Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999
Apsara Ramabhadran, Senior Marketing Associate, Cognizant Technology Solutions India Limited spoke to Deepika Davidar about work and the work atmosphere in India. She began her working career in the US before moving to India a year ago. She joined Cognizant Technology Solutions as a Senior Marketing Associate. She is candid in her comparisons of the working culture in the US and India and feels that productivity in the Indian workplace would increase if people learn to be direct about their expectations.
What are your qualifications?
I did my degree in Mechanical Engineering from Crescent College. I then worked for a year as a service engineer with Unipro. I wanted to go to the States to do an MS in Mechanical Engineering but at that time, there were some problems with the GRE. Finally, one of my friends advised me to try for an MBA so I did that and got admission in the University of Texas. I majored in Information Systems so that's how I moved from Engineering to Information Technology.
And you began your career in the States?
Well, I did an internship with Merrill Lynch but my first job after I graduated was with the brokerage firm Charles Schwab and Co. I basically liaisoned between the IT department and the business departments. In Charles Schwab, I did the Series 7 and 63 exams which qualified me to be a registered representative of a stock exchange. Charles Schwab has an online trading software and I had to handle customer enquiries and customer support. The software was also outsourced to another company and I would teach people how to work with the software, check if modifications were needed and provide training to peers.
Was it exciting?
Definitely! The work atmosphere was charged. The people I worked with were so energetic. There was always a free flow of ideas, no one hoarded information. The amazing thing was that the management encouraged people at all levels to come up with new ideas.
In fact, at least once a month (if not more) everyone was given a time slot with the senior-most person in the company. During this time, you could make a presentation about something you thought viable within the company. You know, Charles Schwab were pioneers in the field of Web-based trading. And the idea came from a junior employee.
Management support made all the difference... Yes. I think there was a perfect combination of fun and work and that made the environment a very productive one to be in. We all had a feeling of 'I belong here'. Everyone felt that they had to do everything they could to make the company better.
I worked with Pacific Exchange a while later. It's a stock exchange on the West Coast and I worked there as a Business Systems Analyst. The environment was not as vibrant as Charles Schwab was, but the management was as encouraging. They encouraged all employees to come up with good ideas and would implement them if they were viable.
Are frank opinions always welcome?
In the US, yes; here, in India, sometimes no. In the States, they appreciate honesty and forthrightness. Your feedback is not held against you. Here, in some companies, if you give an honest opinion, you can shelve your career.
What about this trend of employees working round-the clock?
It's crazy. The sad thing is that here it's expected of you. No one appreciates the fact that you're staying overtime to help the company. If I were a manager, I would say I had goofed in my estimate of a job if my team had to work overtime consistently to complete it. If people are given an 8-hour working day, it's unfair to expect them to work 12 hours everyday. But I also have to add that often, employees are staying late just to impress the boss. They may be sending e-mail, surfing the Net or just warming their seat. But they're seen 'working' late because the boss likes that. It earns them a promotion... looks like it. Pleasing your boss seems to be the way to top. It's so wrong. Promotions should be completely merit-based.
Did you find this 'people-pleaser' attitude in the States?
No, at least not where I worked. Maybe it's to do with our culture. We're so used to listening to and looking up to other figures in our lives... our parents, teachers, spouses... we end up being subservient and shy.
How do you think employees should be treated?
I firmly believe in giving my team members maximum freedom. I detest micro-management. This philosophy of constantly looking over someone's shoulder while they're working is just not on as far as I'm concerned. I believe you should value people's time. Everyone has a life of their own and work is not their be-all. Trust the people you work with not to waste time when they're on the job. I don't want daily or weekly worksheets. Status reports to let me know where the job is at are fine. Otherwise I'm all for the hands-free approach.
And how would you define your role?
Obviously, I'm here to help and give the team direction. A good team leader must be approachable. If anyone on my team needs help, I'm here. I believe in being straightforward. Tell me what's wrong, and we can both try and work towards a solution. But I also trust my team to do the job and do it well. I want to see people grow in confidence and be really productive at their work. It's crucial to have a personal rapport with the team you work with. You have to know what their personal aspirations are and find a way to meet them. Give them sufficient training to fulfil what they want to do.
And this encourages commitment to the company?
Definitely. Herb Kelleher, Chairman of South West Airlines, once said, "We hire for attitude, we train them for skills". That's great business philosophy. You have to hire people with the right attitude and train them into the job. Crucial to the success of this philosophy is knowing exactly why you're hiring that person. And telling him or her exactly what's expected of them.
As a woman, have you ever been discriminated against at work?
Not in the States. Here, I find that men, in general, cannot take directions from women. Then again, I haven't quite figured out if that's a gender thing or if my outspokenness makes them uncomfortable! But I do feel that if you want to make it to the top in India, as a woman, you have to be really pushy.
Of course, discrimination or harassment is not necessarily physical. It could be someone making a comment that you're not comfortable with. I find that happens but it seems to be part of the work atmosphere and no one questions it.
Do you feel Indian working women walk a tightrope between work and family demands?
In many cases, yes. I have a very supportive family, so I have no problems on that count. But a lot of others have wondered why I work. My job involves travelling, and they can't understand why I don't slow down and just stay at home. I hear all these statements that begin with 'Women must...' and 'Women should...'. Unless you're a very strong person it's difficult to stand up to that kind of pressure.
I find that in our society its generally considered derogatory for a man to help out at home. The same man will go abroad and run a home efficiently or share household work, but once he returns he slips back into his societal role. Once men start treating women as equals at home, that attitude will flow into the workplace.
Is it that much harder for a woman to exercise authority? Do junior employees resent a woman being tough?
I don't see it at my workplace. I definitely think this is a problem outside. You just have to look at the way men react to women drivers to prove that! In the workplace, you would come across the odd man who thinks you're too conceited or arrogant if you express a sensible opinion, but by and large this doesn't happen to me. I think a smart, ambitious, junior employee would work hard irrespective of the gender of his or her boss. I don't think team leaders are judged on the basis of their gender.
Does it help to have a mentor?
Well, in the States, I did find superiors taking a personal interest in employees. Ideally, your mentor should be your immediate manager. I found career aspirations were taken very seriously over there and senior managers would give you direction and advice. Here, I don't see much of that happening but that could be because the company is so large. Its easier to establish personal rapport when companies or teams are small.
When you come to the negotiating table, what special skills do you bring?
Better communication skills. Especially in a business like ours where many of our clients are overseas. I'm comfortable with both Indian and American culture and therefore able to put our foreign clients at ease. Talking to them at par makes a lot of difference. Anyone can have technical and business knowhow. It's important to train people to communicate clearly.
The author is a Chennai-based content developer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.