Earlier, I introduced the idea of Parent Leadership as a model for a majority of the Indian business world.
But what if you are stepping into a situation where you are the leader and you feel like everyone is looking to you to be the parent?
Instead of running away, here are a few things you can painlessly put into practice to help both you and your new team get off on the right foot.
But first, how do you know if your team is thinking like a family?
10 Ways to Tell If Your Indian Team is a Family Style:
- Half your day is spent giving approval and answering questions
- You are endlessly dealing with people issues
- After distributing a new process, people still go back to the old way of doing things
- You are pretty sure no one else in the office makes any decisions
- You feel your team gives you more credit than you deserve when something good happens
- People tend to know a lot about each other’s personal lives
- You hear stories of teams leaving en masse and defecting to a new organization
- Everyone has a heightened awareness of whom you are treating as the “favorite”
- You find yourself wondering if things will still work when you are not there
- You wonder if team members really understand your vision, or if they are simply just following your orders
If several of these stick out to you, there’s a good chance you are operating in a family style environment and your team wants you to be a Parent Leader.
Jai Sinha, a leading expert on Indian management styles, said the perfect situation for a Parent Leadership style is one where subordinates:
- Prefer connection over autonomy
- Prefer personalized relationships to contractual ones
- Accept status differences
If this sounds like your situation, don’t be afraid, you can do it. And learning to be a Parent Leader is not a bad thing either.
Benefits of leading in a family style:
Here are five quick things that make the Family/Parent Style of business a great choice
- Decisions can be implemented as soon as you say so
- Team members have a greater sense of connection to each other
- Studies have shown an increased commitment to the organization and better retention
- There is no ambiguity as to who has the final say
- Team members have a greater sense of security about their jobs
Despite these amazing advantages, odds are good that right now you have an even longer list of counterarguments about why this style should go out with the dinosaurs. And probably #1 for you is “This style is totally foreign and isn’t me.”
That’s fair, and soon you can read a post about how Parent Leadership compares with other styles around the world to get a more complete understanding.
But to actually succeed in India, you will need to know the basics of Parent Leadership and how you can make it work. Sinha said, “For a leader who is liked and respected, [work] is performed with involvement; otherwise it gets perfunctory attention.” (86)
5 Real Life Ways Western Leaders Can Adapt to the Parent Leader Role
These are practical suggestions that come from years of seeing expats try to lead teams in India. Some were good ideas people tried, some are mistakes they learned from. None of them involve group hugs, so don’t be afraid.
1.) Shift your focus to being the giver of guidance and protection. You must remember the essential transaction that takes place within Parent Leadership: guidance for loyalty. Loyalty is the currency you will need to make anything happen. It is the grease in your machine. Without loyalty, your entire team/project/organization is teetering on a ledge.
How do you get loyalty? Offer guidance and protection.
Guidance is a much more hands-on term than you might be used to. It is setting a process/vision/ strategy and then following up several times to make sure everyone really understands it. It is being available for your team to ask you any question they want until they learn to be able to predict what you will say.
I once saw an executive leader whose office was set in the middle of a bay of about 30 desks. Her door eventually had to be replaced because it was opened at least 50 times a day by people coming in to ask what to do in different situations. Some of this was the result of poor organizational structuring, but it was also reflective of a culture where the leader’s role is to speak wisdom into their lives.
If you have a team that is very junior, even if they are top graduates from the best colleges, don’t assume they will all be fine on their own. Schedule regular check-ins early and often (many more than you are thinking right now), especially among your immediate reports.
Protection means your team is not just a collection of individuals. It is a tribe that has each other’s back at every moment. As the leader, you must protect your team from:
- Other departments
- Top management
- Irate customers/clients
- A bad economy
- A risky job market
The more guidance and protection you can give, the more loyal your team will be to you.
2.) Don’t try to be the people’s leader. I met with one western woman whose role included leading an Indian team of around 50 people. On her first visit, she wanted to start off on a high note and set up individual meetings with each person on the team, from the most senior to the most junior.
When she left, it seemed that everyone appreciated the trip and everything was fine.
Until her second visit.
She did not have enough time to do the same thing again, but everyone was expecting to have their 30 minutes with her. When it was clear that she “didn’t have time for them”, a lot of the junior team members had their bubble burst and were bitter about it.
She also later learned that her more senior reports were unhappy with her first visit. They felt that because of their experience and roles, they should have had much more time with her and she wasn’t respecting their leadership abilities by “checking up” on how they led their direct reports.
A better solution?
Go deep with your core team (no more than 10 people, the fewer the better). For everyone else, function more like a “grandparent” who comes in, gives inspiring messages, announces gifts, and lets their managers take care of everything else. This is not to say that you should avoid people who aren’t direct reports; just be careful of the messages you are sending to them.
3.) Exercise your authority from time to time. This one can be the most challenging for some. It’s very common to see a leader come in and try to be pleasant friends with their teams. Don’t forget that the Family style is a combination between Group AND Power. If your team doesn’t think you have any power, you are sunk. If your team thinks you will never use the power you have, you are sunk.
I once heard a speaker say the foundation for a child to obey and respect a parent is that in the back of the child’s mind, he/she has to think that the parent might just kill them. It was a shocking way to say that a child should have a healthy fear of their parents.
How does this translate to the office? Don’t be a pushover. You don’t need to go around yelling all the time, but a few isolated displays of authority might do the trick. If your team has absolutely no fear of what you might do to them or to someone else who threatens the team, you have little chance to being a good Parent Leader.
Appropriate ways to show your authority:
- Raise your voice to make an important point
- Demand that the team work late on a legitimate project (occasionally)
- Defend your team in public in front of top management
- Come down harshly when expectations are not met
- Combat excuses with “I’m trusting you to do this. Get it done.”
You are not trying to create a habit of these behaviours; you are just trying to blend the strong and the sweet. Once every six months is enough to let them assume that you are packing some potestas. If it’s been a while since your last display, this might be the cause of some of your issues.
4.) Don’t stress out on individual accountability. When a mistake happens, your first reaction might be to pinpoint exactly who made the mistake and force them to publicly acknowledge and correct it. This is not what a Parent Leader does.
Where possible, shift accountability to the team and to you as the leader. If someone on your team screws up and you are called up for it, you will be expected to deal with it and not throw your team member out to the wolves.
There were several times in my experiences where someone on my team had made a mistake. When asked what happened, I would say “[Name] didn’t get it done.” I thought I was stating a fact and being honest. It was heard as shifting blame and not managing my team well.
Handle these situation either privately and directly (one-on-one meeting) or publicly and indirectly (“X mistake was made. We all know it is serious and it won’t happen again. Let’s all pull together to make it right”).
5.) Create a culture of family. The Family style feeds off personal relationships. Not only is your relationship with each of your direct reports important, their relationship with each other is also important. Talk about your team and have regular meetings. Like a good parent, indulge your team with a group outings when you can and allow the bonds to form inside and outside of work.
Start appealing to the history/legacy of the team. Say things like “We should be known as…”, or “we’ve always been known as…”. Families take a long-term perspective too. Don’t just try to help someone get to “the next level”. Talk in terms of their whole careers, or the lifetime effect of a project.
I was talking with a European manager who casually mentioned being invited to all kinds of weddings all the time. He said the latest one was for the brother of one of his direct reports. I encouraged him not to skip it. Even though he felt really awkward, he merely showed up at the wedding, ate some food, got his picture taken with the happy couple, and left. He was shocked at the immediate difference he saw in his whole team (they all were there too) over the next week and how much warmer they were to him and his suggestions.
Leading in the Family style takes some practice if you are not used to it, but can be done. What are some ways that you have adapted your style?
Photo Credit: Carol Mitchell on Flickr