Thursday, April 30, 2009

Learnings at work

Managing people is not easy. The last two weeks have given me cause for introspection and some self-analysis. I’ve been thinking about work, different working cultures, different individual personalities and all the little intangibles that we confront everyday in the workplace. I wonder if there is a better way to manage things, or if just some things are tougher than others.

This last week I’ve been dealing with minor issues at work. On its own not significant, and stemming largely from people’s individual personalities and the differences between working styles. But like some things, this is one of those where the sum is larger than its parts, and adding up all the little anomalies leads to a picture of a workforce that is slowly losing its cohesiveness and collective efficiency and fragmenting itself into little serfdoms. The problem is not with work per se, or their working abilities or efficiency; it’s more of how they work, and how they work with each other.

I think I learnt that wherever possible, while selecting a person for a task, pick attitude over ability. Of course, finding the right person who’s got the right mix of both is ideal... but such people are so rare! That said, it’s awesome that a lot of core people I work with have exactly that golden balance. I guess professional maturity is something innate, and no amount of training can infuse that delicate balance of competence, common sense, self-secured-ness (is that the word?) in their own abilities and openness to personal growth and learning.

Before I embarked on my own venture, I learnt a lot from shadowing my father and watching him run a successful business. Especially in an organization like his/ours where we take them in young, and really dedicate a lot of resources to their personal and professional growth and training, I guess all that investment in their future does come back in good ways, whether it is in keeping attrition low, or in extracting the best out of our employees.

I always try to put people in their comfort zones, and capitalize on their strengths rather than focus on their opportunities for growth. This is something I realised on my own, and it was quite a realization although in hindsight it seems really obvious. I guess not everyone is wired the same, and whereas I get bored easily and always seek new challenges and opportunities for learning, some people are very comfortable dealing with issues they have experience handling. Luckily, I learnt not to fall into that trap of assuming everyone has the same working style, attitude to work or skillset as me, and have avoided making assumptions about how different people will look at a particular issue and whether they will take it in the right spirit or not. The problems happen when their job profile does not allow for a high level of autonomy or seclusion, and this is where interpersonal skills and communication abilities come into play.  

My dad once told me about an incident when he was at B school. It was during a class on negotiations, and during the exercise his two classmates pitted against each other literally went in for the kill. Aggressive and ruthless, they were both extremely focused on extracting the best possible scenario for themselves out of the interaction. He said it was one of the most intensive and stimulating sessions. When the class was over, the two of them headed to the basketball court to shoot ball like nothing happened. “Americans”, he said, “understand it’s not personal. Work is work.” How I wish it was the same here, and we could just focus on work and not waste time in detangling frivolous issues that just sap energy.

There were so many times during this project I just wanted to quit, where I got beaten down, and disillusioned that instead of running a dynamic, energetic young team... here I was using up the major part of my working day dealing with people problems and managing egos. You would think someone with that many years of work experience and formal training in a corporate culture would exhibit professional maturity. But most problems I face while managing issues boil down to some people personalizing trivial issues, and getting emotional in the face of constructive criticism. Why don’t people understand that a criticism is not a personal attack? And in this case, it was not even a criticism of their ability or dedication to work, but merely asking them to be a little more considerate of other people in the team whom they need to work with, not fight against to get their way.

I suppose I need to evaluate my own sense of leadership while dealing with people problems. One thing I am thankful for is that I do not have incompetent people on my team; everyone here brings with them their own special set of skills and expertise and is truly committed to taking the vision forward. The problem is... whose vision? The company’s or the individual’s? I am still working on getting people more and more aligned with the company’s vision and culture, and I believe the best way to do that is through dialogue and free-flowing communication. It’s not been easy, but here’s hoping we eventually get there.

For my part, I try to impart some kind of training to all my employees and team members. We do interactive training modules, we do brainstorming sessions, we do knowledge sharing meetings... and it all adds up to trying to infuse the same spirit of enthusiasm, ownership and synergy within the company. It all adds up to getting everyone on the same page. Wherever possible, through my own actions as an example, and explicitly I have always expressed the need for open and honest communication, transparency and sharing of info. And I remain accessible to everyone within the organization, and again this is something I learnt from my dad, where he’s shown me how people feel reassured and secure and give more in their jobs when they know that if they have issues with their immediate superior, they can always approach someone higher and the company will do right by them. I suppose the biggest deterrent I face here is with people who have worked in a different organizational culture and are resistant to change.

I guess change will happen with time. And I guess I need more patience. If I am the one people look to for guidance, then I should be the one setting an example by staying cool and playing my part with tact and resolve. Perhaps I should a) focus on the positive things and be happy that at least the problems aren’t stemming from incompetence b)  understand that egos are fragile things, and everyone just looks for appreciation and recognition in the workplace, and I need to congratulate them when they do deliver, and package my criticism better. It’s a fine balance; I hope I get there soon and am able to articulate my criticisms as clearly, succinctly and constructively as possible without getting annoyed with the other person’s defensive attitude.

Sometimes I wonder how my father manages a taskforce of 1500-odd employees, each with their own take on how best to fulfil his duties. I guess a lot of my dad’s working style has been shaped in part by his days at H, in part from his years of experience working in this industry and in part arising from his own innate leadership skills. I hope some of that has rubbed off on me. I am lucky to have had something much better than just formal training and years of work exp: a mentor.

A friend and B school graduate once said the best thing she learnt at B school were the people skills. Working with that many competent, intelligent, ambitious young people on the same problem where the ‘right’ answer is often ambiguous can be challenging. If anything, it teaches one diplomacy and tact while getting to the solution of a problem collectively and by utilising every member’s strengths. I hope I come out of B school a better boss, better team player and a better person.