Article: Redefining the leadership paradigm: Q&A with Poonam Barua


Redefining the leadership paradigm: Q&A with Poonam Barua

In an interaction with People Matters,Poonam Barua, Founder Convener, Forum for Women in Leadership —WILL Forum- outlines the real reasons why a glass ceiling exists and what role the CEO and HR of an organisation can play in redefining authentic and balanced leadership

The problem in the corporate world is that it is driven by a traditional mindset that does not want to go beyond its comfort zone


I do not believe that there is a glass ceiling — as nobody put it up. It is really all about redefining leadership


In an interaction with People Matters, Poonam Barua, Founder Convener, Forum for Women in Leadership —WILL Forum- outlines the real reasons why a glass ceiling exists and what role the CEO and HR of an organization can play in redefining authentic and balanced leadership

There are many companies say-ing how diversity and inclu-sion programs have already made an impact in their orga-nization but we are still not seeing many women in management boards. If things are going right, then what really is the problem?

Nobody has the right answers to this question. My take is that we need to first define what is going ‘right’ so that we are able to see what is going ‘wrong’. Last November, we held the WILL Conference in Mumbai where we had the privilege of listening to more than 10 CEOs from different industries (Citigroup, ONGC, Tata Steel, Zensar Technologies, KPMG, Mahindra Group, and GE among others). Their message was saying the ‘right’ things: ‘we need more talent’; ‘women have a different style of leadership’; ‘we have diversity programs’; ‘we want to see more women on the boards’. But we also heard some signals of what is ‘wrong’; ‘we are not yet ready’; ‘it will take some time’; ‘the correlation between women on boards and bottom line is not clear’; ‘there are not enough qualified women’. This is really what is ‘wrong’. There are not enough metrics in place because women have not moved to positions where they can create those metrics. This is the result of traditional search for only a “stereotype” for board director positions.

So, is the real cause of this problem cultural or historical?

I do not think it is either of them, at least not in the corporate sector. The problem in the corporate world is that it is driven by a traditional mindset that does not want to go beyond its comfort zone. Male leaders are not ready to change the leadership paradigm that made them leaders — because in the new paradigm, they might not be leaders anymore. They don’t want to bring the “storm in the tea cup” where they are the kings. What will it take the queens to make the queens? I do not know, but this is a very difficult task, particularly when it comes to creating the numbers and metrics in the board rooms. From my opinion, until women do not get to board rooms’ level, we are not talking any real progress on a “balanced leadership”.

That is why the WILL forum mandate is about redefining the paradigm of leadership; it is not about women moving up the ladder, because they will not move up the ladder until we crack the paradigm on the top. We aim to create an opportunity for women and men to redefine leadership together. Today, if you look at forums that are defining leadership, their composition is 99% men. So, what ‘redefining’ are we talking about? If leadership is to be defined by the men themselves, we will not be creating any new formats for future leadership.

In India, the problem with women is also ‘aspirational deficit’. It is not their fault; they have never thought about it — as nobody told them to think that way. Maybe it is more situational than cultural and related to how you have been brought up. It is important to raise the level of aspirations of women in the workplace — partly by networking with successful women executives, identifying role models, creating mentoring programs at different levels, and enhancing their self-awareness and confidence-levels.

What is your opinion on creating reservation quotas for woman as transition to account for historical inequalities? Do you think these practices are required or they go against meritocracy?

I look at this question from a different perspective. Looking at metrics is very important and the way I see metrics is not from the regulatory perspective but from the perspective on how stakeholders are looking at building a long-lasting and sustainable organization. For example, governments, investors, leaders should be looking at “diversity and inclusivity” metrics to decide whether a company is ready to go public, or is worth investing in, or worth joining as an organization, based on having the right metrics of women on boards, among other indicators. It is all about leadership, and one cannot compromise there. The pressure must come from the stakeholders; I prefer this route as it matches with my leadership sense. If we just put metrics on the board, then women will be under constant pressure to show that they are bringing results for the investors to stay. If, on the other hand, the investors are the ones asking for those gender --ratios — then it is a different perspective as that means they have understood the economic incentive of having women on boards.

When it comes to public companies, it is not very different. These companies have a public sector selection board that is controlled by a revenue secretary or one minister for all the board positions. The government should put stringent rules to guide that selection ensuring that they are a number of women on the boards to ensure sustainable organizations.

What is the role that the CEO and HR need to play in this journey?

Engaging the CEO will be the key to success for women in leadership in corporate India, as the CEO is the custodian for setting the tone for practices and performance in the company. About the HR function, HR directors are the custodians of driving internal changes and bringing more women into leadership positions in organizations. What happens in reality is quite different — HR needs to move away from ‘List Management’, where the CEO has set some metrics to be accomplished and hence programs are put into place. There is no real commitment of corporate HR to execution but only a check list of activities to be deployed. This is the real challenge for organizations — as then the HR itself becomes the ‘glass ceiling’. We need to mentor HR Directors as much as we need to do with the CEOs — as their engagement and commitment with the objective is crucial to the success of these programs.

So, there is a Glass Ceiling? What does it mean?

I do not believe that there is a glass ceiling — as nobody put it up. It is really all about redefining leadership. The concept of glass ceiling will stop existing once we are able to break the leadership paradigm. The only way to do that is by creating distinguished research, by engaging leaders, and by creating diverse role models. People should be able to recognize how the new leadership looks like and is it different from the way it was traditionally defined. Corporate world will need to open up to see this new paradigm of leadership. It is not that they do not want to see it; it is more that they do not know how to see it.

How do you think you can make professionals heading functions (like HR) to move away from ‘task management’ to authentic leadership?

This is not a straight forward task; we will need a mentoring process where we partner with them on many fronts like interacting with them as panelists, engaging them as mentoring members, creating opportunities for sharing and learning from other leaders, et al. This is not about women or men but about creating authentic, ethical leaders for the corporate world and moving away from task execution or following top-management mandates — to focussing on creating sustainable and genuine transformation. Today, there is a dearth of leadership not only among men but also among women. We have great managers, great executors, but do they see themselves as leaders?

The different styles of leadership are just manifestations of Leadership. We need to be able to identify and nurture leadership. Leadership has a particular DNA. Do you have that courage? Do you have that integrity? Do you have that authenticity? People seem to define Leadership as transformational, engaging, motivating, inspiring, et al. This is not leadership — but just a manifestation of leadership qualities. True Leadership needs to be defined by the women and men for the corporate world to achieve lasting and sustainable growth.


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Topics: Leadership, Learning & Development

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