In this special interview for our Women’s day feature, Ms Geetanjali Wheeler talks about why diversity is more than just hiring women candidates. She also talks about how leadership is gender-neutral and the importance of investing in women leadership development programs that empower, and we need strong sponsors promoting the way!
“I think it’s fair to say that both men and woman face challenges in life. The nature of these challenges could be different… but the truth is how we rise to those challenges shapes who we become. There is no gender discrimination in that!
Q: You’re a very vibrant and dynamic leader who has been training, mentoring and developing people for close to 17 years now. As a female leader, what were some of the biggest challenges and lessons learnt thus far?
A: As a woman, my experiences are no different from the others! So, when I often hear or read about them, I think “hey I know what that’s like!” I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a meeting room feeling completely non-existent or when someone conveniently assumes that I could not take up a new role or a responsibility because it required managing tougher stakeholders or putting in more hours or travelling for wor or feel that I was not networking enough because I could not do smoke breaks or after-work catch-ups every time!
I remember the first time I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I had a smile throughout… it was the first book I read that captured well everything I felt. I think the smile in my head was more about me thinking “So, this is really everywhere!” That changes how we define challenges – it’s not something that just I’m facing!
I’m personally convinced that failures and trials help us grow in our life. I think it’s fair to say that both men and women face challenges in life. The nature of these challenges could be different… but the truth is how we rise to those challenges shapes who we become. There is no gender discrimination in that!
I would love to share some of the learning that has built its roots in me and has helped me navigate some of the challenges:
- Focus on what you can bring to the table… continually invest in honing your competencies. When you are passionate about making a difference, what lies in the periphery will not make a difference.
- Being comfortable with the uncomfortable…the best of my transitions and learning have come from operating out of my comfort zone
- Networking for me is building meaningful relationships and investing in the – long term and so it’s about making many deposits before the withdrawal
From 2 women leaders I admire the most:
- Oprah Winfrey said, “You can have it all… Just not at once”. This is for me about faith, balance and being in peace about your own journey.
- Indra Nooyi said “Please help others rise. Greatness comes not from a position, but from helping build the future. We have an obligation to pull others up.” I think no matter who you are, we all can do this and it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world!
The learnings from my experiences have made me more passionate about how I want to contribute to making my workplace a more inclusive place to work. I think each one of us irrespective of our roles, designation, authority can play a vital role in building an inclusive culture.
Q: What has your rich experience of working in L&D across varied verticals – Telecom, Airline and E-commerce taught you about developing more women into leaders? In your opinion, to what extent are women leaders in L&D responsible for building a gender-balanced culture?
A: The core objective of D&I cannot be achieved only by hiring more women. The D&I strategy can be successful when it’s aligned with the employee lifecycle – how we attract, develop and retain diverse talent. If we just understand this, then it becomes easier to understand the role of L&D in supporting D&I initiatives. So, I think the two should be brought together to complement efforts leading to better impact. For e.g
- Equipping managers to become conscious of their biases when they hire or manage teams
- Position and use talent or leadership development programs to promote diverse talent
- Creation skill development centres for roles or teams where we do not have decent diversity representation
- Orientation for new managers or employees about the organization’s D&I agenda
These are some of the big ones that stand out and then there are the finer aspects that also matter… just give it some thought e.g. How do we write our content – does it have an inclusive language? What about the case studies and roleplays – their characters, settings and actions? Do our pictures or slides represent men in the position of leaders or managers?
The core objective of D&I cannot be achieved only by hiring more women. The D&I strategy can be successful when it’s aligned with the employee lifecycle – how we attract, develop and retain diverse talent. If we just understand this, then it becomes easier to understand the role of L&D in supporting D&I initiatives.
Q: Many people struggle to find a mentor to help them in their career journey. Did you ever receive any form of mentoring as you moved along? Why is being a mentor such an important part of your career?
A: My encounter with mentoring has been an informal one and that’s why the biggest element in that relationship for me has been trusting. I also realized that mentoring works when there is the right match of what you need versus what your mentor can actually give. While one may think that in a mentoring relationship it’s the mentee that receives, the truth is that the mentor has to gain as well e.g., further skills and experience in being able to mentor. It’s only then that this relationship becomes satisfying and long-term.
So, getting a mentor is not as simple as asking someone “Will you be my mentor?” – a mistake that I have made and learnt in the process. While looking for a mentor one should also be mindful of the difference between coaching and mentoring because an expectation mismatch may cause disappointment. Finally, in a mentoring relationship, just like “life”, the onus lies with us as the mentee.
I did not have one person as a mentor – what I have is like a network of people I have met in my life professionally or at a personal level who have played the role of being a mentor for me. I reach out to them based on their experience for guidance, to talk about my inhibitions and thoughts. The advice I get from them, the tips and learnings they share from their own experience helps me a lot to navigate through my challenges. They have helped me clear my head and to be able to look forward… to that, I’m ever so grateful!
So, when you take from the community, you also have to give back. My love for what I do professionally can be summarized by Harvey Firestone’s quote “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”As a woman, I don’t want to earn a position as a “diversity” role candidate. I want to earn it based on my merit and competence. Click To Tweet
What I do at a personal level is also driven by this calling – I especially feel extremely obliged to mentor those in their early career!
Q: Do you think Leadership Training is critical to helping women achieve their potential and learning how to lead?
A: Leadership is gender-neutral and I don’t think leaders are born – I think they are made! So, leadership training is critical for leaders in making – whether men or women! I think the real question when it comes to leadership development is not the “Who?” but the “How?” The unconscious bias prevailing at the workplace has not just seeped in from nowhere… it comes as the fabric of the very society we are a part of.
The kind of challenges that a woman faces at work and home is different from what men face. If we put all of this together, we don’t have to wonder why there are just so few women at the top or why we have a huge leak in the pipeline at or after a certain career stage? I love the way how Indra Nooyi puts this in perspective – when a woman’s confidence is impacted, it impacts her competence and it’s a vicious circle.
As a woman, I don’t want to earn a position as a “diversity” role candidate. I want to earn it based on my merit and competence.
It is not uncommon to expect a difference in leadership styles between men and women and it simply is based on the fact that we are wired differently. Women leaders are also often more scrutinized and judged differently for their actions and failures.There is other research that has shown that organizations perform better with balanced leadership teams. This performance is not just some “feelgood” statements but actual business metrics (quantitative and qualitative) – it… Click To Tweet
There is a business case to have women in leadership and decision-making positions. Much research talks about how women approach problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork differently. This is not to say that women are better than men but to highlight the importance of diversity in the workplace. There is other research that has shown that organizations perform better with balanced leadership teams. This performance is not just some “feel-good” statements but actual business metrics (quantitative and qualitative) – it impacts the bottom line, period! It’s therefore important to invest in women leadership development programs that empower, and we need strong sponsors promoting the way!