#IMPACT50Women: Leadership is about being present and showing up, say women leaders
In a panel discussion, achievers on the list like Anupriya Acharya, Priya Nair, Shereen Bhan and Swati Bhattacharya discussed the need to lead by example, particularly in today’s challenging times
The virtual event to unveil the ninth IMPACT 50 Most Influential Women in Media, Marketing and Advertising list, 2020 saw a riveting and charged panel discussion on the subject of ‘women in power: leading by example.’ The panel saw participation from some of the leading achievers on the list – Anupriya Acharya, CEO, Publicis Groupe, South Asia; Priya Nair, Executive Director - Beauty and Personal Care, Hindustan Unilever; Shereen Bhan, Managing Editor, CNBC-TV18; and Swati Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer, FCB Ulka. Moderated by jury member Delna Avari, Founder, Delna Avari & Consultants, the discussion saw these remarkable leaders wear their experiences on their sleeves and share interesting anecdotes from their successful careers.
Avari started the conversation by asking each panelist to share instances of challenges they faced in their leadership journeys. HUL’s Priya Nair was the first to share right from the heart about her most recent personal setback – the loss of her father just a few weeks ago. Describing him as her biggest cheerleader, she said, “The one thing my father taught me was to just be present and show up. Among the many lessons he taught me, that was the one that I remember the most and the reason I am here today. I have learned since his passing that professional challenges pale in comparison to losing a loved one. It’s really these tough personal challenges that shape us and make us who we are."
Speaking about the current context the industry finds itself in, Acharya also echoed Nair’s insight about the need to be present and show up. “The biggest challenge we are facing is essentially how to keep people feeling motivated and inspired. I had never imagined how big a role the organisation played in this.” She pointed out the increasing complexity the pandemic and WFH has brought on for most people in the organisation, as separation of personal and professional lives was nearly impossible. The lines have now blurred between the two, as people’s homes are also their workplaces. “It’s just amazing how low people can feel when the human connect is missing. This current situation has become a learning and discovery for us, we are learning as we go along. Never before have I felt this responsible as a leader in how you can influence people in both personal and professional capacities,” said Acharya.
With the pandemic bringing out people’s strengths and vulnerabilities in equal measure, Shereen Bhan pointed out the need for greater empathy among leaders today. “It is sad that it has taken a pandemic for us to understand the importance of empathy within organisations today. You cannot make people compartmentalise their personal and professional lives, and tell your team to leave their problems at home. If you want to ensure a collaborative environment at work, then you have to learn to collaborate on other areas the person deals with. Team bonding has taken on a deeper meaning in this situation and is not seen as a mere HR exercise,” Bhan pointed out. At the start of the lockdown, she also shared a gratitude email for people in her team to show appreciation for what they were doing. That helped people feel appreciated and enabled them to demonstrate greater ownership on their jobs, she explained. Avari agreed, and added that true leaders are the ones that look beyond numbers and profits, and take their teams ahead and enable them to grow.
Reflecting on her own journey and career growth, Swati Bhattacharya shared that the biggest resource in her life has been sisterhood. During the pandemic, Bhattacharya explained that she got back in touch with the women who’ve been friends and support systems throughout her life. “We had lost the art of long conversations. We would make a plan to meet, and then hang up before the pandemic. Now, my readings and conversations are back and I am quite enjoying that,” she said, adding that talking regularly to her friends have kept her nourished during these tough months. These times have allowed her to nourish herself as much as she can nourish others. “The culture of generosity only comes when people are nourished,” she added, pointing out that organisations must work to retain female talent post motherhood. With the pandemic, she observed that companies are now offering greater flexibility at work, something they should have done a long time ago to retain talent.
Speaking about leading by example, Nair shared an experience and learning from Sanjiv Mehta, CMD, HUL and her current boss. At a time in the past when HUL was faced with a situation where they had to redeploy some people (non-employees) that worked for them in different capacities, Nair recounts what Mehta told her. “Sanjiv said to me – Priya, you have 100 families to take care of, not 100 people. We then made a list of all these people and found a way to re-skill, redeploy or place them in another role. That was something that stayed with me, and it is relevant even in the times we live in today,” she said, adding that it reminds her to stay humane in all situations.
Likewise, Acharya too spoke about the women in the business when she was in the formative years of her career. “We were very fortunate that there were a lot of women in the business when we started our careers in the mid-nineties. Over these several years, the relevance of individual conversations may not have been high but their role in shaping our mind-sets very well really stood out,” noted Acharya. Avari quickly also pointed out that there were no women leaders in the auto industry when she started out.
Bhan reflected on a specific incident a few years into her career when she happened to walk into a hotel for an awards show, where TV news stalwart Dr Prannoy Roy was also present. He went out of his way to greet Bhan at the venue, and appreciate her work. “Incidents like these taught me that you have to be humble. I have learned that you have to wear your success lightly. Do not take yourself too seriously, and do not believe that you have all of the answers. If you start to believe in your own myth, that’s a dangerous place to be. You lose the ability to listen. There is so much to learn today from the younger ones in the industry in today’s environment,” she stated. Bhattacharya added to Bhan’s observation by pointing out the importance of not putting pressure on oneself to be perfect in everything, whether at home or at work. Allow people to see your vulnerability and do not stop yourself from asking for help, she said. “Don’t take the pressure of being perfect either at home or at work. When people around realise that you are not perfect, it enables them to work around that. That’s what allows you to truly be more creative and productive. Stay humble, vulnerable and open,” she said.
Nair ended the discussion by exhorting women to be ambitious and to recognise that they are stronger than they realise, something that found resonance with the other women on the panel too. “Your biggest cheerleader is you,” she signed off.
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