Debjani, tell us about your journey, share of challenges and how did you overcome them that shaped you to becoming the Leader
An only child of educated, fairly well-to-do, principled yet forward-thinking parents – I had always been an achiever from start. My dad was my idol, who could do no wrong, and it was he who inculcated in me values such as compassion, empathy, sharing, humility, resilience – while at the same time, aiming for the skies.
The lineage of educational institutions that I had the privilege of studying in was almost a who’s who list. A resident of Delhi, starting with Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, to a Lady Sri Ram College (DU) for Graduate studies to Jawaharlal Nehru University for Post Graduate studies in International Studies, I was as accomplished in academic studies as one could dream for. But the challenges that came about in the course of the same journey were no less daunting by themselves, and mostly self-inflicted. I was a rebel of the times – greatly influenced by role models such as the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese Leader senior from College), etc. else – how could you explain qualifying in the Prelims and Mains of the UPSC exams in the first attempt itself, and choosing not to go for the interview because of the ‘Mandal Commission’ recommendations that shook the polity at that point of time. I had suddenly become a student activist, which was a defining juncture in my academic journey thus far. Few more such decisions followed – and I was suddenly staring at a future that was likely to be very different from what I had always thought it would be.
Few things that however never changed throughout (and must have been again due to my parents’ teachings) – was my ability to adapt to new realities, and turn adversities in to opportunities for self. And soon enough – I was charting a new and different journey for myself altogether – one that brought me again inside the classroom to complete an MBA (from FMS, DU) and then go on to chart a super successful career in Human Resources across industries in the Corporate World, rising to the levels where I could influence many a course of large organisations in my role as CHRO, as well as a member of the Board.
You believe in – “Lead by Example and Practice empathy by choice”. Share with us any special incident close to your heart that has demonstrated the success of the initiative where you were leading
I think I demonstrated traits of Leadership quite early on in life. A stickler for walking the talk, and taking people along – right from school days, I had enjoyed my fair share of adulation from seniors, peers, juniors and teachers alike. An example that was a defining point during my stint as Students’ Union Head of the School in grade XIth – was when I led from the front – a mass agitation of students against the Management, forcing them to finally purchase the school’s own fleet of transport that would ferry children between home and school – driven by well qualified drivers who would also be responsible for overall safety of the children. Earlier – it had been the practice to hire public buses run by third party drivers, who owed nothing to the school’s concern towards the childrens’ safety whatsoever.
Years later, as the CHRO of a reputed Corporate in the Pharma space – with the tacit support of the CEO, single-handedly took on the Board of Directors -when they prescribed a downsizing of employees in huge numbers to make up for fast depleting profitability. My conscious was very clear – you don’t kick people in their stomach for mistakes in decisions taken by people sitting in high places. It was a tough call, one which could have even cost me the job perhaps, but what I gained in return was huge credibility for myself and others who stood by me, respect and immense goodwill. When I finally bid adieu to the Company few years’ later, there were many a moist pair of eyes that I left behind.
Describe what does #SheTakesTheLead means to you?
#SheTakesTheLead – describes (in my imaginative reality) a vibrant, courageous, positive, compassionate, empathetic, and lively woman. One who benchmarks herself to no other, sets the bar high otherwise, radiates positive energy wherever she goes, is like a ‘beam of light’ that shows the way, faces adversities with immense courage and can be the life and support for those in woe.
It also points towards a woman who stands for the right of others’. Defines the course ahead, and does so in ways that creates a new paradigm altogether. Symbolically – it stands for woman emancipation and empowerment in every possible way.
One of the survey suggests that majority of women respondents anticipate a pay-cut on their career re-entry due to the prevalence of motherhood wage penalty (how mothers suffer sever wage and hiring disadvantageous in the workplace), is it a reality or just an anticipation
Without sounding prejudiced against those who have started changing the rules of this game in significant ways – I would say it is still very much a reality today in the Indian context. And I have always cried out loud at the injustice of it all.
Few cardinal questions: Who does the woman bear the child for? Is it an expected norm in the family that a married woman, otherwise working – would still be called upon at some point to give birth to the progeny? Contrary to that of a man’s, does a woman’s child-bearing role still assume predominance over her career? Who decides for the woman in our society – she or all significant others? A close analysis of all the above questions tell a story of it’s own. And it’s the same set of men who rule the psyche of the society and make the norms, who also make the rules in the offices. Thus the concerns of depleting opportunities and pay cuts for the women, making their way back after child-birth.
Having said that – Corporates are changing, though the rate of change is very slow. Organisations like the Tatas, Capgemini, GE and few others over the last 2 -3 years, have held boot camps for ‘returning mothers’. Careers are evaluated and opportunities provided. In some cases, even up-skilling is provided. But much more has to be still done and in very large numbers to be able to create comfort. Indigenous Corporate houses have to take the lead, with the Govt. also aiding the process through enabling legislation.
What change have you seen in the attitude of the returning mother in last 3 years. How motherhood impacts the perception of her team members after she re-joins after her break
I have seen changes of both kinds – and that has left me wondering, at times. There are those who wear the new badge of motherhood with immense pride (and rightly so), while also making a genuine effort to seamlessly blend in – picking up from where they had left off. They make an honest effort to balance their new responsibilities with all of the old ones, in the process earning empathy and genuine support along the way.
And then there are those – who after their return to work, start claiming special status from day 1. The underlying message being that child-birth should be seen as the activity or turn of event that automatically should endow a special status upon the new mother, which now needs to be recognised by all others in the Corporate space. These women still cry out for equal rights at the workplace, claim promotions, employee benefits at par, while at the same time making excuses out of the new reality (that of child birth) to justify all gaps. This often leads to resentment and brewing grievance amongst other members of the Team, as is often reported from work-places.
Hence – a call out to all new mothers back at work. In today’s reality, with better maternity benefits, matching paternal facilitation many times, support systems like creches at the workplaces – things are anyways well taken care of in most ways. The rest remains on how we conduct ourselves. Very much so.
You have led various gender diversity and inclusion initiatives. What does it mean for you to have a commitment to Diversity? How have you demonstrated that commitment?
A topic that has always been close to my heart.
Right from childhood – my parents had instilled in me, the concept of all being one before the Almighty (being the God-fearing kinds), whether of caste, creed, community, religion, language, colour of skin etc.
One grew up – realising that the basic and most fundamental diversity in our country was still the difference between the TWO sexes – yes, mostly the talk was around 2 only. And that’s when I declared to the world – that I was not ‘gender- neutral’, instead I was completely ‘gender-agnostic’. It just did not matter – who looked and behaved differently and what made that happen. Colour of skin, DNA, Chromosomes, Hormones ? As the Cultural Secretary of my Under-grad. College – I saw to the inauguration of the first officially recognised ‘Queer’ club, and even recall partying with the first batch of Dipsites who came out of the closet. My rebel self again……
In the Corporate world – I am extremely proud to say that whether working for MNCs (with so-called better sensitivities) or for Indian Business Houses – was always a champion for DI. Not only did I lead interventions in HR areas, starting with customising programs around different Employee Groups in areas such as Recruitment, Employee Engagement, Benefits Welfare etc., but also seamlessly wove CSR strategies around the same. In Kuoni, I was awarded the DI Champion for the year 2012-’13 by the Global CEO, worldwide.
Today – even as part of an independent HR Advisory group Think-tank, supporting Incubation Labs in Schools/Colleges, Start-ups and Unicorns, I still continue to support DI Social Groups today. I am a Board member for a not-for-profit organisation that actively supports Diversity at the Work-place. As a Social Mentor, coaching students in high schools, under-grad. colleges as well as B-schools – I ensure that the current generation has a much higher appreciation and understanding of the concept and reality of DI than what was there before.
How would you advocate for Diversity education and Diversity initiatives with individuals who don’t see its value?
Some of the ways, by way of which Diversity education can be taken to the naysayers are:
Audio-visual aids – films, narratives etc.
Complimentary Invites to DI events
Exposure to literature on the subject to bring closer home the point
Subtle, but consistent coaching on the subject
Creating positive stories around Diversity and sharing the same
A piece of advice to your fellow women Leaders
Let go of inhibitions and soar high!
Spread those wings and talk to the winds!
When pushed back, break flight and recoup strength – and take off again!
Renegotiate, reconsider and strategize ahead!
There is no option to give up!
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