Tag Archives: organisational culture

It really is about the PEOPLE

18 Nov

oscar the grouch

There’s a great google search ad doing the rounds – its about reunion post partition between India and pakistan. I think by now most folks have watched it, but if you havn’t, click here. (It even got written up in mashable).

For me, it drove home something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few days – that, we sometimes tend to get so wrapped up in whatever we are doing/ seeing/ making – whether it is technology and all its accoutrements, parenting as a job, management strategies, that we forget a very essential point of any exercise – the people it affects/ for whom we are doing it.

Think about it –

Big Data – Cloud – Hadoop – Analytics – e commerce – social collaboration – smart meters — all big buzzwords of today. Many big names chase this – IBM/ Cisco/ Microsoft/ Google/ Facebook – everyone. But it feels sometimes like the chase overwhelms the purpose – the process/ the technology – whatever is almost taking over the final reason FOR the tech. (It parallels the age old “features vs. benefit” marketing debate – you know, better agitator vs. whiter clothes/ purer chocolate vs. smoother texture). To some extent, some advertising is changing – IBM’s smarter planet / (erstwhile) Nokia’s connecting people – were all attempts at getting to the raison d’etre. Thats why I like the google ad – its not about better/ more precise/ faster/ more relevant search, but the reason behind the search. Lovely!

I like that a lot of healthcare is moving towards this now – Sanofi just released an app that gamifies blood testing (you get more points the oftener you test your blood sugar) thus making adherence for diabetes easier for patients!

Most organisations are now moving from “product centricity” to “customer centricity” – run a google search on CC and you get some half a million hits…a few years ago, it was one tenth of this number!

customercentricity cartoon

Look at other aspects of this “people” thing – as I said in an earlier blog, enterprises are not run by processes – but by PEOPLE – if you can figure out how to motivate/ empower/ manage the people; you've got it made! I'm sure EVERY organization can cite examples of leaders who are maybe not so technically competent, but get better results than others because they are good with people – their people management skills are better! It’s heart breaking at times for those who do have the nuts and bolts, but not the guts and holds ..(over people that is 🙂 (ok, ok, very contrived I know – just felt like incorporating some rhyming stuff).This is what also makes for organisational culture (that intangible thing that defines many org metrics – retention/ values/ client service…see my earlier blog on org culture) Its one of the things an org “loses” when it scales to a behemoth – and one of the things that folks in start up cultures value – the fact of knowing everyone around – their happiness/ their sadness/ their strengths and weaknesses what makes them tick/ what hot buttons to press. It’s also one of the hallmarks of different leadership styles (read another blog on theory x vs. y of leadership – and which one works better)

Think about home – our kids have become “projects” almost – we are forever exhorting them to – get up in the morning/ eat breakfast properly/ go to school on time/ change, bathe, whatever once they are back/ go to whatever class they are enrolled for in a bid to get upskilled/ finish homework/ study for tests/ attend the birthday party…blah blah blah – in our timely and efficient execution of all these projects – we forget that the “subjects” are KIDS – and they WILL NOT be as good/ as efficient/ as task oriented as maybe we are trained and constrained to be. Takes the joy out of childhood somewhat eh?

child with mask

School kids can figure this out easily – my older daughter and her clan don’t like one of their teachers – and, the reason is not that she doesnt know her stuff, or is strict, or the usual anti teacher reasons, but that “she hates us”. After all, if a teacher doesn’t LIKE kids, its self defeating almost. I see live examples of effectiveness in the community schools I go teach in as a volunteer. One of the schools is making a huge success of the volunteer program our folks are helping them with – mainly because the principle is involved, interested, and she LIKES the kids, and likes US! Another school, is the exact reverse because the principle is a grouch!

Ofcourse, nothing brings this whole people thing home as well as just meeting old friends – despite everyone being in the ratrace – and attempting to “achieve” more and more everyday – one afternoon spent with friends – old or new (as i did yesterday), reminds you over and over again – it really is all about the people!


Communication, the Hallmark of Success

28 Aug

communication 7 year old

Most working moms and dads recognize these little notes – i used to get about 5 a day, mostly shoved under my nose, and, most importantly, on top of the computer screen – thus MANDATING that i finally pay attention to my child! (I remember visiting a client at a leading FMCG in lovely Vevey once, and his bulletin board chock full of post-its with messages from his 6 year old saying – daad – u missed the ski-ing competition yet again! and such stuff..)

The point is, that kids figure out really early HOW to catch an (unreceptive) audience’s attention to get their point across.

As an organisation that worked in multiple geographies, and so each one having remote team mates/ clients to communicate with often, this was a really big deal. It started with us four partners (who by the way, hadn’t even all met each other when we started! – so ours was a bit more unusual situation than most!) getting on daily calls – in those days, we discussed fairly mundane issues (in retrospect) but we talked every single day, and ofcourse had the email on pretty much 24X7. We still got many “cultural” things wrong! Like:

– One early employee apparently spied a rat in our first office, and wrote an “annonymous” letter to a co founder who was based in the U.S. saying – “is this what you want your employees to be facing?” Ofcourse that co – founder, having never been to India, got very hot and bothered. It took the two of us who were managing the Indian ops to tell him to chillax since almost every house had rats – infact, we should count ourselves lucky that was the only vermin we got!!

– We were a “secondary research” organization, which meant we trawled publicly available data sources for our analysis. Our analysts would call the “raw research” material – a data dump, and often abbreviate it to “dump”. Imagine their horror when Kyung told them that dump in America meant poop!

(See some references to how communication across different cultures has led to interesting gaffes in my earlier post)

But this daily call/ email sure forged a bond – something really really important in a startup! I remember my co founder Debjani being interviewed for a journal, and saying – our big emphasis – commmunicate communicate communicate! Its true, and Debjani specially was paranoid about communication to the point of getting up at 2 am her time to repeat/ emphasise a point to the teams that needed to work on her clients’ requests!

But the outsourced world apart, communication is almost the most important “tool” that you need in business. In fact, at senior levels, that’s all you do – whether it is talking to the street to get their expectations right in a publicly listed company; pitching your co./ products/ services/ people to the next prospective buyer; getting ‘alignment” with your boss or the other department’s key folks on the right way to do things; motivating your team members to work the extra 2 hours when all they want to do is go watch the latest release in theatres and have a glass of beer after! Actually, now that I think about it, the “communication” is almost interchangeable with ‘sales” (see my earlier post on why we all are/ should be sales people . Interestingly, that features my 7 yr old too 🙂 )

It is why there is a whole industry on “soft skills” training, and many dollars being made in teaching the “art of presentation”.

Indian Govt. Public School Kids

Having made a living almost all my life out of maybe this skill to “communicate” well, I now have a very different perspective – that of how important even basic facility in a language (well, actually not A language, but the English Language) is, to really get ahead in life. This gets set for me personally in perspective now when I teach a class in a government (read public) school in my community. I teach the English language to 3rd graders. These are kids who come from the locality, and have parents from the lower income strata. Some of the kids are really really bright – all of them have that bright spark in their eyes – but, they cannot speak English (the vernacular language they know is Kannada, one of India’s many languages). And it almost breaks my heart to think that these kids in general, (barring the success of our volunteer teaching program) will never have an equal shot at many careers because they cannot communicate in the English language!

Coming back to Achchu, and her figuring out multi modal communication to get my attention, she once sent me an e-mail from the other room saying – Ma! I have to write an essay on a movie for H.W., and I can’t think of a title! (She figured that while I was behind closed doors at my home office, the ONLY way to get me responding to an “urgent” need was email! She was right – I told her to write on Sound of Music!) She even gets the subtleties of – “I know mom is on a con-call, so let me ask her if I can eat forbidden candy. And, I know she will say “no” once, then twice, but the third time she WILL say yes!” Talk about “in your face” communication!

non verbal communication 7 year old

Stereotypes; and the Bucking of Them (Or Why I #$% Love Science)

8 Apr

A while ago, I wrote a post on patterns – and how solving for those patterns makes for a lot of fun and excitement.
This one is actually diametrically opposite – of late I have seen a lot of exceptions to “expected patterns” – in other words stereotypes – and bucking these is almost always more fun, and sometimes much more interesting.


– It started with an exhibition in my 2nd grader child’s English class – they were “publishing” a unit on “Non Fiction Writing”, where every child had to take a topic and research it – write it like a book – TOC, facts, conclusion, source, glossary etc. Achchu being the foodie she is, picked Chocolate as her topic.


Her friend Diya on the other hand picked Pokemon – she even did a simulated video Pokemon game. What I found very amusing is the teacher Shikha Ma’am saying – “Diya, I’m surprised you picked a video game – I would have thought you’d pick the Solar System or something.” Now Diya is, according to Achchu, “the nerdiest nerd ever” – nerd defined by her as – great tasting candy but also someone who works all the time – and actually LIKES working 🙂 Hence the obvious stereotype triggering Shikha Ma’am’s comment.

Rajni Gandha

– In a similar story, maybe as a stress relieving mechanism (and maybe not – Im just looking to rationalize a bad habit!) over the past 3 – 4 years, my partner Shoma and I got addicted to this – awful really – “mouth freshner” (I guess is the best description of it – though according to my kids, my mouth really stinks now) called Rajni Gandha. Now, this is a really popular thing in India, most often combined with tobacco. The common reaction when a lot of folk saw us chewing it incessantly, almost obsessively, was – “wow, Shoma, you don’t look like the kind of person who wd eat Rajnigandha” (Pls note: Shoma is really classy – she’s tall slim nice looking and is always dressed well. She looks, and is, educated, from the upper echelons of society – and so NOT the kind of woman who would do infra dig things like chew Rajni Gandha. Pls note also – as my appearance is the exact opposite of Shoma’s MY chewing the same stuff was almost viewed as something folks would expect 🙂 Another stereotype – busted again!

– Ofcourse the best example of this is the recent brouhaha over the originator of the extremely popular facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” , Elise Andrew, being a woman. Its a fantastic page actually – combines awesome facts, great humour and lovely pictures. Has 4.5 million likes! But when the originator recently revealed she was a woman, the reactions were really strange! Read here for a short description of how the page started, click here for an interview with the originator, and here for one random post on the reactions (again, “Science and Women?? nyaaahhhhh” – stereotype being busted – these guys forgot Marie Curie or what?)

– Elise’s site actually showed me another great example. Remember the actress Winnie in the old TV Serial The Wonder Years ? wonderyears . Well, that actress Danica McKellar is a Math Whiz, with a true blue book in her name (called “Math Doesn’t Suck)! See here for an interesting interview with her

– When you look for examples in org life, I’m sure we’ve all made hiring decisions that are powered by this similar stereotyping thing. Infact, our HR manager, had a clear bias against long hair and ponytails in men – and very often had to work past this bias. I once heard her telling a new hire politely, but with a definite glint in her eye – “it may be neater/ cooler for u to get a haircut”. I always had a bias against men from a certain state in India – in my mind they are almost always lazy, and have an attitude to boot! But we have all seen people that bust these stereotypes, even though organizational culture actually perpetuates really by following patterns/ stereotypes in groups – whether they are cultural/ age or interest related groups. (See related older post on org culture)


I wonder if this whole pattern-vs-stereotype busting arises out of the Johari Window model – it was one of the management concepts that I used to really like – I specially found the Bull in a China Shop very evocative 🙂 . I think if we run a Johari Window on most of us, we will follow established stereotypes, but also one of the rooms will show those elements in our make up that bust the stereotype. Infact, maybe time to test a hypothesis that each of us in general can be stereotyped – maybe in a multiattribute model, but each of us has a few – maybe even as small as one – streak that busts the stereotype and THAT is what makes everyone different from each other – notwithstanding the “every man has a double somewhere in this world” theory 🙂 Are we all a formula? Imagine God having this menu of features and attitudes and essentially mixing and matching all of those as he made us – OK if u want to be a little scientific – its DNA and all the Ribosomes on them – and they actually do get mixed and matched in menu options – so my theory of stereotyping is not all wrong!

What say?

Meanwhile, an old article I wrote on the MBA student – with a time series Johari Window construct used there – enjoy 🙂

Organisational Culture: Of Shared Lunches; Hired People; Peak Performance and Buyouts

1 Feb


“The soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture” : Plato

As I sit at the brink of another weekend, I was thinking about the last one. It was a busy one. But three very distinct things happened, all with a common thread:

a) According to my husband, we had an overdose of culture – we went to watch The Manganiyar Seduction, a fantastic opera like performance of Rajasthani music; went to the Chitra Santhe, a street art festival; watched Matru Ki Bijlee ka Mandola, and started vocal music, guitar and drums classes (the first 2 for me, and the last for hubby – maybe!)

b) Had a chat with other moms while waiting to collect child from drama class – the topic of discussion was schools – and in describing the 2 schools my older daughter has been to – I said – “Prakiya had middle class values, Inventure is more “Hi-Fi”” :). We also incidentally then got sidetracked into a discussion of what kids were reading – I used to read Enid Blyton ad nauseum, my kids find her boring and read Wimpy Kid/ Percy Jackson, Junie B Jones/ Horrid Henry instead (different ages 🙂 ). They also seem to be much more excited about Halloween (prompting my mum to say “everyone has forgotten “Pitra-Paksh” – the Hindu equivalent where you pray for yr dear departed forbearers – and is roaming the streets, weirdly attired, collecting candy 🙂 ) and Christmas, than they are about Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam! And my theory was – a) there is far greater access to “global” material and traditions now, their peer group has all lived in different countries, and, b) while we growing up had a very British influence on us (still colonial hangover-ish maybe), these kids are decidedly American – they watch American TV, read American books, study in American schools.

c) Realised that a bunch of my friends’ updates on facebook were on running, specifically the Mumbai Marathon. I realised how things change – Running is to fitness-among-older people now what Golf used to be a few years ago; just as Rumi is the new Che Guevara, Single Malt is the new beer (alas) and Barbecue at home is the new eating out (I’m sure Weber sales are skyrocketing)

As I said – 3 unrealted things, but got me started thinking on “culture”, specifically “organisational culture”. Also on how one creates culture, how it changes organically, and then how something like an M&A impacts it.


I remembered how in Gillete, where I worked for some 3 years, everyone drank Vodka – because the then CEO Pradeep Pant drank it. In Blow Plast, another company where I worked again for some 3 years, most people sang – so corporate parties would end up with vocal performances…

A nostalgic look back reminded me of EmPower’s early days – a) This was a motley group – 2 consulting types from Booz Allen, 1 ex teacher/ trainer and entrepreneur, but also American; and me. None of us knew all 3 others, some of us hadn’t even seen some of the others. We worked cross geography, hence spent many hours on phone calls and the net. In the beginning, as we hired, it was more – get who-so-ever you can (not to say we didn’t run interviews etc, but it was really a case of being a sellers’ market). Gradually, one saw a pattern beginning to emerge – maybe because of the personality type of the Indian promoters in charge of operations, or because we were based in the south of India – we started seeing a “type” of person being hired – in general middle class, hard working, “gentle”, didn’t necessarily “know” everything, but we felt cd be versatile….
Over a period of time, as we grew, we evolved different departments – and then realised, before we even had a “ONE EMPOWER” culture, we had 2 different divisional cultures! This caused us angst in the beginning, and there was much “leaderspeak” on – hey guys, get together more!, but after a time, we let it be. Even later, we figured we really had 5 microcosms almost within our small company – the 3 operating groups, the what we called “foundation” groups (support) and the market facing bizdev groups. They were very different – look at what a typical Friday evening wd see them doing – ROD wd go in smaller groups of 3 and 4 to the movies – they were always the first to see every new one; BD wd go to a pub/ restaurant; foundation would relax at home with family; MM would have potluck snacks in office (if they did have the evening free); ISS would be working if they weren’t celebrating the topical Indian festival with the greatest pomp and joy! hence, culture – distinct though still a part of the whole!

As a contrast, some interesting cultural nuances came from our being an American Client serving company. The usual language gaffes – “Did you know dump is NOT yr raw research, it is slang for poop” or, “when he says “I have a doubt”, does he mean “I have a question”? Or, the big hoohaa about a poor analyst named “Swastika” offending some sensibilities and therefore having to change her email id; the oft-repeated advice – “Please wait for the guy to finish speaking before you start talking” (SOOO Indian, isn’t it?); or, “even if you have nothing to contribute – ALWAYS show that you have an opinion – thats what Americans respect :)”, the correct way of writing American ppts……

(I’m sure most of you know these – but I thought I’d remind you of some cross-cultural gaffes in advertising that have made history. Enjoy:

– When they entered the Chinese market a few years ago, the translation of their slogan “Pepsi Brings you Back to Life” meant, “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave”

– In Italy, a campaign for “Schweppes Tonic Water” translated the name into the much less thirst quenching “Schweppes Toilet Water”.

– When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, they weren’t selling many cars. They finally realized that in Spanish, “nova” means “it won’t go”. Sales improved dramatically after the car was renamed the “Caribe.”

– Similarly, much after Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil, they learned that “Pinto” is Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Ford substituted the name plates with “Corcel,” which means horse.

– When Braniff translated a slogan touting its upholstery, “Fly in Leather,” it came out in Spanish as “Fly Naked.”

– Coors put its slogan, “Turn It Loose,” into Spanish, where it was read as “Suffer From Diarrhea.”)

Ok, so cut back to the whole org culture thing. We were riding along with our sub cultures evident in each group, and yet each group having a great time (it evidenced itself in fixed lunchtime groups – btw, “Senior management” often got criticised for the particularly LOUD lunch sessions we had!”; in hanging out together post work; sending jokes to each other…) but MOST importantly when we recruited fresh people. I will NEVER forget 2 instances that exemplify this – one, where we hired a really senior ops guy from JPMorgan Chase, who wore a suit when he came in first day, spoke about seat utilization as his first large mandate (we were 100 people for heavens’ sake!) , and said a cheesy “HULLOOOO all” when he entered a room – he lasted all of 5 days (and on the 5th, sneaked off home after sending a goobye mail) and another, when we interviewed a really senior, really well qualified Editor from Frost and Sullivan, who came across as very competent, but all wrong for us. To one man (or woman) we voted her not fit! (By that time we had learnt from the earlier episode!)

But see, interestingly, the minute we got acquired, the whole dynamics changed – everyone in our by-then-400-people strong company kind of banded together, with a common protective wall almost, and started asking existential/ culture oriented questions that really came down to – “will we be comfortable in this new culture” (I like to think many of these fears were unfounded, and most people have now found their groove – even though the cultures of the 2 companies, while they had many common values (and that was why we even agreed to the takeover) did have differences – ofcourse they had!. We did lose some people alas – the one statement that I keep remembering most often is “I would have stayed had you not sold the company!” 😦 , but kept most!). But the point was, all the sub cultures that existed prior to the M&A kind of merged into the larger one! Was it because of this “threat” psyche?

org cult

I don’t claim to be an expert on org culture – just read up a few things just now 🙂 – and they all made sense.

First, the definition: Wikipedia told me, Ravasi and Schultz (2006) state that organizational culture is a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations by defining appropriate behavior for various situations. At the same time although a company may have its “own unique culture”, in larger organizations, there are diverse and sometimes conflicting cultures that co-exist due to different characteristics of the management team. A-ha!

The theories are also interesting:

Hofstede’s says: The dimensions of culture are:
The Power distance: How much of “lordly distance” do the bosses keep from their subordinates (our lunch groups admittedly were “senior management” but I’d like to believe we participated wholly together in peoples lives and work!

Uncertainty Avoidance: How you cope with the future. First a startup with low visibility into revenue streams, then in an evolving space so limited view of the future, and finally in an M&A situation – I would like to think we kept our folks well informed, and with a full view of what the uncertainties were. In addition, we involved them in the steps taken to mitigate this uncertainty

Individualism vs. Collectivism : Harmony amongst personal and organisational goals

Masculinity vs. Feminity : Good or bad, it was an org run by 3 women 🙂

Long term vs. short term orientation

Only yesterday, I also read a McKinsey article on an Organisation’s “Meaning Quotient” (you may have to login). This spoke of people, and organisations, displaying “peak performance (equivalent to what sportspeople call – being in the zone) – that can be achieved by maximising its MQ.

I think what really makes for commonality of culture (then leading to better performance, and more importantly, happiness) are:

– Serving a common cause (specially if you are creating something new like in a start-up)
– Being with PLUs – “People Like Us” – Its important to have a comfortable eco-system around you. (could be shared history or just similarity in attitude)
– Ability to use/ exploit skills and resources – Be useful/ use your training – atleast some parts of it
– Opportunity for gain – personal and/or professional – better work/ better money/ better faster responsibilities/ promotions..
– Higher Order Things – Serving society/ your country/ being change agents..
– And finally, EmPowerment (we didnt name our compay EmPower for no reason!). Its what Mckinsey called “writing your own lottery ticket”…

If you look at it, org culture has parallels with India – one country, many many sub cultures. As someone said, Because when you have millions of people with this kind of need for gratification, and the culture is saying that it’s possible for everyone to satisfy all of their needs and desires all of the time, there are obviously going to be clashes – clashes of ego. All these fragmented forces straining against each other – water dispute/ racial slurs and hence movie bans/ territorial wars/ separatism…but, when threatened by an outside force – will they come together? (Just like all our divisions united – to create and display the common EmPower culture under what folks thought was “threat” – it wasn’t really). Rather, put differently, WHAT will make our diverse sub cultures to come toegther and show the unity in diversity that we keep talking about?? Does anyone have any idea? Not me!