Support systems among women colleagues are a big motivator. People who have moved up to middle and senior management levels are able to nurture & talk to some of their younger colleagues
Q. You started working 20 years ago. Tell us about your professional journey.
A. I am a CA and I took up a job with IDBI, which is a premier development institution. That was my first job. IDBI was into developmental lending for building the industrial sector in India. As a staffer in IDBI, you always got the chance to see the broad spectrum of public policy and investment. So that gave me a chance to go under deputation to SEBI when it was being set up and I think this was a great experience of learning for me as it gave me a chance to understand about the markets, the global scenario and what financial sector reforms in India meant.
When I went back to IDBI, I worked in the treasury for a few years and soon this opportunity to set up the stock exchange came. Since then, it has been a great learning experience because we were never really part of the market. I saw it as an opportunity to do something different as we had started the first equity derivatives exchange in those days when nobody in the world had thought about it. It couldn’t have been possible if the government had not dreamt big and came out with the requisite policy support. NSE was lucky to be an instrument of reform.
Since its inception, the markets have really adapted to the new situation. The exchange brought good business and transparency and we had the opportunity to grow with the market.
Q. In 2012, you were appointed as CE0 & MD of the National Stock Exchange, thereby joining a select league of women CEOs who head stock exchanges. Tell us about the challenges you face.
A. The trend of women CEOs has pretty much caught up in the stock exchange space as well. There are about four to five women who head stock exchanges in the world. In China, Shenzen is headed by a woman CEO (Song Liping) and in Sri Lanka it was headed by Surekha Sellahewa, who is a very good friend of mine.
The main difference between a stock exchange and any other enterprise is that we have a significant regulatory role to play along with the commercial role. The proportion of regulatory duties that we have to execute as a frontline institution, in my perception, is accentuated compared to a bank or any other financial institution. Also, the whole environment of the financial market has become so much more dynamic than earlier. It’s very important to be agile and responsive to the change in the environment. Because of the regulatory responsibilities that we have as an exchange, we have to be alert at all points of time to see that there are no risk issues and good practices are prevalent in the market. In good times and in bad times, it is necessary to provide a safe environment to the market. That is what keeps me awake at night.
Q. There are many women CEOs in the banking/finance space. What do you think is the reason behind the trend and do you think it can be sustained?
A. Most women joined the banking/finance workforce in the 80s after attaining professional qualifications. Twenty years later, they have become prime candidates for such posts. In the earlier generation, you did not see so many women in these institutions and so a lot of this is new-age, a first generation thing. There was a change in the social pattern as well and you can see some of that now. But I’m sure that soon we’ll get used to these numbers. There is definitely a good set of women at level II and level III in many organizations. It is certainly a trend that can be sustained. I don’t think there is going to be a lull or scarcity after this trend.
Q. What are the characteristics of the financial sector eco-system that makes it possible for women to move up the ladder?
A. It is more enabling for women to come up in the financial sector because it is broadly about using your capabilities. It is not about rolling up your sleeves and fixing the nuts and bolts of a machine or being able to back slap and talk about whether targets are being met or not met. So, I think there is a little more level-playing field that is available in the financial sector just in terms of the views and expectations, which makes it easier for a woman here than other sectors. Secondly, it is perhaps one of the newest sectors when compared to hardcore engineering. Thirdly, a lot of financial institutions start and grow in urban centres where the social strata are definitely more accommodative than a rural location.
Q. What have you done in the National Stock Exchange to institutionalize the diversity of thought to make sure that it is not a one-off phenomenon?
A. If I take gender as an example, then something that is worrying me all the time is that at level II and level III, the proportion of women is less. As an organization, we have had a reasonable number of women at 35-40 per cent. But at the senior levels, it drops to 15-20 per cent. So, we do try to provide a lot of support. One of the things we found was that the sense of priority for women, when they go through different phases of their life, keeps changing and an organization has to be very supportive of that. The other thing we found out was that the support systems among women colleagues are a big motivator. People who have moved up to middle and senior management levels are able to nurture and talk to some of their younger colleagues. We find that helps a lot too. So we created an informal support system where senior women colleagues mentor the promising younger women. But more importantly, we are also trying to support them with where they think they need to strengthen their leadership roles. We found that some of the women colleagues have different areas to be worked upon compared to what you would think.
Q. You are operating in an environment where there is a lot of turbulence. How does being a woman help in the decision-making process?
A. I don’t think it is so dependent on the gender. Leaders should have a very diverse team at all points and that doesn’t come from gender all the time. Diversity of views and personalities keeps an organization a lot more agile. It is also a question of individuality. It is very important for the team to constantly feel challenged and constantly feel that you have to do better than what you did yesterday. In order to retain a leadership role, it is important to keep that spirit alive and nurtured. Last but not the least, an ideal sense of excellence is required because whether you get there is not important but the desire to get there is important for the team to do what they have to do.
Q. What is the passion that keeps you going?
A. Two things keep me going: Even after 20 years what drives me is the ability to do something new and the ability to do something for the larger public good. Till today when I come to work, there is something to look forward to. Secondly, we all have hobbies that help us to recharge our batteries and for me that is listening to music.