Friday, January 9, 2009

How to Maintain Your American Management Ideals When They Conflict With Your Indian Workforce


I didn't do it here in Gurgaon... the types of things I did in Kolkata to evaulate my team and understand the people and their motivations. Perhaps that's why the team isn't as solid as my base to the East.

When I first got there, everyone was intimidated by me. They wouldn't look me in the eye, they'd barely talk to me, and they'd call me Madam, sometimes Sir. I had a real office there, with a door, where you could have a private conversation. (Maybe that's the difference here.) I asked HR to have each of my staff come in one at a time (there were close to 40 when I arrived) and have an interview with me. I wanted to have a copy of their personnel file to review before each meeting. I started by introducing myself and why I was there and what my background was. I then asked them if they had any questions about me. Then I started asking questions about the company... what they liked, didn't like - focused on the company first. Then I started asking them more personal questions. I asked them about their professional goals and career path. I asked about how the position they were in worked into that plan. We reviewed their backgrounds and interests because some of these people were really in the wrong jobs. I committed to them that I would help mentor them and their careers if they kept the conversation going - I needed communication to be a two-way street.

About 90% gave me the same sentence: "It will be such an honor to learn from you Madam." That's crap. I wanted to have some constructive criticism and some ideas on how to fix the challenges we faced, but none were forthcoming. Brainstorming with a group was also not working - everyone was afraid of looking stupid and you always had at least one guy who loves the sound of his own voice. (You know what I mean.) So I decided to bring toys in and a ball. In a brainstorming session, I'd throw the ball to someone and say, "Tag, what's your idea? Say the first thing that pops in your head, then throw the ball to someone else who hasn't shared." This helped. Legos were good too, and candy. My son told me about a study that said that sucking on a hard candy while testing activates the dendrites in your brain...

There is also a lot of passive aggression in teams here. I'd ask tech, "How long will it take to get that widget ready to launch?" They'd say something like a week. When I first got there, I really thought it would be ready in a week (at Tripod and Lycos we published every Friday). We'd get our marketing projects all done and ready for launch, then, pfffft. I'd contact Tech and they'd say, "Oh, um... we have a couple of questions about that project. Can we meet next week?" NEXT WEEK? "We can't start working on it until we have another discussion." YOU HAVEN'T EVEN STARTED IT! WTF!

I started to visit Tech employees unannounced; during difficult issues, I'd be in the trenches with them and the Marketing staff involved. Marketing did all the QA for these projects. Tech would simply email me that it was done and this is the URL where it is live. And the projects never worked. Or they were ugly. Or they didn't match the product spec at all. I confronted one Tech guy, one of the Team Leaders, and took him out of his office and into the hall and asked him point blank, "Do you want to work on this project? Because if you don't want to, or can't, I'll get someone who will." I told him to give me a date for the next stage in the project and that the expectation was that it will be completely tested before it goes live, that ALL line items in the product spec would be there, and that Marketing would do the UI and design. He went directly to his boss, and said either she goes or I go. His boss said, "You made commitments, you need to honor them. She's not going anywhere." I was glad to have this support, but I also started thinking that my aggressive New York manner was completely inappropriate for India. It wasn't getting me anywhere.

After a few projects, Marketing took over all the copywriting, all HTML, and Flash design for special projects and marketing banners, and UI design. We did everything but code. When I was at the point of hiring my own techs, things broke down and there was a reorganization put in place. I had to let go of half my staff. I stopped working for the boss who supported me and was moved to work under the other co-founder. His working style was much different.

I made the difficult decision over a weekend. Some were easy to lose, others that I wanted to lose were favorites of the big bosses so I had to be "creative" and planned on losing them later. There were some people that I was barely able to save, but I saw a lot of potential in them. The folks that stayed understood that they had to market themselves. For some it was innate, because they took such pride in their work that they would come to me to show that they gotten not one the #1 rank for a particular keyword at Google, but also #2, 3, 4 AND 5. Now that showed commitment. He was responsible. He was dependable and always showed up early and was never one to complain if he stayed late. Another person was promoted because he had an obsessive ability to critique a project, a software interface, crunch numbers, review the work to make sure it was flawlessly completed. Although he was quiet, he knew what to do. He was loyal, not only to the company, but me as well. He immediately understood why my focus was on quality and project follow-through and testing new ideas. He loved to try new things, but no one had given him a chance. Another had what I call "living in the American Cultural Experience" and that made it easy to promote her. Her writing skills were great, her team leader was a moron, and she was essentially the person people naturally went to, to learn. She got things done because she cared about the work. It was her personal reputation at stake, along with the company's and she saw it as a win-win. I also demoted those people that weren't leaders.

That Monday, I brought in my list of who stays and who goes. I was told those being relieved of their employment would be told the next day. I decided I would let those who were staying know it at the same time. HR would call someone, I'd call someone else. I told them about the reduction of staff and that some people were leaving, "but this is why I want you to stay..." I maintained my dignity, except during the first meeting, when he started to cry, making me start to cry. (I always start to cry when someone else does - such a baby).

I showed compassion to those who were laid off. I told them honestly that this was a business decision and those who were not performing to the level of others just weren't going to be able to represent and fulfill the company's objectives for the future. It was hard. They had tough stories, but no one's was harder than mine. I'm in a strange country where I don't speak the language. I have dependents and I am the sole wage earner for my home. I gots to be paid or I don't eat. My son doesn't eat. My dog doesn't eat. These guys were going home to their large family situations. They were still going to have a roof over their head and food in their bellies. They could last a few months while they found something new. I was pretty blunt to a few people who probably thought me heartless, but I'm not built to take their individual personal situation into the decision. I rated their performance based on what they did in my office to achieve company objectives. Nothing else. Well that, and attitude.

There was a lot of tension over the next couple of days, but I tried to create a culture of appreciation. I said "Thanks for ..." to individuals in front of their Team Leaders and peers for their efforts and found different ways to recognize them. I was lucky to see the change starting to occur when they saw how much I cared about the work and their efforts, and that their hard work was being recognized.

I started letting go of the Team Leaders and letting them actively participate in the leadership of their Teams. This spread a sense of ownership on the decisions made in our department instead of my feeling like the bearer of bad news of a decision made at the top (which did frequently occurred).

Now this is where I learned my most valuable lesson. One day, the electricity went out and we were sitting in the dark for hours (with candles). HR decided about three quarters of the way through the day to send everyone home and have them come and work a full day on Saturday to make up the time. I was just as bitchy as my staff at this point. We'd spent about 5-6 hours in the dark already. I said NO.

My boss calls me up and says what's the problem. I answered that "We've been here all day with nothing to do, why should we come in and work a full day on Saturday? It not their fault the electricity is out." AND THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART: He said, "It's not my fault either."

Management, especially here, is full of people who just want to be treated with deference and told how great they are. There are typically a bevy of yes man and cronies hanging around the executive floor, ready to latch onto any executive to further their own careers. They're like cockroaches. I can see right through them. But there are a few executives that really understand, and this where it got interesting for me. These yes-men and cronies love to spread gossip and they make up outrageous lies about the things the executives do and get away with. But this simple sentence, "It's not my fault, either," is so very true. Like Obama, it's not his fault what he's walking into, but he's going to be dealing with it on his watch. The global economy is in a down slide and even if it happens on your watch, you may not have the wherewithal to make the change that needs to be done. You may need to do things that seem heartless to ensure the company survives so that eventually it can grow back again, like a good pruning to a hedge. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Even bad news has to come out. They were working that Saturday, me included. I told them that we have to make up the work that had to be done. They were pretty vocal (behind my back about it) so we regrouped. I explained accordingly. "I'm not happy about coming in Saturday, either. If you have passed your targets for the month, then see me and we'll talk, otherwise, see you Saturday." No one came into my office. Everyone was there Saturday.

As an employee, keep your focus on the company objectives. If you're interviewing and the person interviewing you doesn't know what the objectives are (especially at a dotcom or IT services company), leave as quickly as you can. Those companies will change business models every three months, they'll have unrealistic expectations and ultimately, you cannot succeed when your job focus changes every six weeks. You are simply setting yourself up for disaster.

What's good for the company will always be good for you, too. Stealing time, stealing intellectual property, infringing on someone else's copyright just to do the least possible work to get by, will NEVER do. Americans EXPECT ethical practices in the workplace. They respect people's privacy. And they expect you to perform.

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