Author Archives: sundar

BCC (Building Cultural Companies)

When I read about how Google HR uses people analytics in its HR practices, it made me realize that Google could be one of the few companies that walk the talk when it comes to building a company around a firmly rooted culture. While there are a lot of articles and discussions on why it is important to identify and build a company around a culture, I would like to focus more on why this term is merely PR jargon for most companies, or punch line for their leaders.


The identification of a company’s culture and how a company should be built around it is most profound during the formative years of the company. It acts as a vetting tool to decide on the business areas, the clients it would like to acquire and most importantly the profile of the new employees coming into the organization. The greatest challenge lies in keeping this culture intact when companies begin to grow, especially when the growth is rapid. Most companies lose the cultural aspect in this growth period during which more and more employees are recruited to sustain business growth without due consideration to cultural fitment, the underlying belief being “Once they come in, they will just figure it out and blend in”. Sadly this is not the case; rather it results in cultural dilution.


Specifically, I would like to illustrate this point with my experience in top IT services firms in India. It is a well-known fact that Indian IT firms recruit fresh college graduates by herds if not dozens. They pride themselves in the training facilities and methods for onboarding these graduates – their secret sauce to “mold” them to make them employable (billable) in the company. The vision, mission and the “culture” of the company occupy a prominent but small portion of the presentation about the company made to them during their induction process. The most impressionable employees come in without a clue of what drives the company.


Now moving up a level to the middle management, which is usually an equal mix of people who have grown within the company and laterals (people who have joined with industry experience) – the former’s definition of company culture comes from the most influential manager they have worked under, thereby making it more an individual established culture; while the latter’s definition is in relation to their previous work experience. The discussion on company culture in this group is usually in retrospect: how it used to be and how everything has changed. The middle tier, which is a major influencer for new employees, wonders if there exists a culture.


And finally we come to the senior management who are proud about a bygone culture that they were a part of but refuse to admit its non-existence. The reality is that when it comes to the question of the topline and the bottom line in their balance sheets, the word culture vanishes from their vocabulary. In their focus on the rat race for higher and faster growth, most of the senior management is focused only on business impact.


The only place where culture is spoken about in eloquent terms is in the CXOs’ interviews and letters, intra company newsletters and banners. A reality check will be to ask their employees what the culture of their company is. Some of the responses I have heard are:


  • “Fun at work” – from freshers; an HR initiative. This notion typically gives way to “work, work and more work” after a couple of years in the company
  • “Customer Centricity” – my favorite response. On a single day, I came across 3 definitions for this term. The CEO in his email defined it as knowing what the customer wants before we proposed solutions. When I was discussing some issue with an Account Manager, he said, “We are Customer Centric, we will do anything to keep the customer happy”. And in a project meeting when one of the team members checked if we can get the deadline extended, the Project Lead replied in a somber tone: “Customer centricity is all about delivering projects on time and with best quality”.


Adding more confusion to this definition is the notion of regional footprint like “Bangalore culture is more open”, “We do things differently in Chennai office” etc. My intention to highlight these examples is not to sound condescending but to indicate how disparately company culture can be perceived and why it is important that everyone understands it correctly.


Some may argue that all this philosophy of well-defined company culture is good for writing articles but becomes impractical when you have to deal with a size of 1 lakh + employees that these organizations manage. My counter to that is, if you can take the time and effort to explain the company culture to every employee, they understand the company’s raison d’être and their expected contribution becomes much clearer. This could be a good starting point to improve employee productivity. It should not just stop with understanding alone; it will have to be actively discussed and openly debated within the company and repeatedly exhibited in the major decisions company makes, including letting go of people who are not contributing to the culture. If you want to know more about such companies, you can start by googling.




The “E” factor

I have often found that people trivialize a person’s success by attributing it to luck; luxury of having the right backing; being in the right place at the right time… the list goes on. Most of the times this Envy or “E” factor as I would like to call it is usually directed toward a known person—a relative, a friend or a colleague. There are plenty of instances of the disastrous impact that this emotion has had in human history. To cite a few examples: brothers have brutally murdered each other, big and powerful empires have been destroyed overnight, large organizations have vanished into thin air and governments have been brought down.

While all of us realize that Envy is wrong, the reality is that all of us are envious at varying levels and there is nothing we can do to stop this emotion. That being said, all of us also have an opportunity to take advantage of it and channelize it in a positive way. This is best exemplified in any competitive sports by individuals/teams that aspire to beat the best in their league to be the number one in their field. The way they go about by building on their strengths and improving on their weaknesses is a pure inspiration to read. Once they have reached the top, very few go on to reach legendary status by staying on the top for long periods of time until someone else comes along and beats them to the spot. The examples of such legends and legend dethroners are very valuable case studies at our work places.

The “E” factor is most pronounced in any workplace after promotion & raise period. Everyone feels they are good, everyone feels they have done their best of what was expected and everyone feels they need to be promoted and given the highest raise. The reality is that most of them end up being not good enough, are found wanting to better their best, end up not getting promoted and get a standard raise. This immediately gives way to a feeling of envy and indifference towards the “Haves” by the “Have nots”. Now this is a very critical and defining moment for those who have lost out. At the same time it is also an opportunity for their manager/supervisor to inspire and build a sense of loyalty in them. They need to understand that the person is disillusioned, low on self-esteem and a little pissed off, so do not bullshit and be honest. Pleading helplessness by saying they did the best they could but someone else decided otherwise will not help, clearly there was a reason why your candidate did not make the cut, be transparent with it. Let them know what they can do better and how you can help them in doing better. This will ensure they get more clarity and a sense of direction rather than becoming pissed off and losing trust on the manager/supervisor.

For those who didn’t make it, it is a good time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong. Promotion in any organization has a good ounce of objectivity and dollops of subjectivity although the intent is always to be other way around. A broad classification of reasons for promotion can be: seniority/loyalty, good performance and good communication along with good visibility and willingness & ability to take up new/complex challenges and execute them successfully. Now there are some whose performance are standard but are smart enough to get the right visibility through other areas, well this requires talent and it is not easy to compete with them unless you have it in you. Besides such people tend to stagnate at middle level management where the competition intensity is very high. So a good understanding of which category one is likely to fall under and looking at the positives of what went right for people in your category and what didn’t go right for you is a good start to increase your chances in the next promotion cycle.

The next time you find yourself looking at someone who is successful and asking the question “What’s he got that I ain’t got”, you are better off starting with their positives and your lack of them.

Having the Right Steam Team: Is Your Team Providing You the Right Support?

Reading Vijeeta’s article on her cricketer husband Rahul Dravid made me realize a very key aspect of leadership excellence – having the right team working for you. Imagine Dravid to be the CEO of a company and Vijeeta a key member in his team. Dravid’s excellence at what he did was influenced by Vijeeta’s understanding of his cricketing greatness and what was required for him to focus and nurture it. This coming from someone who may have never played cricket shows tremendous maturity as his support team. The hallmark of a great organization not only depends on how well a leader carries his team but also on how well a team can carry its leader. A Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates was/is successful at what he did/does because his team understood the greatness of his vision. For a majority of the world, this team was invisible until Steve/Gates decided to step down. Playing this support cast effectively and consistently is not easy since at times it can involve sacrificing some of your own ideas/ aspirations and aligning yourself to a greater cause. It is in such situations that the mentoring role of the leader is vital to understanding them and providing an ethical solution. Case in point here is Dravid’s clarity on when to remove his cricketing cap and play the role of the husband who accepts the lead role his wife plays in matters of his family.

Appreciation of the excellence from your team alone is not enough since a leader also needs to be constantly challenged to improve further. Externally, this comes from the business environment they operate in; their team acts as internal challengers of the solutions/models that they come up with. This provides them with a broader perspective to improve and refine their solutions/models. When Mr. Narayanamurthy was the CEO of Infosys, I remember reading an interview where he was asked about India’s younger generation. He mentioned that what excited him about the generation was their ability to challenge the norms. He drew inspiration from some of the young members in his own team who challenged him and were always up for a challenge from him. While there may not be a direct link to this aspect in Vijeeta’s article, it is interesting to note that although she finds Rahul’s methods of preparation for a game quirky, she understands the importance of it and ensures that he gets his space by not allowing their children to disturb him. It reflects her willingness to support him in his quest for bettering his performance.

The above mentioned points are among the many important facets that make a great leader. What is remarkable though, is that such instances happen to all of us in our everyday lives in different forms and we fail to notice the significance of it. Identifying and understanding them not only makes for a good leader at work but also a good role model in life.