The #1 Secret to moving past midlife roadblock – Taking a Step Back!


Victor Hugo once said, “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.” If there is one thing Gen X is battling with today, it is midlife crisis. There are many real-life stories, tips, and blogs out there on dealing with midlife crisis or stagnation in life.

The Speed Breaker

As I see my daughter stepping into her career, I remember how heady and excited I was about getting started my career during my twenties.  Our life in the twenties is all about rushing headlong into our careers. Little do we worry about stuff like power struggles, office politics, or abysmally low salaries! Our ignorance gives us that confidence to tread into unknown waters and we go along with the flow. Thereafter, we step into our thirties, by the time which most of us get married, have kids, and focus on what we really want in our careers. Income, position, role, status, and promotions keep us busy and our priorities are clear where salary and growth is concerned. As we are busy careening into our careers, there’s suddenly a rude BUMP! We realize we’ve hit a speed breaker, which is usually by the time we touch our forties.

Truly the “Mid” Life

Besides our metabolism that slows down (and fat that settles comfortably around the middle), our career progression slows down considerably. Although we are aware that an organizational structure is a pyramid, little do we realize that the number of positions too taper out. Worse, we are caught in the dreaded M word – Monotony! Your title changes from Manager to Senior Manager to Director to VP, but your job more or less remains the same. All that you do is manage 2000 people instead of 20! To top that, if you are part of a humungous organization, you realize you are that insignificant bit that can easily get cut out one fine day. Some resort to politics or cliques to hang on to their jobs while others sink into despair. Ironically, forties are also a time when our kids become teenagers, and our parents, septuagenarians. Caught in the middle, did you say?! Expenses too mount to an alarming degree. College fees, medical bills, taxes and everything that seems to need maintenance. Forties is also when we get prone to malaise like hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety and heart problems. You have that sinking feeling in your gut that has suddenly become sensitive to what you eat.

Caught in the Middle

One overpowering feeling that I felt a few years ago was the claustrophobic feeling of “stuckness”. The endless possibilities of my twenties and thirties morphed into stumbling blocks where I realized it was too late to switch careers, especially once I began to find my career stagnating. I have had to take a 3 year career break in my thirties to take care of my kids in the past, which already set back my career behind by a decade. So by the time I was well into my forties, I was looking forward to catching up on that gap by putting my entire focus on my career. I realized how naïve I was when I hit my midlife speed bump all too soon, barely 6 years after I resumed work. Besides being passed over for someone younger, more qualified and not necessarily experienced, the other painful pill to swallow is to report to someone not competent enough. As though the generation gap at home wasn’t enough, there was the gap at work too. So there I was in my mid-forties caught between angst-y teenagers and ailing elderly, and a flatlining career. The cruel mirror started showing the signs of aging on my face, right from crow’s feet, under-eye bags, graying and thinning hair, droopy stress lines around the mouth, and the dreaded middle-age glasses! No matter what I did, I was looking old all of a sudden. Not a very happy feeling for sure.

Getting Unstuck

Midlife has also been a period of other losses – of those good old days, of people from your parents’ generation, and loss of certain beliefs in which I had lived my life till then. Everything reached a head when I lost my elderly parents-in-law to sickness within months of each other. Between the frequent trips to the hospital to the crematory to bickering teenagers and hormonal overdrives, this questioned suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “What is the purpose of my existence? Where am I going to go from here?”

I decided to take a couple of certification courses to further my career. On an impulse, I Googled the word, “coaching”. Believe it or not, an email found its way to my mailbox promoting a coaching certification program. I decided to take that up and explore where it took me.

Coaching has been a fantastic experience for me. I found the inward journey into the recesses of my thoughts and feelings very insightful, painful, yet liberating. I was able to acknowledge what was holding me back from moving forward.  It was a journey towards the unknown, for I uncovered negative behaviors inside me that were the true roadblocks.

Separating Behavior from Judgment

“Middle age is when your broad mind and narrow waist begin to change places”, said E Joseph Cossmann. Nothing could be truer, at least in my case! I had very definite ideas about people that affected my behavior towards them. As I consciously began to separate the behavior from the person, I was able to empathize with people from different generations, ethnicities, personalities and preferences and at least begin to understand there could be a point of view other than mine.

Becoming more self-aware

Overthinking and speaking without thinking – I was known for both these contradictory qualities! One of the tools I learnt during coaching is meditation. As I learnt how to focus only on my breathing, my tangle of thoughts loosened over a period of time. This incredible mindfulness exercise helped me become more aware of my health, my chaotic thoughts and my speech. Rather than the immediate need to react, I became cognizant of the need to pause, reflect, and respond.

Facing Fears

During my midlife challenge period, I changed from a cheerful and optimistic individual to someone with anxiety and low self-esteem issues. I began to doubt my capabilities and started to lose confidence in myself. Talking to good friends, having fun, pro bono coaching and mentoring, writing, networking – all of these helped tremendously in restoring my belief in myself.

Prioritizing on what I really want

One fine day it so happened that I had to walk out of my job. There was a growing feeling of discontent and unsettled feeling prior to that, and I had already started looking out for another job, but I had the usual wants of title, designation, salary, company, and other trappings. I had the belief that I absolutely need these to be happy in my career. In my solo year as a freelance consultant, as I reflected on this, I realized how narrowly I was viewing my future. I was so brainwashed into thinking that I needed that fancy title next to my name. One day when my teenager impulsively hugged me saying how happy she felt having me as her mother, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and inner calm.  I became conscious that I am more than my title or designation. My happiness need not be compartmentalized within just a career. It’s the fulfillment of having achieved milestones in my personal, family, health, and other aspects of my life that truly mattered. Today when I look at a job, it’s THE job content that I’m looking at. I need to know what meaning and “value” I’m going to add. The toppings or garnishes like title, designation and salary are not unimportant, but rather secondary.

Letting Go

Perhaps the most profound lesson I learnt during my introspective path was Surrender. Letting go of unconstructive and self-limiting beliefs, relinquishing the need to have control over every outcome, giving up my inner insecurities, and submitting to the future without overly worrying – these are some of the things I have been constantly trying to let go. I still struggle with anxiety and overthinking. Letting go is easier said than done, after all.

Moving Forward

As I took those steps back to pause, reflect and respond, I was finally able to reveal the roadblocks that were impeding my progress. It was a painful process as I had to battle with a lifetime of strongly held beliefs, unhealthy habits, and raw feelings. I really had to lay open my emotions and learn to accept without expectations. “Accept and Don’t Expect” became my life’s new philosophy.

Midlife is also a lot to do with change management. It is all about battling against all that is to discover what could be. The resistance is all within. And the solution also is all within.

I’m not saying that this process suddenly brought magic to my life. What is brought is a much clearer view of where I want to go and I what I want to do. Most importantly, I have realized that midlife is a beautiful stage when you can look forward to a richer life without pretenses. It’s similar to climbing a mountain. It is tiring, but offers a great view and perspective.

What has been your experience with midlife crisis? I would be happy to hear your story of how you made your midlife an enriching experience.

If you liked my article, please feel free to share it in your network. I look forward to your comments and feedback too! You could also follow my blog and tweets.

Here are some of my other related posts on LinkedIn that you might like to read:

Overcoming Workplace Stress

Who Are You Without Your Job Title/Designation?

Are You Being Judged?

Job Satisfaction – Is it Possible?


What Nobody Told You About Becoming a Manager/Leader

Of the many millennial clients I coach, at least 80% of them aspire for managerial positions after completing 6 to 7 years of work experience. While it is definitely an exciting and exhilarating experience with opportunities to grow and learn, it is not without its challenging and stressful moments. There would be situations that would frustrate you so much so that you miss your glorious and carefree days of being an individual contributor! Managers by their role definition, represent their team before their management and vice versa. Being the mediator is never easy, and managerial positions are by far the most stressful roles one can take on in a corporate setup.

As a first-time manager, I was aware of what I assumed were my expected roles and responsibilities. The first three years were a revelation. There were so many aspects and challenges that nobody told me about. There were days I used to dread Mondays and then there were days I felt like going back to an individual contributor role!

Here are some truths I have attempted to list down, with a few tips on how to deal with these challenges. Some are based on personal experience while others are based on experiences shared by other managers/leaders during our coaching and other discussions.

Fact #1: You are constantly being judged

Like a laboratory specimen, you are constantly under scrutiny. While there are a few who would encourage you, the sad reality is there are many who would love to see you fail. Being a first-time manager, you are likely to make mistakes. These mistakes would be blown out of proportion or used against you.

The one way you could ensure you have more support from your team and your supervisor is to constantly communicate and share your decisions. Admit your mistakes, however do not feel shy about expressing your accomplishments no matter how small they may appear to you. Provide regular updates and most of all – make sure you are highly visible and build a strong rapport with your team, your peers, and your supervisor.

Fact #2: You cannot take people at face value

Our corporate system still follows the age-old hierarchical process where the manager’s verdict holds more than 70% weightage in the employee’s performance rating. Naturally you will fall prey to office politics. The introverts and the shy ones might fall behind while the louder ones will be more successful in attempting to influence you. Some would flatter you while others would pretend to be on their best behaviour when you are around. Being new, you might want to implement new ideas. You may find many Yes-men (or women) agreeing with you. The flipside is, the others who see you succumb to the manipulation would feel disillusioned and become easily influenced by your detractors.

You will have to find a way to have objective yet personalized one-to-one interactions with everyone reporting to you. You will eventually be able to see an emerging political pattern. While it would be tempting to rely on those who seem to be your ardent supporters, it is important that you also focus on those who appear withdrawn during meetings and discussions. If it isn’t already implemented in your organization, you might want to consult your HR department on whether you could conduct an anonymous feedback survey within your team to help them voice their concerns or observations about you. It is never easy hearing negative things about oneself, but you have to bite the bullet if you want your team fully supporting you.

Fact #3: You have to put up with whiners and naysayers

This is perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of being a leader, at least for me. Most of us, (including myself), personally enjoy having team members who bring up counter-arguments to ideas on the table. Healthy opposition and debates, besides building trust within the team, also help in implementing a plan that has everyone’s consensus. It is the whiners and constant complainers who weigh you down with their negativity. A whiner is someone who always has someone to blame for his or her own mistake. Then there are those who resent a new boss and resist any changes proposed. They may not complain, but behave in a passive-aggressive manner that clearly shows their obvious disapproval. Perhaps what is frustrating about them is not the fact that they object to your ideas or suggestions, but that they seem to take everything personally.

You might want to get to know such people and show your willingness to listen to their ideas. Lending an empathetic ear helps – especially for those who might be affected by the changes you implement. However if you find this person constantly against you at every turn, it might help having a heart-to-heart talk with the individual letting him or her know how you need his or her support. You might want to let the person vent their views and listen with an open mind. At the best you might be able to turn around the situation. At the worst, you may have to assertively let them know you are the boss and that much as you appreciate their skills and contribution, you will not put up with negativity. In any case, it is important to keep track of any insubordination and make sure you communicate any warnings to this employee in writing.

Fact #4: You are the bearer of all bad news

Once a manager, you represent the executive leadership and the organization in every way. Be it a performance appraisal review feedback, the sunset of an old technology, organizational changes, or impending layoffs or salary-cuts, you have to be the one communicating unpalatable news in a diplomatic manner. Of course the most difficult job of all is letting people go if the business situation so demands. It would take immense amount of patience, tact, sensitivity, and most of all, compassion in communicating to the people affected by the decision.

Under no circumstances should you ever communicate bad news via email. Always get everyone together and maintain eye contact when you communicate bad news. After the group meeting, set up individual face-to-face meetings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Your team will never forget the way you handled crisis situations, and you will win their support based on how well you faced the crisis and stood up to your people.

As for performance appraisals, I personally believe in monthly reviews. This ensures that your team is provided goals and a performance update on a regular basis. Also, you get to know how your team responds to your leadership.

Fact #5: You are lonely

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Lonely is the employee who wears the leadership mantle. Wearing a mask of control and poise at all times can be quite burdensome. You can never get too pally with a team member. Even a harmless lunch with your supervisor or team member could be perceived as political by others. It is even tougher when you get promoted to a managerial position from within the same team. At least in India, it is difficult for people to separate the role from the individual. You can never be too close to people who report into you. You have to maintain a professional balance in your relationship.

It helps tremendously having a leadership mentor or coach on board, who acts as a sounding board for leaders and enables them to confidently deal with challenging situations and behaviours by coaching them on a regular basis. As a manager, you could also form a forum with other similar first-time managers where you could meet together on a monthly basis to discuss and share common areas of concern.

The Importance of Having a Coach on Board

I can never stress enough on the importance of having a mentor or coach who can be the “go to” person for all managers. Having a robust leadership development vision is not enough. It is absolutely critical for growing organizations today to implement a leadership development framework that not only develops and nurtures budding leaders, but also provides them with need-based and timely support to help them learn from the challenges that arise. Today’s leaders also need to be change agents who influence and facilitate major transitions and transformations within the organization by effectively dealing with day-to-day tactical challenges, similar to those listed above. This can be a very tough role to play. Having an experienced leadership mentor and coach on board is no longer a desirable option. It is a vital requirement for today’s organizations if they want to sustain and grow their high potential leadership talent.

Why We Need Moms to Build Our Leadership Pipeline

In my article The Road not Taken: Becoming a Full-time Mum Made Me a Better Leader, I shared my challenges as a working mother with young children. While in one article, I talked about how women can empower themselves to be considered on equal terms with men, in another I discussed the ways in which we could make our workplace more women-friendly.

In this article I would like to address a significant chunk of leadership talent that remains sadly neglected, untapped, and worse, gets rejected for corporate roles. I am talking about stay-at-home mothers who seek a corporate career during the prime of their lives.

No Takers for Moms

In several parts of the world, especially India, the responsibility of managing a home and taking care of children, falls primarily on the woman’s shoulders. Much as she would love to take up a job, she is constrained for various reasons ranging from taking care of growing children, providing care to the elderly, or relocating and adapting to newer environments. The latter is true for women whose spouses are free to seek opportunities in other cities. By the time the children are old enough, these women are in their late thirties or early forties. Age discrimination being a huge factor, at least in India, these women get criminally side-lined.

One of my friends was unfortunately widowed after 15 years of marriage. She was a fulltime home-maker and mother, and had no option but to seek a fulltime job to secure the future of her two children. She has been unsuccessful in getting permanent employment in the company where she works as a contract staff, despite being far more productive and grossly underpaid than her permanently employed peers. Her stint as a home-maker and mother has been completely disregarded, and she is being paid lower than a fresher. Moreover, she is unsure of who to approach within the organization for long-term opportunities. My friend is just one example. There are millions of women in India who are educated, enterprising, and smart, but motherhood seems to be a huge setback for them.

Mothers are Leaders

Be it the Big 5 or Strengths Finder or DISC, organizations already have an arsenal of leadership behavioural assessment tools at their disposal. Whichever way we look at it, women who have managed homes and families successfully, can easily score well on certain basic leadership competencies, which we struggle so hard to find these days.

Moms Understand the Big Picture

It is mistakenly assumed that mothers deal with routine stuff. On the contrary, mothers are expert strategists. They set long-term financial, well-being, and personal goals for the family. Besides, they are great at breaking down these goals into actions. Perhaps the most important thing they do is lend their unstinting support to every member of the family and help them achieve their goals. Mothers are also experts in keeping their ears to the ground. They are well informed about everything important that counts. Everyone knows that Mother Knows Best.

When I was a fulltime mother, one of my goals was to ensure my children took responsibility for their studies and future. I did not want to chase them or nag them about their homework. It was tough and took loads of patience and hours of listening, but eventually I am happy to say that my daughters not only excel in their academics, they are also well-read and tuned into larger causes that plague our world today.

Moms Always Find a Way

A child with an earache? Short strapped for funds? Car broke down on the freeway? A mother has to use her resources to find a solution. One of my friends talked about how she was leaving for the airport as she needed to attend this conference. Just as she was all dressed and about to leave, one of her kids threw up. He was sick and needed immediate attention. She couldn’t just leave him like that. She contacted her office and cancelled the flight. She then asked her associate to fill in the first two hours for her. She spent the next few minutes calming her child and tending to him. She then got her associate to connect her to the conference via Skype. She did a great pitch and they got the deal.
Mothers have to be enterprising problem-solvers, and make the most of every situation. No wonder we have so many successful women entrepreneurs.

Moms Are Emotionally Intelligent

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says: “Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence—which makes sense when one considers that the Delphic oracle gave the advice to “know thyself” thousands of years ago. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives.”

A typical mother’s day is fraught with unexpected situations and crises. A child hurts himself and needs immediate attention, a demanding relative tests your patience, appliances conk off during the eleventh hour, the husband needs to leave for office in the next 10 minutes, and your older child needs to get ready for school.

As mothers, we constantly question our ability to serve others. We micro-analyze every situation and reflect on what could be the best way to deal with tough situations with peace and harmony. As a mother, there were days when I wanted to shout and throw a tantrum, but I had to practice deep breathing and ask myself, “What is the best way to deal with this?” Initially, there were those days when a good crying jag or screaming fit would do me in, but when I realized the adverse effects of these on my kids, I resorted to singing while cooking to help me burn off the negative energy. Mothers always find constructive and harmonious ways to tune off negativity as they are conscious about their actions and the consequences thereof.

Moms Know How to Deal with Difficult Behaviour

A hard-nosed boss, a demanding client, a difficult team-member have one thing in common. They have the advantage. We need their cooperation and need to find a way to deal with their challenging behaviour. Who better than a mother when it comes to dealing with conflict?

Whether it is adapting to a different family (most women in India live with their parents-in-law), getting a child to eat his vegetables, or dealing with conflicts, a mother faces it all constantly. Persuasive communication, negotiation, diplomacy, or assertive speaking – a mother needs to use all these skills on a daily basis.

Moms Stand Up For Their People

A father might seem all brawny and muscular but it is the mother’s steely determination and unconditional care and nurturing that truly makes a family strong and emotionally resilient. Today when we have employees leaving in large droves because of an unsupportive or uncaring supervisor, we need leaders who nurture their teams and stand up for them. Emotional support and emotional security is always assured with mothers at the helm. Mothers are also great fighters, especially when it comes to any crisis that looms ahead. Moreover, they stand calm and stable during the toughest of times.

Towards Opti-mum Leadership!

A growing number of small and mid-sized companies are investing efforts in building comeback careers for women. “Womentrepreneur” is in fact, a hot new buzzword making waves in the e-commerce scenario. Think Zivame, Infibeam, Limeroad, and Yatra. These are but a few examples of women who turned their ideas into money-spinners. Imagine having women like these in your organization as leaders.

I not only know that full-time mothers have the ability to take on technology roles, but also firmly believe they have the capability to become strong leaders. Most companies already have a talent management strategy in place to develop future leaders. Why not hire mothers and groom them as future leaders? It can be argued that women who have been out of touch as far as employment is concerned, will take a while to get their bearings in the wide wicked corporate world. However since they already possess the intrinsic leadership qualities thanks to their experience as fulltime mothers, they would just need a while to get acclimatized to the rules of the game. My sister-in-law started her own successful corporate recruitment business after 20 years of being a fulltime mother. She is a shining example of how women can make it big not despite being mothers, but because they are mothers.

Isn’t it ironic that we celebrate Mother’s Day with pride, but do little for mothers who seek an equal footing in the corporate world despite being immensely talented?

Misfits: Why We Need Them!


“I don’t feel like working here anymore. I feel so stifled and out of place!” cried my client who called up to seek career advice. She had been working for this reputed company for three years. While there was nothing principally wrong about the place, she felt claustrophobic. This lady is known for her cheerful outlook and a whacky sense of humour. However I have always known her to be an exemplary performer and a go-getter. Apparently her co-workers find her overwhelming and her boss has on more than one occasion, asked her to tone down her enthusiasm and “calm down”.

We are born free. And then fettered by bonds of compliance, obedience, and subservience, so much so that we dare not be different. The few, who dare to be different, are penalized or worse, ridiculed. Even in kindergarten, we are taught to color inside the lines, and are reprimanded for daring to color outside!

Unfit or a Misfit?

I felt like a misfit for the first time when I attempted to resume work after a long break. While applying for jobs I was told, “You are too senior!” The truth as I realized was, that I was overqualified for the job in question. Thereafter I was declared a misfit (indirectly albeit!) on more than one occasion. I was either inadequately qualified (not an MBA) despite my years of experience, or overly experienced, or too old for a position.

I remember having a healthy debate on this topic many years ago with one of my bosses when I wanted to hire a trainer. I found the candidate quiet and understated and his answers very forthright and earnest. I felt he would be an ideal fit for one of our training centres that was plagued by attrition. My boss however had another opinion. He felt that the candidate lacked ambition and therefore would be a misfit in a team of strong and dynamic trainers. I stuck to my guns and requested my boss to trust my instinct. Sure enough over the months when the centre lost some of their star performers, this individual emerged as one of the most solid and dependable players who helped the centre weather the toughest of times.

The question we really need to ask while hiring is, “Is this candidate Unfit for the role, or a Misfit with respect to what we usually look for?” It’s one thing to reject someone who lacks the necessary vital skills for a position, but another when their profile or personality is perceived beyond the norm. I have had my share of hiring blunders where I hired “different” people who more than shook up the still waters in my team, but I have never regretted it! They have always left behind a legacy of “out-of-the-box” thinking and creative ideas in their wake, even those who lasted for less than six months.

The Round Pegs in a Square Hole

There are plenty of examples of misfits from The Ugly Duckling, to Mumble the tap-dancing penguin from the movie Happy Feet, or even Santa’s legendary Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. They are ridiculed because they are different from their ilk. I remember a coworker who was at least 10 years older in a team of 20-somethings. To her credit she did her best to mingle but I remember a distinct sense of awkwardness her team lead felt in interacting with her. The team lead was palpably relieved when this employee resigned. I guess this happens to most women who resume jobs after a substantial break. We either report to managers younger than us, or become part of a younger team that just doesn’t know how to freely interact with us.

One of my clients-in-coaching hailed from a different state of India and did not know to speak Hindi very well. He felt excluded from the rest of the team because they cracked jokes in Hindi and he did not understand them. At the end of our session he came up with an idea to organize a team outing where he planned various activities and games to help the team get to know one another informally. During our next session, he sounded delighted about the outcome of the activity. Apparently he was learning to speak Hindi from his colleagues while he was teaching them his native language! More so, his manager started taking notice of him and started appreciating him.

Why are we wary of misfits?

Right from the time we start schooling we are taught to discriminate and comply. How many of us remember alienating or ostracizing that one kid who seemed different from us? How about those with a learning disorder or speech impediment or an unusual personality or physical appearance? Why are we judgmental towards those we perceive as “eccentric”? Why do we reject misfits?

We are uncomfortable around them

We are so comfortably used to interacting with a certain profile of people that we feel out-of-depth while dealing with a different type. It is easier to reject a candidate who seems different from the rest of the team than taking the trouble to accept and understand her.

We don’t want to change status quo

I remember a senior leader asking me to reject a candidate because she seemed overqualified when compared to the team. He felt having her in the team will disrupt the balance and make others insecure.

We are afraid of their outlandish and rebellious ideas

I firmly believe that startup teams need more mavericks who can find their way and get things done among the haziness and disorder. However, mavericks are not necessarily considered nice people! Their tendency to break rules causes others to perceive them as overly ambitious, rebellious, and selfish. Then there are people who question everything around them such as policies, processes, or methods. They make the rest of the compliant population nervous.

We are envious of them

Aha! What’s the real reason we reject some smart candidates? This happened to me as a hiring manager when I wanted to hire a team lead. I found one candidate particularly smart and more qualified than me. My first instinct was to reject him as I felt he had a superior attitude. The fact was, I felt threatened by him and mistook his self-confidence for superiority. I finally hired him as I realized he would be the best person who might help me achieve the goals for the team. Everything in the team changed for the better after that. I was pleasantly surprised to see him flourish and grow in a few years. He and I are still in touch, and I have learnt a lot from him. Ever since then, when I feel like rejecting a candidate I ask myself, “Am I envious of him/her?”

Want to see change? Then get more misfits!

One of the topmost issues plaguing our corporate world is the need for change. Change in our attitudes, change in our processes, change in our mind-sets, and change in the way we work. To get there, we need to seriously look at all of our job description definitions once again. If we want game-changers, we need to look out for misfits who will disrupt the current order of things. Think Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the likes.

Let us look at all positions where the gender ratio is skewed. How about the people in our company? Do they speak different native languages? Do they come from different ethnic backgrounds? What about the age-groups and the generations – do we have a healthy ratio of Gen X to millennials? Diversity and inclusion is not only about hiring women, it is also about looking at women we seem to ignore and assume that they are “out of practice” and “out of the game”.

There is no other way to look at it. Misfits bring to the table radical thought pattern and ideas. Having them in the team shakes up things around quite a bit. It helps existing teams to come out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this does not mean that we hire rebels just for the heck of it. We need to shed our preconceived notions and prejudices when we hire them. Misfits are humans after all, and they too need guidance and direction and most of all – acceptance and an opportunity to prove their worth. It is time we embraced the risks of hiring misfits – we need to create round slots for round pegs!

As Apple Inc. said in one of their “Think Different” campaigns:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Instilling a Woman-Friendly Work Culture

Recently when Google, Yahoo, and Facebook published their diversity report findings, it came as no surprise to me that women comprise a paltry 30% of the technology workforce. CNET observed that the balance is even more skewed in engineering and technology teams.

Last quarter, I had the privilege to address a group of women employees who worked in functions like Finance, Accounting, Legal, and Information systems. As our discussion progressed, I realized that we women need more than motivational seminars or coaching sessions to flourish and bridge the gender gap at work.

“I was put through more rounds of interviews than a male friend who applied for the same job”

Notwithstanding increased sensitization about including more women employees, I have observed skepticism among male hiring managers in Indian companies while screening and interviewing women for technology positions. What is amazing is that this holds true even for team leads and managers belonging to the millennial generation. While it’s true that women give birth and require maternity leaves, they are in no way behind when it comes to working the 24-7 shift or staying back late to fix a client escalation. There is this implicit perception that women aren’t that technically adept in fixing or troubleshooting complex problems, which is why hiring managers in these companies put women candidates through more stringent reviews.

Question: How can we design and implement better hiring assessment instruments to evaluate and select candidates irrespective of their gender?

“When we women gather around to talk, we’re accused of gossiping.”

Most women like to talk and express themselves irrespective of where they are! They share confidences, exchange ideas, discuss problems, and feel lighter. Talking and sharing is the cement that binds them to their job and the people around. That said, the above accusation is justified when women employees shirk work and produce insubstantial results. However if they do indulge in harmless banter during their break hours, and are conscientious and timely in their work, then why the bias?

Question: How can we facilitate open discussions between male and female employees to help them accept and respect differences?

“I am subject to jibes and unkind comments from my male co-workers about my constraints.”

It’s a well-known fact that Indian women still juggle their traditional roles of a parent, home-maker, house-keeper, and corporate professional. Women find it necessary to draw boundaries between their work hours and their time with their families, which is actually a very practical way of achieving the right work-life balance. I remember when I resumed work after my first maternity leave, I found ways to accomplish more during my work hours and leave office on time, so that I could spend time with my daughter. Rather than stepping out for coffee or a lunch break, I found myself eating at my desk as I worked. I did the Math and discovered that I was spending more productive hours at work after my baby. I started valuing my job and career much more, and actually started finding better ways to contribute to the company. Of course I couldn’t stay late most of the time, and nor could I put in hours on Sundays, but I was so grateful to my company for their support, that I found myself going over and beyond in my duties. I made sure that my company and teams could completely rely on me.

I remember one of my team members approaching me with a problem. She usually left office at 5.30 PM as her child had to be picked up from the day-care at 6 PM. She had no other option since her husband worked in another city. She was distraught and hurt with a male co-worker’s sarcastic comment when one day she decided to stay back late for a critical client meeting. “What a surprise! You are actually working late today! It’s sure a blue moon tonight!” I too have been subject to hurtful barbs about not being able to attend office parties as I had no one to take care of my daughter.

Question: How can we encourage male employees to behave with more understanding, empathy, and sensitivity? On the other hand, how can we encourage female employees to be more assertive?

“I’m paid less than my male counterparts”

I recently read this article that sheds interesting light on this burning issue. Apparently this is due to gaps or interruptions in women’s careers. On one hand we want to woo more women into leadership by offering them maternity leave or introducing special benefits, and on the other hand we penalize them for taking a justified break for their families. Something doesn’t quite add up right here. In my experience I have seen women employees going to extreme lengths to hold on to their jobs, especially when they love their role and have friendly teams and colleagues. Most Indian career women are very smart at finding a way to continue working, unless they find the work environment unsupportive or unrewarding.

At times, when women resume work after a break, their technical skills are obsolete. They either fail to get jobs, or if they do, they get hired at lower levels or paid far less than what they deserve. I personally think this is one of the top reasons why we see this enormous gap in the ratio of male to female employees. Any individual with basic technical competency also has the ability to quickly master new technology. When I took a break from my career and resumed after 4 years, I was able to catch up on all that I missed, within a month. I have hired women who have resumed after a break and found them to be really quick at grasping new technologies and catching up with their peers within no time at all.

Question: How can we objectively assess and evaluate people based on their current generic competencies AND future potential, and not hold a genuine career gap against them?”

“Why wasn’t I considered for that promotion?”

This is a common grouse and concern for over 70% of the women I have coached or mentored. I faced this during one of my jobs. There was a senior level position that I had set my eyes on. I knew I had the capability and so did my peers. I was in for a rude shock when another colleague got that promotion instead of me. He was capable too, but I felt I deserved the promotion more, because I had more hands-on experience in the same field. I remember feeling very cheated and let down by my manager. It took me several months to muster up courage to ask my boss why I wasn’t considered. I was surprised to hear, “I thought it might be too difficult for you because of your family constraints.” I blamed myself for a while, but then realized that it was also the manager’s responsibility to at least give me a chance by asking me.

It’s difficult for most women to walk up to their managers to ask for what they want. Not only work, some women hesitate reaching out to friends or family for help. One of my friends confessed that her boss found her aggressive because she asked for a promotion!

Question: How can we help people break out of stereotypical thinking? How can we get women to confidently voice their career aspirations?

Opening Up Possibilities

There is growing evidence that organizations with a higher number of women and women-friendly policies benefit from better business results. That said, there are several misconceptions I’d like to clear. Having a women-friendly culture does not mean eliminating or excluding men! I liked reading this article where we see companies that are introducing gender-neutral and inclusive policies. I agree that somewhere when we talk about maternity leave, we mistakenly assume (and encourage a chauvinistic bygone theory) that men don’t need to stay home to take care of their kids!

I’m elated and excited hearing and reading about companies that are genuinely interested in building better policies and encouraging a more open workplace for attracting more women employees. I remember reading this article a couple of years ago where Wipro introduced mentors for women employees. Many companies are also introducing coaching as a mechanism for women.

To attract more women, we need to look at re-examining our people policies, introducing inclusive competency measurement and assessment processes, educating people, and creating acceptance in the minds of managers/leaders. When we already invest a lot in rolling out training and development initiatives in areas like sales, customer service, communication and cross-culture sensitivity, surely we can create better momentum in this area of gender inclusion. Merely training women to be assertive will not do. We not only need to sensitize men about how they can make their female colleagues feel respected and valued, we also need to instil a non-judgmental open culture where people are accepted, nurtured, and provided growth based on their talent and potential alone, and not because of their gender or ethnicity.

Bad Boss? Really?

It’s there everywhere. Apparently bad bosses are the reason employees are unhappy if one were to go by latest reports.

Who are supposed to be bad bosses? There is a complete list out there of types of bad bosses for those who are interested.

Bullying, micromanaging, insecure, unapproachable, people-pleasing, credit-stealing, the list goes on. Bad bosses are apparently to be blamed for almost everything going wrong, from attrition, unhappy employees, poor customer service, to toxic work culture.

Of course all companies, big or small, have their share of black sheep or rotten apples. All the above about bad bosses being true, a consistently dipping graph of unhappy employees says something else altogether. There are questions that beg answers in these cases.

1.   Who hires bosses?

Every boss is also an employee who was hired in the first place because he or she showed promise and potential. Is there a method for hiring bosses? How are they termed competent for a leadership or supervisory position? How are they inducted into the role of a boss for the first time? Is it a “sink or swim” law, or is there a structured approach to releasing them into the role?

2.   How does a boss become bad?

A boss is a human being with insecurities and vulnerabilities. According to psychology, bullying is a behavior that is born out of a deep sense of insecurity. Same goes for self-serving behavior where individuals take credit for others’ accomplishments, or people-pleasing behavior. Indecisive behavior is usually due to a lack of confidence, whereas incompetence and insensitive behavior is due to a lack of awareness and direction. Is there a life-support system for bosses so they feel safe and secure? Who boosts their confidence and provides them a sounding board when they need it?

3.   How is a bad boss able to thrive? How is the boss able to get away with being bad?

Everything, including viruses, needs a suitable environment to breed. Everyone, including children learn the rules of behavior not only by observing, but also by perceiving what is tolerated by the environment. A child that learns to cheat and lie does so because she feels she is able to get away with it. At times a boss is someone who makes her boss look good (by probably fetching good revenue or sales), but behaves poorly with her team. Is there a way to objectively get the team’s feedback? How tolerant is your system against poor performance? (Because, a bad boss who is not liked by the team, is a poor performer at least in the people’s department.) Are there necessary mechanisms in place to arrest toxic and unconstructive behavior? Are there necessary mechanisms to reward positive behavior? Is there a safe environment for employees to give feedback about their bosses to upper management without worrying about retaliation? Is the feedback even addressed?

4.   Doesn’t every boss have a boss?

Someone hired that boss, and besides, the boss reports to someone higher up in the chain. Who takes responsibility for the boss’ behavior and performance? Are there clear and transparent lines of authority and accountability? Is there a process to measure and review a boss’ performance, especially the way he works with his people? Is the boss provided a regular and consistent feedback on her performance? Does the boss have someone she could trust with her vulnerabilities and insecurities?

5.   A bad boss? Not me!

Matrix reporting without clear lines of ownership adds to the confusion. A boss may just have the title, but not the authority. Perhaps someone else is calling the shots and the boss is probably a puppet in the game. That said, the team may not be aware of the fact, and may judge the boss to be an ineffectual, powerless leader. Are teams aware of their boss’ circle of influence and his extent of power? Does the boss feel empowered enough to make decisions without fearing the consequences?

Do we have bad bosses or poor leadership?

It is always easy to pin a problem on someone. Everyone loves a scapegoat. Having a bad boss also makes it easy for employees to demonstrate poor performance and unconstructive behavior with the excuse, “What can I do? I have a bad boss!”

When we look at the entire picture non-judgmentally, especially when we look at bad bosses causing a downward trend in employee satisfaction surveys, we just need to reflect on the following:

How are bosses hired? Is there a competency assessment and evaluation in place to select or promote the right person?

Are bad bosses inherently bad, or is the system making them bad?

Is there is a learning and development system in place for not just developing, but nurturing leaders?

Is the organization tolerant and supportive of vulnerabilities in leaders?

Is the organization intolerant towards apathetic leadership?

Lastly, this is probably the question we need to ask:

Is this a case of bad boss or poor organizational leadership?