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?

Empowering and Engaging Mid-Level Leaders

A few weeks back, I met my friend (who is also a coach) for lunch where we exchanged our coaching experiences. Our topic gradually moved towards increasingly unhappy and discontent employees who also happened to be managers. These weren’t your eager and new managers, or those at the executive level, but the ones caught in the middle. At least over 70% of these managers in question were those who grew up the ranks through their commitment and high performance in their companies. Incidentally, they also happened to be those “loyal” employees who gave some of their best years and (tenure) to their companies. Here are some of the common challenges these middle managers shared during our coaching sessions. (Of course we never share our clients’ information, but only share common observations and statistics.)

“I’m caught in a rut and don’t find my job exciting anymore.”

“I’m the King of Approvals. After being a technical innovator for 10 years, all that I do is check and approve documents.”

“I’m a referee arbitrating petty disputes and conflicts within the team because our communication system sucks.”

“I attend boring meetings where everyone talks but no one decides.”

“I have no power to execute big ideas or make high impactful decisions. I was happier at the trenches. At least I could add value.”

“Change management? I’m the checklist queen! All that I do is follow up, follow up, and more follow up!”

“I am the bearer of bad news. I hate appraisal time!”

“Our top management is busy attending conferences and leadership summits, and has no time for us. Heck! They don’t even share with us what they discussed in those meetings!”

“Help! I’m trapped in a toxic shark infested sea where politics rules!”

We also observed that a majority of these concerns were voiced by people working for large companies with handsome salaries.

The hazy level

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes, middle managers typically constitute 5% of the unhappy/disengaged workforce population. Now why should we even bother about a paltry 5%? That is because these are the people who manage bulk of the remaining workforce that comprises junior level managers and front-line team players, most of who interact directly with our customers.

If we look at this whole situation logically, a company’s top line is maintained through its marketing and revenue. While the top management drives these strategically and externally, the frontline management executes the day-to-day sales and services operations at an internal tactical level. Both these roles being very clear and well-defined, the middle management layer remains one of the haziest and fuzziest. A case in example is the key performance indicators (KPI) for top and front-line management performance. They are clear-cut and visible. What about the middle management? What are they clearly accountable for?

When we throw in the global and matrix organizational structure into this mix, the middle management is cornered between a rock and a hard place in a no-man(ager)’s land!

A middle manager’s role is pretty indirect. Not only does a middle manager report to another manager, they also have managers reporting to them. While a frontline manager has a mix of inexperienced and fairly experienced team members, and goes through a myriad of basic leadership training programs, a middle manager already has a seasoned bunch of leaders reporting into him or her. Unlike a frontline manager who has her calendar packed to the full with meetings, reviews, and reports, most middle managers barely have a concrete agenda (unless they have newbie managers who need their hand held through their initial startup period.) This is truly the dilemma of the middle manager as nicely articulated in this article.

Breeding ground for discontentment

If enthusiasm is contagious, discontentment is an epidemic! Imagine middle managers coming to work day in and day out in this state of mind. Their enthusiasm diminishes, their energy levels deplete, and over a period of time, there’s a toxic buildup of negativity that eventually gets transmitted by them (knowingly or unknowingly) to their subordinates, teams, and colleagues. What’s one of the biggest reasons for employee disengagement? Bad bosses. So now you know.

The real role of a Mid-level Leader

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a middle manager in most organizations is that they barely get a leadership role. After spending a minimum of 10 to 15 years of their career, all that they seem to be doing is giving approvals, attending meetings, signing forms, following up on top management mandates, mediating in discussions, moderating compensation proposals amongst others. All of these are mere tasks with little scope for leadership. So what are we missing here?

The middle layer actually acts as a channel between the strategic and tactical levels of the organization. Where the top level defines the strategy and high level objectives, the middle layer has to make it happen through the lower layers in the form of concrete goals and action plans. A mid-level leader is actually 4 roles of leadership all played by one person.

  • Change Management Champion—For companies to grow in size and adapt to the external market dynamics, they need to constantly keep evolving, creating, and changing. Here’s where mid-level leaders can take ownership by demystifying the HOWs of the change, and converting them into tangible sets of WHENs by working closely with their frontline leadership. As champions of change they would also need to kick-start and mobilize new projects and processes and see them through completion across the span of different teams under their supervision.
  • Collaboration and Cross-functional Facilitator—Matrix structures are a necessity in today’s complex multicultural work environments. Mid-level managers can help break interdepartmental silos by making cross-functional teams work together, besides keeping a bird’s eye view on the larger scheme of things. As collaborators, they also need to ensure their teams are not encumbered by red tape and naysayers.
  • Culture Evangelist—A frontline leader’s role by definition is all about keeping a close eye on the money and operations side of things. However a mid-level leader can focus on people through skip-level meetings, monthly group meetings to recognize good workers and share the bigger picture, besides planning activities to promote a better work environment. A mid-level leader could also address his group during crisis proactively to bolster their spirits and offer them encouragement.
  • Coach and Mentor—Another huge reason for employee dissatisfaction is lack of visible growth opportunities in the horizon. Succession planning is one of the key responsibilities of a mid-level leader. In fact I believe it should be the responsibility (and KPI) of every manager in a company to identify their high potential staff and build a succession plan in collaboration with HR. Mid-level managers would be the best kind of coaches and mentors to make that happen.

Strengthening the Middle

While top management is the head (and brains) of the organization and frontline level the limbs, the middle level leadership is the heart and core. If an organization wants to gear itself up to meet the market demands of customer service, technology, and innovation, they would need to empower their mid-level leaders with necessary resources, and motivate them to fulfil all four roles effectively. If mid-level leaders are expected to plan their succession, then it is top management’s responsibility to do the same and coach and mentor their mid-level staff. Ultimately, the heart and core need to be strengthened and nourished for the limbs and brain to survive!

So what is work culture really?

The other day, I overheard an employee talking to her friend about her company’s awesome work culture. “They give unrestricted Internet access, I get to use Facebook and Google Chat! My boss is so cool – he is my Facebook friend. We have such fun in the office!” It was obvious to me that this employee was someone who might have started her job, less than two years ago at an age when the office appears to be an extended college campus. I wondered what her sentiments would be once she completed five years in the same company. Would she be happy about getting to network on Facebook, or unhappy that she didn’t get a chance to make her resume stronger?

So what is work culture, really?

Culture, as a generic term, represents the collective behavior of a community of people and their collective response to external and internal situations.

To understand this better, let’s draw a parallel between family culture and work culture.

A family is a group of different individuals brought together through marriage and child birth. A company is again a group of individuals brought together for business reasons. What then makes them successful?

Leading with purpose

By leader, I don’t mean a patriarchal head. It could mean both parents working together with a united sense of purpose and steering the family towards that purpose. How does the child learn to make his own decisions? By sounding off his thoughts and feelings to his parents and understanding the possible outcomes. His parents are his compass and he looks towards them to understand which way to go. In families with single parents, the single parent has to play the role of a responsible leader who steers the way ahead.

An organization has to indicate and communicate a strong sense of vision and purpose that echoes in everything they do. While cafeterias, unrestricted Internet, camaraderie might help in attracting employees for a while, it’s the feeling of working for someone, and towards something big that truly excites and motivates them. Everyone loves being part of a big dream, a vision – even the skeptics!

Moral values and trust

Every child learns moral values like ethics, integrity, and respect from parents. Do my parents show respect towards the less fortunate? How do they respond to temptation? Do they exercise their vote? Are they sensitive about the environment? Do they treat the lesser-privileged with respect? It’s not what the parents say, but how they respond and behave. Do they keep their word, or do a volte-face when it’s the time of reckoning?

Does the leadership walk the talk? When employees complain, does management take them seriously by at least hearing them out? When customers are unhappy with their products, does the organization do what is right for the customers? Companies that let managers talk rudely to their employees can be rest assured that these employees may not treat their customers well. Such managers may look smart on the company’s portfolio, but their unhappy teams slowly stop performing and finally get disengaged from the company. Demonstrating integrity takes a lot of courage. Deep down we are idealists. We respect warriors and the brave who take courageous decisions.

Opportunities to learn and grow

Their children’s education is one of the highest priorities in every parents’ lives. Ensuring quality education, a conducive learning and supportive environment at home, and opportunities for overall development – these are the core driving factors parents consider while educating their child. Good food, gifts, a comfortable car, or a tutor – parents are willing to spend so long as they can ensure the child gets motivated and encouraged to study well.

Investing in an employee is more than providing incentives, or free Internet. Is there is a growth plan for them? What future roles can they grow into? How can employees be developed for these future roles? How do we motivate and inspire them to grow? How can we encourage them to give their best? Each of us craves for opportunities to do something new and exciting. Continuous learning opportunities combined with a long-term and robust self-development plan almost always ensures your star performers stay and help in creating more successors for you!

Unity in diversity

It’s rare for a family to have individuals with exactly the same personality! Egos clash, conflicts arise, tempers fly, resentments flare. It’s okay. As long as there is understanding, trust, respect, and acceptance and a sense of long-term purpose, it’s okay. Understanding and respecting each other’s differences helps a family bond better.

Employees do understand and would easily tolerate a leaky air conditioner, a nasty customer call, a poor product, or even an occasional bad boss, so long they believe the leadership will listen to their problems and fix them at the earliest. In times of adversity, employees look up to their leadership to see how they bring everyone together, motivate them, and help them deal with the situation.

A sense of belonging

It’s said that a family that prays together, stays together. Some families dedicate an hour every day where they eat dinner together and talk. Some of them go out for a movie once a month. Laughing together, eating together, or even cleaning the house together promotes a sense of shared purpose and belonging.

How often does leadership communicate with the employees? Is it through impersonal emails or face-to-face address? Does the leadership create an environment where they interact with their employees informally? Does the organization create opportunities for employees to walk up to top leadership to share their ideas and suggestions? Do managers roll up their sleeves and work with their teams or at least be available and approachable when employees struggle with challenging tasks?

Emotional security

“How was your day?” “How are you feeling?” “Let me help you with your homework”. These questions let the child know that he is loved and cared for. In return, the child takes efforts to support his parents and take accountability of his responsibilities willingly. The most important point here is there is no expectation on either side. The support and care is unconditional. This is true even when there is more than one child. Do parents compare siblings and spark rivalry or promote healthy competition by appreciating their differences?

Do managers at all levels take time to ask employees about their families or their insecurities? Do managers recognize their people and willingly give the right ones their due credit? Does the company promote team work and encourage credit sharing? The point to be noticed here is tying compensation to recognition is like gifting a smartphone to only one of the siblings who scored better grades. It may make the system of rewards easy, but causes deep and lasting emotional damage. We like being recognized and noticed – not necessarily with money! Being genuinely appreciated and recognized, encourages employees all the more, and you no longer have to worry about whether or not the job will get done.

Culture is not HR’s responsibility alone

Every child learns at a very young age on what is an absolute No-No. Parents may be forgiving about many things, but even the most liberal of them have certain mandates or non-negotiable rules. No lying or cheating. No disrespecting others. No foul language, please.

It’s not possible for one individual or department to take on work culture as their responsibility. The top leadership has to define the policies and code of conduct. They also need to live the values they propagate in their interactions with one another, or to their employees. HR can be a vehicle to drive and implement culture, but it really is the onus of the steer-leaders of the organization on what culture they manifest before their employees. It’s not only how top management talks during public address, but also during informal occasions.

Companies that take work culture seriously will have employees as their staunchest advocates. Such companies don’t have to work hard to find talent outside. They will find them within, consequently saving on huge costs of hiring and retaining employees. These employees in turn will work with complete dedication and accountability, and think like entrepreneurs and stakeholders of the company during all interactions with customers and the general public. Such companies also have ex-employees willing to join them back. The feeling of goodwill and positive word-of-mouth can be contagious and have far-reaching benefits like employee loyalty and customer loyalty. Like one of my friends pointed out to me, the 26/11 attack at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai is a case in point. At the risk of their lives, the hotel staff and the General Manager did whatever they could to protect and shelter their guests trapped during the terrorist attack. Many perished in their attempt. They had the choice of fleeing from the situation or leaving the job of rescuing their guests to the security agency. Nonetheless, they laid down their lives for their customers, because of their high sense of commitment, ownership and belonging to their employer.

Work culture cannot exist in silos. Like ripples in water, culture of an organization spreads from the top management and percolates down to all levels. It may sound like a sentiment, but the effects of a strong work culture can neither be ignored nor undermined. While the sales figures might dip or peak over the months, work culture is that simple yet nebulous aspect that can take a small company from mediocrity to great heights.