Leadership is about the way we connect with each other, says Sukanya Padmanabhan of Swiss Re GBS India
Sukanya Padmanabhan grew up in a small town, Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu in a rural environment for the most part.
She says though this background deprived her of the opportunity to pursue higher education in top tier colleges, she had the privilege of being raised in a well-educated family where the focus was on intellectual topics and ideals.
Also, she had the luxury of a personal computer many years before it became a commodity, and this was the starting point for developing her interest in the then-niche field of computer science.
She has over two decades experience in IT and Solution Architecture, Product Strategy, Program and Customer Experience Management in Insurance and Reinsurance Domains.
As Senior Vice President, Tech Area Lead – Group Digital and Technology, Swiss Re GBS India, she is responsible for overseeing the end-to-end roadmap strategy of technology and product.
In a conversation with HerStory, she takes us through the highlights of her career, the challenges of the pandemic, and why networking is essential for women in tech.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
HerStory (HS): Tell us a little about yourself, and your growing-up years.
Sukanya Padmanabhan (SP): Mathematics and physics have always fascinated me, since they provide logic and reason to what we do, and these are the foundations for many other fields including computer science. It is the process of formulating the problem statement and defining a solution approach that has been very exciting and intellectually stimulating for me than following a simple procedure or formula or standard set of steps to solve a problem.
Even today, I join programming challenges in my free time, and I try to (mostly unsuccessfully) solve some of the INMO (Indian National Mathematics Olympiad) problems along with my son.
HS: Please take us through your career.
SP: I started off my career many years ago as a software engineer and progressively grew to be a tech lead and a programme/product manager. Prior to Swiss Re, I pursued a brief stint in the startup space as leader of Strategy and Operations at GeoGestalt.
In the past, I have also led the India Technology Centre of Excellence at Wyde. I have also successfully engineered massive digital transformation projects with Top 10 insurance companies in North America. I was at the forefront of building the UI/UX team to deliver technology vision for the product’s front-end development.
In the initial phase of my career, I was associated as a Consultant at CGI for a decade during which I developed a reinsurance application for one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies.
I completed my MBA from IIM Bangalore – a long awaited dream that came true after many years. I also had a brief stint in entrepreneurship in the fields of digital transformation and customer experience management.
HS: Tell us about your roles and responsibilities in Swiss Re?
SP: I am the Technology Area Lead for the Global HR Solutions in Swiss Re GBS India. Together with my colleagues, I am responsible for building the technology roadmap for the domain. We partner extensively with the group functions and group technology and data strategy teams to deliver technology solutions that support the strategic objectives of the organisation.
HS: How did you face the challenges of working in a pandemic?
SP: Working through the pandemic with two children at different stages of schooling was indeed a challenge. But I would not complain about ‘working from home’ – it at least meant that I had a safe home and a job to do, while many had lost either or both.
Swiss Re has always had the concept of Own The Way You Work – so, working remotely or connecting with people was not such a huge challenge for us.
HS: What can be done to sustain women in tech?
SP: I don’t see a dearth of women entering technology fields these days; however, there is egress at some stage where we lose many of them.
The knowledge in this field is not static; and there is a need for constant learning and upskilling to stay relevant. This, I believe makes it hard for women especially, to keep pace with the changing dynamics of the industry, while wearing multiple hats and juggling with conflicting priorities and varied responsibilities.
I have been very fortunate to work with great leaders who have been extremely empathetic and supportive of me during my challenging times, and those that gave me an opportunity to get back to mainstream industry even when I had taken career breaks for personal reasons.
Lack of flexibility at workplace could be another reason for the mass exodus of women in their mid-career stages. I believe for organisations to retain and groom more women in technology, it is important to provide a roadmap, enough learning opportunities and greater flexibility.
HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?
SP: I personally do not define success in terms of job titles or positions or power. I would rather value the impact that I generate for my organisation, co-workers, friends, and family more, however small it might be. In that sense, I consider my role as a Mental Health First Aider as a success, since we have jointly been able to normalise self-care and bring about awareness around mental health and wellbeing to a large extent.
Challenges have always been around balancing work and life. There were times I had to miss my children’s annual day events for conferences; or skip a symposium or speaker slot to care for a sick child. I have also not hesitated to take career breaks to pursue higher education or to follow my entrepreneurial dream. And, I believe it is perfectly normal to do so – there is no silver bullet to handle all at once perfectly; What is important in my opinion is to prioritise and not to have regrets, as there is never a perfect balance.
HS: Why is networking essential for women in tech?
SP: While most organisations make rational decisions around recruitment and for providing career opportunities, we need to accept the fact that all humans operate under bounded rationality, and these opportunities are mostly given to people that are “visible”.
Women are inherently capable of connecting with people and building deep bonds. However, when it comes to work, most of us shy away from networking or approaching sponsors, as we tend to be more self-critical. I think we need to consciously overcome this diffidence and be confident enough to reach out to people.
I can share a lesson I learnt from my own career. When I knew of a position opening up which I was aspiring for, I reached out to the hiring manager (with a lot of hesitation) just to introduce myself and get to know more about the position and express my interest. The hiring manager was very approachable and said this, “I don’t know what I don’t know. I am glad you called – or else I would’ve never known that you had the qualification and aspiration for the role". Needless to say, I would’ve missed a great opportunity if I had not taken the step to learn about the role or connect with the right people.
HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in tech?
SP: There could be multiple reasons for fewer women in tech - including stereotyping, where we believe the core tech jobs are meant for men, and women are often rescinded towards more softer roles in HR, coaching or arts.
However, I would like to draw attention upon the way we define leadership. It is often viewed in the lens of men that have traditionally held senior management roles.
Most organisations try to conduct women leadership programmes where they are taught to talk, work, lead and network like the men leaders that they are expected to emulate. Little do we understand that in this process, we take away the precious diversity that women bring to the table, and also convey a subtle message that women need to be “trained” to be leaders – thereby indirectly depriving them of the right to be leaders of their own accord, or to develop their own unique leadership style. Instead, we need to focus on building an ecosystem where all genders can thrive and be successful.
The very definition of leadership being about charisma or authority needs to be redefined. In the new age, leadership is about human dynamics and the way we connect with each other. When we let go of the narrow definition of leadership as climbing the corporate ladder, we start noticing women leaders all around us, who can bring value and be role models to others – tech or otherwise.
HS: Why should every organisation have an equal opportunity mindset?
SP: Organisations, in my opinion, should understand the difference between equity and equality. Treating everyone equally at all times is often not fair because people do not really come from the same backgrounds, have the same experiences and opportunities. Unless we learn to appreciate the differences and celebrate diversity in thoughts, opinions and ideas, we will not be able to develop an inclusive work culture.
In today’s world, where even machines learn our preferences and showcase content that amplify our confirmation bias, it is absolutely imperative that we consciously seek out for diverse viewpoints by providing opportunity to all voices.
(The story has been updated to reflect a change in designation)
Edited by Teja Lele