Article: Own your Ambition


Own your Ambition

In a one of a kind interaction with People Matters, Renu Sud Karnad, Managing Director of HDFC Ltd. talks about women and leadership, barriers to success in a male-dominated workplace, what it takes to "own ambition", and her advice to women aspiring to be leaders.
Own your Ambition

Renu Sud Karnad, Managing Director of HDFC Ltd. joined HDFC Ltd. in 1978 and was inducted onto its Board as Executive Director in 2000. She became the Joint Managing Director in 2007 and has been the Managing Director of HDFC Ltd. since 2010. Karnad is in-charge of the lending operations of the company and is responsible for spearheading HDFC's expansion and under her leadership, HDFC has grown consistently in its lending business assisting over 5.8 million families own a home of their own. Apart from being HDFC's brand custodian, Karnad is the guiding force behind formulation of the organization's communication strategy and public image. Owing to her successful spell with the mortgage sector, Ms. Karnad has also served as the President of the International Union for Housing Finance (IUHF), an association of housing finance firms present across the globe. She has also served as Director, Asian Real Estate Society. Besides being on the Board of several HDFC Group Companies, she is on the boards of ABB Ltd, Bosch Ltd, Feedback Ventures Limited, Indraprastha Medical Corporation Ltd, Maruti Suzuki India and international board of WNS. 

Below are her thoughts on:

The Balancing Act ® Women, Work, and Family

I’ve indeed been fortunate in having spent my career in an organization like HDFC that has both, meritocracy and highly evolved value systems towards all employees irrespective of their gender.

But from all that I’ve seen across society, I feel that a critical factor for a woman to achieve a top leadership position is her ability to own her ambition. She has to start seeing and acknowledging herself as a leader, which is often a bit complex given the circumstances that surround women. Women need to recognize the complexities, the work-life compromises that are involved, and the barriers that might come up. Success comes with perseverance, the ability to see off challenges and continuing on the path to achieve what you desire despite adversities. And in all this, honesty, hard work, persistence, being the best at what you do matters the most.

Historically, the workplace was built around the set-up of nuclear families where the male members worked while the women stayed at home. However today, society has changed substantially and we see a large numbers of women already in the workplace. Yet, the biggest challenge for women in leadership roles remains prioritizing between the home and the work-front. There can be moments when the home takes precedence, and vice versa, but for a professional woman, the essential desire still is that neither should suffer inordinately. As one grows older and moves up the ladder, professional responsibilities increase. But correspondingly as children grow older, the ‘home’ becomes less of a pressure. 

Honestly, I believe I’ve been better at managing my professional time far better than my personal time, but that, I guess, is true for many other women in leadership positions. Family can clearly play a pivotal role in women assuming top leadership professional roles, and in my case, for instance, both my parents and my husband were very supportive of my career choices and offered me all the support and encouragement that I needed. That was essential and vital in my being able to grow to achieve my potential as a business leader. 

Women in leadership roles 

One major challenge that women face pertains to maintaining ‘Work-Life Balance’. In this context, managing expectations at home can be the biggest challenge — women are expected to be "superwomen". It’s been observed that women often tend to drop out at mid-management levels because that’s when the pressures of the home and work become a bit difficult to balance. The key is making the best of any situation that one is confronted with, and responding to challenges with both empathy and firmness. Women have the innate strength and ability to do that. And as more and more women choose professional careers, as trends clearly show, they’re getting better at maintaining the balance and organizations are getting better at managing diverse employee needs across both gender and age. 

The "Old Boy Network"

We have to accept the fact that historically, the corporate organization has been a male-orientated and male-dominated workplace. So, any social networks within the workplace have essentially comprised of male friendships. In our society, we find that power is often derived and driven by social networks which offer the chance of recognition, sometimes to the detriment of outsiders (for example women) and exclusion from the advantages of being a part of the ‘circle’. In many organizations, mentoring networks that are crucial for growth still appear to be a male preserve. 

But women aspiring to top management positions now need to manage their own mentoring networks, involving both male and female colleagues, and actively seek outgrowth. Networks in the workplace are completely professional and are about extending both knowledge and who you know. Women need to connect with people they can learn from and ones who can help and mentor. It is worth remembering that things are changing; the success of many women CEOs worldwide in recent years across diverse industries proves that the ‘old boy network’ as you call it is, indeed, is now far more accepting of meritocracy than it ever was. Opportunities for women are certainly rising and it’s now up to women to break the age-old stereotypical “networks”. And this can happen only when women “own their ambition” and actively seek opportunities. 

Managing Challenges at the Workplace

I don’t believe that women have limited opportunities for promotion or may not get another chance. You are only as good as what you bring to the table; your work has to speak for itself. I don’t see why women should shy away from risky or precarious positions. It’s a challenge to be faced. Managing risk effectively is a part of growth. I would encourage women to embrace risk, look for a variety of tasks and roles and proactively seek out stretch assignments in the workplace. Women need to be confident in their abilities and exhibit the confidence to jump in to deliver. Taking on challenging roles is always an opportunity which might open up a series of other opportunities. I truly believe that women have innate strengths of being nurturing, communicative, and empathetic. Women are perfectly placed to create a well-rounded and distinctive blend of leadership styles that are innately successful.

The Glass Cliff Phenomenon

The ‘glass cliff’ is a new jargon. The psychology underlying this jargon assumes that women are great leaders because of their unique skill sets during times of crisis, turnaround and challenge but are not required, or pushed aside, once the crisis is over. A woman is assumed to be more participative, democratic, and consensus seeking, which might be assumed to be the ‘right’ sets of skills in a crisis situation or a turnaround. However, recent studies in the Harvard Business Review have argued that the phenomenon does not apply to organizations with a history of female leaders. It goes on to state that the more women are seen at the topmost levels of management, the more likely they are to be seen as running organizations that are highly successful, not just during a time of a crisis or a turnaround. 

I think there are enough examples today of women disproving the glass cliff theory. It’s simply a matter of more and more women coming into leadership positions, accepting the challenges, driving forward to accept inherent risks, and proving themselves with the hard work necessary both within the workplace and in terms of the so-called “networks” to change any perceptions related to the “glass cliff” phenomenon.

Women for Women  

Women leaders should be prepared to be mentors and create networks for other women in the workplace. It is crucial for women leaders to encourage other women to look beyond a male values-orientated working environment, self-motivate, enlist a mentor and solicit feedback on leadership techniques. 

Business leaders need to embrace differences and advance careers in a way that is truly merit-oriented and considerate of diversities. Women who are at the leadership helm today can play a big role in doing that. Having said all that, I firmly believe gender shouldn’t be a parameter to decide whether a person can be a great leader or not— a person’s leadership skills should depend on their respective strengths and personality traits, not their gender or age.

Things are changing

Organizations today are increasingly recognizing women and supporting them better. The current trends show that the number of women on the Boards of companies and in the C-suite is going up across the globe. Although in countries like India, the scale is still tilted against women, we are starting to see the evidence of change coming in. 

Organizations today are providing longer maternity leaves, crèches, flexible working hours and also offer a second career option if women take a break from their full-time careers. Even on the policy front, India’s Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 which has increased the duration of paid maternity leave available to working mothers from 12 weeks to 26 weeks and mandates having a crèche facility in any establishment which has 50 or more employees, has been incredibly motivating for women. The introduction of the Paternity Benefits Bill in the Indian Parliament is certainly a welcome development. Paternity leaves have also encouraged equal participation of both parents in childcare thereby giving women the latitude and scope to focus on their career. The Indian Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act now enshrines protections under the law and this is a big step. Most organizations have implemented stringent policies around sexual harassment which will also provide a secure environment for women. 

Success Advice for Women

Women need to have a clear vision of the future, stay focused, have faith in their abilities and trust their instincts. They need to embrace risk, empower other, build relationships and networks, and not get bogged down by criticism but overcome it. A demonstrable focus on the career and the business should be the main objective — owning the ambition as I said. Above all, they should not let emotions get in the way.


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Topics: Leadership, #EmpowerHer

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