Is your Age just a number?

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A fifty year old salesman is looking for a change from his current job. He is a graduate and has been selling electrical appliances all his life. He understands the consumer preferences well; knows about the products thoroughly. He is skilled well to make a sale happen and has been meeting his targets. It should be easy for him to get a new job based on his proven track record, knowledge and expertise. Will the Top retailers hire him? Will the consumer durable industry welcome him with open arms to retail their products?

Age plays an important factor in recruiting decisions

Recruiters and employers alike, are prejudiced towards hiring a certain kind of people. They subconsciously choose people who match a set of criteria. Age is one such unspoken criterion that interviewers and assessors apply while deciding.

Two-thirds of our population are below the age of 35. Hence, a lot of managers in the mid to senior levels are in their youth. Given the social norms that we grow up with, most Indians are not comfortable to supervise someone who is senior to them by age. So, subconsciously they look for younger people to work in their teams. Age plays an important role in getting chosen for a job, not the skills alone.

And it is often believed that the younger people are energetic, dynamic, ambitious, quick-learners, tech-savvy and willing to adapt. Many people think that the older people are rigid, inflexible, slow, impatient and among the spent-force. Naturally, there is just a handful of jobs such as a trainer, a teacher, a singer, a chef where grey hair is valued.

No Law that prevents discrimination based on age

In the US, it is unlawful to enquire about the age of the applicant in an interview. In India, our constitution prevents discrimination based on caste, creed and religion. Age is not one of these. Hence, an employer can decide to use age as a criterion for their decisions of recruiting and retirement. Legally speaking, there is nothing wrong in using age as a filter. Organizations do look at the age of the applicants to judge their suitability with what the role demands. They tend to figure if the applicant will be able to cope with the stress, work schedule, challenges and demands of the role. This kind of judgement is not among the best HR practices. However, interviewers and assessors follow such methods most often than not.

Make way for the young

Many organizations in India are on a growth path. So, it is easy to promote someone into a bigger role, offer greater responsibilities at a higher salary. Hence, the ageing manager does not obstruct the individual growth of his or her direct reports, rather the experience and maturity of the senior are leveraged often in the organization. This sounds like a fairy tale. Does this happen routinely?

Certainly not! Workmen do not follow this kind of a growth path. Secondly, most organizations do not get on this dream run. Since our economy sees inflation, costs keep increasing each year. As someone ages in the same role, the cost goes up without a comparable increase in the impact. The only way an organization can deal with this situation is to rediscover new ways, transform itself and optimize its cost structure. So, the old guard has to make way for the young in order to optimize the costs and inject new thinking.

Age is not just a number. As long as it correlates with the impact delivered, it is hale and hearty.

 

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Can we create a gender neutral environment at workplaces In India?

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There have been debates around glass ceiling for women, inadequate participation of women in the Board rooms, inequality in pay, discrimination against women while recruiting and inadequate social infrastructure to support women at workplaces. These debates have been taking place across the world over the last few decades.

The debate continues…

We can already experience a huge change in India when we compare a workplace in the early 90’s and now. Number of women employees at work vis-a-vis men has risen rapidly; number of women students in the higher education courses such as Engineering and Management has increased manifold; many Boardrooms have women. Some of these changes have happened due to changes in legal provisions and some due to the peer pressure in the society. These days, firms provide paid maternity leaves for six months; some offer sabbaticals and friendly policies around pregnancy and early stages of motherhood. Governments make special arrangements to ease the woes of women in commuting to work, attending to strenuous tasks, working at odd hours and so on. There are additional safeguards such as Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act to dispel fears of women to come to work. All these are aimed at increasing participation of women in the economy and its GDP. In spite of so many changes in our society, the debate hasn’t been put to rest.

Let us not be fanatic about gender equality!

 

We have seen families in their overzealous drive to scale greater peaks of achievement in the realms of financial and professional status, compromise on building social capital for their future. The next generation that gets ready to join the workforce bears a set of values which are very different from their parents. Social scientists are studying this phenomenon. The jury is still out on that. However, one thing is for sure : fanatic rush to achieve a set of goals is not the same as focus and determination to achieve them.

We have seen senior executives of large multinationals chasing gender diversity targets and going on a recruiting spree to achieve that score. Does this overdrive get the organization the desired assets and human capital? Not always! The cost of such overdrive outweighs the results that we land up with.

Should each workplace reflect the gender ratio of the society?

As per 2011 Census we are 940 females per 1000 males. In 2001, it was 933 per 1000. This is nearly 49-51; should all organizations ideally have their workforce in the same ratio? If we are fanatic about gender equality, we will force every organization to reflect this.

Are we ready for this? While this could be a highly desirable situation and a socio-political masterstroke to pursue, it is not feasible at this point of time. We do not have so many women available for work. Reasons behind poor supply of women talent for work are plenty. Right from social dogma, economic need, availability of social infrastructure to opportunities, there are many factors.

Moreover, nature has created the bodies of men and women differently; it has created unique capabilities for each of them. We must not ignore them. We should leverage on this diversity rather than trying to fix everything with the same brush.

And at the same time, we must not typecast some roles with a certain gender as was the practice decades ago. Women need not be compulsorily raising children, growing families and providing care to the others. The point here is to argue against the mindless drive to achieve equal participation of men and women in each and every walk of life.

How can organizations deal with this?

We have many challenges at hand; we have to evolve pragmatic solutions.

When we see the rural vs urban India, we find more women in rural India participating in the labour force (27%) than in urban areas (16%). This could be due to the limitations in our social systems and economic realities. Women in the urban India are educated and capable as much as their men counterparts. Factors such as lack of support systems to take care of the young and the old in their families are a big obstacle. Organizations can leverage on this unemployed and under-employed diaspora by redesigning their work. Some parts of work can be done with no supervision, at hours the employee finds convenient; the organization has to build systems in such a way that one can find solutions when he or she faces a challenge. Needless to say that IT and the intent of the leadership are big enablers here.

We have seen several small organizations fearing the prospect of maternity leaves and the costs. While the intentions are noble and genuine, many of them find it too much of a disruption and too expensive. Secondly, we know how young mothers struggle to balance the demands at work with those at home. This is one of the big reasons why so many women drop out of the active workforce for many years in their prime and more often than not, find it difficult to return to the productive work life. Organizations have to influence the Government of the day to improve the social security measures, bear the costs and provide utilities such as creche, play schools and so on which people at large can avail. Currently, they are too few and far between.

In summary, we see this as a journey that has to be undertaken by the government, the society and the organizations at the same time towards leveraging the talent and capabilities that men and women possess. Social systems have to keep evolving so that the girls in the families do not fall behind when their parents prioritize the possibilities. The drive towards having equal participation across genders is mindless. Let this be based on the talent and capabilities only. If that makes 80 women and 20 men, so be it!

 

Speak your mind

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We respect people who speak their mind, especially when they do this tactfully. One is able to influence others when one’s ideas are understood and received well. Great leaders are crafty communicators. They do not hesitate to assert their views even if some of these are not the popular choice. How do they do this? They learn assertiveness and practise the skill over a long period of time.

Why don’t we?

Given the personality traits that we inherently possess, the values and beliefs with which we grow up and the environment around us, we develop our habits. On one hand, some of us want to stay away from confrontation, argument and debate; conform to majority views; keep others happy; have a strong desire to agree with the others; bend over backwards to be amenable. On the other hand, there are some of us who are aggressive, want their own ways to be followed, throw tantrums if someone doesn’t follow it, do not hesitate to make personal comments on others. This is a wide range between meekness and passivity to aggressiveness and authoritarianism. Neither end of the spectrum is desirable.

We have also seen that the same person behaves passively in some situations while being aggressive in another set of situations. So, speaking one’s mind and being assertive cannot be generalized as low self-esteem. One’s tendency to speak up is dependent upon the context.

 What is it?

Assertiveness is a situation where one is able to fearlessly express one’s ideas in a manner that the listeners receive them actively. There are situations when one is asked to take on a lot more responsibility than what is fair, one is not awarded a promotion that one considers well-deserved, asked to do something that doesn’t seem right and so on. A passive soul carries it out, broods over it, whines about it to others. An aggressive mind protests, walks off, argues, resents and throws tantrums. What does an assertive mind do? It expresses the feelings, states facts, sets expectations, leverages emotions in the communication and builds a vision for the future.

Know who I am!

It is important that I have to be self-aware of what I believe in and why I behave the way I do. This is the first step on my journey towards emerging as an assertive person. If I nurse the ambition to be a great leader, there is no alternative to communicate assertively. I have to learn and master the skill.

One has to discover the obstacles on the way and work towards overcoming them. The obstacles could be the fear of losing affiliations and good will, the habit of tearing someone down, low self-confidence due to lack of knowledge in a subject or social skills, fear of being judged incapable, the habit of being pushy, lack of empathy, wrong conception that disagreeing with someone is tantamount to disrespect and so on.

Develop new habits

Most often our audience behaves rationally. They care for me. If I want a change in the external world that cares for me, I must convey how I feel about their behaviours towards me. When they know how I feel, they make adjustments in their approach. Secondly, I must be able to explain how the changes are going to help them and me. In the process, I win and they win.

When I want a new program to be implemented, I drive the program by explaining what changes are desired in the behaviours and how these are going to benefit all of us. If I boss over my team, resistance kicks in. If I fear rocking the boat in spite of knowing that a change is desired, I fail being a leader.

Along the way of implementing the program, I come across challenges. As the leader navigates through the challenges, one’s assertiveness comes to test again. Does the leader slip back into the old habits of being passive or aggressive? Does he or she ignore the lack of involvement of the team, let the plan drift and take the path of least resistance? Some leaders act crazy, publicly admonish the folks not pulling their weight and sermonize them. Neither of the two styles help one emerge as a great leader. One has to learn the right habits and practise them again and again.

Along the way of developing a new behaviour, it is helpful to have an ecosystem around the person supporting his or her growth and development. All human beings need a feedback on how they are doing, especially when they are on a new course. Peers, subordinates, managers, partners, people in the family are in an advantageous position to provide this valuable feedback.

The Guru arrives when the disciple is ready. Is the disciple in you ready?

 

Stay away from an over-zealous drive of Gender Diversity

 

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Earlier this month, James Damore, a Software Engineer in Google’s Mountain View Headquarters wrote a soul-stirring piece on the topic and was fired soon for having crossed the line on stereotyping genders. I believe, Google mishandled the issue badly. But, that’s not the point. The question it raises, “Is gender diversity significant in an enterprise? Is it being practised well in India?”

Obsessed about Diversity Quotient:

One thing is for sure : honest discussions on this topic have not taken place in India yet. Everyone would like to side the story that sounds good on a global stage. Many enterprises including our own proudly value diversity. The dimension of diversity that everyone refers to is gender diversity. Some Leaders flaunt Diversity quotient of their organization. They reward Talent Acquisition teams if they are able to on-board and retain female candidates. There are Diversity programs which play out akin to reservation policies practised in some economies in the world. These programs aim at promoting the women to leadership roles and functions which historically have a low representation of womenfolk. Often there are deadlines to achieve a certain score on the diversity quotient and it is a KPI for hiring managers. One wonders if such a frenzied approach augurs well for the organization’s success and sustainability. Is this really an issue of such a strategic importance? May be, it alienates and discriminates the men folk?

More often than not, this frenzy dilutes the standards one adopts in selection of employees and promotion to roles of greater responsibility. This is not worth a risk.

Let’s challenge our biases.

Many believe that the women are deprived and given less opportunities in societies; hence, they need to be compassioned. Culturally and societally, they are prevented to unleash their potential; boys are prioritised over girls in families; women are victimised in various situations; hence, we must create opportunities for women. These beliefs hold ground for certain parts of the society, but in the context of Leadership roles, Engineering, Technology, Finance, Legal, HR and other such white collar jobs, these beliefs about deprivation are simply baseless. This is not a real issue. We are barking up the wrong tree.

Men and women are biologically different. They inherit a set of diverse traits (they also inherit a set of similar traits). And at the same time, the traits of men are diverse too! Why should we worry so much about gender then? Let’s just create opportunities which are equal for men and women, allow a person to be oneself and leave one to pursue the dream that appeals the most to the person. All you know, women might not want to dream roles in technology, politics and engineering; they might want roles in designing bikes, driving cars, sports, pharmaceuticals and wealth management. Men might be interested in teaching, accounting, treating the sick, government programs, customer service and banking.

No stereotyping please!

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Researches have established that there are activities which are done better by men and some others by women. (also, there are many activities which are done equally well by either). This is the science or the pattern in the creation of our universe. For example, research has shown that women are typically more open towards feelings, emotions and aesthetics than the men. Hence, activities which leverage one’s sense of emotions and aesthetics are likely to be aspired more by women. This is not to say that all men are bad on this aspect and no man will aspire to be a chef, a singer, a writer, a designer. All great designers, film producers, singers, dancers, artists are men as well as women. The professions of engineers, architects, doctors and lawyers have seen men and women in equal numbers excelling in them. The traditional beliefs such as household work is done better by women have been busted long ago. It may just happen that the number of men attracted to a certain kind of activities could be more than the number of women for it and vice versa. We must not stereotype an activity, function or a role with a particular gender.

For a society and hence, an enterprise to work well, we have to make it holistic and inclusive. We must create opportunities for our folks (men and women alike) to explore what appeals to them and help them pursue it. Aggressive attempts to bring in participation of various sections of population to an enterprise risk the integrity of the selection process and on-boarding people who might just fall prey to the attractive packaging than to commit to it with their hearts. We must stay away from the overzealous drive of diversity!

4% owner can stir it up hard!

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Last week was momentous for many, particularly for professional CEOs and their Boards. Infosys, the iconic IT services company of India was in the news. The differences of opinion between the Board and its charismatic founder were out in the public. The shareholders as a whole became poorer by nearly 3 Billion USD on one day of trading. The company had to announce a buy-back of shares worth 2 Billion USD. One wonders if this whole episode was so unavoidable. Could the CEO have managed the stakeholders better? Could the Board have done better in their public relations as well as following the governance norms? All these questions become interesting especially when the complainant is a mere 4% owner in the company.

It takes two to tango:

A large part of the media and the Board have showed the founder in poor light and objected to his expressing the criticisms publicly. They felt, the founder having retired from the company has to let go and cede control to the successor so that the new leaders can run the company the way they deem fit. Some of them also felt that the actions taken and norms followed in the yesteryear by the Founder are not valid in the current times. The benchmarks of governance have moved and hence, applying the old methods and norms are nothing but nostalgia. Moreover, the founder being an iconic figure himself when is found criticizing the new team publicly, it hampers the abilities of the new team to perform.

And at the same time, the new team has taken several radical steps which do not seem to make sense to a typical observer and moreover, haven’t shown appreciable results in the near term. Future plans seem to be a distant dream to many. Values of the organization such as sincerity and ethical standards seem to be getting compromised of late. While there is a buzz of new things, they seem to appear hollow to many. However, the CEO and the Board remain deeply convinced of their strategies. These are situations where the team has to be working overtime to instill confidence in the stakeholders and calm their nerves rather than operate from the high altar.

The criticisms abound on both sides : the founder overstepping his remit and the CEO ignoring the basics of stakeholder management. It takes two to tango!

Touchy about criticism?

When you are the poster boy, many people look at you, talk about you and follow you. There is bound to be a lot of love and the same amount of hate too!

When the CEO and the Board meet, they must have reviewed the sentiments and opinions expressed in the marketplace towards the company. They know, this messaging would influence functioning of the company. They also know, the criticisms of the founder would be heard in the market and would impact the company even if the founder owned a mere 4% in the company. So, one wonders why the CEO got into an outburst on one fine day eroding a significant part of shareholder wealth and creating a sense of panic not only within the company but also in the industry. One doesn’t expect the boss of a 10 B USD company to react hurriedly to a spate of scathing attacks, especially when he believed them to be untrue and baseless.

Did the task ahead look too daunting and hence, the criticisms were too much of a bother? The lesson for me here is to keep the ears close to the ground and act early to influence opinions.

Take the most along:

One of the most important facets of leadership is to champion the change program and lead it from the front. Along the journey, the leader has to build a momentum and ensure that most people are on board. If he signals too soon for the bogie to move on, most of his co-travellers will be left behind. The bogie will move on and catch great speed, but it would have very few on board. The journey then becomes dull and meaningless. The desired impact of the journey is not achieved.

Organizations in their quest to transform themselves get someone with new perspectives as their leader, however the leader needs to understand the culture, the values and beliefs which define the organization. Keeping in mind the future goals, the pace and style of the transformation program has to be designed.

Like one must train well before one runs the first marathon, the leader needs to join the mainstream before he changes the course. Else, the stream keeps flowing its course and at best, the leader is able to create a couple of small distributaries  from the stream. Possibly, for Infosys, a large part was not aligned fully and the new leaders were not able to take the most along with them! Hence, the lesson for me is to take everyone along!

Reverse Mentoring is hyped

Our world has seen vigorous development in technology in the last couple of decades. New methods of doing work have evolved; Gen Y and Z have been ahead of the senior managers in any organisation in terms of their understanding and application of these new practices. At home, the youth have taken charge of putting in place new devices and on-boarding the seniors onto the new devices such as computers, laptops, Smart TV, emails, facebook, whatsapp, video files, snapchat, instagram, alarms, camera, smart phones, gaming, reminders, calendars, and so on. Families have started e-shopping, booking hotels, taxis and tickets, paying bills online, e-gaming, sharing updates via the phone and so on. Why do organizations face challenges in getting the youth to similar things there? Why don't senior folks learn from the freshers or the younger colleagues?

Progressive organisations came up with an idea called Reverse Mentoring to promote learning among seniors from the junior colleagues. One wonders why the organisation has to create a specific program to make this happen when it's commonplace at home.

Build the right environment

People enter the workplace each day with a mindset very different from what they normally wear at home. If at all the top leaders can build a home-like environment at work, ego of seniors won't come on the way of seeking knowledge, inputs, guidance and help from the juniors; and similarly, ego of the junior folks won't spring up on the way of staying humble and grounded while coaching and helping the seniors. The first key to success of such program is to build the right environment within an organisation.

Organisations at times struggle to make this work because the seniors do not see the reason of learning from the juniors. They fear, their authority will be compromised and their directions on issues of organisation effectiveness will be treated casually by their direct reports. Similarly the juniors might suddenly start misinterpreting the situation of coaching seniors to be that of incapable managers. Such misgivings can be eliminated only when the basic premises of learning are clear in the organisation.

It's not a one-way street

Reverse Mentoring is a two-way process. The coach and the coachee both have to learn in this unique process. The juniors coaching the seniors need to learn about the business, the external environment, perspectives about the business, best practices and historical events. They could rethink about these to imagine possible alternatives of dealing with the challenges and opportunities if they were to reappear.

And similarly the seniors need to not only learn new technologies but also imagine how these learnings can be applied to solve business challenges. They could join hands with these young turks to run special projects to innovate new solutions or products.

This two-way street needs to be built and again it's a cultural element to be built by the Top Leadership.

Choose the right combination

Choosing the right pair or triad is critical keeping in mind the objective of the program, learning opportunities that can be created by forming the combination and compatibility of the personalities. Since adult Learning is a matter of individual's interest and commitment, it can't be effective by forcing the individuals to a Mentoring program. Hence it's important that the participants make their own decisions while theHR department could restrict its role to that of a facilitator and an observer.

Periodic reports from the HR team could help the managers track how well the program is getting executed. As a program gets executed, there are needs of course-corrections such as rebranding, communication, choice of the partners in the coaching process, redefining the objectives, clarifying the expectations of the participants and recognition of the efforts by the participants.

Reverse Mentoring is hyped. This is like any other learning process which calls for setting the right environment, setting the right expectations and forming the right teams.

Do you build consensus?

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Democracy is the largest form of governance in the world now… close to 60% of the world’s population live in democratic nations. Our societies value freedom of speech, majority view and the power of making choices. Organizations are microcosms of our societies and hence, we behave the same way at work. We expect our leader to be consulting us, acting upon our views, figuring out the majority view and updating us about the state of affairs from time to time.

Long and Arduous

Leaders often are worried about the time it takes to arrive at a decision if they open out the process to their team. Given the diaspora of our society, it is natural that the manager gets wide-ranging opinions and perspectives. Firstly, it takes time and effort to explain the issue to the team; secondly, it takes time to listen to the opinions of people. And most importantly, given the diverse suggestions one receives, it is not easy to decide. In the leader’s mind, there might be something very compelling but the team might not be seeing it with equal fervour. So, the leader takes time to re-position the issue and repeat the process. This is undoubtedly a long and arduous process.

Apply it in the right context

It is not possible that a manager builds consensus for each and every decision. As long as the guiding principles and values are clear, governance becomes easy and non-controversial. So, first of all, organizations need to create appropriate methods and platforms to co-create the guiding principles which determine the way of life. Secondly, a manager must recognize when the issue is complex either because of the inter-dependencies or it has a conflict with one or more principles. Those are the situations which need a larger involvement of people at different levels of the organization.

This is easier said than done. When one opens up the issue to the larger audience, various possibilities come at play. Some people see various lacunae in the capability of the boss; some people come up with utopian ideas due to their lack of knowledge or experience; some people in their quest of coming under the spotlight raise various issues. So, a manager ends up spending a lot of energy in cancelling the noise.

One needs to know which level of the organization needs to be involved and to what extent in the process. At times, discussions with colleagues help simplifying the issue and evolving new possibilities. Hence, participative style of leadership has to be applied in the right context!

Sustainable method

It is unlikely that the manager or the leader knows all. And at the same time, one must have the humility to learn new perspectives and develop solutions in collaboration with others. While making a decision, one has to be clear if the decision has a long term impact on the organization. For example, evolving the 3-year strategy, introducing a new product, launching a new advertisement, entering into a new wage agreement with the union, modifying the rewards scheme and so on have far-reaching consequences on the organization.

An organization can ill-afford to let all such decisions rest squarely on the shoulders of one person or a handful. While building a consensus takes time and calls for efforts to dialogue, it is critical to invest these efforts for the long term health of the organization. Participative style on all strategic issues for the organization assures sustainability.

The leader has to know when to apply democratic style and involve whom in the process.