The Road not Taken: Becoming a Full-time Mum Made Me a Better Leader

(Published on LinkedIn on Nov 21, 2014)

After 13 years of a glorious career in Mumbai, when I moved to Pune with our two daughters to join my husband, little did I know what life had in store for me. Back in Mumbai, like most Indian women, I used to live with my in-laws who took care of my children. When I arrived in Pune, I was very excited at the prospect of setting up a home of our own. I had it all neatly planned. Find a home on rent, set it up, enroll our older daughter in a school, find a daycare for the younger one, and find a job.

I was fortunate to be able to check off all of these items from my list, and within six months, I got hired by a growing company as a Vice President. I was over the moon to say the least! I hired a domestic assistant to help me with my household and kitchen chores, and I was all set. My new job was very exciting. The company was getting ready for an acquisition, and they had plenty of international projects and processes that needed streamlining, and new managers who needed mentoring and direction. It was a role right up my alley, and I had tons of ideas whirring inside my head. As the clients were scattered around the globe, managing my time schedules was challenging to say the least, but I was raring to go out there and make a mark.

Everything went smoothly for a while, and then things suddenly changed. My older daughter found her new school very intimidating. She was finding it very difficult adjusting to the new study pattern, her teachers, and her new friends. Moreover she missed coming home to her grandparents (which I didn’t realize). All this resulted in her dwindling test scores. One day as I was addressing a meeting with my team, I felt a weight pressing down on my shoulders. It was Guilt rearing its ugly head, but I ignored it.

After a few weeks, I found myself watching my domestic help cooking vegetables in more oil than that was necessary. Since she had to wrap up the kitchen work before I left for work, she used to work at top speed and in the process, ended up wasting resources. More flour, more detergent, more oil. I could see the wastage, and my shoulders sagged a little more.

Having two little children is not without its own challenges, is what I slowly realized. They fall sick (especially when you have an important meeting), they need help with their homework, they need help with their art projects, they need proper nutrition and care. Mostly, they need someone to just listen.

One evening after I completed three months, I lost my temper at my younger daughter. She was barely three, and wanted to play with me. Of late, I was finding it difficult dealing with her tantrums, without realizing that she needed me to spend time with her when I got home. But there I was on my laptop, drafting apology emails to clients and reviewing some reports, all so that I could be better prepared for my next day’s meeting. So while my daughter’s little hands tugged at me, I just absent-mindedly handed her a toy, asking her to play with it while “mamma completed her office work”. My shoulders were weighing a ton, and I also started suffering from stress headaches. The Guilt meter was way up there.

When I completed six months in the job, something happened that was the turning point in my life. My older daughter had got low scores yet again and I thought of staying up late helping her with her studies. I had to get into an “urgent client email” once again. My younger one called out to me asking if I could please give her a goodnight hug. I nodded at her promising I will soon enough. It took me a stressful two hours to finally shut down my laptop, and I saw both my girls fast asleep. As I saw their innocent peaceful faces, my Guilt meter tore into me. I was finally feeling guilty about ME. I was missing out not only on their childhood, but also on the gift of parenthood.

The very next day, I handed over my resignation.

For the next three years I was a full-time mother. These years have been the most precious and humbling years for me. I acquired a deep respect for my in-laws and women who chose their kids over their careers. I discovered a new passion – cooking. I put my corporate experience into practice at home by streamlining my kitchen operations! My headaches vanished, and I joined a gym where I was able to shed off those stress tires.

I have finally gotten back to a mainstream corporate career over the past eight years, and life couldn’t be better. Besides being a mentor to women, I am also a coach for women seeking to grow in leadership positions. Assertiveness, decision-making, delegation, empathy, being a role-model – all these are leadership skills that I learnt by staying at home.

Of course, there is always a pay-off. My career trajectory took a considerable dip. And of course, there IS a glass ceiling and there IS discrimination against women. More so against women who take a sabbatical for their families.

Do I regret that decision to choose my children over my career? The company from where I had resigned, eventually got acquired by a large multinational. Had I continued I would have probably been at an executive level by now. However would I have survived the enormous guilt of not following my heart? The first thing I did after quitting my job was to tutor my older daughter. That year, she stood in the toppers list of her class. I watched her with blurred eyes as she was being felicitated by her school. Yes, I am happy I chose to be a mother.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

#RoadNotTaken #ProfessionalWomen #Leadership #Women #Homemaker #Motherhood #WhatInspiresMe #Careers

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Let’s Fix It: Hire Potential, not Degree

(This article was published on LinkedIn on Oct 16, 2014: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141016114939-11623865-let-s-fix-it-hire-potential-not-degree)

In my article Are we hiring people or headcount, I had talked about how as leaders we make the mistake of hiring highly qualified candidates for jobs that they quickly outgrow.

Way back in the 80’s and 90’s when the IT revolution was picking up, it made sense hiring candidates from premium B-schools and top engineering universities. Companies were in their upward growth curve and needed bright and entrepreneurial thinkers who would have enough excitement to stick around within the company for several years.

The story has changed today. Engineering and management students join companies with high aspirations only to be disappointed when they realize their skills are barely needed.

Over the past decade, burgeoning companies of the 90’s have exploded into large conglomerates after multiple mergers and acquisitions. The current economy and ever-changing business landscape now demands that companies retain their knowledge capital by hiring more stable players who will adapt and grow with the changing requirements.

Another mistake we leaders make is hire people at peak level talent. Rather, I would pitch in favour of peak potential.

Room for growth

Every designation or role has a minimum tenure during which employees get a chance to learn on the job and pick up competencies. Candidates whether sourced internally or externally, should be selected with a not-yet-acquired skill or competency gap. The tenure for the role should allow the employee to fill this competency gap.

Hire attitude, develop aptitude

Easier said than done, but job descriptions need to detail the responsive traits that are needed to accomplish the job successfully. For instance, a sales team might need candidates who won’t take no for an answer, or a technology team might benefit from candidates with the ability to quickly grasp the root of a problem and be at it till they arrive at a solution. A training coordinator probably needs to know how to think and process requirements in an organized manner while a customer support rep should probably be someone who goes out of her way to help people. Psychometric assessments usually help in identifying these inherent traits, which can be used as a base for building tangible on-the-job skills.

Upgrade and update the job description!

Job description documents definitely need an overhaul during an organizational change. In fact I recommend periodic revisions of this document to ensure that the hiring stays specific and relevant. As hiring managers we should ask ourselves,

  • “Does this role truly require an engineering (or B-school) candidate?”
  • “How can I make the job description more specific and relevant to today’s context?”
  • “Are there specific personality types or behavioral traits necessary for this role?”
  • “What are the non-negotiable or mandatory or must-have skills for this role?”
  • “What is the competency gap or minimum skill potential based on which this candidate could be hired?”
  • “For how long on an average will a candidate need to work in the current role in order to fulfill or outperform the competency gap?”

Investing in an incubation centre

A significant number of high potential candidates get eliminated using only qualification or experience as a minimum requirement. Hiring managers in their immediate business need, try to directly map the candidate profile with the required skill set and select people with an already optimum competency level. Such candidates naturally outperform their current roles within their first year of joining. By the time they are in their second year, they are already updating their LinkedIn profiles! It would help if companies establish an incubation centre where they groom and prepare future candidates for their businesses. These candidates need not necessarily be fresh graduates. There is an enormous amount of untapped and unharnessed potential in the form of women who seek to resume their careers after a break. There are a significant number of professionals seeking a mid-level career change.

Talent shortage is a myth! Talent is definitely available if we look at future potential rather than existing skills. I have also talked in another article about how building a future career roadmap leads to more engaged employees.

#FixIt #recruitment #talentmanagement #leadership

Are you visible?

As a coach, I get to talk to many aspiring individuals who express a desire to get selected for managerial positions. They are usually people with significant experience in their core function and are eager to grow into a more visible role. A majority of these people have also expressed unhappiness in being passed over by the management for someone (in their opinion) less skilled or less experienced. “It’s as though I’m invisible!”

It’s a noisy, overcrowded workplace

It’s become an information bombardment at the workplace over the past decade. Emails, instant messages, online notifications, online meeting have facilitated the growth of global organizations where employees communicate without seeing each other. As a result we have too many desk managers who manage teams from their cubicles rather than walking around and meeting people face to face.

So as a manager, among 130 emails, which one do I read and respond to? In my periodic face-to-face employee interactions, which employees leave a lasting impression in my mind? How do I know who really did the work and did it the best? And most of all, who to my eye, is the one to watch?

The attention-grabbers

We all have seen them. The ones who talk the most. The ones who laugh the loudest. The ones who make sure you know about everything they do. We have seen them in school. Teachers usually love them as they are the “know-it-alls” and the ones that raise their hands or assist the teacher in erasing the blackboard. They know the knack of making the teacher feel special. Take yourself for example. Who would you notice? The students who complete their work quietly or the ones that announce their progress to the teachers?

As humans we are fallible. No matter how non-judgmental or discerning we try to be, we do get drawn towards those who make us look and feel good.

Managers seek solidarity and support. Some managers like yes-men, some admire those who ask questions, some appreciate those who chase results and make them look good.

So how does an employee get her manager to sit up and really take a look at her capabilities and her accomplishments?

Five tips for becoming more visible

It isn’t easy trying to grab attention when you are naturally attention-averse. In my growing years I was taught the virtue of modesty. “Make your work speak for you”, “Do your duty and you will reap the fruits eventually”, “To minimize your achievements, talk about them!” These were some of the words of wisdom drilled into me. It took me many years of lost opportunities, acute disappointment, and hidden resentment to realize the secret are of actually making people take notice of my work.

Here are a few tips based on my experience that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Rise to the occasion

Rather than thinking of how good you are in your role, think about what is it that your manager needs? Is there a meaty project coming your team’s way with no one to coordinate it? Is there a scarcity of people and more work than the manager can handle? Is there a specific skill requirement that the team needs? Look at how you could position your current skills to meet the need. The idea here is to make a significant impact at the right time. An effort that will be a huge win for the team. Once you have worked out the idea in your mind, approach your manager with your proposal.

Stick your neck out

A manager likes people who participate, respond quickly and positively. Be willing to erase the blackboard. You could volunteer to mentor new entrants, help with some administrative reports, or even train your peers on a required skill.

How many times in a class did you know the answer to a question but were afraid to raise your hand? We refrain from volunteering out of fear. Fear of being ridiculed, fear of criticism, fear of change, or fear of failure. A manager’s role is full of risks. If you want to become a manager, you need to overcome your apprehension and demonstrate to your manager the ability to take risks and learn something new. It’s easier to blame an overenthusiastic colleague for “hogging the limelight” rather than trying something new or daring. Ask yourself – “What is stopping ME from volunteering for that complex assignment?”

Express! Express!

The easiest way to get attention is to speak up. Ask questions during team meetings. Come up with suggestions. Appreciate a colleague for his help. Thank your manager for supporting you. Express your views on a solution offered. Initiate and conduct meetings to encourage conversations. Communication skills amount to 80% of a leader’s role. Expressing or articulating is a great way of demonstrating your communication skills to your manager. However note that it is important to communicate assertively and positively if you want to be noticed for the right reasons!

Stop trying to be perfect

As an individual contributor, you are used to being in control of your output. You are so good at your job that you can easily spot defects or deviations. In contrast, leadership is a very subjective role. A manager learns a lot by trial and error. Mostly error. Error in judgment, error in estimation, error in planning, you name it! It is not possible to grow as a leader without making these mistakes. However, these mistakes help a leader learn and grow. Are you willing to make errors AND accept blame?

Ask for it!

It isn’t a nice feeling being passed over for an opportunity you have been waiting for. Oprah Winfrey has a nice quote for it. “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” Quite a few of us, especially women, don’t ask for what we really want. We hope someone observes us and appreciates us and gives us what we want. I have been guilty of this as well. Expecting someone to have mind-reading skills is frankly illogical! Your manager may have observed your good work, but does he know of your ambition to become a leader? Approach him and explain to him what you really want. Ask him how to go about it. Let him know how you intend to support him towards the team’s goals.

It’s a networked world after all

The global corporate workplace is no longer a simple layer of hierarchies. With dotted line reporting and matrix reporting structures, it is more possible to get connected with various other teams. It is not only important to get noticed within the team, but also across cross-functional groups. This is especially true if you want to grow as a manager. Volunteer for employee committees, social causes, or other group activities. Work-life balance is always a challenge for working parents. However at a time when you really want to get noticed and grow, you may want to stretch your schedule a bit to accommodate these initiatives.

Modesty does not mean keeping silent about your accomplishments. You don’t have to brag or exaggerate your capabilities. Good managers can see through the hyperbole. Be honest and objective, yet express your career goals.

Finally, if you do feel that you don’t have the room for huge additional responsibilities at this point in your life, then don’t resent that colleague who got that promotion. Be happy for him. You will get your chance too.