Developing a diverse talent pipeline

Leadership
25 January, 2016

Lessons for aspiring women leaders, from first-hand experience

As a group, one of our key imperatives is to build and groom the next generation of women leaders at Godrej. Making a real change will require us to do much more than just follow guidelines. We really need to become authentic leaders of change. We need to better appreciate the challenges that women face in the workplace and what we can do to support them better.

I am very pleased that SanjIvani Sadani has written this week’s message. Sanjivani, as you know, leads Organisation and Capability Development at Godrej Agrovet. She has also worked extensively across different HR functions in Godrej Consumer Products and the Corporate Centre.

Please read on…

I find myself rather uniquely placed, playing a dual role of sorts. On the one hand, as part of our HR leadership team, I am responsible for driving many of our people policies and practices. On the other, as a woman leader, I am constantly introspecting on my choices. I try to use this and my journey to better understand how we can empathise more as leaders and a company and what we can do differently to build more women into our teams.

So, through this message, I want to explore and share what excites, drives, challenges me – what keeps me wanting to play mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and, most importantly, an accomplished professional and leader, all at once.

My story is not one of a kind. There are many women who are doing the very same thing. But as similar as we are, we are also different, because of the contexts we grew up in and the choices we are making. We are also, as you will find, not so different in many ways from our male peers. The appreciation of this is important if you want to really understand what it will take to improve our gender diversity numbers.

As a fresh management graduate, I too was excited by refreshing work, new challenges everyday, big impact, superlative results and becoming a leader. Everyone around me had his or her version of it. Being a woman didn’t make that any different. I have come a long way since then. Here is some of what I have learned:

1. Know your passion. Rebel, if need be. And win.

Don’t settle for something you aren’t passionate about. You won’t be able to sustain it, especially when the going gets tough. At Godrej Agrovet, I see our sales officers work their way through poor infrastructure and tedious geographies. They are driven by their passion to raise the quality of life for the most remotely located farmer in India. We can’t achieve our ambition of transforming the lives of all Indian farmers, unless they bring this passion to the table. This is how they make their work a medium to effect change; not a chore to drone through.

I find this particularly important for women, given that at some point we may be forced to choose between our careers and homes. How hard we push depends on how much we want it. I recently watched the movie Tamasha (please watch it if you haven’t already). The lead character, Ved, reminded me of several of my friends, who have ignored their innate passion and settled into careers that perhaps gave them monetary and material satisfaction, but very limited intrinsic happiness of ‘doing what you love’. Why? The reasons are many. Family, social, cultural, financial or peer pressure. More often than not, they gave in to these pressures. They didn’t win. In Ved’s words, “Kahaani to apni hai, badal dete hain”. To me, that means that you are the creator of your destiny. Take control.

I chose a role in HR, where I would support business growth and imperatives through building and grooming people. Now, I have often heard people say that HR is but a natural choice for a woman. For those of you who think it was that simple – I remember when I had confided in my father that I wanted to specialise in HR. He said: “Do you know that an HR manager was physically manhandled by workers in their factory?”. I half whispered to him that such incidents in this profession make my conviction to join this line of work, stronger. That, events like these will make ‘my journey’ worth it.

2. Speak up. Get heard.

You need to express your ambitions. It isn’t enough to just feel them. You must do this to ‘earn your seat at the table’. Listen to what your heart says and let the right people know of what you really want; not what others expect you to do. Enough dissatisfaction at work could be pre-empted simply by correctly matching projects and people who want to do them. Sometimes, just enough initiative to let your managers know what projects you can contribute to, will translate into you enjoying your work more, feeling more motivated at the beginning of each day and satisfied at the end of it.

To the young women who are just starting out, I often share this. Focus on making a big impact as soon as you can. Identify your quick wins.

Pluck low hanging fruit. Build confidence in the system. For example, a first 90-days plan in a new role is critical to get strong foothold at work, earn credibility, and seek more such opportunities to display your competence.

So, keep a lookout for all that beginner’s benefit to play to your advantage and give yourself the perfect launch pad for the work to follow.

3. Take all the help you get

I am very fortunate that early on, my parents made it very clear that they expected me to be an independent woman. To find what I was passionate about and go, get it. And to get help when I needed it. This has held me in very good stead.

You don’t have to play superwoman. Don’t unnecessarily stretch and spread yourself too thin. Look for a collaborative structure. I love my job and I am very proud of what I have achieved, but I would never have been able to do this without my family. They backed me when I was at my most vulnerable; so that I could build it up, make the balance and be able to work when I needed to. When my husband and I decided to raise a child, we understood that we would be doing this on our own, without the infrastructural support of a large family in the same house. I needed to adjust the way I was working and so did he. And we managed it such that I didn’t take a career break. He stepped in and did things like cut back on travel as much as I did when our daughter was younger. He did that because he believed in and wholly encouraged my career aspirations. We agreed that we would not be able to be the most hands on parents; that we would need to hire help. But that overall, being able to balance our careers would make us happier, more fulfilled individuals and better parents. And hopefully good role models for our daughter.

At work, support came from some of the most unexpected places. Sometimes, you think that the people who will reach out are people in the exact same situation as you are. Or people like your manager and HR, who have a role and accountability in this. That isn’t so. My team pitched in tremendously, while I was figuring out how to be a new mother. All of them were not women. Even those who were, were much younger and not necessarily mothers.

4. Take risks

I still remember, that five years into my career, I was keen to move to a line role. But the thought of starting from scratch, the fear of being unsuccessful and not having a degree to support a non-HR career, never let me break into anything new. Instead, I experimented within HR. Over the years, I done a mix of just about every HR role and worked across the FMCG, insurance and agri industries.

I am so pleased have colleagues like Saurabh Bhala (who moved from Finance to Regional Sales) and Swati Patwardhan (who moved from HR to Strategy), who made the break from their established functional careers to completely different domains. It reminds me that taking risks and being creative, is often the only distinction between a fulfilling career and a wanting one.

5. Enlarge your circle of influence

I heard Anuranjita Kumar, Chief Human Resource Officer of Citibank say: Everyone works hard, so the ones who network and build relationships will always have the advantage”. Build relationships, accompanied by mutual trust and strong work ethics. The right network, with a caveat of complementing it with better work, brings you the required mentorship and guidance at important turns in your career. You can draw from the rich pool of learning from people more experienced than yourself.

I was very fortunate that when I was transitioning into a senior leadership role and that too, a business HR role in a whole new industry – Godrej offered me a professional coach. This spoke volumes about the kind of investment that the company was willing to make this a success for me. It has singularly been the most impactful reason for my wins over the last year. The other thing I realised with this transition, was that mentors can be of many kinds. Balram Yadav for example, who leads our Godrej Agrovet business, has taken the time to mentor me on different aspects of our business, which has been hugely helpful.

6. Invest well in yourself

Like they say, your career is like a good mutual fund. Stay invested in what you feel is right. In the medium to long term, a good investment will always pay off. Many career choices could look like impulsive to others. There may be some who consider a field to be dying and there may be still others who are unable to see how innovation can turn around the fate of the field you have chosen. The best response to well wishers and detractors alike, in cases like these, would be to hold your stance and make an honest attempt to excel.

7. If it’s not a good end, it’s not the end

I am often asked what made my story different. What made me win? Did I do something different in how I charted or planned my career till now? I must confess that I never really did so. But this is what drives me – my firm belief that when you put in all your efforts in your present, the future automatically shapes up for you. This is true for every aspect of life. So, while you should certainly have a medium to long-term vision of where you want your career to go to, your efforts and focus should be entirely on the present.

You may make wrong choices; you may make the right choice but still not be the right person to do that role. But there is no end till you decide it is. Never be afraid to say that maybe it did not work, or may be it was not the right job for me. Never be afraid to change directions and start over. Most people who achieve great heights in their career are not necessarily ones who always stumbled upon the right choices, but ones who have made the most of their choices, right or wrong, and learnt a lesson from each of them.

As leaders, we must be the change that we have been waiting for. And so, I want to leave you with a few thoughts that I hope we can take forward as a team:

  1. This is much closer home than you think. You are partners, parents, children and friends to ambitious women. You have to take that into consideration. This can’t be a one-off-change-in-viewpoint for the workplace. Remember, everything that you say and do is picked up and even mirrored by your team members. Your influence can be very defining.
  2. Don’t assume that you are solving for gender based roles. That the family and child rearing are responsibilities for women. They are too, for the men who work with us. How will we address that?
  3. We have to grow the talent pool of women overall. Not just at Godrej. So, how sensitive you are to the working wife of your team members, matters. We also need to start asking larger questions – How do we invest better in younger women? How do we start rethinking where we are investing overall? You can’t just address this at a business school level; not when women are making choices and having their viewpoints shaped much earlier on. How do we really change the pipeline if what we need is to attract women to non conventional roles like Sales and Manufacturing?
  4. On some level, forget that there is a gender difference. You can empathise, yes, but if you keep thinking of women leaders as women first, you will forget to treat them as leaders in your peer group. So, be inclusive, but also hold people accountable for performance.
  5. This is not a numbers game. We may meet our targets, but we have to keep asking ourselves what comes next? Things are changing fast. Many of our newer policies will become hygiene factors soon, so we need to step up our game.

A big thank you to Sanjivani for sharing her perspectives.

I strongly believe that there is much more that we need to do, if we truly want to build a stronger pipeline of women leaders at Godrej. Like Sanjivani said, this cannot be a numbers game. As leaders, we must be able to both empathise with and empower our women team members. We need to more openly embrace and stand up for diversity and become more inclusive. We also need to step back a bit, question our own biases and be ready to unlearn.

I am sure that many of you are grappling with how to make this change happen. So, do share your thoughts and suggestions on what we can do differently.

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