TalentNomics India’s 5th Annual Leadership Conference, themed “Leading with Grit and Grace” was held on November 5th and 6th, 2020. This was our first virtual conference and we hosted this jointly with our partner Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). There were more than 20 speakers from around the World and the event was attended by 500 Indian and International participants.

We at TalentNomics India are overwhelmed at the outstanding response to our Conference

The conference has an interesting back story and what better time than now to share the wonderful Life and Leadership lessons we have gained in the course of the conference journey from its conception to its execution.  

Context 

At TalentNomics India, we pride ourselves in always delivering Quality. To ensure that, we like to plan every offering in advance, plan it well so that it is executed well. In that spirit, the genesis of the Conference 2020 began sometime in June 2019, in order to roll it out as announced in the 2nd week of February 2020.Looking back, the theme chosen then seems so staid and boring to the world we are now in!

The Conference life cycle was one of the toughest Leadership tests we were put through. Here’s the lowdown.

Our first Leadership test: The Covid-19 Tsunami hit the world and us! All our good and proactive planning were put to rest.

Question: To do or not to do?  

We went through many internal discussions and a lot of back & forth with our Conference partners, KAS. We traversed the entire spectrum: from postponement to cancelling, from In-person to Virtual. The uncertainty around the pandemic seemed to keep the goal post and the field a continuously moving target.

Our final Response & Decision: We bit the bullet. The Bold decision to make Conference 2020 happen was taken.

Our partners KAS extended their complete support to go virtual in early June 2020.

The Second Leadership test: Putting together a Virtual Conference was completely uncharted territory.

Question: Virtual Conference? What would it entail?  How should we go about it?

There was only one certainty within our team: To put together a world class global event.

The Challenges: With a very small team that had no expertise in managing any virtual event, we had taken the plunge into real deep waters. It seemed as if our collective learning and expertise of managing four previous successful conferences seemed to hold very little value.

It is an understatement that it has been a very steep upward learning curve.

What was on the plate?  

  • deciding on the soft areas of theme, concept note, format, dates, speakers, audience profile, to identifying appropriate technology platform and marketing expertise.
  • identifying and detailing out the specs on each requirement to an absolute minutest detail with no margin for error.
  • almost signing up with vendors, to the deal falling apart and starting all over again.
  • the voluminous paper work, getting contracts signed, enlisting partners and managing payments.

All of this within very tight deadlines. A tight rope walk it has been.

Our mood and emotions? Swung from being confident one day to being down in the dumps the other, from wondering if we had bitten off more than we could chew- as a team we have been through it all.

Many sleepless nights, outbursts, realignment, setback in team, downsizing and resizing, Corona hitting within our team. Some tough calls had to be taken. We continued to swim with all this and more.

All was not lost. All was not dismal either. Within the chaos and a madness there was a method and an unfoldment.  In true spirit the proverbial “when the going gets tough, the tough in us all” got going. And How!!

How we coped: The tough spot we were in and the virus made us humble and grateful at the same time.

In all humility, we reached out to our amazing Advisory Board, Advisory Council, our networks of friends, family and well-wishers. Support poured in from many unexpected quarters. From that moment onwards, there was no looking back as a team for us.

We set up a brainstorming team for planning. It was a collective pool of varied talent and skill sets that worked earnestly, with commitment. There was fun, camaraderie, learning, a lightness and ease that was a source of abundant positivity and energy.

Genuine good intent was visible for all those who aligned with us. From speakers, vendors, partners, volunteers, all other stakeholders.

The Third Leadership Lesson: Unleashing the potential within

Question: What did we discover about ourselves?

A vast reserve of strength and resilience within each one of us. A seeming setback became an opportunity to grow. We recalibrated, realigned, re-skilled, re-invented.

  • We broke a number of our own Self beliefs and limitations.
  • We truly went global- audience, speakers, partners, participation and most importantly in our mindsets.
  • We on- boarded new team members virtually and have been able to establish warm bonds, even though still virtual.
  • We were always willing to learn from and provide support to each other. At times it was frustrating not to be not sitting across the table with each other. Over time we built in efficiencies in the processes of coordination, feedback, quick turnaround times straddling time zones.
  • Each member in the team fully, wholly and completely owned the conference and the role assigned working under tremendous pressure with composure.
  • We worked tirelessly across time zones:  US, Europe, India, Japan, clocking an average of 20 hours work days, 5 days a week for 2.5 months!

It was sheer Grit and Grace at play- living, breathing and displaying our Conference title in every moment, every decision, every risk taken, holding and supporting each other.

A parting note to the Ode

Our lesson is a story of reboot. Starting afresh, of learning and building something ground up – reinventing our conference from scratch in a virtual setup and making a success of it. 

As a team we have added newer dimensions to the erstwhile VUCA definition.

It’s been a great boost to our levels of confidence. This has been a truly worthwhile journey of growth and learning for us all at TalentNomics India. Priceless indeed.

Dr. Geeta Kumar

Geeta Kumar is Senior Advisor, TalentNomics India. She is an Organization Development Consultant enabling and facilitating individuals and organizations to unravel and realize their full potentials. She is the Founder and Principal Consultant, Pragati. She works in the areas of Inclusivity, Diversity and Gender Dynamics, Culture & Change Management. She is committed to Preparing Women for Leadership. Geeta’s guiding philosophy in life is that learning is a continuum and believes that human beings are continuously learning in every environment and in every context either to adapt or to transcend the existing context.

This article is part of our series showcasing Leaders with Grit and Grace

 “To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there.”

What picture comes to mind if you were asked to imagine the person who is running for the title of the Most Effective Leader on the planet today? I bet the image is definitely not that of a young forty-year old female with a giggly and girl-next-door demeanour, who live streams discussions with her countrymen in sweatpants from her bedroom and has been seen bringing her toddler to meetings with global leaders! But that is exactly how we would describe Jacinda Ardern, who New Zealand just voted as Prime Minister for the second time and who has helped her country be free of the Coronavirus twice over!

Jacinda Ardern epitomises what the evidence from the COVID-19 crisis has shown about effective leadership styles – that a more democratic, collaborative and personalised leadership style is proving more effective for crisis control than the autocratic, prescriptive and positional styles.  Prime Minister Ardern’s success has been attributed to her empathetic, authentic and extremely relatable persona blended with high levels of competence, transparency and text-book communication skills. She has managed to reassure the public, garner their trust and persuade them to cooperate and adhere to tough measures – a mammoth task at which many other Governments have achieved little success. Ardern’s approach ensured an 84% public approval of her government’s COVID-19 crisis measures.

Essentially, Jacinda Ardern has shown that it is not just the “what” leaders do but also the “how” they do it that is important.  And there are several lessons from her leadership that would be useful for leaders – for those managing teams and organisations and communities and countries. I have listed three such best practices from Jacinda Ardern’s crisis leadership playbook –

  1. It is Vital to Have a Consistent Game Plan and also Communicate it Clearly

Ardern showed the huge difference that clear and unambiguous messaging by leaders can make during times of uncertainty and crisis. Even before announcing a full lockdown in March 2020, she initiated an ‘Alert System’ with 4 alert levels‘Prepare’, ‘Reduce’  ‘Restrict’ and ‘Lockdown’. Each step up in alert level is associated with incrementally tighter restrictions that have been clearly elucidated on the Government’s website dedicated to Covid-19 measures. Using this framework, Jacinda Ardern eased her country into a well-planned lockdown and then opened up the economy by downgrading the alert levels in the same manner. This transparent, simple and consistent framework for containment measures and quarantine protocols ensured that measures were not ad-hoc or knee-jerk, allowing people to make sense of what’s happening and be clear about what they have to do.

Ardern’s briefings through the crisis have also been to the point but extremely perceptive with a lot of attention to detail. For instance, at the press conference announcing New Zealand’s lockdown, she covered all possible aspects of the life-changing measures she was initiating. Details were as specific as “schools will be shut from tomorrow, except to the children of essential workers such as our doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and police –to give them time to plan”.

To be even more clear and transparent, she gave extensive time for media questions after her lockdown speech. And that was followed up with daily 30-minute press conferences, frequent Facebook Live sessions and even discussions with experts over a Podcast she herself hosted!  

2.    Exude empathy and be humane

“Empathy” already became synonymous with Jacinda Ardern after the gruesome Christchurch mosque shooting incident in 2019. And she effectively used this trait to garner support of people in the current crisis as well, by making herself relatable and acknowledging people’s pain points and struggles.

While announcing the lockdown, she admitted that “the measures I have announced today will cause unprecedented economic and social disruption… but they are necessary”. She also urged people to “Be kind to each other”.The same night, she followed up with a casual Facebook Live session from her bedroom after putting her toddler to sleep- “I thought I would jump online quickly and check in with everyone”, Ardern said. She addressed all kinds of practical doubts posted by people, right from “where can I safely go to buy food” to “can I walk my dog” to “how do I help my child who is missing out on school”. 

In various other briefings, she reached out to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals, to children waiting for the Easter Bunny and to tenants whose landlords had increased rents. Her Government also announced inclusive measures like a generous wage subsidy for businesses, a learning-from-home package to facilitate teachers and parents, and additional funding to domestic and sexual violence services in light of increased domestic violence cases during lockdown.

 And what really helped her connect with people is that she delivered all her messages with a smile and in a motherly tone! In fact she even popped in relatable mommy jokes now and then – like the time she sat down after giving viewers a tour of her room during a Facebook Live and said “This is a fabulous chair. And this is a much better corner, because where I was sitting before was right next to the nappy bucket, which I’m going to admit was not the freshest place to be sitting

3.   It helps to Persuade people instead of forcing compliance

Ardern successfully led the public to adhere to restrictions and take precautions by persuading rather than instructing people. The message she conveyed was that she is soliciting her people’s help and support to overcome the crisis and did not just prescribe regulations that she needed them to comply. She directed people to spend the lockdown “only in their bubble” yet mobilised community support by asking her “team of 5-million” to “stay home to save lives” and branding the mission as “Unite against Covid-19”.  

Shravani Prakash
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank

This article is part of our series showcasing Leaders with Grit and Grace

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who the world remembers as a U.S. Supreme Court justice and the second woman ever to be appointed to the position, was so much more. A judge, an academician, an author, an influencer, a mother – are just some of the many hats she wore. At just over 5 feet tall, Ms. Ginsburg was considered a giant in the legal world.

RBG earned her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and started law school at Harvard, where she was one of the few women in her class. She transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated joint first in her class. She went on to become a staunch courtroom advocate for the fair treatment of women and worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Women’s Rights Project.

She has often described situations when she is asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and her answer is ‘When there are nine.Such statements have shocked many of her co-workers and stakeholders, but she has stood her ground by replying, ‘there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Ginsberg served on the Supreme Court for more than 27 years, upholding women’s rights and social justice as the leader of the high court’s liberals amid an increasingly conservative majority, setting off a nomination fight for her replacement. She has been pivotal in landmark decisions on pressing issues such as gender discrimination, Abortion rights, Search and seizure, Native Americans etc. In her own words “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made”

RBG was also considered a fashion icon by many, with her signature style of lace collars (jabots), which deserve a special mention. “The standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show and the tie, so Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman,” she had said in a 2009 interview.

Apart from her powerhouse career in the judicial system, she was also an author and a TV personality. She released My Own Words, a memoir filled with her writings that date as far back as her junior high school years, in 2016. The book became a New York Times Best Seller. In January 2018 Ginsburg appeared at the Sundance Film Festival to accompany the premiere of the documentary RBG. She also gave her seal of approval for Kate McKinnon’s sassy portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live, saying, “I would like to say ‘Ginsburned’ sometimes to my colleagues.”. She has also been an active supporter of the #MeToo movement, wherein she was vocal about an earlier experience when she had to put up with the advances of her Cornell University professor.

Ginsburg received attention in American popular culture for her passionate dissents in numerous cases, widely seen as reflecting paradigmatically liberal views of the law. She was playfully and notably dubbed “The Notorious R.B.G.” by a law student, a reference to the late popular rapper ‘The Notorious B.I.G’., which she later embraced.

Her Jewish community remembers her as, “someone who never seemed as a distant figure, but a local superhero, a mentor, a source of strength”. Within hours of the news of her death, hundreds of people had gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington DC to pay their respects. It was recently announced that the Brooklyn Municipal Building will be named after her.

As young women leaders, we hope to be able to continue her legacy so that she continues to inspire the generations to come!

Sukhmani Grewal
Sukhmani, an Executive Director at MW Mines. Former Management Consultant with EY & PwC.  She volunteers with TalentNomics India as she is passionate about girls’ education and women’s rights.

Smita Mohanty Co-Leads the Human Resource Development Unit at Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN). PRADAN is a Civil Society Organisation that focuses on grassroots development with disadvantaged communities, specifically women.  PRADAN has initiated exemplary diversity and inclusion policies, and they also recently conducted TalentNomics India’s Perception Survey of Employees to Understand How Women Friendly is their Workplace.

Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Smita.

Please share with us some highlights of your professional and personal journey  

I completed my management education in 1989 and joined as Assistant Manager (HRD) in ‘Oil Orissa’, which is the Odisha chapter of Oilseeds Growers’ Federation for Operation Golden flow (‘DHARA’ Oil, an initiative of NDDB) based at Bhubaneswar.  I continued at Oil Orissa until I got married in 1992. As my spouse was working in Delhi, I took a career break as I had to relocate. The break got extended since I became pregnant and decided to give time to my child until he went to school.

Once my elder son started going to play school, I decided to begin working but from home. So I started with telemarketing- marketing products like inverters, mangoes, etc. After sometime I got an opportunity to do fundraising through tele-calling for a non-profit. After a couple of years, in 1997, I felt I could seriously look for a full-time job and that is when I came across PRADAN. I joined PRADAN in September 1997 and have been continuing there in various capacities, mostly in the Human Resource Development Unit. In between, for about 3 years, I was part of the Resource Mobilisation, Communication and Partnerships Unit when it was getting established.

Currently, I co-lead the Human Resource Development Unit at PRADAN which looks after Recruitment and Selection into PRADAN, it’s one-year Development Apprenticeship programme (a programme to bring newcomers to the organisation), Systems and Processes of Individual and Team Review, Person Power Planning, Staff Development, Organisation Renewal and Efforts in ‘making PRADAN a better place for Women to work’. I am a member of the steering group in this effort also. I am a member of PRADAN’s Management Unit since 2015 and have completed my three-year term as a staff member of the Governing Board of PRADAN in March 2019.

What is the most gratifying part about working in the development sector? Why is the social sector an exciting career option?

It is about ‘Self Expression’ and satisfying one’s own need for extending to others. Social sector is an exciting career option as along with a career it gives an opportunity to express our self and be able to work on one’s inner calling. Even today development work, especially rural development, is the most challenging work that requires well-educated people to give a part of their life to solve India’s most complex issue of poverty. It’s almost like nation building.

Just like in the Army you need young women and men to give a part of their life, here also the educated Indians must give back to society by giving a part of their life to making social transformations. It is about swimming against the social current, but those who find meaning in it are self driven and dedicated to the cause.

Tell us a little about PRADAN and what your experience has been working at PRADAN?

Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a not-for-profit organisation started with the founding philosophy that people with heart and head must come and work directly with poor and marginalised communities to change the situation of abject poverty and inequality. PRADAN works in 7 states of Central and Eastern India Plateau for building self-sustaining, rural communities through social, economic and political empowerment of the most marginalized communities, especially women. PRADAN visualizes a just and equitable society to sustain the transformation of the human condition. Currently PRADAN works with about a million families through SHGs and village organisations, in the most marginalised 36 districts of the 7 states it works in.

Working in PRADAN is like family. I may not have discussed many things with my immediate family members but I feel no hesitation in sharing my inner most feeling with my colleagues. It is now almost 23 years and many of us have almost grown together. Our organisation gives an equal space for everyone to express and believes in equality, collegiality and expert influence. You are hardly ever restricted if you have a convincing idea. I have always felt supported.  It is a reflective organisation and tries to change things that it finds it is lacking or lagging in. It is also a value-based organisation and has many organizational processes to keep those values intact. The one area of concern for me now is that, as the organisation grows and expands geographically, the personal connect has come under strain and that was something which was our big strength earlier.

Please share some insights into the employee engagement/retention policies and initiatives PRADAN has introduced – especially those related to facilitating women employees and building a diverse team

PRADAN has been very strict in its selection policy and we believe that ‘if there are right people in the right place then half of the job is done’. Our early training puts in place all the values that the organisation emulates. And as I had already mentioned, PRADAN is like family, many who join PRADAN have already gone against the will of their parents and near and dear ones, so the collegiality and concern for others is what helps in retention of staff. But most of all the initial engagement to help candidates make an informed choice and decide whether this is what one wants to do in life, is which acts as a pull to continue in PRADAN. This helps one become clear why one is here – whether for ‘the cause’, for the working culture or for the people in the community or in the organisation. 

Since the time we decided that PRADAN’s vision is to ‘Create a Just and Equitable Society’, we have been conscious that we should practice what we preach. Since then, our resolve has been to make PRADAN a more Gender Just organisation, it has been at the level of value and philosophy. We are in the process of making a Gender Policy which will facilitate in bringing more women into PRADAN and to its leadership positions. Also, through our various efforts in the formal as well as informal spaces, we expect to bring about a change in social norms and deep structure of PRADAN’s workspaces to make it more friendly for women to work. In the formal space we have a gender audit and curriculum for the newcomers. We have completed two cycles of gender audit across all units of PRADAN. There are two modules on Gender – one at the initial stage and another towards the end of 1-year program for newcomers.  In the non-formal space, a women’s caucus has been active for some time now.

The Women’s Caucus is an exclusive space for women to come together and connect with each other, both personally and professionally, to build more clarity, solidarity and confidence. It also is a space to acknowledge issues of women in different age groups and to support and strengthen their negotiation power within the environment. And also to proactively engage to influence organisational culture, climate, systems and processes; e.g. highlighting the issues and ensuring that organization takes corrective actions as required. It plays a dual role of internally preparing women employees for leadership taking on positions and also influencing PRADAN in its journey to become a gender just organisation.

Why did PRADAN choose to undertake TalentNomics India’s employee perception survey to evaluate how enabling your workplace is for women? Did it help you gain you new insights and understand the additional actions the organisation needs to take?

It was an opportune moment when in February 2020 PRADAN had just finished its second Gender Audit Cycle and in March we came to know of the perception survey. We felt that since our auditors had been Internal, an additional anonymous survey by an external organisation may help identify any leftover barriers as employees may open up more and will provide us even clearer picture. Also, when I went through the questionnaire, I found that many of the survey questions are in greater detail for which we might not have checked during our Gender Audit. So apart from giving an opportunity to triangulate with the results of our audit, it will also give additional information on areas to work.

I am really thankful to TalentNomics India for putting in their best effort to give us a detailed report with different dimensions and bringing out the real voice of people through capturing the comments in each section, which is rich documentation.

Shravani Prakash
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.

 “Visionary men have long been public champions and behind the scenes dealmakers for the cause of women’s inclusion. Today we need them more than ever.” – Ambassador Melanne Verveer

The concept of “Men as Allies” has become a new “mantra” in gender diversity initiatives in corporate and societal contexts. The necessity of garnering the support of men is now rightly seen as a vital component of solving the diversity challenges of organisations and in facilitating the growth of women to leadership positions.

Who is a male ally? A male ally is basically “a man who will advocate for women even when there are no women in the room” (from the documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap). Essentially, male allies are men who not only associate with, cooperate with, and support women but also “listen, co-create opportunity, and build a personal brand for accountability and trust”. They are secure men who believe in gender equality. They recognize that the ecosystem does not provide women a level playing ground. They are not afraid of supporting women’s causes or being seen as feminists.

At Talentnomics India, we have had the good fortune of associating with several male leaders who have been “allies” and supporters of our mission. They have mentored emerging women leaders on our Leadership programs, joined panel discussions to impart leadership and life skills from their experience and also supported us by publicly promoting our initiatives through their extensive networks.

We, therefore, decided to ask four of our Male Allies their experience of grooming and supporting women to become leaders. We asked them to share their motivation to support women, the challenges they see emerging women leaders facing, and ways by which more men could be encouraged to support and become allies to women in their career growth and life journey.

Here are short extracts from our conversations with them.

Ram Mudholkar
Co-Founder & Partner at Global BioAg Linkages

My firm belief is that women’s leadership is as important and women are as capable as men. Sadly, this belief is not seen widely across different sectors and corporations. Women themselves still appear to be unsure and many times appear needlessly defensive about their unique situations and, therefore, the need to demand the appropriate supporting environment.

Sometime, even when they are ready, women try to become men-like in their leadership profiles and that’s totally wrong because we lose the very benefit of diversity in thoughts and approaches women can bring to the table.

The mindset of men leaders in most companies is still very pathetic in accepting and promoting women’s leadership.  The faster they understand the value of equal and energetic participation of women leaders, the better it would be.

Dilip Cherian
Founder, Perfect Relations

In three of the five companies I own, the CEOs are women. I feel blessed and lucky that women with talent, competence and commitment have risen to positions where they are now CEOs. This has given me a bird’s eye view of the kind of an atmosphere needed. I don’t believe in a nurturing atmosphere but in an atmosphere that is aggressively equal.

I feel for women to rise, they need to be treated as equal. As long as you give them an aggressively equal environment, they will rise to their level of competence, which, as it happens, helped to reach CXO seats

Only some men have the skill, content and expertise of being able to groom or nurture talent. So, you’ve got to spot them and you have to extract the best out of them. And anyone who has something substantial to contribute will require more than just gentle persuasion

Suparno Banerjee
Global Public Sector Lead, Nokia

 

I do not see any difference between men and women as far as their capabilities are concerned. It is just that they do not get the same number of opportunities as men do. The challenge that we face is to provide them with opportunities right through their careers so that they develop all aspects and attributes needed of leaders – honing their capabilities through challenging and stretch assignments, supporting them in difficult situations so that they become less risk averse, helping them with their networks, providing platforms for visibility, etc. 

In addition, men need to do two very important things – mentor and sponsor more women; and encourage women to be authentic leaders.

Rajat Kathuria
Director and Chief Executive, ICRIER

 

I firmly believe that there are too few initiatives that take up the cause of building and advancing women’s role in leadership.  The reason I feel we need to push such initiatives is because we cannot look the other way anymore in the face of mounting evidence that gender equity improves economies and firms alike.          

From where I sit, I can conclusively say that women have been the better performers regardless of the metric one uses to measure. In general, they respond better in crisis, are more empathetic and effective team players. I cannot remember a single occasion when they have not delivered to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the organisation.

I feel women need to be given adequate exposure and support, and the confidence that they will be judged by their work and not their gender! Ceteris paribus, give more opportunities to women and support them – the results will speak for themselves!



Shravani Prakash
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.

Cathy Cardona has over 30 years of corporate human resources management and consulting experience, working in multi-cultural environments with global clients from over 188 countries at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank.  She has advised senior leaders of these organizations on a broad range of issues, including the design and implementation of organizational change management initiatives, leadership development succession planning, career guidance frameworks, executive coaching and talent management. Her strengths include engaging senior clients (individuals and executive management teams) and facilitating a partnership approach to resolve business challenges and implement sustainable initiatives.  She is known for guiding both senior and emerging leaders to discover new dimensions of their leadership capabilities.   She has served as Advisor for Queen’s University Smith Business School and for the Queen’s/Cornell Executive MBA Program. She was Founding Chair of the Talent Management Executive Council of the Conference Board.

Here are excerpts of our conversation with Cathy.

What comes to mind when you reflect on your life and leadership journey?  

My journey has been about hard work and about being open to possibilities and opportunities that came about. I also really learned a lot from both good and bad bosses! That was instrumental in my own development. I’ve also been very blessed with a lot of support from my husband, colleagues and subordinates. 

“For most of my career, I focussed on developing leaders and unleashing their potential. I also took a program in Health and Wellness Coaching, which has expanded my portfolio into the coaching of the whole person rather than just focussing on careers”

What drove you to start mentoring?

It was an organic process. People came to me for advice and I went to other people for advice. Personally, I had never had a formal mentor. But there were several leaders who I admired and whom I would observe at Board Meetings or watch them handle situations. So, a lot of them were my mentors and they didn’t even know it! Also, in my HR career, I had been involved in designing and setting up programs for mentoring, which were quite a part of our efforts to get more women in management positions. 

What skillset/approach does a mentor need to display, especially when mentoring women?  What are the most effective strategies of mentoring?

I really believe that mentoring is a way of life. it is not something that you just turn on and turn off. It is really an attitude and a spirit of how you engage with other people

Mentoring also involves skills. We have to develop strategies and focus. 3 things that are most important: 

1) listening skills – one has to really listen very carefully to what your mentee is saying, look for the “unsaid” and figure out what’s going on.

2) asking the right questions – you have to learn to ask the right questions to get to the bottom of the issues. It is really about helping mentees develop the skills to find their own answers by asking them open questions. As a mentor you can give advice but you can have more impact by helping them discover their own answers, taking into account their context and constraints. 

3) show compassion- this is really a character trait but you need this reinforcement to help mentees believe in themselves and to give them confidence to be their best.  

Have you yourself benefitted personally and professionally from being a mentor?

Absolutely!  I’ve always had a very concrete payback. I have had enormous personal satisfaction by seeing people grow and unleash their potential – it’s like a euphoric medicine. I’ve also learnt a lot about different industries and different cultures and different perspectives than I would have otherwise have known. 

For example, there was an employee who I had also mentored, because I believe a leadership role is all about mentoring. After I moved organisations, there was a vacancy in my unit for which she applied. She excelled and ended up having three offers to come to our organisation. And because I had mentored her, she accepted my offer. So, I was able to attract talent because I had invested time in helping her grow professionally. My team and I benefitted in a very practical way.

Have you observed any differences in the process of mentoring men and mentoring women?

Yes. I have mentored and coached both men and women, internationally and even across cultures. And there were differences in the way men and women approached it.

Men were much more natural networkers; they were much more focussed in terms of what they wanted from mentoring.  They would ask things like “tell me how to become Vice President in 10 years“. But the women – when I asked them “what would you like to do with your life or what interests do you have?” – they tended to  say things like “Oh I just want to be more helpful or I want to be more useful to the organisation”. This is an example of how men and women had very different approaches. 

From your experience of mentoring women from India and from the West, do you find any differences in the challenges faced by the two sets of women?

If I compare women in India and US or Canada, based on anecdotes from my experience, women in India have mentioned that they have a lot more childcare and household resources and support available. Women in US/Canada appeared to have a greater challenge on how to manage kids and household because childcare is so expensive (at executive levels maybe it’s easier for women because they have the salaries that can pay for the childcare). Indian women have told me that they don’t want to explore opportunities outside India because it may be more difficult to afford the childcare and household support. 

Sometimes for the Indian women that I have mentored, the challenge tends to be about marketing their brand. For women in Canada and US, this tends to come easier – perhaps this is because of cultural differences and values.

What would be your top advice for potential women leaders to unleash their full potential?

I would give 3 pieces of advice based on my entire career of observing women and observing how the organisations were able to bring change:

Always be open to the possibilities, even during tough times. Rather than becoming a victim – by saying things like “ boss is not helping me, or I’m not getting a promotion”, change your attitude to asking “what can I really learn from the situation I am in right now”.

Take risks. Learning from mistakes can be as powerful as success. I’ve seen senior women fail miserably at certain things but they were able to bounce back and not become a victim.

Don’t try to change things that are beyond your control. If you find yourself in a bad place, like in a bad job or with a bad boss, do not beat your head against the wall to change the place and say “oh! this is all wrong”. Don’t waste energy on that. Explore other options and find what is right for you to follow your passion. I have seen in many instances where women will be very unhappy and they will keep going around and around in circles trying to change the impossible. But they may never succeed in that environment because that environment is not ready for them. And I’ve seen people move on to another organisation and flourish. It takes wisdom to recognize when problems are beyond our control, or whether we can mobilize enough support to make happen the changes that are needed.  So, my advice would be to analyse the situation and if you conclude that your energy will not be well spent trying to change it, then explore other options for yourself.

What do you think are the most impactful measures that can address biases faced by women in the workplace?

Without any doubt, I can say that the most critical factor is for the very top leadership to model the behaviours and to reward the next level down (their managers) for recognising and developing an inclusive and diverse workforce (even beyond gender). 

At the World Bank, when I was HR Head for Latin America, the Vice President was really adamant about having a diverse workforce – and it became the first Vice-Presidency where we had 50% each of men and women in senior positions. The VP had made it very clear that “I want the best people to do the job and I want 50% of them to be women”. And it turned things around because she was so explicit about it and which is why we all made it our goal.

Secondly, I feel women need to demonstrate the confidence and risk-tolerance and the skills to be able to manage biases. They need role models, mentoring and sponsorship to really build skills of managing biases that are so destructive for organizations.  Women – and men – need to become aware of when biases happen and address them and make it clear that certain behaviours are not acceptable. These are skills we all need to learn.  

And the third thing I would stress upon is “Data”. We must set benchmarks and goals to foster an inclusive workforce, for measuring progress on eliminating bias and increasing the representation of women in senior management. Until we started focusing on the data and setting goals, we did not have a compelling business case for diversity and inclusion.  If 50% of workforce are women and yet only 20% are in senior positions – that data can be a wakeup call for change.

Shravani Prakash
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.

Radha Mukherji is the Founder and CEO of Shero Consulting. She is a CFI certified CEO Coach and offers coaching and mentoring services to senior professionals and entrepreneurs to help transform effective managers to inspirational leaders. Radha has a special interest in coaching and mentoring women professionals to help them in turn, become role models for other women. 

Radha taps into lessons learnt over her own rich corporate experience of 40 years, most of it in advertising and communications. She is well respected by clients and colleagues as a strategic thinker and an effective facilitator who is deeply committed to fostering individual growth through learning and skill enhancement initiatives. 

Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Radha Mukherji:

Could you briefly share your professional and leadership journey?

After my MBA from IIM Calcutta, I initially started my career in Marketing and Product Management.

It took me 8 years to discover that I wanted a career in advertising and I was willing to start over to get into it.

My advertising career began as an Account Supervisor at Ogilvy Chennai and ended as CEO of DDB Oman. I returned to India in 2016 after 24 years in Oman.

What drove you to start mentoring and coaching? Was it a conscious decision or an opportunity or just happened by chance?

The part of my job that I used to find most rewarding was managing people. I loved teaching, training, motivating, counselling, mentoring to groom people for bigger responsibilities. And I believe I did it rather well. So, when it was time to return home to India (from Oman), I was clear that I didn’t want to get back to chasing profits at an ad agency anymore. Instead I wanted to focus on making a career of what came naturally to me and made me feel good about myself. My experience in communication, I felt, would be an asset in this new profession. So I did the Executive Coaching course with Coaching Foundation of India ( CFI) in 2017 and today I am a certified and practicing leadership coach. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach people across a spectrum of industries and functions and have my hands full today…so it was a good career choice for my 2nd professional innings.

In your experience, what are the benefits of having a mentor? In what ways do people gain from having a mentor?  

I wish I had had the benefit of a Mentor particularly in my early days as a Manager!

It is so important to see ourselves in the eyes of colleagues in order to give our best and get the best from our working relationships.

 External mentors have no agenda except to help, which they do by inviting introspection through asking searching questions, challenging long held beliefs, helping in defining goals and what behaviours he/she may need to modify/adopt to get there. While it is good to learn from one’s mistakes, there is a lot to be gained from tapping into the learning, ideas and experiences of a mentor, who acts as a sounding board as well.

Is there a difference between mentoring men and mentoring women?  

I have a special commitment and interest in mentoring women because of the empathy I feel and the lessons I can share from my own experiences. That’s why I named my company Shero Consulting for the she-heroes out there. The difference in mentoring approach is to do with mindsets, both of men and women. Qualities that men are commended for often get a different tag when applied to women. For example, He is firm vs She is adamant, Authoritative vs Bossy, Go-getter vs Aggressive…and many more. These stereotypes hopefully will vanish but meanwhile one has to work around them. Women, I find are torn between professional and personal priorities, tend to be more self-critical and reticent about asking for recognition at the workplace or a helping hand at home. They try to do it all and disappoint/flog themselves over minor setbacks.

I have been there and done that myself, sometimes quite unnecessarily as I look back. Today I am proud that my daughters are much more at ease and in control of their professional lives than I was at that stage of my life and I am learning from them too. I try to share the wisdom gathered both from successes and my mistakes with the women I mentor.

Have you yourself benefitted personally and professionally from being a mentor?

Tremendously! Each mentoring experience brings me new learnings. I learn of new challenges as we together to explore how to resolve them. Sometimes when listening, I don’t know from where in my head, long forgotten experiences get triggered. Just thinking, engaging with people is so stimulating to the mind.

And there is so much joy in watching slow transformation unfold before your eyes. There is no way to monetize the feeling when I get messages from people I have had the privilege to mentor on their victories or progress and the warmth I feel within to have done my little bit towards that.

What skillset/approach does a mentor need to display, especially when mentoring women?  What are the most effective strategies of mentoring?

The strategy is the same for men and women. Listening deeply – often to the unsaid; having unconditional positive regard, respect and empathy; and at the same time challenging and provoking thought as needed. It is very important for a mentor to be genuinely appreciative in approach, look for strengths to leverage rather than faults to fix.

What can help more men and women actively take on mentoring?

Mentoring may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It could in fact even be damaging to have a reluctant mentor. But if a person feels happy to help and guide people, and has the ability to do so with care and sensitivity, there are courses aplenty for coaching and mentoring. The important thing to remember is that it is an on-going, committed relationship albeit for a short period of time during which sustainable positive behavioural changes should happen to call the intervention successful.

How do you think leaders can take out time and find the motivation for spending time with a mentee and addressing her challenges? 

If something is really important to us, we all know how to fit it into our day somehow, don’t we? It is when it is not that important that we see the constraint of a full calendar. Mentoring someone has to be seen as a priority and responsibility towards a person to be effective.

 I can tell you from my personal experience that mentorship is very emotionally enriching because you learn to put someone’s interests above your own and feel successful only when he/she succeeds.

Shravani Prakash
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.

A key part of TalentNomics India’s CruciBOLD program is giving forward, what we call CruciBOLD Ripple. The program is conducted in partnership with the Professional Language School run by VFF-RDT in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh. In this module, high potential women leaders get to mentor a young professional from the RDT school.

We spoke to Ripple participant Nikita Singla, the first volunteer of TalentNomics India since its inception and now Associate Director at BRIEF (Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals), about her experiences of mentoring as part of the program.

How was your experience of visiting the RDT Professional Language School and meeting the girls there?

It was February 2018 when I first visited the RDT campus in Anantapur and was completely blown away!

I saw young girls with massive energy and passion – some narrating their day in German, some telling me about themselves in Spanish, some expressing their dreams and desires in French, and others dedicatedly working on their English and Microsoft Word. These were girls from underprivileged backgrounds, who had completed their graduation, most of them engineers, in Telugu or Kannada mediums.

Je voudrais travailler à Paris” (I would like to work in Paris) – is the one thing that the sixteen girls in the French class said one after the other. French is the only foreign language I speak, so I got into a conversation with them. I was amazed to see how fluent all these girls were.

Knowing that the whole program at RDT was designed in a way to impart soft skills and make the students more employable, I had gone to Anantapur on behalf of TalentNomics India to launch our ’12 for Life’ mentorship program’ – where we believed that while VFF Global Programs have empowered 3.6 million people in 3,589 villages in India, it was our chance next. With women professionals already in our network as part of TalentNomics’ flagship program CruciBOLD, we thought we could also get them on board as mentors to help us expand the pipeline of women talent in the corporate sector, while enhancing their own potential to be leaders of tomorrow. 

I was amazed to meet all the young, bright girls with so much energy and passion. All of them had big dreams of living and working in Paris and Berlin and Barcelona! It was such a moving experience to see how passionate these girls were to make something out of their lives, that too without having any role models to follow.

It was clear that these girls definitely had potential and all they needed was a helping hand towards further honing their soft skills, learning the means of accessing opportunities, networking and acquiring job search skills.

I was about to leave the school that a bright girl from Spanish language class came running, asking if she could get a picture together and for my Whatsapp number. She spoke with such confidence and passion; I knew I had found my mentee. And the journey began!

Tell us a little about your mentee

My mentee Kavitha Chakali, a native Telugu speaker is now a smart young woman certified in Spanish. She did her MBA from Gates Institute of Technology Gooty and B.Com from Little Flower Degree College Anantapur.

Kavitha comes from a family struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. Her father irons clothes to keep the family intact.

First time I met her, not only did she come running behind me to get my contact details, but something about her already told me that she had it in her.

 Later, once we started discussing opportunities, and I asked her where she would like to work after completing her course, she told me “I want to get into Accenture!”

I was taken by surprise! I was expecting that she would first discuss with me what kind of opportunities she could find, whether as a translator or in a BPO or a call centre.

Confidence is what defines her, I would say.

What did your mentoring process involve and how did you build up the relationship? 

The professional mentoring program between TalentNomics India and RDT was commitment of one hour of the mentor’s time every month over the course of 1 year, to help a young, educated, under-privileged girl enter the corporate world – still a dream for so many under-privileged children across India.

We started with that, and later our calls were much more frequent and at odd hours (I was based in the US that entire year but our commitment to each other beat the time difference). It was about identifying the next right opportunity, writing a successful CV, preparing for interviews, honing oral communication skills, managing gendered expectations, bridging the confidence gap and dealing with setbacks and failures, easing the transition from rural to urban India, etc. etc.

Very often, I gave her HR topics that we would discuss over a call, e.g. Tell me something about yourself, or Why do you want to get into our company, or What made you go to RDT? etc. I also made her record her answers in the form of short videos and send me those recordings. The video topics ranged from interview specific questions, to broader topics like the role of education for girls in India or gender issues in India or the role of public infrastructure in India. I would then give comments on her expression, body language, hand movement etc – on how to make changes to show more confidence when talking to people or giving interviews.

I also told her about my mantra in life, which is that “you don’t have to be a perfectionist- it’s about giving your best”. Even though she wasn’t fluent in English, she could just acknowledge that it is a new skillset that will take time to master, and what is important is to keep going and stay at it and keep giving your best.

In what ways did your mentee benefit from her relationship with you?

Firstly, she made it to Accenture 😊

But I give all the credit to her hard work and dedication.

When she applied for a position at Accenture, she didn’t hear back from them in the initial round. So, I decided to write a cold-call email to the HR myself, telling them that I had mentored her for last 6-months and could vouch for her potential – making a convincing case that she be given an interview chance at the least. After a few hours, Kavitha got an interview call from the HR, she went for the interview and nailed it. She has been at Accenture for more than a year now.

In our feedback conversations, she did mention how recording videos helped her get over her own resistance and hesitation. It helped her open up to the point where she felt it didn’t matter anymore whether it’s the camera or people in front of her – she could just say what she wanted!

Also, we had met in person before we launched an official mentoring relationship. So we had a very strong emotional connect and that helped keep the relationship and commitment intact. 

Did you benefit in any way from being a mentor?

I am, in fact, very grateful for the 6-months of formal relationship I got to have with my mentee! And we still keep in touch.

I realised that mentoring is a two-way relationship. Though the traditional wisdom went from me to her in terms of CV writing or interview preparation, there were so many lessons I learnt from her – how to not give up, to see failures in the face and say I will give it another try, not be too realistic in your dreams in terms of where you are in your life’s journey – if you have the will and the grit, you can make it happen!

The other fact I understood is that one is never too young to be a mentor. I have a few mentors who have been an incredible support system for me, but I never thought I was ready to take a mentee myself. However, when TalentNomics encouraged me and gave me an opportunity, it became clear to me that one is never too young to mentor and give forward what one knows. Sometimes we women hesitate to mentor even if we have 30 years of experience thinking we may not ready. It is just about starting up and deciding to contribute to help others grow.

As we say at TalentNomics – Building a leader also helps in becoming a leader!


Shravani Prakash

Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.