20 lessons from 20 years of working

I of IV

This is my attempt to look back at the last 20 and leave a crumb trail. I’ve managed to maintain the wide-eyed optimism of my 22 year old self, but tempered it with layers of learning. From that vantage point, here are my first 5 tips.

1. Find giants. Stand on shoulders: I was lucky in my first job. My first boss Giri is a treasure: kind, a fount of knowledge, willing to take a chance on new folk, a good teacher, offered a support system. My super boss at the time, Mr. Nair was a good person to learn to do HR with style. He read out (what we then thought was ) a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. piece on life to new joinees. It has since become popular as the sunscreen song. In my head though, it still plays in Mr. Nair’s baritone.

After some wandering in the dark, I found The Fuller Life, Arvind Krishnan and his merry band of giants. In 2002, he set up systems for employee well-being, emotional health, a balance of respect and banter, genuine profit sharing, salary transparency and more. Ten years ago, we had more women in the office including more women leaders than men. This in a business that needed frequent travel and setting up events at remote locations.

2. Old school sincerity & hard work pay: In 2000, in my first interview, when asked about my strengths, I said I am sincere and hard working. I was told, “That is everybody.” In hindsight, I realise, not. Being sincere in the service of the organisation is a value led skill – and so tricky to own. Hard working is an old fashioned word, with old fashioned railroad building sort of connotation. When honing craft, it’s crucial.

3. Minorities in workplaces stand alone: In the last 10 years, I’ve worked with organisations that explicitly and unabashedly watch out for women/ LGBTQ folk/ the disabled/ the mentally unwell, etc. I am proud to say I’ve helped build/ strengthen some of those cultures. In small sized organisations, this is easier to pull off. Never without business owners being on the same belief plane, though. These are rare and hallowed workplaces, and I am talking TFL and Obvious – the ones that really fly the flag. Outside of spaces like these, I’ve experienced that minorities such as women leaders do stand alone with Sisyphean flavoured happiness.

4. Seen and heard: When I started work, women were encouraged by well-meaning colleagues to use their looks to get that promotion (serious eye roll). It was considered being smart. Being seen was the ticket. Being heard was a gift bestowed on occasion. Occasions like, deciding on annual day celebrations, planning for the kind of work culture… women things. In hindsight, I realise, the ability to examine & shuck off cultural working norms that feel “off” is a skill to be developed. To consciously work on being seen for the skills and culture we bring and be heard with respect to what we have to say are fair asks. Abdicating these responsibilities to known entities like bosses or amorphous entities like company culture leads to feeling victimised. Owning these is important.

5. Lean on “my” people: On occasion, I have been known to unburden worries to others, verbally. But I don’t really lean, hoping I’d be caught, be safe and and cared for. That fear sets up a very lonely path. Our best work happens when others are there to polish what we’ve done, build on ideas and give suggestions that spark off thought.

Here’s my process – first off, I built my tribe. Next, I noticed that tribe needs nurturing, and did what I could. I am now learning to assume (not hope) that they will be there for me. When asked, if they are unable to be there for me, I make sure I check my expectations and see if they are realistic and fair and empathetic.

In the last week, I’ve spoken to 8 people I’ve known almost all the time I’ve been in Bangalore. That’s special:

I spent a lot of Sundays of my 20s watching Lord of the Rings with Ateef and his family. I got to spend a Sunday evening watching his 3-year old daughter pick up the same love for those movies.

There was a satisfying half hour talking to Vikram about life in the HR lane, being told I have a Calvin brain (something he’s maintained the entire time he’s known me), and laughing non-stop like I did when I was 25.

Pavan was available on call to listen, make sense of medical reports as they came in, when I accompanied my dad to casualty and him being admitted over the weekend. Knowing he was nearby helped feel safe. Mehvash drove the two of us to the hospital at 1am, and didn’t leave till we knew Dad was getting admitted and got the room. Roopa was available in a different way, talking about all things normal, insightful, Danish Sait, etc., while I looked out of the hospital window at the sunshine outside. I managed to laugh an inordinate amount for someone in the hospital with their dad, in uncertain conditions.

My brother, friend and general rock was possibly monitoring me more than he was monitoring dad. I got stern instructions from him to take time off work to recover, and to lean on my people. I don’t think he’ll let go till I learn this lesson fully, thank goodness for him.

All of these are blessings. As for my leaning on people – it’s a massive work in progress.

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