Managing managers with Natasha Kehimkar

Managers play a key role within a company's structure.

New World of Work podcast logo alongside Natasha Kehimkar's headshot

Welcome to New World of Work: a podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce. In each episode, we’ll hear from some of the world’s best and brightest people and culture experts on the cutting-edge topics HR professionals are most interested in today, explored through a global lens.

Episode description

In many ways, the success of an organization depends on people at the managerial level. Not only is it part of their role to ensure employees are feeling happy, fulfilled and supported, but managers are also responsible for delegating tasks and facilitating communication across the company. In this episode, Rhys sits down with Natasha Kehimkar, the CEO and Founder of Malida Advisors, a team of people operations professionals that helps companies accelerate on the path to impactful leadership. As a people operations professional with over 20 years of experience in global HR and talent, Natasha shares some key insights about people managers and streamlining the communication across teams during the episode. She also shares her perspective on effective strategies for managing managers and promoting diversity within the company structure.

Episode transcript

Rhys: Welcome to New World of Work: a podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce. 

I’m Rhys Black, Head of Remote at Oyster, a global people operations platform making it easier than ever to build a brilliant team on an international scale.

On New World of Work, we’ll hear from some of the world’s best and brightest people and culture experts on cutting-edge topics that people ops professionals need to hear today, all through a global lens. 

Join us as we navigate this new world of work together and learn more about each other along the way. 

Managers play an essential role within the company structure.

In many ways, the success of the organization depends on the people at this level. Not only is it part of their role to ensure employees are feeling happy, fulfilled and supported, but managers are also responsible for delegating tasks and facilitating communication across the company.

As a result, they can be compared to the glue holding the organization together. However, the manager level can often be overlooked by people operations teams, which is a major misstep in many cases.

Today on New World of Work, we’ll be hearing from Natasha Kehimkar, the CEO and Founder of Malida Advisors. As a people operations professional with over 20 years of experience in global HR and Talent, Natasha will share some key insights about people managers and streamlining communication across teams.

First, Natasha shared some information on her career background and the journey to founding Malida Advisors.

Natasha: I have twenty five years of experience and people, talent and DTI. My mother is an H.R. person now retired, and so was my father in law. So I sort of grew up with it at home here. These pretty wild stories from my mom. I spent my first part of my career in large organizations. We're talking over a hundred thousand people and have gone progressively to smaller and smaller organizations. I've got experience in life sciences, in consumer products, in tech, biotech and now, as the CEO of Malida Advisors, I work with all sorts of industries and typically small to medium size companies.

I launched Malida advisers last year. I had done some consulting work prior as a bridge between roles at one time at one point, and I continue to do pro-bono work along the way while I was in corporate. But last year, when the protests happened after George Floyd's murder, I had fractured my leg. And so I was in a boot. I wasn't able to join the protests even if I wanted to. I couldn't walk very well. And I felt that I wasn't doing all that I could in the world that I could influence later in the summer in August. John Lewis passed away in our home. We're big fans of John Lewis. For those who don't know, John Lewis was a civil rights leader. He made such a difference in this country for underrepresented for voting rights. He was an icon for us in our home, and my kids did book reports on him and everything, and I read his obituary in the New York Times. And when I read the obituary to my children, which they're they're pre-teens, they're 11 and 12 now. And it's a way for people to for my kids to understand how impactful people can be in their lives. I read the obituary to them and I thought to myself, What am I doing? I am not John Lewis, and I can't change the world, but I can change the world of work. And that's what I set out to do when I set up political advisers. I want to repeat that sentence. And that's what I set out to do when I set up military advisers. We do three things we do executive coaching, which is one on one coaching with execs and leaders. We also do coaching for small groups and teams, as well as business partner relationship coaching. So relationship coaching at work. We do consulting and strategic advisory work where we focus on each our scaling. So scaling your H.R. function, having it grow at the company. We do work on specific processes within H.R. and we do work to help with DTI inclusion as well as engagement, culture and values. And finally, we do bespoke workshops and speaking engagements, keynotes and that sort of thing for organizations helping them through things like M&A activity and integration and the unfortunate moments where we have to do restructuring. We help organizations plan and and implement all those as well.

Malida is a traditional ceremony that we do in our community, and it's very unique to my my community. We are in a community of Indian Jews and out of the Mumbai region, and it is a ceremony of Thanksgiving. So when there is a birth, a wedding or an engagement, a recovery from a long illness. We do this family, the ceremony, and it is one in which I recall having family and friends, the aunties and uncles who are aunties and uncles by blood. They were all present. I remember the house being full and we eat a dish that's called Malida. It's made of shredded rotis or pounded rice, and it's sweetened with jaggery or sugar and little bit of coconut raisin nuts. And it's decorated with food, safe rose petals, a little bit of rosewater in there as well. And so it's got this beautiful flavor and texture. And visually, it's it's just beautiful. And I love the mix of flavors and textures and scents and and visually how beautiful it is. And that's why I wanted to bring that forward from my own culture.

Rhys: The story behind the name Malida Advisors is touching, and it really illustrates the company’s commitment to celebrating community, diversity and supporting one another.  

Providing a strong support system for everyone on the team is indeed one of the key roles played by people ops professionals, especially during a time of transition like the move to a distributed working environment.

Natasha: I think that the role that people, operations and people in talent play in growing people, managers and organization is pivotal. You know, I was talking with someone earlier today and people managers are like your core, you know, you can't do much if you don't have a strong core. You can't lift. You can't really even get out of a chair without a strong core. It's the same thing with our people, managers and people. Operations has an opportunity to help advocate for people managers who, by the way, get caught between a lot of criticism, right? Their employees have a lot to say about their managers. The leaders have a lot to say about the managers. People and talent has a lot to say about managers and people. Operations can really serve as an advocate to ensure that people, managers and organizations, we invest in them, we help develop them. We give them the skills and expertise to serve their teams the way they will do that right to bring out the best in our people, managers and not cookie-cutter them. That's the that's the danger when it put people through the math machine in how to be a people manager. I think that people operations can advocate for the diversity of styles that our people managers bring and help really draw out the best.

Many people who are leaders of leaders have been in that space for a while, and they have some distance between the first line employees, the individual contributors or the newly appointed managers and themselves. And I think to some degree, they've forgotten how much of a balance it is and how tricky that tightrope can can be, especially if you're a new manager. The role that executives and leaders play is that they think they have to stop thinking about managing their people managers. They have to think about coaching their people managers. There is a space for managing. Of course, I'm not talking about performance management issues, but I am talking about coaching and coaching is different than managing. And this is something that we often don't teach our leaders, so they either develop their own habits out of their own desire to grow and learn so they learn how to coach. They do their own reading, they do their own courses online or whatever they do, go to programs or or ask to go to programs, or they avoid the bad habits of the people that they used to report to. Or they just keep managing the way they've always managed, right? And that can sometimes be very much that cookie cutter experience that I mentioned a bit earlier where this is, how I manage. And this is how you manage. And if you don't manage that way, then you're not being a good manager. And that's not how it works, right? We all bring different strengths. We all did bring different perspectives to the table. And there are elements that I'm really good at that. And then there are elements that I'm not really good at. And so I think when we're in coaching mode, there is there is a there's a need and expectation when you're coaching that we do not judge, when we coach. So as an executive coach, I can tell you, I don't judge, I don't apply judgment to what my clients are, are dealing with or talking about or how they're even dealing with the challenge. And that's what's critical for leaders when they're managing other managers that they have to think about. How do I help somebody unlock this to unlock the solution that they already have inside them and not impose my finger and thumbprints all over how they manage? And that's tricky.

When I think about the level of direction that comes from people operations, I struggle a little bit, I admit. For a long time, I was in people and talent, and I had never managed people myself. Right. So imagine being a manager and getting guidance from someone who's never managed people themselves. And so I I have a master's in human resources and labor relations. It's not like I haven't studied this and I'm a I call myself a voracious reader. I love to read. I read a lot and I study a lot. And had I not had people management experience, I'd be speaking from book knowledge, which is very different than experience, actually running a team, actually leading people. And I don't mean one person. I mean, it's right.

For me to say it's on the people operations team and the reality is I don't think it is. I think it's on their managers. Too often, organizations or leaders will say, I have I'm having problems with this manager go off and deal with it. Help them get them a coach, get them great. I will tell you, I have personally turned down executive coaching opportunities that were with good companies and would have paid a pretty penny because the manager wants me to deliver the bad news, so to speak. They want me as the coach to be the one to invest and develop in their people. So what are they doing? They're investing the money and not themselves. So how much do they really care? How much do they really care? And people can tell when you really care. They can tell. And so I think it really is on the manager. It's the role of a manager's manager to develop them. It's not the role of people operations. The people team can help find the right resources they can that they can craft the right curricula. They can help develop a path for people managers to grow and make sure they have all the right resources and support to get there. But it's not their responsibility to develop people managers. It's their it's the manager's manager, their responsibility.

Rhys: Like people ops professionals, managers also play a critical role within organizations. We tend to think of each team and role as separate entities requiring a different kind of support and attention, but on the contrary, each role is an essential component of the overall company structure.  

Natasha uses the metaphor of focusing on the core of one’s body to illustrate this concept. Without a holistic approach of leading with your centre when moving your body, you can easily become lopsided, weak or injured.

Natasha: When I think about the role of a manager, I think it is it's both overstated and underinvested. And so what I've heard and every single organization I've gone into when I joined the company, we need to do more to develop our people managers and they have training courses or not. But there's there's always this common refrain that we do not do enough for our people. Managers, people, managers are, I think, the rate limiting factor in whether or not an organization is going to be successful. You have effective and strong people, managers. You are much more likely to be successful as an organization. We sometimes forget how much of a conduit that people manager role is. They are serving as translators from executives to frontline and from frontline to executives. The degree to which they're able to be open and willing to be open and share information, provide guidance and coaching, managing up, managing their teams that will, I think, have a massive effect. And I've seen it have a massive effect, particularly in times of change and uncertainty, right? We think of the human body and I share this analogy of the core when you are thinking about the core of your body. It helps you get up out of your chair. It helps you get up out of bed. It helps you as you're lifting things. It helps you as you're bending and your core is actually pretty big right there. When you think about your core, it's not your your abdominal area. It extends to your hip flexors and your glutes, and it goes all the way through, you know, your back and up to the upper torso. So it's actually quite a big section. And if you think about an organization as a human body and think about the managers as a core, imagine if you ignored your core. I mean, if I don't do crunches or if I don't do my core workouts for a week, I feel soreness in my back and it's deep, deep soreness. It's not even come to acute. So just imagine not investing in your people, not your people, managers, what that does to your organization. You've just weakened your entire system. No one, potentially.

I will tell you, I am also a certified spin instructor, so I teach spin classes. So if you don't engage your core when you're cycling, you don't have as much power. You can't you can't actually move as quickly and as and deal with as much resistance when you're running. If you don't have a strong core and you haven't engaged your core and your glutes fully, you can't run efficiently, you get hurt. So when you think about the power of the organization, your core is your powerhouse people. Managers are your powerhouse.

I have wondered why people under invest in people managers when it's the one thing that is a constant complaint but we don't do are people. Managers aren't strong, they're not effective. I believe it comes down to energy and money. So the training costs money, yes, and training on its own doesn't work. There's a lot of research out there that shows you need to have managers and coaching that supports training, and I'm happy to say that my lead advisor is one of the organizations actually works in this space. But the energy that's required to coach and develop people managers is not insignificant. And I think that people get caught up in their day to day and the idea of now putting out more and being patient with managers, being patient with anybody to develop them is it's complicated and it's a bit taxing. So when you think about what it takes to develop, I really think about, okay, here's what we think about goals. We think in terms of quarters, we think in terms of half a year or 12 months, that's what we think about. That's our timeline with development, with growing and developing new habits, new skills, practicing those, applying them, making them your own, internalizing them. That's an eighteen to twenty four month cycle. That's a lot of patience. That's a lot of one step forward, two steps back as well. And this is where I think we have a lot of impatience. So when I talk about the energy, the commitment and that that willingness to be with someone as they're growing and struggling with that one step forward, two step back, that's a big deal. You've got to see. You've got to really push yourself to be there and be patient with that. That investment is the one that I think is harder than the financial investment, and it's one that I think organizations struggle the most with because everybody's looking for a quick, quick fix. You want to change right away. It doesn't work that way when you're growing a new skill. So I once had a situation where a leader got promoted to become general manager of the region that I was working in and it was in southern Africa. So the general manager got that role well-deserved and there was a head of marketing in his organization. I think they were they had been at the company for at least five or six years and she was strong. So the question was who becomes the the head of the South African business, specifically South Africa, out of the southern African region? And people felt she was very strong. We should absolutely do this. And they said, Well, maybe she doesn't have enough on the strategic thinking side. And we went around. This is a talent planning discussion. We went around the conversation over and over again. And I said to the general manager, the newly appointed general manager, how did you learn strategic thinking? And he said on the job. Well, I didn't have to say much else that she got the promotion. But the idea here is that we learn best by doing it's the application of new skills. That is where we really, really learn and internalize new expertize new knowledge. And so here is an example of a leader that was ultimately willing to make the investment because you realized someone had done that for him. We're not born knowing this stuff. I don't actually believe in the you're naturally gifted and talented in certain areas. You may have attributes that help you and make it easier for you to do things. But I don't think we we had anything to do in our professional and personal lives, but learn we learn something every day. And that's the growth mindset you can. You can call it what you what you want. But I think the idea of learning means that we also have to invest in helping others learn.

If I were talking to a manager of managers and they asked, What would you want us to focus on? How do we do this? How do we do this? Well, I would. I would say, absolutely, you need to have your goals. You all need to be very clear on the goals that you want to accomplish in the course of six months a year. Absolutely. And set aside one or two development goals and recognize that the timeline for development is eighteen to twenty four months. That there are things that are going to go quickly and smoothly and other things where we're going to find ourselves reverting back were slipping up and to be patient with that. And in terms of one on ones. One idea would be absolutely have your one on ones to go through. OK, ours. Go through goals once a quarter, have a coffee, virtual coffee, virtual tea or in-person whatever works for you and make it a 90 minute plus meeting. You're not doing this every day, once a quarter. But what you want to do in that setting is really dig in on the the winds and challenges the opportunities. The things that were the person felt were mistakes or slip ups that they had that they did. But these are moments to really focus on development. I'm not saying don't have conversations about development in between, but I mean dedicated time where you don't talk about the regular goals, but that you dig in on on the development areas. It gives you a springboard in your regular one on ones to say, Do you remember our development conversation? This meeting that's coming up is a great opportunity for you to practice A, B and C, or just a focus on one thing to develop and focus on a what ideas do you have to apply what you learned in that session? And what we talked about to this meeting? How might you approach that meeting differently, knowing what we talked about in our development conversation? So again, I'm not telling the person to do anything. I'm saying, How might you? What ideas do you have? It's an invitation. And when we're in development mode, as managers and managers, we have to make sure that we keep it open and then an invitation mode. So I think the overall what I would say is you do want to have a balance between the day to day operations and the longer term development needs of your people managers. Just make sure you set aside some really dedicated time to focus on development. It does a couple of things. First, it helps you stay on track with your development objectives for your people. But second, it signals to this person that you're willing to invest your time, your energy, and that there's continuity. It's not one and done. The thread follows through the quarter, and just as it's starting to get thinner, that better thread is becoming a full of winding down. You start a new one because you're next quarter comes up and you have another deep development conversation.

Rhys: One of the biggest missteps companies can make when it comes to managing people, is underestimating the power of investing in their education, development and growth. Like most good things, helping people reach their full potential takes time and effort, and often, people neglect this in favor of achieving short-term gain.

This can be especially true in companies that are scaling quickly—it can be more difficult to slow down, strategize and think critically about the best path forward.

Natasha: When I think about the fast paced companies that we tend to work with, and I have to look at how to balance that with the longer term development focus, that's eighteen to twenty four months cycle versus a quarterly or a six month cycle that is very typical of fast pace, hypergrowth organizations. I think it starts with the word we. When we join these organizations, when they're part of these organizations, if we think of ourselves and the big pay out of the end, we are very short term by definition when we think of we and when we think of the how we're going to achieve those short term objectives, those short term deliverables is together that collaboration. Now, all of a sudden, we have to get the best out of everybody. And that's not easy. And so I think that it's the it's the we element that forces us to invest, and it's the we that becomes the long term I can get through. So one of the things I talk about in my coaching practice is under times of stress. I can push my team, I can push my team really hard and I'll get the best out of them. I will. They will be focused on that short term deliverable. And we all know that that's not sustainable. At a point in time, you end up getting compliance, you don't get participation and collaboration. Compliance is very different. Compliance does not breed loyalty, and I don't mean compliance with the law. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about. I need you to do this. You're going to do this. You do it great. That's compliance. But that doesn't mean you care. It doesn't mean that your purpose, your meaning for being in the company is being tapped into. It doesn't breed loyalty. It doesn't breed retention. It breeds that burn and churn mentality. That said, I'm going to get what I can out of you and you're disposable. And that short term mindset is very harmful, and that's where companies end up in trouble with reputations about how they treat people. And it's not that we're talking about being evil empire. These are not mean people. It's short term thinking on too many fronts. So I think this is one of the critical elements of being a manager. You have to have one eye on the short term and the other eye on the longer term. And if you don't, this is where we get ourselves into trouble.

I might also add something to this is that this is also the area where boards can play a role. Right? So boards, particularly their VC or private equity, very short term focus because they want the return of, especially in private or private companies. And for the longer term growth and for the sustainability of the company and the bigger exit boards can help CEOs and executives take that right balance. There will always, for my experience, be focused more on the short term. But they're not foolish, right? They're also thinking about the balance and making sure that the short term payoff isn't at the expense of the longer term payoff. And so boards can help coach and guide the conversations on the executive level by bringing in that longer term focus, particularly if you have a board members who are former operators or who are experienced board members and have seen this multiple times in organizations, and they are thinking longer term, they're helping the CEO, the executive team lift their heads up out of the day to day and see more broadly.

You know, for the longest time, companies have operated with a model of leadership that is actually quite old. It's really old. And recently, I want to say, last year, Korn Ferry released some research. There's a book, an inclusive leadership that they released if you hold on one set of hold on one second. I want to posit I want to share the book. Sorry, that was a psychological thing I needed to do, I need to have a book in my hands, so I'm not going to show the book. When we think about the way we've taught leadership, the way we practice leadership, those over the last couple of decades, it's actually a leadership model that hasn't evolved to too much. Yes, we talk about different elements of leadership, but we haven't really evolved the model of leadership. And last year, Korn Ferry released a book called Five Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, and it's based on research across industries around the world with thousands of participants, and they have introduced a new model of leadership that's an inclusive leadership model. And there's a lot out there on inclusive leadership, right? McKinsey has an inclusive leadership model of Deloitte. I mean, lots of organizations have released white papers on inclusive leadership, but this is a nice big book with case studies in it. I encourage folks to read this book. It's it's very powerful and I love it. It's global in nature. It's not any one country centric, which I truly, truly appreciate, and it introduces a model of leadership that has inclusion woven into it, the behaviors of inclusion and what that looks like when you are collaborating, when you are hiring, when you are coaching, when you are building trust. It's all built in here, and I think it is time for a new model of leadership. So when we think about the role of AI in leadership today, companies gravitate very quickly and leaders often gravitate very quickly to representation, which is the how many question, how many women, how many fill in the blank. What this model talks about, and it's very much we're Melita Advisors, is focused. We just we get into the how of driving results, the how of adaptability, the how of engagement and collaboration. How we're managing conflict. The fallacy. Or maybe it's not. The half story that we have is people refer to that study from McKinsey from a few years back that companies with greater representation are more innovative. Well, yes. And that paper neglects to mention that we go through a journey to get to that innovation. It is not easy to have a diverse team. Why? Because of the reasons we get innovation, we're different. We bring different perspectives, different perspectives, meaning conflict and challenge and not always healthy conflict. The journey to draw out the best from our people and get to that innovation is where inclusive leadership comes in. We shorten the cycle of conflict. We shorten the cycle of drawing people out and bringing out the best in that. And we make the machine go faster because we're able to tap into the benefits of diversity more quickly using an inclusive leadership model. It extends to everything from how you on board a new hire to how you make decisions on your teams. This model of inclusive leadership, I think, is very powerful. It doesn't help one group more than another. I think it's one of those rising tide lifts all ships. This is what the inclusive model of inclusive leadership model is for us today.

Rhys: The world is in the midst of a transformation—together, we’re overhauling industries, dismantling outdated mindsets, and the old models are slowly evolving to serve us better. As we all shift our collective attitudes towards this new world of work, we’ll continue exploring new approaches to find what works best.

Natasha and the team at Malida Advisors are clearly of the same mindset.

Natasha: So what's next for Malida Advisors? Well, we are doing a few things. First, we are introducing a how to make remote work for people managers. We are not focusing on the logistics and the vaccination cards and the seating charts in organizations. I have great people to pass you along to for that sort of work. We are focusing on how managers can be most effective and impactful in a remote or hybrid setting. So we're looking at doing an eight to 12 week series so that also managers feel like there's a long term investment. And then this is not one and done, and we want to make sure that it's woven in with coaching so that they have the opportunity to apply what they're learning, learning and they can peer coaching and develop that way. The other thing we've been spending a lot of time on and we have historically is team alignment. I have a number of our our executive coaches are experience with team alignment. We've seen an uptick in requests for team alignment. I got two requests just last week and it's come up because organizations are all over the place right now. The executive team is still, in some ways clinging to that ideal of being together. And we know that it's not always possible and in some cases, executive teams have not met. But how do you stay aligned on message? How do you stay aligned on objectives? How do you ensure this collaboration across teams? That's what we focus on in our team alignment work, and we're there on the journey with executive teams. We again, we don't go in one and done. We don't go in and do one team alignment session. We're there with them. We're not velcro and you can never get rid of us. But we are there to make sure with checkpoints that we help executive teams stay on track just like we do our coaching clients.

Rhys: And finally, Natasha shared her answer to the question we ask all our guests here on New World of Work. The best learning experiences are often born out of blunders and missteps, although we may not know it at the time. This is why we love to ask our guests: what’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?

Natasha: So I think the best mistake I ever made was I spoke up when people were telling me not to and. The mistake was not in thinking that was I I still think I should have spoken up, but I did it in a way that was not kind. And this was early in my career, so my graduate school and everything know everything. And I made a comment in a in a group group meeting that was just it was just not nice. It was a thoughtful it wasn't it wasn't done with love. And you know that as I stayed in that one particular organization for a little while, people reminded me of it and I'd be like, I said that. I said, Oh my goodness, I said that that is just fine. But what it taught me was being right isn't always what matters. And it also taught me that when you have to say something difficult and you see it from a point of being right, that's very different from saying it from a point of love and care. And when you say something difficult from a place of love and care, it makes a world of difference. So I often have people tell me no one's ever told me that before, and it's usually followed by a thank you. And it's because I learned to say the difficult thing with love.

Rhys: As expected, Natasha had some insightful words of wisdom to share about people ops, managing managers, and leadership.

Here are a few key takeaways from this episode:

  • Everyone brings different strengths, leadership styles and approaches to the table. One of the challenges of managing managers is helping people improve their management skills without forcing them to sacrifice their personal qualities and characteristics. It’s all about maintaining a fine balance between providing valuable feedback while giving people the space to be themselves.
  • One of the best investments you can make as a business leader is to invest in your people. Focusing time, energy and resources into helping your team grow and develop overtime will not only benefit you and the company long term, but it will also demonstrate trust and a commitment to their improvement.
  • Adopting an inclusive leadership model is a powerful tool for growth, innovation and fostering diversity. It’s time we update the way we look at leadership overall, and take a holistic, bird’s eye view of company structures that can help organizations navigate a more inclusive model, and ultimately, innovate faster.

Thank you for listening to New World of Work, the podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce through an international lens. We hope this episode served to expand your horizons and open your mind to a new perspective.

Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the podcast so we can reach more listeners.

I’m your host, Rhys Black. See you next time.

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About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop and take care of a thriving global workforce. It lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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