About Tanvi Gautam
Dr. Tanvi Gautam is the founder of Leadershift Inc. She's a program director at the Singapore Management University. She is a certified business storytelling coach who works with leaders across the globe, helping them raise their potential as impactful, authentic, engaged and inclusive leaders.
She was one of the top 25 HR influencers in social media by SHRM for five years in a row. We are very happy and honoured to have someone of her stature on our interview series today.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Tanvi Gautam today to our interview series. I am Sumitha Mariyam from the peopleHum team. before we begin just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.
We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome, Tanvi. We’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me.
It's absolutely our pleasure. So going right into the interview Tanvi, the first question I have for you.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey that brought you to Leadershift Inc?
Well, it has been an interesting journey. I don't think many people know what the journey has been. So, I'll share it in short. I was not supposed to be here. This is not what I had thought would be my first career. I actually always wanted to be an F16 combat fighter pilot.
But the Air Force wasn't taking women at that time, so that career didn't happen. And then after my post-graduation in Australia, I decided to go to the corporate world, and I started working at Tata Consultancy Services, at the headquarters and I was involved in some very strategic projects and human capital and that was my first brush with HR, so to speak. And I really enjoyed it.
I went to work for a Big Four consulting firm, I enjoyed it too. But I was quite restless because how many recruitment cycles can you do? How many performance appraisal cycles can you do? And I wanted to go a little bit deeper, so I left to do my Ph.D. in the US after which I thought I was going to be in academia.
But that wasn't to be either, because the economy was in a bad shape when I graduated. And we also moved countries and a whole bunch of things happened. So now you see, we've gone from being a fighter pilot. That's not happening. Academia and now it's the third round if I might say. I think the current career that I have is the best of all the worlds.
So I work with a group in the corporate sector, I still teach at the business school. But I also do a lot of keynote speaking and executive coaching. So it's the best of all worlds. I think the only thing that's common to my journey has been this, to constantly keep focusing on what are those elements of leadership, of people's developments that we have not thought through adequately about?
That can help catapult the organization or the leaders into their next version. So that’s kind of the red thread that runs through my career, whether that is in the corporate world or in academia or now in my own consulting practice.
Yeah. So, Tanvi, moving on to our next question.
Can you elaborate a little bit about being a business story, coach? I mean, how do you work on that? What is it all about?
So I think that one of the most important skills leaders need to have in the world of disruption is focus on storytelling. And the reason is that we are asking our people to move through a series of changes and transformations and we're not quite sure where we are going to get at the end of it, which means that leaders have to be able to tell the story of where we have been, where we are, how are we going to get there and what might be a possible future.
Now people tend to think that if we use charts and graphs and statistics and ROI and other calculations that people will come along for the ride. It doesn't really work like that. People are much more driven by things that they feel personally and emotionally connected to, and that's where storytelling comes in because storytelling is the one tool that can connect with people not just at a left-brain level, but also a right-brain level.
And so when I work with companies using storytelling, it can be used for a variety of things, most important at the moment being, you know, change management. But you could use storytelling for coaching. You could do it for recruitment. I work with a lot of organizations on what is the story of your employer brand, for example, right? You could use it for performance appraisal. What's the story of a person's journey through your organization and the skills that they need to acquire? And it can be used in sales and marketing, which is a lot of the work that I do with leaders as well.
So I tell people that storytelling is like learning to use a box of crayons. Once you've learned how to use the crayons, you can paint anything you want, but you have to first learn the skill.
"Storytelling is like learning to use a box of crayons. Once you've learned how to use the crayons, you can paint anything you want, but you have to first learn the skill".
A lot of people think they’re doing storytelling, but actually they're not because it's an art as well as a science and it requires you to look at it from both these perspectives, to help connect with people in a way that actually makes them want to get up and get behind whatever initiative they are doing right now.
That is very interesting. I mean, being able to do it by example is a fantastic thing.
So you know what is fundamentally different about careers in the age of disruption from any other time?
Yeah, so I think that careers have changed dramatically. So in January of 2020, I launched something known as the Career Intelligence Accelerator. For anybody who wants to check it out, just go to www.cia.world because it was a global community. So we launched this community. Little did we know when we were launching this in January, and we have got executives from every single continent in the world in this community, we did not know how relevant this conversation is going to become in what we were literally getting into even as we were launching, right? And the reason why I launched this community is because careers today are fundamentally different than what careers have been in the past.
For one, you need to exercise a lot more ownership around your own career. This waiting for HR or your boss or someone else to come and develop your career, those days are gone. You really have to think about your own future. I kind of tell people you, you have to think of your own self as the entrepreneur or the CEO of your own career.
"You have to think of your own self as the entrepreneur or the CEO of your own career".
Most people don't think like that. It's amazing how they hand over their career keys to somebody else. And that somebody else is not going to be looking at your career, the way you are looking at it, doesn't understand your needs the way you understand it, right? So that’s one.
The second thing is that you will notice that careers will morph. I know Morgan Stanley Bakers who have launched bakeries and cupcake shops, and then they have left that, and then they're looking at executive coaching. So this business of, you know, one career, one lifetime that's gone. People will go through multiple iterations of their own careers. They will, of course, take skills from the past into the future. But fundamentally you might work in an area or in a job that's very, very different. That's the second thing.
The third thing is that the careers of the future will require you to be what is known as a polymath, or another term that people use for it is a renaissance individual, which means that, okay, so you understand machine learning, which is great but is machine learning all that you understand?
Because if you don't have a wide enough horizon of understanding how that connects with the imperatives of, say healthcare or connects with the imperative of, say economies in transition, you will never take that skill and apply it in a way that leads to the maximum impact. Of course, you'll have an impact. But if all that you’ve focused on is that one technical skill, then you are pretty much a replaceable commodity.
And so these three trends of ownership and agency, career morphing, and your ability to be a polymath are things that are feeding into the shift in the career trajectory as we're seeing.
That's a very interesting answer. And you know that makes a lot of sense, taking ownership of yourself. And I think that all the executives of today have to take that advice because you never know what you're gonna be interested in the next month. Or something like that.
So, here's the thing, right? In the past, the thing was, 'Oh, why are you interested in being an executive coach? Become an engineer and stick with it. That will give you the salary and the safety net.' You know what? There is no safety net anymore. We are moving through one such storm, there is no safety net anymore.
And what happens is when you don't honor your own need for change or honor your desires for what your career should look like, you tend to become depressed. You tend to burn out. You tend to not bring your best self to your career.
When you don't bring your best self to your career, you don't progress at the rate which you could. When you don't progress at the rate that you could, you become stagnant, and the next thing you know, you're looking at low performance and layoffs. So it's a vicious cycle, and there's only one person who can help you break out of it. And that's you yourself.
So even thinking about my career is my responsibility and I need to make a change is a new paradigm. Most people don't think about their careers like that until they get laid off, and then they're like, what happened?
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And I think that answer is something that, you know our audience would really need during this time. So thank you so much for that.
And also, when we talk about leaders, you know, how has the role of leader moved over the years? And what do you think are the essential qualities a leader should have, you know, to succeed in the future? What should they, what are the qualities that they should possess?
How many hours do you have? Because I can talk about this for three days. I think it's a topic that is so close to my heart. So here's how I define the role of a leader. Okay? The role of a leader is to expand the range of possibilities and potential for everything and everyone they come in contact with.
"The role of a leader is to expand the range of possibility and potential for everything and everyone they come in contact with".
That is a fundamental role of the leader. That has always been the role of the leader. That will always be the role of the leader.
Things like set direction, be ethical, create goals, take care of your people, be strategic. These are a set of tasks or competencies that feed into that focus of expanding the range of possibility and potential, right? Now, when you are leading through different times, you could be talking about how you led pre-disruption, how you’re leading in disruption, how you will lead post- disruption, if you keep focused on how am I expanding the range of people around me, you will always get it right. Trouble is you can't do that for others till you do it for yourself.
So using storytelling, because that's what I like to do, right? So if your leader has a bucket that holds five liters of water and I pour ten in it, the five liters will go to waste, right? It doesn't matter that I'm pouring 10 liters if your capacity does not go beyond five. Therefore, if the leader, herself or himself doesn't expand their capacity, they're not going to expand the capacity of others.
"If the leader themselves don't expand their capacity, they're not going to expand the capacity of others".
So there’s a very famous saying, and I get very, what should I say? On a good day, I laugh. On a bad day, I get frustrated. People say, 'Oh, everybody in our company is a leader' and I'm like, no, everybody in your company is not a leader. What you're trying to say is everybody in your company has the potential to lead, provided you are investing in your people.
And I don't see that happening across the board. So these blanket statements of everybody is a leader really don't translate if you are not investing in capacity building of the people. So in short, the role of the leader has always been the same. It depends on what is needed at the moment to expand the potential of the people in front of me.
That's wonderful. I mean, I just love the way you give examples and explain it because it just makes a lot of sense and it's so easy to understand the concepts that you know, otherwise if you read a book, we would be like, we have to read it again to understand, so that is really good.
And, you know, what is your opinion on, you know, the all-inclusive term ‘The Future of Work’. How do you see it evolving?
So I think anybody who follows my blog by now knows that I have absolutely no problem in taking contrarian views on things. I absolutely dislike the word ‘The Future of Work’, okay? I think it has become overused. It has become a catchphrase for everything and anything.
And the problem with that is that when you create an umbrella term like future of work, which everybody can latch on to their own way, you are not focused on what exactly it is that you need to be taking care of. It's like the word digital transformation. There are 100 different ways people think about digital transformation. It's too broad a term.
"When you create an umbrella term like future of work, which everybody can latch on to their own way, you are not focused on what exactly it is that you need to be taking care of".
What is really needed I feel, is a certain level of granularity when we talk about the future of work. I don't think that there is one single future. I think there is a very differentiated future. You have to think about how the work process and the skill set, in different industries, need to be approached, in different sectors, in different countries, in different demographics.
Now we're looking at analytics, which is examining the level of job vulnerability based on post- COVID, right? If I put in a certain zip code, what do I find out about the population in that area in terms of their readiness for what is next? So I think we're not doing ourselves any favors by just tossing this word around future of work without bringing it down to something concrete that somebody can actually make something of.
We have been excessively focused on technology as a tool that will shape our future. But we also have to think about reskilling and redeployment. We also have to think about, how are the ecosystems of work in the future going to come together? Is there going to be more collaboration between big businesses and SMEs and the gig workers? How are they going to be coming together? How can we reimagine jobs?
A lot of organizations in COVID-19 are asking themselves, well, do we really need these jobs, some of them, which are happening even without people coming in. So, much as I dislike that term, I do think the potential for discussion is very, very wide, provided we can put some stakes in the ground and talk about specific sources rather than, you know generalities where everything is about the future work.
Yeah, that's great and I think that's a really fresh perspective for me personally. So I really like it.
And, talking about digital transformations what do you think is the role that digital transformation will play while establishing the right employee experience?. And as we look at the extended work from home scenario, how do you think this is going to work out?
So I have been working with a lot of companies on the people side of digital transformation including using storytelling for digital transformation. And I always tell them one thing- Any firm, no matter how advanced their digital architecture is, will never outperform human architecture. And so when we're talking about digital transformation, it's the same thing. We've been focused on digital, but not enough on transformation.
"Any firm, no matter how advanced their digital architecture is, will never outperform human architecture. We've been focused on digital, but not enough on transformation".
You know, when I have taught at the university, I remember we had this big technology company on campus, and they had been through five days of talking digital transformation. And then, just as I walked into the room, I was told, you know, they get it, but they're not very sure what the people aspect has got to do with digital transformation. I said, Well, that's nice.
After four days, now I have to still convince them of this, But you see, it comes back to what I was saying on expanding your mindset, the frames with which you look at the world. The room was full of left-brain engineers who get the technology piece. But their exposure to the people's side of things and the human side of things has been very limited.
So remember we were talking about Polymaths earlier, right? You just can't imagine how this is interconnecting with some of the other things. So digital transformation and the work from home conversation are going to be very much focused on how are you using more and more technology to build competencies in a virtual environment.
So I was speaking at a conference last week and I did a quick poll and I asked in terms of where is the focus right now on organizations and organizations understandably are very, very focused on, 'Okay, what's our strategy? How are we going to get into the future?'
But they are just not focusing on the role of the individual and the interpersonal. Training programs have been canceled. Coaching has been put on hold, all hands on deck and I get it. You need to do that to stabilize the deck. But please understand, the people who are living in this environment, in this work from home environment are exceptionally stressed. Human resources have got to talk about these issues as well.
There is news about how you know people may be in, you know, toxic marriages. And, you know, you could get away to the office, you could come back. Now you're in an environment where you're constantly with this person from whom there is no getting away from or, you know, you have got kids who need assistance because we’ve been working with screens, our kids have not been working with screens and technology. They need assistance.
When we're talking about digital transformation, that digital piece is taking care of itself. Are you taking care of the transformation piece? And even in the transformation piece, it is about how can we support our people best at the moment?
I know somebody who was telling me that, you know, at every meeting the request is, turn on the video, Why? Why turn on the video? Maybe I'm just not very camera ready. IBM came up with a pledge recently or with their employees where they said, I will respect other people when they say I'm not camera ready, right?
And that is when you start talking about the employee experience in the digital transformation conversation when you acknowledge that the person who's sitting at the other end of the screen is very much human and in need at the moment and I am not sure whether companies are doing nearly enough.
That is a wonderful answer. I mean, it's so people-centric and I think a lot of organizations, a lot of corporates need to hear that right now because a lot of employees are struggling a lot working from home, just sitting inside the four walls, and they don't have anything else to do, just sit in front of your laptop and work and I think the support from where they work from is what they need the most right now because they need to have that support system with work.
I think I tell people they're not working from home. We are homing from work.
"I tell people they're not working from home. We are homing from work".
There is a huge difference. It's kind of like, you know, your family has now moved into your workplace is the feeling I kind of get because I'm trying to keep the workday and the schedule and everything together. And this morning my son announced that his music teacher has asked him to get some pans and bang them to create a symphony, and I said, kindly do this after the interview. So I have to manage that piece as well.
Yeah, the struggle is real. It is. So that was an absolutely wonderful answer. I loved it. And, you know, let's focus a little bit on the workforce.
And how do you think the gig economy is going to evolve through the crisis? I mean, do you think it is here to stay given, you know, the coming, inevitable financial crisis?
It's going to be a real shakedown. Let's just put it that way. It's going to be a shakedown. We're gonna be separating what I call boys from men, women from girls as to what is your staying power in the gig economy. Because I think the gig workers are definitely the most vulnerable section of the workforce at the moment. And the gig work itself is on a continuum, right? Like the future of work, it's become a catchphrase. But which gig worker are you talking about?
Are you talking about the Uber drivers which are basically commoditizing their skills when they are renting it out to organizations? Are you talking about freelancers and you know, the ones who have supported your organization in different ways? Be it teams you've hired for marketing purposes or teams you’ve hired for tech or even executive coaches, etc.
So you’re in a symbiotic relationship with them but you don't have any reason to support them in what they're going through. So I think that depending on where you are in that continuum of gig work, you are 100% feeling the pressure. Is it here to stay? I want to say yes. It is here to stay for those who are very much committed in some sense to either following their path or those who we have not looked at how we can bring them into the more stable, full-time employment economy.
But I think that organizations have not done enough to think about the relationship with the gig workers and that's something that is going to be under even more pressure as we go forward. But the upside of being in a gig economy is, you're not dependent in some ways as full-time employment contracts are. So I think we'll see a shakedown. And, let's see what emerges. I have already heard from many of the people who are in the economy, who are actually thinking that it may be better to go back into full-time employment because the pressure has become so high. But it's not like the opportunities are available at the drop of a hat. So let's see how this shapes up.
All I know is that, it was always difficult to be in the gig economy. It just became even more difficult for the people who have not had enough experience in disrupting themselves, in transforming themselves, in taking ownership of their career. So a gig economy career is not different from the corporate career. The same principles that I shared with you are very much applicable to the gig economy workers as they’re applicable to the full-time employees, the ones who are able to make that shift and transition will be the ones who will survive.
Yeah, that's so right. And I just loved that answer of, separate men from boys and women from girls, I think a lot of grit and you know, courage will be, you know, they'll have to have all of that to survive in the world. And I think a lot of full-time employees will also look at a little bit of gig work just to improve their skills in a different area.
And I don't know, do you think that is going to happen even after the crisis because it's all being disrupted right now? And do you think that you know, the full-time employees who are also trying to do the gig work are going to get enough chances?
So I do a lot of work in Silicon Valley and let me tell you when I am there, it is almost the norm that people in full-time employment are always exploring something on the side. Maybe it's just the nature of Silicon Valley. The fact that people believe that if they have a dream and they follow it, there is a possibility of something coming out of it.
So I am familiar with industries and locations where it is very much part of the course to have your main job and then be looking at a side gig. And I think what will happen is that with disruption coming in, more and more employees are gonna ask themselves, what's my fallback? If tomorrow things go wrong, what am I looking at?
And I think that gig work actually is a great way to experiment with your career and start thinking about what is your next version that is coming out, it is something I do commonly all the time. There are some projects that I'm working on right now that I'm not in the mainstream and I'm not gonna be sharing them here. But they are my side experiments, which are helping me understand, do I want to pursue that path or not? Or when I get in there, what's the kind of return on the investment of my time and my effort in that area?
So again, it's kind of going back to how you have been taught to think about your career just looking at it and saying, 'I am more than my job and my role, and I'm gonna spend time exploring my potential there.'
Yeah. that's so right.
And Tanvi, just to kind of wrap up the interview process, if you have any last soundbites you would like to leave our audience?
I think the only thing I would like to share that we may not have talked about is this idea of the economy that we are in right now, the future that we're looking at for leaders, employees, gig workers. It doesn't matter. Whoever is listening to this particular interview, is that you need to be really good at what I call code-switching, right? Be a leader and a follower at the same time, the ability to hoard the main job but explore a side gig at the same time. Being responsive to what's in front of you but what's coming in the future.
"Be a leader and a follower at the same time, the ability to hoard the main job but explore a side-gig at the same time. Being responsive to what's in front of you but what's coming in the future".
The ability to keep switching codes is going to be very central to the future of the organizations as well as a future of careers because these people who will be adaptable and these are the people who will be ready for whatever disruption might come their way, so focus on code-switching.
Yeah, wonderful. It was such a pleasure talking to you, Tanvi. And I really appreciate your time and, you know, sharing your views with us. And I just love how composed you've been throughout this interview. And, you know, it's been an enriching and quite a learning experience for me personally. And if it is for me, it will be for our audience also, so let's keep in touch and you have a healthy and safe time ahead of you. Have a great day.
Thank you and I wish the same to everybody at peopleHum and I look forward to seeing the places that everybody will go there. Alright. Bye.