The Extra Mile
As a prelude to Women Managers’ Convention, a competition is conducted every year wherein women managers are invited to present papers on the theme of the Convention. The papers and presentations are judged by a panel of eminent jury and the winner is awarded the “Outstanding Woman Manager of the Year” award at the convention. About 40 managers submitted their entries on the theme “The Extra Mile.” Ms. Swarna Sudha Selvaraj of Tata Consultancy Services was the adjudged this year’s winner.
Life is not the same for everyone. Response to life events, make every person unique. For some, an extra mile could be one life changing moment, while for a few others; it may be series of events that led them to the pinnacle. To me, the extra mile is turning ordinary circumstances into purposeful extraordinary opportunities by BEING THERE.
As a young girl, my dream was to win a medal for India in Sports. The thought that someday there would be an announcement that, “Swarna Sudha Selvaraj from India has won,” was like a mantra that I kept hearing. The day I heard the announcement made by an American that, “The winner is Swarna Sudha Selvaraj from India”, I had that sense of accomplishment. But this was not in Sports. And life took me through many other experiences beyond that.
Travel with me through the journey of my extra mile(s) with chilling, exhilarating, sorrowful, hopeful and fulfilling moments, applying my simple formula.
The First Gear:
I was an athlete in School. My school was proud of me as I was all set to sprint in Nationals, but something stood between me and the Nationals – Puberty. My parents encouraged me to travel that extra mile. I came back with a silver medal for Tamil Nadu in 4x100mts relay. I started moving towards my dream.
In 1996, my elder sister’s marriage was planned; It did raise the question of affordability of my college education. I took the decision to join a Government Arts college for Women, to avoid fees. I did part time jobs of announcing in exhibitions to help myself and my friend Maruthi, who could not afford to continue studies. It was my XS (extra small) mile to support my family and friend. We graduated together. One step for you can be an extra mile to another.
I was moving forward but not towards my sports dream.
The Second Gear:
In my first work assignment, I was placed in a Sugar Factory in a rural place in Karur District, Tamil Nadu. I came across employees and families who were living amidst alcoholic deaddiction, social divides, casteism, lack of awareness to educational opportunities, suicides, economic crisis, drought, and a hate towards the organisation. There was a history of 10 years behind it. I was assigned to build trust between employees and the organisation in 2001. Doing different things and doing things differently, both worked in this assignment. One important extra mile that I travelled during this assignment, was with eighteen spouses of employees during the lay off period. I became their English teacher and was thrilled when seven of them got employed in Admin jobs because of the knowledge gained, that generated income. From facing slammed doors when I started, to employees sending me like they send their daughter in marriage, while finishing the assignment, this experience laid that solid foundation in me as a well-rounded professional, an environmentalist and a humanitarian. Sharing takes you the extra mile.
Life’s major turning points were about to begin.
The Third Gear:
Marriage brought a vastly different dimension into my life. Little did I know that I would apply the learning gained entering a new family, for an integration assignment in a foreign land. My father-in-law, a very dynamic man, strongly believed that women can’t drive cars, onsite for HR was not possible, etc. My mother in-law, a kind lady, did not like any of her family members wearing black. I did break these myths, but not on the face, with arrogance. At the right time, when I had to breastfeed my first child, went for a car that enabled flexibility. My father-in-law’s views have changed now. He boasts about his daughter in law holding an international driving license and can do a better job than his own professional driver in covering long distances by car, safely and at good speed. Waited for 5 years for my mother-in-law to accept that black was fine. She even complements me when I carry myself covered in black nowadays. Being patient and choosing the right battles help us travel the extra mile, peacefully.
2014-15, Organization entrusted a Change Management assignment, to move from Physical to Digital Learning, in parallel, elders in the family and relatives wanted me to focus on my 5-year-old son who could not memorize alphabets. I decided to run the extra mile and take on both.
Signed up for, “Emerging Techniques in Virtual Learning” with University of California. Additionally, was reading about learning disabilities and multiple intelligence. At work, I enabled a young mother in my team to 100% work from home without discontinuing work and delivered the first ever digital course. At home, identified my son’s strength as stories. Worked on a story line to introduce every alphabet sequentially and he remembered the story and the alphabets too.
100,000 employees were trained in Digital that year. I was awarded, “Emerging Training Leader of the Year,” by Training Journal USA. The award announcement in Orlando, Florida, USA by an American calling out my name and my country was a moment that cannot be described by words. I walked up with an Indian flag on my chest to collect this award. Dreams can be achieved in different shapes and forms.
We need to F-it and Repeat. A simple formula that I have learnt – Find, Flex & Fix: Pinning down the issue, being flexible to make it work and Fixing it.
Leading and winning is fun and getting the team to win is joy. Apart from bagging wins in Marathons as a team, my teams bagged “CII Young Managers Award” and “Best HR Newcomer of the Year.” After I moved out of the role in 2016, there have been three-woman leaders who have taken the role and all of them were part of the succession plan created by me. At home, today, my son is a voracious reader and has read over three hundred books and continues to enjoy reading fiction and history. Continuous learning and taking people along, make the travel distance exponential.
The next move was from road to the sky, with not just one challenge to face.
The Fourth Gear:
When I felt like I had achieved my dream and was all set to celebrate, a financial crisis sprung up and I had to scale up. I travelled to London as Talent Development Head of TCS UK & Ireland. I decided to travel along with my children even though my spouse would not be able to make it. My journey as a single parent in a foreign land began.
Children had to cope up with new culture, accented language and I had to get used to the diversity around and face the professional challenge. There were chilling moments like a call from school that my son hurt his head and I had to come urgently, when I was in underground sea train from Paris to London, which tested my balance at a different level.
I started attacking one by one with the same simple formulae, “Find, Flex and Fix”. Children were scaling up as my additional hands at home and at office I went out of my way to integrate all the siloed employee networks as one “Employee Network of Networks”, along with my colleague Jennifer Stanzl. Together we drove the message that, “Expertise is the New INCLUSION.” UK topped the charts in the Enterprise Agile Journey of TCS. When Pandemic hit, the HR team and the Employee Network of Networks walked the extra mile together to ensure communication reaches every employee and their families to provide support on time. Women in IT Series has awarded this Network, “Outstanding Diversity Network of year” in 2023 UK edition. Integrated networks propel the extra mile.
I was additionally provided Talent Development responsibility of Europe where TCS had operations in multiple countries. Indian Culture and Heritage fascinates me always and I found a great opportunity to be the ambassador of Indian culture in many countries. My sarees and self-designed blouses suitable for cold weather became my brand. It not only motivated many Indian women to wear sarees but many of the foreigners also loved to have that as their professional attire and I was proud of being myself even in a foreign land. It won respect for me as a person and a professional. Personal Branding goes a long way.
During pandemic, I coached around 12k Indian students and teachers in basics of Digital for them to enter the Digital world and become Global Citizens. Have published 25+ articles in International and Indian magazines that became popular and received rave reviews. Have represented TCS & India in multiple International conferences.
Career was hitting a new high, when one phone call changed everything upside down. The U Turn
December 2020, my elder sister was diagnosed with Lung Cancer. I took a break and decided to stay back in India to be there for my sister. My brain clogged in July 2021 when my sister left us. I had no clue how to help myself, my parents and my sister’s family. We tried our best to accept reality, but it was not easy. I took the responsibility to be there for the family. My sister’s daughter is now campus recruited and is an intern in a popular firm and son is writing his XII board exams.
Being there for your people is more important than anything else.
At home, increased moral responsibility, demands more time but life must go on. The Fifth Gear
TCS has over 100k employees in mid-level. With the pace at which technology landscape is changing, we must take these employees along, and transform them into market relevant consultants with the latest competencies. Does it sound like a mid-life crisis?
I currently head “Mid-Level Transformation (MLT)” of 100,000 employees including 25% women. Drafting policies to setting SLAs to bringing people together, this is a complete package of Strategic Change Management. With experience gained in Europe, UKI, I was able to launch this across the globe with required changes to suit Geography regulatory requirements, which is otherwise not easy.
The team comprises of 10 members who are very popular within TCS as “MLT Super Squad”, making a difference. A team having a name is new and we set the benchmark. The team includes an employee who retired this year. In her retirement speech, she spoke about her fear of not being allocated to a project in the last year of her career and was thankful for getting an opportunity to work in the most happening team under my leadership. She is stepping into her next innings as wellness coach, and I have written an article to introduce her to Global professionals in Linked In. Never stop moving.
This MLT program has also helped us retain organization’s top position in ASTD Best awards. Conclusion:
Hope you have enjoyed my extra miles of being there to take responsibility, take people along, reach the purpose together and be grateful to the ecosystem, while applying the simple “F-it Formula of Find, Flex & Fix”.
• Extra mile is not just about being a leader but making more leaders.
• Extra mile is not just about going far and high, it is also about going near and deep.
• Extra mile is not just about a fancy start, it is also about sustenance and leaving a mark. • Extra mile is not just about one big win for us but also about building healthy habits in everyday life and taking people along in the life sequences to inclusively make everyone feel special.