‘As we think of future of work, start with family, then work outwards’

Leadership is a tough assignment and as you ascend to the top, life is very difficult. If you try to craft an image that is not authentic, that veneer will slip very often and people will see through you. So one of the things that I decided was that I’m not going to create a new veneer. Trying to juggle the priorities of work, family and kids is just not easy. So I’m going to tell people how hard it is. I’m going to use a support system to help me manage all of this stuff. And things are going to fall through the cracks. But if I’m human and talk about it honestly, then I don’t have to constantly think about what image I should create for myself.



On finding empathy

The empathy part was simple because all the people who worked for me and worked with me were first of all human beings, who had their own families, their own communities, their issues, which they couldn’t just leave behind. It never affected their work but you could feel it in their body language. They were emotional about certain issues. And I felt that if I reached out to them and understood them as people, as opposed to tools of the trade, they would give me more in terms of contribution to the workplace. So I got to know them as people.

On taking strong political positions

One of the reasons why people want corporate leaders to take a position is that they feel helpless. So they think that corporations can actually convince governments to do something different. Now here’s the problem. In a corporation, whatever position I took, one third of the employees agreed, one third disagreed, and one third were quiet. There was always this dilemma. What about the quiet group? If something violated the value statement or code of conduct, we always took a position. If it did not relate to it, we stayed out.

On her American story

The US is still the most open country in the world. In my book, I talked about being in the UK with the prime minister at a luncheon and he asked me why I didn’t come to the UK many years ago. And I told him, ‘Had I come to the UK, I wouldn’t be having lunch with you’. In most countries, an Indian immigrant, from an emerging market, a woman, would have a tough time ascending to the CEOship. There’s no way to really work your way up the hierarchy in any country other than the US and get to the top and be accepted. If you look at the number of Indian American CEOs in the US, it’s an unprecedented number.

On her ‘performance with purpose’ approach

ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) needs to move from being a lip service from the fringe to the core. When I did ‘performance with purpose’, I didn’t just do it because I thought it was nice to do or as corporate social responsibility. I wanted to de-risk the company because at that time there were a lot of taxes on our ‘fun for you’ products. And I wanted to keep the company growing so I had to shift the portfolio to ‘better for you’… Now fast forward to today. ESG metrics cannot be fringe from the company. I honestly believe a good subset of ESG metrics should drive shareholder value.

On mega global trends

I see five big mega trends, which lead to two big issues and three big changes that need to happen. One, over the next decade or two, you’re going to see much bigger growth in population in Asia and Africa than the rest of the world. But if you look at the GDP, it’s going to be mismatched. The second is that when you have so much growth in Asia and Africa, you’re also going to have more consumption of protein, and therefore more animals that are reared. That could result in more epidemics and pandemics. So we need public health systems that prepare us for epidemics and pandemics. Third, climate change is going to impact us massively. The fourth is the ageing of the population. If you have an ageing population, and you don’t create support structures for women to work, you won’t be able to take care of the ageing population. And finally, the dizzying pace at which technology is moving and changing. There are two big issues it raises. First, I think we’re going to see a lot more geo-political upheavals because of where the population is growing and where the GDP is. People are going to want to retreat to nation states and national boundaries. And the second is, because so much of the growth is going to be in knowledge jobs, we’re going to have to do a grand rescaling of talent. And then it raises worrisome issues. Do regulators worldwide know how to regulate technology? Second, in a world which could become more unequal, what’s the role of capitalism? And finally, if technology is going to overtake so much of our life,
how are we going to put the human back in humanity?

On the gender gap in India

You’re seeing the rise of female talent and that has to be put to use for the country. How do you really take advantage of all of the talent, not just a portion of the talent? I think women are part of that. Where it gets a little confusing is that as we look at the laws in the books, India has the best laws and support for women but somehow in the implementation of the laws, there are problems. I’m glad that the Prime Minister is talking to women. But I think it’s not just asking women to vote, it’s also worrying about the issues that keep women unsafe. There’s also the question of talking to the men about how women should be treated in society. It’s not just about women talking to women, it’s men in power, and all men coming to the table and saying what needs to change.








On the unevenness of the Indian education system

The top education institutions are fantastic. And after that, the fall off is pretty spectacular. So I think the focus has got to be on taking everything other than the top five per cent of institutions and figuring out how to improve the quality of the education that they impart to students… India has to really think about how to upgrade the entire education system and build it off what they’ve done with the top institutions.

On war and economic sanctions

This is an unprecedented time where most Western companies have come together to explore economic sanctions as a way to hopefully stop this terrible war. So let’s just say that after every major skirmish or war, we find new behaviours and new ways of averting a war, which may or may not succeed.

On bringing up her daughters

With my first daughter, I put all kinds of restrictions — you can’t wear this and on weekends you have to be home by seven. It was not sensible for me to do that because she was in a different society. When I had my second daughter, I changed how I interacted with both kids. So my first daughter will always say that her younger sister had the benefit of all the stuff that she didn’t because I learned over time that when in Rome do as the Romans do. So what I’ve tried to do is judiciously balance what I thought were child-rearing disciplines, give up some and try to modify and moderate to come up with a new style.

On the definition of an ideal worker

The ideal worker was a nine-to-five job, the male breadwinner, and then the woman stayed home and kept things going. That existed for a long time. Families are fragile and messy. When something goes wrong, what is that woman supposed to do? How was she supposed to take care of the family? So from a practical perspective, we have to rethink the ideal worker. And my hope is that as we think about the future of work, we put families in the centre and say, how can we design the future of work that says, parents need to give time to building and nurturing families, as well as engaging in paid work? How do we engineer flexibility into the work day or the place of work, to enable this blend of work and family to happen? I’m not suggesting lowering the productivity standards in companies. Neither am I saying, you just give half your attention to the kids. I’m just saying that between the husband and wife, there’s got to be a judicious balance of the two. So my hope is, as we think post-Covid as to what the future of work should be, start with where’s family in the future of work, and then work outwards.

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