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68: Roma Balwani: The leadership journey
Episode 6815th May 2022 • The Elephant in the Room • Sudha Singh
00:00:00 00:29:48

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What makes a good leader? Who is a good leader? Are women better leaders? What or who shapes our leadership styles? Why do women continue to be underrepresented at the C-Suite level across the world? These are some of the questions I have been asking my guests on The Elephant in the Room podcast - in an attempt to demystify leadership and what it means because it means different things to different people. For the 68th episode of The Elephant in the Room podcast I spoke with Roma Balwani a strategic communications advisor, an Independent Board Director at John Cockerill and former President of Communications at the Vedanta Group. 

In 2021, in India just 4.7% of the CEOs are female (slight increase from 2018) and there has been a decline in the number of women board Chairs. The regulatory requirement for listed company’s to have women on boards, has definitely helped increase the number of women directors board numbers (2021 - 17.1% up from 9.4 in 2014). But, women leaders in India are decades away from any kind of parity in the C-Suite or at the Board level.

In this episode I spoke with Roma about her journey, the challenges, opportunities and mentors who helped her build and progress her career. We also spoke about leadership, women and their leadership styles; barriers to women in leadership in India; challenges facing leaders in an ever changing world; the skills aspiring women leaders should focus on; people who inspire her……….

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Memorable passages from the podcast

👉🏾 Morning Sudha, I'm really delighted to be invited to share some of my personal stories of my checkered career in your podcast.

👉🏾 Sure. So I have been the President of the Vedanta Group for almost seven to eight years, and just recently moved into an advisory role as a communication specialist. I was looking after brand and communications at the Vedanta Group. Prior to that, I was also the EVP and Chief communications officer at the Mahindra Group for communications. So both these have been very large part of my career and of course, the career, as I said, is checkered because I've dabbled in many things which are to do with creativity. 

👉🏾 So I've been a creative consultant in the past. I have also lived in Norway and worked as a communication specialist there as well. My education has been largely in Mumbai. I've been an economics and political science graduate from a leading college in Mumbai, from Bombay University, as well as done my post-grad in Marketing from Bombay University. And then generally we have been very well exposed to executive education at the Harvard business school as the Michigan Ross school of management, so those have been very insightful leadership training that I have received. 

👉🏾 I have over more than three decades of experience as a communications specialist, but frankly, my career in PR started, it was a chance which I took on at the time when I was not a PR specialist. I was a marketing communications manager in a computer education company, which was a very small company at that time. It was just a 500 crore company led by Ganesh Natrajan, and he offered me that role. And I said, I don't think I'm really suited for it because I'm very candid, outspoken, and he said, you know, Roma, that is your speciality and that will hold you in good stead in this profile as well. I said, well, I'm willing to try, but I'm not sure whether I'm a perfect fit for it, but frankly, I think he felt that I could do it more than I could, and I don't think I've looked back since then. And I guess he was right. 

👉🏾 Honestly though back then they were only stereotype roles for women. So I started my career and grew in a company called Larsen & Turbo, it is one of the largest manufacturing company, you must be have heard of them. And I actually joined them when I was studying and I was in my college and I grew from the ranks over there. And it was a time I think where I think I learned a lot of things which have helped me in footsteps now. I used to wake up early in the morning, do my classes, rush to work. Even in my post graduation days, I used to do a full day's job and then go to evening classes. You know wait at the bus stop, very tired after that a long lecture. But I think that really was the starting point of my career, where the deal with my father was, that I will not give up education and that's when he allowed me to start my career very young, I think I was only 19 at that time. 

👉🏾 Yes Sudha, I think I could say yes and no because every challenge I saw was an opportunity to excel. I remember when I first was given the supervisory role in Larsen & Tubro. I was made to now become the executive assistant to the general manager, which at that time was quite a senior role and a very, very important role working with the then general manager of the company. I was just 22 years old, as I remember, and I just finished my post graduation, got my diploma and I applied for the job. Now somewhere you see in manufacturing companies, the mindset is that they want people who are engineers and who have done their MBA, and I was really not suited with that kind of an education qualification.

👉🏾 And the general manager told me that if you succeed in the next six months, you will be evaluated or you will be pushed back into your old role. And I took up that challenge, maybe I was foolhardy at that time, but when I was given those six months. I know from then on, I had to earn my stripes, each time and I didn't want it any other way. So I think that was the starting point. And then of course, every woman faces some kind of glass ceiling as you grow in your career, but I didn't let that deter me because I had many, many bosses who really supported me and I'm very thankful for that. 

👉🏾 My case, it was slightly different, because I had possibly come from a time when leadership or your values start at home. And I was brought up in a home which was a place where the family members are treated equally, whether you were a girl or a boy, and possibly that shaped my independent attitude. And having both educated parents who had moved from Pakistan to Mumbai, and they were both doing well in the way they shaped my career. So I think if I look at that part of my life that possibly developed my leadership style unconsciously. So starting as a shy backbencher in school, I tried to see what is life going to give me. And my father used to drop me to school every day, and every time I tried to match his strides, and I must say those strides were very difficult to achieve, and you can understand what I mean by that. And he helped me gain that confidence that there is more in life that I can do, and from that shy back bencher, I became a person of my own right. Even very young, which is why I started working at a very young age. And then you become a poised and confident leader of tomorrow and I must say my family helped me in that.

👉🏾 But today, if you want to take effective leadership, I think both leadership and communication are intertwined. The best leaders are skilled communicators; we all demonstrate empathy, we demonstrate integrity, confidence along with humility and above all I think we are committed to the work that we do, the organisation that we belong to and we are accountable. I think for me, the buck stops with me; bouquets are welcomed for my teams, but the brickbats are welcome only to me. I think these are traits which you have to develop if you want to be seen as an effective leader.

👉🏾 Oh, absolutely. I mean, leadership styles keep evolving and we have the ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence and we are more self-aware. I think we are decisive, yet flexible and bring to the high table a sense of balance and an equitable mindset. 

👉🏾 I completely agree with you as I said earlier, that yes, our leadership styles evolve. And for me, it's important today to see how over a period of time I have delegated, have empowered people to grow as young leaders and that has made them succeed. So I think in the early days, you have to keep proving yourself as a capable leader, you're being direct, then you learn to coach people, then you're supportive and then you learn to delegate to empower. I think I have gone through those stages in my career, and today I am very happy that I'm at stage when I can mentor young professionals and they are potential leaders in the making. And also provide them appropriate platforms to really grow.

👉🏾 So I think this way I have changed my leadership style. I can give you an example when I was called back to Vedanta by Chairman, Anil Agarwal’s daughter, Priya. She did tell me that I need you to mentor me so that I can segue into the organisation more seamlessly because I'm want to do that. And I must say these three years working with her, today she is so confident she has grown to be a poised and humane leader. She's also leading the top management, which is the group management board and leading it to build a purpose driven organisation, which I think in itself is a challenge. But she's taken it up very well, and she's leveraging sustainable development which she saw was my forte to drive the net zero commitment of reducing the carbon footprint by 2050 for the group. Now that is a tall order for a young leader like her, but she has that power of persuasion and not just by the role that she plays as the daughter of the chairman, but as a leader herself. 

👉🏾 Sudha I have been very fortunate with this legislation. I was also at an independent director for a company, which is the Indian subsidiary of a Belgian company called John Cockerill. And I've been there with them for almost seven years now in my second stint with them and being a professional. I realised that what I bring to the table as a woman leader, as a woman independent director, really balances the boardroom discussions and makes it much more enriched. And you've seen that data also says that when are women directors on the board, the organisation itself evolves into discussions at the board level, balanced towards CSR, towards sustainability, risk management, which probably is not only dealing with numbers and business, right? 

👉🏾 This has helped many boards to really get the right kind of professionals, but at the same time, we are still grappling with the fact that many Indian companies have women directors who are there by virtue of they being the wives of the owners or by actually owning part of that organisation. But what I've seen in the recent times is that they have realised that they have to better equip themselves, so that they can be part of the board deliberations and not just be a figure present because they have to do the numbers right.

👉🏾 So that difference, I'm seeing with many younger women leaders who are coming into the boards, but they're adding value to the boards. Now those are the difference I see in the board compositions and their acumen to be much more useful to the board deliberations, than what it was, let's say a few years back.

👉🏾 So it's not an issue of lack of talent, I think the way opportunities are being created now is far more easier than what it was earlier for people like us. There were few opportunities at that point in time, but for women themselves, they have to develop this self-belief and in their power to lead. If they have that confidence, to take charge, be accountable; then many forward looking organisations will definitely want them on their boards or want them as CEOs in their organisation.

👉🏾 Now take a manufacturing company like Mahindras, they have so many women leaders, leading absolutely male dominated profiles of work. And the women leaders who feel that they are confident to take on these responsibilities, they should grab that opportunity, they should not hesitate. And I notice that many of these women do hesitate and they think that they may not be able to do justice, both to their homes and to their workplace. I think that is a myth that we need to address and make it possible for women to have that flexibility at work where they can still be leading the teams and be able to manage their workplace. And look at it today Sudha, in today's context, we are in a virtual world, flexibilities are being offered to everybody and why not seize the opportunity.

👉🏾 So I think as far as the PR industry is concerned, we surely are in a sweet spot in the sector, right? There are many, many women who are leading many verticals and they're doing very well. There are many CEOs of many global PR firms who are doing well, and I don't see women not taking the lead in the PR field because they feel that they can add more value to a client and create a purpose-driven strategy for them as compared to men who would not possibly think in that direction.

👉🏾 So you will see many women PR professionals, wanting to join this profession, now then earlier when PR was not structured. PR was not a structured function. I must say that about 20 years back when I was trying to put that structure in place, I was then labelled to say that, she managed to bring strategic communication to the high table. But I also was given the opportunity by a very forward looking chairman, like Anand Mahindra. So we have to create those opportunities for ourselves, for the profile of work that we do, that we are not somebody who just writes a press release, once your business proposition is in place. You are part of the business cycle and your function actually adds the dimension right when you start the process of creating a business goal which is what I think what I think is important to understand, and women can do that equally well, or even better than men. 

👉🏾 You're right, I think leaders today have to battle and survive in a VUCA world. The pandemic has really shown us a mirror of reality, which was earlier unknown to the world at large. Now you have to adapt to the virtual world because that is reality for you now, and to be able to do that, you have to be able to see disaster coming so that you protect your business. You're seeing that the youth today have a lot of mental health as a problem, which today leaders have to understand, empathise and face it, and also resolve it and manage the young generation when they are trying to grow in this VUCA world. 

👉🏾 So I think the whole change which we have to bring in is to be more adaptable, be more flexible to the environment. And then as I always give this classic example, is to pivot effectively, you have to now unlearn your old ways, grow from those failures that you had earlier, start celebrating the small successes that you have now managed in the last two years. Relearn from those experiences and then move forward with much more confidence and new insights; which now will be the key attributes I would expect from any aspiring woman leader. Create your own personal brand, when you associate with a bigger cause than you, people stop looking up to you as a woman leader, who has been resilient who has managed, the kind of adversity that we faced in the last two years and adapted to it, pivoted and still succeeded. 

👉🏾 Like I said earlier, women lack their self-belief, they have to get their self-belief absolutely, in the forefront, because if they don't think that they can achieve and succeed. And they can take charge and lead teams. Take for example recently Anand Mahindra complimented a young lady on the shop floor, who's leading a team of 700 people in the Nasik manufacturing unit, and she's leading 700 men right? So I think if you can get that kind of mindset cultivated and you are able to lead in that context, then there are many opportunities that you will get. And I always said that you have to communicate effectively, articulate your vision with clarity, with purpose, make people stand up and listen to you and be guided by you. I think that is also very important.

👉🏾 And then of course, as I said, the adaptability and flexibility to pivot. That is my favourite example of dolphins, actually, you've seen them dance and they dance in rhythm, and why do they do that? Because their leader, their conductor, sends clear instructions, which they follow, else there'll be chaos, right, in any organisation. If you can do that effectively and be articulate enough and give that a sense of confidence to your teams, I think there is no chance they will not succeed. 

👉🏾 You know strangely all my role models have been my bosses, right from when I was a 19-year-old and he was a 50-year-old and I would look up to and say, oh my God, he's quite an old gentlemen. He's the one who actually taught the ropes to my corporate career, he taught me what the pitfalls are, how to manage those pitfalls. I think I'm really indebted to him. His name is Mr. B I Bhambhani, he’s passed away, may his soul rest in heaven. He was my best teacher to start with. Then as I moved and evolved into my career, I had the opportunity to work with a very passionate leader called Ganesh Natarajan, who was the one who changed my career path, and I went from marketing to PR and who really had that belief in me that I could deliver and succeed; so he was my second role model. The third one I remember very clearly and I still remember a small little incident, which made me feel so special by him, was Ronnie Screwvala. And I happened to join UTV and wanted to pursue my creative career, and I became one of his senior members, and every birthday, he would bring a cake onto your table, sing happy birthday for you and the whole team would join in. You know, these are small little things, but they seem etched in your memory and did that with every team member. He wouldn’t call you to his room, he would bring that cake to your table and he would sing that song for you. And those are touching moments, right? Those are leadership traits, which you don't find in everybody. 

👉🏾 He actually developed my global mindset, he sent me to Tampa, he wanted me to learn a new kind of business proposition, which is selling on television, which was home shopping. It was an unheard of at that point in time. And I learned, and I was exposed to that kind of global mindset to go and see how people work in the US, at a time when nobody thought of it. And then of course, coming to my stint in Norway, I was vey fortunate to meet a Finnish lady, her name was Tuija, and she was the MD of an Indian company called E-Bookers, an e-commerce portal for tourism. 

👉🏾 Came back, luckily Anand Mahindra wanted somebody with a corporate background and a global mindset; and I think I fitted the bill and I got that opportunity. And he was the one who empowered me to create the magic of the...