Women Leadership Series

Profile: Geetha Ramamoorthi

Read Time:13 Minute

Ramyaa Ramesh
As a chartered accountant, she had an established career in India but a change in circumstances saw her move to a new country and start afresh. It was here that Geetha Ramamoorthi finally found her niche—engineering services.
She returned to India and continued to build her career in engineering services. Initially, she held the position of finance director in an engineering services company and soon moved to an operations role as the head of transportation business. She views all her career moves as a way of challenging her abilities.
Geetha is now in charge of leading the India operations of WS Atkins on a transformative journey as its Director (Operations & Digital Services).
Geetha Ramamoorthi is a person focused on her career with an ability to set out her own path to achieve her goals. This was not a difficult proposition for a bright and successful student who always excelled academically.
How did your early education shape you?
Starting in a small school like Satya Sai Matriculation in Mandaveli, Chennai, which was almost like play school and had a family atmosphere, I joined a bigger school, Rosary Matriculation, from 3rd grade onwards. I was very diffident, extremely shy, and it was not easy for me to mingle with my classmates but my academic excellence bought me recognition with my peers. My interest in singing pushed me to perform on stage and made me join various school competitions and I slowly started coming out of my shell. I secured the 10th rank in the state of Tamilnadu in higher secondary examination; it marked a significant milestone in my educational journey.
After school, I went on to do my B.Com in Ethiraj College. A Chartered Accountancy along with an ICMA seemed like a natural progression in my educational map. Articleship in a small firm let me focus on completing my CA and I did just that! Surprisingly, this is where I also met my future husband! After my CA I got a job in a well-established company, United India Insurance, and I moved to Bangalore from Chennai. This was a great opportunity for a young graduate like me with stars in her eyes!
Why did you move back to Chennai?
Six months after I moved to Bangalore, Ashok Leyland, a very well-known Chennai based automobile giant, offered me a job, which I accepted. I married around the same time which led me back to Chennai, my hometown!
Was it a good career move?
Ashok Leyland was a great learning opportunity for me—I learnt a lot about finance during the six years I worked there.
Initially, I was part of the Sales and Institutional Finance where I had to coordinate with the very senior executives of various financial institutions such as IDBI, SIDBI and ICICI. Working with such senior executives was a great experience and my first glimpse into qualities that make senior leaders successful.
Later, I moved to Corporate Finance and then to the Treasury Accounting department where I had the extraordinary opportunity to interact with the senior leadership of the company and industry stalwarts, including Mr. T. Ananthanarayanan and Mr. R. Seshasayee. They taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, to focus on the big picture and never lose sight of your goal.

Ashok Leyland was a great learning opportunity for me—I learnt a lot about finance during the six years I worked there.

The next few years saw you changing jobs. What was your reasoning behind so many career moves?
These were the years of my career, where I learnt to understand and appreciate the key areas of finance. In 1995, the world around me was changing, market was buzzing with this concept called Investment Banking. I wanted to be a part of the changing environment; I was bitten by the bug! This is when I moved on to Empire Finance Company which was a part of the Ranbaxy Group. The focus was on mergers and acquisitions and Initial Public Offerings which gave me a lot of exposure on activities of SEBI and growth plans of companies in various industries. Then I moved to Synergy Credit Corporation, where I handled hire purchase and leasing. Dematerialisation and shares was transforming the market, so I also did a stint in Stock Holding Corporation of India which pioneered dematerialisation of shares in India.
I was trying to find my niche even while enjoying my work in the world of finance!
My husband had the opportunity to move to Singapore for work and my young son and I moved along with him.
How did being a ‘trailing spouse’ affect your career?
I look at my move to Singapore as a game changer for my career. Initially, I took a break as it took some time for me to settle down, but I started laying down the foundation for my career there. I realized networking was the key. I had good friends who helped me connect with professionals in similar field as I was and started interacting with them.
I got my break with the help of a friend and joined an engineering services company called CH2M Hill which focused on infrastructure building and had a global presence. I was asked to handle the Regional Finance for the Asia Pacific region. It was an opportunity to learn and understand the regulatory aspects of different countries in the region, cultural nuances and collaborate with diverse people around me. Here, I was given the task to spearhead the JD Edwards implementation along with financial reporting, treasury and regional taxation.
You moved from the BFSI sector and India to the engineering sector and Singapore! How did you adapt to this change?
I never looked at it as a change. I concentrated on the role, my own delivery and the value I could add to the organisation rather than the move to a specific industry. I was completely unfamiliar with the culture, the accounting standards and some aspects of the business but fortunately people were open to sharing knowledge and provide guidance once I become part of the system. I learnt another valuable lesson during this period—people are always very open, but there is a need to speak out and let your thoughts be heard.
I soon excelled in this field. In one instance, we were dealing with treasury related aspects of inter-company transactions across countries and my efforts saved the company considerable expenses through taxes – I learnt the concept of Debt Forgiveness here!
These were the best three years of my life, where I became more assured, self-confident with a more international perspective to corporate culture. Though this was for a very brief period indeed, as I had to move back to India soon after.
After you moved back to India, was it difficult to pick up your career again?
Though we came back to India, we did not move to Chennai but to Bangalore, a city we were not so familiar with. My first priority at that time was to ensure that my son settled down both in school and outside activities, which took me 7 – 8 months. Once that was done, my next move was to pick up my career again. Honestly, I really did not look forward to spending most of my time in the kitchen!
I was very careful and specific while searching for my next role. The role that I finally ended up taking was completely outside my comfort zone, a role that challenged me. I joined Systems Advisor Group, a Software services company, where I had to set up channel partner relationship with Microsoft. I had to work with Microsoft to enable the sales of the product as well. As the company started to grow, my seniors realized that I would add more value in finance and I accepted the challenge.
After a point of time, I stopped enjoying the allure of a smaller organization and I was ready to take on a job in a larger company. This was when I got a call from WS Atkins, an engineering design and services company, who were looking for someone who had international exposure with a working knowledge of JD Edwards ERP, I happened to be the right fit! I soon realized that this was the place I wanted to work for – I had found my niche.
I grew along with the company and I headed the finance team in India. My previous experience with CH2M Hill Singapore helped me – at the end of the day, it was all about finance and making money! In 2017, I had the opportunity to take up a business leadership role – to head the transportation business.
The shift from a finance domain to a business domain is a major one, how did you equip yourself?
Of course, this was a major change; I did ask myself if I could do justice to the role. I talked to my colleagues, my husband and other leaders in the industry and understood that you don’t need to be technically aware in order to run a business, but, you need to understand the overall business, what ticks and what the client expects. Of course, a great team is the key.
I took the effort to read – read about the technical aspects of the industry, technical terminology. I learnt to appreciate the finer aspects of engineering and understand the business inside out! I believe that as a woman, my confidence in my ability to learn, adapt and deliver was very high. I rose to the occasion and delivered.
Slowly, I started taking initiatives. In July 2017, WS Atkins was acquired by the SNC-Lavalin Group. We were a smaller company compared to the conglomerate which was in the process of acquiring us, which meant, there were major changes taking place in the operational direction and the management.
In early 2018, our local leadership also underwent a change. During the days that followed, my colleagues would come to me and express their apprehension; I sensed a feeling of nervousness that prevailed as people were apprehensive about their future in the company. I was able to support them emotionally and bring stability through constant communication. This was taken very positively by the management and I was given an additional responsibility of managing the day to day operations of the India unit. Following this in November 2018, I was officially appointed Operations Director of India.

When I look around me, I see women comprise of 50% of the work force in the junior executive level, but this percentage shrinks…

In April 2019, I was asked to take up a Business Change lead role where I had the opportunity to work with a group of talented individuals in driving change in the way we deliver work. In May this year, I was given the responsibility of delivery of Digital Services. I proactively engaged with the digital teams to help them stay focused on their goals and instilled a sense of purpose and positivity. I started to acquaint myself with emerging technologies and techniques such as Artificial intelligence, Data Science and Blockchain.

Finance is where you have excelled at, till you made Engineering and Technology your forte. What has been your experience as a woman in a field such as engineering?
I believe there is still stereotyping and gender bias in what is a predominantly male dominated industry such as mine, but there are strong signs of change. There was a time when we believed that only an engineer can run an engineering company, but I have seen a physicist run an engineering services company and build it to the next level. A person who runs the business is not necessarily a subject-expert!
Yes, when I look around me, I see women comprise of 50% of the work force in the junior executive level, but this percentage shrinks as you look up the ladder; this is mostly because of relocation after marriage and also because of family commitments and a general stereotyping around what they can or can’t do after marriage and motherhood.
Unconscious biases and questions pop up on the manager’s mind—Will she be able to travel, will she be able to take up a project of such scale… People tend to look at a person for what she has done, rather than look at her potential. I believe that a conscious effort has to be taken and a woman has to be pushed to help her grow in her career and go against her comfort zone.
What do you, as a leader in an organisation, believe can be done to change the status quo of women in an executive role?
I am part of the leadership team, especially when any activity or project is taken up. Though I see a lot of change in considering women for different types of projects, and the degree of gender bias is decreasing, I never fail to call out when there is any.
I believe conscious effort has to be taken by all – both men and women – in higher positions to push women outside their comfort zone.
Your career has been so varied; would you have done anything differently? Changed anything?
Looking back, I can say that there are a few things that I could have done. One, I wish I had been more bold and more open earlier in my career rather than later. As a woman, I always keep questioning myself, there is constant self-doubt. When there is a list of 10 boxes that has to be ticked, I find woman, including myself, think they need to tick all 10 of them. I have learnt that that is not necessary; ticking 6 or 7 out of 10 can also be just as good! I wish I had had the courage and faith in my ability that I have now, then. Also, I should have taken up an International MBA right after I came back to India which would have certainly enhanced my resume. Yes, I am now the Director Operations & Digital Services of WS Atkins and in the last 4 years I am coming into my own, taking up initiatives which have led me to where I am today.
Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
My role model for a very long time has been Ms. Kalpana Morparia, an Indian banker and the current CEO of J P Morgan India. She is 71 and still scaling new heights in the corporate world.
I want to be an influencer in the corporate world and be a mentor and coach, to motivate woman who want to build their career. I want to be seen as a “thought-leader” providing strategic insights on the possibilities that the intersection of technology and business can offer.
I want to prepare myself for the higher position in the company. I recognize the need to adopt a curious mindset and embrace a culture of continuous learning; I am cognizant of the need to build my brand in the corporate world and network with like-minded professionals through various forums to know what is happening around me in the industry.
I am personally working on some of these aspects in addition to taking up new challenges and assignments.
Taking to Geetha, one cannot but realize that this dynamic woman is not only clear about what she wants to end up as, but is willing to go an extra mile to hone her abilities for the role she envisages. One can more than see her as a CEO of a global company!

Ramyaa Ramesh, author, had interviewed Lakshmi Venkatachalam for this series.