Empathy has become a driver for significant business results: Devapriya Khanna

We, at Adgully, have always saluted and honoured women managers and leaders across diverse fields. 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 and Communications industry. In the refurbished series, we seek to 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.

Devapriya Khanna is a purpose-driven entrepreneur, a certified board director, an early stage investor, author and a mentor for women in business. Having spent 18 years of her career as a corporate leader with some of the most reputed global multinational organisations, building power brands and leading global teams, Khanna has combined her corporate experience with her learnings from her entrepreneurial journey to emerge as an astute marketer, an experienced brand activator and an empathetic business leader.

In conversation with Adgully, Devapriya Khanna, Founder, 212° Brand Lab, speaks about how women leadership is fuelling economic growth, how the pandemic was a rethinking opportunity, work-life integration, and more. 

How do you think the role and scope of women leaders has widened in the current market ecosystem?

The ever-expanding market ecosystem in India has surged and is gradually becoming more inclusive. A growing number of women are at the helm of companies, businesses, start-ups, academiaand government now. We all know that encouraging women leadership not only leads to women empowerment, but also fuels economic growth. The ongoing pandemic has been tougher on women. Not only are women the hardest hit, they are also the backbone of recovery in communities. 

Nevertheless, women internationally and in our country, have responded to the pandemic with enterprise, agility and optimism. So, the question that can be asked at this moment really is that – can this be the turning point for women leaders? Needless to say, the role and scope of women leaders has definitely widened.We have had some powerful examples of my favourite quote “the hand that rocks the cradle also rules the world. The case for balancing the power equation in leadership has never been more clear. It’s time for the world to recognize the benefits of women in leadership, and commit to placing even more women in positions of power.

What has been your major learning from the pandemic period?

The pandemic has indeed been an opportunity to rethink the future of business and leadership. The lessons we are collectively learning from this crisis are extremely important. I have learnt that ‘the best leaders aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.’ Such leaders foster psychologically safe work environments in which team members feel encouraged to be their authentic selves and bring their true selves to work every day.

My two other major learnings have been as follows:

  • The world is boundaryless and deeply interconnected. Companies and businesses that have been able to collaborate and cooperate with stakeholders, clients and customers across borders and along supply chains have produced excellent, long lasting results. The pandemic provided me with the opportunity to truly emerge as a global entrepreneur by setting up a purpose-driven venture (Connexus Global) where the impact in a short period has been far-reaching and international. I have been able to join the dots across countries and continents and like-minded leaders around the world have come together with a shared purpose and a common mission.
  • Be prepared with Plan B – be agile and ready to pivot: The entrepreneurial mindset, whether as a solo business owner or a large conglomerate, is essential to remain innovative, agile and crisis-proof. Businesses and their leaders that have responded to the Covid crisis with an open, growth mindset and have been willing to experiment and pivot, have emerged winners.

What is your mantra for maintaining a successful work life balance in the new normal? According to you, what makes women the best in crisis management?

My mantra is ‘work-life integration’ in lieu of work-life balance. “Work-life balance seeks to achieve an ideal state where your work and life coexist and thrive separately; work-life integration is about bringing work and life closer together”. For me, my work is an inextricable part of my life and not separate from it. When I look at my responsibilities as a business owner and my responsibilities as a mother, homemaker and a daughter as a continuum and not as compartments, I am able to contribute to all these roles with a sense of harmony.

In a recent survey by the Harvard Business Review, respondents rated women higher on attributes such as “inspires and motivates,” “communicates powerfully,” “collaboration/ teamwork,” and “relationship building,” and I believe it is these traits that most women leaders are inherently equipped with, that make them the best in crisis management.

What are the five most effective leadership lessons that you have learned?

  1. The first and most important lesson is that leaders must also serve themselves! On an aircraft, during the safety briefing you are advised to put on your own mask first before you help others. The same applies to leadership. You cannot lead others if you are not taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually. If you are constantly stressed out, burned out, sleep deprived, and angry then how can you possibly lead others?
  2. It is important to be a self-aware leader. Understand and accept your shortcomings and hire team members who can fill the gaps. Be aware of your strengths as well and hone and use them to your advantage. Manage your weaknesses. You cannot steer a ship if you’re not fully awake and aware and a leader, must role model leadership through own actions. So, again, ask yourself: How are you keeping your energy tank full? What are the areas that you need to pay better attention to so that you can continue to be there for your team, your family and the people who rely on you? Introspection and reflection are powerful leadership tools.
  3. Empathy is a vital leadership competency and now more than ever, a driver for significant business results. Leaders that have understood that businesses are essentially human, and have kept the safety and well-being of their employees as their priority, have earned respect and loyalty in the long run.
  4. Communicate with transparency: In one of her earliest national addresses during the outbreak of the pandemic, Jacinda Arden said “I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together”. Communicating with honesty and clarity, even if it means communicating bad news, has gone a long way in keeping teams as well as families and communities together. Transparent communication, however, must necessarily be infused with hope, optimism and positivity.
  5. Position and cultivate your leadership brand in accordance with the 3C’S of personal branding: clarity, consistency and continuity. A recent article in Forbes on states “Leaders with purpose stay focused and committed - a critically important perspective in an environment filled with obstacles and distractions. Find your brand purpose, align it with your professional mission and implement concrete actions around it. Share your voice, build your visibility and find relevant platforms for your thought leadership.

Gender sensitivity and inclusion in the new normal – how can organizations effectively encourage and groom women leaders in challenging times?

We can no longer deny that gender diversity is a corporate performance driver.

Gender Equality, an important aspect of the ESG goals, is an eminent foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. There has been significant progress over the last few years, with an increasing number of women serving leadership positions at organizations, and even at the Parliament and the governance bodies. However, many challenges are still evident today where women are subject to visible as well as invisible social discrimination. Corporates should undertake ESG goals as an opportunity to proactively lay down the foundations for future transformations and value creation, while integrating it with their digital transformation agenda, and aligning proven tactics and advancing technologies to their business initiatives.

The concept of gender equality promises a way out, through organizational and societal best practices driven by large investors, customers and regulators including the Government. Employment of women will help organizations get a great impetus for growth, while helping the women to discover their emotional, business and social identities. Involvement of women in different roles like brand influencing campaigns, blogging or story curation and helping them develop and express their personal leadership brands will not only reap huge business returns but also help the woman get visibility and social acceptance along with financial independence.

Devising a return back program for women on career break will provide them with a great platform to which they can correlate very easily, which in turn helps in customer retention for the brand.


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