The making of a leader - with Lula Mohanty, Vice President, IBM India
Lula Mohanty was born in a family of 5 sisters and had a very unusual childhood. Lula changed 13 schools even before she finished class 10. Today she is the Vice President, Global Business Services – Global Delivery, IBM India and leads the sectors organization for India Global Delivery Centre. What experiences shape this leader’s story? Let us delve deep and find out from a very eventful journey.Changing 13 schools by class 10
I was born in Orissa but stayed there for only 2 years because my father had a transferable job. I had changed 13 schools by the time I came to the 10th standard. I have lived in big cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and also in interior regions like Muzaffarnagar. It was only when I joined BITS, Pilani that I finally got some stable grounding. People often wonder if changing so many cities and schools impacted my studies; interestingly, I stood 2nd across India in the CBSE class 10 board exams!
My parents are extremely well read. My father was an arts major while my mother had sciences background. My mother was also a fantastic sportsperson and played volleyball for the India team. I received a very solid grounding on values from my parents and my father often stressed on decision making on the base of what is morally right. I feel that a strong grounding in values is critical for today’s leaders.
I also understood the value of education early on. No matter which city or town we moved to, we would enrol ourselves in as many libraries as we could. This quest for learning stems from my parents and I am a maverick reader to this day. The third thing I picked up from my parents is looking at the big picture. When you are moving schools often, it becomes difficult to make close friends. I would sometimes get lonely and grumpy; during those spells, my parents showed me the importance of seeing the big picture and appreciating different perspectives.
Growing up with 4 sisters
We are 5 sisters, 3 of who are younger to me. We had a ball during our childhood! Of course there were relatives who would ask my parents what they would do with 5 daughters. But my parents believed in us and showed the naysayers that daughters are great assets. We are all very well accomplished today, across our various disciplines. My older sister is a PhD in Social Sciences who lectures at JNU. My younger sister is an IAS officer. The next one is an engineer and the youngest one is a journalist.
College days and first job
Growing up with a working mother (she was a professor), I learnt the value of work. I loved sciences and math, so engineering was a natural choice. I went to BITS, Pilani because some of my friends had gone there. During placements is when I encountered gender issues at the workplace for the first time. There was a company that openly declared that they don’t hire women. It struck me as being very distinctly odd and perplexing. In fact, I quizzed them for 15 minutes on why they would not consider women when by pure merit we had so many women ahead of men but didn’t get a convincing answer.
While graduating, all of my friends were preparing to take the GRE and go abroad. I was very clear that I wanted to stay back; we had a very closely knit family here and I could not bear to leave them.
My first assignment was with a small consulting firm founded by five entrepreneurs. I joined a smaller company to gain a holistic understanding of work and started consulting in finance. I got to interact with banking groups and finance experts first hand and that was great exposure to the world of management consulting. After that I joined PwC and worked with them for 9 years. My first assignment was with an Oil and Gas PSU which we helped with restructuring of pricing around refining, pipeline and product. For the next three years, I built expertise in the Oil and Gas industry, understanding refining plants, oil and gas units and reading every trade journal available. I probably knew more about Oil and Gas by the end of the project than many of the insiders did. This was another great lesson – you can gain much more by looking at things from an end-end perspective rather than localizing your thinking to the task at hand. I did a few more assignments at PwC in discrete manufacturing and then moved on to technology. SAP was hot then and I joined the bandwagon.
IBM – a sea of opportunities
If I look back at my last 15 years at IBM, it was a sea of opportunities for me. Here, you have a feeling of working for many companies at the same time. There are plenty of opportunities available and I don’t think I could have had similar experiences working anywhere else. For example, I did SAP consulting when I joined and spent time in the US and UK. I managed large scale clients, got trained at the best places and went about helping set up the IT outsourcing operations in Europe. I had the opportunity to work with industry leaders and got to have industry level conversations with CXOs of large organizations.
I then wanted to understand the operations side of the business and got the opportunity to set up IBM’s services delivery center in Manila. That was an amazing transformational experience. There were not many women before me who went out and did stuff like setting up operations ground up in an unknown territory. The amount of support that came in from the organization was phenomenal.
And now I am running IBM’s delivery center in India, which is one of the largest worldwide. IBM also taught me that content is key; year after year I have seen the focus on building industry expertise. Whether you are in services, mobile technologies or cloud, there is a strong thrust to be an expert at what you are doing. I also realize that companies must have a have broader focus on long-term planning, culture, inclusivity and legacy to survive for so long. Working for a legendary institution, you can only feel that you are a part of the brand, you can never really be larger than it.
Mantras of Leadership
1. Finding purpose in every job that I take on: I have a huge sense of responsibility – whatever job I have taken, I feel that the heavens will fall if I don’t do it. That makes the job so much more worth it!
2. Being passionate about the teams that I lead: Making my teams succeed is extremely important for me. This is critical as you are growing up the ladder.
3. Being self-aware of my strengths and being very self-critical: I know the core areas where I am leveraged to the maximum. I also learned early that it is not about being ‘the’ best, but it is about being ‘my’ best.
4. As you grow higher up in an organization, you can’t do it all alone: It is all about teams; how effectively you collaborate and network with others.
5. Having the mentor and support network: At times when I needed it most, there was an immediate leadership intervention from the company. Ensuring the right levels of intervention to facilitate the hard decisions you want to make is very important. I always found the right mentors, right role models and an immensely useful feedback mechanism to help me through all my tough situations.
Leading the IBM India delivery center
I love my current role where I manage one of IBM’s largest delivery centers. I meet 4-5 large clients a week and get to work with CXOs across industries. I am driven by the huge impact that our technologies and work have on our clients. Working in technology today is about managing change and dealing with the rate at which it happens. You have to be at your toes all the time.
My word for younger women
1. I have never felt that work has taken away my charms in life. If you want to achieve anything, you have to enjoy your work thoroughly. That is why we talk about work-life integration and not balance. When you are just starting out, you need to have the clarity of what you are going to do and where you want to be, and committing to put in the time it is going to take to get there.
2. For women, being vulnerable is okay, but being able to deal with it is important.
3. Having a trusted group of friends and mentors is key. At IBM, we mandatorily assign mentors to our young women to have periodical topical conversations. What I have also realised is that women don’t network enough, maybe because of the way we are conditioned. So many of us don’t have enough organizational intelligence. You only gain that by building networks and talking to people regularly. We are now living in a very interconnected and intelligent world, people have to be very aware of what are the latest trends and be part of the peer groups to get a good grasp of everything.
4. I want to encourage all the young women in technology because if you are in this field, it is a huge blessing. Maximizing the usage of technology in everything that you do is the way ahead, and that is a huge opportunity for everyone!
Best business advice
1. Success and comfort do not co-exist. I am not saying that if you are successful you are uncomfortable; it is when you are probably getting too comfortable that you will have to start looking for the next benchmark for yourself.
2. Most of us as VPs or GMs have large teams reporting into us. Obviously you have a lot of power from your position, but your real power comes when you are able to influence through expertise or competence. The next generation leadership is going to be about having a good grasp on subject matter and effectively communication and influence.
1. First is prioritization. Most of us have to multi-task. Your ability to sense the urgency and ability to prioritize tasks is key.
2. The second is knowing what is an energy booster for you and what is an energy drainer. For example, it is important for me to spend 70% of my time with people. I love to get perspectives from my teams. If I don’t have one of those conversations, my day is drained. You need to focus on your energy boosters and create time to do them.
I read a lot. Some of my favourites – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Executive Presence, Speed of Trust, Good to Great and many more.
If I look at what is ahead of us, I have held a few things very close to me. Happiness has to be at the center of everything that you do. The comfort of having a great family and having great friends comes second to none. If you have this part going solid, it acts as the foundation for every other success. Increasingly everyone has more and more work, and you need to have a very clear and happy head to be able to be creative.
We thank Lula for speaking to HerStory and we wish her many more successes and leadership positions to come.