Laura Schneider for HBR
After living away from India for 14 years, I returned three years ago to create and take charge of the sustainability department of Jindal Steel & Power, one of India’s largest manufacturing business conglomerates.
I realized that in Indian business, power is still bafflingly associated with virility and manliness. Stereotypes dictate that women are not naturally accorded the same power as men, even in similar leadership roles. And ironically, in a country where one million people will turn 18 every month for the next several years, being 60 is still one of the essential criteria for being considered for a leadership position. Here I was a woman leader, half the age of my peers, in a fast-growing company in which a mere 3.5% were women. Not only did I have to establish the vision for the company’s sustainability — holistic growth of the company is how we defined it — but also gain the trust and active support across the company to implement the changes needed.
I could have taken two routes to do this. One way was to join the boy’s club, act like a man, and boss my way through. The second was to be my authentic self, as feminine and geeky as that may be, and get the job done with kindness. The lessons I learnt may be helpful to other young women in India who aspire to take on a leadership role with authenticity and efficacy, in a country that is now more accepting of women in leadership roles.
When I was joining Jindal, I knew that succeeding at the workplace would mean assessing not only the team and the role, but also being sensible in choosing my boss. I knew the consequences this could have on my career; a strong and nurturing manager could empower me, whereas an insecure manager could have bought me down despite my best efforts. From the time that I took on the role, Naveen Jindal, the chairman, established my position publicly and supported the decisions I took, which allowed me to choose the path of authentic, feminine leadership. As he built the company he inherited from his father, he walked the talk on improving diversity by hiring and developing women leaders, as well as trusting young employees with larger responsibilities in the company. Unlike many other family-owned businesses in India that depute only Indians—and usually family members —at top positions, Naveen Jindal appointed Indians to leadership positions in the company’s international offices as well as hired expats for our India operations.
Once on the job, I made sure to pause appropriately. I took longer than normal to get to know my new colleagues and connect with them. I allowed myself three months to understand the business before I began to comment — in the meantime I targeted accomplishing projects that were low hanging fruits. Intuition takes years of practice to build up. To work on par with peers whose years of work experience equaled my age I consciously took extra time to deliberate before I spoke. To establish my credibility, I always backed my input with facts.
To deal with large egos of people who were resistant to accepting a woman leader half their age, I made them feel that I was always considering their ideas. I found that the legwork that goes into organizing discussions amongst colleagues, gently influencing them with the idea that needs to be executed, and making them feel it was their idea too, was worth the time and effort.
When I was working on establishing an authentic brand identity for the company, for example, I decided to involve all the employees instead of simply hiring a PR firm to create one. I rolled out a questionnaire to everyone asking them what they thought the company stood for and where they saw it in the future. The results of the survey leaned towards employees feeling that by producing steel, power, and infrastructure they were literally building India. That is how the idea of “Building the Nation of Our Dreams” came about. This was also a term Naveen Jindal used frequently in his speeches. Everything synced perfectly — it was easy to implement what was everyone’s idea.
One of my top priorities was to ensure that women’s opinions and aspirations were audible in the high-testosterone work environment. But to do that, it was necessary to emphasize diversity, not gender. Any important decision is enriched by diverse perspectives—older and younger employees, engineers as well as managers, locals as well as expat employees should all be encouraged to share their experiences. Managers should strive to improve diversity and create a culture where people can thrive respecting each other’s differences.
We are prone to believing that hard work and long hours contribute the most to our advancement. Instead I would argue that the most important career decisions we make are related to the people we allow into our life, and the most valuable accomplishment while working in any organization is the quality of human connections we establish. In India, I have often seen that women are more hesitant than men about establishing strong relationships at work, because they’re worried about what colleagues and their spouse might think, or fear that the work relationship itself may turn sexual. One of the most important career choices women will ever make is about the spouse they choose. An open-minded and confident spouse will propel them to be the boldest version of themselves. Good relationships with colleagues at work create a network of allies that can get women through tough projects. Mentoring colleagues builds trust. And without a well-meaning and progressive sponsor at work, high-potential young women can easily fail to meet their potential.
Dr. Miniya Chatterji is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Jindal Steel & Power Ltd. She is a Global Leadership Fellow alumna of the World Economic Forum.