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?

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Misfits: Why We Need Them!

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“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.”

Are we hiring people or headcount?

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As managers and leaders, one of our most crucial decisions is selecting the right people in our teams. There are decisions to be taken at every stage from initial screening to the final interview stage. Unfortunately, hiring is perceived as a number filling game where we don’t look at candidates as people but as profiles or headcount.

What’s wrong with “headcount”?

Like the words “resources” and “headcount” that have replaced the more humane term “employees” in the corporate workplace, candidates are now called “profiles”. A profile essentially indicates a snapshot of the candidate’s skills, experience, and attributes that help us ascertain a candidate’s suitability, just like resources indicate people with the necessary skills for executing a project.

There’s no problem referring to people as “profiles” or “resources”, so long as they are used in the right context. For instance, when we discuss the suitability of a candidate to an opening while discussing the hiring process, using the word “profile” is appropriate as we are describing the individual. Headcount is fine so long as we are talking about the number of people we need.

However, we tend to forget that we need an individual or a group of people with values and skills that align with the organization’s work culture and business goals. It’s more than just filling a spot, and that’s where the term “headcount” is very limiting.

A whole-brained decision

On the face of it, hiring seems to be a left-brained activity. However when we actually delve deeper, it needs to be a whole-brained activity. Filling a number needs little or no decision skills. Checking whether or not a candidate fits into the required skill set can even be automated. However, deciding whether or not a candidate works for the need and determining whether he is going to add value, involves right-brained thinking.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure

One of the root causes of employee disengagement is lack of long-term alignment of the employee’s skills with the company’s business goals and strategy. Note that we’re talking about goals and not targets. The tendency is to hire people for a project or an immediate business need, rather than selecting them for a long-term purpose. Hire in haste, repent at leisure. Okay so I have twisted an old proverb, but that is so true today! Headcount, profiles, resources – all these are terms that make sense only in a temporary context.

Idle brain YouTube’s workshop!

We hire engineers and MBA graduates for jobs that don’t really demand more than 10% of their prolific degrees. For instance, I know of companies that hire MBA graduates for market research that actually involves collecting information using Google search. I have also heard of software companies that recruit fresh engineering graduates who expect to get their hands into coding but generally end up monitoring reports or testing small functions. As these tasks aren’t challenging enough to keep the employees on their toes, we find them with plenty of idle time. No wonder there is heavy traffic on YouTube, Amazon, Facebook, and their likes! In the haste to complete hiring, managers also end up hiring “white elephants” who no longer serve any future purpose or requirement within the organization. Yes, we are talking about folks who are “on the bench” long after the project is complete.

Negativity and conflicts

Finding the right talent is never easy. It requires painstaking effort and a huge process of elimination at the time of short-listing. Unfortunately, the compulsion to “close the position” leads to short-listing of candidates by only considering their job skills. Consequently, the hiring manager ends up with “problem employees” who have an “attitude problem” or become “bad apples” in the team. Having such individuals puts unnecessary stress on the manager as they become overheads rather than assets.

Immediate gains, long-term loss

To understand the heavy cost of recruitment and its impact, here’s an interesting article on a survey conducted by Careerbuilder in2013. India alone had 84% companies reporting adverse impact due to bad hiring decisions. The loss isn’t the bottom-line alone. Loss of employee morale, loss of time in training and induction, reduced business opportunities, dwindling sales, and reduced repurchase from existing clients – all these are a result of poor hiring.

A dearth of talented successors

The tendency to be hasty in hiring also leads to lack of succession planning. A majority of players with talent and potential leave when they realize the company does not have a long term growth strategy. That leaves us with people who may or may not fit the bill as future leaders. And so begins yet another unconstructive cycle – bad managers leading to unhappy employees and dissatisfied customers, and so on.

Hiring ‘em right the first time!

So how do we zero on the right people and not just add to the headcount? Over the course of my career, I have had my share of hiring blunders that have helped me improve my ability to identify and select the right people.

Versatility versus virtuosity

What kind of team do you have? Is it a startup team that has been newly formed, or a team that is already well-established with a more or less well-defined roles and responsibilities? A startup team needs versatile players who can work with ambiguity and have the ability to lay down foundations for future teams. More than qualification, you need strong entrepreneurial skills and out-of-the-box thinking. People with experience in working for startup or small scale companies would usually best fit this requirement as they have the ability to deal with the unexpected. Mavericks would do a great job here. However, people with this profile are restless and would need to be provided challenging roles once the team eventually settles down to becoming an established center.

If you have an established team, then you probably need people with the required skills and experience for the job. You also need them to follow instructions and be diligent. Knowing that your team may not expand significantly in the coming years helps you pick up dedicated individuals who feed on job security and are happy being team players.

Global skills

If you are hiring for a global team with a matrix reporting structure, then communication and collaboration skills are a must. I would any day opt for a strong and persuasive communicator over a highly skilled individual, provided the job does not demand high-end skills.

Visualization helps!

A job opening is always your need for a problem solver. Look at the job description and try to imagine a person with these qualities. Does it seem like your chosen candidate would be able to solve your problem? Visualize your team working in the office. Can you picture your chosen candidate as one of them? If you cannot, chances are that the person will not fit into the team.

Trust your gut

Intuition is one of the most needed abilities for a hiring manager. Here you have a dream candidate. She has the right skills and the right experience. Except that you are unable to decide. Whether or not you believe, your intuition is trying to tell you something. One of my managers taught me, “When in doubt, reject!” This has always helped me. There are times when I have doubted my gut-feel and felt tempted to close the position. Nine times out of ten, I have hired the wrong people when I did that. Don’t worry about the ageing days or the follow-ups from your recruitment team. Wait for the right person to come along, and no matter what, listen to your intuition!