Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999
Her slender frame, youthful looks and friendly smile, and above all, her 27 years, would make it difficult for anyone to take her seriously in her senior management position at the Rs. 800 crore Kinetic group of industries. Sulajja Firodia Motwani, Joint Managing Director of the Kinetic group of industries spoke to Business Line's Rasheeda Bhagat.
Though she is far from bossy, Sulajja Firodia Motwani, Joint Managing Director of the group, has made her staff know for sure who is the boss.
Like the time when one of her senior colleagues, a man who had worked with her father, during a performance review meeting said she was like his daughter. "I told him very clearly: Look, I'm not like your daughter, and I'm never going to be your daughter. Let's get that straight. That is the equation. I'm here to listen to you and solve your problem and find out what caused it. But I'm not like your daughter. I'm your boss".
The man was obviously taken aback. "But then the equation was set. I never had a problem with him again".
What kind of challenges did she face as a woman manager?
Did she face an attitudinal problems with her male colleagues, who might have thought that management, like so many other areas, is a man's domain?
Her first response is a sigh. "Everybody asks me that. The truth is that I've lever looked at management as a gender issue. As for attitudinal problems, they might have had questions in their minds. But at work, I always mean business. I don't throw my weight around, and if I don't know, I say can you please show or explain this to me. I try to be very sincere about whatever I'm doing and go about doing it. I think it's a good way to do a job".
A "very active kid who was involved in every fight in the family", after completing a Commerce degree from Pune in 1990, Sulajja went ahead for an MBA from the Carnegie Melon University.
For the next four years she worked in California for Barra International, a leading investment technology company which does consulting, portfolio management and performance management.
She recalls with pride that she worked in finance, which is an area dominated by men. "And even where there are women you have the typical white, Caucasian women. I was the first non-American Asian woman and I enjoyed the fact that I was non-white, young, had an accent and was still able to do a good job. We sold very big projects and this stint gave me a lot of self-confidence. If there was anything I learnt about management, it was there. "
But the young woman knew that she would always come back to the business where her father was Chairman, though her return to India was with a mandate from Barra to create and head their Indian operations. It was an exciting opportunity which ended in nine months when she decided to enter the family business in late 1996.
It was as a deliberate strategy that she joined as General Manager in the much smaller Jaya Hind Industries, a group company making welding machines. "I wanted to get to know the people in the group. Had I joined the bigger company directly, there would have been be all these factors about being the Chairman's daughter. I kept a low profile talking to people and sizing them up".
After a few months she joined Kinetic Motors where she chose the marketing role. For one thing, she considers marketing and finance her strengths. "The other reason was my father is a technocrat; he's very strong on technology. So it made sense that I should contribute in the business development side. So I took on the responsibility of planning and marketing in the Kinetic group".
She doesn't think that her youth, or her being her father's daughter, has been a disadvantage. "I think if you are sensitive towards people and respect their individuality, it goes a long way".
She does believe that women managers handle inter-personal relationships more sensitively. At the same time, they have to maintain a balance. As a manager, she can't stand her women employees whimpering or crying over something. "I tell my women colleagues, don't cry. Please never cry in the office. If you have a problem, keep quiet. If you need to cry, go to the loo and cry your heart out. But don't cry in front of your colleagues because then you are showing you are... kind of weak. You might get sympathy, but your professional respect will be gone".
Another crucial aspect of management, she feels, is to always mean business and not get into people's personal lives "even though you might want to help them out. Women bosses are better at human relationships because they are sincere and brought up to be considerate. Your mother tells you,`don't talk to your brother that way,' and you carry that along".
She's also found that women as managers are very conscientious. "I was wondering why... then I realised that women are also mothers. A mother always teaches her child to be conscientious.. not steal, etc, and you tend to carry this.. a sense of correctness which a woman has, to the workplace. If there are more women managers, it would certainly improve the work culture. You certainly find less women involved in corruption or frauds."
"I also sort of decided that I'll never lose my temper on the job. When I get really upset, I keep quiet and let it pass. I don't think losing your temper or raising your voice can get anything done. I find that it is always better to be firm and keep your cool."
Sulajja's role model has been a woman manager at Barra. "Had I come straight from a business school into Kinetic, I would have been a very different manager. I learnt a lot from her. She had a purpose about everything she said or did, and I admired the sense of professionalism in her dealings. She would step back when things got off balance."
"If somebody did or said something which disturbed her, she would step back and tell him/her: Look, I really would like to talk to you about this, but I don't think this is a good time. Let's both go home, come back in the morning and talk about it. She would do that, and I tend to do that too."
She feels that the intense travelling she did - "not the kind I do here, which is a piece of cake because everything is taken care of, but the kind where you have to book your own flights, make your hotel reservations, rent the cars, check the maps, etc" - in her American assignment, has give her a lot of confidence to handle people and situations.
"It toughens you up and prepares you. It makes you self confident and aware.. of both your strengths and weaknesses".
Her response to the double bind syndrome of management is interesting. A very gender thing, this is an aspect of management where women bosses who are understanding are branded weak against a sympathetic male boss being considered 'humane'. The second equally unfair aspect is an autocratic male boss considered "business like" or efficient against the same quality in a woman boss being branded 'bitchy', with the woman manager freely being referred to as Hitler in the work place.
"It happens all the time. And not only that, if a man loses his temper they say: Saab bahut gussa ho gaya.. as though he is a victim. When a woman loses her temper she is seen as hyper or hysterical. These are very much there. The only way to deal with this syndrome is to be very professional about your work; be sweet, be polite, but firm. I've also found that over a period of time you learn to be perfect... or rather not cross the line between being sweet versus being soft. But ultimately you have to learn to be a professional, whether you're a guy or a woman".
She feels that a woman manager has a distinct advantage in that people around her have very low expectations from her to begin with. "Though unfortunate, it also means that you can really impress or make a mark and stand out. But over a period of time it stops being an advantage".
To the question whether colleagues are more co-operative and less rebellious with female compared to male bosses, she says, "This is true, but then you've got to be careful. If you play too much on the female factor, it will finally go against you. If you play too much on `Oh, can you please help me?', it will always go against you in the long run. If you make sense, men get up and listen to you because they have low expectations and there aren't too many women around."
She perceives the "listening skills" of a woman a distinct advantage in the managerial function. "Women are good listeners, and are open to criticism. And you'll find very few women who are ego maniacs. Women are not driven by ego, they are driven by other things. A lot of men are driven by ego, and I consider this a weakness. Ego makes you off balance and unidirectional."
She defines one of the "other things" which drive women managers as sincerity. "I do believe women are very sincere. They genuinely want to do a good job, whatever they might be doing. That's a very big strength. Because when you're sincere or have a sense of purpose, you'll always give your best. Women also tend to be honest."
About the disadvantages faced by women managers, Sulajja says, "You have to be much better than male managers to stand out and rise within an organisation. Secondly, there are the social factors. While you don't want to be like men, you have to be very professional and you should learn and define what professionalism means in your dictionary. You must learn to keep your cool, have a sense of balance and good communication skills, which are very critical."
She feels that women managers tend to be better communicators because they tend to be more expressive. "But this has to be balanced. You can be expressive in a very shrill, emotional kind of way or you can be expressive in a balanced way. Being communicative is a strength but women managers have to use it as a strength."
A major disadvantage is social factors like the family and the home. "These are factors which can pull you apart. If they don't pull you back, they pull you apart. Many women get pulled back and give up. But if you are strong and want to do something, and are really involved in your work, they really pull you apart. As a woman you would know that!"
"After work, when you go back home, you have this fight within you which is very difficult. No matter how supportive your family is.. I come from a very supportive family..."
That comprises a husband, who heads the Kinetic Communications division, which has a tie up with Daewoo to make colour monitors .
An engineer from Stanford, she met him in the US and got him to Pune. "I told him it really means a lot to me. He is a Sindhi from Hyderabad and I'm a Rajasthani, though people think we're Parsis. He has been very supportive".
There are no children "yet. Its not something I've written off as a possibility . It's been five years of marriage.. but I'll have to be sure that I can do justice to both, and so far I've been able to manage work, and my husband and my own health and sense of well being".
Ego clashes are averted as he is not in the same company. "We're more like friends and so there are not too many social factors, which sort of pick holes in a relationship."
As a woman manager and an employer, Sulajja has viewed with concern the social constraints which are stumbling blocks in the career of many women. "I've seen women having to leave after marriage. They have a kid, go on leave, and don't come back. So much potential is wasted and management's confidence in a woman as an employee gets shaken. That can change only as more and more women come in and take on a professional attitude that they have to work and manage the home too".
As a woman manager, she has to keep this factor in mind while employing women. Apart from trying to motivate such women to stay back, "I also tell them at least be very honest about it. If you think you'll be here only for a year or two, tell us when you join. But if you consider this a career, then don't give up. Factors will you pull you back, but if you seriously want a career, you can stay on. But its hard, and if I didn't have the kind of domestic environment which I did, it would be hard for me too. If I had a husband who expected me to cook and run the house, it would be difficult for me too".
Coming to the skills of a woman manager at the negotiating table, she says, "You can be very good if you know how to do it. Because other people don't expect you to drive hard bargains. So you can use it to your advantage. You have to learn that. I'm not very good at it! Because when you're being hard, you're always telling yourself that you should not be rude, which the guys don't feel. I think they are not worried about being rude. At business school, for a class on negotiating skills I got a remark that you are too concerned about your opponents' losses. That is emotional. So you have to kind of step back and put a wall, look at your interests and make it a hard deal".
Though she hasn't yet mastered this, she is confident she'll learn over a period of time.
On another important aspect of management, conflict resolution, which is traditionally believed to be easier for a male manager because of the back-slapping and let's-have-a-drink routine, she says her position is different. "I'm in a different chair altogether; a chair with a different power... so you don't tread over other people's egos or self respect. But women managers can have their own equations for resolving conflicts."
"In the US, you can go out for a drink or lunch, but in India it is a different social context. But you can talk about it. It's really personal, not really gender based".
Would male colleagues tend to take advantage of a woman manager who is very friendly or outgoing?
"Yes. They feel they have a right to examine your personal life. Whereas you might feel that you're just making casual conversation. In the US nobody is bothered. When somebody asks how are you, you're expected to say fine or great. But if you say `Oh, I'm not feeling too good' people are surprised."
Looking ahead, she says the major challenges before her pertain to the automobile sector being a very competitive industry. "Today, in this business, everything is important. You've got to be good in designing, R&D, logistics, dealing with hundreds or thousands of vendors, low cost manufacturing, distributing and advertising and marketing. It's a very complex industry and the dynamics are changing. Certainly there are a lot of things to do".
Another major professional challenge is to "always try for a better balance between personal and business life. But there is a dilemma and conflict in my mind. Being a workaholic, I love to work hard but then I also feel that I have to pay more attention to my health and family".
But she's candid enough to admit that this a balance she has not yet mastered. "I'm still pulled towards working hard. That's a dilemma which someday I hope to sort out", she says with a sigh.
Sulajja accepts stress as an integral part of business life. Her problem is not so much dealing with stress, as the "tendency to carry your work home. When I was in the US, I was a fairly sincere employee, liked my job, worked very hard but when I went home, that was it. Now when I go home, I carry the tension with me, and think about it while eating or driving. I haven't yet managed to make myself completely detached when I go home. But I'll have to learn. I'm at the front end of the business; responsible for the entire turnover. If I can't get the team to perform, then the company does not do too well. It's not like you're designing a product, or in accounting, or administration. You're the driver."
To a certain extent, restructuring of the group in the last three years, and bringing in professionals has helped.
As for her achievements, she says she has contributed to Kinetic in the last three years, "but I wouldn't call it an achievement. I really love what I do and have definitely relieved my father of a very big responsibility".
After her entry, the group has introduced 'winds of change', something which has made her a symbol of change in the company. She thinks this is viewed positively. "People say the Chairman is very respected, but people are in awe of him... and he is aloof. But I'm seen as very open. Anybody can talk to me. After I came in, we got into new products. A lot of activities and a lot of new things have happened.. from renovation of our dealerships to launching of new products.
"Kinetic has always been a strong manufacturing company but not a strong marketing company. I've tried to build a strong marketing team and give a strong marketing focus which people have definitely noticed. I will say I have contributed, but there is a lot more to do. But I would still call it a contribution and not achievement. What I did in Barra was achievement. It was like my own... I started as an assistant and grew to a manager. I'm proud of that."
She realises that she is "very fortunate to be my father's daughter" and getting a launch pad. "But I don't think that I have achieved anything yet of which I can feel proud" , she says candidly.
But the feeling of achievement is definitely a driving force which makes her set targets; be it for jogging or at work.
As for her dream for the future, she wants the finance company to get more profit than the engineering company. "We're in a very competitive market. Today Kinetic is a Rs. 800 crore company and we're likely to become Rs. 1000 crore this year. I'd like Kinetic to be in the top 50 companies of the country."