous linkages between business leadership and domesticated animals. Having said that, I’m not contesting that the authors of those pieces didn’t learn invaluable lessons from those sources. Sometimes inspiration comes at strange times and from strange places.

In any case, I thought I would test my powers of abstraction and relate my love of motorcycle riding to a few career management lessons. Here are five, in no particular order.

And yes. That’s me on my Gixxer in the picture above. Pausing to reflect in a moment of enlightenment.

1. Ride because you enjoy it

There aren’t too many things that compare to the feeling that you get when you ride a motorbike. The rumble of the engine directly underneath you. The immediate, unadulterated feedback from the environment around you. The thrill of leaning into a curve. If you pay close attention, you’ll see most riders knowingly nod at each other as they go by on opposite sides of the road. Behind the helmets they’re smiling, because they know what fun the car drivers are missing out on.

Ride because you want to. Because its fun. Because you love it.

Career parallel

This equally applies to your career. Pick something you enjoy, that you love doing, and you’ll look forward to waking up in the morning and to the challenges that lie ahead. If you don’t, you wake up every day dreading what lies ahead.

This love also keeps you going when it gets tough. Much like riding when it’s stinking hot or pouring down, you’ll hit patches when work’s not too much fun or the pressure’s suffocating. Remember why you do what you do, and that the bad patch is only temporary. It will pass, and you’ll get to crank it on a clear strip once again.

2. Never stop learning

You never get to a point when you stop and say to yourself “I’m a perfect rider. I don’t need to learn anything else.” That’s because that can never be true. There’s always room for improvement. Good riders – especially smart, experienced ones – are always practising and looking at ways to improve their roadcraft skills.

Career parallel

Hippocrates summed it up at the beginning of the Aphorismi:

“Vita brevis, ars longa”
Life is short, and art long

It is commonly understood that Hippocrates was talking about art in terms of craft (as in craftsmanship). Constantly strive to get better. There’s always more to learn. Even when you think you’re a master.

3. Work your way up to a big bike

One of the main reasons for motorcycle accidents is people riding beyond their abilities. It takes times to learn and understand the dynamics of riding safely, and many people overestimate their skills. Figuring out and building the confidence to do things like braking hard and cornering at speed takes time, and unless you understand how to do it properly, results in accidents. Sometimes even death.

Start on a small bike that you can control, and learn your roadcraft. Then move to a bigger bike and keep learning.

Career parallel

I’ve seen lots of people in a hurry to build their careers, and they do it at a pace beyond their ability. Sure, you might be able to talk or lie your way into a role, but the crash at that speed will hurt. A lot.

Slow down. Get excellent at what you do. When you step up to the next role, it will be based on a solid platform of skills and insights.

4. Plan your route, but be ready for detours

I’ve had GPS Sat Nav in all my cars for about the last decade, so I’m used to kind of just following the instructions the nice lady with the American accent gives me. On a bike, however, it’s a completely different story. Although sat nav systems are readily available for motorbikes and of course my smartphone has the functionality, it’s not very easy to just look down at your device and poke at it with your armoured gloved finger and re-adjust. (You could, but you’ll most probably be plastered against the back of a bus shortly after.)

On a bike, you have to first figure out where you’re going, memorise the directions, and then off you go. If you get lost or encounter a detour, the best thing to do is work out the general direction you were originally heading in, and get back on track. (Ahhh … life before GPS.)

Career parallel

It’s unlikely that your career will also take a smooth, linear path. If you’re incredibly lucky, you might get an amazing mentor who might give you directions to make the right turns with enough notice. More likely, however, you’ll have to deal with lots of obstructions and hazards along the way – office politics, horrible bosses, back-stabbing co-workers, redundancies and an ever-changing world. If you’ve got a general direction in mind, though, you find it a lot easier to get back on track and keep moving towards you goals.

5. You’re responsible for your own safety

The common understanding among motorcycle riders is that you should ride like everyone is out to get you (specially taxis and courier minivans). When you first learn how to ride, they teach you about the safety bubble, how to buffer, look out for hazards and deal with various other road safety issues.

There are lots of drivers out there who are careless, negligent, impatient, psychotic, and otherwise general idiots – so much so that the term SMIDSY has now entered common parlance among riders. At the end of the day, though, how safe you are on the road is largely a function of how safely you chose to ride.

Career parallel

You’re responsible for your career. You might get lucky and work for a small founder run organisation with loving, caring people who are passionate and excellent at what they do.

If not, recognise that many people in the corporate world will choose to take advantage of you. From your colleague who manoeuvres for your next promotion off the back of your efforts to your boss who steals your ideas and steps on you for his, it’s up to you to protect yourself.

I’m not saying that everyone is like this, but the world is full of people who operate like taxi drivers – they’ll cut you off and do whatever it takes (ethical or otherwise) to get ahead of you.


As you can see, riding motorbikes can provide deep career insights as well as a fun mode of transport. What are some of the career lessons you’ve picked up from travelling on two-wheeled vehicles?

Management Tool – The Slope of Expectations


In an earlier post, I talked about using performance appraisals as a tool to have a personalised, growth-focussed conversation with people about their careers within the context of your organisation’s business operating environment.

It is important to ensure that these conversation are well grounded in the opportunities available and the established career paths you have set up for your teams.

One of the ways I have done this is by adapting the Craftsman Model for Career Management to create a tool that I call Syed’s Slope of Expectations:

Slope of Expectations

It essentially takes the stages along the craftsman journey and plots them on a linear slope, outlining the path one needs to follow to move forward in their career. Remember that this is a model, so it necessarily (over)simplifies things to allow focus on a particular area of analysis.

One of the reasons this works well is that it easy to understand. Everyone gets the metaphor, and it doesn’t require lots of planning or documentation to start using it. You can go out for a coffee and use it to have a casual chat while waiting in in queue for your slightly hot organic weak decaf skim soy caramel latte with extra froth.

How it works

Basically, it can be used to have conversations with individuals and explore one or more of the following:

  • Where on the slope they currently are.
  • Have they moved on the slope?
  • Which direction they’re moving in (or standing still).
  • Why do they feel they’re moving in that direction?
  • What needs to happen to keep moving forward (or stop sliding back)?
  • Is this still the right slope from the last time we spoke?
  • If this is the wrong slope, how do we get them to the right one?

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Use these as starting points and go from there. This is an analysis tool, so make sure you ask lots of open-ended and probing questions in a non-interrogative way.

Although it isn’t essential, it also helps to have some sort of career progression framework in place to refer to when having these conversations.

It’s all in the name

When I first called it “Syed’s Slope of Expectations”, it was deliberately meant to be a joke. Everyone chuckled when I first drew it up in a group-wide meeting and explained how it works. But the name has interesting connotations:

The expectations are mine

Potentially the more accurate name is “The Slope of Syed’s Expectations”, since I expect people to put in their best effort at work. If they don’t, then they let themselves, the rest of the team, and the organisation down, and I really want to understand why so I can help them get over it.

It’s an incline

Climbing up, by definition, is challenging. If someone isn’t being challenged, they’re not growing and getting better. Not a good thing. It’s understandable that everyone goes through periods where they just need to consolidate their skills or are going through a major life event outside work. Other than that, they really need to be ploughing ahead.

If you’re not going forward, you’re standing still or sliding down

I really like it when someone identifies themselves in this situation. It requires a keen sense of awareness and contextual understanding, and tells me that I need to invest more time to help this person out. We can explore why a person is feeling this way, whether their perception is just based on some short-term frustration or an actual issue, or how we can find ways to remove impediments from their path.

It’s really about communication

Communication is one of the foundational elements of great people management. Hopefully this tool helps improve yours as you move along your path to becoming a management and leadership master.

I’d love to hear if you use a similar concept, and what your experience with it has been.

57 days to go


There are 57 days to 2014.

That’s right. Only 57 days left till the beginning of the new year.

Ah, the new year. When we’ll start working on achieving those goals that we somehow let slip around mid-January this year. The big things we had planned to get done in 2013. All those changes we were going to make but never did.

You know what’s special about the number 57?


The reality is that it’s an arbitary number. Even the first of January is, in reality, an arbitary day. The fact of the matter is, the best time to start working on all those things is today. Just start. Today.

However, as humans we tend to like clean starts, and the beginning of a new year feels like a good point to recalibrate and start again.

So you know what’s really special about the next 57 days?

It’s enough time to reflect, assess, set goals and commit.


Stop and think about what you really want. Perhaps you might want to get all spiritual and ponder the meaning of life and your place in the universe. If you’ve already done that and it’s all clear to you, perhaps you can think about what makes you happy. Maybe its your family, your health, your work, or the windowsill herb garden you’re growing. As Stephen Covey put it, is your ladder against the right wall?


Now that you know what makes you happy, take stock of how much time and effort you currently put into it. Do you spend your days working towards it? Are your actions aligned to your values?

If the answer is yes, then that’s good. The next question then is, “are you doing enough?”

If the answer is no, then … well … perhaps you might want to think about making some changes. You might decide that the timing is wrong or you’ve got other things going on, but that just means you actually value those other things more.

Set goals

All the literature and NLP techniques talk about this being the single most important factor to achieve success, but strangely enough, lots of people don’t take the time to do it. That, or they do it rather poorly. Here are a couple of ideas that should help.


A BHAG (pronounced bee-hag) is a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal. BHAGs are most commonly associated with business visions, missions and strategies, but I’ve found them to be a great personal tool as well. Let your imagination run wild. Go large. Just make sure it’s somewhat associated with reality.


If you don’t know what a SMART goal is, then seriously, you’ve been living under a rock. Or watching too much TV. Or playing too much Angry Birds. Or potentially all three at the same time. But just in case you have, here is what it means:

Specific: Not vague. Your goal can’t be to just get better or to lose weight or be smarter.

Measurable: Quantifiable. You need to be able to put objective metrics in place to figure out whether you’ve making headway or not.

Attainable: Has to be realistic. This is the reality-check component of a goal.

Relevant: The goal has be related to your values. You can’t have a goal of eating a kilo of chocolates per week if your goal is to start a Purple Bandana business. (Okay, it may make you feel good so you can sell more Purple Banadanas. Maybe.)

Time-bound: The goal has to have a time frame to it, otherwise it just keeps going on and eventually falling by the wayside. This also helps to size goals. Big ones might take years, small ones only days.

Iterate between the two

If you think about the two goal setting tools above, they are examples of divergent and convergent thinking. The BHAG makes you think big and go wide, while the SMART goals make you focus. Iterating through them a few times will get you to a point where you have one or more BHAGs which translate into SMART goals.


It is one thing to figure out where you are and create goals, and altogether another to commit to them. Just because you have spent the time to drill down and plan out what you’ve going to do doesn’t mean that you have emotionally bought off on the idea of actioning those things. It’s a separate step, and need to be consciously implemented.

Also remember that unless you live on an island, committing to goals can (and usually does) require on-boarding other people. This could be your significant other, family, friends, and / or work colleagues who will be impacted by your actions. You will find that some of your goals may actually be unrealistic if you haven’t considered their impact on the other people in your life.

While quietly committing to your goals in your mind is great, it’s the public commitment that makes most people stick to them. I don’t necessarily mean public as in broadcasting it to the whole world – although that can also work – but rather to people other than yourself. This public commitment means you tell others that you are focussed on a goal, and you want them to hold you accountable for it.


57 days to go.

Plenty of time to do this.

Reflect. Assess. Set goals. Commit.

Get ready. 2014 is coming. You have no excuses.

On 1 January, it’s Hammertime. (I know. I went there).

Management Tool – Performance Appraisals

Performance appraisals are generally uncomfortable events.

Not just when its my performance that is being reviewed, but also when I’m doing the reviewing. Having said that, I recognise it as an integral part of people management, and without such evaluations it would be impossible to help people develop and move forward in their careers.


Facilitating great business outcomes while enabling people to do interesting, meaningful and challenging work is essentially is what people management is about. If you can focus the conversation on how to progress someone’s career rather than what they’ve done well or otherwise, you actually have a shot at engaging them.

Engagement – one of the ultimate management goals – leads to discretionary effort.

Discretionary effort is what people choose to put into an activity, above and beyond what they are required to.

So how does one go about making performance appraisals a more comfortable event, which can in turn bring about more engagement? Here are some ways that I find helpful.

Not an annual event.

For starters, make the frequency contingent on how much support your staff need to get where they and you want to get to. Some people need lots of discussion and help, some just need little nudges. Figure out where they’re at, agree to a cadence, and stick to it.

Even if you catch up with them once a quarter, it feels a lot less burdensome than a massive career chat once a year.

Also important to note is this is only the committed schedule. If you or they feel like they are going through a challenging situation or are undertaking a stretch assignment, make time to give them extra attention.

Remove the formality.

Make the conversation as informal as you can. A performance appraisal should be a two-way conversation – meaning both parties need to be relaxed and comfortable speaking their minds for it to be effective. Generally this can’t happen in a rigidly formal setting.

If you can do it outside your office, great! If you can do it over coffee, even better. It breaks the ice and turns it into a friendly chat rather than an assessment.

If you need to sit in your office behind your desk in an authoritative position to feel confident, then perhaps you should re-think your career in people management. 

Focus on them.

The best way to engage anyone is to answer the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) question for them. Most people I review don’t ever explicitly ask it, and its obvious some have never actually even thought about it. It is however quite helpful to frame the conversation around this so it becomes about them, their career path and their growth rather than a box-checking exercise.

Obviously, all of this has to occur within the context of your business operating environment and your team’s long and short term goals. There’s not much value dwelling on someone’s aspirations to become a world class, full time acrobat in a travelling circus if their primary role at work is project manager.

Use failures as lessons learned.

As I mentioned earlier, the best way to deal with failures and setbacks is to learn from them. A lack of failures and setbacks means someone isn’t really trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone.

Within reason and accepted thresholds, accept and appreciate risk-taking and failures, and provide a safe environment for people to do so. Really interesting and innovative ideas start to surface when people’s constraints are removed and they feel that their manager has their back.

Use weaknesses as opportunities.

Pointing out someone’s weaknesses – even if they are aware of and acknowledge them – isn’t very motivating. Instead, use the issue to have a conversation about the importance of addressing the weaknesses, what potential obstacles may be causing or exacerbating them, and what the path to improvement could be.

Framing the issue this way enables you to change the conversation from one where someone has to defend themselves to one where they are interested in exploring how to get better.

Be honest and transparent.

This goes without saying, but as the old proverb goes, “honesty is the best policy”. If you use lies and deception to extract performance out of people, you will eventually get found out, and the resulting disengagement and resentment will come back to bite you.

If career progression opportunities exist, are real, and are achievable, then that’s great. If they don’t, then do the right thing and let people know. 

There are, of course, sensitive matters that you may not be able to fully disclose. Barring those, the more information you can provide to people, the better decisions they (and you) can make. Sometimes those decisions will result in them leaving, but that’s usually a good outcome for everyone involved.

Ask for feedback.

There’s not much point trying to get better at something without getting feedback about it. Apply the same principle to yourself, and get feedback about how the appraisal process feels and works (or doesn’t) for everyone else.

If you’ve made the effort to genuinely help others, given them time and attention, and acted honestly and transparently, most people will trust you and reciprocate with real feedback to improve the process – and your skill at implementing it.


So there it is. Certainly not a comprehensive list, but some of the ways I’ve found to make the conversation more meaningful and effective. Done the right way, performance appraisals can actually be something you and your staff can look forward to.

What are your strategies to making the performance appraisal process better?