Monday, February 20, 2017

Lessons from West

I was introduced to Heben Negatu via her podcast, Another Round. I haven't been an avid follower of the podcast, though I enjoyed it. I guess I am spoiled by the production quality of  This American Life (which, I admit, is actually a radio program with a sizable budget and staff, so shouldn't be judged as a typical 'podcast'), and 99% Invisible, that I somehow can't seem to latch on to conversational podcasts, like Another Round.

Anyhow, back to the video above. She makes some very interesting observations. She starts off joking that the white people in the room may find her talk difficult to relate as it will not center around them. On the other hand she notes that brown people spend their entire lives empathizing with white society. This was recently made evident in South Africa where white South Africans were found to be absolutely incapable of watching popular black shows because they just don't get it. On the other hand, black South Africans can watch popular white shows because even if they come from culturally different origins, they can put themselves in the shoes of a person from another background. Why the difference? I don't know. I will post a link if I find the poll.

Another point Heben men that I really liked was around how "blackness" and explaining and defending it at work is draining. It takes away from your time to focus on your work. It also takes away from your "brand" -- for every other time your name is mentioned for good work, your name will also mentioned for arguing for black causes. I.e., you'll be diluting your "marketing", where the latter cause doesn't help advance your career (it may very well retard it). To have to work twice as hard as your colleagues, only to dilute how frequently your effectiveness is communicated upwards is a waste.

To top it all, she weaved all her lessons into Kanye's lyrics. Ha!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Tell him for what?

I recently went on a business trip to Nairobi. My job gives me a fancy title, and requires me to elevate transnational conversations with our customers into strategic conversations. To do this, typically I have to engage the customer at the C-Level. I do not accept meetings unless high level sponsorship and access is not guaranteed.

So, I dedicated a week for this customer in Nairobi and showed up early last week, only to realize that I had no meetings scheduled.

Fortunately I met an older counterpart from a sister team who had expertise in complementary products who had also come for the same customer meetings.

It turned out he was invited to a few meetings, though some were also botched up. After a number of wasted days, finally the senior person in the local team who held the client relationship fessed up to me, "No offense but I want senior people in these meetings.  I have nothing against you personally, and believe you can hold these conversations, but you just look too young." She points to my hair and illustrates, "See, you have no grey hair!"

Out of deference, and complete shock, I kept my mouth shut. But I was fuming. What made it particularly scathing was that this senior person was:

  1. A woman
  2. An African
  3. Looks older than I do, but has dyed her hair jet black (or has unusually very dark hair)
I fortunately made it to some meetings because the older gentleman from my sister team and I got along very well (while waiting for his botched up meetings), and he was happy to let me tag along. He turned out to be a gem, who I am now considering to ask to become my official mentor. 

By the end of the week I had figured out he's one of the most senior people in our two teams. In fact, I had already noticed that he has an unusually fancy title than the rest of our sub-organization, which I came to understand was a reflection of his tenure. My current boss was hired by him. I also found out that my boss and him were collaborating on another project right after he wrapped up form Nairobi. 

So on Thursday I made a passing comment that I was mauling over what I need to tell my boss about the week and its failures when the guy interrupted me and said, "What? You don't tell your boss that this week didn't go well. You tell him you attended some meetings with me that went very well.  This deal will close, and if it doesn't close it won't be because of anything you did or didn't do. You and I have to collaborate to complete this, so whatever meetings I go to, you'll have the input. If I were you, I'd ride the wave, complete this project, take the credit and walk away."

Mind, blown!

When I got back home, I told friends (all female) about the week, the hypocrite senior woman and my missed meetings, they all said I had to flag it to my boss. 

Then I told them what senior guy told me. After some consideration, they all agreed that his recommendation made sense.  Tell him for what? They also admitted that they would never think of the situation from his perspective. They'd have gone on and raised red flags, and probably caused havoc.  It may not right not to flag the issues, but is it effective?

I was once told by an ex-colleague that a cut throat executive in the organization had once given her an invaluable advice: that there are two types of employees, those who bubble up issues to their manager ("problem makers"), and those who are "solvers". 

I realized what the guy had advised me was to be a "solver", specially because there is very little my boss would be able to do about my grievances without disturbing the organizational peace.  And even after he flagged the issues, what good would it do me? 

Update: I read this account today, written by a female Engineer who had a strange year at Uber. Having been a vocal person with HR in my previous job (which did not NOT serve me well), I learned the hard way that in order for me to succeed:

  1. I first need to survive within the system
  2. Ethics & fairness was not the rule of the game, so I better learn to define my space, or perish