As a leader, the buck stops with you, literally: Sonia Notani

We, at Adgully, have always saluted and honoured women managers and leaders across diverse fields. Last year, we launched our unique and distinct program, called WOMEN DISRUPTORS, which drew a lot of attention and was highly appreciated by the industry. W-Suite is a special initiative from Adgully that has been turning the spotlight on some of the most remarkable women achievers in M&E, Advertising & Marketing, PR & Communication industry. In the refurbished series, we will find out how women leaders have been managing their teams and work as well as how they have been navigating through the toughest and most challenging times brought about by the global pandemic.

In conversation with Adgully, Sonia Notani, CMO, IndiaFirst Life Insurance Company, speaks about her experience of leading her team and helping her organisation navigate through the pandemic times. She also shares the five most effective lessons that she has learnt as a woman leader during the crisis times.

How do you think the role and scope of women leaders has widened in the post-pandemic world?

The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world! Today, this is truer than ever with women at the helm of institutions as well as countries carrying out effective and inclusive responses at the highest levels of decision-making to frontline service delivery. Women leaders are seen successfully steering countries like New Zealand, Germany, Finland, and Iceland.

However, in a larger sense, especially in India, women have been perceived as placing personal priorities over professional demands leading to constraints regarding location, physical availability, and timing. The sheer nature of the pandemic has cut through these constraints and made us more open to flexible and remote working, enabling larger participation from women in the work force without the perceived constraint hampering their ability to deliver a high-quality outcome.

Further, women are culturally more disposed to multi-tasking and daily crisis management due to the varied roles they are typically juggling. Women are also more empathic and relatively more agile to changing demands. These traits and capabilities are in fact critical to effective leadership in difficult times. The pandemic has seen many women leaders navigate the storm effectively while taking people along.

The rapid transition to digital, an uncertain economic landscape, charting unknown waters, working from home with no modes of the usual contacts. How have you been navigating during the COVID-19 times? What were the challenges that you faced and how did you tackle them?

We, at IndiaFirst Life, strongly believe that Life is full of certainties and we focused on extending this certainty to our customers and employees alike.

IndiaFirst Life’s robust Business Continuity Plan (BCP) helped the organisation optimise alternate modes, including digital, IVR, and telephones to connect with both internal and external stakeholders. The organisation moved to a complete Work from Home (WFH) policy, while being fully operational and serving its customers across channels electronically and digitally, providing services with minimum disruption.

Keeping with our #CustomerFirst philosophy, we committed to COVID-19 claim pay-outs on priority, offered grace periods and deferment of payments. Customers have been contacted, comforted, and given options they may choose to exercise.

Leveraging the opportunity presented with the reduced digital distance, we adapted to the new narrative and the new medium. At IndiaFirst Life, we launched the Ghar Baithe Insurance initiative for our customers to secure the lives of their loved ones from the comfort of their home, through end-to-end digital processes and our multilingual website. This online process enables our sales teams and partners while ensuring ‘zero physical contact’ with customers. Further, we have launched a more robust self-service portal that we encourage customers to use for online renewal payments and many other services easily available and accessible on their mobile devices.

The challenging times also demand innovation in offerings. IndiaFirst Life has come up with products that offer benefits on the diagnosis of COVID-19 apart from regular life insurance payable in case of death related to COVID-19. We understood the need for assurance and launched customised protection and assurance offerings. As insurers, it is our responsibility to offer need-based products, which are available when the customers need them the most.

IndiaFirst Life has a trusted team of over 3,000 employees who are working hard to ensure best in class solutions and service for our customers. We value their commitment and have ensured that they are equipped to deliver their best through a fully operational Work from Home (WFH) policy enabling services across channels remotely. We have kept our commitment to all new joiners; onboarding and inducting them virtually. We have paid all committed salaries on time and are proud of rewarding the employees with performance-linked variable pay for FY20. IndiaFirst Life endeavors that our employees stay ‘Happy. Passionate. Connected.’ at all times and deliver on our ‘CustomerFirst’ promise.

As trusted brands, we have to only become stronger and better for our customers, stand by our commitments and adapt quickly.

How challenging has it been for you to maintain a balance between managing the team & office work on the one hand and family responsibilities on the other as boundaries blurred while working from home? What is your mantra to maintain that balance?

It has been a completely different experience, but not challenging. I believe we moved seamlessly and successfully into this new work ethos. There are multiple aspects to making this change work:

Organisation enablement and empowerment: In testing times like these, the safety and well-being of our customers and employees is our top priority. We have moved to a complete Work from Home (WFH) policy, yet we are fully operational and serving our customers across channels electronically and digitally. The infrastructure readiness coupled with adoption of some of the best industry practices enabled each of us in the team. My team and I connect regularly via digital mediums. We do weekly meetings like we used to. Nothing has changed much except that the presence is digital instead of physical.

Team Members: I have a super team. They are fantastic and extremely high on ownership and accountability. We not only deliver on planned expectations, but together, we ensure we are agile, we innovate, take calculated risks, go beyond the norm, and enjoy the recognition that comes with achievement and the learning that comes with any setback.

Family: Complete respect for your work, time and space is essential to Work from Home. My husband and son have prioritised my work demands – be it space or time. This has been a critical success factor for me to be able to respond to the dynamic ecosystem changes!

Multiple studies have shown how women leaders performed better during the COVID-19 crisis. According to you, what makes women the best in crisis management?

The socio-cultural environment outlines certain demands from women and men, respectively. Women are expected to be the primary caregivers in a familial context. This role demands an ability to organise food supplies, healthcare, and other personal needs across family members and for the household. Invariably women learn to multitask, plan, take agile decisions, adapt, and respond to daily variations and demands across a range of family members albeit at a small scale of a personal unit. However, when women take training to the external world and a business unit or an organisation, they display stronger dexterity, creative problem solving and resilience in adversity. These traits coupled with innate qualities of empathy and strong interpersonal further bolster women in their leadership roles, especially in challenging times.

What are the five most effective lessons that you have learned as a woman leader?

I have been extremely fortunate to get opportunities to lead and make a difference. I’ve learned that being a leader requires immense commitment, perseverance, the ability to raise the bar and a whole lot of passion. If I have to summarise five most effective lessons, they would be:

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility: As a leader, the buck stops with you, literally. You shoulder the responsibility for the decision and the outcome – for yourself, your team, the organisation, and the customer. I was brought up in a household where I was encouraged to make my own decisions, which inculcated an early understanding that accountability of any decision is also mine – for better or for worse!

Success Always Favours the Prepared Mind: You must take the initiative, the step and even the leap of faith for any success to come your way. Not every decision goes as planned, but if one is committed, persevering and passionate, a little detour will never stop you from getting bigger and better.

Action Is Better Than Inaction: As leaders, we are all here to make a difference. If you want to become and stay relevant, there is no bigger risk than inaction. We must choose prudently, plan, estimate risks and reduce the downside; but not acting is not an option.

The Whole Is Bigger Than the Sum of Its Parts: You cannot go the distance alone. You colleagues, seniors and most importantly your team members are a critical part of the outcome. We need to leverage strengths & substitute any shortcomings as a team and enable a holistic outcome that is collectively greater than any individual contribution can ever be.

Staying the Course is More Important than Exceptional Intelligence/ Qualities: This input is most relevant to women leaders. We are culturally disposed to excel at academics and make a mark till we take on familial responsibilities. In a sharp turn of perspective, we are often encouraged and even applauded on deprioritising career aspirations. We need to stay the path, persevere, and go the distance even if at times we can't be at the top of our game. Giving up is not an option!


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