Back in 1976, women business school graduates in India were a rare breed. There were no roadmaps or signposts to show you the way. You worked with a lot of self belief and learnt as you went along. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Soon, you realized it was less about being a woman and more about being perceived as a terrific contributor and team player.
Establishing this in a man’s world had its challenges ...beating the odds was what it was all about without playing poker!
Looking back at thirty-three years in the corporate world - I wonder what my scorecard looks like. I realized that three things worked for me:
1.Never balk at any assignment. I recall a time when I was offered a key operational role that had never been offered to a woman before; it involved leading a team of 1500 associates, but taking on the assignment meant, however, that I had to move cities and learn new skills.
I accepted it – this was an operation that was barely breaking even and I had to negotiate with the hard bargaining union every year - a test in patience and skill! Women can offer a greater level of empathy, which has its upsides, and I used that well. That first assignment, till today, remains the most rewarding– it offered the greatest challenge but also the most satisfaction – an unbeatable combination!
In terms of re-skilling, it reminds me of a time when I dared to learn to swim at the age of 40 (having been mortally scared of water all my life!). I learned, in the process, that it's never too late to ‘skill up’ – an invaluable lesson that served me well though the last ten years of my career when the workplace changed and became truly global.
In the last year of my career, I accepted a new assignment focused on North America. For me, heading Sales Operations across major international markets from purely India -centric operations was a big mind shift. It took me completely out of my comfort zone but I enjoyed it thoroughly… with strong team support.
2. Self awareness and self belief are your biggest assets, both in your career and in the journey of life. This is a far more deliberate process than an instinctive one and you have to work on it - much like training for a marathon or a competitive sport – it requires understanding your whole self and training to be better with a “yes I can” attitude; that’s what helps to beat the odds. I applied this principle and it worked at multiple levels- in terms of being an effective communicator or working with a consistent sense of values.
But moving from India to New York required a different communication skill set, to work across markets from Latin America to Asia. I received coaching, which helped me listen better, give more measured responses and understand that often, issues are not all black and white but shades of grey. This gave me a whole new awareness and confidence.
3. Be a team player. The term is overused but it cannot be emphasized enough, because people quite often have problems on this front. Flying solo, however high, is not enough in the workplace because organizations need team players. Understand what it takes to be one and get better at it; to go from being a good support player to a leader is a feat worth achieving. You become far more innovative and adaptive while getting a better perspective of the business. Your role as a consistent, valuable contributor to the team will guarantee a seat at the table every time and that’s a big win!
I’ve been part of over 18 different task forces in different roles in the last dozen years; it has reinforced my belief of how the gender divide pales when it comes to cracking key business issues in a team environment.
So, ask for challenging assignments, accept the daring ones, retool every few years, become a subject matter expert in some areas and above all, excel in your varied roles. Easier said than done, but that’s the bottom line, especially when you’re trying to narrow the gender gap in the workplace.
Gender equality has come a long way since the mid 70s, there’s a long road ahead. These three tips may not have solved major gender issues at the workplace but they did give me strong ammunition to stand toe to toe with my colleagues .......and then ask for more!