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Are you a misfit in your company?

This article was written for PuneTech readers by Dr. Basant Rajan, who has played various engineering/management/research roles over 18 years in the Indian Software industry. Most recently he was CTO of Symantec India.

This article is primarily targeted at software professionals (in India) and attempts to introduce a few concepts that’ll help you understand your aspirations and your work environment better, so you can make some career choices that could empower you to realize your true potential. If the section below on employee types, does not strike a chord, the rest of this article will likely not either, be forewarned.

Your long term career prospects depends a lot on the expectations of your manager and organization matching your aspirations. Frustration, especially when linked to growth prospects is often a tell tale sign that something’s amiss.

Before we can narrow down on what is amiss and fix it, we need to cover some ground related to what drives these expectations in the first place. Next we’ll revisit frustrations at the work place in the context of what we learned about organizations and employees. We will then go over some simple tests to help classify your manager and organization and finally use the information we’ve gleaned to chart a possible course of action that will let you positively influence your destiny at the work place.

Employee types – cooks & chefs

One typically uses the term talent interchangeably with employee. In the context of the Indian software industry however, we see two distinct kinds of employees – one that brings skills to the work place and another that also bring long some talent.

Think of it more like the difference between a chef and a cook. Given a recipe, both can make a delicacy you’ll relish. But you’d expect the chef to be able to surprise you with something he conjured up. Put another way, they both can cook, but have different limits of capability.

We see both the cook and the chef in the software industry too. There are a large number of knowledge workers, cooks, who armed with programming skills, can deliver on complicated software components to a specified design. Then there are some, chefs, who with their deep understanding of the domain to augment their skills, can architect solutions to problems, small and large.

Note, there is nothing the matter with being either one of them …

Engagement models

There are two main reasons why a company opens an offshore branch in India – to save costs, and/or to augment availability of specialized talent.

Correspondingly, there are predominantly two engagement models in play at off-shored operations – the cost leverage model and the talent leverage model. In reality, a single company can have both these models operating in different parts.

Off-shoring under the cost leverage model (CLM) is undertaken primarily to benefit from the cost differential of skilled labour between the two sites. For example, cheap labour is pretty much what drives the growth of call centers in India. For CLM to succeed, the organization needs to be able to source skilled people who can be relatively easily trained for the specific work at hand, in significant numbers. Process driven work can typically be executed well this way.

The talent leverage model (TLM) on the other hand prioritizes the availability of specialized talent over the cost differential. The parent company is setting up their operation in India because they cannot source the required number of specialists locally. That is not to say that the TLM precludes benefits from the cost differential of the two sites.

Note, there is nothing inherently wrong with either model.

Mismatches and frustration

So much for setting up the necessary context and a common vocabulary. From the discussion so far it should be relatively easy to infer that to succeed, organizations should take care to hire the right mix of cooks and chefs.

The cost leverage model expects skilled executors of strategy (cooks) for success while the talent leverage model also depends on the supply of people who can drive the strategy (chefs). Consequently, the cost leverage model (CLM) tends to attract/need managers who are cooks while the talent leverage model (TLM) tends to attract/need managers who are chefs.

Unfortunately organizations often fail to make a conscious identification of the model they are operating under and often end up recruiting the wrong employee type for a given engagement model resulting in a frustrating work environment for the employee. While exploring why organizations slip up on this front is interesting in itself, let’s move on for now.

If you happen to be a chef and find yourself in (part of) an organization that has embraced the cost leverage model, you are likely to get disillusioned as the novelty of the job wears off. Your aspirations for growth aren’t likely to be satisfied in such an environment. Changing roles/jobs will become necessary for growth.

If you happen to be a cook and find yourself in (part of) an organization that’s operating in the talent leverage model, you aren’t that badly off, especially if you are an individual contributor. No organization can function effectively without the cooks and they are therefore valued. However, organizations operating under talent leverage tend to favour chefs when it comes to promotions.

If you are a chef and your manager happens to be a cook, your work environment is likely to be frustrating. Career growth is very unlikely to happen in such situations unless you can successfully work around your manager. Changing roles/jobs is an option worth considering seriously.

Is your manager a cook or a chef?

Knowing one’s manager is certainly a good thing. But for our purposes, let’s just limit ourselves to classifying one’s manager as a cook or a chef … Exactly how does one go about doing that? Fortunately, external behavior you are bound to notice can help you make an informed decision. Here’s how.

  • Would you consider him a supervisor (cook) or a real manager (chef)?
  • Does/can he exercise his discretion in addressing issues in your environment? (yes- chef)/(no – cook)
  • Does he regularly challenge status quo to effect changes for the better? (yes – chef) / (no – cook)
  • Does he seem to value growth in size (cook) or growth in impact (chef) of his organization?
  • Do you associate him more with your team (chef) or his management (cook)?
  • Can he work with influence (chef) or does he always need authority (cook)?
  • Caution : be sure not to confuse an isolated incident with a behavioral trait

Which engagement model is in play?

Now that we have the manager nicely squared away, let’s focus on the organization. To determine whether the your organization is really interested in the cost leverage model or the talent leverage model, you could simply ask your manager, but on second thoughts, don‘t bother. What management claims and what they really value can be two different things, so one needs to figure this out for oneself, and here’s a simple test to do it.

  • Classify the managers around as either cooks or chefs.
  • Next, check to see which ones are getting more promotions, more power and more visibility.
  • If the cooks have the upper hand and the chefs are running into roadblocks or leaving, you are looking at the cost leverage model in operation. If the reverse is true, then you have an organization that values talent leverage.
  • Again a word of caution : take care to distinguish between isolated incidents and a trend.

Don’t surprised to see significant numbers of successful cooks in an organization that has embraced the talent leverage model. Look a little closer and you’ll see that most positions of influence in such an organization are held by chefs. Remember, that while one can’t have an army without soldiers, to be successful they need to be led in battle by officers of calibre.

Empower and be free…

Hardest for last … now what can that be?

Given that you’ve just finished judging your manager and your organization, now might be a good time to introspect and make an honest assessment of what you bring to the table, just skills or talent as well?

As the road to self realization is still uncharted territory, you’ll have to figure this part out yourself :-)

Assuming you got back from the wilderness, it’s about time you got down ensuring a sustainable. mutually rewarding, relationship at the work place and signing up to making it happen.

Now that we’ve decided to act, it’s perhaps a good time to arm ourselves with a little prayer (ok, indulge me …, for now, let’s assume there is a God) … and here it is.

The serenity prayer (excerpt) …

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

… and the industrial strength version (snippet)

if (type(self, wisdom) == CHEF) { /* you sure?, just kidding ... */
    if (model(self.org, wisdom) == CLM)) { /* in the wrong type of org */
        change_org(courage);
    } else {
        if (type(self.manager, wisdom) == COOK) { /* unfortunate ... */
            wait timeout { /* the organization might correct it */
                manager_might_change(hope);
            } change_role(courage); /* else, you have to do the honours */
        } /* else: lucky you! */
    }
} else { /* you happen to be a cook ... */
    if (model(self.org) == TLM) { /* wrong place for fast growth */
        accept_it(serenity); /* but it ain’t so bad ... */
    } /* else: lucky you! */
}

Note : God has been coded away in the industrial version, so you’ll have to make do with friends and family.

The bad news is that typically, one cannot hope to change the engagement model or one’s nature in short order.

The good news is that given the wide variety of needs and opportunities that exist, finding a work environment that suits your style is not likely to be hard once you know what you are looking for.

Let’s wrap up with a toast to “marriages made in heaven!” (else, just so you know, my wife’s a counselor).

Disclaimer

The views expressed here are solely mine and are not intended to expressly hurt the feelings of any particular minority group or organization.

This disclosure was made under duress brought to bear by Navin Kabra.

Credits

These thoughts have been shaped by a lot many colleagues and for that I am forever grateful.

About the Author – Basant Rajan

Basant Rajan holds a Doctorate in Computer Science from TIFR, Bombay and is currently an independent consultant.

He has 18 years of industry experience, and previous positions held include CTO, Symantec India heading up Symantec Research Lab (India) and Sr. Director, Symantec heading the Storage Foundations group in Pune and has been actively involved in promoting innovation at various levels within the engineering community at Symantec. He also concurrently held a Visiting Member position at TIFR, Bombay for a few years.

With a number of publications and patent applications to his name, Basant’s areas of interest include organizational change, storage technology, distributed systems, formal languages and logic.

He can be reached at basant+web [at] gmail.com.

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Comments

12 responses to Are you a misfit in your company?

  1. Amit says:

    Basant, Navin – nice article. I’d compare your notion of a “Chef” to that of a “Leader” and a “Cook” to a Manager. Leaders lead by influence, leaders inspire, leaders have vision, leaders are good with people, etc. Managers, on the other hand execute. As you correctly point out, one does not need only leaders or only managers to succeed but a combination of the two. I think people join a company because of the “culture” but leave because of ONE manager. However, as companies get larger, you can see pockets of well led, well managed organizations but yet some lousy managers. If you find yourself in the situation of being under a lousy manager, you should consider moving to another part of the organization, rather than leaving altogether!

  2. nilesh says:

    an excellent delicacy. No points for guessing if the person who dished it out is as a ‘cook’ or a ‘chef’.

    hope to get more delicacies churned out at regular intervals..

  3. Ramani says:

    Good one Basant.
    I would like to add a small note though…..after sometime the chefs too appear to tend towards becoming cooks.
    Lt chef —> cook
    For eg initially you feel mainland china has mostly Chefs, but after few visits you feel its dominated by cooks:-) (it may be my opinion though)

  4. basant says:

    Thank you Amit/Nilesh/Ramani for your comments.

    Amit, i think you are letting off managers too easily. :)

    Typically, leaders will be chefs, but many a chef will lack leadership traits. It is a sad state of affairs indeed where one no longer expects managers to be leaders. A manager without leadership traits is at best a supervisor, (with apologies to the leaders amongst supervisors) and is kosher within a CLM engagement. A cook as a manager in a TLM engagement is a recipe for burnt soup if ever there was one.

    yes, ‘culture’ is what attracts talent, the engagement model shapes that culture to a very large extent.

    and yes again, couldn’t agree with you more about not leaving a company in haste … the industrial version of the prayer addresses this via the appropriate use change_role(…) and change_org(…) Also, in large companies, you can hope to be dealt a new hand every time there is a re-org :)

    and Ramani, about chefs becoming cooks … very true, sad though.

    people plateau out … a chef at a given level of the game typically gets promoted and when that happens once too often, we’ve created a cook.

    another way that comes to be is when the engagement model moves from TLM to CLM over an extended period of time. given the almost infinite capacity of the human mind to adjust, the chefs start evolving into cooks without consciously taking stock. thankfully, often enough these chefs turned cook snap out of it and move on to find better kitchens.

    thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  5. cpassionate says:

    Hi all,
    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I just have one small question as what should be the action item for below given condition :-

    if ( model(self.org) == CLM) {
    // unlucky as growth will be slow

    if ( type(self,wisdom)== COOK &&
    type(self.manager,wisdom)== COOK) {
    // COOK mngd to sit in mngr chair
    // please give your comment as action
    // item here

  6. basant says:

    Dear Cpassionate,

    First off, there is nothing inherently wrong about cooks as managers in a CLM based engagement. matter of fact, that is what you should expect to find there.

    That said, not all cooks are created equal; eating at your office cafeteria should be proof enough. :)

    At this point I feel like I’m undermining my wife’s business, but what the hell, she can do with some competition :)

    If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have suffer a “bad” cook as a manager, you probably have 4 options to choose from …

    wait timeout {
    /*
    * someone upstream in your management realises your current
    * manager is a “bad cook” and needs to be replaced.
    * chances are good if meaningful skip level meetings happen
    */
    manager_might_change(hope);
    } if (work_around(self.manager, wisdom) == TRUE) {
    /*
    * if you’ve figured a way to effectively work around
    * your manager without driving you blood pressure up
    *
    * don’t bother trying to make your manager see the light
    */
    accept_it(serenity);
    } else {
    /*
    * you need to dissociate yourself from your manager,
    * but try doing it without bad blood.
    * getting promoted into a sibling group would be great.
    * moving laterally to another group should work as well.
    */
    if (change_role(courage) == FAIL) {
    /*
    * if you failed to change roles within the company,
    * you need to look at changing companies :(
    */

    change_org(courage);
    }
    }

    and remember, if everywhere you touch pains, it is likely your finger is broken.

    here’s wishing you winds of change.

  7. Dee says:

    Very interesting. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Pretty applicable in any field I think – not just in IT. Have been categorising my colleagues! Wonder what category to put the politicians in who seem to wield a heck of a lot of influence over the managers? Maybe that’s a topic to think about for your next article – the influences that shape managers/ companies and what they promote.

  8. basant says:

    thanks Dee, glad you liked it.

    i’m afraid those policy makers are going to need a [hermetically sealed] category all their own … :)

    and i’d be interested in reading about the influences that shape managers/companies … sounds like a good topic for collaborative content development.

  9. In the same boat says:

    >>>people plateau out … a chef at a given level of the game typically gets promoted and when that happens once too often, we’ve created a cook.

    Very true and often.
    Do you have a algorithm for following Usecase:
    You are a chef, you don’t want to get promoted and still keep your job and be a chef in given environment.

  10. VRL Swamy says:

    Mine 2 observations:

    A Chef believes on guiding/mentoring a prospective chef while
    A cook would depend on training/coaching a prospective cook.

  11. basant says:

    @’in the same boat’

    if one is an individual contributor and wants to continue doing what one currently is, chances are that a heart to heart talk with one’s manager and some realistic expectations vis a vis remuneration will do the trick…

    on the other hand if one is a manager and wants to pull off what you have in mind, things get a lot trickier and i’m afraid there isn’t an elegant solution for the general case in the software development space.

    one will minimally need to address the following issues.
    - continue to remain cost effective for the function one is handling from the manager’s perspective. neither one’s pay nor title is likely to grow.
    - setup/retain a credible growth path for one’s reports. make sure you aren’t holding up traffic on the corporate ladder.
    - the tendency to dismiss alternate methodologies because one is used to a given way of life. be willing to emulate what new blood will bring to one’s role.

    even so, the special processing will cost one’s organization something and an understanding manager will be an useful ally.

    i’m of course dismissing an obvious employment guarantee scheme some unscrupulous managers resort to – ensuring no credible internal replacement and spicing that up with
    a perception of perpetual chaos that makes one indispensable.

    @’VRL Swamy’
    A chef will likely *also* have to deal with mentoring cooks as well, because typical real world orgs will need a mix of cooks and chefs to scale.

  12. navin says:

    After getting legal advice, we have decided to remove some comments on this article that contained personal attacks and were not directly relevant to the content of the article.

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