Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Answer to a Reader's Question

I got this question for from one of my readers.

"Do you see any change happening to the management mindscape in the post-Satyam, post-Wipro World Bank ban scenario in Indian companies... given the top-heavy management styles?"

Here's my answer:

There's a famous quotation "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." It's only if company management wants to change (and it's a HUGE change) that you will find a change in mindset. And it has to be a holistic, top to bottom approach that is communicated clearly, succinctly and features consequences for not adhering to the new mindset. It's not necessarily about numbers, but overall ethics, long term vision, and typically, with all the passive aggression I've witnessed here, it will take very public humiliation of the first few firings for people to get it. There also needs to be mechanism in place to enable people to bring forth ideas and be allowed to fail.

That's sort of why people like me get hired in this country. I'm used to being a change agent and it doesn't make you popular and that's tough for a lot of people including a lot of Americans. You have to take risks. You have to be willing to fail. And you have to lead by example.

Because I have so much background in the trenches of web-related marketing, management and production, I have done all the jobs that are part of any project except for actual back-end programming. I've done linking, I've done SEO, SEM, web content writing, UI design and testing, I've done the project management, client interaction, HTML build-out, domain management, web site testing, analytics, you name it. I know EXACTLY how much time a task should take. I know what quality looks like. So when someone comes to me and says it will take two weeks to add the google analytics code, I'm going to be pissed. It took me less than one hour to add it to a 50,000 page web site. If someone tells me it will take two weeks to give me three mockups of a web site redesign, I know that doesn't need to take more than a day. If someone says it's going to take them a week to create a CSS for a site, I'll probably want to throw something at them. I can understand giving yourself some wiggle room in case of browser issues, etc., but this is ridiculous.

When I arrived here, we were severely understaffed. We had a lot of SEO people (and I was assured they were very good and all were assistant managers and managers with no people doing real work.) There was one really bad designer (with a tech degree, not design) and one writer going out on maternity. We had quite a few sites to drive traffic to. In the meantime, HR wanted an overhaul of our own corporate website.

Here's an example of leading by example. I had reviewed the meta tags on one site and the keywords we were focusing on were: "Free Online Casino", "Online Casino" and "Online Casino Games". The Title tag on the home page said, "Download Free Casino Games, Casino Software, Casino Games No Download, Big Jackpots". I wanted extremely dense, short titles that also integrated our branding. I asked the manager to change it to "Free Online Casino Games at Casino". This implemented all three keyword targets exactly and the brand. During the first week after the request, I designed, wrote content, developed the HTML template, built out the pages, produced a custom Flash intro, SEO'd and fully tested our corporate site, then launched it live. By end of day Thursday, it was complete.

Following up on the casino site, the meta tag had not been changed. This is called passive aggression. I'd ask, "When will the tag be changed?" and I'd get the answer, "Today only, Madam." Yet I would come in every morning and check. Today only again. Since I didn't ask while I was working on the other web site, they simply disregarded the priority I gave it. I finally stood over him and made him change it now. "Abhi!" After the next google crawl, we started getting search engine traffic on the desired keywords and an increase in PR for our home page. This is a constant battle.

I expect perfection from myself and I fail, but I get as close as I can. I expect others to want the same in themselves. I take great pride in my work and I expect others to do the same. I expect the same in my fellow managers and deal directly with them when I'm not seeing it, but not in front of their people. That's a serious no-no here. I get that, but if you're not running your team by example, maybe I WILL start talking to you publicly about it. If I need your team to finish something you stay and oversee their finishing the project. I would do the same in mine. I expect people to hit deadlines with what was promised.

Picasso said, "Your work is the ultimate seduction." I think a lot of families here push their children to be professionals, like accountants, engineers, doctors, and lawyers, when their children's temperaments and interests lie elsewhere. What do you think Shah Rukh Khan's parents must have said when he came from school one day and said he wanted to be an actor? I'm sure they thought he could never get a decent bride unless was a manager in an engineering company. Some people were meant to be poets; others, dancers, and not everybody is suited to Internet Marketing. That said, a whole lot more people are not suited to mentoring staff.

And that's the whole difference. My philosophy is that I don't MANAGE people, I MENTOR them. I want them to get as much from me as I get from them. I can show them new ways to do things, ask them questions that make them start to see the long term goals, help them be more creative and not afraid to fail. I'll take the trash out, and I'll say please and thank you to the guy who sweeps the floors and clean the bathrooms in my office. He provides a service. I appreciate the fact that he does it so I usually don't have to, and that's not typical thinking in my experience in India. There are very strict layers of management that works like a waterfall - top down, do as I say, ask no questions. I prefer more of an iterative management style. Ask a question to my boss, "What do you think about doing YZ? I'd like to test it." Then I'll put together a team, get feedback from all the stakeholders... will this affect sales? programming? design? warehouse? database admins? etc. The people at the lowest level, the ones that repeatedly interact with dissatisfied customers, fix bugs, analyze 404 errors, they talk to others in their fields which I'm not necessarily privy to. They're more specialized in those areas than I ever will be. But by listening to their views, we get more ideas. At the management level, it is my job to finalize the strategy and tactics, then go back upstairs to the boss, getting his/her feedback, then going back downstairs to the team, and repeating this as often as it takes to make the best product possible, with a reasonable time to market at the best quality possible.

At this point, it's only the beginning. The CYA (cover your a$$) process begins - analytics, ROI... if it fails, I take responsibility; I implemented it. I don't launch unless I'm proud of it, but if I am forced to do so, I'll do my best with what I am stuck with but I'll be vocal about what's not right. I'll revisit that project as often as I can to add/enhance/replace. Nothing is set in stone on the internet nor should it.

Overall, unless Indian management teams can begin to let go of the bureaucracy, and the idea that ethics, quality, service and long term vision are an integral parts of building a world class company, they will always lose to someone who can build it harder, better, faster, stronger. Eventually.

One other thing, the million dollar idea can come from an intern, or the youngest customer service rep. You never know. But expecting people to move their ideas upstream? Only salmon can do that.

Later, peeps.


  1. Great post. I think you highlight all the desirable features of American management practice :
    1. Leader as servant... making your follower's jobs more meaningful,helping them realize their full potential etc.Not many people believe that leaders could be spending anywhere upwards of 30% of their time mentoring, coaching and developing their people..The best Indian firms do, though. You may want to consider contacting someone at the TATA group of companies, to exchange notes.

    2. Letting people know they are paid to think, challenge and be accountable for results.I think lots of people in India correlate rank/ hierarchy with domain knowledge, when you might be waiting for them to come up with a better solution.

    3. Disagreeing, without being disagreeable... this is not a easy skill, even for folks in the USA. I think passive aggression, and folks never wanting to say NO, or ask for clarification ; is rooted in their desire to avoid conflict. Getting into a situation such as this requires the willingness to learn, press you to spend time with them.

    However,you may want to ask someone how to adapt these to Indian situations. Otherwise your team and you "will be sleeping in the same bed, but having different dreams"!!

  2. Boston 123, you make very good points. I have a big challenge because I am an aggressive New Yorker. I'm so much the stereotype, that it can be helped. It's my nature.

    I know absolutely no one who works for TATA personally, but people I've spoken to about TATA say stay away. Maybe because they know my personality. I haven't really dug much further... any TATA readers, I'd love to know if that's a place for me. (I have a feeling that bureaucracy reigns supreme there - just my gut feeling...)

    I love your last paragraph. I have found that it takes time, and only time, to build that relationship of trust and I have found it takes as much as six months to make it happen.

    When I left Kolkata, I cried in front of my entire staff. I told them that it was an honor to lead them. After a year of working with them, they had come so far. If you ever get a resume from someone who worked with me after January 1st, 2008 at, snap them up. They understand how to work as world citizens. They understand what's important. They understand long term vision and I will always love them for their loyalty in spite of bureaucracy, their patience in spite of passive aggression, and their ability to keep positive when management was afraid to make a decision.

    In my heart, I know that they will always remember the crazy American that lead their team and the principles I instilled in them, and that makes me feel really good. :-)

    Onward, team.

  3. You said..
    "In my heart, I know that they will always remember the crazy American that lead their team and the principles I instilled in them"

    Maybe you are really over estimating yourself and under estimating the Indians?

    Americans will slowly be forced to shed this arrogant attitude that they are the smartest and best in the world, especially as their economy begins to tumble.

    Don't you work UNDER an Indian and isn't the Indian paying your salary?? Who owns the company you work for?

  4. Anonymous:

    I absolutely do not. Those staff members who clearly "got it" told me that. Many of them wanted me to hire them once I got settled in my new position. In fact, I still mentor a number of them from Gurgaon. The people who couldn't or wouldn't understand my way of working got nothing out of me and I don't miss them either.

    I'm not underestimating Indians. If you treat them as peers, they can rise up as peers, but if you treat them as if you know everything and tell them to shut up and do it my way, they'll become disenchanted with the job.. If you treat them like they're in prison, forcing them to sign in and sign out with every toilet break, that's not professional. In the U.S., you work as many hours as you need to to hit targets and deadlines. Some people are there evenings, nights, and weekends. Others can manage on a 9-5. But the bottom line is make your targets. Always.

    I'll give you an example. I had a brilliant linker who had a target of averaging 5 reciprocals a day. He took his time, found maybe 20 sites and reached his targets every time. Another staff member targeted over 120 a day and never met targets. Who's using their time more effectively?

    Americans typically are arrogant, but they're also team builders. They are doers. They're risk takers. The immigrants coming to the U.S. go their and do. They become. It's up to them. I guess I could come off as arrogant, but if you worked with me, you'd know that I share my knowledge, I go to bat for my staff, I support them. If I were arrogant, I simply wouldn't care. I think there's more arrogance found in the local management style that doesn't let you disagree with your boss to his face, expecting you to do what he says in spite of knowing it's going to fail. THAT type of leadership is arrogance. And don't kid yourself. As America tumbles, so goes the rest of the world. We are the ultimate consumers (which to me is not a good thing). Many companies overseas rely solely on American revenue. As they used to say, "If America sneezes, Canada gets the flu." Our mortgage crisis was borne out of sup-prime mortgages that were then bought in bulk by foreign investment firms, especially China. There will be fallout everywhere. Let's hope it will be shorter than some of the analysts have been saying.

    I do work for Indians, and some have been great to work for, others are as I described above, weren't. I get paid an Indian salary on par with Indian managers, not a Western salary in a third world country. They are getting American expertise that they can't get from anyone who isn't American (That's a whole other blog post). If it were all about the money, I could have stayed in the states and enjoyed my six figures, thank you, but it's not. Regardless of what you may think, India has a great wealth of educated workers that are keen to learn. They just need the tools, infrastructure and support to do so. That's why I love it here. :-)

    By the way, today is the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, the first person of color to be President of the United States. he is one of only 44 men to have ever held the position in history. I am enjoying this (as it also means that Satan has left the building). I look forward to seeing the change his administration will bring to America and the world outside its borders. There is a new, fresh charge in the air, and change is a'comin'. I am eager to see what this president does in his first hundred days, in his first term. He is the one person who can bring about hope for the first time in 8 years and help Americans be proud of their heritage once again.

    Game on.