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I’s on the Prize

Aug/06/2023 / by Abhijit Masih
Image credits: Irina Peschan

Like so many South Asian women, Neelu Kaur wasn’t taught to advocate for herself, which was a major disadvantage in the American corporate culture. After learning lessons the hard way, she dedicates her life to helping women avoid the same pitfalls

As Neelu Kaur experienced it, her traditional Sikh parents valued the collective over the individual or, in her words, the concept of “we” over “I.” In a reframe she relied on throughout her young life, they told her to “put your head down and work, and your work will speak for itself.” Kaur carried this mindset through a bachelor’s degree from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a master’s degree from Columbia University in social & organizational psychology.

That’s where her trouble began.

The certified NLP Master Practitioner and Coach soon realized that mindset was a hindrance in the corporate world, which expects individuals to thrive and advocate for themselves. Prioritizing the group’s interest over your own isn’t necessarily an asset in today’s competitive work environment, which is contrary to the philosophies in so many South Asian households, a collective culture that leans on attributes like cooperation and sharing, rather than of individualistic autonomy and personal precedence. 

In her corporate career, Kaur kept getting laid off and passed over, which she eventually came to realize had everything to do with her mindset and lack of self-advocacy, which is an issue that so many South Asian women encounter. 

Now, in her work as an executive leadership coach, Kaur focuses on leadership, mindfulness, and burnout management for individuals, teams, and organizations, in an effort to help people overcome the pitfalls she encountered. She recently published her first book Be Your Own Cheerleader, which focuses on self-advocacy for Asian & South Asian women. Here, Kaur explains in her own words what she believes holds so many women back from thriving in the corporate world and beyond.

Image credits: Irina Peschan

THE CO-OP CULTURE AT HOME

Indian-born and American-raised, my parents would get upset if I said, ‘These are my toys.’ My brother and I had to share everything. We would joke and say that our home was like Grand Central, as everyone was always coming through and everything was about sharing in group harmony. I didn’t realize that it would be a problem until I would go to school or until I got into the corporate space. I realized that we come from collective ‘we’-based cultures. Then we’re expected to thrive in ‘I’ based individualistic cultures. So that’s really been my focus for the past few years, helping South Asians and Asian women advocate for themselves when they come from collective cultures and help them thrive in ‘I’ based individual corporate America culture.

The religious Sikh household I grew up in was such a different experience than my friends’. I also grew up in an area where there weren’t many other Indians, so I was always assimilating, just leaving the house. And so the cultural influence definitely took shape and force when we got home, and my parents made sure that they did not want us to lose our cultural roots. So in some sense I’m grateful for that. In other sense, I wish I had a better, better time assimilating.

Self-Advocacy Matters

To be honest, I still struggle with self-advocacy and self promotion. I kept getting fired and downsized over and over again. I didn’t understand what was happening. It’s only when I went back to Columbia and did my masters in social and organizational psychology, I learned research about these collective cultures and individualistic cultures. So it raised my awareness. 

In my last downsizing, which was in 2013, I was escorted back to my desk. I was given very few minutes just to grab my belongings. When I was taking the elevator to leave, I realized I was letting myself down by not self-advocating. I could have done a better job speaking up about my accomplishments in that role and all of the other things that I was doing in the organization. Instead, I relied on ‘do your work and your work will speak for you,’ because that’s what I learned from my parents.

An Ayurvedic Approach

If you go to an Ayurveda practitioner or doctor because your pinky is hurting, the practitioner won’t just look at your pinky. They’ll look at your hand and your arm and essentially your whole body. I use the same approach when working with organizations. I don’t just look at the individual. I will look at the team, the department and the organization itself. If you think of an onion and layers of the onion, I’m constantly dancing between the different layers of self, team, and organization. If we just start with the individual and if you are not feeling mentally well, if you feel like you’re not serving your purpose in your role, you’re not going to be productive. So if I’m brought into work with the individual and their team, that’s the focus. Ultimately, the impact trickles out to the rest of the organization.

Image credits: Irina Peschan

Healing and Wellness

During COVID, there were so many mental health issues going on in the workplace. We were overworked and overstressed and that’s when I felt, at least from an organizational perspective, I could start working more in the lens of Ayurveda. I normally use Ayurveda in individual coaching consultations but I started doing more workshops. I would take basic principles like daily routines, nightly routines, learning when we’re most productive, and incorporating that into my workshops. The way that I brought it into organizations such as financial services and tech is really not use the Sanskrit terms; but to just say, these are daily routines. If someone was more curious after the session they would come to me and ask me, where did you get all of this information? And that’s when I would explain in detail about Ayurveda.

Leadership Lessons

You can lead your religious organization, your children’s soccer team and you can lead in a team. So leading is not really the question. The question is what type of leader do you want to be. The misconception is that everyone needs to be a transformational leader and I think that there’s also the necessity for transactional leadership. So in a home, figure out what you do best, what your strengths are and go from there. So if you’re more of a detail oriented person, you might be more transactional, taking care of the daily tasks. And if you’re more transformational, you’re sort of leading the family or the group towards a certain vision. So I think there’s a need for both. What we hear is that ‘Oh, we have to be transparent, transformational’ and that’s not necessarily the case. We need both. When you see a transformational leader, you feel motivated. You feel inspired. They are leading you in a specific direction. A transactional leader is someone who’s there on a daily basis—taking care of tasks, deliverables. One is more vision oriented and one is more task oriented and you need both.

We and I

I like to use a simple metaphor for folks that actually drive. If you think of a speedometer in a car right there’s a dial. So what I like to say is, there’s a “WE” dial and an “I” dial. So, if you’re in a performance review conversation, that’s really the time when you have to turn up the “I” dial. Where you have to talk about yourself, your accomplishments on the team. And if you are in a team setting and you’re working on a shared deliverable, that’s when you turn up the “We” dial. Where you talk about ‘our’ outcomes and ‘our’ deliverables. Yes, it can be uncomfortable for many South Asians. We generally feel more comfortable and familiar in the ‘We,’ rather than sound boastful. We are simply turning up one aspect of ourselves. We are still authentically being us, but we are using different languages. We are talking more about ourselves, which doesn’t come as second nature to us.

Celebrate Small Wins

I encourage the ‘We’ and the ‘I’ dial thinking at the forefront. The other thing that is really important and so simple is that your level of perfectionism is in a way unhealthy. I remember when I was little and I would get a 95 percent on my test score, my parent’s first response was what happened to the other 5? It can lead to a lot of mental health issues going forward. So what happens for many South Asian women is they’re striving for that 100 percent all the time. One thing we don’t know how to do is pat ourselves on the back, to celebrate our small successes. 

Many of us are accomplished, we have multiple degrees, and we’re authors, coaches or whatever. Along those long journeys there are small, simple steps that we took. I encourage young South Asian women to really celebrate those small successes. This is what we’re actually taught as young children. We’re taught to get to that next milestone, to get to that next degree, to get to that next accomplishment. What I say is that is great. We want to be those high achievers but we also want to celebrate small successes.

Beat Burn Out

One of the first tips is that the first hour that you wake up should be device free. Many of us use our phone and it is the first thing we reach for. What happens is that you’re training your brain to be reactive and distracted all day because you’re going to respond to emails, to text and to social media posts. So the idea is that the first hour you’re easing into your day, and that essentially sets the tone for the rest of the day and the same thing at night. One hour before you go to sleep is sort of your pamper hour, where you don’t talk about anything that’s conflict related -watch the news, read anything that will get you upset or unsettled because you want to set yourself up for restorative sleep.

Advice for Working from Home

What I’m noticing for myself and for the people I coach, is that there is no time between meetings. It’s literally one after the other to the point where sometimes you don’t even have time to eat or go to the restroom. This is a recipe for burnout and a recipe for a mental health burnout. So we want to make sure that we add buffers between our meetings. That is a simple thing that we can start doing. I know many organizations I coach; they actually cut off meetings at the 45 min mark to give everyone a buffer. And so if you’re a leader in those organizations, it’s really good to make sure that’s part of your corporate culture.

My Wellness Routine

For me, because of my own personal journey with mental health, I realized that there’s not one magic pill or one thing that’s going to help. It’s a cocktail of remedies. For me it’s yoga. It’s Ayurveda mindfulness. I do a lot of movement based practices to help with stress reduction. Many of us have this idea that it’s just one thing that’s going to help us feel better or feel happy and that’s not the case. It takes a whole cocktail of things. The idea is to self inquire to understand what it is that you need in order to feel mentally well. 

SIDE BAR 

Neelu Kaur and her favorite few:

Favorite mentor or role model – Spiritual text. I go back to spiritual text for guidance.

Best part of your job – Helping people.

Favorite Hobby – Aroma therapy

Most memorable corporate workshop – Any workshop where it is an Asian or South Asian audience and I’m teaching content from ‘Be Your Own Cheerleader,’ because it really resonates with the audience.

Favorite Holiday destination – Some place more relaxing because New York City is not relaxing. 

Best place for a corporate retreat – Big Sur, California.

Favorite food – Kulche and Chole.

Mantra for relaxation – Do the opposite of what you see. For example, if it’s hot, do something cooling. So cooling foods or cooling drinks.

Favorite movie – Being a New York City girl, I think all of the Sex and the City movies really resonated with me. 

Favorite music – I like relaxing music. Anything that’s chill, relaxing, instrumental music is really nourishing to me. Also, when I want to increase my energy I listen to Hip Hop, dance. 

A person you would love to coach – Anderson Cooper. I’m so impressed by him and I wish I could be in his presence and ask him empowering questions and see how he would respond. And I think the second runner up would be Oprah.

SIDE BAR 2

What is Ayurveda: 

Ayurveda is the science of life. It is a 5,000 ancient holistic healing system based in India. The word “Ayurveda” comes from Sanskrit and it combines ‘Ayur’— life, and ‘Veda’—knowledge of science. Ayurveda can be translated as the ‘science of life’ or the knowledge of longevity. The core principle of Ayurveda is to maintain balance between body, mind, and spirit to promote good health and prevent illness. 

How can Ayurveda help with business?

In Ayurveda there is a concept of sattva, which is one of the gunas (or qualities of nature). It is defined as having a serene, harmonious, balanced mind or attitude. When it comes to business, it is crucial to operate sattvicly, which means to operate in a conscientious, compassionate, clear, respectful manner. In business, to be a conscientious, honest, brand, or service is to operate in a way that will set you up for success. You will be well-respected and are sure to be successful when you lead with a pure heart and a clear mind. 

PQs

“We come from very collective ‘We’ based cultures. Then we’re expected to thrive in ‘I’ based individualistic cultures.”

“The cultural influence definitely took shape and force when we got home, and my parents made sure that they did not want us to lose our cultural roots. So in some sense I’m grateful for that. In other sense, I wish I had a better, better time assimilating.”

“I could have done a better job speaking about my accomplishments in that role and all of the other things that I was doing in the organization. Instead, I relied on ‘do your work and your work will speak for you,’ because that’s what I learned from my parents.”

“The misconception is that everyone needs to be a transformational leader and I think that there’s also the necessity for transactional leadership.”

“It is uncomfortable for South Asians. We generally feel more comfortable and familiar in the ‘We,’ rather than sound boastful.

“One thing we don’t know how to do is pat ourselves on the back, to celebrate our small successes.”

“Because of my own personal journey with mental health, I realized that there’s not one magic pill or one thing that’s going to help. It’s a cocktail of remedies.”

Seema

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