Leadership Lessons from India

As I have been preparing to tell my story in networking meetings and potential interviews, I know that a common question will be “tell me about your leadership style”. This is a hard question to answer succinctly. It requires self reflection and honesty. Not to mention, how do any of us boil down what we’ve done and what we’ve learned into a quick, compelling elevator speech? Here’s my attempt. Let me know what you think….

In 2006, my husband and I set off on a life altering experience in India. With 60 days notice, we packed up our 3 kids (ages 4, 2 and 1) and headed to Bangalore for what we thought would be a year long adventure. We ended up living in Bangalore 2 and a 1/2 years and we had many adventures and many many more learnings.

We moved so that I could take a role supporting Target in setting up a captive offshore office. We knew we could find IT talent and we weren’t interested in call centers so the question was, what other type of work could we leverage in India? That was my assignment….understand the talent and skill sets while finding business processes that could be executed 1/2 way around the world. Target India is now 10 years old and wildly successful, but thats a different blog:)

To say that India changed us would be a gross understatement and misleading. I don’t think either Tom or I were ‘changed’ but we did grow, as human beings, more in that 2 1/2 years than we did in the prior 10 years combined.

I believe that true growth is only possible when you are uncomfortable. Well, we were totally and complete uncomfortable each and every second we lived in India. Everything was different; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, language, weather, traffic, customs … and it came at you at an onslaught pace. We were forced out of our comfort zone and we loved every minute of it! Its why I’m such a big believer that everyone should get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The biggest learning, for me, came as a leader. I quickly realized that everything I did/didn’t do, said/didn’t say, was observed, analyzed and most likely talked about at dinner tables. This was a huge responsibility. My goal was to successfully represent women leaders (there were few at the time), Target (a completely unknown entity), Americans (we don’t always have a great reputation) and adoptive parents (culturally non-mainstream).

I quickly developed an affinity for Ganesha, the elephant god. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences (left and right brain) and devo of intellect and wisdom. Aren’t those great leadership traits?!

Ganesha is also full of symbolism. A typical representation of Ganesha will have 20+ symbolic means embedded in the figure. The ones that most resonate with me, for leadership …

Large ears – listen more

Small mouth – speak less

One tusk – single pointedness and focus

Trunk – strong enough to move a tree but flexible enough to pick up a needle

Rat – you’ll always see a rat with Ganesha, it represents our ego/senses and how, if left uncontrolled, they’ll eat away at all our good work

I keep a Ganesha on my desk at work as a daily reminder. Tom and I also keep him in a few, well placed, rooms in the house (including the bathroom) as reminders of our time and India and who we want to be as leaders.

What is your leadership style? Who is your symbolic leadership figure? How do you tell your story?

(India friends, keep me honest on the Ganesha symbolism!! Feel free to tell me if I’ve missed the mark or am just plain wrong…)