Be the Heroine of Your Life…

Read Time:18 Minute
Ms Gangapriya Chakraverti, Managing Director, Ford Business Solutions – India, in conversation with Ms Babita Baruah, Managing Partner, GTB India, a WPP Unit.

Babita Baruah: Gangapriya, you have been a huge inspiration to all of us in how to run a huge office, how to get a very motivated team, how to sustain the motivation and many more. Can we start off with a little bit of your own journey and some important milestones in that journey?

Gangapriya Chakraverti: Sure. I would consider myself so much a Chennai person. I’ve spent most of my life in Chennai. I was academically quite good. I went to a co-educational school and then went to Women’s Christian College. It was an entirely new and different world. It was when I realized who I was as an individual woman and the capabilities that women have. Then I went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Bombay, where I did my masters in Human Resources. Being in Bombay and getting exposed to the corporate world as part of our curriculum gave me very strong work ethics. Bombay is a place where you need to work if you want to know what it is like to be a good professional. That’s my belief. So that was a great opportunity. But in Tata Institute, I was perhaps the last one to be placed. It was quite heart-breaking in many ways. I got a job with Murugappa group in Chennai. They were very bold in those days to put somebody like me- a woman in particular- in an industrial relations role. I was sent to their factory in Ranipet and I worked there for the initial part of my career. Then they moved me to the head office and I spent a good amount of time there, working with the staff categories and unionized workmen. They gave me great exposure to people working in organizations at a grassroots level and understanding who they are, what they do and what their aspirations are. That was really the grounding that I got in my professional life.

I worked with the Murugappa group for about six years. I got married in between. I had a kid and took a break. It was not a thing that you did 30 years ago. If you took a break, it meant it was going to be the end of your career. But now, if you take a break, people pat you on the back, because you try to understand yourself or search for meaning. It’s a totally different paradigm. I realized somewhere along the line that staying at home was just not for me. I needed to be in the workplace. So I got back into an organization-Mercer Consulting. I stayed there for the next 13 years.

Then I felt that though it was giving me the identity, it was also taking away a lot from me, as to who I was as an individual. So I again took a break and that was also the time my son was going to class ten. Then I got an opportunity at Ford and I’ve been at Ford now for over 10 years. I must say that every part of my professional journey has been very special. I have learnt a lot and it has added to my personality and my being. I feel ever grateful for the kind of opportunities that I have had. I live in Chennai now. My husband is a consultant and academician and I have a 26 year old son, who I think is the person I learned the most from.

Babita: How beautiful is that! You were really bold in moving to Bombay. Then you shared a fascinating story of being a topper and still ending with disappointment at not getting a job.

Gangapriya:  My parents have been my biggest allies. In fact, they were bold in sending me from Chennai to Bombay. The second thing is, for a person who constantly topped the class, the hard knock of not getting a job was a very important lesson because you can’t have everything coming your way. And sometimes, you need to take that break to just pause and reflect where you’re going and take a course correction, if required.

Babita: We would love to hear your views on women and women leaders, what they contribute and the value they bring to the table.

Gangapriya: More than anything else, if we have a team where people are all alike, how would that team really think and work on solutions? How unified would be their thought? Contrast that to what different kinds of people bring to the table when they form part of the team. It is in that lens, I would look at women as well. Each individual brings something unique and different, and women as a group, perhaps bring something very different. I am quite hesitant to generalize but there is a sort of softness that women bring. They are able to look at aspects that may not necessarily be conventional corporate kind. They bring a point of view that can be more underlying than what is obvious and on your face. Many of them are good listeners. They bring huge skill sets. In fact, one of the things I love telling a woman is that if you can manage a home, you can manage a job. When you manage a home and a family, you have to deal with individual expectations, conflicting priorities and multiple stakeholders who may not necessarily be aligned on anything. You work with limited resources. These are all the things that you expect out of any person in a workplace. Women do things with tact, great resilience and huge patience, though they tend to underestimate their capabilities. Having said that, everybody brings something very unique and that is something we should not lose track of.

Babita: Do you think that work experience adds additional stress or does it help us gear better?

Gangapriya:  You must have the ecosystem at home to support. Women also hesitate to use it and both are realities. The expectation is that the woman does most of the heavy lifting, as far as the house and family are concerned. Times are changing. I see a lot of men playing a more significant role in parenting and running the house. We are moving in the right direction but the burden of running a home and working, definitely adds a level of stress. It also creates hesitation in women to take on more responsibilities. They begin to doubt themselves. Their family and children become top priority and career always takes a second seat.

Babita: How do you think men can also contribute or support women in the workplace?

Gangapriya: The best way for men to support is to give space for the women by encouraging them to speak up and to share their points of view and opinions. They must make them participate actively in the organization process. The second thing is, men can also provide visibility of women to the larger organization by giving them opportunities to present, by presenting them to leaders and showcasing their work. Many women hesitate to talk about the work they do. Several of my colleagues say, “I don’t need to advertise. I don’t need to talk about my work; my work will speak for itself.” That may not always be the case. You need that little projection within the organization, because if you take a backseat, there will be hundreds of others who will want to present themselves and can show up much better. The third, they must consider women equally when it comes to opportunities.

I’ll give you an example. When you have jobs where people have to travel, most of the time people decide that a woman won’t be able to travel. It may not be the case. Women can also make their own arrangements and take on travel. Therefore, it’s very important to ask the woman before any decision is made. These are three simple ways in which men can really help women at the workplace.

Babita: Have there been some moments or experiences where you felt you had to convince your colleagues that you are in for it- for the job and the performance?

Gangapriya: Yes. That was indeed a turning point in my professional life when I had to stand up and say, “Count me in.” When I was in the consulting firm, they were looking for somebody to head my practice. I don’t know what got into me. One day, I went up to my supervisor who was from Australia and told him I would like to be considered for that role. I really didn’t know what their goal was about and why I thought I would be good in that role. It was an office in Chennai and mine was not even a convincing request. We were walking out of the office and I casually told him, “Would you think that I would be also a candidate for this role?” And, you know what! He told me, “I was thinking that maybe you wouldn’t be interested.” So when there are opportunities, you need to put up your hand because most of the time, at least for most of my professional life, the default was ‘No, she wouldn’t be interested.’ Things are changing quite rapidly. That doesn’t mean that I have put up my hand every time. In fact, when my boss asked me, if I can take on the role of the head of the organization, I said, “Why me?”   It took some convincing from my boss to make me realise that perhaps they saw something in me. When you think back, the first reaction is perhaps not the best reaction many times.

Babita: I love what you said about ‘Count me in.’ I feel it should be a slogan that we must wear. After 26 years, I’m not even sure if I say it as many times that I perhaps could say.

Gangapriya: We ask to be counted in when we are almost 80% or 90% sure that we would get ‘yes’ for an answer. It is also very important to ask why you wouldn’t count me in, even if I don’t feel that I’m ready for the job. It’s a great way to reflect on what my capabilities are, where I need to improve, the skills I need to develop and what I should do to show up differently. It is a good opportunity to get feedback about you as a person.

Babita: How do you think we can encourage women to overcome this hesitation to ask for things or feedback?

Gangapriya: I think women like to come across as super women. We need to overcompensate for a lot of things for our place in the organization. The second thing is that, when we ask for help, we feel it’s almost like a failure for us. On the contrary, it’s really to say that there is so much I can manage, but I definitely could do more with some help. Women should definitely do more of asking, whether it is help from the organization or parents or kids. Shamelessly ask for help. People are waiting to help. Fortunately, we are in a culture where we can make use of all this.

Babita: Do you have a problem in sourcing women for jobs that are in Tech and perhaps Automobiles. Do we slot ourselves still in skills that we are comfortable in? Or are we moving out of our comfort zones as women?

Gangapriya: Getting women into the workplace is a difficult proposition, even at an entry-level. As we grow in the hierarchy, you will find that the numbers are dwindling. It’s like being on a treadmill. As much as you recruit, you’re also losing people. The second thing is, I find that women tend to specialize in certain areas. I’ve great experiences of women who want to specialize in automobile engineering. They are truly driven by passion and are top-class. But they are so few and if you don’t give them the kind of jobs that excite them, you will lose them. They are academically strong. They like to work in teams and are innovative. The other point that I have noticed is that a lot of time, there is pressure from the family for their girls to work in comfortable jobs in an AC office environment rather than a factory. Those are all realities.

Ford was amongst the first companies in India in 1998 to recruit women on the shop floor. They went and picked up students, who had completed Class 12 to come and work as employees on the shop floor. Many of them have grown to become managers in the company and it has really changed their entire lives and their social standing. Bringing women into the workplace is also about social change.

Babita: They become role models and inspiration. They encourage other women.

Gangapriya: We all missed role models when we came into the workplace, but with the younger generation, the possibilities are showing up because they’ve seen people before them who have done it and proven that it’s possible to manage a career and family and grow within the organization. There is the personal accomplishment. There are also other benefits. Financially, you become a lot more secure, you are able to look after your larger family and there are so many other things that come with it.

Babita: How do you think corporates can initiate Diversity and Inclusion (DI) initiatives?

Gangapriya: There are different aspects to DI. The simplest one is policies that encourage women; provide more opportunities to women; make it much more equal workplace. The second one is not just to have policies but practices. Are you recruiting more women and providing opportunities for their development? The most difficult part as far as DI is concerned is mindset and the culture. Organizations are just microcosms of the world around them. So whatever the attitudes we have outside, will be the attitudes that you’ll find inside. Changing mindset to bring a much more inclusive approach is the hardest thing to do.

Even companies like us struggle. We have a good culture that enables a change in mindset, but many times we are trying to erase generations of thinking. In companies like Ford, we are in many ways privileged. For us, following a rule or policy is non-negotiable. If we have a code of conduct, the consequences of not complying are very severe. So everybody learns to follow that and it makes it a little easier for us to create D&I. But your mindset is mindset. It’s not something that can be just turned on and off.

The younger generation are much more open to the idea of inclusion and experiences. They question some of the things that they have been taught as children. I am quite hopeful that the generational shift will accelerate the mindset change in organizations.

Babita:  If you had to live your life a little differently, would there be anything that you would do differently?

Gangapriya: Perhaps not.  I have been quite fortunate and privileged in many ways. I would pretty much keep it that way.

Babita: From the professional thing, is there anything you would have liked to change?

Gangapriya: I wish I had a mentor, a little early on in my career. It would have really made a difference to me. I had colleagues who were very well-meaning but not somebody who I could call a mentor. I also felt the need for a female mentor in particular because the mindset a female mentor brings can be very different. Even the experiences can be very different. For instance, I’m very hesitant to ask for things like, ‘I need this support. I need this benefit.’ I wish I had asked more and made my life a lot easier!

Babita: If you seek a mentor, what is the right way to go about it?

Gangapriya: These days, people are quite accessible. I find so many people sending me messages on LinkedIn and asking if they can connect. Of course, we sometimes become wary of connecting with people on social media, but the fact is you can reach out to people easily.

More importantly, you need to know why you want somebody as a mentor and what kind of a person you believe would be the best mentor for you. That is not something that you define yourself. It is important to speak to people who know you, who understand you and who can tell you that this is the kind of person that you need to reach out to. So first, try and figure out what makes for a good mentor for you and who those people might be and then reach out to them.

Many times, mentors maybe somebody in our own circle, either in the organization or in a friend’s circle or in our extended families. We draw imaginary boundaries and say that we can’t talk certain things with some kinds of people. That again comes in the way. You don’t have to look for a CEO or a head of an organization to mentor you. Somebody who has been there, who is slightly senior to you and accessible, can sometimes be a very good mentor. Your requirements may be just about the three things that you need to do next. Aiming too high to get a mentor may not necessarily get you what you want. We don’t have to look for some esoteric person. The more complicated we make it, the further it gets away from us. That is the second thing.

The third is that when you network, you get access to people. There’s a good chance that somebody could become your mentor or put you in touch with a good mentor.

Babita: What is the one thing that interests you outside of work?

Gangapriya: Many things. I like to keep a good home. I like being with nature. I like so many things. I like cooking and being in my home.

Babita: What is the one habit which you feel is very annoying about you?

Gangapriya: (laughs) There are many. You can ask my family. I like things to be done my way. The manager in me shows up at home. I don’t think it serves me well.

Babita: What is your idea of that perfect weekend?

Gangapriya: I like to socialize a little. I like to meet friends. I’d like to get things in order so that my week ahead is under control. I also like some time to just laze around, doing nothing, though it is very difficult.

Babita: If you had to choose between today and tomorrow, what would you choose?

Gangapriya: I’m more a ‘today’ person. I don’t really think too much about tomorrow but I’m not somebody who’s always present also. I’m a little scattered in that sense but more in the here and now.

Babita: What would you choose between dreaming and doing?

Gangapriya: Very much doing. I’m so much of a doer. Sometimes, you also need to dream. You need to prioritize tomorrow over today. I think it just played by the year, which means that opportunities will just go by. You don’t look at possibilities and may lose out on many things.

Lata Rajagopalan (Consultant): Today’s generation is different. They work from home and on their own terms. In this scenario, do you foresee that in the near future, in the corporate world, you might find it difficult to have people who will commit to a career, like the way you have done?

Gangapriya:  It is a very important question and one that corporates should think about, on an urgent basis. The pandemic to a great extent has made people think about why they are here, what their purpose is and what kinds of jobs would really suit them. They want to find their purpose through the work they do and have the balance between work and life. If organizations don’t redesign jobs that will enable people to find larger purpose and meet their aspirations, then they will not catch the imagination of young people. Their expectations are sky-high. Work is mundane for them. That is the reality. It is important, especially for older organizations like Ford, to reimagine work, so it’s appealing for young people.

Lata:  You said that Ford was one of the first companies that brought women into the shop floor. I’m a big advocate of skill-based work because that’s the solution to employment problems. That is still an area which is not explored carefully. What would be your recommendation to change the scenario and get more young women into the skill sector for employment?

Gangapriya: It is important to bring women to the shop floor. You must have the right policies and create an enabling environment, which means that the infrastructure needs to be there. Many times, factories don’t have even toilets for women. We must have enablers like day-care centres and transportation.

We also find that when we have women in the workplace on the shop floor, the behaviour of men improves. They become a lot more respectful and mindful about how they conduct themselves. It is a great win-win for everyone. I don’t think there will be a dearth of girls who may want to come in and work, though I don’t know how long they will stick on. But it’s a great solution.

Mythili Chandrasekar:   I particularly liked what you said about ‘asking.’ Babita and I had a boss who would always tell us that asking is free. What you said that having women in workplace would bring out the better in men hasn’t been highlighted so far or discussed.