People are the biggest assets in any industry, says DB Schenker’s first woman CEO for India and the subcontinent

In our Women in Leadership Series, we profile Kinjal Pande, the first woman CEO for India and the subcontinent at DB Schenker. She speaks about her 19-year-long career in the logistics sector and her plans in her new role.

People are the biggest assets in any industry, says DB Schenker’s first woman CEO for India and the subcontinent

Thursday September 08, 2022,

7 min Read

In April this year, Kinjal Pande became the first woman CEO for India and the subcontinent for DB Schenker India, the transport and logistics division of the €44.43 billion Deutsche Bahn Group.

Kinjal has more than 19 years of cross-functional experience in the logistics industry, with a successful track in transport and logistics, covering sales, pricing, commercial strategy, operations, finance, and profit and loss.

Kinjal Pande

Kinjal Pande

In her current role as CEO, Kinjal will be driving growth in supply chain solutions to existing and new clients, covering freight forwarding, contract logistics, container shipping, rail and road transportation, and infrastructure development.

In a conversation with HerStory, Kinjal traces her long career in a space that’s largely male-dominated, and her plans as CEO.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

HerStory (HS): Can you tell us a little about your early years?

Kinjal Pande (KP): My father was in the Army and my entire childhood was spent moving from one city to the other every couple of years.

And one of the things you pick up every early on is to acclimatise yourself to a new place, make new friends and adjust to a different language or culture very quickly.

We moved around smaller cities near the borders and when he was transferred to Lucknow, we felt like we were finally moving to a big city.

I did my undergraduate course in Delhi University and an MBA from Pune and got placed with shipping line P&O Nedlloyd.

HS: Trace your career from the beginning until now.

KP: I got placed on campus in 2003. Two years into the role, I experienced a transformation where the company was bought by Maersk, one of the biggest shipping lines. It was an absolute fun company from a cultural perspective, and then you are put in a position where you don’t know whether you will have a job or not, but it went really smoothly.

I went to on to work at AP Moller Maersk for the next 17 years until I joined DB Schenker this year.

HS: There must not have been many women in the logistics sector when you started out. Was it a conscious decision to choose this line?

KP: Twenty years ago, the concepts and the kind of push and priority we are seeing around diversity and an inclusive environment were not really spoken about much.

For me, it was as simple as joining a well-known company, a brand that came to the campus. Things are changing now and even in grad schools, logistics and supply chains are a specific vertical of study. Earlier banking, FMCG, retail, and financial services were choices; logistics was not the first choice.

HS: You were at AP Moller Maersk for most of your career. What were the highlights of your time there?

KP: Within the organisation, women are few as you move up the ladder but there have been a lot of opportunities and there has been no cause for complaint.

When I joined it was in sales, commercial, and trade links in India. I got an opportunity to go to Copenhagen where I got PNL experience for three years. It was good—they left it to you to take decisions, the size of the vessels, how you fill them up, what ports to call, the pricing points, and more.

I returned to India and moved around in different roles, including finance to get a hang of it. It was getting a bit tedious to be in the port-to-port ocean world, and I was feeling a bit “boxed” in. Within the group, they had a smaller business unit, where you are a logistics service provider where your strength lies in selling end-to-end as a value proposition to the customer.

I took that jump from big to small and that radically changed things.

HS: What were your biggest successes and challenges?

KP: My biggest success would have to be in the smaller business unit, it was like being in an “underdog company” trying to prove to the company and the outside world that you are there, in your own space, being relevant. It was pushing yourself through turnarounds and transformations quite successfully.

I raised my hand for Myanmar—the last frontier—a country MD role. I thought I needed to see a different market along with the challenges. The country went through a military coup as soon as I landed in February 2021—and it meant taking the young team through a stressed situation, and the lack of safety and stability. Managing customers, their emotions, and getting the work done was tough. For me, personally, the success was steering the team through such a situation.

HS: How did you face the challenges of the pandemic?

KP: In logistics, healthcare and essentials have to move, and nobody had a clue how it was going to pan out. Managing people and customers’ requirements were challenging, and the second wave was even tougher.

One thing was very clear to me: whether the pandemic or a military coup, you take care of your people first; business comes second.

HS: You are also the first woman CEO of DB Schenker India and the subcontinent. How does this distinction feel?

KP: For Asia-Pacific, we have a woman as CEO for the Korea-Japan cluster. Some of our top product heads in the region are women. To be honest, there is a sense of pride, but at the same, there is also responsibility. You have to be successful because I have to be a role model being a leader in the organisation, so that more and more women can come forward and strive to be leaders.

Also, I have been privileged to work in organisations, where they take people on merit. I find I have to do a lot more to support women and spread the message.

HS: I believe diversity and inclusion figure largely in your plans in your current role.

KP: It’s a core part of our global strategy. If we look at the India cluster – there is good representation in the team size. As we move up, in the business side of things, there are not enough women.

We are identifying talent, regardless of age, gender, and once we have done that, we are providing coaches within the leadership team keeping in mind the fact that women’s requirements are different from those of men. We want that women within the talent pool are well represented.

Succession plans are identified, with coaches taking them through the journey. When we are shortlisting candidates for any leadership role, we want one woman candidate to be part of the list. The final choice will be based on merit.

We have continuous conversations, and women start to think differently through support and structured programmes.

HS: Why are there few women in leadership positions?

KP: A fair amount of self-doubt comes in for women. They sometimes think why bother to go through a process if it will be negative. Other elements may include marriage or children. Regardless of support from family, women go through this self-inflicted guilt. Organisations should give them time. Some, like ours, gives them breaks, and let them come back whenever they are ready. I have seen they do come back.

Large global organisations have created a sense of comfort of support. But there is a huge disconnect in places where the women workforce lacks support. We have a monthly onboarding programme for new joinees where we talk about policies. We have a monthly broadcast – a discussion on topics around people.

HS: Do you think a woman leader brings specific attributes to the table, including empathy?

KP: Yes, empathy is an important factor. Also, women bring the balance between performance and people, and that is vital. It’s easy to get drawn into “business” discussions but it takes a fine leader, whether a man or a woman, to understand and ensure that your people are your biggest assets, whatever industry you are in.

(The story has been updated to correct a typo).

Edited by Teja Lele