Do not treat All your employees the Same

Date:   Thursday , November 29, 2007

All of us have aspirations and goals. In my opinion, given the right work environment and management style, everyone will strive for high performance and higher goals. A leader’s main role is to promote a culture and support systems where employees can work on their goals independently, make informed decisions, take calculated risks and innovate. On the other side of this, I believe obedience is not a virtue as it often confines the individual to a limited set of ideas and processes. If you want to build a high performance team, you need responsible freethinkers, who can not only think out of the box for solutions, but also question status quo in a constructive manner.

There is yet another unconventional thought that I believe in - do not treat all employees equal. I believe high performers would have no incentive to perform well if the rewards and recognition do not differentiate them from poor performers. In reality, the high performers will be dissatisfied and leave the team and lower performers will tend to stay in such environments. We have to resist the urge not to differentiate for the fear of making someone unhappy.

In McAfee we encourage free thinking, open communication, and merit-based rewards from the time an employee joins the organization. The head of HR and I spend one full day each month with every new employee to drive home this culture, establish McAfee values, and help them feel comfortable with the company they have joined. We ensure that they leave some of their ‘shackles’ behind to enter a freethinking environment where open communication and feedback are encouraged. We also use the opportunity to emphasize the need for all employees to understand the business aspects of their job and not just the technical aspects. This is reiterated on a quarterly basis where we share financial data such as earnings, growth, revenue and balance sheets. I strongly believe in everyone having a business outlook – a racecar driver needs to know how his company makes money and the accountant needs to know how a race is contested and won.

Every employee in McAfee has open access to every single person in the organization. Each person has the right to call or email our President or CEO or any executive anywhere in the world with ideas, criticisms, complaints, and encouragement. Employees need not just report or communicate or complain only to their immediate supervisor or senior. Hierarchy should be used for operational efficiency and should not be taken, as authority or power or more importantly hierarchy should not “choke” communication.

A recent example of this demonstrates this culture well. One day our CEO showed me a mail from a very young employee from India. The mail was a suggestion to acquire a company that may fit well in our portfolio. He had even suggested the business case for that acquisition. Several months later, lo and behold, the acquisition did occur for the same business reasons, although it was not necessarily based on this employee’s suggestion. Open communication with all levels and emphasis on business understanding regardless of their role is likely to pay any company rich dividends in form of productivity and innovation.

The days of considering hierarchy as a matter of authority are numbered. I always tell my managers, in a modern corporation, people don’t work for managers, the managers work for employees. It’s an inverted organization pyramid. I personally work for the 900+ employees in my organization ensuring they get the right environment, right goal alignment, right compensation, and appropriate support systems, to help them bring out their best to achieve our goals. It is also my role to ensure the right people are hired and retained.

Back in 2005, despite being operational for three years, McAfee India had not submitted a single patent application, although the rest of our global organization was doing so regularly. I challenged my leadership teams to turn this around and achieve at least two patent applications by mid-2006. After some good communication around our patent program, and a couple of seminars later we achieved seven patent submissions by target date. We are at over seventy submissions in 2007 so far and counting, and all of them are related to our business. The leaders created an environment that made it conducive to sustain this invention trend.

In promoting such a “flat” culture in the organization, ‘trust’ is a major component. Trust is not only good for morale, it bring efficiency due to the credibility and authenticity in all transactions. Everyday employees have transactions where trust is involved, starting with flexible working hours. Employees are trusted with their assignments without micromanagement, and are expected to let their managers know if they run into obstacles or delays. In essence, they own their tasks and are responsible to their team for completing them. While delegation of responsibility is an important example of trust, a good leader will always have multiple metrics or transparent feedback loops that will give all those involved an early warning of any impending problems. Metrics and transparent feedback mechanisms are also required for understanding the morale and cultural climate in the company.

My parting comments are that in today’s corporate world, a leader has to have the courage to hire people smarter than himself/herself with a positive attitude, and empower them to thrive in a freethinking culture where constructive dissent is encouraged over blind acceptance. Once you align their goals to the business goals, you have to trust them to execute to the best of their ability, while providing direction as needed. This will result in the employees being satisfied, a job well done and achievement of business goals.

The author is Vice President of Engineering and Head of India Operations, McAfee Engineering Centre, India. He can be reached at