People need to be at the centre of any business and cultural transformation
Vani Manja, Managing Director- Boehringer Ingelheim, India, speaks to Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner, India and Singapore and Regional Practice Leader Life Sciences and Healthcare, Stanton Chase, about her professional journey, the challenges faced, achievements and learnings
You were a commissioned officer in the Indian Army, what motivated you to walk that path?
I grew up in an Indian Air Force family and environment. As a child, I often wished the armed forces would induct women across all fields rather than being limited to doctors and nurses. I was fortunate that this wish was granted at the right time, just as I was graduating from college in 1992, when the Indian Armed Forces decided to induct women as commissioned officers. This was revolutionary in many ways and I was keen to be part of this era of change. So, I joined one of the pioneering batches of women in the Indian Army in 1993. I saw this as a great opportunity and a personal challenge, to take on a leadership position in a heretofore exclusively male bastion.
It was an opportunity that I feel privileged to have experienced. I treasure it as an enriching chapter with some vital lessons in leadership and in life. Some highlights include discipline, physical fitness and endurance, resilience, and leading with a sense of purpose and esprit de corps. I find myself reminiscing and drawing upon some of these experiences in my personal and corporate life even today.
Were there any significant adjustments you had to make when you transitioned from army to the corporate world?
After nearly six years in the army, I decided to move to the US to broaden my horizons through a business education, following which I started work in management consulting. This was a huge transition for me personally and professionally, with many adjustments and adaptations.
Personally, it was a geographic shift – from India to the US. It was also a demographic shift – from being within the comfort zone of the diverse Indian culture, to an immensely multi-faceted and internationally as well as professionally diverse community at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute.
Professionally, the transition from a hierarchical culture (in the army and in India more broadly) that places great deference to rank and status, to a flat culture of intellectual meritocracy (in management consulting and in the US) came with its share of challenges. It took some unlearning and relearning to effectively transition and succeed in a culture that expects everyone to contribute proactively and step up to the obligation to dissent. There has been no looking back on this. Now, as a leader, I set the same expectation of my teams, while ensuring a psychologically safe environment for them to be able to contribute diverse opinions without the fear of repercussions.
Intellectually, I found myself constantly learning at business school as well as in management consulting, where I was exposed to new cultures, new problems, new functions and new industries. I had the opportunity to serve a variety of clients in healthcare across biopharma, medical technology and global health, amongst other industries. I was also fortunate to work on a wide range of functional areas across R&D, business development, strategy, marketing, sales and general management, and integrations and transformations, gaining an end-to-end perspective of the health sector.
You have an impressive career in medical technology and pharma sector. What were your building blocks and how did you shape them?
I have enjoyed my journey in medical technology and pharma over the last dozen or so years, with a wide variety and diversity of global roles and experiences. It has been a journey of personal and professional growth and value creation in the healthcare sector. I am honoured and privileged to work and lead with a sense of purpose in a research-driven industry that has the potential to transform lives for the long-term. I also appreciate the opportunity for continuous evolution through various roles and geographies.
At my core, I love the enjoyment, exhilaration, learning and growth that comes from taking on new challenges, addressing and ideally solving them, and consolidating what I have learned to bring value and impact into the next challenge. The exhilaration of solving problems helps me continually grow both personally and professionally. I am continually looking for ways to do better in my current and future roles and strive to touch more lives through my work.
You took over the reins of Boehringer Ingelheim India as a Country Managing Director amid the pandemic. What challenges did you face and how did you navigate through them?
I reflect back on 2021 with great fondness and gratitude for the learnings that I have had, but also with humility and appreciation of how little we can sometimes control. I came back to India in 2021 after over twenty years away from the country. Admittedly, the India I left and the India I came back to are remarkably different.
It would be safe to say that this last year has been one of the most challenging leadership experiences of my career. Embarking on a new chapter, especially at the helm of an organisation, requires the personal connect, especially in a culture that thrives on relationships. This was not easy in the midst of the pandemic, given I had to onboard without the ability to meet with people, to connect with teams, or to touch customers. This was also not easy for the team at Boehringer Ingelheim India. In the midst of the intense challenges and uncertainties arising from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, they were faced with a significant leadership change at the helm after the constancy of my predecessor for over a decade.
Thus, I recognised it was important for me onboard with an intentional approach: to build connections with people, to take the time to listen and learn with an open mind and heart, and seek to understand the personal, cultural and business context. I took the time to meet teams at all levels through one-to-one and team meetings, to seek feedback and understand their challenges, to personally connect with colleagues directly impacted by the secondnd wave. As an organisation, we focussed on coming together and staying together to support each other during these challenging times, with a high level of support, empathy and compassion for our people. And, as soon as the second wave abated, I made sure to go out in the field to meet with our customers and come together with our field teams in an open dialogue.
I strongly believe that people need to be at the centre of any business and cultural transformation, especially in the dynamic times that we are in. So, this people-focused approach is continuing well past the second and third waves. This helps keep us together through challenging times, and this helps galvanise the team to strive for their best as we take on challenges, embrace ambitious goals and deliver on our purpose.
As a leader, how do you keep pace with the multi-country, diverse and dynamic workforce?
I am a strong believer of the exponential power of diversity in all its forms: gender, geographies, generations, cultures, languages or thought, to name a few. It is the responsibility as also the privilege of every leader to harness the power of diversity. I believe that the easiest and the most effective way to keep pace with our diverse workforce is to constantly connect with them, to encourage their views and inputs by fostering an inclusive and psychologically safe environment, to reach across organisational silos and hierarchies. As a leader, I take the time – through various forums and interactions – to understand my team and the diversity they represent.
As a member of Boehringer Ingelheim’s global D&I council, what are your goals, and how do you champion the cause?
Boehringer Ingelheim’s global D&I Council is comprised of about ten members from across the organisation, who work together to advance the company’s global Diversity & Inclusion strategy, ambition and measurable goals. We act as role models for diversity and inclusion across the organisation, with several areas of focus: nurturing diverse pools of talent at all levels; ensuring that teams and projects are represented by this diversity of talent; fostering psychological safety to empower individuals and teams; ensuring an inclusive culture across hierarchies and silos and to drive cross-functional collaboration. Personally, I also strive to role model-inclusive leadership, encourage my executive team to hold themselves accountable and walk the talk of diversity and inclusion, and actively sponsor D&I at all levels.
Besides work, what is Vani Manja as a person and where do you like to spend your time and energy?
What defines me as a person and also as a leader is my insatiable curiosity to learn new things, meet new people, and gain new experiences.
I am an avid reader. I read fiction and non-fiction, for pleasure and for business. While I prefer the charm of a physical book in my hand, I am also adapting to new digital media, including audio books and e-books on my smartphone. I also love to travel, which I am eager to start again after the long hiatus imposed by the pandemic.
Most importantly, spending time with my family reenergises me and brings me a lot of joy. My husband, our 14-year-old son and I enjoy doing a variety of things – reading, travelling (Ethiopia was our last destination before the start of the pandemic), board games, puzzles and watching movies together.
Lastly, at work and at home, it’s a personal passion for me to understand what makes people tick and how I can help them bring out their best in everything they do, be it in their professional or personal lives.