Home >Companies >People >This tech CEO dishes out life advice to his employees’ children

Once a month, typically from the backyard of his California home, Atul Bhatnagar opens his laptop and greets what is an unusual audience for a public-company CEO: the children of his employees.

For nearly an hour, the top executive of Cambium Networks, an international wireless technology company, shares personal stories, answers questions and addresses topics as varied as settling on a college major to choosing the right friends.

The sessions, called “Mentoring With Atul," have attracted a swath of participants, from 10-year-olds to new college graduates. Designed to help employees and their families struggling in the pandemic, the meetings have become a sort of Zoom-era cross between take-your-children-to-work days and online ask-me-anything sessions.

Mr. Bhatnagar, a father of five, says the boundaries between work and life have vanished, so leaders must do a better job of acknowledging the realities parents face at home. If executives can offer helpful wisdom or serve as an additional sounding board, Mr. Bhatnagar says, they should do so. “Life has changed," he says. “In Covid, we all face issues together. So as leaders, we also had a chance to express our compassion, our understanding of the issues."

The 63-year-old executive has advised students to follow their passions but to prioritize education. He has offered time-management techniques, stressed the importance of exercise and health, and discussed ways to handle online bullying, criticism and personal setbacks. Attendees have logged on from the U.S., India, Europe, Africa and elsewhere; the company says U.S.-based families have participated as much as those from abroad.

Across the corporate sphere, plenty of bosses have changed how they relate to staffers in the pandemic, organizing offbeat virtual activities to boost morale or to address feelings of isolation, but few have gone so far as to regularly speak to employees’ children.

Mr. Bhatnagar grew up in India and moved to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He relocated to Silicon Valley in 1985 and spent much of his early career at Hewlett-Packard Co. He became Cambium’s CEO in 2013.

Cambium employs about 700 people, many of whom are parents. The company, based in Rolling Meadows, Ill., has offered support groups for employees with children and held sessions on caregiving. The sessions with Mr. Bhatnagar are voluntary and open to all employees, including those without children. Mr. Bhatnagar started them last spring after many high-school and college graduation ceremonies were canceled and he learned, from conversations with employees around that time, that many children were struggling. Mr. Bhatnagar thought kids could use a dose of inspiration, so he put together a short graduation speech, shared insights from his own career and took questions. Feedback from employees was positive, and the company has now offered eight such sessions.

Venkatesha AnanthaRao, a director of hardware development based in Bangalore, India, has attended several meetings with his college-age daughter, and at times, invited his extended family to watch. The sessions are helpful, he says, in providing emotional support to parents and a sense of reassurance to students.

Mr. Bhatnagar has talked about his own winding career path, in which he initially thought he might pursue a career in biology or medicine, but moved into technology, proving success can come without a grand plan. The CEO predicts that the careers of young adults, which may appear in flux during the crisis, should stabilize, a point Mr. AnanthaRao says is comforting.

Mr. AnanthaRao says he felt no obligation to attend, and he says the sessions are interactive, with executives, children and parents exchanging ideas and talking about common problems, so it doesn’t feel like a lecture from a powerful figure within the company. “There is no pressure," he says. “We found a value there, and we found a benefit of attending."

Mr. AnanthaRao’s daughter, who asked not to be named, says she keeps attending the sessions because she’s learning from them. Not only has she adjusted her approach to time management, but she says she feels less anxious about deciding on a career after hearing how Mr. Bhatnagar’s interests changed.

“I’m in a phase where I’m still very indecisive, and I don’t know what the future holds for me. So when I hear stuff like this, at least you feel motivated, saying, even if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have something else," she says.

Mr. Bhatnagar suspects his messages may not be much different from what parents are saying—he’s just a different messenger. “If somebody else says that, sometimes people are more receptive, right?" he says.

Mr. Bhatnagar says he is careful not to be overly prescriptive in his answers or to reveal sensitive personnel or health issues that might run afoul of company policies. Meeting topics are also broad, meant to serve a wide audience. The latest session, held in March, was billed as a chance to learn techniques and skills “to be effective in a chaotic world."

In another session, on social media, Mr. Bhatnagar advised taking critical comments in stride, but also trying to limit time spent on such platforms. “You just express your opinion in a courteous manner and then move forward," he says. When one attendee raised the idea of building a career making YouTube videos, potentially hoping to replicate the success of some influencers, Mr. Bhatnagar stressed the importance of learning. “They all know that people are making money doing that, but I think the question is when that fad is over and you’ve not finished your education, what will happen then?" he says.

In a year when many children have attended classes remotely, unable to develop informal relationships with older students or teachers, many may benefit from chances to learn from someone outside of the home, says Alyssa Westring, associate professor of management at DePaul University.

The leadership traits of talented executives, who can inspire others without micromanaging, ideally can also translate to sound parenting practices. “The same thing good CEOs do, good parents do in their homes and their communities," says Ms. Westring, who co-wrote a book on the topic, “Parents Who Lead."

If there is a downside to an approach such as Mr. Bhatnagar’s, Prof. Westring says, it is that some people may want greater separation between their jobs and their personal lives. For those staffers who prefer to detach from work, setting clear boundaries between work and family, “this may not be ideal for them," she says.

Executives also must be careful not to opine in areas outside their expertise, says John Baldino, president of human resources consulting firm Humareso. Guidance taken the wrong way could damage an executive’s relationship with an employee, or perhaps lead to strain at work, he says. “What happens if a CEO is offering advice that affects the course of an employee’s child’s life, and it doesn’t work out?" Mr. Baldino says. He recommends executives point people to other resources if they don’t have answers to questions.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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