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The Stepping Stones: Skills & Risks

Poornima Subramanian, CFO at Reliance Nippon Life Insurance, deep dives into the skills and risks that will help women accelerate their careers:

The Stepping Stones: Skills & Risks

Manoj Agrawal: What skills have you seen having the most impact in accelerating careers for women?

Poornima Subramanian: Companies have goal-setting processes, competitive reviews and strength assessments and financial projections, and finally tools and resources for strategizing business. These are a lot of tools to help accelerate careers. But as a woman, and mother of three sons, with a 25-year career from manufacturing to financial services and a CFO today, my experience has taught me that while companies may have various tools, what will really help to make maximum impact is to address culture as a priority for the business to accelerate progress. While encouraging women to lean in and raise their hands higher might help, one must place equal focus on employers to take action and fix the problem.

What can employers do?

Learning and development opportunities can have a first-hand impact. A consultancy firm supporting women at workplace said: “Work intensely with your hiring and promoting managers to negate the internal dialogues that may prohibit women from advancing such as, ‘she just got married,’ or ‘she’s going to have a baby soon,’ so let’s invest in someone else.” Secondly, create an inclusive culture which emphasizes integrity and collaboration and encourages everyone to achieve their potential, while supporting others along the way. Mentorship programs can help.

What can women themselves do?

Leadership Experiences: Women make great leaders. They’re hard-working, motivated, effective communicators, and have incredibly high standards. One of the really great qualities that women bring as leaders is that they inspire others, particularly other women. They’ve had to work hard to get to where they are now, and they’re not going to throw it away by making silly mistakes or being lazy. This attitude can inspire and motivate other women to do the same – to show that it can be done.

What really would help to get to this leadership experience is to go for high-visibility assignments such as international roles, change management or turnaround projects which can really help.

It’s important for women to understand which leadership experiences matter and are particularly valued by an organization and how to develop those experiences if she does not yet have that exposure. Having access to leadership experiences in the form of stretch roles in the organization can be hugely helpful. I personally have benefited from the high visibility cross functional turnaround projects I have been part of within my organization as it gives exposure to a wide group of people and processes at the same time creating a high visibility for me.

Ability to take Risks: Being ready to take risks is an important skill to have. These risks can involve trying out different business units, roles, locations, and even industries to build a broad foundation of experiences that will serve them in future leadership roles.

It helps to be open minded about one’s career path and have the ability to take some calculated risks – like the willingness to move to new regions, countries, businesses, and roles. That gives one a lot of breadth and exposes them to different experiences and core skills which I believe it helps managements see the woman succeed in such a wide variety of roles, in good times and bad.

In my own case, when I moved from a manufacturing company to a financial services company, and that too to lead their Mumbai back office setup, it was a big risk. I had no financial services experience and neither had led such a large initiative before. But I undertook the job, and it taught me a lot about how to use the knowledge I had and use it to the specific problems I faced. Also, it helped me understand how to work with people from various countries. This gave me my much-needed self confidence in myself and enabled me to take future risks.

Forming ‘a posse’ to help steer their careers: Women often try to go it alone and fear that asking for help shows weakness or an inability to do the job. A posse is a group of people you enroll for help, support, knowledge, or advocacy and tap into them proactively when you need assistance. Women have to find people who will go with them through the good and the challenging.

In fact, there is research which shows that women professionals benefit more from collaboration with other woman than competition. New research in the Harvard Business Review finds that while both men and women benefit from having a network of well-connected peers across different groups, women who also have an inner circle of close female contacts are more likely to land executive positions with greater authority and higher pay.

Have you seen any change in career risk taking in women as compared to men?

One of the common gender stereotypes that we need to challenge is that women are naturally averse to taking risks. Research has shown that risk-taking isn’t inherently a quality associated with men – it is largely driven by the environment and social interactions. Since women have played the role of a caregiver to their families traditionally – be it their children, younger siblings or grandparents – they tend to become hesitant to take more risks as they grow older.

However, research as well as experience shows that risk is what drives innovation at companies and is an essential ingredient for success. Being open to risks is also crucial for the financial growth of women, whether it comes from taking prominent roles in the workplace or investing in businesses that could give big yields in the future. Majority of women agree that people who take more career risks progress more quickly than others, yet not everyone is willing to risk ‘taking a risk’.

Many women think they don’t know as much as they should. They also feel they are not taken as seriously as they should be taken and that they do not have the support of more senior people. Another potential obstacle is an overabundance of caution. Women have admitted many a time that when they have failed at something in the past at work, it has made them more cautious about how they did things in the future. I think at the root of it all is the lack of self-confidence and the feeling of being judged and hence the abundant caution.

When women have taken risks, the number one incentive has been the opportunity to make more money. Beyond money, other factors that have encouraged women in the survey to take more risks include having a past success, a leader that encouraged them to go for it, working in a supportive culture and having more training opportunities.

So, things that women should do:

  • Believe in yourself – and not let the imposter syndrome get the better of you. Don’t second guess yourself.
  • Align your own Vision with Long-Term Goals – I would advise women to be invested in their goals. When someone feels stuck, its because they are not connected to the end vision. If you feel something wouldn’t work out, expose the reason why you think it wouldn’t. This would help you keep a check on self-limiting beliefs and challenge them.
  • Take Action, Even If You Think You’re Not Ready – If you are a perfectionist, which most women tend to be, do not let that paralyze you. Instead take small steps.

Things the organization should do:

  • Provide more women-oriented mentorship programs,
  • Create a supportive culture.

Give examples of risks that women should be taking?

Choose a job based on culture rather than salary: When choosing between two jobs, one could get tempted to take the job with a higher salary. A job that covers your expenses is important, however, money isn’t always the most important aspect of a job. Instead, it’s becoming more common to take the risk of prioritizing company culture. Job seekers today are more willing to sacrifice a big paycheck and a more comfortable lifestyle for a work environment where they are highly valued and given more long-term opportunities. And when you are happy at your job and you align with the company’s core values, you do your best work.

Ask for more responsibilities: Many people find themselves unhappy with some aspect of their current job but do nothing about it. Whether you deserve a raise, want more challenging projects, or need professional development opportunities, asking for more can be intimidating.

As the famous author Nora Roberts once said: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” Women should especially keep this in mind when managing their career. A good manager will be willing to help you grow professionally and achieve what you deserve.

Evaluate potential career risks: As with any other aspect of your life, a good career requires risk management strategies in order to thrive. Taking career risks means being prepared to embrace change. It’s important to be equipped with all the relevant information before you take that leap.

It is useful to ask oneself the questions:

  • What is my tolerance for risk right now?
  • What are the benefits and costs of making this change?
  • Can I buffer the adverse impacts of making this change?
  • Can I live with this decision if it doesn’t pan out the way I planned?
  • If the potential risk will bring us closer to achieving our goals, they should be seriously considered.

In an increasingly knowledge driven economy, what do you see as is the changing role of skills such as language proficiency, creativity, critical thinking, team management, etc.

The key element of value in a knowledge driven economy is the greater dependence on human capital and intellectual property for the source of innovative ideas, information and practices. Organizations are required to capitalize this ‘knowledge’ into their production to stimulate and deepen the business processes. Hence, there is less reliance on physical input and natural resources and a greater reliance on the crucial role of intangible assets within the organization’s settings in facilitating modern economic growth.

The important skills required for any knowledge driven economy are consolidated into 5 key areas associated with primarily professional attributes:

  1. Communication skills, including language and presentation of ideas.
  2. Collaborative skills, including management of group activities and social interaction.
  3. Individual learning approaches, including critical thinking, creativity, metacognition and new skills acquisition.
  4. Individual autonomy, including flexibility, adaptability and entrepreneurship.
  5. ICT and digital literacy, including use of technology as tools for learning, communication and collaboration.

As globalization and internationalization make continuous strides in the development of technology, these skills will continue to be important. These skills will also keep changing in order to keep pace.

The modern knowledge-based economy is centered on big data. Companies are continuously striving to provide external and inter-departmental stakeholders with real time data to be able to make better decisions. Being able to analyze large amounts of data efficiently is a cornerstone for almost all kinds of organizations today at many levels. In marketplace that is centered on data and speed, being able to utilize the most efficient tools (such as Excel, Access, Tableau) enable professionals to make better planning decisions. With the speed that business runs today, effectively applying these analytical skills differentiates you from your peers and enables upward progression within your organization.

Cultivating these skills begins with solid verbal communication, listening, and relationship building. Personal communication skills in general are deteriorating as Millennials that prefer texting to talking populate the workforce in greater numbers each day.

Interpersonal communication skills need to be developed internally first and then bridged to extended to external partners be it vendors or distribution partners. This transfer of knowledge is also comprised of understanding the communication platforms that are available and using the best platform that supports and collaboration of best practices and performance metrics.

Individual commitment to continuous learning beyond formal education platforms is essential in life. Three skills – analyzation, interpersonal skills, and understanding the big picture – are foundational to a career that enables professionals to succeed in a competitive job market. Applying the habit of dedication to continuous learning will enable business professionals and specifically women to stay current and relevant in their respective fields. Committing to the discipline of learning early and making it a habit for life is therefore crucial.


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