I dislike the term ‘women leaders’. I think there are only two categories of leaders or founders—good leaders and bad leaders, and that has absolutely nothing to do with gender. The way both genders are wired and conditioned does create certain strengths and weaknesses, but they are not things that define leaders.
When organizations consider candidates for leadership positions, they generally consider three things—the functional expertise of the managers, their team management skills and their leadership capability. A numberof research studies show that women generally score high on functional skills. They are often better thanmen when it comes to things like attention to detail. In fact, at times, attention to detail, which has all along been a strength, gradually starts coming in the way. This is because, as leaders, you need to delegate and, therefore, learn to let go. Leadership is not only about your own performance but your ability to get the best out of your team. Good leaders, you will find, resist micromanaging their team, preferring instead to trust thecapabilities of their subordinates. A cliché that comes to mind, an apt one nevertheless, is: ‘What brought youthus far is not what is going to take you forward.’ Letting go, therefore, is an essential skill and one that is not as easy as it sounds.
Sometimes, leadership roles come up unexpectedly or under adverse circumstances and the requirementis to find a capable leader to take charge of the team, even if she/he comes from a somewhat differentfunctional area. It could be a wonderful career opportunity for a leader to broaden her experience. However, italso involves a high degree of learning in a short period of time to get to some level of subject matter expertise inthe new role. It is then quite likely that you don’t have the answers to all the questions that might come your way.Interestingly, it has been observed that in such a situation, men find it easier to say, ‘I will come back to you onthis,’ whereas women feel inadequate if they can’t provide the answer to every question, there and then. I won’t be surprised if this in some way is related to the imposter syndrome or the fact that women tend to constantly underrate themselves. We must remember that leaders too, like other people, learn every day, and in a complexand uncertain environment, such situations are more likely to occur. So, one has to learn to be comfortable withit.
Anjali Mohanty was a veteran in retail banking when she was unexpectedly offered a role in corporatebanking. The
CEO said that the energy that she brought to her current role was what he thought made her suitable for the new role being offered to her. ‘You need to know why you are being offered the role. You cannot be suspicious of the organization’s intent. I was both surprised and thrilled by the offer and went into it with an open mind,’ she says. It was a lot of hard work and learning but turned out to be the opportunity ofa lifetime for her.
Madhabi Puri Buch had a similar experience when she joined SEBI, being the first professional from the private sector to be one of its full-time members on the board. While she was on home ground as far ascapital markets were concerned, the regulatory nature of the job was totally new for her, and she had to hit the ground running. She says that it helped tremendously that the culture that the chairman had set was one oflearning and sharing. Not only did no one raise an eyebrow when she would bluntly declare that she ‘did notget it’, but there was 360-degree support to explain to her how things worked. Organizational culture starts at the top and it helps hugely to have leaders with a learning mindset.
When I used to be in advertising two decades ago, several formidable women headed the media departments of leading agencies. But till recently, Nandini Dias (who has now stepped down) was the only woman heading a large media set-up. When she was appointed CEO at Lodestar Media, Nandini soon realized that hercore competence—developing media strategy and innovating solutions for marketing challenges, where she’d earned most of her accolades—would not be enough. She would have to quickly develop new skills and take a few giant leaps in new areas. She needed to better understand the company’s business aspects, the nuanced details of exhaustive financial statements and learn to connect the dots across multiple developments within and outside the organization.
For instance, she had a lot of friends and connections but seldom needed to nurture these bonds for the purpose of business. She would have to cultivate new relationships, which would now become critical to the operations. This quick recognition of the need to step up and promptly upgrade each of these aspects is what set her on her way. She also realized that she now personally represented the brand more than ever and would have to invest more effort in meeting people and building relationships. This was something she confesses was clearly out of her instinctive comfort zone.
Business networking is not only about knowing people but about gaining from conversations with people from your circle. It could mean closing business deals or exploring joint opportunities. Like Nandini, Falguni Nayar, too, admits that it was a skill she had to learn with some degree of effort. Falguni says that initially, while she did go along with her husband Sanjay, who is a great networker, she was shy to talk about business-related topics and stuck to social small talk. It was only after about fifteen years of working, when she attended some leadership sessions conducted by McKinsey, that she realized the importance of business networking. The higher you climb on the corporate ladder, the bigger and more varied the challenges. So, anearly understanding of what it takes can help prepare you for the role better. Attending conferences, having discussions with other business associates or attending professional development courses are all wonderful ways to invest early in your career.