Article: Women's Day Special: Reaching out to the fairer sex


Women's Day Special: Reaching out to the fairer sex

Five companies join hands for a first-of-its-kind initiative that saw over 30 top women leaders share, learn and network
Women's Day Special: Reaching out to the fairer sex

The program leveraged technology extensively to keep the dialogues active virtually beyond the formal touch points through an online Yammer community


Organizations need to go to the grass roots and develop leaders there as it would help in building the pipeline and also they are at a better stage to be moulded


Women comprise half the working population. Yet women’s representation in leadership positions in organizations leaves much to be desired. Even though there are ample researches that showcase how companies can benefit from improved gender diversity, women still leave the workforce in large number either to familial or societal pressures. According to a 2014 report by International Labor Organization, almost half of women’s productive potential globally is unutilized compared to 22 per cent of men’s. A Goldman Sachs report says that narrowing gender gaps in employment could push per capita income in emerging markets by up to 14 per cent by 2020. These reports show that boosting the gender equation of the workforce not just makes good diversity sense, but also great business sense.

In order to meet the ever changing consumer needs, the employee base needs to mirror the customer base. Research shows that the more diversity you have in your workforce, the greater innovation an oraganization will see and the greater business growth. There are studies that show companies that have more women on boards actually perform better. Organizations have now realized that the need of the hour is to create a strong pipeline of strong women leaders and for that honing their leadership skills is important. That is how the Reach Out initiative was born.

The Genesis – How did it all start?

The Reach Out initiative was the brain child of American Express. Explaining the genesis of the initiative, Valerie Grillo, Global Chief Diversity Officer for American Express, said, “At American Express, we are really focused on building the pipeline of women leaders and have numerous programs in place both in India and globally such as Pathways to Sponsorship, which is a development program, and Executive Presence to Focus on Sponsorship. About a year ago, we started to think about what we could do differently. What are the needs that we still haven’t met? While we did a great job of building the internal perspective exposing our High Potential women to senior leaders and providing those avenues for sponsorship, we realized that the opportunity was looking externally. It was creating a bigger platform for women with like-minded organizations so that we can create a greater community of women leaders and also increase exposure across organizations not just for women but also for us as organizations. The Reach Out initiative was to get that external perspective and partner with other organizations so that we have a collective focus on women.”

In April 2014, armed with this idea, American Express reached out to four other ‘like-minded companies’—PepsiCo, Microsoft, PwC and the Tata Group—on the basis of their own Diversity & Inclusion journeys and from a relevance standpoint. The vision was to have a common platform where the senior women leaders could come, share and network. While some of the companies came on board quickly, others needed more persuasion and that happened over several months. The initiative saw the participation of more than 30 top women leaders from the five companies in the 10-month long initiative. It provided a unique platform for women leaders to learn from peers, imbibe best practices from other organizations, masterclasses from industry stalwarts and collective experience sharing from fellow members.

Elaborating the definition of ‘like-minded companies’, Sanjay Rishi, President, American Express South Asia said these four companies value diversity as an important component of their talent strategy and don’t just view diversity as a nice thing to do. These companies understand its link to the business and innovation. “When we first reached out to the other companies, it was very positive—it has created a spark within the companies. As word went out about the initiative, more companies wanted to take part in the program. But, we wanted to keep the program contained and manageable in the initial year, learn from it and then see how it evolves with time.”

How were the women selected? The main criteria for the program was that the women leaders have to be high performing or high potential women. Secondly, there was a need for parity in terms of levels and grades ie. They have to be leaders with influential roles. Thirdly, they are working at one to three levels below the C-suite. The women leaders also had a wide range of experience as well from less than 10 years to over 30 years. The logistics of organizing the initiative was challenging. One, the participants were located in six different cities—Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Secondly, getting the time and effort of the senior leaders from the five companies. Finally, a combination of online and in-person mentoring sessions were arrived at. The initiative saw women leaders participating in several group workshops, leadership dialogues, online communities like Yammer, peer learning circles and the concluding learning summit that took place in Gurgaon on the 12th of February, 2015.

The program had four broad modules:

Peer Circles: There was a healthy and diverse mix of women leaders from different functions like legal, HR, marketing and product, business development strategy and technology. With the help of a D&I consultant, the women were divided into peer learning circles where they came together to discuss topics including ‘Women in boardroom’, ‘Neuroscience for women’ and ‘Doing the tightrope called work-life balance’.

Group Workshops: When it came to investing resources, the idea was to leverage the best practices that each of the five companies had and share resources. For example, American Express conducted a workshop on ‘Sponsorship and Executive Presence, PepsiCo did a workshop on self awareness using the HOGAN assessment.

Leadership Dialogues: Women leaders were divided into pairs and were cross-mentored by industry leaders in the other companies. So, a person from PepsiCo was mentored by a leader in Microsoft and so on. There were two reasons for cross-mentoring: One, the fear of repurcussions and bias was eliminated. Secondly, the women leaders get a completely fresh perspective from a very successful leader in another company.

Online communities: The program leveraged technology extensively to keep the dialogues active virtually beyond the formal touch points through an online Yammer community.

The Collaboration

The idea behind including Tata Group, a conglomerate, was to keep the diversity of industry (MNC vs Indian MNC) within the group. “We know the importance that the Tatas give to their culture, ethics and values. The core group acknowledged that having the Tata Group would bring in value to them and vice versa. Cyrus Mistry (Tata Group Chairman) said last year in a shareholder meeting that D&I, or building women leaders, would be a big focus area. The fact that Tata Sons signed up for this and not just any Tata company shows the commitment of the group at large. The fact that it is one of the strongest, most respected Indian brands brought the contrast and diversity of thought,” Vishpala Reddy, VP & Head-HR, American Express India.

One of the mentors, N.S. Rajan, member of the Group Executive Council and Group CHRO, Tata Sons, said, “We had already launched TATA LEAD, the Group D&I initiative. We recognized that mentoring and providing exposure to different leadership styles was a critical element of our program. Partnerships and learning from others is important to us because it often offers valuable insights into how elements of a program like this can be managed. Coincidentally, it was at that point American Express was building Reach Out and they reached out to us and we said yes immediately. Most importantly, it was in sync with the Tata Group’s aspiration to double the number of women employees from its existing 115,000 by 2020 and to also groom and develop a thousand woman leaders in the same timeframe.”

Neil Wilson, Chief Operating Officer of PwC India, said, “It was a no-brainer when it came down to participate in an intiative with organizations like Microsoft, PepsiCo, Tata and American Express as it made perfect sense from a brand perspective. Though we were realistic about our expectations as only a small number of senior women staff were participating, the women who were part of the program were completely blown away with the experience. They got to connect with business leaders in other organizations at both a business and a personal level. They have extended the relationship with the mentors even though the program has come to a conclusion.”

Another mentor Kimsuka Narsimhan, CFO, PepsiCo India, said, “I thought it was a great idea of cross-industry cross-polination of mentoring and ideas and giving the women leaders a stature beyond their own companies, which could only add to the overall confidence and career momentum. I think we should have more such programs. As a mentor, I got to understand their point of views, experiences and even learn from their career and life journeys. I also shared my experiences and evolution as a leader with them as well. The whole jurney has been very enriching and I have had an excellent time.” Narsimhan is a strong advocate of building an inclusive atmosphere for women employees in PepsiCo India and is an active member of the Region Control Environment Committee.

Rohit Thakur, Head of HR, Microsoft India, said, “We’re delighted to be associated with this esteemed forum. The past eight months have been a very enriching experience, not only for this batch of talented women leaders, but also for us at Microsoft. We believe that ReachOut is an ideal platform that integrates Microsoft’s belief in D&I with our commitment to support and develop influential women leaders. By fostering leadership, growth and development of women employees, ReachOut facilitates professional growth by providing direct access to a range of experts and peers who can share the required knowledge and skills in an environment that promotes rapid learning,”

Cross-mentoring – A unique feature

One of the biggest feature of the progam was the mentoring component and that struck a chord with most of the participants. The fact that senior leaders from other companies had given their time and effort for the initiative, had candid conversations and provided direct & meaningful advice on career and leadership helped the women leaders tremendously.

Some of the mentors that we spoke to said that they had “good and meaningful interactions” with women leaders. Some of them like Rishi of American Express and Deepak of PwC said that it felt like reverse mentoring. It became an interaction where friends get together and talk about work and where everyone involved in the exercise walked away with nuggets of wisdom that helped them in their day-to-day work.

PwC’s Kapoor said, “The Reach Out program has actually exceeded my expectations. It is not limited to diversity and women alone. I look at it as a business imperative and discussions involving solutions and also the concept of leaders developing leaders. While this initiative focused on senior women leaders in the organization, women at different levels need mentoring and coaching. Some of them could be mentors to younger women in the organization and keep the chain going.”

“I have got internal feedback from the participants of the program who said that not only they found it useful but many more younger women in the company asking us if they can join the next batch. Mind you, this needs a lot of investment and time from their perspective as well. This program will not only help women leaders to hone their leadership skills, but unshackle their hesitations as well. Organizations need to go to the grass roots and develop leaders there as it would help in building the pipeline and also they are at a better stage to be moulded. So, while honing skills is important, pushing them on the leadership path is also equally important,” he added.

Rajan said that after a point in time women don’t require mentoring on gender, they need mentoring on leadership. Over time, women are able to get over the difficulty of belonging to the other gender and start working on their strengths. Talking about his mentorship experience, Rajan said that he gave the women the freedom to ask him any question they wanted, no matter how uncomfortable it was. “Both the women I mentored have already warned me that they are going to continue staying in touch. I believe that this program has to go on and we will have to strengthen it and broaden it,” he added.

For PepsiCo’s Narsimhan the pooling of jourey and experiences was the best feature of the program. “Leadership is a journey and it is not like you have mastered the elements. Hence, you build off each other’s experiences and stories. The program had just the right kind of intensity. When you coach someone within the company, the cast of characters is very familiar. When you are coaching outside, the entire background and context is very different. It is much more at a distance.”

Will there be a Reach Out 2.0?

“We are working on Reach Out 2.0. In fact, I got together with leaders of the other companies and we are going to hold a meeting shortly to think about the contours of 2.0. But, it is a journey and it is not something that we would like to see start and finish. We have created a movement and it is something that we intend to continue. There’s certainly been a very healthy exchange of best practices through the course of the last 10 months. Each of us individually and all of us collectively have been stronger for having gone through the experience. Women who participated in the program will feel obligated to give back to American Express what they have received and that is what this is all about,” said American Express’ Rishi. 

The program can be expanded on a global scale, but it would take time, effort and huge organizational skills, opined PepsiCo’s Narsimhan. “There is value in this format and it would be good to see how we can use it more. While it is up to the individual to build on the experiences from the program, at PepsiCo I do want to see if we can do it in a more collective fashion than just leaving it to the individuals.”

AmEx’s Valerie added, “A big part of 2.0 would be tapping into the participants’ learnings and think about the next generation of leaders. We are looking at Reach Out as a model globally, but we haven’t identified where next. But, we are looking to take the learnings and see where other parts in the countries that we operate in we could potentially bring it to and we are really excited about that.”

Microsoft’s Thakur said it was imperative to have leadership development programs such as ReachOut as it provided opportunities to identify leadership approaches, build strategic skills, forge lasting connections and share individual experiences.
Kapoor says, “When I was talking to Sanjay about doing the program again, a questions popped into our minds: If we extend this program beyond five companies, will the quality get diluted? That’s something we have decided to meet again and discuss. PwC is committed to this program as I believe diversity and inclusion are business imperatives because they help you to develop leaders, control attrition and save costs. Unless we do that we cannot be successful in business.”

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership, #BestPractices

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