Lessons from women managers

Harish Bhat | Updated on July 11, 2013


Over the past twenty-five years, I have had the privilege and opportunity of working with several extraordinary women managers in the Tata group. They have been amongst the most capable, competent and committed colleagues I have known. In a wide range of functions — building brands, designing watches and jewellery, tasting and blending teas, sales and retail, heading publications wings, establishing new businesses, handling administrative roles — they have delivered wonderful results, working for the most part with a wonderful blend of restless energy and mature purpose.

As I reflect on these women professionals over a nice hot cup of tea, I think there are many lessons in leadership that I have learnt from them. Before I am accused of shamelessly pandering to the opposite sex, let me hasten to add that there are an equal number of lessons I have learnt from male managers. But the five lessons given below have origins that are primarily female.

Lead with head and heart: Virtually all the women managers I have worked with have led their teams with a combination of head and heart, both sitting in even balance. Even as they have pushed hard for results, they have also paused to listen and respond sensitively to their team members. It is not that male managers don’t display this trait, it is just that many more women managers do. Their unseen antennae constantly scan the conference table to understand how people feel about the moment, even as they focus on the data and the power-points. On the other hand, many men (including me) lead primarily with their heads, and are often impervious to the silent sea of emotions or feelings washing onto our shores. Of course, excellent leaders need to use both head and heart, so here is an important lesson for all of us.

Connect: Most women managers connect wonderfully well with their colleagues, and are consequently able to carry their teams with them seamlessly. I have noticed that for women professionals connecting well with their colleagues is as important as winning the business battle at hand. They build connections by taking the initiative to reach out and talk, by making time to conduct meaningful and happy conversations that go beyond transactions. They recall and convey wishes on birthdays and other important personal milestones, something that cannot be said for many male managers. In doing all this, perhaps quite sub-consciously, they implicitly recognise that executives are human beings first and professionals later.

Multi-task effectively: Many women in positions of leadership display the amazing ability to juggle several balls in the air. That’s a critical attribute for success as a leader, particularly in today’s world of increasingly complex businesses. I have often wondered whether this ability is derived from the significantly higher number of parallel variables that women need to address at various points in their lives — between office, home, spouses, parents, in-laws, children and household help. Many male leaders multi-task very well too but to women this skill appears to come more naturally.

Use intuition: I have found women managers use their intuition much more often than men do. They trust their judgment, and are willing to take an immediate leap of faith based on that gut feeling. This approach has both pros and cons, but in some areas, which are akin to the arts rather than to commerce (such as selecting the creative approach for an advertisement campaign, or the aesthetic design for a product), this sixth sense is particularly helpful. Male managers have intuition too, they just have to learn to use it more often.

Communicate with feeling: So many women leaders I have known have always tried to communicate with feeling, when they express themselves or speak to their teams, peers and superiors. They express themselves with immediacy, they laugh or cry if they feel they have to. Such communication is both authentic and compelling even if it is sometimes uncomfortable, because feeling provides rhythm to the lyrics, without which there can be no song. Men on the other hand are trained to suppress or downplay their feelings, which often leads to bland, sterile communication that fails to make its mark.

There are, of course, many lessons that women managers can also learn from their male counterparts. But I will prudently choose not to dwell on the same here. Instead, on behalf of many male colleagues, I would like to thank all women professionals for their contributions and achievements, for all the lessons we have learnt from them, for bringing such splendid diversity into the workplace.

For all these reasons and more, our company’s recently published Annual Report has been created to the theme of “Celebrating women in business”. It may be quite apt to close this article with a quote from a message written by our Chairman Cyrus Mistry, which introduces this specially-themed Annual Report. He says, “Women managers bring rich and diverse perspectives to the workplace. Often, they bring management styles, which are quite complementary to those of men. Workplaces that celebrate women naturally benefit from better decisions, as a result of such diversity. That alone is reason enough for every company to put this topic at the forefront of its business and human resources agenda.” I hope all of us sit up and take note.

(The author is the Managing Director and CEO of Tata Global Beverages Ltd. Views expressed are personal.)

Published on July 11, 2013

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