Money & Banking

I did not take the escalator: IndiaFirst Life CEO

NS Vageesh Mumbai | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 07, 2016

VISHAKHA RM, MD & CEO, IndiaFirst Life Insurance

There is a lot of chauvinism out there, says Vishakha RM

Vishakha RM, a seasoned BFSI professional with 28 years experience, became Managing Director & CEO of IndiaFirst Life a year ago. A chartered accountant by training, Vishakha started her career in New India Assurance and then moved across a range of private insurance companies, including Canara HSBC Oriental Life Insurance Company, IDBI Federal Life Insurance Company, Birla Sun Life Insurance Company, Universal Sampo General Insurance Company earlier.

A soft-spoken person, Vishakha, has been an articulate spokesperson for both her company and the life insurance industry. In this interview conducted on the eve of International Women’s day, she talks candidly about the challenges of being a woman CEO, her evolving managerial style, her efforts to build a ‘sharing and caring’ culture among her team mates, and the quiet transformation she is pursuing in her company through a range of technology-led initiatives. It has been a tumultuous year gone by, but for this CEO, an exciting journey has just begun. ‘Life is all about balance,’ she says. And there are plenty of tips from her experience for other young wannabe women CEOs. Excerpts:

What challenges have you faced as a woman CEO over the past year?

One has to constantly prove that one has earned it. It is my perception that a male CEO does not have to go through that validation process. Shortly after I was appointed, I got a congratulatory message from a banker friend, who talked about how women have now stopped taking the stairs and are taking the escalator. I am a CA with 28 years experience. Why did he still think I got on to the escalator? When it comes to male CEOs who become CEOs at 45 or 40 — they are bright stars, brilliant people. But, because it is a woman, it is someone who took an escalator!

There is a bit of chauvinism there — sometimes concealed, but it is there. I have the planks of my professional qualification and years of experience. I often wonder about the young women who are really bright and get success early.

What must they be facing? Just because there is talk of women empowerment, giving women equal opportunity, people are going to think that she got it because of the movement and not because she is capable. And yes, there is subtle patronising. And, of course, there are challenges that you need to overcome — of so much of conditioning — that you begin to take offence when none is intended. I have to stop myself now and then and say that some of the issues that crop up have nothing to do with my being a woman. You want the organisation to treat you as a leader — not as a woman. I am trying to be conscious of whether I am being an effective CEO.

How have you changed in the last one year?

I have become more authoritative. While I may want consensus, many others don’t or simply don’t care. They say, they’ll do something if I want it. I would prefer they discuss, agree and then do it.

A man is naturally autocratic (with apologies for stereotyping) — he orders and gets work done. A woman — normally — just by the fact that she does not have authority or is not earning or has financial independence, ends up being an influencer.

Women don’t have a choice except exercising emotional control. What else do they have? So, sometimes we forget that we have authority when we reach a certain position. I have realised that you can also blend emotion with authority. That’s been a big learning for me. Of course, one should also not go overboard. Some topics you may need to influence, some you don’t need to. You need to get comfortable with the fact that it is okay to issue instructions.

How did you prepare for the role?

I had a coach in my previous organisation who gave me two mantras. One, it is true that it is lonely at the top. I had argued then that this was not true. I thought I will carry my team and be part of the team. What I have discovered is that it is lonely at the top, not because you don’t have friends or have people to talk to. It is lonely because you are the only one with an entire overview of the enterprise.

You alone can look at all the moving parts and have a holistic view. I need to have a horizontal view while my team, because of their need to have sector expertise, has to have a vertical view (with a thin layer of horizontal view that is necessary to work together as a team).

The second mantra was that the buck stops with you. That too, I had argued earlier, was a shared responsibility and I held myself accountable in all earlier roles. My coach pointed out that there was a huge difference.

In all other roles, there is always one layer above you — who has the final say. When you are MD & CEO, you do not have that layer. Your team recommends, your board gives the direction, but ultimately you have to take the decision. If anything goes wrong, it is your hand on the trigger.

Is the responsibility frightening?

No. Touchwood, I enjoy responsibility. There has not been a single day in the last 369 days when I have not wanted to come to work. The beauty of the job is that you can do a lot of things you wanted to do. Yes, you still have to take your team along, you need to convince your board, but if you have a good idea and the power of conviction, you can actually implement it and see it through. At no other position, can you actually see it through — because your hand is not on the trigger.

Published on March 07, 2016
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