Comfort Zone Musings

A lot happened this week, personally, professionally. Nothing new in the life of an entrepreneur (or anyone, really!). And as I find a quiet moment on a Saturday, the thought that bubbles up from the past week melee is about comfort zones. Different incidents, different people, different settings—but the common thread is that.

I had been in touch with some people I shortlisted for an open position in our company. One of the key ways for me to judge ability, as well as initiative, is to send them a test to do. It’s not an easy one, but it’s not rocket science either. But to anyone without initiative or the hunger (we are looking for), it would feel like rocket science.

So here I was, down to my shortlisted three candidates.

One did it splendidly well, but had omitted to mention that she had already found another job. So she was out.

Another replied with a mail that sounded like a combination of lying and excuses. And when I followed up on what she said in her mail, she didn’t reply. Maybe she never saw the mail, you might say. I use Streak, so usually I know who has seen my mail, and how many times. So I know she saw my mail about the test 10 times, and the follow up mail once. She didn’t have the courtesy to say, No, thank you. Sadly, I seemed to have been proven right about the combination of lying and excuses. So she fizzled out too.

The third person saw the mail, and chose to not respond either. But when I followed up, she said she was in advanced negotiations for a job, and that it would be unethical for her to pursue ours. So that candidate went bust too.

So when all three candidates didn’t work out, I did what I usually do, which is question my modus operandi. Am I being too tough? Am I being too picky? Do I not want to close this position (what if deep down my subconscious is sabotaging the efforts!)? And on and on.

Then I looked at what I am trying to build. It’s cutting edge stuff, it’s not stuff for the faint hearted. It requires a toughness and staying power that many people don’t have. And while many freshers have this, experienced people exhibit less and less of this. They have defined their comfort zones and want to play in that. Comfort zone of not being asked hard questions. Comfort zones of known evils vs unknown evils. Comfort zones of working for a brand.

And that’s okay.

The other way to look at this is that they have defined their discomfort zones for other aspects of their life: maybe their personal lives push them out of their comfort zones quite a bit, so their work becomes their comfort zone. That’s certainly okay, isn’t it?

Some of us treps go into a mode of lamenting that people just don’t want to play outside their comfort zones. Just because we do, and many of our team members do, it doesn’t mean that everyone out there must either. It’s not their calling. So let’s drop the lament, shall we? And focus on the ones who do like to be out of their comfort zones at work.

Then there are others who play outside their comfort zones at work, and seem to go off-balance really quickly. When you extend help or solutions, they listen but come back and say, “No, thank you. My discomfort zone, my rules.” Sure, that works too!

Then there could be others who say they want to play outside their comfort zones, to learn more, to earn more. But if they are not authentic enough with their work, it starts becoming apparent that their ability to step outside their comfort zones is limited. And then it can become discordant, in terms of being misaligned on what one says and what one does. Is that okay? For them, perhaps. For a manager or an entrepreneur? Maybe, maybe not. For me, it’s not okay.

So what are my takeaways this week from all this?

  • That I don’t have to hyperventilate about people not wanting to step outside their comfort zones. If I want people who do so, I will just have to keep looking and find the right people.
  • That comfort zones come in all different sizes and shapes and forms. And I don’t have to insist that your comfort zone has to match mine.
  • That in case of an integrity issue with what’s being said, and done about comfort zones (or anything really), I want to question it.

On that note, I look ahead to a week that will need me to be out of my comfort zone quite a bit. Both at work and at home.

Cheers!

You Are One in A Million!

The highlight of this past week happened on a feedback call with one of our agency clients in Australia. He said, “In the past one year, over a hundred agencies from India have reached out to me, seeing my role as a CMO on LinkedIn. Only yours stood out. You had done your research, and you had something concrete to offer. It was refreshing and phenomenal. It’s just common sense, but then that isn’t so common, is it!”

So we are 1 in a 100! He didn’t have to say that to us, but luckily for us, he did. We felt deeply appreciated, recognized for all the efforts gone to be able to create a service that brings out such effusive words. And we are super grateful for that!

We consider ourselves one in a thousand, perhaps, 1 in 10,000! Or least, that is an underlying approach, as we strive to excel, go further with our learnings, and adapt to changes in the market.

However, think back to what our Aussie client said, “It’s just common sense.” Then why is it so uncommon? We often have these conversations in our workplace. Trying to find patterns in people who demonstrate that they have the will and wherewithal to stick to common sense, and hence become really uncommon. 

Abhinav had a job in an IT MNC, where he could have easily stayed on and made good money. But he went to extreme lengths to deliberately flunk the tests for his job confirmation. Mind numbing work, where growth meant navigating politics to become Project Manager in eight years! He decided his life wasn’t about that, quit and became a partner in a startup the very next day! Uncommon.

Dhiraj struggled to code in his first year of college, when teachers expected you to know a lot more than most students did, and offered nothing by way of help. He spent his vacations taking classes outside college in various languages and came back a real coder, no thanks to his own college teachers. And ran classes after college hours for the next batch of first year students on coding. He ended up running two batches at a time, running from one class to the next, helping many get the foundation they needed for their coding life ahead. And to his surprise, his batches had his own classmates, seniors and MCA students. Uncommon.

Anubhav spent some years coding at the IT job mecca of India, and gave it up. Went to NIFT to study fashion technology. And not knowing what he should do, he decided to shadow the guy who seemed to know what he was doing, Abhinav. While Abhinav had no real job to give Anubhav, the latter stuck on, and found a way to help in a project that paid him a stipend, and then a salary. Uncommon.

Rajat followed the common way of life for a while. Then he hit the authenticity wall at our workplace. He rebounded really fast and has reinvented himself twice in the last year or so. Software dude to digital marketer to career coach to scriptwriter. Uncommon.

In my third year of pursuing a  graduate degree in architecture, I decided that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I continued with the course just to get the degree and not waste my parents’ money. And became a writer as soon as I graduated. Probably a common thing now. But 22 years ago, uncommon.

I have more such stories, of people who have worked at Knowiz and Niswey. And this thread of  being uncommon runs through them.

You ask questions, question the status quo, deeply believe in something (other than money), and want to have a go at the dreams you have, or had long ago. That takes you on an uncommon path.

Some questions I have answered, as an entrepreneur:

In 2008, someone asked me, “How can you run a content business, when there are freelancers who write for half a rupee per word or less?”

I answered, “By choosing a domain like technology that most people find hard writing for, and then excelling at it. I am just going to raise the entry barrier for others.”

In 2009, someone said, “Content solutions are not enough of a value proposition for companies. Your business has no real meaning. Why don’t you shut the business down?”

And I said, “I have a good thing going, and I will just find the right partner to deliver digital marketing solutions, and the clients will be happier.”

In 2010, I found myself thinking, “I don’t like this gaming the system way of digital marketing. What about creating value for the prospect?”

I went looking for the answer, read marketing books, and finally decided that the inbound marketing philosophy felt right, and leaned into that. And soon enough I found a digital marketing geek who thought the same way.

If a client has signed you up for a retainer, but isn’t really using your services, what should you do?

Ask them to take a pause in the retainer, and decide when they would really want to leverage our skills.

If a client hasn’t paid you, and you have asked a few times, but they still haven’t paid, isn’t it time to give up?

No. Ask them again and again. And again. Most end up paying, even if they have scaled down, or are in trouble. If they have gone bankrupt, file a case.

All these answers have taken the company in a direction that is not commonly followed by others. So you end up being in a rarified place, not many exist there. And while that puts you in a highly differentiated place, it also means you have few people as examples to learn from. And it also means that the market you want to serve is hard to come by. But that’s just another challenge to solve, and become even more uncommon.

Become one in a million.

A Study in Contrast

About three years ago, in one of our Goal setting sessions, I heard one of our new recruits talk about his goals. The goal setting sessions are ones where people decide what they want to achieve in the year, personally and professionally. People end up learning new languages, learn to cook or play the guitar, take two trips to the mountains, read 40 books, bike to Leh…you get the drift.

I doubt anyone was inspired listening to this youngster that day. I certainly wasn’t. He got some cursory feedback from the rest of the team. I was asked to give mine. I said, I think he needs to get authentic. Some nods and murmurs. And the next person came to talk about her goals.

When I said that statement, I had hoped, he would come up to me and ask me what I meant. To my delight, he did. And till today we continue conversations on being authentic. In fact he became so authentic that he left the company to find and pursue his passion, but is still is a part of our company. And inspiring others.

What really drives me to be an entrepreneur is this vision to create an awesome, authentic, purposeful workplace. Where people get to be the best versions of themselves, and often this means they first have to find their true self. And that can come as a shock to many. Those who just can’t bear to look at themselves, often end up leaving our company. Because we are being disarmingly honest in general. Yes, we tend to keep some bad feelings under wraps, but largely it is out there. Or at least our attempt is to get it out there, so it gets addressed and we can move to the next big thing.

We have a culture of freedom and accountability. You are free to do your work as you like, as long as you take ownership of the deliverables. Ask for help, learn, fail fast, get back into the zone. That’s largely who we are.

Of course, sometimes people who join us think they can abuse this freedom. And they learn quickly, they can’t. They get fired on the spot if they are caught lying about their work. Two months ago, an intern had to leave for this very reason. And it was not the first time we had fired anyone for that reason. I am happier to hear, “I didn’t work on it, I was stuck,” than a lie that goes like, “I have been working on it but I haven’t completed it.” There are timestamps, people. There are ways to know!

All this arises from the core of who we are as a company. And such conversations are a natural thing at our workplace.

Now for the contrast. Sometime this week, this happened. I could hear one of my teams on a call with a client’s team. I could hear the client person drone on for what seemed like a lifetime. When the call got over, I checked with the team what the discussion was about, and why it took so long. Effectively, it was a call that should have lasted 10-15 minutes, but took an hour. Why? Because the client team was simply not being authentic. They came from a deep need to establish superiority over us (after all, they are paying us!), and never, ever miss a chance to raise the blame finger at us. And where two words would suffice, they had to use 2000, to fill up the emptiness of their words.

The contrast hit so hard. Here I am telling my people to take ownership of who they are, fail and take ownership of that too. And then they have to go out and service people who can’t take ownership, and are scared to fail (they may lose their jobs, or just don’t want to lose the next promotion), and only end up sounding pompous and vacuous.

Of course this is my point of view. The client team will have their own point of view. That we are stupid, or incompetent or something. But that’s not the point here.

The point is there are these vast multitudes of people who are simply going through the motions of their jobs, not creating value and impeding any value being created. They live in fear – what will the boss say, what if I get fired, what if I don’t get promoted. They lead “unexamined lives”. And are in places of power. Trumping the rest of the people with a will to be different (yes, the word ‘trump’ was intentional).

My co-founders says it’s a big company thing. Where “Save my Ass” (SMA) is the culture code, and not what emerges of fancy terms like Integrity, Sincerity, Values and other big words pasted on the walls. Well, I am sure many big companies are not like that. And I am also sure many small companies are certainly like that.

What about a startup being incubated inside a large company? A startup is meant to be quick, and usually has no time for time wasting conversations, and the focus is on do, experiment, fail, improve, do…and so on. But if it’s incubated by a big company where the culture has become SMA, what happens? Chew on that. Maybe you’ll think twice before taking that funding from the big company’s investment arm. That is, if authenticity, agility, ownership and accountability are important to you.

All this year, all that I have read, all the videos I have watched, all the talks in an event I attended told me to be who you are, step into your uniqueness, be authentic. And I get all pumped up. And I step into more of myself, encourage my team to do so as well.

But then I also have to deal with this reality of people leading unexamined lives, because some of them pay my bills. What a dichotomy!