As sectors, pharma, lifesciences and healthcare are poised for major disruption and transformation. In your opinion, how have the Boards equipped themselves to help organisations navigate through this journey?
Indeed, pharma is undergoing a drastic transformation. Times like these have made us realise that the board of pharma companies are operating in a high-risk environment. Board is not just being a kind of steward where statutory and compliance is concerned, but also having an oversight on the overall business of the organisation. During the current pandemic, what became apparent is that two factors are critical – patient safety and employee safety.
Talking about employee safety, pharma was one industry that was at the frontline of all the crisis and making sure that you know you are not just taking care of your stakeholders, but you are also looking after yourself and your families. Many employees needed counselling, mental strength and perseverance, and the board of directors had to make sure that the organisations are doing that in the right earnest, taking care of their employees and their well-being. For me, this was an important thing that we observed, and pharma boards did it very well.
Coming to patient safety, pharma is a research-focussed industry. It is not that today you can do disruptive innovation just by sitting and coming up with ideas in a boardroom and expect to hit the ground running on execution. It requires years and years of research to come up with something that can be certified as patient safety measure, be it India or abroad, every country goes through its own regulations and norms. The kind of agility that was demonstrated by pharma companies was unprecedented. What used to take many years of deep research, was achieved in a short span of 12 months with cross-border knowledge collaboration. When I look at it, I think patient safety with the added advantage of speed and agility has been the benefit of pandemic and we saw different companies took on different responsibilities identifying their strength and core DNA of their business to deliver solutions i.e., the company on whose board I sit on, was very clear that they were focussing on testing kits and not so much on vaccine or any other thing.
So, coming back to the board responsibility, I think two things we had to ensure were employee safety and patient safety and motivate the organisations to intelligently use technology with science to deliver on both the aspects.
What is your idea of Diverse Board room composition?
Gender diversity has become mandatory by law, and it can be debated that we needed a law to enable this. For me, it’s a good first step and I am quite appreciative of the fact that at least something needed to be enforced for them to become a rule rather than an exception. But for me, diversity goes beyond just gender. Skill diversity is important to me. The kind of new skills that are emerging makes it important to have multi-skilled diverse board to be ready to face new challenges. Boards also have a stakeholder relationship committee, but it is restricted more towards the investors. In my view, inducting stakeholders on to the board, not in every meeting per se, but occasionally having a customer voicing, their perspective in the board meeting, will help the board to take an informed decision. Today, your customer is your stakeholder. So, having a customer’s voice on the board is going to become crucial.
Another important aspect is demographic diversity of the board. There used to be this myth that you need to have a mature, grey-haired profile to be worthy of the board because wisdom only comes with age. But, today, with a new whole start-up ecosystem and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, we are realising that it has its own strengths. The young-age leaders today keep themselves abreast with the current digital advancements and they have showed that age has got nothing to do with the wisdom. It has everything to do with the spirit of entrepreneurship that they bring to the table. So, for me, the demographic diversity is also important. I haven’t seen a lot of change happening by choice that you are not going out and seeking the demographic diversity, rather it’s happening subconsciously. I guess, over the period of time, it is going to happen. In many new-age companies, the shareholders and promoters themselves are, in any case, much younger than the board profile. So, it balances out.
You serve on various prestigious Boards like Abbot Healthcare, L&T and Welspun. Has Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) become part of board culture? If yes, what kind of conversations happen around this subject?
Different companies have evolved at different levels, it’s not one formula. Family-run boards are different from global boards, and the global boards are different from entrepreneurial company’s board. So, this is a journey that, I am happy to say, has begun for everybody. They might be at different levels of maturity, but they have all started the discussion around the topic. We are seeing a lot of diversity mandates going to professional search organisations, where they curate and find the right profile with the right skills, which is a good evidence that at least on the skill diversity front, there is some action happening.
Inclusion and equity is a journey. Some boards are ahead of the others. So, currently, it might not be a proactive conversation that would be happening in many boards amongst other business-related conversations and challenges that board is grappling with because of the pandemic. But, if the topic of DE&I comes up for the conversation, there is a lot of positive intent to move in this direction and to do the right thing.
Besides DE&I, what are you most passionate about?
I am very passionate about brand and digital. I left corporate six years back when I started my journey of building my organisation “Storm the Norm.” It started with the book I had written by the same name. I have always lived by the principal that if you always go by the norm, you will only make incremental changes to your life, or to your business, or to your work or to anything you are doing. However, if you take a contrarian view and if you challenge the norms and the stereotypes, only then, you will do something disruptive.
Today, the work I am doing in the diversity space also comes from the same principal – that women lived with so many societal norms, like women are not meant for corner office, marriage comes before work, women are not supposed to demonstrate anger, etc., there are like hundred norms that women have lived with and some of them are self-inflicted. All my work in diversity is pushing women to challenge these norms. Why do you take it as given? Family before self, we have been living with these cliches and stereotypical premises which can’t be changed overnight, but at least start facing and changing them one at a time.
I think women feel guilty if they don’t attend to their family. I had quit my job to help my daughter with her studies and later, it took me almost one year to get back at one level lower. Mine is a very average girl life and people relate to it and think that if she could do it, why not us. Having said that, today’s environment is much tougher and if you give up, it’s not easy to come back. In today’s context, when I speak of my personal experience of 30 years in corporate world, dealing with the professionals and being the only woman in the leadership team in General Motors and Max Life Insurance for several years, I emphasise on what that means and how one makes his/her presence felt. So, all my talks on diversity come from my personal experience and people are able to resonate with it as it is real.
What helped you to land your first board role? How did you decide what’s the right board to join and what was your learning?
There wasn’t a plan like this, but I was keen to get on the boards when this whole thing started. I felt myself worthy enough to be on the board and that is very important. This is the first step that in your mind, you must know that you are ready for the board. First board for me was through the reference, that got validated and endorsed through what perception the larger world had about me and who had known and respected me for my work and skills. This demonstrated that, you can only expect the references to come through if you have invested in creating a personal brand for yourself. Even if a referral puts your name up, the company will do its due diligence in public domains and if you have not invested in creating personal brand in your domain area and you do not have a certain reputation, then the referral may not work in your favour.
Coming to deciding on which board to join, I only apply two filters – compliance and governance. I look for whether the company is well-governed and strong on compliances. I don’t look at the size of the organisation. I serve on the boards of mid-sized companies as well as the large-sized ones. I am also very diverse in industries because for me, my kind of skill is challenging the norms and I can apply it to domains and industries. I have never been choosy that I want to be on tech board or pharma board. Other important factors that I consider are, can I leave value on the table if I join the company? Is it a strategic board or is it a normal statutory tick mark board? For me, being on strategic board where you can add value and where there is a respect for the value that you add is of prime importance.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently in your corporate career?
I think I like speaking. I would have been a good professor. Even now, I like speaking, talking and I do host my own conferences and sessions and masterclasses. So, I would have been happy hosting my own classes, having my own academy. Even today, I feel that I can have my storm the norm academy and ask people how to think disruptively and out of the box.
What advice do you have for the next generation of board aspirants who are starting fresh on their board assignments?
Be a master of your skill – that’s very important. Today, you need to stand out, you need to be a stormer to get noticed. You might be good at your skill but are you standing out? You need to have something that differentiates you. Being the domain expert and continuously investing in staying relevant in your domain is a necessity now. You have to identify what your call is. Your call could be human relations, public policy, finance, etc., and within that call, what is your unique differentiator that the world needs to see. It is important that we are seen and heard today. If you have aspiration and ambition to go out in the public world, then you need to do something about it. You can’t just be doing great work with your head in computer all the time. Also, having some kind of inspiration and having a role model always helps because it propels your own ambitions.
Lastly, the most important thing that I want to tell the aspiring women is – women come with an expiry date syndrome on their career. It is something that I feel very passionate about and I talk a lot about. So, what I mean by expiry date is, even before you have started your first job, you put an expiry date on it thinking when I get married, my job expires. When my husband gets transferred, my job expires. When my child is born, my job expires. So, the job will expire, but the career will stay. So, if you are a job-oriented person, you will put an expiry date in your head but if you are a career-oriented person, the job can stall or end, but your career will continue. So, be career-minded, not job-oriented.
How would you describe your typical day? Outside work, what excites you the most?
First of all, I am a big TV buff. I do watch TV couple of hours every day that just numbs my mind from all the chaos. Otherwise, I have a very active mind. I am constantly thinking, writing, researching and reading. So, some hours of being passive where my mind is at rest helps me to work better.
Secondly, I like travelling – I am constantly planning trips.
Third thing which I like is being in awe of little things. I don’t look for big choice. If I see good weather and I see birds chirping, I do want to stand there for 15 minutes and do nothing and just be with myself. Even when I take holidays, I just sit by myself and gaze at the nature’s beauty. I like absorbing these little joys of life. These little joys give me big sense of gratitude to how much one has gotten in their life. I am an ISHA volunteer and follower, so, I have a huge impact of Sadhguru and his teachings on my life. Those things, I really value now.