“Looking back, it seems like a dream!” says Rekha Sethi, Director General of the All India Management Association (AIMA), the apex body for management in India. Her exciting and fulfilling journey has made her realise that she loves what she does, and the people she meets and the countries she visits. “They have all enriched my senses and abilities,” she informs us.
After having worked with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) for over 17 years, Rekha took charge of AIMA in June 2008. She has since established AIMA as the preferred platform for discussions and debate on management and has deepened AIMA’s relationship with the Government of India and India Inc. A non-lobbying, not for-profit organisation working closely with industry, the government, academia and students, AIMA strives to further the cause of the management profession in India.
We catch up with her on a lazy afternoon, talking about her journey, her work and her ideas. Exceprts:
Rekha with Ratan Tata
What are some of the biggest challenges that women face in the industry? Is there are a way to overcome them?
The challenges somebody faces in the industry or in any area, are proportional to the preparedness of the person for the assignment, the ability to learn fast and the willingness to adapt. I started off during a period when there weren’t many women at the helm and there was a certain amount of uncertainty on how my future would pan out. Fortunately, I have not been pushed back ever because I am a woman. Instead, I have been encouraged because of my native skills and uniquely feminine ways of looking at issues and solving them. However, women being a minority at work, especially in leadership roles, have to continuously prove themselves worthy, as the default expectations are that they may not measure up, fail to withstand the pressures of the senior roles, and quit the race for the top jobs.
Also, the work system and culture continue to be stuck in old dogmas and habits, limiting a woman’s ability to commit themselves to both the work and the family. More often than not, one has to accept a lesser role in one or the other. The way to overcome this critical challenge is to be flexible about work methods and measure individuals by the outcome alone, and not by conformity with uniformity.
With N Chandrasekaran, Chairman of Tata Sons and other head honchos
What kind of policy-level changes are you hoping to see in the future?
Policies and regulations have been important in creating opportunities for women and changing mindset about women’s status at work. The legal requirement to have at least one-woman director on the boards of listed companies has proved to be a game changer. While it has made many boards admit women for the first time, it has also changed the board cultures to make them more sensitive to diversity, inclusion, health and environment. Now we need to enlarge the pipeline of women leaders.
Another key area for policy action involves the tradeoff between the society’s sensitivity to women’s security and a woman’s desire for greater freedom of choice in work, work hours and work location. Career women must weigh in determining the balance of protection and freedom.
What are some of the challenges that you faced initially? How did you navigate those mucky waters?
Every opportunity presents itself with its own share of trials and tribulations. The bigger the opportunity, the bigger the challenge!
I remember when I joined CII, it was a period of great change and I witnessed India’s journey through liberalisation and globalisation. It was a great learning experience being part of a national transition.
Being one of the first few women Director Generals (DG) of an industry association wasn’t exactly a cake walk. The challenges I faced in the initial days were completely different from anything I had experienced before. Being accepted, and more importantly respected, in a hitherto male dominated bastion was the key challenge. I have always believed – let your work speak for you and that’s what I did. You can only earn your colleagues’ respect when you keep your head down and let your work speak for you.
With Bill Clinton
Will you be able to share a few anecdotes stories that have stayed with you over all these years?
Oh, there are so many, they could fill a book! However, let me share one. It was when I was put in charge of organising an Industry Interaction involving over a thousand people, in Hyderabad, for the then US President Bill Clinton when he visited India. He was all the rage with the women, and I was no exception. It was a crazy time and I remember working all hours with no sleep over many days. Dealing with the Secret Service was an experience that made me want to pull my hair out and coordinating with multiple government and business agencies gave me nightmares! A small cog in the wheel – I had no expectations and by that time – no desire - to meet the President and all I wanted was to just get through the event in one piece! But then fate – through one of my colleagues –took over and I was presented to the man himself! And what a meeting it was! People all around me – including CEOs, politicians, bureaucrats – were all going crazy trying to meet him and there was this man at the center of all the chaos. And he who held my hand and said that he must take a picture with the young lady who had put in all the work. He kept holding my hand until they found a photographer who took a picture despite all the hullaballoo.
Where do you look for inspiration when you need it the most?
The one constant through my personal or professional journey has always been my family. My father – who I lost too early; my mother – who always wanted her daughter to stand on her own feet and my brother – who has been a silent supporter throughout. They’ve been my pillar of strength and inspiration through it all.
On one of her travels
How do you unwind?
There is an interesting Buddhist saying: ‘Don’t just do something. Sit there!’ which contrasts with the western push to ‘don’t just sit there, do something’. I unwind after exhausting days by following the Buddhist saying :)
After the hectic life I lead, a lazy Sunday just watching a comedy and eating forbidden food – especially Bengali sweets –is my idea of bliss!
I also love to travel! Nothing like exploring a new city or country, and soaking in their food, culture and way of living and chilling!
What thought would you like to leave our young readers with?
That your future is only limited by the size of your dreams and your disciplined drive to realise them! If you can imagine it, you can also achieve it. It is important to have a clear vision of where or who you want to be, before you can set yourself a target.
Remember: Goals can and do change; but your acquired skills, adaptability, and willingness to learn from your mistakes will always help you. They have helped me, so I speak from experience.
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