Working in finance is more about talent equality
Puja Thakur, CFO and Executive Director, GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals (GSK), in an interaction with Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner and Board Director, Singapore and India, Stanton Chase, talks about why women should not limit themselves, and must keep their happiness foremost in their minds to experience the joy and bring recognition to an organisation
Finance as a career is rarely chosen by women. What urged you to pursue in this field? Any stereotypes you had to face?
My lens is a bit different! The way I see, finance world is ruled by women. Almost all top CEOs in the banks of India are led by women leaders, and even beyond, Indian women leaders are steering IMF, World Bank, European Central Bank, etc. They are inspiration to women who aspire to make it big in their career. For me, my greatest motivation was to crack into a big manufacturing and marketing company where the senior leadership or the Board Room was always present as shades of “Black and Grey” and I think in the last 10 to 15 years, there have been quite a few trailblazers in the industry who were able to crack through this with their sheer determination, intelligence and adaptability. In most cases, including mine, stereotypes were always around like will she be comfortable being mobile, will she be able to stay late after motherhood, will she be open for networking and attending events and so on. These stereotypes existed then and they exist even now. “The gender gap in finance is both a challenge and an opportunity.” Finance is about more than just money – it’s about running the business as a co-pilot and making an impact. I believe women are in the best position to accomplish this.
There are fewer women pursuing a career in functions like sales, finance and strategy. Your views?
Broadly, challenges are at both personal and at professional levels. The biological clock and the career clock for most women are in total conflict with each other. When you have to have kids, you have to build your career also. Just as you’re rising to middle management, your kids need you because they’re teenagers with various demands. That’s why up to the middle management levels, we maintain healthy diversity ratio, especially in office-based roles. Appreciably, most of the organisations have put in a conscious effort to improve their Inclusion and Diversity ratios in the last 10 years or so. The same zeal is also noticed during recruitment in sales and manufacturing initially, however, in very little time the numbers start dropping there since the requirements on field jobs are a lot tougher and unless a girl comes with a strong grit, determination and ‘can do’ and ‘don’t care’ attitude, everything tantamounts to survival of the fittest. A similar phenomenon also happens for corporate movements from middle-to-senior levels because professional expectations and deliveries are same irrespective of your gender or background. Things begin to become tough and there again, only the ones with same qualities of indomitable will and determination make it to the top.
As a long serving finance leader, a CFO, with a global corporate like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), what does it take to deliver and excel in that role?
The basic successful traits remain same – customer centric, cost leadership, cash focus, competency in performance and corporate governance. I would like to add to do all that in a successful way. It’s important to connect with the ethos of the company, understand them and imbibe them. As a CFO, my role is not to showcase my functional excellence and expertise, but more to understand the important role that finance plays in driving and protecting the business. Basically, we exist because business exists. I believe that each of my team member, including the one who is punching invoices for payment, is partnering and supporting business and protecting it by making it compliant. Secondly, I am as good as my team! While it’s a cliché statement, but it has the entire essence of my leadership. As a leader, my job is to make things happen when my team is stuck somewhere or needs my help. I help facilitate their smooth functioning and giving them breeze beneath their wings to steer them into future.
What have been your key learnings over the last 20 months?
COVID-19 pandemic has been a testing time for all of us. Honestly, I never thought I had so much resilience in me and strength to go through the toughest of times that has impacted all of us, one way or the other. Our priorities changed immediately to protecting the business, taking quick calls basis what’s happening in the market and ensuring every patient is cared and catered to and every member of the business is supported.
There has also been a silver lining during this period where COVID helped in achieving our internal targets of going from paperless to digital in no time! It helped us reinvent our ways of working and to get rid of the processes which has become redundant in today’s world but remained very close to functions like finance. For example, sending physical copies of T&E bills to office, everything being available to be uploaded on the system. It became so easy to drive the change in behaviour and letting them give up tasks that were close to their heart traditionally. It was automatic upgradation of skill sets and was about finding more solutions from system rather than physical approvals. All of this could not have happened if we had not kept close connection with the team. It was important for me to connect with every member of the team and understand their practical issues related to their personal and professional life and support them in these trying times. I added another flair to my leadership which was being more vulnerable and to connect deeper with every member of the team. I would hold sessions on ‘let’s listen’ rather than ‘let’s talk’ and that really helped in energising the team and I would say that as a team, we have had our best year in terms of performance during the COVID period.
What is your contribution towards enhancing gender diversity ratio within your function in GSK?
Encouraging diversity is very close to my heart and I lead the “Spectrum” chapter for GSK in India which is helping our LGBTQIA colleagues to bring their best to office. On gender diversity, I go beyond the expected recruitment and retaining HR policies and talk about creating and encouraging specific women’s ‘lean in circle’ groups where all women in finance in India across all businesses can come together and discuss about their learnings, challenges, inhibitions, and also learn from each other’s experience. Providing mentorship, sharing personal stories, being part of various Women Leadership Initiatives (WLI) are some of my personal goals. I believe, it’s not just about numbers and ratios but more about talent equality. I think the right and the most productive office composition should be reflective of society that exists, and the same logic extends to all kinds of diversity, including LGBTQIA.
What do you do to unwind and recharge yourself?
I have so many avenues to explore that as my hobbies span across from cooking in the kitchen to trekking in The Himalayas. I cycle, I am an explorer, I love shopping, I dance and party and on days, contrarily, I enjoy being just a couch-potato in front of the TV and indulge in Netflix series with my family.
Given an opportunity, which other areas of your life would you like to spend more quality time?
I would like to travel the world because I feel I learn maximum when I experience things, people, places and, I have an anthropologist inside me which keeps me curious and engaged.
What would be your message to young women choosing finance as a career?
Just ‘Aspire’! Do not limit yourself or manifest self-limiting beliefs, keep your happiness foremost in your mind and move away from words like guilt or sacrifice and you will surely surprise yourself and your loved ones with the joy and recognition that you will bring to all.