Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

Of untenable CEOs

The positions of two CEOs are being discussed this week as untenable. One of them is the British Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from the weak and wobbly win at an election where she campaigned as the “strong and stable” alternative. The other is Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, who is currently running an organisation without a COO, a CFO, a CMO or SVP of Engineering, and is under pressure to take a leave of absence following an investigation by Eric Holder into the pervasive sexist culture in the company.

On first glance, there are no similarities. What can a British PM fond of speaking in tautologies possibly have in common with a CEO of an organisation widely seen as having “disrupted” public transport and valued at US$ 70Bn (though some disagree)?

On a bit of reflection, one key similarity emerges: a leadership style that fosters a toxic organisational culture.

On becoming PM first, Mrs May famously operated a kitchen cabinet of sorts, with a small coterie of advisors and throwing out anyone who seemed to be out of line with her authoritarian way of working. She called an election presumably buoyed by a 20-point lead over Labour in the polls to seek an absolute majority to enable her to negotiate a Brexit deal without needing the support of the Parliamentary colleagues. Having called the election, she did not discuss her manifesto with her party or her team, focused on “Theresa May” and not the Conservative Party, and uttered meaningless soundbites that earned her the moniker MayBot over the campaign.

Mr Kalanick, on the other hand, presided over an organisation that thought nothing of threatening journalists and “weaponising facts“, nor of accessing and sharing medical records of a person raped by one of their drivers in a country far flung from California. Privacy was not a thing to bother with. He also deemed it acceptable to issue guidelines on how to have sex with a colleague at an office party.

Culture, as the developments this week show, does eat strategy for breakfast.

In Britain, the electorate was able to challenge Mrs May so much so that at the time of writing, there is a scramble on, and many Tories do not see her leadership going unchallenged.

In case of Uber, however, the three co-founders own a controlling stake. That may appear, at first glance, to make the job of the board harder if they wish to ask Mr Kalanick to step down. But the board has voted unanimously to adopt the Holder report and is said to be considering the option.

However, much as deposing Mrs May and Mr Kalanick may give a sense of having done something, the real challenges remain.

Uber’s culture will not repair itself overnight. Nor will the company magically be able to attract talent* to fill the key roles. Bad reputation and the whiff of scandals can endure, as another organisation unable to attract talent is currently experiencing.

Nor will Mrs May suddenly become better at being collaborative, discursive, amenable to advice, and realistic about Brexit negotiations, although this is precisely the advice being given to her. To be fair, she has apologised to Tory MPs. But despite her apparent contrition, “I will get us out of this mess” doesn’t sound like a departure from me-centricity.

Whoever takes the poisoned chalice, or chalices in case of Uber, shall face the challenge to be a vigilant steward of the interests of investors, shareholders, and citizens alike.

After all, in this brave new world of breaking coalitions and disrupted industries, “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

*Link dated June the 14th added two days after this article was published.

Cosmetic counter sales staff: a counter view

A dear friend of mine recently spoke of how, while making an impulse purchase for a lipstick at an airport, she ended up having a fascinating conversation with a male counter sales guy, who seemed to be a lipstick connoisseur with a massive collection of his own. She noted how he had great insight into how lipstick should be bought, ideally for personality not just skin tone. Was it her gender bias, she wondered, that she was so delighted by this surprising encounter? She travels globally and had never experienced such a knowledgeable and passionate counter sales guy.

The story made me wonder about gender biases in talent hiring for specific roles especially in industries seen as gendered.

Across the world, cosmetics counter sales staff is rarely male (the exception: perfume counter sales staff is rarely female). The field sales force, however, is rarely female, as I note both from occasionally bumping into field sales staff of brands in SpaceNK and Liberty in London, and from my earlier experience in my first and extremely short-lived first job in a well-regarded Indian cosmetics company.

The brand managers in the company were almost all women whereas, barring a couple of stellar exceptions, the field sales force was all men. These men, otherwise traditional, old-fashioned, sometimes married, were the definitive experts on both our products and our consumers. In my short stint, it became quite clear that their job brought them in contact with wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, and whenever a new product was launched, they also gave trial products to their family and got unfiltered feedback from them. This gave them a wealth of knowledge and insight. Whether the company was harnessing it in a structured way, I couldn’t say.

In contrast, the counter sales staff only ever encounters a consumer primed for some purchase, even if not in the exact category she ends up buying. This means the encounters are more narrow in scope, and only if a consumer ends up at the counter in a slow time of day, can she expect a fulsome and deep conversation about the products and the anthropology and psychology of purchasing one colour over another.

In all this, the consumer is, of course, key. Not only does she, peripatetic as she is, encounter the brand in many more locations, she also gets to see the non-uniformities, the vagaries of the brand’s operations in many ways. These can be revealing about the brand’s values and prejudices.

What is stopping the cosmetic industry hiring more men as counter sales staff? Do men not seek out these roles? Or are they actively rejected in an act of gender bias, unless, as my friend noted in the case of the sales guy she met, they are “flamboyant” in their presentation?

And since everything needs to have a business case, by not having male sales staff, could brands be missing a trick in capturing the growing male interest in cosmetics and skin care? The male grooming and beauty market is estimated to be $50Bn and growing.

One could cynically note that keeping men and women segregated helps companies as they persist in charging women, in cosmetics and skin care, a whopping 37% more than they charge men. This is frankly not sustainable as the web is transparent, and women can read labels and buy substitute products and brands.

Change however is coming, slow but steady, it appears. Even if it is in the form of YouTube influencers.

Men could, of course, watch YouTube videos privately but coming to the cosmetics counter in a city centre store is still uncommon. Andrew Snavely, who runs a magazine focused on men’s grooming, thinks this is unwise and notes: “… young professional men find trial and error with products to be an expensive and time-consuming process…”. Could this be because men feel unwelcome at beauty counters to discuss their needs with the mainly female staff? Airport stores, such as the one my friend was visiting, are probably more welcoming because a man could always pretend he is buying for a woman and engage in a conversation about lipstick.

On a philosophical note, everything that frees women frees men too. And vice versa. That includes the freedom to discuss, try, buy and use cosmetics.

Cosmetic brands would do well to watch watch their gender biases and actively hire male counter sales staff, thus welcoming male customers more.

May be over time, both men and women will get better at speaking openly across gender lines about gendered topics.

Because we are worth it .

Attracting talent

This article is the sixteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on May the 25th, 2017.

Apart from having a strategic direction and enough money to execute on the vision, the key challenge for founders is talent. Based on my experience, I will go out on a limb and say this: talent is not scarce. No matter what we hear about the “war for talent”. What is scarce is the ability to know what talent you need, find that talent, and find that talent efficiently, quickly, and affordably. This is truer still of the earliest hires, who shape your vision and your startup’s culture.

Here are some pointers based on my experiences with helping founders find people for their teams.

Making a successful hiring decision requires a process: knowing whom you seek, where they hang out, whether they see and notice your call for talent or otherwise know of your need, whether your call for talent is attractive enough, whether they are interested enough to apply or reach out, whether your hiring process confirms a mutual fit, whether you agree terms and, finally, whether they are still interested and have not been poached by a better offer in the meanwhile. This step-by-step looks obvious when one lays it down in black and white. In reality, most founders founder when it comes to hiring because they are haphazard and their follow-up is poor. Avoiding disorganised thinking and the ensuing chaotic hiring process, which can repel many a good candidate, is therefore the first thing to aim for.

The second thing is to avoid obvious and easy answers. At every step.

Most founders look in one type of spaces e.g. online startup communities or mailing lists or Slack groups. These are also spaces where your target talent is most likely to see all the other competing possibilities. Avoid being so narrow and niche. The wiser thing to do would be to tap your IRL network too. Ask the people you know who are not connected to the startup space and you may unearth several new possible candidates. As a bonus, your contacts would also have vouched for you and your startup before those candidates agree to talk to you.

People have CVs and people have side projects. These side projects in many cases provide insight into a person’s thinking as well as their skills. The obvious mistake is to not probe these side projects and thus miss possibilities. In two instances that I have been involved with, the side projects pursued by potential hires showed how those hires were perfect for the company’s international expansion plans.

Falling back on unconscious biases is another obviously easy thing to do in hiring. And avoidable. It has been shown that women get hired on proof, while men get hired for potential. If you are not finding or reaching talent of the kind you want, it would be foolish to let your unconscious biases against an entire gender make your hiring outcomes worse. Unconscious bias training goes some way not the whole way in addressing these flaws in thinking although it would be advisable for your own personal growth as a leader and entrepreneur. Emerging hiring technology could give a helping hand too. For instance, Blendoor enables merit based matching by hiding irrelevant data and thus widening your candidate pool.

Google’s chaotic hiring process in the early years has now passed into tech industry legend. It is also something best avoided and not emulated. It is crucial that founders build a creative but robust hiring process that scales, including for collecting candidate data, made simpler by platforms such as Workable, and conducting telephonic and face-to-face interviews. Equally it is important to make references as systematic and methodical as interviews themselves. Not asking meaningful questions and failing to listen actively to what the referees say is unwise, although it is easy to do cursory checks and feel you are done.

Last but not the least, avoiding firing people who aren’t a great fit is not a great move. Especially early hires, who will shape your startup’s culture, have to enable your vision and not sabotage it. If they are being disruptive or otherwise do not fit the startup, the founder has to learn to let them go. There are laws of the land that will cover firing within and outside probation periods. Of course this assumes you have given people employment contracts! It is also useful to talk to people in “exit interviews” before they leave to understand what you might have contributed to the disagreements.

Hiring is a contact sport. Putting this advice into practice will take commitment to solving the talent puzzle for your own startup.

Brand leadership has to change

A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 crash, American Express in the United States paid many of its less profitable customers to close their accounts and go away. The move garnered much attention and analysis then. It was seen as a de-leveraging move. Whatever hubbub surrounded the brand then has since died down and in an unscientific survey of my business-savvy friends, few remember that this happened at all.

It was a story of a brand choosing its customers, rather than the dominant narrative that conventionally goes the other way round. The latter powers the nascent GrabYourWallet movement.  Another campaign, Sleeping Giants, is similarly holding brands and companies to account if they continue to advertise on extremist websites.

These are interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

As consumers, we profess to love brands that are “authentic“, never mind that in many cases, contrived authenticity, not rooted in values embedded into the business’s value chain, is all we are getting excited about.

What happens when “authentic brands” meet programmatic advertising? Unfortunate, inadvertent outcomes, that is what. Brands are left scrambling to do damage control.

What happens when “authentic brands” take a stand that is vastly unpopular? What happens when the brand’s CEO tells a customer she is free to leave if she does not like their philosophy? Isn’t that just the brand being authentic?

What when all signs point to the emergent challenges being bigger than the more popular political bugbear of the time?

Is authenticity malleable? Should it be?

What if a brand never had cause to reveal some of its stances before and is now choosing to do it in a way that consumers find abhorrent?

And when that comes to pass, should consumers force the brand to comply with their idea of authenticity, or choose to walk away with their wallets?* After all, wisdom says, when facts change, changing our minds is no bad thing.

These growing disagreements and schisms are why, more than ever before, brands need values at their foundation, in their DNA, embedded in their value chain.

Real, defensible, explicit values that the brand is willing to stand up for.

Not convenient values that change with the times or fads du jour.

It is then that brand managers will truly be able to use programmatic advertising as a tool to help them rather be helplessly enslaved by it, while they operate in a haze, whether it be about their brand values or technology.

It is then that “customer choice” will come to mean both that the customer chooses, or rejects, the brand and that the brand chooses, or rejects, the customer.

[* Switching costs for small businesses on a shopping cart platform are not negligible but then that is an economic argument, not one about values.]