Shashi Kiran of Aryaka: “Setting expectations”

Setting expectations — Managers or leaders of meetings would do well to set expectations on the outcome of the meeting beforehand. Expecting someone to be online all the time or be accessible at short notice can be a challenge, creating an expectation to be “always-on” and disrupt work-life balance, as boundaries between the two get blurred. The […]

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Setting expectations — Managers or leaders of meetings would do well to set expectations on the outcome of the meeting beforehand. Expecting someone to be online all the time or be accessible at short notice can be a challenge, creating an expectation to be “always-on” and disrupt work-life balance, as boundaries between the two get blurred. The onus is not always on managers though. Employees must feel equally empowered and confident to clearly communicate and set expectations as well. Good communications can solve a lot of issues.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewingShashi Kiran.

Shashi Kiran is the Chief Marketing Officer at Aryaka Networks responsible for Aryaka’s global marketing, product management and technology partnerships. He brings over 20 years of experience in the hi-tech industry across marketing, product management, business development and partnerships.

Shashi is a former marketing leader at Cisco where he led worldwide product and solutions marketing teams for several multi-billion dollar portfolios spanning datacenter, cloud, security and enterprise networking. From 2011–13 he also led Cisco 15B dollars+ combined switching portfolio. He was instrumental in launching the company’s SDN strategy and ramping up its application centric infrastructure (ACI) offering. Most recently Shashi was the CMO for Quali, a VC-backed firm focused on Cloud and DevOps automation.

Currently he serves on the advisory board of The Fabric — an early stage VC firm, 8VC and Thirdpoint backed Ushur, TrueLark and Optio3i. Shashi is a frequent industry speaker, blogger and columnist to Forbes and Money Inc.

Shashi holds a degree in Electronics Engineering and an MBA in Marketing, both from India, with executive education stints at Harvard, Stanford and MIT. He is also a practicing CISSP.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m an engineer by education and a marketeer by profession. I was fortunate to be able to form a career that was at the intersection of technology and creative marketing, as I’m both a right-brain and left-brain personality. One thing led to another, and I’ve had the opportunity to lead teams and initiatives across large global multi-billion-dollar corporations as well as some exciting startups. A lot of it has been serendipity coupled with good work ethics and a very supportive ecosystem.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Some of the most interesting stories came about when I was least expecting them. Back in the 1990s when the Internet was still at its infancy, I started an e-mail-based course on networking early in my career, that was meant to be just a pseudo-marketing effort. It was sent to a small community as a test project, but it got forwarded all over the world and blew up big time. We had people starting to register for this course from all over the world, and we weren’t set up to handle registrations from all those countries! I had to quickly set some structure into it and used it as an opportunity to get some eminent people on board to contribute to the course and scale it. Eventually, it became a two-year initiative, outside of my day job, but it was syndicated in multiple magazines and got published as a book. While I was at Cisco, I took a page out of this playbook to launch the company’s first worldwide contest for application developers as the company was trying to make a shift to be more developer friendly. This contest attracted participants from 83 countries and took a life of its own, laying the seeds for larger initiatives like Cisco DevNet. Interestingly, none of these were part of my job description, and were just ideas we attempted. I had great support from my team members and we all had fun and great learnings during the process.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have quite a few that I have subconsciously imbibed a long time ago, but still find practical in my life and career. As a kid on a trekking expedition, I came across a souvenir that said “Aim for the Sky. You’ll reach the mountain top”. It is a great quote that frequently reminds me to think big, challenge myself and others as life is a series of iterations to succeed. It is also about perspective. I also frequently use the quote, particularly with my teams that “If all the fingers in the hand were of the same size, we’d never be able to fold it into a fist”. This is a great reminder of diversity, of complementary skills and what teamwork is all about.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

My parents and family have been the bedrock of my life. I still call my mother everyday no matter where I am in the world and draw energy and inspiration from her. My younger brother is a super smart guy, and one of the most logical minds I know. My gymnastics coach probably was responsible for instilling a lot of competitive spirit in me, and he was a great influence for a lot of kids growing up. I still have deep relationships from my friends and colleagues over the decades. They are all my reservoirs of strength. I’m truly grateful and blessed to have them all in my life.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

I believe people high technology can work remote and be reasonably productive, with the right collaboration tools and some discipline. Having a team in-room is great for brainstorming and whiteboarding exercises. We get a lot done on a whiteboard. None of the current collaboration technologies are yet a substitute for that.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Even though individual productivity would be the same or better, team productivity does take a bit of hit, when teams are spread out. In general, for global companies, this gets compounded due to time zone issues, quality of underlying connectivity, “zoom fatigue” issues etc.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ?

1. Tools — Ensure everyone has the right tools for collaboration and information sharing, including A/V tools, knowledge transfer mechanisms etc.

2. Training — With global teams, basic training is important as everyone has different expectations. Does everyone turn on video? How to ask a question? How to share presentations? How to exchange ideas and brainstorm in meetings involving large groups of people? How to be sensitive to others? The softer aspects of the etiquette are equally important. Knowing when to use offline tools like messaging versus videoconferencing is also important.

3. Setting expectations — Managers or leaders of meetings would do well to set expectations on the outcome of the meeting beforehand. Expecting someone to be online all the time or be accessible at short notice can be a challenge, creating an expectation to be “always-on” and disrupt work-life balance, as boundaries between the two get blurred. The onus is not always on managers though. Employees must feel equally empowered and confident to clearly communicate and set expectations as well. Good communications can solve a lot of issues.

4. Be respectful of time and sensitive to work overload — Meetings can consume a lot of time and the individual would still need to work and be responsible for deliverables. Being respectful of time, time zones and being sensitive to when an individual is overloaded is quite important to avoid burnout.

5. Have fun and set the right culture — As much as communication is for accomplishing work related activities, remote teams work best when the human element is amplified. Leaders must figure out ways where the team can bond and have fun, despite being remote. Creating the right environment to make this happen with empathy, will certainly help teams perform better.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Our company has a global workforce and we naturally need to communicate with our “remote” teams. We have a variety of communication technologies. For teams that were sitting next to each other and innovating together, working entirely remote, particularly when their family members and kids are also working or studying remotely, creates a disruption. As with everything, we human beings adapt.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

My observation is there is no single tool. We have a variety of collaboration tools, and yet it takes commitment from both parties to make them work. Different people also respond to tools differently. A lot of people prefer text-based communication instead of long-form meetings that burn the calendar. Others want face-to-face meetings for every single interaction. We have to use our common sense and judgement for some of these.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

The communication nirvana is yet to be achieved. It is ironical that despite all the investment in real-time and non-real-time tools, e-mail is still a big part of what I have to deal with.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

I think Unified Communications platforms have certainly thrived during the pandemic. However, almost every platform I know has some deficiency and varied degrees of maturity in their offering. This causes companies to cobble together 2–3 different solutions, and the complexity gets compounded. As teams grow larger, and geographically dispersed, the organizational or the team culture and individual commitment play a greater role in communication in my observation.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

All of these technologies are certainly exciting, both in a personal as well as a professional environment. At the same time, I’m a big fan of a real-world handshake and good “look in the eye” smile. What I mean, is that technology should not consume us.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Yes, it does if it is taken to the extreme. I saw some of the ill effects of being consumed by the screen, that my kids experienced at home, and it is a challenge to get back to the real world thereafter. We’ve all seen this manifest itself with everybody on their smartphones instead of having conversations and real relationships. Human beings are not designed to be atomic units of one. We all have to resist the temptation of going into The Matrix.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

We have been fortunate to have great relationships with customers and due to the global nature of our customers, a lot of these are usually accomplished without us being there in-person. However, I know some of our sales teams miss meeting with them in person. I also usually host meetings for our global strategic customer advisory boards (CAB) and technical advisory boards (TAB) in person. This time we did it remotely via blocks of video conference. They were gracious with their time and engagement.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

You’re right. This is never easy. Both the giver and receiver have to be tuned to doing this remote. Things can be lost in translation or misinterpreted based on tone, mood or even language issues. Some of it requires both to have some degree of self-awareness, empathy and at the same time and follow through with clarifications in case of any doubt.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

We’ve had some fun activities, where the entire global team came together to construct a song and perform it individually and piece it together. That was a fun project we did at the beginning of the pandemic, and it turned out to be much better than what we all anticipated. We’ve also had external speakers, yoga sessions, team bonding exercises etc., as well as educational sessions that taught how to have better ergonomics. The company was also generous to give every employee a work from home telecommuting package that could be used to set up a home office.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My influence is only limited to my young daughters, and even that, I have no doubt is going to fade out quickly, as they’re become very creative at asserting themselves 🙂

Seriously though, the thing I’m currently interested in is pursuing is a greater degree of self-awareness, and to be less distracted by the ephemeral. It is tough to do that in a demanding business environment, where the external can overwhelm the internal. You may achieve all your business and career goals, and yet feel incomplete or unhappy. If we are not at one with ourselves, it impacts all our dealings and leads to a toxic environment. The ability to focus on and fine-tune our inner engineering to maintain balance is a goal worth striving for. It is not easy though. Fortunately, there are learned teachers spreading this message.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am usually active on LinkedIn as the one social media of choice, where a lot of my professional work is shared.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

Thank you for your time.

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