Archives For Career

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Bloomberg published an article about why Indians in senior leadership positions are sought after and I found it particularly interesting that it was written by a non-Indian.  Leonid Bershidsky observed that Indians possess a mix of empathy, humility, patience and an ability to dream that make us good candidates for these positions.  Throughout the article, he provides a number of examples that make this case.

I felt a momentary privilege reading this, especially given I had never thought of this angle of analysis before – but, it strikes me that despite the huge amount of influence culture has on people, it’s not a single culture that leads to successful leaders.  For all the examples cited in that article, I can think of counter examples of Indian senior leaders that do not exactly fit that mold.

Indian culture inherently brings empathy to the forefront – it takes tremendous amount of effort for us Indians to get past the point of ‘feeling’ the pain of friends and family, and sometimes, even acquaintances.  There is too much emotion involved in just about everything.  This is what leads to large, joint families that quarrel and make up on a regular basis as if that was their main goal in life.

Humility and patience go hand-in-hand to some extent – in a country of a billion+ people, you often must earn your respect and it takes time. As to the ability to dream, I’ll get to it a little later.

What is intriguing about this article is that while it makes some valid points, Indians are not fundamentally born leaders.  Historically, India continuously submitted to external occupants and leaders and the war for independence was fought with tremendous patience and empathy – taking us back to reinforcements of those qualities.  Assertive leadership was never an option and there were instances where this was not quite desirable.  Whether the India-Pakistan divide was a result of this rather ‘soft leadership’ will be an inconclusive debate forever!

Coming back to corporate careers and particularly corporate America – an Indian without the impacts of western (particularly, American) education and work culture is more likely to be a misfit than a successful leader.  Of course, we can debate this and point out exceptions (there always are!).  But the real point is that it is worldly exposure and wisdom that ultimately brings out the best in people.  Cultures are also passed down very powerfully – just like traits that get passed on across generations, corporate cultures also flow down the chain.  A micro managing leader at the top is likely to create a ladder of micro managers under him/her.

For all the pluses that Indian culture brings to leadership, I can think of several cons as well that come with it – say, being a bit too passive or shy, dwelling on ideas for too long before making bets, etc.  It is the exposure to western cultures that teaches us how to balance these against aggressiveness and making calculated big bets.

All credit goes to the internationalization and a confluence of several cultures – the more exposed we are, the more rounded we get and better leaders we become.  So, never stop exploring – that’s the only path to being a great leader!

As to whether Satya Nadella would do great things for Microsoft – I have my biases and I’ll let them be for now!

boss vs leader

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe several mid, high and executive level leaders in action, in very close quarters.  I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with several of them as well as observe many more in their journey to deliver strategies and results. Those of us that have attempted leadership know that leadership is hard and involves much more beyond technical expertise. Every now and then, we run into leaders that are not great at what they do. After observing several managers and leaders, I’ve realized that there is one cardinal quality that makes or breaks a leader – and that is the ability to motivate people.

Especially for engineers, the ability to motivate is inherently hard.  This is because in order to motivate, they need to focus on the positives.  And as engineers, we’ve been trained to identify problems and continuously strive to optimize further.  A good engineer is able to identify problems, solve them and optimize the solutions until it is nearly perfect.  A less than perfect solution is not satisfactory. And this attitude poses a huge challenge as engineers grow to be leaders of other engineers.

Being an engineer as well as an Indian is a double whammy, speaking for myself. Indians are trained for competitive spirit with the mantra of being first and the best in everything we do. I am quite sure there are other cultures that fall into this category, but I cannot speak with confidence about that.

As I sat through all-hands meetings at various levels of leadership along the years, in successful companies nonetheless, I’ve seen some leaders that are able to instill an enthusiasm to deliver even more amazing things and some that are downright awful at inspiring.  For some, even as they talk about the wonderful accomplishments of teams, it is difficult not to follow that up with “but, we have big challenges ahead of us”.  This shows they never dwell in their glory and keep their eyes on the future (which is good for a leader), but, it also shows that they don’t quite understand what drives people.

This morning, as I fought one of my son’s worst tantrums as I got him ready to school, I gave in to my anger and frustration. Ultimately, I managed to get him in the car – but, it made me reflect on just how I failed on infusing the motivation of going to school (to be sure, I broke down after several attempts of motivation failed, but that is only incidental in the big picture). Engineering leadership is not unlike that.  We will run into people of varying capabilities and drives that makes motivating all of them a tough job.

Motivational ability is hardly a singleton quality in engineering leadership.  It is often the confluence of several other qualities.  Leaders that inspire must be capable enough in the eyes of the teams they lead or their words will not be construed as inspiration.  This does not mean that they know all the details of the team’s work, but it does mean that they can understand the details when they need to, connect the dots and provide guidance at just the right level.

Great leaders are those that junior members aspire to be someday.  They show by gestures that they care and want the best for their people.  Some of the qualities they possess are worth highlighting.

  • They take the time often to reflect on the team’s accomplishments and truly recognize them, in words and gestures.  Their voice shows they mean it when they publicly recognize the greatness of the team.  They say it multiple times to be sure beyond a doubt that the team understands how much their efforts are appreciated.
  • They take the time to learn how to say people’s names (they can never be caught pronouncing your name incorrectly).
  • They ask often how they can do better on ensuring a job match for you.
  • They don’t try to do your job for you. Engineers have a hard time with this, as they have this urge to do better and feel they can do better than others.  As they get less time for detailed analysis, this leads to frustrations on both sides.
  • They don’t wait to have tough conversations. They have it early so they can provide the opportunity to course correct where needed.

But, above everything, great leaders can motivate.  All else is secondary as they march their teams forward!

diversity

The tech community has demonstrated that it is at best confused about what type of diversity businesses should aim for, in order to advance well.  It is one thing to curb discrimination, but on the topic of diversity, I think we should be looking for “diversity in perspectives”.  

Diversity has hardly been an easy topic to understand.  For centuries, the human civilization has been trying to deal with just what diversity is and how best to handle it.  So, it is no surprise that it leads to exhaustion as Dick Costolo gets hammered on the lack of women on the Twitter board.  Those who followed the NYTimes article and the less than ideal exchange that happened on Twitter following a harsh comment by @dickc know that the situation is getting so much attention.

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On the topic of “women as minority”, I have very conflicted views.  I’ve written earlier on this topic, advocating that women need to be confident and trust in their abilities to be as good or better as their male counterparts.  So, this question of “should an organization be compelled to have a woman on their board” makes me very uncomfortable.  If you are a woman, would you like to be hired because you are a woman (of course you’d be subject to a minimum bar) or would you like to be hired because there isn’t a better candidate than you for the job?  I’d prefer the latter myself.

For what it’s worth, I think we are hung up on the wrong question!  We are implicitly making this be about discrimination rather than diversity in a meaningful sense.  Have you hired the best candidate you could find for the job?  Of course, there are all kinds of other factors – a reasonable timeline for one – but, in general, if you answered yes to that question, you are done!

Diversity In Perspectives

Now, diversity in perspectives, however, is a completely different thing.  A company like Twitter needs creativity in multiple dimensions.  Arguably, understanding female users is one area.  But, I have a hard time professing that you need a woman to understand female users.  Would you hire a teenager to the board so you can understand teenage users?  Not necessarily.  In a similar manner, the key is that you have a board that can bring in diverse perspectives that are important to your business.  The real problem lies in the fact that most leaders are not necessarily excellent judges of other people’s strengths.  So, it is generally hard for someone to understand who is bringing the right set of perspectives in which area.  How do you know that a male director you just hired understands female users?  It is much easier to believe that hiring a woman will bring that perspective.  All the noise about how Twitter has so many female users and hence desperately needs a woman on the board relate to exactly that!

It is true that it is often difficult for people to understand how their real users behave and what they need.  The solution to this is not that they go find themselves a representative from each segment of their user population.  First of all, there is no guarantee that a 40-year old woman can bring the perspective of a teenage girl.  So, unless you got your segments exactly right, that would not be an ideal fit.  Second, not only do you need the right perspectives from different user segments, you also need these people to be able to connect the dots together and create a cohesive strategy.  Not to mention be able to identify user segments of future relevance.

The bottomline is that diversity in perspectives is what is most important and you need creative people who can understand that they are not necessarily the representative user, can understand the actual users and project their future wants and needs and equally critically, can work together!

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Huffington Post published this theory about why Generation Y people are largely unhappy.  First of all, there is a little debate about what really is Gen X and Gen Y.  The timelines that Huff Post talks about don’t tally with what Wikipedia thinks.  But, I digress.  Really, it talks about two related concepts.  That the relationship between happiness and reality is governed by expectations.

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This is somewhat logical and I can get behind it.  So far, it’s alright.  The second part is that the expectations of Gen Y people are unrealistic!

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So, this is where the problem starts.  It talks about how Gen Y people feel special and want to cut short the hardworking process of progressing in your career and how that’s all messed up.  At the surface, it seems like there is a logic here.  But, when you scratch the surface a little, you realize this is total bullshit.  This writeup went on to invoke reactions such as this one. Okay, that’s one aspect of it – that Gen Y people are left to deal with student loans and insufficient jobs.  While I sympathize with that, that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.

Careers are no longer built in sequential progressions that cause years of hard work to eventually pay off.  That’s one way of looking at it and frankly, that’s a broken way of looking at it any more.  Places that reward just the sheer number of years one has been working hard at a particular level are likely not innovating aggressively.  It is the era where the smarter one and the one that can deliver takes all.  This is why it is not at all uncommon for one to be reporting to a past report of theirs, where someone who is younger had an impact that earned them a faster progression than their older boss has had.

Any more, progression is about impact.  True, it is conceivable that you might have impact early and might end up with a lot of responsibility when you are not ready for it.  That surely happens.  However, it cannot be true any more that you keep progressing just because you are working hard.  The working hard must absolutely translate into impact or it’s of no value.  And not all organizations and managers are good at seeing those two as distinct things.  It takes skill to separate the two.  Hard work can often be misinterpreted for eventual impact and that’s a problem.

Chamath Palihapitiya perfectly articulates this notion in this video.  As he notes, the pedigree you collect via traditional education and methods matters less and less.  What you know and what you can cause to happen matter a lot more.  Some people have a hard time separating experience and maturity from age and impact.  It’s never too early to recognize impact.  If you can sense when impact and maturity go hand in hand and capitalize on that talent, you’ll do well.  That’s what separates the ones that keep innovating from the ones that stagnate.

No, careers are not built with progressive linearity.  Careers are a function of impact and maturity.  And it doesn’t matter what generation you are from.  It only matters that you can think big and deliver big.

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As I listened to a CEO (with an impressive background of a pipeline of senior titles) of a young, somewhat already successful company deliver a keynote at an extremely popular conference to an audience of about a 1000 people or more, I wondered about this – why are there so few execs who can really capture the audience?  I will refrain from the particulars of the individual, because it is not important.  The presentations that followed were all similarly styled – eye charts on colorful tables for the most part.  We are all familiar with this – sitting through boring presentations that page through packed bullets and tables on slides and conclude with 10 takeaways packing the last slide.  Why didn’t someone give these people a lesson on presentations?  Why do they fail to learn from the most brilliant presentations that have been delivered by a select few leaders and visionaries?

I’ve been guilty of packing a lot of material on slides, but over the years, I’ve increasingly learned that it doesn’t help.  The corporate template in a previous company I worked for was designed to fit more text than available default templates in PowerPoint.  It is really tempting to fit that one last relevant point, without which the presentation will be so incomplete!

I’m not going to say that there is a blanket rule about how to do presentations – of course, the audience and scope of the presentations should help us tune it appropriately.  And sometimes, slides are guiding material for a deeply technical discussion – a substitute for a white board (although it is a terrible idea generally speaking, it may make sense at times).  In those cases, go ahead and put your equations on the slides and pack it up with barely readable font that can be zoomed into for your discussion!  But, more often than not, you are presenting to an audience that wants the gist of your talk and is potentially coming in without the deep knowledge you have in the topic you are about to talk about.

Many people have written about how to give presentations and there are many that make a career teaching people how to present effectively.  There are a couple that I consider amazing material that is a must-read for anyone doing a talk for any sizable audience:

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Simon James On Giving A Research Talk

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Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule

The Internet is filled with tons of other content on how to do presentations, but these two are what you’ll need to check out for the most part.

I’ll close with a few points on what should be on our minds while preparing for a talk.  Much of this is borrowed or observed from inspiring thoughts and presentations from some of the best speakers out there.

  • When slides don’t matter
    There are some truly amazing speakers.  So good they don’t need something on the monitors to engage the audience or assist with talking points.  When you are that good, skip the slides entirely.  Or, fill it up with junk.  Because, you are the focus of the audience when you are that good.  But, many of us are not in this category and hence need to focus on other points.
  • Know the key message your talk should focus on
    Every talk needs to drive home no more than one message to its audience.  Not two, not three, just one.  Focus on that and make sure the entire deck is converging towards that message.
  • Tell a story around the key message
    Humans think and connect in terms of stories rather well.  So, tell a story.  Not on your slides, but construct a flow of a story in your head, leading up to the key message.
  • Your slides are not the handout material
    Don’t treat your slides as the handout material – if you need material that will live beyond the talk, create a separate version or add notes.  Your live audience does not need to be tortured with tiny fonts because you may have other readers – after all, if your audience didn’t think the talk was great, you failed anyway!
  • Resist the temptation to use bullets
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  • Look at your audience, engage them, take cues
    Understand when you need to pivot your talk in some way by observing your audience.  It is really hard to do this when you are already nervous about the talk, but, this is as powerful as it gets.  Engage your audience when you can.  Make it interactive rather than a lecture.
  • Don’t leave your passion behind!
    Last but not the least, be absolutely, truly passionate about your talk.  If you are not passionate about the topic, try not doing the talk! There are circumstances when your job requires you to do presentations, but, try to be in it.  You’ll enjoy your job a lot more that way too!

Great ideas need to be communicated.  An idea is only worthwhile if others can see the value of it.  Presentations are clearly important.  Make a conscious effort to do them right!