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.

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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

Let Go! Five ways to feel lighter and empowered

(This article was published on AVTAR I-WIN’s The Future of Work publication in September 2013)

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As Indian women, most of us are brought up to become superwomen. Look at the matrimonial section of your local newspaper to get an idea: Wanted: A fair, tall, traditional, homely, highly qualified working girl who can cook. Okay. I have exaggerated a bit, but I’m sure you get the drift!

Over the past three decades, the Indian woman has been playing a dual role in carrying on with the traditional role of home-maker besides making significant progress in bringing the bread to the table. Of course taking on the additional responsibilities are not without their share of problems. Let’s face it. We are not superwomen. We are human beings with limited capacities that we need to translate to infinite possibilities. As women, we walk a thin rope where we balance several items to ensure we give our best to our family and career. In the process, we tend to carry several traits and attitudes that tend to bog us down, rather than propel us towards our goals. The only way we can hope to run freely forward and taste success is by lightening our load.

Here are some of the top five loads that we Indian women could let go to win that race without compromise.

Guilt

Nothing can crush our confidence as much as guilt. The guilt of not being able to take care of your children. The guilt of not being able to serve hot meals at home. The guilt of not being able to stay back in the office late to complete the assignment. The guilt of not being able to exercise. We need to pause and breathe and realize that guilt is just an empty feeling that carries the maximum weight. Do your children really need you 24/7? So long as your family gets healthy food, does it really matter who cooks it? As for work, do we really need to give 200% of ourselves to make up for not being able to stay in the office beyond 6 PM? It’s a known fact that women do get their work done without having to stretch by simply managing their time better. So how do we get rid of this colossal guilt? By being more realistic and objective about our expectations. By welcoming alternatives. Most of all, by telling yourself, “I’m doing the best I can!”

Resentment

Most of us are brought up to suppress our reactions, box in our feelings, and rein in our impulses. We are expected to fit into a stereotype of a woman who listens to everyone, gives in to everyone’s demands, and fulfils her personal needs last. We are expected to follow old-fashioned traditions without questioning. I know of highly qualified and successful women who cannot wear western clothes for fear of being criticized by their “elders”. On the other hand, our equally capable and qualified male counterparts are given more leeway and freedom. Over a period of time, this builds resentment and unvoiced frustration, leading to passive-aggressive behaviour. How could we let go of this resentment? Assertiveness is the key. Assertiveness helps us put forth our point of view objectively and confidently, without resorting to aggression. The ability to forgive and move on also helps in getting rid of resentment.

Martyrdom

There is no virtue in playing a self-sacrificing martyr. Leave that to the movie moms! We have too many things to take care of. Neglecting ourselves, our health, our appearance, benefits no one. While we love our family and our work, we have to learn to take care of ourselves first. I remember coming home from work feeling famished, and waiting for my family to get ready for dinner. By the time they all gathered, I was so angry and exhausted, I barely could smile, leave alone respond to their questions. I remember feeling undervalued and unappreciated. Over the years I have learnt to feed myself as soon as I get home. It feels so good! Do make time to go to the salon, take that 15 minute daily walk, read the newspaper. It won’t make you a bad mother or a selfish wife! On the contrary, your family will respect you. So let go of martyrdom!

Diffidence

Diffidence means to doubt oneself. We are worried about being criticized that we second-guess ourselves constantly. In fact women tend to be self-critical. Moreover, we tend to compare ourselves with other women and wonder whether we are doing the right thing. Remember, you are your own best judge. What works for you, may not work for someone else. If you make a mistake, you are only human. “Do I look fat?” “Did I sound okay in the presentation?” “What would he think?” “Should I ask for a promotion?” Celebrate being you. Self-confidence and self-acceptance is the best way to throw out diffidence.

Fear

Fear of change. Fear of losing control. Fear of criticism. Fear of failure. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of being imperfect. These fears are so drilled into us, that we often overlook opportunities to grow. We need to throw the “What would others think?” out of the window! We need to learn to anticipate and accept failure. Made an error in judgement? Learn from your mistake and move on! Fear is a debilitating burden that eats into our very core. Over a period, this makes us stressful and anxiety-ridden and prone to health problems. How can you overcome your fears? By expressing them and thinking objectively about ways to overcome them. Prayer, meditation, keeping a diary, talking to a friend, or getting coached are a few ways where you could bring your fears under control. It is okay to be afraid. Just don’t let it weigh you down.