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'Let your work speak for yourself’, says Indian management association's Rekha Sethi

Sneh Singh
21st Dec 2017
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As a higher number of women enter the workforce, the glass ceiling still remains. Rekha Sethi, one could say, is ruling in a man’s world. 

The Director General of All India Management Association (AIMA) Rekha Sethi finds a place on the Board of Directors of some leading companies

The Director General of All India Management Association (AIMA) Rekha Sethi finds a place on the Board of Directors of some leading companies like Sun Pharmaceutical Industries.

An student of English from St Stephen’s College in Delhi, Rekha started her career with Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) in 1985, and later joined CII, which marked a turning point in her career.

Rekha lives by the mantra ‘Let your work speak for yourself’, and in a chat with YourStory speaks about her career, management, disruption in technology and why are there not many women on boards of companies.

YourStory: Can you trace your career path for us?

Rekha Sethi: I started my career with C-Dot in 1985. It seemed like an extension of college as I had the opportunity to be with some brilliant young people with a mission to revolutionise telecom in the country.

However, joining CII in 1991 was the turning point in my career where I met CEOs and brilliant people from all walks of life, and that shaped me as a person. I joined CII in at a time of great change and have been a part of India’s journey through liberalisation and globalisation. I handled some of CII’s largest events, from India@60 in New York, to Auto Expo in Delhi.

I took charge at All India Management Association (AIMA) in 2008, and have been privileged to build AIMA’s brand at home and overseas and to create thought leadership platforms for business and government leaders. I have been involved with AIMA’s growth from a largely management education and testing body, to a multifaceted organisation that conducts management research and trains the workforce in management and entrepreneurship skills.

YS: What are the management mantras you live by? 

RS: Let your work speak for yourself, and be transparent in your dealings. If you genuinely care about the people, they give back a lot. Encourage, motivate and trust them. Your colleagues give best results when you empathise with them. Most importantly, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.

YS: Why are there not many women on boards of companies?

RS: Historically, company boards have been men-only clubs. However, now women are staking their claim and the laws are in place to support gender diversity. Still, there are very few women on corporate boards because there are not many women in top executive positions.

I never thought of a board position. I met the founder of Sun Pharma Dilip Sanghvi at an event in Baroda, and later met him at AIMA. When I tried to persuade him to become AIMA’s President, he surprised me by asking me to join Sun Pharma’s board. Later, I was invited to the boards of CESC and Hero Steel. I am extremely lucky with these boards.

YS:  Do you think Indian workplace is skewed in favour of men?

RS: Being a woman in a man’s world is not easy. The default setting of the work system favours men. Typically, companies claim priority rights on executives’ time, and do not tolerate the breaks that women take to bear and rear children. They slot women to non-critical roles, which limit their growth opportunities. Many talented women quit to take care of families. However, there is a growing shift from an availability-based relationship towards outcome-based work, and that should help lower the barriers to women’s careers.

YS: As a woman, have you faced the glass ceiling?

RS: Not really. I was always given as many chances as men. At CII, I headed trade fairs and international events, which required late nights and travel. Now, I head an industry association. However, I am not sure if any other major national industry association is headed by a woman.

YS: How is technology helping in modern management?

RS: Technology is disrupting business, and management too. As operating and business models change, management is also changing. Increasingly, management is more about agility and outcomes and less about control. Information flow is growing in volume, complexity and speed and requires machines to process the data and take fast decisions. Old management tasks of information collection and processing, coordination and routine decision making are getting automated. Technology is allowing the management to focus on insights, innovation and adaptation.

YS: Is disruption as a strategy good for managing startups?

RS: Today, you either disrupt or get disrupted. The room for slow and steady is disappearing. Startups are best placed to disrupt because they have no baggage of legacy. They do not need to acquire too many people or physical assets to build a business, or to challenge established companies. All they need are ideas that make it simultaneously easier, faster, better and cheaper to deliver a product or service. In fact, managing a startup has to be about disruption because it is no longer safe to merely become a supplier to an established business.

YS: What new management facets does a company need to embrace today?

RS: The new economy is shifting to digital operating and business models, and new management has to focus on building data and automation capabilities. Integration with messaging, geolocation, transaction, and logistics platforms is becoming essential to most businesses in addition to competitive convenience and cost-saving. Capturing and understanding data is essential to disrupt competition, or to avoid getting disrupted.

YS: How can management studies be more relevant to the industry?

RS: Management education has to move from static knowledge and case studies of the past. Students and executives need to learn to predict and adapt quickly and frequently. In addition to working with data, they need to learn to manage tasks and people in a network of businesses. Independent and self-sufficient organisations are becoming extinct.

YS:   What are the key aspect of mentoring? Could you give some personal experiences?

RS: Every leader learns the finer aspects of the craft from mentors. I was lucky to have an outstanding mentor in Tarun Das at CII. While he led by expectation, he also led by example. He set high standards and let the standards raise the level of the juniors. His mentoring helped not only me, but many others. A large number of industry organisations have been headed by the leaders he mentored.

YS:   Automation will become a big problem in the near future with robots and machines taking up jobs. How can skill development deal with automation?

RS: Automation has always disrupted jobs but it has ended up creating vastly more jobs, albeit of new kinds. That is the story of economic evolution. Today, many types of physical and intellectual tasks are getting reassigned to robots, learning machines and AI.

However, this shift will allow tasks to be done faster, cheaper and at a much larger scale, which will expand the variety and volume of products and services. This expansion and diversification of the economy demands a larger workforce with skills to manage machines and serve consumers. The onus is on the education and training system to shift to modern knowledge and skills immediately and adequately. Otherwise, things could get much worse before they get any better.

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