My father is from Trichy in Tamil Nadu and he was employed in the public sector steel plant. I started my education in Bhilai when he was posted there. His was a transferrable job and every few years the family had to pitch tent in a new place. From Bhilai, we moved to a small town in West Bengal and from there we went to Vizag, then Bangalore and finally to Kolkata. I have an older brother who is also a Chartered Account and a younger sister who is an MBA.
I had a wonderful childhood – making new friends every time we changed school, eating different food and being exposed to different customs and culture. I picked up many languages like Hindi and Punjabi and because of this people would always be unsure which region I came from.
I followed my brother’s footsteps and enrolled for CA in Delhi. I began my career with PwC and later joined GlaxoSmithKline, the makers of Horlicks. I loved the factory exposure and the camaraderie of the workers. It also exposed me to retail outlets and taught me how they compete.
After two years at SmithKline, in corporate finance and taxation, I got an opportunity at GE Capital. GE was a different ball game. They were growing dramatically when I joined in 2000. I moved there as India Pricing and Risk head. We made deals daily. It showed me what it means to work in a high growth environment for the first time. You need to think really fast and be agile to survive in a fast-paced environment.
There was an opportunity to set up GE Capital in Bangalore and I jumped at it. That experience was one of my biggest learnings. I was involved in everything, from setting up the building to talking to enforcement officers to getting approvals. It was a very different role from the pricing and risk role that I was doing earlier. It was very empowering. I became the site finance lead. I started taking more responsibilities. I was made the finance lead for many of GE’s businesses in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon. I used to go to Gurgaon on Monday morning and return to Bangalore by Friday evening to be with my family. I did that almost for an entire year.
The CFO of Microsoft, a former colleague, offered me a job. I became their Compliance Head. It was a role that I had not done before. Microsoft was growing in India. When growth is fast there are reasons to celebrate, but the company needs to constantly look into compliance and governance issues. I set up the entire compliance team for Microsoft in India as well as their compliance framework. I ran that for three years.
The management wanted me to take on a new role as the India Financial Controller. The role put me in touch with a part of me I did not know existed. I learnt to let go of controls as a hard-core finance person and let my team do the job. This role also taught me how to be a human manager.
This business is very demanding and no matter how well you are prepared things don’t go according to plan. This role taught me how to prioritize. In those four years I think I grew into a good manager.
At this point in time, I had to be in Bangalore because my two daughters and my family needed me. Microsoft was very dear to my heart and the thought of leaving was very hard. At the same time, I didn’t want to compromise on my career or the role I would take on. While I was struggling with this dilemma, I happened to meet the leadership at EMC and that is how the EMC CFO role came about. EMC is at the peak of its growth in India. We are contributing big to the world of technology. I love being a part of this team.
I think there is this whole generalization that women don’t like finance. In my team at Microsoft, I had 50 per cent women. At EMC, I have 27 per cent women. Look at technology today, you can work from wherever you want and that makes it all the more empowering for women.
I come from a family where most of the women worked and everyone was academically well qualified. When I go to women forums, I hear stories of women who had to struggle to complete their college degrees. I was privileged to receive a good education and later mentorship in my career. Luckily for me, my mother is my first critic and inspiration.
Gone are the days when finance was a profession where you could get by working independently. Today, it is important to network with people in the organisation and constantly innovate.
Soft skills are very important. I don’t know why they are called soft skills though. I think they are the hardest skills to acquire. It is important to collaborate with everyone in the organisation. I have had great mentors along the way who coached and guided me and helped me become a better people’s person. This is especially hard for a finance person who is used to crunching numbers.
I remember early in my career, a senior leader had asked me whether I was CFO or CEO material. I told him I wanted to be a CFO. He gifted me a Swiss knife. The Swiss knife’s core job is to be a knife, but it can also do 10 other things. What he meant was you need to keep sharpening your core so that your value is fed into the system. From then on, I did a lot of core roles, from accounting to business finance to compliance to tax to audit. I did everything. Lot of youngsters today may not want to get their hands dirty. But remember the charm of the Swiss knife is also that it can do ten other things.
I have good infrastructure support at home and at office. I think a lot of women underestimate the importance of being open. I have always had frank conversations about timing and flexibility in all the organizations I have worked. For example, I had a conversation with my manager that I need to leave office early because I had to spend time with my young daughters, but I was happy to work later in the night. A lot of women don’t give time to themselves, and I was guilty of that too for a long time.
I begin my day with a workout. This is important for me. When you do something for 30 days, it becomes a habit. I really enjoy the fact that I am giving time to myself in the morning.
Planning is very important, both at home and office. I spend a little time on that every day and it really helps. From a productivity perspective, keep getting feedback from people constantly.
I think everyone’s career has a point of inflection. In Microsoft, I received a year-end feedback saying that I was a bad human manager. I got rated poorly by my team. I was shocked. At an offsite, I apologized to my team and I told them I was willing to change. That incident completely turned things around for me. I understood that as a manager if you succeed with your deliverables but without your team walking behind you, you are a failure. I read, I got coached and I went through rigorous training on people management. The same team rallied behind me afterwards. This phase gave me an insight into myself and helped me become a good manager. I am able to sustain that to this day.
Be focused, plan your life and career. Sometime things don’t go according to plan, that is okay, but have a clear target in mind, and go after it.