While disparity may exist, we have to focus on value addition: Rachana Panda

In the 2nd edition of ‘Women Achievers Series’, we speak to Rachana Panda about her professional journey, views on gender equality and more

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Mar 9, 2021 1:38 PM
rachana panda

Rachana Panda, the VP & Country Group Head Comms, PA & Sustainability (South Asia) at Bayer, firmly believes that open and transparent communication is the bedrock of rich and innovative culture. Rachana maintains that a successful business needs strategic communications aligned to business outcomes with the engagement of all stakeholders. A keen planner and strategist, she has more than two decades of experience in corporate communications and public policy, building brands across boundaries with international teams.

“Women have always been strong contributors to the economy and growth of various sectors”, states Rachana. In the second interview of the 2nd edition of ‘Women Achievers Series’, we speak to Rachana about her journey in the communications industry, views on gender equality, her inspiration in the industry, the role of women as leaders, pay gaps and more.

Edited Excerpts:-

How did you enter the communications industry? How has been your journey ever since?

It has been 25 years in the industry after my MBA and feels like yesterday.

I started my career as a finance specialist and tried a stint in communications as a part of “Job Rotation” during my management trainee program and then just stuck around in corporate communications, as I found this very exciting. The journey has been enriching and has evolved over the years. I got to work in the development sector, advocacy programs, government campaigns and in the marketing & branding space too.

I guess that helped me get rounded off as a professional. My present role at Bayer includes leading the Communications, Public Affairs, Sustainability and Corporate Societal Engagement, teams.

What has been your biggest inspiration to serve the industry? Who has been your inspiration?

I have always worked for brands that have made a deep impact and are driven by a sense of purpose. This clearly drives me as a person. Connecting the dots, building diverse & high performing teams, building trust with the stakeholders and creating an impact to society at large is what inspires me.

"First day in the HBS campus room with almost 200 case studies piled up behind me. For sure it was drinking from a firehose," Rachana says.

What have been key learnings for you in the entire journey to work for the comms industry? 

Some of my key learnings are that no matter which sector or which decade, a communicator always is an asset to the company. One can never understand the value of a communicator unless one has experienced the impact of this function. Communications clearly is a growth function and the forward-looking businesses understand that well and consider this a deeply strategic function. The “outside-in" and the “inside-out” view that a communicator can bring in is needed more and more in every sector, be it the development sector, innovation programs, government initiatives, corporate brands or any public engagement.

Another learning is that today’s communicators have tough jobs as they deal with a complex external environment and their risk-taking ability in most cases is quite high. And yet, they have a realistic disposition of the external ecosystem. If rightly understood, this positions them uniquely to take up bigger and broader roles.

This is a fast-evolving function and one needs to be flexible, agile, humble and constantly learning. With the pressures we deal with, we need to be masters in prioritization. And most importantly, be trusted advisors to our leaders and business partners.

2020 was a different year. What major changes did it bring into your life both professionally and personally? What were the major challenges faced?

2020 has been indeed a very special year in many ways. I joined Bayer. With the nation just beginning to recover from the effects of the lockdown, I joined the new role virtually. My induction into the company was completely online – a first for me and it has been a great experience since then.

I am so glad that I joined a company which is high on purpose. We are positioned at the powerful intersection of two socially relevant businesses – agriculture and healthcare and our efforts are towards improving human lives and ensuring nobody is left behind along the way. I feel truly blessed to have got this opportunity to work with such a passionate and talented team, who are making a significant impact across varied communities and at the same time driving sustainable growth.

The lockdown may have slowed things externally, but for me, the learning over the past six months at Bayer has been steep and exciting too.

How has the industry treated its women in the new normal? What paradigm shift have you noticed in the functioning with respect to women?

Women have always been strong contributors to the economy and growth of various sectors. I am encouraged by the growing discussion around inclusion and diversity in the corporate sectors as well as in government programs, whether in education or science & technology or in communications, the effort and conversations around women as key contributors have started and that is a good place to be in.

While the pandemic has in some way adversely affected women in the workforce, I see that it is being noticed and discussed. In communications, particularly forums like GWPR (Global Women in PR) are taking the cause up. The mentoring and knowledge sessions that GWPR is doing are focused on women in leadership roles in our function. 

Why do we witness attrition in women leadership as we go high above the ladder? 

There are many reasons for the leakage in the leadership pipeline, most common ones being that women are primary caregivers to their family, lack of infrastructure around family care, lack of supportive programs for them at work, health choice in many cases and sometimes the lack of encouragement and initiative from the women themselves. They do not realize their potential themselves many a time.

Has there been any instance of gender bias in your journey? Is the pay gap a major concern for the industry?

Frankly, I have never let any such bias impact me too much. I belong to a family where my mother and aunts have been all career-oriented women. I knew no other way. The men around me also have been extremely encouraging, so I guess I always “leaned in”. While disparity may exist, we have to work on our strengths constantly, learn and focus on value addition. In fact, we as women bring in unique skills and leadership aspects that the world needs more of. And that’s where we need to focus on by building on our strengths. That’s when you break the pay gap. Thankfully in our function, we have enough women and hence we can support women to grow into leadership positions.

How did you convert a crisis into an opportunity for yourself, professionally?

I would not say a crisis, but learnings on the way. Looking back each of these have turned out to something bigger and better. I have never complained about the challenges I have faced. I guess one has to learn to focus on the bigger picture and prioritize things that matter. I have spent a lot of time and resource investing in myself whether it is a sabbatical or challenging myself to take projects beyond me. I have ended up working and learning from the best teams and have had great fun along the way.

What are the steps that you would take to support other women in the industry and large?

I am a Board member of GWPR (Global Women in PR) & APACD (forum at APAC level for senior communicators).

To build a successful career, courage, candour and the willingness to fail are extremely important. It is impossible to be successful at all points in time. Sometimes, it may take years of efforts to see light at the end of the tunnel. That’s where I see role models and mentors can really help guide. I have had great mentors and leaders in my journey.

I mentor women entrepreneurs and innovators, am deeply passionate about women empowerment initiatives at Bayer whether it is “gender smart agriculture programs”, “health for women” or “women in science”.

I strongly feel that being a communicator puts me in a unique position to be able to bring out inspiring stories of such women and connect to the larger canvas.

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