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 enjo