The home office I’m looking at through my laptop camera is so bland that Ameera Shah won’t even give me a 30-second glimpse of it. “It’s temporary and it’s messy,” says the 41-year-old managing director of Metropolis Healthcare. The Mumbai-based national pathology laboratory chain has 2,500 collection centres in India and abroad and posted revenue of ₹997 crore for the financial year ending March 2021. Instead, Shah takes me on a brief tour of the villa she has been renting in Dubai for the past six months.
Overlooking a lake, with a pool and extra bedrooms for visiting family members, it is definitely more interesting than her white-walled office. “We have a backyard, a pool and fresh air, that’s very important to us. (Husband) Hemant has his headquarters here, so it’s good from his work perspective. And the health infrastructure here obviously is better. We knew that as a country the vaccination would happen faster, so we felt Dubai was safe and there was space,” she says, explaining the lockdown relocation from India.
It must take discipline to stay focused on work, given the luxurious surroundings, but discipline is her signature trait. It was her primary tactic, to lead a frontline healthcare business, while concurrently nursing an infant son, born just days before the first wave of the pandemic.
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“I had Karma on 9 March last year. I came home from the hospital on 12 March and from 13 March onwards, I was on calls with the government for six, seven hours a day,” she says.
She coped “just by being very disciplined. When I’m with him, I’m with him. And initially, for example, for the first four or five months, I was very clear: when I’m feeding, I’m feeding. I’m not going to have my phone next to me. But then after the first few months, I relaxed that a little bit. When I was feeding, I wasn’t doing calls, because I didn’t want to have that noise around, but I was doing emails and other work that wouldn’t distract him. It’s discipline, there’s nothing else to it really. I nursed him for 11 months. Between work and Karma, it’s been non-stop since March last year.”
Shah conjures up an image of a superwoman, multitasking in the throes of a global crisis. It is tempting to conclude that she is a role model to women in the workplace. Yet that image is as cliché as the many cringeworthy WhatApp messages on international women’s day, which congratulate women on being able to juggle personal and professional responsibilities.
The fact is there’s more to Shah than her discipline. She is resilient, decisive and confident: traits that make her a role model to everyone. At a time when gender, diversity and inclusion are part of workplace zeitgeist, Shah presents a compelling case study of the benefits of looking beyond the stereotypes and tropes of female leadership at work.
Shah’s resilience was tested in the first wave of the pandemic, which was a “challenging period.” Anxious customers would shout and scream at her team of technicians, if home visits couldn’t be arranged on time, she says. Fluctuating regulatory changes amplified the confusion.
“Bombay (Mumbai) alone has eight municipal corporations. Bombay is different from Thane, from Kalyan, from Dombivali, and each of them had different rules that would come every morning. For an organization to have last-minute rules that you have to make effective immediately is incredibly difficult. But then to have conflicting rules which are all coming on the same day, it was very exhausting for us to have to explain this to people,” she says.
Scaling up covid-19 testing capabilities, procuring test kits amid shortages, and training employees and ensuring their safety were some hurdles that the company overcame at the beginning of the pandemic. In the second wave, Metropolis handled a huge increase in patient testing, with some centres operating 24x7.
As a leader, Shah says she tried to “create a feeling of security for our teams.”
She continues to attend to multitude of messages on a daily basis. “Somebody needs an injection in Delhi, a hospital bed in Hyderabad, a blood test in Chennai, somebody’s family needs something in Patna. I’ve been doing this a lot of the time, all year,” she adds.
Decisiveness is also an apparent Shah trait. “My decision-making tends to be clean and clear, and conscious. It’s not often that I’m surprised by the outcome of my own decision. Because I’ve usually thought through it,” she says.
The more “conscious” you are of yourself, the more “constant progress” there is, in “business or in relationships,” through better decisions and choices. Both these traits stem from a sense of self-confidence. She is comfortable making statements such as “I’m not afraid of deal making. I’m not afraid of putting my trust in people when we have to come together and create a deal. I’m not afraid of building that human connection. I’ve seen often people are very risk averse.”
As a corollary, she strives to be authentic. “The ability to show all of ourselves at work and show all of ourselves at home is an important part of building human connection. If I have the ability to do that, it just means I’ve developed the confidence that I can show all parts of myself and still be loved. If I can do that, my team members can do the same. If I can’t do that, how do I expect them to do that?”
It is this confidence which also allows her to share vulnerabilities and talk about mistakes, such as past partnerships with pathology laboratories that did not translate into sustainable business or her own personality weaknesses, such as a “tendency to try and assign blame to somebody when something went wrong. I’ve learnt that is really toxic behaviour. And I’ve been very conscious, over the last one to two years, to completely steer away from any sort of blaming.”
In other words, these are a set of behavioural traits that everyone can learn from. Frankly, the sooner that people realise this, the greater the win for corporate diversity and inclusion efforts.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.