The Secret Sauce to Having it All

The Secret Sauce to Having it All

Wednesday March 20, 2013, 09:59 AM
From the Having it All Debate, started by Anne Marie Slaughter, to the exhortation to Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the keyboards across the world are alive with the latest in the feminist debate.


Whereas, this is not really about women at all. Even men have issues with having it all, men too need to lean in. Women do find it tough, especially since globally they are paid significantly less than men for the same work. Their grouse is real. But we leave that gender issue for another day.


The real issue is whether we can do justice to our aspirations and obligations in one liefetime. This is an issue both for men and women, though women seem to have ‘sacrificed’ more than men historically. In a recent survey it was reported that only 8% of women in Delhi work, the rest are home makers apparently. It is inconceivable that this is a choice exercised – there must be millions of women not just in this city but across the country who have the talent to rise to the very top of the ladder as entrepreneurs, as corporate climbers and of course as leaders of social change. They choose to not have it all in the service of their obligations. Men too can repartee with the fact that they could not paint or scale mountains in the quest for that engineering degree or climbing the ladder of hierarchy.


How do CEOs seem to have it all? They take grand holidays, run large companies, climb mountains, write, some paint and sketch, are physically fit and still have the time to address conferences and seminars across the world. They have families too – they attend weddings, visit sick relatives and take breaks with extended family as well. How do they do it?


(In keeping with the wise advice given by the cat to the Lion, one does not share all the secrets)


First, and foremost: Health. Invest in health. Eat well, and consciously. Eat fun foods, enjoy what you eat, but eat quality food. Exercise in moderation. Sleep for at least six continuous hours. Do all the good things that your granny told you to do, but in moderation. The climb to the top of the ladder is a long haul, pulling yourself up needs you to have your energy and stamina in place. There are experts out there to help you with this. As everything else in business, do outsource the bits that you are not good at – hire consultants to learn how to do it better. Yes, it takes time – hours every day.. and over the years it adds up – but it is repaid manifold. Most CEOs have an excellent exercise and diet regime. Just look at their skin – it tells its own story.


Second, Compartmentalise. Most people who are successful do a lot of things but not at the same time. They allocate their time to family, to friends, to fun. They seek synergies and efficiencies in all that they do. And are very disciplined about personal deadlines. Use holidays to build physical fitness, links with personal friends and relatives. Take a lot of holidays so that one is energised for more work. Often, the work hard, play hard routine works well – try it to see if it improves your lifestyle. For some, a daily balance works, for others balance is achieved over years. In the having it all debate, many leaders have spoken of leading their lives sequentially, since it is not possible to do it all at one time. Make your choices, live with the consequences, fight your way back.


Third: Hard work is inevitable. Most people cannot see the sheer labour that goes into building success. Days are long, nights barely there. What gets one through is laughter. And friends. And curiosity and wonder. Much of the secret sauce is made of these, among other things. As a friend on twitter said: To have it all, one must do it all.


Fourth, and finally – Values. There are tough choices to be made along the way, no doubt about that. But when the choices take one far away from what feels right, then the dissonance is too much to bear.


Maybe that is what the great ‘having it all’ debate is all about. Maybe the protest is about having to make choices that feel wrong, so much so that the dichotomies are unbearable. Those are the ones who cannot align their values with their chosen work or organisation. To aspire to that corner office, you cannot have that dissonance pulling you in different directions. Lean In (with a hat tip to Sheryl Sandberg) or opt for something different. A compromise with one’s sense of right, one’s values can never take one far without destroying something important.




The Layered Ladder

The Layered Ladder

Tuesday February 05, 2013, 04:25 PM

To rise in the company all I have to do is do my job well. The boss will surely notice me and reward my diligence.

Nope. Not just for that.

And this is what your parent’s generation is unlikely to tell you. (Unless you are one of the lucky few)

Think of it as Maslow’s hierarchy of deliverables.

Step One

At the bottom of the pyramid lies the Hygiene factor. This is the set of tasks that are essential and form the core of the job. The expectation here is that you do what is asked of you. The tasks are basic and mechanical. The employee is expected to work for speed and accuracy where the parameters of the task are already fixed. This is the part of the job that is likely to be mechanised or robotised in the interest of greater economy or accuracy. Examples of these include jobs of a typist or a fax operator. While both those tasks are still  part of the daily routine of most businesses, it employs fewer people each year solely for these. Every role, all the way up the hierarchy has parts that are similar. While essential, it may be wise to remember that there are no special commendations to be achieved here. Of course, mistakes in these are terribly embarrassing. Often called the ‘executive’ level (now) because what you do is execute instructions.

The Second Step

Right above that comes the layer with tasks that are your ‘responsibility’. This is the stuff that is within your domain but nobody tells you how to do them. The ‘what’ may be clear, though often made specific in annual goal setting. The ‘how’ is not always specified, though there might be a tradition of doing things a certain way. Here, both the task and its accountability come from above. Often called the managerial level, as you are expected to manage resources to get results.

Now for the bits they don’t tell you about:

The Third Step

The layer of the unasked. There is always a lot of stuff that needs doing in an organisation or business, but is not part of your job description. It is also not part of any other person’s job description (no point stepping on other people’s toes, it will only mess things up). Sometimes it is as simple as organising the annual office party. Sometimes it is volunteering to do a little project that does not really help your P&L but needs to be done. Sometimes it is just being a good team leader and a fantastic team player. Why should you do it? To get noticed, to differentiate yourself and rise above.

The Fourth Layer

If the previous one was difficult to see – let us call it translucent, the next one is even less visible. In old hindi movies there often was a sequence where lots of people were doing hard work. Say building a road or clearing a field. And then there would be one person, say the hero or heroine who would do a little bit of work, but their main job would be singing. Not that this is a lesson from Bollywood, but some of you would have observed these singers in your offices too. The guy who sends out the first congratulatory email to all.. or the person who leads the pace in a tough project. This – again – not a part of the core job. (Also very annoying when it comes from someone who has not done much work – if you are a pace setter, make sure the work layers are solid!). The guy who sings the songs, who keeps up the morale and holds the team together is doing the team a service! Well, it does not literally need you to sing songs, a few praises may not be amiss. Celebrate the successes too. Do it with a will, with honest intent (so easy to spot a fraud). To coin a cliche – till you believe in the success of a team, the team cannot believe in your success. Somebody’s got to put in the effort of making work fun.

Layer Five

And while the next layer is not the top, it is the last we speak of – even as it is invisible. If you want to rise above your level, you have to demonstrate exactly that. Do more than is expected. Always remembering of course to ensure you are helping  your team and your boss – not trampling all over their space and work. India is more openly hierarchical than many places – and it will not do much good to rock the boat you want to rule.

If you are the CEO, or close to being one – you probably know these things. (That is how you got here) The guys you want to groom to make you successful may not have realised this – send it to them. Sounds like a lot of hard work? It is.


Ask the person who sent you this link.

Link here and


The CXO and the Duty of Care

A Duty of Care and Zero Tolerance for Assault


Thursday January 10, 2013, 11:50 AM

On a bus in Munirka, in Delhi a crime was committed. A month later, India still reverbrates. A change has been wrought even as the protests inevitably die down. And that change is going to affect every businesses in one way or the other.

Investments into India already suffer due to the governance gap that should be obvious to all who occupy the corner office. Clean and large investments are slow to come into India because they cannot be sure that ethical practices will be consistently applied, nor can they be absolutely sure that the rule of law will protect their investments in ways that they expect. The crime in Delhi, and then the awareness of its pervasiveness across the nation clearly laid bare the state of lawlessness – if most women are saying that they have been molested or assaulted, then there is a level of moral corruption that is very distasteful to work with. Why would any one want to invest in a morally corrupt people? And as all investors know, the business plan and the model need to be rigorous, but the true investment is always in the people who will build a business to success.

How does this affect the Corner Office? In many ways, not just in tighter lines of investment (which of course does not directly affect all businesses). But this places a series of burdens on them.

Some direct costs to the business have been highlighted in recent days. Many businesses will suffer a talent gap for years to come due to women choosing alternate careers. It has been proven often in studies globally that businesses with women managers, including CEOs outperform the general index. The efforts to include more women in senior management is based on strong findings and therefore receives support from many large businesses. Women in call centres (not a small business in India) and in many other organisations have now refused to work after dark, have sought additional security arrangements and are under pressure to curtail their careers. This is a double whammy for businesses. Not only do they bear the cost of lawless (men) but also bear the cost of poor policing in the streets. More importantly, they bear the loss of managerial talent that could take their business forward.

This is a reminder to all CXOs to focus on the duty of care as part of their mandate. The safety of employees has been more often honoured in the breach rather than in practice. Safety norms may not even exist for many businesses. All do not have standardised drills for local emergencies. Some, and only a few businesses have policies in place for emergencies, designated fire officers and first aid officers who will have received proper training. Safety and care are part of a leader’s responsibilities – and yet there is a question here..

Should this not be a part of the operational responsibilities? Does a CXO need to think through fire drills and safe circuits? Obviously not, and yet the CXO is responsible for ensuring that rigorous processes are in place and that these are run by competent people so that the duty of care is carried out.

What is this duty of care? Very simply, it is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure the well being of their staff. For example – good working conditions for all form part of this duty. In some organisations employee stress is managed by providing confidential counseling services to those who seek it. In other organsations, especially where employees spend long hours, gyms, shower rooms and well stocked pantries are provided for the well being of staff. Some of course, famously, have games rooms too. The duty of care also involves having fair conflict resolution mechanisms in place, includes having transparent complaint redressal procedures. There must be no discrimination on the basis of gender, geography, race or sexual orientation – and for each of these the norms need to be laid out clearly. Zero tolerance for assault – whether verbal or physical and strict, transparent and rapidly implemented responses if anything happens. And this has to be done with honest commitment, even if everyday in its nature.

In India, emergency situations such as bomb blasts across the city are not unheard of in the larger metros. The CEOs duty of care kicks in straight away. They must have an updated list of numbers and addresses ready, and a designated team to take an instant roll call of where each and every employee is at that point of time. Many organisations have security and medical teams that are put on standby to provide instant assistance. There have been instances where designated office transport has not proved trustworthy, and traveling employees have been assaulted – this too becomes the responsibility of the CEO.

The challenge (and a need for development for many) is to learn how to keep a fatherly eye without being feudal, to learn how to delegate without losing sight of operational truths and to learn how to be fair to all in conflict, fear and personal tragedy. That is the ask of the corner office.


This was published in the Economic Times blogs on January 5, 2013 and is linked here and

Fighting for the Corner Office

Fighting for the Corner

Wednesday December 12, 2012, 02:47 PM
The corner office must be earned. It comes of years of graft, and of building companionship, in one way or another. And brings with it a whole new bag of demands. A new perspective that must build the vision for the future. And keep the registers clanging.

To get to the corner office takes a lot more than just doing one’s job well. One must work the content and the style, the camaraderie, the team. Often seeking credit where little was due, often giving with more than generosity. To be seen as right and correct, to gain power without losing respect. That and more is the ask of the corner office.
The corner office both allows a view and demands a view. It gives sight of patterns within and outside the office that were not visible before. And demands that a vision for the firm be created out of these. What does the CXO think of the impact of FDI? Will it affect business? Is there going to be regulation on apprentices (not) and will it affect the interns that can be hired? Does the new legislation passed today change the way we do business? Is it okay to, and how does one lobby against a regulation that seems to make no sense and is affecting our business? Where are the revenue streams for the next two years, five years, ten years going to come from? Can we run our business smarter? What will my legacy be as CEO?
Big questions. Many more. All of them answered by hard numbers presented to shareholders. But the corner office is not just about numbers, it is about building stature too. What does a CEO do to build that in industry? Three things, primarily, and then some more.

First, tell a good story. The CEOs primary role is to be an ambassador for their company. They must know and retell the story of their firm, and its future with finesse. And with purpose. Each time the CEO steps up, it is the entire company, its resources, its databases and its people that step up with him. And the story must resonate with the reality of these people. Or the story collapses, as the Kingfisher story has, or becomes less than substantial as many stories around us seem to be – bowed under the weight of their own gaps. The story the CEO tells is the dominant narrative of that firm. It is what energises the firm, and brings the firm its reputation in the marketplace. Even an invite to the global table, to be a party to discussions, to rise and shape the agenda in a way that is good for its own business.
Second, to Bat for the team. The CEO, from the corner office is the captain of the team. All the successes of the team are attributed so first, as are the failures. If medals and cups are gained, they sit in that corner office. And if brickbats arrive, they first must crash through the glass of the corner office. A leader stands firm, holds true and steers the team back to the playing pitch, making sure that they are part of the game again. When your team knows that you will make sure that the game will be played, and that they will get a chance at fair play they will bat for the leader too. Even more so when they know their captain can play the winning knock and transform the game. This is what the corner office demands – to demonstrate the winning knock, to transform the game to make the team win.
Third, to celebrate success. The corner office leads in battle, and all battles leave the people bloody, bruised and weary. Whether these are real life battles or corporate battles, no successful strategy is implemented without cost to its people. This makes success even sweeter, when it comes. And the leader must step up here to celebrate, and celebrate all even as the leader stepped in to save the battle. Moments of glory are moments of renewal. They refresh the team, and power them for the next battle. This is not just about a simple party or a ra ra email. This is about aligning incentives, ensuring the well being of the people who drive the business, ensuring that credit goes where it is due and talent is rewarded for performance. This is about the old fashioned term – espirit de corps, about creating that band of brothers that will raise the CEO and the firm to greater success. For the next times.
This blog is about the corner office, and the journey of those who occupy or wish to occupy it. We will speak of values, attitudes, behaviors of success. We will speak of corruption and kings; maybe of the corruption of kings. We could read books together, or share stories of other successful CEOs. And most importantly, of the new world, that the new economics builds, so that we may steer our firm to greater success, even if we do not know what lies ahead.
Meeta Sengupta is an educator and coach, who works to raise standards across the education spectrum. She can be contacted via this blog or at

This was published in the Economic Times Blogs on December 12, 2012 and is linked here and

The Corner Office

This was a blog I started for the Economic Times.

I coach, or used to.

Two clients a year.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

No, this is not about gender. The glass ceiling applies to all of us.

For the CXO club is just that – a club. It has invisible norms and rules.

To knock at those doors (or to stay with the metaphor – that ceiling) is an act of daring, made less so by preparation.

To seek to enter the CXO club is to be prepared to be held to higher standards, to be prepared for honest truths and to be prepared to be tough – among other things.

Watch, listen, learn, play.