Alka Mittal has been drilling away at the glass ceiling at India’s largest oil and gas producer. She was the first woman to become a full-time Director in ONGC in 2018. And now, 59-year-old Mittal, who joined the PSU as a graduate trainee in 1985, has attracted attention by becoming the first woman to head it — although it is only an interim charge for six months. But it’s also the first time that someone from the HR function has made it to the top position at the giant corporation. Mittal, a second generation ONGCian — her father too was in the PSU — looks deceptively gentle. Behind the soft exterior is a core of steel, flashes of which can be glimpsed during our virtual chat, where she shares how she was highly competitive as a kid.

“I have grown up in a family of boys — with three elder brothers — so time was spent more in outdoor activities and less in the kitchen. My parents really indulged me as I was focussed in my studies…in fact, there was one particular year when my brothers did not do as well as I did in school — I stood first in class — and my mother told my brothers, learn from your younger sister, how sincere she is in whatever she takes on,” shares Mittal, who schooled in many places — from Dehradun to Agartala to Ahmedabad and Delhi. She was one of the first two girls to be admitted at St. Joseph’s in Dehradun, which till then was a boys-only school.

Unfortunately, she lost her mother at a young age. But she still recollects a piece of advice given by her mom. “I distinctly recollect one conversation which had a marked impression on me. I was being critical of someone and she told me it is so easy to see the negative in others, but try to see the positive in people around you. The moment you start doing it, life will become more positive and pleasant for you. And that has stayed on with me, even in my professional life,” says Mittal. She gives full credit to her dad for giving her the freedom to try new things and despite being a single parent, standing by her side.

“There were people who would say now your girl is of marriageable age and you should think on those lines, but he would say, she has a career ahead of her,let her work on it. This gave me a path to look at,” Mittal recounts.

The journey begins

And then, just when she was about to join ONGC after her studies (Mittal is a post graduate in Economics, an MBA as well and has a doctorate in corporate governance, which she obtained 13 years after joining ONGC from Jamia Milia University), her father told her, “Whatever you do, put your heart and soul into it. You should be happy in what you do. I will never say you have done well in life till you feel satisfied. So on this note, I started my career,” she says.

“When I joined ONGC, there were only a handful of women. I also felt that there was scepticism about us in the minds of people. They felt that once these girls get married, they will leave the job, that they are not serious; they are taking a job of a man, and so on,” shares the new CMD.

This only made Mittal even more determined to change the perception about women employees and prove them wrong. But she points out that the moment you focus hard on your work, people start respecting you for your professionalism. However, Mittal went out of the way, to do things the tough way. “As you climb up the ladder you need to do a few things which have not been done by a woman earlier and to prove this, I chose to move to the North East — taking a transfer to Jorhat. And this is where I learnt how to handle industrial relations, land acquisition as well as civil and electrical work.”

The Jorhat stint opened her horizons, she says. When she returned to Delhi later, she says she felt equipped to take on any task.

Side by side with work, Mittal also showed up on the badminton court and even represented ONGC in the game. “I also enrolled in the ONGC Himalayan Association (the in-house mountaineering division of the PSU),” she says.

Prior to her role as HR Director, Mittal held the post of Chief of Skill Development at ONGC. That’s when she brought in uniformity in the working of the Skill Development Centres of ONGC and also implemented the National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme at the company, engaging more than 5,000 apprentices across all work centres. Fittingly enough, she is on the boards of IIM Tiruchirappalli and NHRDN.

What will be her strategy for ONGC, which has always been a punching bag for the government as well as critics, you ask her.

“I don’t think we have been a punching bag. Let us say, you expect the best from your best performer, and therefore the high expectations from ONGC,” responds Mittal. However, she says that she is going to play to her strengths — people management is her forte — and she plans to better the performance of the company by laying special emphasis on retraining and reskilling the workforce. “If the manpower is satisfied and taken care off, then the results will be good,” is her mantra.

Mittal has been behind the People’s Connect Initiative to facilitate knowledge sharing from superannuating employees to young professionals of the organisation. She incorporated sustainability into the talent acquisition process by adopting the practice of ‘green recruitment’ in ONGC through an online application process and online interviews, saving time, cost and resources. She also redesigned the online performance management process of ONGC to align KPIs with the organisation’s vision, mission, values and core principles, enabling more objective target setting and performance assessment.

Mittal is confident that ONGC will continue to be a dominant player in the country’s oil and gas space as the work force of ONGC gets younger. Also, if things go per plan, then besides Mittal, ONGC, which has just got another woman on the Board as Director Finance, Pomila Jaspal, could also see a third one joining at the same level.