On our second episode of the OneHaas Alumni High Impact Teaming (HIT) Series with Dr. Brandi Pearce, we chat with Haas alumni Nandita Batra. She is a Strategy & Operations member of the ChromeOS Chief of Staff team, supporting Product leadership to define strategy, translate strategy into C-level narratives for internal & external audiences, and run business operations while aligning Product & GTM organizations. Prior to that, she was at Shutterfly and the Boston Consulting Group.
We first hear about Nandita’s unique background growing up in Australia and the US. And how having lived and worked in different places around the world have impacted her internal leadership and collaborative capabilities to build high impact cross-functional teams around the world.
Disclaimer: The views shared in this episode are Nandita’s personal opinions and reflections and not necessarily those of her employer.
On growing up in two different countries – “Having spent my childhood between two countries shaped who I am as a person, how I see the world and my passion for other cultures.”
On her professional experience in Paris – “I grew a lot working in another country, in a system where you don’t have much of a support network. It helps you build grit and resilience. And it was also fun.”
On being an introverted leader – “It’s the ability to listen and truly listen, not just to what a person is saying, but to those conversations between people. Being an introvert also allows you to empathize with other introverts and help them find space to find their voice in their comfort zone.”
Her experience navigating a variety of cultures – “I learned so much about how to negotiate across cultures. Understanding how different cultures approach business sets you up to be more effective as a leader in a global business economy. It invites openness and curiosity about other people’s stories and other people’s journeys.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. Today, we have our second installment of our mini-series on high impact team. And joining me is my cohost Dr. Brandi Pearce and our guest and Haas alumni, Nandita Batra of the full-time MBA 2013 program. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:00:27] Nandita: Thank you.
[00:00:28] Brandi: Thank you, Sean. Nandita, welcome. We’re so delighted to have you here. We’d love to just start off by hearing a little bit about you, where you’re from, where you studied, a bit of your background, just to get us started.
[00:00:42] Nandita: I’m actually going to go way back to the beginning. I born in India. I’m of Indian origin. When I was five, my family migrated to Australia. So, I spent most of my formative childhood years in Australia up until the age of 15.
[00:00:59] And then I moved to the United States. I said I’ll go all the way back to the beginning because, on the surface, Australia and the United States are very similar countries but having spent my childhood between two countries really shaped who I am as a person and how I see the world and my passion for other cultures, which I’m sure we’ll talk more about through this podcast.
[00:01:20] So, aged 15, moved to the US to Southern California. And then I went to undergrad in Chicago at Northwestern which is another great experience. And I lived in a very suburban part of Southern California in Orange County. So, going to Chicago was a welcome view of reality.
[00:01:40] The hard lives that people have. I just remember riding the L, which is the train in Chicago, and seeing people, you know, that are coming back from their second job at 3:00 AM. So, I really appreciated that perspective. So, at Northwestern, I double majored in Economics and English which I think really encapsulates my equal parts, left brain and right brain orientation.
[00:02:05] And I have to say it’s many years later that I’ve seen the true value of having that kind of liberal arts education and actually it’s given me really valuable communication skills and empathy skills.
[00:02:20] My entire career has been in strategy and operations. I did strategy consulting then I went into corporate strategy for food and beverage company in Dallas, Texas, which was another great perspective, shifting experience.
[00:02:30] Then I came to Haas, loved my time at Haas. And then after Haas, I went back into consulting with a twist. So, I actually moved to Paris and did consulting full time there for two years in the Paris office.
[00:02:43] And then it was a great experience. But I was ready to come back home. So, I moved back to the Bay area five years ago. And then I worked for an eCommerce company in a series of business operations in general management roles.
[00:02:58] So that’s where I kind of like blended strategy and business operations. I am currently working at Google in a strategy and operations role, working with product teams in that capacity.
[00:03:09] Brandi: It’s fun to hear your whole arc of your story. It reminds me a little bit of my own trajectory. So, I, too, was an econ major. but my deep passion was psychology. And so, then I guess I had to go back and get a Ph.D. and do that.
[00:03:25] And I’m curious as I hear this story, I think one of the places you talked a little bit about when you were on a panel for one of my classes was your experience in Paris and how pivotal that was for you in terms of your own growth as a leader. And I just love to hear a little bit more about that experience. What led you to Paris to make this pivot and maybe a moment that was particularly influential or memorable for you.
[00:03:55] Nandita: Yeah, absolutely. So, I graduated from Haas and I’d say Haas was a very formative experience. And then I went to Paris and that ended up being, I think, the most formative and transformative experience in my life thus far. And just the fact of living and working in another culture. You’re so far out of your comfort zone.
[00:04:14] And I knew French. I had studied French in school. I had to pass an unofficial French test to be able to work out of the Paris office. But when you’re working in a foreign language twelve to fourteen hours a day, it’s a very different experience. And the language was just one layer. The second layer was the cultural context.
[00:04:32] And so very quickly, I started working and I realized I didn’t have the cultural context because I hadn’t grown up in that environment. Things like reading tone, reading body language are somewhat culturally specific. And so, how do I increase my sort of cultural fluency or competency?
[00:04:50] I started watching a lot of French movies. That’s what I would do. And, you know, I was still getting settled, still getting to know people and Paris is a city where it’s quite hard to break into social circles. So, I took advantage of that to go out and watch a lot of French movies and just gather that cultural context.
[00:05:08] It was also on a personal level. Fantastic. I got the most amazing cultural experience in the sense of arts and culture because Paris is just a city that is abounding with museums but not just traditional forms of art but also there’s a lot of contemporary art and design and innovation maybe not in the Silicon Valley way but innovation in a very Parisian way happening. So that was fantastic. And then professionally, I think I grew a lot working in another country, in a system where you don’t have much of a support network. It really helps you build grit and resilience.
[00:05:46] And it was also fun. Fun and challenging, but you know, in some way sort of fun to observe the different interactions I would have with people and unpack the cultural nuances and really understand the people in the culture and what shaped them.
[00:06:03] And I’ll just give you an example to illustrate. So, the French education system is quite harsh. You’ll take a test, just a routine test and it’s graded out of 20 and a grade of 14 out of 20 is considered a good grade. Whereas in the US 14 out of 20 kids asking for, you know, a regrade, parents calling in extra credit, that’s not a great grade.
[00:06:24] And you see that kind of mindset play out as people grow up, move into the workforce. In the United States, I think it translates into the spirit that the sky is the limit. You can think really big and go really far. And in France, that translates into more of a conservative approach in the business world.
[00:06:45] And also, I would say the feedback culture is more constructive if you will and I remember my international classmates at Haas would always say, what is this compliment sandwich that we have to use in the US. This feels so forced. I think this was perhaps my most significant takeaway or thing that I brought back with me.
[00:07:07] In the United States you come to the table, you’re sitting across the table from a partner, a CEO, whoever you’re sitting across the table from you come to the table as equal humans. There’s a difference in your rank, there’s a difference in your title but in your humanity, you’re equal. Working in France I certainly felt that was different.
[00:07:25] Your workplace hierarchy I think translated into a very different relationship in how you connect it as human beings. And so I really value that because now I came back to the US and brought this perspective that everybody’s a person and just approaching everybody as a person and seeing their humanity and treating everybody as an equal human being, whether there’s someone senior to you or someone junior to you, I think is a really, valuable mindset to have. It’s something I’m really grateful for.
[00:08:12] Brandi: It’s interesting to think about these moments that we have in other contexts and how, when something’s missing, it makes us more aware of it upon our return. I am curious, as you think about that experience, particularly one of the things you talked about initially was language.
[00:08:31] So as we think about leading global teams, sometimes this is the unspoken component of globalization. It has such a huge impact on how we communicate with others. What were some things that you discovered being in an environment where this was not necessarily your native tongue and what it felt like to be negotiating and trying to engage in your environment? How did language play out?
[00:08:57] Nandita: That is a great question. I felt you’re gonna laugh but I felt like I had my brain had two processors, one that functioned in English and one that functioned in French, and I could palpably feel that my brain would have to shift from one mode to the other. So, I could communicate in French, but all my cognitive ability happened in English because I had done all my schooling in English. All those neural pathways had been wired in English. So, there was this mental switching cost that was constantly going on in my head. And so, I would say for folks leading global teams, really important to be mindful of almost a mental tax of working in a different language.
[00:09:37] That’s one and it can be very exhausting. And then I’d love to take this actually a little bit further and talk about the cultural layers below that. And again, if you’re leading global teams or working with global teams, I highly recommend picking up a couple of foundational books with cultural frameworks that describe the differences in how people perceive time or how they view hierarchy, or how they value harmony.
[00:10:02] I read some of these frameworks before I went to Paris just to educate myself and ground myself. And they are so helpful. Of course, they are generalizations, but they are so helpful for even becoming aware of all the things that we assume are normal in our American centric business culture.
[00:10:19] Nandita: So, I was working on a project when I was in France with a Japanese automaker and one of the learnings for myself and for my French colleagues was that the way the Japanese approach their work is they spend a lot of time upfront gaining alignment on the plan, making sure everybody’s bought in on the plan.
[00:10:39] Once they have alignment on the plan, it’s go, go, go execute. Whereas the French approach, I think is a little bit more fluid. They’re revising the plan as they go along. And so, we had a cross border team working across France and Japan. And that actually created some tension on the team because initially, we weren’t aware of the different cultural norms and expectations that shaped our work.
[00:11:04] Brandi: So, if you had been the lead at that moment, what might you have done differently as you brought these two teams together from different parts of the world, getting ready to engage in this joint project?
[00:11:17] Nandita: I would have done two things. One is, have sort of a kickoff with the counterpart team. In this case, they were in Japan to talk about work styles, expectations. And to do that on more of a peer to peer level or like we’re all part of the same firms. So, let’s align recognizing that we are going to be working cross-culturally, let’s surface the assumptions that we have about how we approach our work. The other thing I would do probably as a precursor to this is educating the French team. Spend some time as a French team, educating ourselves on Japanese business practices and culture. A lot of cultures are less direct than in the United States. I’d say the United States and Scandinavian countries can be fairly direct in what we say. A lot of cultures, particularly, Asian cultures, are much more indirect.
[00:12:09] There’s also greater value placed on preserving the relationship. And so, if you know that context going in, you’ll be more mindful that your Japanese colleagues may not tell you upfront in a very direct way, oh no, we absolutely have to align on the plan first and then we execute.
[00:12:26] So, I think you have to do both sides. Educate yourself and then have an open conversation with your teammates. And often a lot of this does feel like you’ve got a blindfold on and you’re feeling your way through the dark. And I will say one of the things that I gained working abroad was it really sharpened my intuition and my ability to listen to my intuition.
[00:12:45] I’d say, yeah, that’s an important skill to lean on in these cross-cultural contexts. Don’t just focus on what the person is saying but take in all those additional nonverbal cues and that’s all information, that’s all data, to put it in MBA or tech speak.
[00:13:02] Brandi: I mean, that’s actually interesting to think about intuition. I want to just ask you from your perspective, how do you think about intuition? What does that mean to you as a leader? And it’s interesting because it goes back to this topic that we started with, which was the balance between economics and English or economics and psychology.
[00:13:21] We tend to be very data-driven. And yet there’s this other component of leadership that is a bit more intuitive. And I’m curious, what does that mean to you and how do you think about it?
[00:13:32] Nandita: There are two ways I think about this. So one is, I think in the context of running a business, making business decisions. I’m obviously very data-driven having an economics background and I enjoy numbers and using data to inform decisions. But because I also have this background in English, which I think has developed really strong empathy skills, I also see the value of just taking a step back and looking beyond the data and asking yourself, does this make sense? I spent a lot of my career working in consumer products and retail. And so, I always take a step back and say, does this mean makes sense for the consumer? Is this a convincing reason for the consumer to buy this product?
[00:14:10] Just to give you a really tangible example, when I was working at Shutterfly, on our mobile app business, we had seen this sort of slow deterioration in one of our product lines but it was hard to pin down. Some days it was up, some days it was down.
[00:14:24] It wasn’t quite clear but over time it seemed like it was trending down and started to diagnose it working with the analytics team. Cutting the data in many different ways and could not find a root cause or a reason why this was down. Looked at price volume, looked at product mix. And then I took a step back and just looked at the product experience on the app.
[00:14:46] And we had recently rolled out some upgrades to the experience. And I looked at it as the consumer, no data, just as a consumer. What the experience did was auto crop photos. So, it was meant to save the consumer time. But my observation was that actually, the auto-cropping was not perfect every time.
[00:15:04] And so as a consumer tool, you have to review all the photos and adjust them and that could end up taking more time. And so that is an example of where the data yield the insight but the intuition and the ability to take a step back and look at it from a consumer lens and from a more qualitative lens actually helped us diagnose the key issue.
[00:15:26] And then we basically rolled it back that feature and saw our sales start to slowly recover. I said two things around intuition. So that’s one right in the context of making business decisions. And then the second one is intuition in terms of leading teams and leading people.
[00:15:40] This is where reading the nonverbal cues, reading the interactions between people in a room. One of the things I find myself naturally drawn to is listening for tensions. So, if you’ll be in a room, say it’s a cross-functional team, and sometimes you hear people are almost talking past each other.
[00:15:57] Not that they’re talking over each other, but person A is saying X and person B is saying Y and it seems like they’re completely at odds. I love those moments because every function plays a role. They all represent a certain perspective and it’s helping each of those teams see where the other one is coming from and being able to bridge that and recognize the mutual goals and come to mutual alignment and be able to move forward. I think that’s so important. And also, I personally find it so rewarding as a leader.
[00:16:27] Brandi: It’s interesting to think about this place, this sweet spot of a team where you have the capacity to bring different perspectives together, have some ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, understand where they may be coming from, draw that in, synthesize it into how you may approach a problem and then create that integrative solution. And it’s interesting to think about how travel helps inform our ability to do this effectively.
[00:17:15] Brandi: You’ve had a lot of experience working in large global organizations like Google and BCG. As you think about your evolution as a leader and leading teams and others, what do you think drew you to this type of work and these kinds of organizations?
[00:17:31] Nandita: As I’ve gotten through my career, I have come to appreciate that I actually enjoy complexity. I like working in complex environments or working with complex problems and looking at how do we distill it down, how do we simplify it into the component pieces which need to be addressed?
[00:17:49] That could be for a business problem or an organizational or interpersonal problem. And then as I’ve gone through my career, I have also seen that I really enjoy working with people influencing and leading people. And I think if you asked me out of undergrad, that is not the first thing I would have said because I had this perception of people person, as the life of the party, I’m the person that is working the room at a networking event. That’s certainly not who I was at that point in time. I’m more of an introvert by nature but when it comes down to it, the central theme of my career actually is people.
[00:18:25] Whether it’s the time I spent working in consumer products and retail, what drew me and what kept me engaged the whole time was thinking about the consumer and what they need and how we can best serve them.
[00:18:35] And the other manifestation was the part that’s internal to the organization, working with teams, aligning teams, and moving organizations forward.
[00:18:43] Brandi: One of the things you talked a little bit about is introversion. So, we do tend to have an archetype of a leader as an extrovert. And yet we’re starting to know that introverts actually have some skills and capabilities that make them very effective leaders, particularly in knowledge-based teams where we have to listen to other’s perspectives and integrate ideas.
[00:19:06] So, I’m curious about your experience of being an introvert and developing as a leader. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and where are the places that you think your introverted self actually serves you well?
[00:19:20] Nandita: Yes. I love this question. Thank you for giving voice to introversion.
[00:19:23] Brandi: I’ve got a few of those in my family.
[00:19:27] Nandita: So, I think actually working in business has been really great for me. I can’t say I’ve grown out of my introversion. I’m still an introvert, but to expand the boundaries, right? And develop a more extroverted style than I think I would have had, if I had gone into a career path, say academia. So, I’m actually really grateful for the experience in the business. For me, navigating this as a matter of managing my energy.
[00:19:52] So I find, if I have too many meetings in a day or too many back-to-back meetings, that’s quite exhausting for me. And so, what I would do is organize my day so that I’d keep my mornings open for work time for emails, for thinking and my afternoons is when I would try to schedule my meetings. And so, that has been quite effective in this time of COVID.
[00:20:12] It’s actually been very illuminating. I like being in quiet environments. So, working from home has given me that mental, physical space and that quiet environment. I’m able to focus a lot more and it actually helps me sustain my energy levels throughout the day. So, COVID in that respect has been a blessing in managing my energies. I’ve heard parents say that for their students and for their kids, it’s the introverted students that are doing better during COVID and the extroverted kids are having a much harder time.
[00:20:49] Based on my own experience, I can relate to that or agree with that in the workplace.
[00:20:54] Brandi: Are you noticing that at all with your teams, a difference in how people are showing up in the team environment in COVID on introversion and extroversion?
[00:21:05] Nandita: I actually changed organizations within Google a week before everybody started working from home. So, I’ve been actually navigating building relationships and getting to know the team in a virtual world. And it is a little bit harder because what you lose is all those organic water cooler type conversations because now all my interactions are, I show up on a Google Hangouts call with a bunch of other people. There’s less space for chit-chat. And particularly for one-on-one, more informal interactions.
[00:21:37] Sean: We were just talking about this actually before you came on, how it’s one huge missing element are those casual interactions, right? Because once you’re on a call, once you’re on a Google Hangout, you’re committed to this person for the next 10, 15 minutes at least versus working the room. As you were saying earlier, you can sample the room and just get to talk to different people.
[00:22:04] Nandita: Yeah, building on that. And you mentioned working in the room. So, in this role, I run a regular meeting that has about 35 attendees and it’s kind of a business overview, soup to nuts, looking at progress and performance across all parts of the business.
[00:22:19] I’ve only run this meeting virtually but I do think if I had to run this meeting in a room, it would be more exhausting than running it virtually because you are surrounded by so many people and there’s so much collective energy that for an introvert that can actually be overwhelming.
[00:22:35] So that’s been an interesting insight for me. It’s not just the volume of interaction or the number of interactions but also the physical presence that can shape the experience also.
[00:22:47] Brandi: What do you think are some of the benefits as a leader of being an introvert? Where has being an introvert served you as a leader?
[00:22:56] Nandita: The first thing that comes to mind and you mentioned this is the ability to listen and truly listen, not just to what a person is saying, but to those conversations that are happening between people.
[00:23:09] If I’m not running a meeting or presenting, I’m typically observing and taking in things around me, how people are engaging with the meeting, how they’re responding to different things.
[00:23:18] And I called it data before and I’m going to repeat that again because I think in our culture, we don’t traditionally think of that as data. But I think it’s super-valuable data. So, that’s definitely I think strength and then workplace, we have extroverts and introverts and just being an introvert, I think allows you to empathize with other introverts and, help them find space to find their voice in their comfort zone, which is also really important.
[00:23:47] Brandi: One of the things that you talked about in the very beginning that I did want to loop back to was you mentioned the idea of innovation in the Parisian way versus the Silicon Valley way. And I’m curious, what is the difference between those two types of innovation from your perspective?
[00:24:06] Nandita: So, French culture is traditionally more conservative, right? Business culture is more conservative. And, from a fiscal perspective, decision making tends to be more conservative.
[00:24:17] And so I think it’s an interesting perspective because one of the principles of innovation that I learned early in my career that I always come back to is that innovation is born out of constraints.
[00:24:28] And so a conservative society actually presents a lot of constraints. The flip side is in the American society. And I talked earlier about how our educational system encourages this mindset that anything is possible. So there a lot of big thinking. Now, I think if you’re an entrepreneur and you took your idea to a French VC versus an American VC, you would have to show a much higher burden of proof.
[00:24:54] There’d be much more scrutiny around your numbers, your growth projections, in the French VC. And you can see that conservatism, that fiscal conservatism manifest in that way.
[00:25:04] Sean: That makes so much sense. In the US we have Peter Diamandis preaching exponential growth, 10X everything’s unlimited, right. It’s just unlimited potential. And on the flip side, then you have the French like, avant-garde, and even the word guard is in this phrase that for us it means being forward-thinking. That’s very interesting. I never thought of that.
[00:25:32] Brandi: It’s so fun to explore and play and think about different cultures and how we look at a problem which actually brings me to another question that came up in the very beginning of the conversation, which was around feedback and I think of feedback as being a critical component of innovation, but also as we think about teams, so supporting teams and their development of reflexivity, which is a team capacity for reflection and feedback is really critical.
[00:26:02] How does feedback show up in different cultures and how is it experienced in different cultures? And I’d love to get a sense from you, not only about your experience being in Paris but also just broadly working in an organization like Google that is very, culturally diverse. How do you think about feedback and how are you sensitive to the nuances of culture?
[00:26:25] Nandita: Yeah, it’s really interesting. When you work for a global company, often there is a company culture and that company culture sometimes is larger or almost like supersedes the national culture. Doesn’t mean that the national cultural nuances don’t exist. But, if there is common company culture, then it can be easier to have these kinds of conversations.
[00:26:48] Or there are some common norms that are understood and accepted at the company. I encourage everyone, by the way, to talk to teammates of yours, colleagues, peers, from different cultures. Whether they have moved to the US in the last few years or whether they’re based in a different office and really get to know them because that will give you really valuable insight into their culture, how they approach problems, you know, Brandi, you mentioned problems earlier, and I would add to those.
[00:27:19] Problems but also relationships and decision making. So, really take that time. And if you’re a student at Haas, like you have you’re in the best place right now to do that because you have access to so many peers from so many different countries.
[00:27:32] Brandi: I always say that’s the real asset of being an MBA student at Haas is this international component. And being able to leverage people from all these diverse perspectives to really think deeply about leadership and what that looks like and how we connect with others and lead in these different contexts. So, sorry I interrupted.
[00:27:53] Nandita: It’s actually perfect. I will build right on that. I love talking to my international classmates. When I was a student at Haas and one of the common sorts of frustrations I would hear from them about American culture is that things feel transactional.
[00:28:05] And I’d hear this from my classmates who were from Asia, as well as my classmates who were from South America. Because a lot of other cultures place a high value on relationships and you can’t really have reached out to someone when you’re interested in a job in their company. You don’t know them, there’s no relationship to build on.
[00:28:22] So, I encourage everyone to take the time to get to know other people from other cultures that will help you get more insight into what other cultures value and what’s considered normal. And I think it’s also a really important kind of mirror on what we take for granted in American culture and because American culture has traditionally been so influential in the business world I’m in today in ways that can often become the default culture of what review is the default culture. So, it’s important to be aware of our own assumptions. If I can just throw in a little quick story here when I was in France working in consulting, I attended a training on executive presence.
[00:29:02] So I had to do these role plays on the spot in French which is fun. And one of the role plays was to kick off a client meeting a working team session. So, I got up, I did my little kickoff, and afterward, the coach said great job.
[00:29:17] You guys, you Americans, you have the art of the meeting, and in France, we have the art of conversation. But you Americans have the art of the meeting. It was just so funny. I mean, that was one of those mirror moments for me where like America, yeah, it is all down to business. He was very polite and saying the art of the meetings. But you will see in American business meetings, they’re pretty agenda-driven, pretty decision-making driven, and to the point, which is not as common in cultures that place more emphasis on the relationship first.
[00:29:51] Brandi: I’m curious when you’re in a context where you’re recognizing that there’s a need for this blending of the focus of the meeting and the focus of the relationship, are there things that you do as a leader to bridge those worlds?
[00:30:08] Nandita: So, I’m going to share a story that’s related to your question. It’s not in the context of global cultures but across functional teams. So, when I was at Shutterfly, I was bringing along one of the cross-functional partners.
[00:30:23] And I was focused on empowering them to take more of a lead and give them more space for their ideas. And so, it started with setting up a cadence saying, Hey, we’ve got to do our annual holiday planning. Can you guys take the lead on this part and I will take the lead on this part and we’ll have this series of meetings to share the plans. And in that first meeting where we came together and I shared these are our business objectives and goals, how can we translate this into our execution at the end? I brought cupcakes and cider and that small gesture really went a long way for making that team feel connected and appreciated.
[00:31:01] I once worked for a leader who said build the team first and then you figure out what you have to do. And there’s value in that, right? Because once everybody’s onboard and aligned and there’s trust, a lot of it comes down to trust, then you can actually execute a lot faster and make decisions a lot faster.
[00:31:19] Brandi: So slow down before you speed up. I think that’s a common phrase taking that time upfront to cultivate the conditions for the team to thrive and work across these differences. And this is actually an interesting segue into thinking a little bit about your experience working in cross-functional teams.
[00:31:55] So we’ve spent a lot of time talking about cross-cultural dynamics. I’m curious because you have spent a lot of time working in cross-functional teams and leading these teams. I’m curious, what do you think are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a leader working in this kind of context and some things maybe you would do differently?
[00:32:14] Nandita: As a strategy professional, most of what I do is working with cross-functional teams because I’m always looking and working across the business. I think one of the challenges I commonly see is that cross-functional teams, they’re wearing a functionally specific hat.
[00:32:28] So they’re looking at the world through this lens or optimizing for X. So, it’s often hard for them to appreciate that another team is optimizing for Y. I actually see these as really healthy tensions. Each function is there with it, with its own objective, for a purpose in the organization and it’s working together and bringing the power of all those different perspectives that lead to a better business outcome that makes us stronger as a team.
[00:32:55] But it is challenging when folks are used to working and looking at the world through their functional lens, for them to empathize with other functions, perspectives. And that’s really where oftentimes in my role, I come in to help clarify the overarching goal and where we’re going.
[00:33:11] And that’s a tool that I find really valuable is just starting out by what are our goals? What are our principles or considerations, right? What are the things, parameters of what we’re solving for? Another tool that I use is reframing. So, I hear person A say this, I hear person B say this. It sounds like collectively we agree on this and we disagree on this.
[00:33:32] And bridging those perspectives, rephrasing and reframing things to help people actually see the commonality. That’s one thing I love. I love finding commonalities and differences, right? I love this one. I travel and you get to see similarities across very different cultures. And I think it’s true in the workplace or a big part of what I do is helping teams find those similarities and then isolate the differences or the areas that require further alignment and decision making.
[00:34:02] Brandi: It’s interesting to think about this from the perspective of solving problems but also in terms of building relationships across differences and that the same concepts apply in terms of thinking about how do we ratchet it up enough to a place where there’s overlapping either identities or overlapping perspectives around the problem.
[00:34:25] That we can then ratchet back down and see the differences. And something I’m really interested in it is this concept of mutual, positive distinctiveness, which is a team’s capacity to value both our similarities and right for this, as we strive towards a shared purpose. And so, I think, I think in many ways, this ability to move up and down levels becomes really critical, even conceptually, in how we think about that.
[00:34:50] I want to shift gears a minute because I’ve had a few things that have come to me in the last few days I’ve been working with our executive MBA program. And one of the things that are on their mind particularly is thinking about leading at this moment, in COVID-19 where there’s so much uncertainty for people.
[00:35:14] Sean and I were just talking about the fact that when we started this. It was a little novel and maybe introverts thrived and extroverts were at first a little caught off guard, but they’ve also found their way a bit. But now people are starting to notice two things. One is levels of engagement are declining. So, inside of their teams, people feeling a bit less engaged.
[00:35:37] Brandi: Because one of the concerns is people are feeling Zoom fatigue. So, is there any way that you’ve found to kind of get around that?
[00:35:46] Nandita: Oh, that’s an interesting one. I will talk a little bit about counteracting screen time as you think about your own individual life. So, let me come to that in a second.
[00:35:58] But I think it’s also equally important to have regular team meetings where information is being shared, where leaders are providing pass downs. Because again, all those water cooler conversations have disappeared. For me personally, the jury is out whether communication flows are better or worse steering COVID. Possibly worse because we’ve lost all those informal interactions. Possibly better because I certainly see people using instant messenger a lot more often. So perhaps there’s actually more information being exchanged. I don’t know.
[00:36:23] But as a leader or I think it’s really important to make sure you are passing on as much information as possible to your team. And the other thing I would say is over-communicate, right, in the same spirit but not just in team meeting settings but in all settings over-communicating around expectations around a company or organizational priorities.
[00:36:46] And so that’s a lot of things around connection and communication. And then the other thing I would share is to think of employees as, I’m going to use a business concept but as segments with different needs, there’s been a lot of discussion around parents in the time of COVID and the challenges of working from home while managing kids and now as the school year starts, managing all virtual learning for another school year. That’s one segment.
[00:37:12] Another segment that I hear is also having a different set of challenges with COVID are singletons. So, people that are single or not married, may be living alone. And then you could add a third situation, which is people in roommate situations. That’s a lot of time to be, you know, in the same physical environment with your roommate.
[00:37:32] So, those are just a few examples. Just know that there are different segments and they’re all going to have different needs and bring that awareness and empathy to the team.
[00:37:58] Brandi: That actually builds on another major concern that students were really wanting to hear about in thinking about how COVID has led to increased stress and anxiety among people in organizations and how that then plays out at the team level.
[00:38:17] And I think it plays in a little bit to some of the things you’re talking about. We don’t have these informal ways to connect. So often when we’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable, we go to the water cooler or we knock on someone’s door and say, hey, I love to get your thoughts on this, but now it becomes a formal exercise. Do you have any thoughts on some things that you found to be successful in helping mitigate that or minimize that for people?
[00:38:43] Nandita: If we just even start with anxiety, you mentioned how we’ve lost those informal opportunities to knock on someone’s door or grab them at the water cooler and have that chat. I think there’s that layer to it. And then the second layer is there’s a whole bunch of new sources of anxiety.
[00:38:59] So our old kind of mechanisms for handling stress and anxiety have evaporated with this work from home context, and then we have all these new sources of anxiety. So, I think it’s important to recognize those two layers. In terms of what’s inducing anxiety, I actually want to spend a minute and say, let’s not ignore the external environment.
[00:39:20] Because it’s like I can see in my own life every day, week, month, new challenges are emerging, but new opportunities are emerging also. But it’s an incredible amount of uncertainty. I’m someone who likes to plan. So, this has been, you know, this is not well suited to someone who likes to plan.
[00:39:38] So, that’s important to recognize that and that has a cascade of effects in terms of people. Maybe they were planning to move, maybe they were planning to get married, maybe they have family members that they haven’t seen in, you know, 7 months or 10 months. All these factors add up. And then you have inside the company as the external environment is so uncertain.
[00:40:00] Not just from a public health perspective but also I think from an economic perspective, it’s very common for people to wonder about job security, for example, or work and childcare. I think those are common sources of anxiety, as well as social isolation. Let’s not underestimate social isolation.
[00:40:23] There’s also a lot of anxiety around not knowing when we can go back to the office, but also the thought of going back to the office.
[00:40:30] So that also creates a lot of uncertainty, feels like the ground is constantly shifting underneath your feet. in terms of how to mitigate that, I think, first, as a leader, you have to create an environment where people feel comfortable voicing what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing.
[00:40:46] Because if they don’t feel that psychological safety, there’s a good chance that you don’t even know what’s going on. Something that I’ve found in my own experiences that don’t just happen in your weekly team meeting that a culture of psychological safety and trust is developed through every single interaction you have with your team. And often it comes down to simple things, in your one-on-ones. Do you engage with them on a personal note? Do you spend a few minutes asking about their weekend, asking how they’re doing, asking what’s the latest Netflix show that they’re binge-watching?
[00:41:21] I just see, you know, and that’s something we all have in common now. Also, that is a place where we can all connect, creating a little space and time to connect as people, as individuals. Secondly, just remembering, yes, a lot of businesses might be under pressure right now but try not to bring that pressure into those interpersonal interactions.
[00:41:41] I don’t want to say always be positive because it’s important to be balanced and provide a realistic outlook. But make sure you’re managing your own stress as a leader. I went through a transition myself where I was navigating this world where the things that structured my day, driving to the office and driving back, had disappeared.
[00:41:59] I kind of fumbled through it for the first several weeks. And then I created my own routine, created a new sense of routine, which has been really powerful for me. And it’s helped me see actually having the right scaffolding in place for your life, is really important.
[00:42:15] Another way to think about it is like, what the bookends are? What are the things that, at the beginning and end of your day, that are outside of work, right? So how do you almost create a container for work and then make sure outside of that work container you have, things that nourish you. So, for me, I start my day with a walk and I end my day with a walk and just that physical activity getting outside has been really constructive for me during COVID.
[00:42:43] Brandi: Yeah, that’s such an important and insightful reflection is this idea of how do we scaffold ourselves outside of our environment and outside of our teams so that when we do come to our teams, that we actually can be a part of the scaffolding for our teams as they navigate this incredible uncertainty. So, I have two final questions.
[00:43:08] Brandi: One question I have is, as we started this conversation you shared with us that you were born in India but you spent most of your time in Australia. We also know that you’ve lived in France for a period of time and you work in a very large global organization. And I’m curious from your perspective, how do you think this experience navigating this variety of cultures, both individually and also in your work life have developed and informed you as a leader just broadly.
[00:43:47] Nandita: One of the most memorable experiences I had was I studied abroad during business school. I studied in Paris. You won’t be surprised. And we never talked about why I went to Paris so maybe I should circle back on that.
[00:43:59] Sean: Yeah, please do.
[00:44:00] Brandi: Love that.
[00:44:01] Nandita: So yeah, I studied abroad and I took negotiations while I was studying abroad. Now that meant I missed out on taking negotiations with Holly Schroth, which was what all of my classmates were talking about back at Berkeley, but I got to take negotiations with a very international group of folks from Spain, from France, from the United States, from Asia. And I learned so much about how to negotiate across cultures, you know. I don’t want to stereotype but you could see different modes of negotiation in those settings.
[00:44:30] So, I think understanding how different cultures approach business also sets you up to be more effective as a leader in a global business economy. And then third, I think it invites openness and a curiosity about other people’s stories and other people’s journeys.
[00:44:47] And whether they have grown up in another country or whether they have grown up in the United States. We may be in the Bay area but we have the opportunity to work with people who’ve grown up in the Midwest, in the South, on the East coast and each of those regions has a little bit of a different culture.
[00:45:04] And at the end of the day, that is whatever company you’re working for, your user-base is distributed across the country and across the world. So, it’s important to draw out and understand those perspectives.
[00:45:14] Brandi: It brings me back to my favorite defining principle, which is students always. I think curiosity is such an important capacity as a leader in terms of how we lead people but also how we lead across the outcomes that we’re trying to generate within a team of individuals who are bringing unique and diverse perspectives, both in terms of their cognitive capacity, but also in terms of their lived experiences and the social identities they bring to bear on how they think about a problem. So, my last question for you, I’m curious, what’s something that you admire most when you see it in action in a leader.
[00:45:57] Nandita: I really admire when leaders show up as whole people. I have a whole person philosophy, bring your whole self to work. I appreciate it when you can see that there are many parts to that leader’s identity than their kind of professional identity. And it shows up in simple ways.
[00:46:11] It’s talking about your family, talking about outside interests. HBR did a piece on the habits and behaviors of CEOs. And that’s one thing that the surface is they have outside interests.
[00:46:25] They have other things that shaped their lives. And so, I think that it’s really important and that’s also really important for just being connected with the world that we are serving as business leaders. So, I say that’s the trait that I admire most is when leaders show up as whole people. And for me, it makes a leader relatable.
[00:46:41] Brandi: And it’s interesting. Cause as you think about that, it’s the capacity of allowing us to ratchet up to our humanity, to what keeps us common and relatable and connected so that we can come back down and also recognize what’s unique and special about us too.
[00:47:00] Nandita: Absolutely.
[00:47:01] Brandi: Thanks, Nandita. This was amazing.
[00:47:05] Nandita: Thank you. I really enjoyed this. So, thank you so much for inviting me in for this opportunity.