In this episode Jean is joined by Ambica Yadavalli. Ambica is Director, Head of YSC Consulting South East Asia and Hong Kong.
Ambica has consulted globally in assessment, executive coaching, top team development and leadership strategy across a range of industries. She specializes in the space of inclusive leadership, with a particular interest in female leadership and creating psychologically safe work spaces. Ambica is passionate about gender equality and aims to partner with top management teams to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of their leadership strategy. She has extensive experience as an advisor to organizations in aligning their people strategy with their business strategy.
Ambica starts by sharing how important purpose is in our working lives, especially at the moment. She goes on to share
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Hi everyone. And welcome to this episode of making sense of work. Today, I'm really happy to be joined by Ambica Yadavalli. Ambica has consulted globally in assessment, executive coaching, top team development and leadership strategy across a range of industries. She specializes in the space of inclusive leadership with a particular interest in female leadership and in creating psychologically safe workspaces. She is passionate about gender equality and partners with top management teams to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of their leadership strategy. She has extensive experience as an advisor to organizations in aligning their people strategy with their business strategy. Welcome Ambica and thank you for joining me today.Ambica:
Thank you so much in quite grateful and honored.Jean:
So that's great as I'm reading that today, I'm looking forward to a conversation based on your deep experience about working with organizations and with people in this space. We are focusing in the podcast on how to make sense of work. And one way we can think about that is just to see how's work at the moment. So how's work at the moment for you.Ambica:
Yes. You know, um, a colleague of mine recently used a term that I'm going to steal shamelessly and he talked about work being like navigating the ridiculous. Um, and that's, that's what it's felt like for some time now and specifically at the moment second year in the pandemic. Uh, nobody told us we, you know, we'd need to survive this, or we would be surviving this for two whole years. But I think a big part of work at the moment, it's actually, you know, I create an positive because I sort of look at. Um, the human connections that have been made, um, while just sitting in our homes over the last couple of years, and I've been able to discover my clients, my teams, my friends in completely different ways and get a window into their lives. I was also sort of hearing a podcast this morning, uh, on, on BBC. And it was talking about how, actually the economy has become quite. You know, quite independent of the pandemic and, you know, while we all struggled in the first few months with pandemic, it just sort of, it's just about 30%, um, affected by, you know, frequent going in and out of lockdowns, et cetera. Just, I think it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit, that so many of us have learned how to deal with this and learn to live our lives, um, and still take care of our families. But at the same time, uh, the, the, the morbid part of me can't help, but think that we were in a train wreck and we were just about sort of, you know, coming out of the train wreck before we realize there's another train coming at us. And there are going to be trains that will keep coming at us. And apparently train wrecks are endemic. So, um, so that's, that's what I feel like if it does all feel like navigating the ridiculous and, the only way I've been able to do it is to. A be quiet, uh, in touch with my emotions, but also in touch with my own humor. And the feeling side of life wasJean:
As you were talking, I had this image of us kind of dodging things, actually kind of jumping around and having to Dodge whatever's coming at us really to work it out. It is ridiculous. Yeah. So in the context of all of that, When you have a good day at the moment, what does that look like? What's a good day for you when you're in your lane. You get to the end of the day and think, nah, that was good. That was rewarding.Ambica:
Yeah. Um, you know, purpose is actually become very, very important to me or the last, you know, couple of years, it was always important. And it was because of the nature of my work. I'm quite grateful that I did. Get to go down to purpose journey in my life quite early on. Uh, but I think a good day is when I know that I'm living my purpose, uh, when I'm actually able to, to speak with interesting people. And again, because of the nature of my work, I get to speak with very different kinds of people. I get to speak with people that are in different parts of the world. Uh, it gives me a window to how different people are coping. What kinds of resilience mechanisms people are using? Both for themselves and the teams and the people that they take care of. So I think a good day is when, you know, I'm still sort of sitting in, in, in know, in this little room, still staring at the screen, but being able to hear stories and collaborate with some of the most interesting people across the world and through that, um, bring creativity to the, for use, you know, use our brains for the better and for the good of others. And really thinking about the experiences of people that are not being told. Uh, in this pandemic, whether it's within an organization or whether it's an, our communities and societies and how, how do we get those narratives and stories out and how do we build cultures and build organizations that are better today and better for everybody than they've learned in the past? I think that that's something that I'm passionate about and every time we would have a conversation, have an idea, have a way of helping leaders realise some of, you know, some of these principles within their organizations. That's, that's a good day.Jean:
It's one of the beautiful things of what has been a very difficult time, the working across, I think, in a, in a different way to how we ever have before that ability, because we're all now in a virtual environment to connect with people outside of our space that we just wouldn't have done before. I hear you. That's been a really kind of rewarding and rich part of the experience over the last couple of years. It links back to part of what you were talking about, about being important to you about diversity and inclusion and the piece that as we are able to kind of have more conversations and more interactions with people outside of our tiny space, that that helps us to be more inclusive. I believe. You are a deeply experienced organization consultant. That's your, what? The work that you've done and the work that you're curious and passionate about, what's an area of your working life or organizations that you're trying to make sense of at the moment.Ambica:
I don't know, a couple of things there. Um, Jean, the thing that sticks to the top of my mind is hybrid. And I think hybrid is on everybody's mind. And I watch it both with fascination and consternation because, Well, you and I have been consultants to big parts of our life. And hybrid actually has been a part of how we grew up in, in, in consulting. So it's fascinating that people are discovering it now and in such a big way, but also consternation because hybrid is not just about how many days a week in which days a week we're going to get into work, right? Hybrid is really going to be about how without, an office, which becomes the modicum of culture for any organization. In little things that are said and done through a computer screens, et cetera, is this culture being experienced even today? And how do we make that experience of culture better knowing that we're never going to go back to the office spaces in the way that we occupied them two years back. Um, so there's, there's I think an intentionality that's required to think about what hybrid is going to do to the way we work to the way we relate with each other, to the way we experience an organization and its values, because that's actually been most disruptive. When, you know, when I speak to people, who've changed jobs. We all know about the great resignation. So 45% of your staff is ready to resign or will be resigning. You know, many of them are going to be going into new organizations and they're going to be new employees and new joinees there. And very soon you're going to have, an entire set of people that have joined your organization, but never really met anybody from within the organization. So what's really the experience of culture, the way things are done here, the way things are recognized, um, you know, and the reports, huge opportunities in that and huge risks that we need to think about. Um, I think. That's some great conversations that I've been having with clients and people who are grappling with how to get employees back to work. But also my challenge and my invitation is that this hybrid culture that you're building is not waiting for you to build it. It's already taking place. And the organization, right? So it's, it's important to think of it beyond the lens of, you know, how many days in the office and how many out and who comes to the office and who comes out. I think it's important to dig deeper for organizations to see what, what do we want to mean for our employees, irrespective of where they're sitting and where they're working from. It's how we work together. That's important.Jean:
Yeah. And the thing of that culture is thatit gets created whether we like it or not. So it's kind of important that we are intentional about creating organizational culture and, and really think that through. And, um, I guess I'm ;curious about how you think we can, can do that intentionally in the hybrid world, which I agree with you is here. We're in it with. It's not coming we're in it right now. The curiosity for me is how do we then build a culture that we want in the organization accepting that's hybrid work is here?Ambica:
Yeah. Um, look coming, coming from YSC and doing the kind of work that we do at YSC., I am one of those believers that culture is an enabler, right. Culture is a way for, for leaders to execute on their strategy. And it is probably one of the biggest enablers of strategy. So I think a part of building intentionality is to really say, what is my strategy? What is this organization trying to go after? Because, you know what, when we sit in organizations, we sit in a commercial corporate reality of, of that organization and what I do think it's important to understand that commercial reality and what kind of culture needs, needs to be put in place to translate that. But once that is done. I think simplifying things, uh, and providing clear signals to people. Right. And I believe there are three key signals that people sort of look at when, you know, when they look at an organizational culture, it's the leadership signals, it's the social signals and it's the structural signals, right? So what are our leaders saying? How are they behaving? And is there alignment and consistence between what they're asking of us and what they're giving of themselves. Um, right. So if this is a leader who, who's talking about flexibility and who's talking about, uh, innovation anytime, anywhere, but, you know, but it is also then constantly getting the teams to come into the office to collaborate, irrespective to of the risk to their lives is that, you know, if that really walking the talk. There are social drivers, right? What celebrated. Of who is celebrated here and who's recognized, um, and there's enough research in this, right? So is, is recognition really going to be given to those who can come into the office every day? Vis-a-vis, those who have chosen to work remote and in many cases, it's the women. So, so what is going to be recognized? Is that the outcomes and the impact, or is it the inputs of the process? And finally the structural drivers, how will we, measuring performance? How are we rewarding people? How are the HR processes aligned with the culture that we want to create? I mean, creating an employee experience, similar to what we want our clients to experience of our organization, because employees are the biggest clients of an organization's culture. Right. And I think people have become extremely discerning about some of those, because again, in the absence of a physical space that can mask a lot of things are that, you know, that where people can take a bit of time to understand like how things are done. Um, the, both the boon and bain and technologies, everything gets delivered super fast, at your doorstep. And I think both the good culture and the bad culture gets delivered really fast. And I think, uh, organizations that I've where I've seen them make it work is where these three levers are, uh, are in alignment to the strategy the organization is trying to follow and in alignment with the commercial reality, the organisation is trying to get at.Jean:
Mm. Hmm. So it's taking that side of how we are with people, how we are relationally and, and how are we marrying that to the strategy and where we're going? Um, somebody said to me recently, as, as an individual contributor, how, how can I influence the organization's culture? Because I think, especially at the moment when, here in Singapore, if people want to move, they can move there are job vacancy. So as you said, the great resignation there's opportunities for people to move organizations. And if they're not feeling able to influence the culture and the organization they're in, or they're not feeling aligned with it, then they can choose to move actually. It's not as hard as it was perhaps a few years ago. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about how can we help individual contributors to also bring about the culture that they might be seeking and the organization so that they can stay rather than leave.Ambica:
You know, it's the thing that I'm careful of not doing is using a broad brush on individual contributors, because I do believe there are individual contributors and then there are individual contributors. And if you, I think it becomes. Far more difficult for you to have your voice heard. If you feel like you're already on the back foot and in an organization, if you're already in whatever way, a minority group, either because of your gender, your sexuality, your ethnicity, where you sit in the organizational hierarchy, there could be a lot of things in that space that, that make it difficult for you to have the courage to speak up. So while it's easy for, for me to sit and say, Look, if you don't like something, change it and I'll be the change that you want to see. And I, I do believe in, in, you know, in that it's powerful. I come from Gandhi's country so it's, it's a powerful, powerful quote, but I've also been an Indian woman trying to run a business in Singapore. And it's not always easy to have your voice heard. Um, and so. Again, this could be controversial that I say it Jean, but I I do think this pandemic has actually put in a lot more responsibility on a leaders shoulder than on an individual contributors shoulder. And you need to be a leader in today's world if you think you can take that responsibility on and really listen and listen very deeply to the experiences that different kinds of people in your organization are having because each one of us. Because of our life stage because of our class, because of, like I said, various different norms are experiencing this, you know, um, the pandemic in the state very differently. Um, so I actually think it's on the leaders to listen and, you know, to, to deeply listen to different kinds of experiences, but it's a for remote work over that's of an individual contributor or whether it's of anessential worker, uh, who doesn't have the comfort to stay at home. Um, yeah, I'm not sure if I answered your question directly, but I said, I have a bit of a control issue. I think it's on the leader's shoulders a bit more than the contributors shoulders.Jean:
Hmm. Yeah. It's interesting. Cause I absolutely understand that. I agree with what you're saying that we need. More than ever our leaders to be in that, in a compassionate space, really being willing to, to walk in the shoes of the individual contributors and to feel their experience and, um, The question, I guess still is the individual contributors wanting to feel their, um, their own agency somehow in, in, how do they, how do they do that? I mean, one of the things that I suggest to people is is that even if you're feeling disenfranchised, you're thinking you're going to leave. You feel like you've had enough that it's better to take the courage to go and talk to your leader and talk about how you are than to leave never having had done that. So at least feel that you contributed to the, the saying of how your experience of the organization is.Ambica:
I asked people that I work with and coachees to sort of think of it through three lenses, because sometimes people want to shift because they think just the experience of COVID is going to be different in a different organization. And then very soon they realized, but I'm sitting in the same room in front of, laptop of a different brand, but, you know, but still speaking to people in these tiny boxes on my screen. So like what, what did I really change for? And I think the three lenses I asked them to think of is agency belonging and capabilities. So are you leaving because you feel you don't have the agency or the empowerment to take certain decisions that you need to take for yourself or for your job or for your team. What's the sense of belonging this organization has really created for you? Has it given you the sense that it cares and hence, you know, have leaders given you the empowerment, have they really heard deeply enough to you and capability Which is, do you feel like you have the skillsets to do the job that you're being asked to do. Because we've all needed to re-skill and unskilled and super skill ourselves. You're learning something new every day. So do you really feel like you're being asked something and you don't have the tools and skills to do the job that you're being asked for? and that at least equips them. Going and having a rational conversation, right? So yes, the conversations coming from a feeling space, but you make use of those feelings to really get a sense of like, which, which of these levers, um, is, is really being difficult for me. And, you know, am I being heard in this organization or. When I'm thinking about a new organization to go into, how do these levers really play into my experience in that organization?Jean:
Brilliant. I love that Ambica I love those levers because they're empowering in themselves on that. They're giving me a choice to decide whether I pull the levers or not, but at least I can make that choice then.Ambica:
And you can give tools. I think to leaders, right? To say that look, I'm disenfranchised because this is, this space is, you know, I've got the tools, I feel empowered, but there's something about this organization. That's not connected. My, I haven't connected to the values of this organization. There's no belonging. I'm so new that I really don't know somebody that, you know, that allows me to understand how these values are playing out. And I'm actually seeing a lot more people struggled with belonging um, but at this point of time, especially a lot of the new people that have joined organization.Jean:
Yes. Because, people are coming in, they're not getting that informal time with colleagues in the office to create that sense of belonging. And, and my observation of it would be because people are in these back-to-back meetings, but those meetings are not spaces that create belonging they are about the doing. Of the business and not about the being together in that space, which is where we create thelearning. Can we move on to a few, a few questions that are, that take us into the next space, um, in both working in organizations and consulting to organizations for a long time, what have you learnt about the best way to navigate organizations?Ambica:
You know, I'm speaking from personal experience, just how I have decoded it for myself or how I, uh, tried to do it without completely losing my hat in the process. Um, I think navigating organizations are actually a lot about navigating people and navigating your relationships with those people. Right? So there is, I think, a fundamental space of understanding how decisions are taken in this organization and who takes those decisions, which gives you, um, I think an insight into dynamics and power, because I think a big part of navigating people is navigating the power that they hold and, you know, navigating the position they they sit in with that power and the person that they are when they sit in that position and wield that power. So to me, it's the interplay of, you know, those, those three things that you need to understand. And, um, and what is the kind of nature of relationship that you build? And I, I have, um, I have done better when I've had a purpose behind needing to build that relationship. Um, because I've worked with several, like, like you said, gender equality is, is, is very, very important to me. And I've worked with a number of female leaders in the past. And I remember, you know, initially when we coached them about the networking skills and the stakeholder management skills, and I come from that space to around, like, I don't want to be networking just for the sake. Of networking and, you know, I, I come from a culture where it's a little bit uncomfortable, to do that, you know, so when we've actually been able to attach a purpose. And say it, this relationship, and this person supports important to have this impact on that plan that you want to execute. Uh, love women in to look at their networks from the space of who do I need in my network impact that purpose. That's important to me. Um, it's actually made the, you know, the paving of that relationship and that interplay between power position and the person that they're dealing with. Easier for them to handle because in that they find the agency to say, all right, I'm willing to flex a bit. If, if a rational style of engaging with this, person's not going to work. I'm going to bring in a few other emotional styles around this. I'm going to bring in an understanding of what's going to be important to that person and what, you know, what that person wants to be successful about. Um, so I think there's, there's a part of marrying these, you know, these relationships with purpose that that has always worked for me. There's also a second space. And this, this has been in, in more recent years around, how do you navigate relationships with people think completely different to you? Even a few years back, those are the people I would stay with. In a way where I felt like, oh, you know, I think I'm very different to this person or in my head, our values are really different. So I'm not going to make that person a part of my stakeholder map. I'd rather navigate an organization through people that I like. And then, you know, and three people who are fond of me and people that I'm fond of, uh, and it was all good and great. And then I, you know, I realized I'm just perpetuating some of the biases, um, you know, that, that sit in my own mind and I've learned, especially in the last couple of years, that resistance to ideas is actually a good thing. And those are the people that, you know, that I need to sort of go and understand more from and understand where they're coming from. Um, and I've actually sort of walked away and taken away a lot from navigating those difficult relationships though, the sticky ones, the fact, you know, because it's a more than anything helped me understand myself a lot more, um, in the process. And through that, given me the tools to understand something that's so different from me and use the difference more as an ally for my plans than as something that you know, I want to stay away from and do by myself.Jean:
There's something about, um, for those of us who've worked in inclusion, walking the talk about including people, ourselves who are different to us, that we're not perhaps getting on with or seeing eye to eye with that. We also have to live that value that we, uh, and learn from it. And, you know, cause I'm hearing you say that when you do that, there's richness that when we do that, when one does that, there's a richness then. Because we see things from a different angle, it actually gives us more ability, I think, to influence from that space.Ambica:
Yeah. And I think it gives some, some direction to my activism. We just say that, uh, you got more just about activism than about, you know, the thing that needs to get done. And I think that's, uh, allowed me to channel my own activism in a far more rational manner.Jean:
Yeah. Thank you. There's something also for me about, um, I think one of the things that's happened in society is we've often become quite polarized over the last few years. We've become polarized about where are you and in organizations, you know, where do you stand on this issue and where do you stand on that? And it's actually in understanding everybody's perspectives that we see. That usually things are not so clear cut that usually there's a lot of gray in between those places and that if we can help to break down the polarity and bring things into a shared understanding that that can be helpful in organizational life as well, when it is work hard or difficult to accept.Ambica:
Oh, oh my God. Every day, Jean, when is work hard? I can, I think for me personally, work is hard when I feel gaslighted. Right. Uh, and what, what do I mean by gaslighting is where my experiences are not heard or seen in their entirety before decisions are taken or when I'm experiencing it some way. And people that, you know, uh, I can help me make sense of it. Uh, don't try to understand that experience, you know, by coming into my shoes, but, but from what's comfortable to them. Um, so again, for example, I'm, incredibly grateful that I get to consult with organizations across the world that I get to work with leaders that work across the world. And most of them are amazing to work with, and it's a great partnership and it's an equal relationship. But sometimes you do experience, uh, you know, situations where, uh, where you know, that relationship's not working, not because of the capability that you're bringing to the table, but because, because of certain things that you can't control, sometimes it's, you know, it's the color of your skin. Sometimes it's your gender sometimes it's your age. Um, and I remember speaking to colleagues. Look, I I'm just, I'm feeling uncomfortable with, with this client and this person, and I'm trying to understand how to break through, but I just feel like me being Indian and a woman is not really helping the situation. And I remember the person turning around and saying, well, maybe it's not, maybe it's not that maybe he's just a bad person. Um, and, and I know the person, you know, meant it well, and it wasn't coming from a malicious place, but that those moments, and these are small sensitive moments for a lot of our colleagues around, you know, I, if I'm experiencing something because of my race or gender, that's different from yours, I really expect curiosity and empathy then to say no, you know, your, your framing of that experience is different. So don't, don't go down that path. Don't because it's uncomfortable for me, uh, you know, to empathize with you. I think those kinds of situations, I feel I have. Uh, I'm finding less tolerance for within myself, right? Mean on a good day. I'm, you know, I'm able to look at it with some distance. I'm able to look at it strategically and say, oh, if not me, then who works with that client? If not me, who can be bringing as an ally, how do we make this, uh, easier for the work that needs to get done? Um, but there are some times when, you know, when. As organizations, and as people, you do need to put your foot down and say, what do you want to stand for? And who do you want to work with? Um, and what does that say about you and, and nor does it say about the organization and when I don't find the support in that I've realized it increasingly becomes, a bad day. Um, because you're already on the back foot, there's something about your experiencing and feeling the exclusion experience actually, and that you want the support of others in that space. Yeah. It's a difficult example to share. So I'm not sharing. Because it's hurt me, I'm sharing it because these, these people that I share my experiences with are allies, they are people that I'm extremely fond of. I work with on a day in and day out basis. But even sometimes the best intentions need to be educated, a bit more. And on some days on the bad days, you just, you you're too exhausted to educate.Jean:
Yeah. Completely understand that. Bit of a sideways move now into, what are the books or podcasts that inspire you or stimulate your thinking that you would recommend?Ambica:
Um, Jean I'm a podcast person. Right? My, uh, I exercise with podcasts on, I walk I cycle with podcasts on, um, and, and, and the ones for our field of work that I often turn to when I'm always looking at like, what's new, what are the people speaking about? I love the HBR ideas cost. I love that they bring some really interesting leaders. From different parts of the world. And, you know, and speaking about organizations and cultures, I loved some of their, uh, recent interviews with, and it was just really amazing. Um, I love Brene Brown's podcasts. I completely veered on, on, on that spectrum. Uh, I think recently. I was hearing her talk about Atlas of the heart. You know, which I I've sort of pre-ordered and I can, I want to pay a premium to get that book on my, my Booklist, but, I love what she has to say about, about very many things. I love to hear as the Ester Perel's How's Work, uh, you know, which, which I feel is quite inspiring, what she brings to the psychology space, to the workspace in relationships at work. Uh, I keep thinking that that's where I want to be when I grew up. And on, on days today on bad days, I love listening to Oprah's SuperSoul conversations. Uh, cause it's just the, something extremely, extremely uplifting, at the soul level in terms of listening to that, that podcast. Um, yeah,Jean:
me too. Hello. Then we come to the end of our time Ambica I'm so grateful for your time that the wisdom that you've shared today, I'm, I'm really noticing myself curious about, purpose and, the word values comes up for me, but I think it's about, how we create organizations that are values led. I guess, and, and how we can think about holding those values at the heart of how we lead people, how we help people to have a good experience of work in that, in that way. And I'm really hearing it threading through both of your personal experience, but also your way of seeing the world and consulting. And thank you very much.Ambica:
Thank you so much Jean it's been an amazing experience talking about this and, well today I can see it was a good day at work. Thank you.