Monday, September 28, 2009

Rethinking My Job Search Strategy: Hofstede and Talent Management in India

I am at it again, after a gap of almost five years, when I am actively searching for a job. This means all the things that come in the package, preparing a CV, posting it on job sites, keeping a watch on job alerts, firing off applications to those positions which remotely match my area of expertise and smarting off after reading through various rejection mails every morning. Despite the disappointments, it is an interesting exercise to do, to get a feel what I am really good at, to study the patterns of rejection letters and infer which one was written with some sympathy and which one was auto-generated, feeling the sense of hope and despair while waiting for some employers who did not say no, overall feeling young again. Also, the interesting thing here is that my heart is not in it, not yet. I am not sure whether I can get back the zeal of sending out 750 applications as I did in the first few weeks after landing in Britain, which earned me 743 straight rejections, 7 interviews and a job. It is not that I am not desperate, I must pay the bills as everyone else; just that I am not sure whether I am over with working for someone else and reached that inflection point in my career when I must look beyond.

However, every day brings some new learning and recently, an interviewer, talking to me for a voluntary position of all things, gave me some valuable feedback. He said - I am not trying to sell myself enough. Indeed, I was not: I thought one is not supposed to brag about one's for-profit expertise while trying to do some good for others. However, the bigger point was that I was possibly too modest, and when I reflected back on all my job search experience so far, I realized this was my biggest mistake - always being modest about who I am and what I have achieved in life.

Now, one can think that would be quite natural while looking for a job. I may advise other people to be strong on the negotiation table pretending that they don't need the job in question, but when it comes to my own job search, I can feel that no one looks for a job unless they have to. A job isn't salvation and when you are sitting across the table with an employer, you are usually more desperate [at least in this recessionary market] than he is. While he may be feeling lucky to be still around - either in his job or business - you are cursing yourself to be sitting in front of him clutching your portfolio and explaining various missing bits of your CV and character. There is indeed a pressure to be modest on you.

But, then, that's not how most people behave. Usually, the successful in the interviews are the ones which bragged most and got the point across. My type will always find it difficult to win over an employer who did not have a prior reference or have not come across me professionally during my time at work. And, you can't blame them - because the whole process of interview is about figuring out who is the greatest candidate on earth interested to take your job, not who showed you respect.

Or, at least so in some cultures than others. My reflections led me to Hofstede, who picked up precisely the same example of interviews to explain one of his cultural 'dimensions' : masculinity/ femininity in a culture. For Hofstede, there are some cultures which value individual achievements more than others. On the scale, there are some which value success and those who advertise success: these are masculine cultures. On the other end, there are cultures where quality of life and soft things like consideration and respectfulness are valued: these are the feminine ones. Britain, as in America, is a highly masculine culture. Here, bragging about one's own achievements and success is normal, and absence of it in a conversation is taken on the face value: of the lack of it. In fact, as Hofstede explained citing an example of his own life, an American interviewer has his own offset parameter set in his mind while he is taking the interview: he is expecting you to brag and if you say 100, he is taking 50 for an answer. Now, when you walk in with all your modesty and call 50, fifty, his offset is still working and you are scoring a zero. This is exactly where I, and many others coming from Asia, may be getting it wrong.

There is also an interesting connected thought worth spending time on. Hofstede dealt with national cultures, though he was fully aware and acknowledged the wide regional variations within these cultures. And, a country like India, with its big size and a billion plus people speaking hundreds of different languages, comes with a great range variation indeed. On Hofstede's scale, India is actually a masculine culture, where individual wealth and success is valued, shown off and talked about. This is quite expected because Hofstede's studies were based on IBM executives in certain Indian cities, a highly successful and competitive group by their own right. However, the regional variations in India is quite plain to see: Do we not catch the difference between Delhi's glitz and Mumbai's utilitarianism and Kolkata's modesty in the plain eye? While I am thinking that it is quite normal for me to be modest, such a thought may not necessarily arise in the mind of someone coming from Northern India, and he may actually be as comfortable talking about what he has achieved in front of an American interviewer and get a perfect score.

Obviously, I am not complaining. I am actually quite happy with the thought, because it gives me a bit of insight on what I need to do, and allows me another dose of optimism that I am not hopelessly out of sync with the market in terms of skills. But, reflecting back on the regional differences, it appears an important point. While in Global trade, the cultural differences are somewhat factored in and dealt with, it is harder to do so within a country. The cultural differences may indeed mean marked differences in professional achievements of different communities within a nation, which may eventually lead to significant chasm inside it. This may make building up national models extremely difficult and foreign businessmen may completely lose the plot as it is fashionable to see India as one entity from outside.

I keep saying, paraphrasing an observation that I read about China, from the outside, India looks like a huge multiplier effect on any business: X times the population of Europe, X times the young population, X times the middle class; however, the moment you set foot in India, it appears to be an endless series of divisions, class, caste, language, religion, regions and states. And, as the above thought illustrates, in terms of talent management, one needs a particularly nuanced approach in India, adjusted to the background of the candidates; otherwise, it will be almost impossible to identify, attract and motivate the best people to work for your company.

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