Gender plays no role in leadership

Shalini Kamath, Independent Director on the Boards of Abbott, talks to Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner India, Asia Pacific Lead – Pharma, Healthcare, Life Sciences and Consumer products, Stanton Chase India, about how and why having women board members is necessary and beneficial in the male-dominated corporate world
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We are observing a paradigm shift in the pharma/healthcare sector. Being on Abbott’s board, did you witness any positive disruption in the company/industry due to the pandemic?

Yes, absolutely! Pharma and healthcare as a sector was put on spot due to the ongoing pandemic and I foresee at least for another decade or so that this sector is going to get unprecedented focus. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we used to live. Healthcare has become the centre of our lives because of the dependency the pandemic has created. We are now dependent on the pharma industry for our day-to-day well-being. Every company had to reinvent itself overnight to be able to manage the pandemic. Being part of the essential services, the pharma companies had to ensure that their manufacturing facilities were operational as was the supply chain, to ensure continuous access to medication. While the government was asking the masses to lock themselves and the people were fearful of getting infected, pharma companies had to address their employees and ensure that they remain motivated to come to work and deliver.

Abbott took good care of its people in providing them a healthy environment, good hygiene, testing, kits and anything else their employees needed to be able to come to work to keep the manufacturing and operations going. There were other challenges too – field operators not being able to have physical meetings with the doctors and many non-critical illnesses requiring surgeries being postponed, in turn, affecting the normal course of business. Abbott used this time to bring in digitisation, streamline and become an even more robust company and be future-ready. The Managing Director steered the company well with the support of its people and Board through the pandemic. This was a true test of the leadership skills of the management team and they excelled.

You had a long stint in Africa in the beginning of your career and you worked with the government on several projects. Did that background help you to shape your career later?

I started working when I was 21 and I began my career in Africa. Twelve years of these foundation years of my career spent in a different continent influenced me tremendously as a professional. I became a mature adult during this phase of my life. It helped me to understand and appreciate different cultures, different ways of life, different belief systems and different thought processes, and I realised that there is nothing good or bad, it’s just different.

 I learnt the true meaning of equality when my first official dinner at the only five-star hotel then had the company driver and the receptionist on the same table as the CEO and the senior management team.

Africa gets a large number of volunteers/expatriates from different nationalities to come and work there. I worked and socialised with this diverse set of people, apart from the locals – Germans, Swedish, Brits, Americans, Chinese, Sri Lankans….the list is endless. Working with this diverse set of people taught me different work styles and varied cultures. I was also exposed to the diversity of India in Africa. The Indian community was a small closely-knit group of people from Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and a few other states, and while we had many similarities, we had many differences too.

Botswana is a matriarchal society. A large part of the senior staff were women there. All my bosses were strong women.

Women held top-notch positions across industry, government and social enterprises. There were women all around – strong educated women – who were part of policy formulation, decision making and implementation. On my return to India in the late 90s, I was surprised to see that we hardly had any female representation among the corporates and a handful of women were in leadership positions.

I had a personal tragedy, and I had no family around me to support me. I learnt that no matter what we say or think, no matter which part of the world we are in, human behaviour, at its base, is intrinsically similar. The compassion, care, empathy and support that I got was from across all these nationalities. I learnt that the basic goodness of human being has nothing to do with race, caste, colour or creed.

You have worked with government and corporates, and now you are an entrepreneur. How would you categorise your experience for each of them?

All three roles are very different and you realise it only when you are a part of it. The government gives you a large canvas and scale at a very different level. The work one does, impacts a large segment of the society. The decisions taken have a long-term effect on its population. Hence, things move slow. Pros and cons are discussed, large committees are set up and everything is looked at minutely from various angles and perspectives. Fortunately, I worked with the government of a rich country, and, therefore, didn’t have to face the challenge of delivering services with limited resources, which the governments of many developing and under-developed countries face.

In organisations, you realise, in comparison, how fast things move. It’s a contained environment. You can witness the effects of your decision-making within a few years, sometimes on a quarter-by-quarter basis. You witness the impact of your work every year in the company’s results. In my corporate life, I had to reframe my thinking from looking at the company and its employees first, and then, the larger community and other stakeholders.

Then, when you start your entrepreneurial journey, you realise, despite the success and despite being known, you have to begin all over again. You lose a chair and everything goes with it. You don’t have the large ecosystem to support you. It’s stressful. Suddenly, everything is dependent upon one individual, i.e. you. So, that’s when the realisation kicks in on how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur. Getting good talent and skills becomes challenging as you cannot pay them that much when you are starting on your own. It is a difficult journey, but a beautiful one as you get to do what you want to do. You can create and draw the picture you want. That has a different high.

You are a distinguished woman leader. You serve on the Boards of various reputable companies and work with various reputed companies on transformation projects. How did you utilise the challenges/opportunities to your advantage?

I work on change and transformation projects and because change takes time and doesn’t happen instantly, most of my projects run from anywhere between a few months to a few years. When you need to move a group of people from their existing state to the desired state, they will only do so if they find value in it for themselves or if they fear they will be left behind if they don’t change. It requires working at the individual level as well as at the company’s level. One needs to look at culture, structures, systems, processes, the changing market dynamics, the existing skills and gaps, and be prepared to alter approaches as he/she navigates through the maze. I strongly believe that the solutions lie within the companies that I work with.

My role is that of a catalyst to help them find these and understand the need to change. I have been successful in making people move towards the desired state. I thoroughly enjoy my work as there are always challenges. When you say something needs to be changed, that has been working fine for the organisation, your decision gets challenged and you have to justify, why? Over the years, I have realised that if you have good and sustained communication, provide simple logical reasons, can show the direction and the end objective or purpose, change happens.

You are an advocate of gender parity at workplace. What is your perspective on the best practices for a diverse board composition? 

For me, a diverse board is the one that has all the components of diversity – gender, skills, knowledge, age, thought processes, personalities, etc. In my view, when a company makes board selection, it should consider all these. A board should be a culmination of various functions like marketing, human resources, legal, finance and subject matter experts to supplement and compliment the experiences and skills that the company management possess. In terms of gender diversity, a Board will be truly diverse if it has 50 per cent women as that is representative of the society. Companies are built from the society and are there for the larger good of the society. As organisations, we have failed if we are unable to groom and bring up women that have leadership positions. We can move the women percentage up in the boardrooms and at the senior leadership levels only if there is true intent. I strongly believe that the women are Board-ready, but not all Boards are women-ready and the same goes with the leadership positions.

Sebi mandated to have at least one woman in the board panel. Do you think this regulatory nudge has sincerely changed the mindset of male-dominated corporates?

The government intended to promote gender diversity because the organisations themselves were not doing that. Government can help you nudge in that direction, but, finally, the ownership has to be taken by the corporates. The good news is that many organisations picked the “one woman director” based on merit and skills rather than infuse a family member. The sad news is that not many companies have gone beyond what is statutory and have more than one women board members. There are few progressive companies that have gone beyond, Abbott is one of them. It changes the Board dynamics and perspectives – you are seen as someone who has that seat basis your skills and the value add you bring to the table, and not a plug in because of a statutory requirement.

The lone woman Director needs to prove herself doubly and triply to be accepted at par with the other Board members. That apart, women and men look at issues differently. Having more women on the board helps bring in these diverse perspectives and not just a male viewpoint. Lastly, it brings some amount of discipline and decorum in the boardrooms and does not remain an old boys’ club. Irrespective of the gender, the biggest quality in a Board member should be to have the courage of conviction.

Being a Chairperson at the FICCI Women on Corporate Boards Mentorship Program, what was your vision and modus operandi?

The FICCI Women on Corporate Boards was started by Arun Duggal and Anjali Bansal and I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to lead it. It was a beautifully-designed programme with a large number of promoters and CEOs as mentors. These mentors committed their time to mentor women for Board positions. The second piece focussed on inducting senior women leaders from various industries and functions as mentees. These women leaders were matched with the mentors who shared their Board experiences and prepared them for Board positions. There were various learning sessions conducted periodically to equip the women with all the technical, statutory and soft skills required to be an outstanding Board member. The biggest challenge was to help them find Board positions and I bridged this through my network and through FICCI.

Which women leaders’ work and contribution to the corporate world do you admire the most?

I respect Indira Nooyi for her work professionally and personally. She is on another level. We can learn so much from her the way she managed her personal and professional lives at the global level, keeping her values and humility intact. I also admire Kiran Majumdar-Shaw. I find her to be honest and speak up for things that are challenging, no matter what the repercussions. She does the right thing and not be always diplomatic. Another person I really admire is Renuka Ramnath as I have seen her journey from ICICI to being an entrepreneur. To be able to build an ecosystem, finding the right talent, being able to raise funds, being able to deliver and generate good returns year-on-year shows her capability that how brilliantly she has managed in a male-dominated environment.

There are many such professional women that I have deep respect for. Somehow, I may be a little biased towards the professional women who have done exceedingly well rather than the daughters/wives from family businesses. There is no doubt that these women too are doing exceptionally good work, but I feel they get a headstart as they have a platform to start with, whereas, professional women have to empower themselves to create the platform on their own, which is a treacherous journey.

You have co-authored a book and you are a coveted speaker. What do you enjoy more – writing or speaking?

I am a social person and I like speaking. I love to interact with people as you learn from the person you are interacting with and there is two-way learning.

Is there anything people don’t know about Shalini Kamath that you would like to convey through us?

The girls of my generation were taught to be good wives. We were trained on all housekeeping needs from cooking, cleaning, knitting, embroidery, stitching, etc. etc. etc…. I am proud that I also chose to build a strong career. I am grateful to all those who have played an important part in helping me build my career. I will always remain indebted to them.

Besides, the two creative pursuits for me are singing and cooking. I enjoy both tremendously.

AbbottAshwini PrakashCOVID-19 pandemicGender diversityleadership developmentrecruitmentShalini KamathStanton Chase India
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  • Desh raj

    Woman role in developing the whole field nation is very 2 appreciateable