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The W Suite | Most of the glass ceiling exists in our own head: Sumeli Chatterjee

With a diverse and enriching background in business strategy and brand management, Sumeli Chatterjee, Vice President, Head Brand The Times of India, Metro Supplements and Mirror Brands, presently leads a portfolio brands that is valued at over Rs 1,500 crore. One of the most enjoyable/ enlivening experience has been her close work on TOI’s most lauded campaign #NoConditionsApply’s Shindoor Khela activity, which has received the prestigious Gold Glass Lion among 3 other wins at Cannes Lions, along with 12 metals at the Abbys Goafest, a Yellow Pencil at the D&AD as well as a Black along with 4 Blue Elephants at the Kyoorius Creative Awards in 2018. 

An IIM Indore graduate, Chatterjee has extensive experience managing diverse brand portfolios and diverse teams across sectors like FMCG, Media and Entertainment. Having worked with companies like The Coca-Cola Company and Viacom18, she joined Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd as the Vice President, Head Brand of The Times of India, Metro Supplements and Mirror Brands. She has managed projects across the complete business spectrum that includes brand management, business strategy, portfolio management, content marketing, IP creation, consumer research and sales planning. 

How would you define today’s woman leader?
Work is the identity of leaders. Gender does not matter. There are people who know how to lead others. And, then there are great managers – who manage teams well, but don’t have leadership qualities. This does not change with gender. When you look up to someone for their leadership qualities, you never do so because of their gender. 

What are the foremost attributes that women leaders in today’s business ecosystem must possess?
One critical quality that a leader, whether man or woman, must possess is a vision for their business, so that the teams know where the ship is headed. The other must haves are a infectious passion to succeed and high standards of work ethics that percolates down to the team. I personally think women are great multi-taskers and managing change comes naturally to them. And, I think that is a great asset in today’s VUCA environment. 

Despite the qualifications, aptitude and experience, why do you think we don’t see the expected number of women business leaders, especially when it comes to boardroom decision-making?
We are missing out a big picture here. Lot of women I know have moved out of the corporate life to start home-offices. They have chosen to be entrepreneurs and are very successful. Many of them have enviable and creative career spaces. 

Coming back to corporate ladder, during the early years of starting a family, during 20’s and early 30’s, a lot of women choose flexi-timings and flexi-work options. For some, this is a priority and for many, this arises out of circumstances. It is a personal choice. And, this might not always be in line with company’s priorities and hence, many women may lose the fast track of career growth. It is not always easy to catch up over the missing years of experience. 

What more do Indian corporates need to do to encourage and groom women leaders?
Build an organisation that thrives on meritocracy and transparency – that will allow merit to thrive and grow irrespective of any demographic variable. Diversity is extremely important for an effective decision making and sustainable growth – having multiple point-of-views fosters healthy debate, and it helps to bolster the organisation. And, I am referring to diversity not only from a gender lens, but also from aptitude to do business, risk taking capability, creative acumen, business expertise etc. So, it is important that companies groom both the gender basis their merit. 

According to you, what are the Do’s and Don’ts for today’s women to break through the glass ceiling?
Organisations see their people as asset or liability. Try to work to become a strong asset – strongest one if you can. Don’t make a big fuss about your gender. There are too many variables impacting one’s success in work environment, and gender does not feature on the top of that list. I think there is more of the sticky floor, than the glass ceiling in today’s world. I think a lot of us women hold back from voicing own opinions and ideas. Many a times, it is not that the opportunities are taken away from women, but they don’t walk up and claim them. 

Work environment is cut-throat and competitive and there is a whole lot of good talent out there. If there is a chair at the table, and you don’t sit on the chair when it’s your turn … it is not always practical to expect someone to invite you to it. If you think you are more capable, the only way to prove it is through merit at work. Most of the glass ceiling exists in our own head, and that’s what we need to break first. 

What are the five most effective lessons that you have learned as a woman leader?
Work environment is constantly evolving; we keep on learning and un-learning all the time. Somethings that I think have worked for me are as follows:

It is important to have a team that has people from divergent mindsets, but, similar work ethics. I have seen the best work happen when diverse set of individuals work together. The solutions are stronger and well thought of.

I do value strong peer/ work relationships. We work with people, we are not robots, we need to understand another person’s point-of-view to make your business stronger. 

In my experience, collaboration works better than combat for sustained success and innovations. And, it is the leader’s job to set the tone. 

One thing I have learnt over all these years is never to walk into a meeting carrying a baggage of emotions. It clouds the rational decision making and your ability to argue your case. 

There is no substitute to hard work and you need to prepare for the big meet/ launch/ event. You need to do the homework – no matter what designation you may hold. 

How challenging has it been for you to maintain a balance between career goals and family responsibilities? What is your mantra to maintain that balance?
I love my family and I enjoy my work. If you love doing something, you always find time for the same. And, it is awesome when you have a spouse who understands you and in true sense is a better-half in managing life – so, I am privileged in that sense. 

There are some basic principles that have helped me to balance personal and professional spaces; but, let’s say this continues to be work-in-progress! 

Firstly, having an absolute clarity of priorities at work – what requires my presence, my time, my involvement and how much of the same. It helps when you value your time (cause that’s precious), and I believe one is more productive that way. 

Secondly, it is important to respect quality of your work and adhere to deadlines – if it needs to be done, it better be done and on-time. If the deadline necessitates you to burn midnight oil, so be it. There is no substitute to hard work. This is important to build your own credibility and respect in the organisation. 

Thirdly, thanks to technology we are continuously connected and working. But I do try to keep the personal and professional worlds different and reduce their overlaps. There are important family occasions and I try to be a part of all them. But if I cannot, I make it a point to explain my situation to the family, especially the kids. I have seen kids love the transparency and appreciate if you are honest. 

My advice would be to try and find a hobby or an activity that interests you – it could be fitness routine or even binging on favourite content/ series. One needs to unwind and there needs to be me-time, even if it is for a brief time daily. Plan the chores in a way that uses time effectively. I have managed to use the travel time very effectively to sort out all domestic billings, order-ins, planning the day, plan logistics for travel, etc. 

Most importantly, one needs to be brutally honest with your priorities at work and home. If one is struggling every day to find a balance, then possibly it is time to sit down and re-look at all the factors.

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