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The W Suite | Transform leadership from hierarchical to relational: Priyanka Agarwal

Diversity in the workforce has become a necessity today, and more so in the leadership positions. It can’t be denied that women bring a high level of creativity and empathy while solving problems and handling crises. Women leaders bring to the table a different level of dexterity. 

AdGully’s ‘The W-Suite’ series features interactions with influential women leaders in India, who share some deep insights on what being a woman leader means in India’s business landscape, the mantras to succeed, achieving work-life balance, pay parity and much more. 

Priyanka Agarwal, digital strategist and co-founder at Fractal Ink, has close to 18 years in the field of design. She has been instrumental in converting chaos into organised data and impossible requirements and briefs into meaningful user journeys for my clientele and delight for the users.

She started her career as an Architect and went on to pursue her love for UX and UI by acquiring a master's degree in Graphic Design from Middlesex University in London. Post that she joined one of the leading agencies DMGT (Daily Mail and General Trust) in London as a UX and UI designer.

With a strong motivation to bring about a change in the field of Experience design and help propagate the role of user experience in the Digital Design domain in India, she returned to India with her better half, Tanay Kumar, to start up on their own. Since then, she has been instrumental in shaping up some of the biggest brand in India and helped them create delightful experiences on various digital platforms.

In small way, Agarwal wants to bring about a change in the social structure of India and the perception of women and the do’s and don’ts associated with them. She believes and thrives on the philosophy of ‘Be the change you want to see’. 

How would you define today’s woman leader?
Unlike yester years, when women needed to behave and act like men to be able to command the respect and get the tasks done, today’s women play more to their core strengths to lead. They are more people oriented, they establish close ties and they are more inclusive, making team work more effective. Women are more open to change, hence are more flexible. One of the biggest strength that women have, according to me, is multitasking. They possess the innate capacity to think and operate in different directions at the same time. This offers an advantage when making decisions and facing crises.  

What are the foremost attributes that women leader in today’s business ecosystem must possess?
I think women have always worked twice as hard as men to be able to prove themselves and be heard and respected. In order to be heard in board rooms they have had to talk in tonality that is commanding and affirmative. One commonly hears phrases like ‘don’t be such a woman’, if you show empathy and care. And ‘she is such a bitch’, if you are tough and commanding. I think, it’s time we put these behind us and transform leadership from hierarchical to relational, from command and control to more motivational and collaborative

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 and decision-making?
According to me, women themselves are the biggest reason behind this. So many times we have come across completely capable women who need to take the next leap and companies are ready to facilitate that growth, but they back out due to societal and family pressures. This leaves the slot empty for the next capable person to be filled up. The obvious choice at that point is a male. Women have to stop thinking that things will be served to them on a platter. Men struggle hard to get to positions, so why should it be any different for women. We have to stretch out and reach for positions we deserve and live up to the demands of the position too. We need to start living lives on our terms and conditions and not be guided by seeking permissions from family member for reaching for the stars. 

We are always apologetic about reaching heights. ‘I am sorry, but I will have to travel a lot because I have been promoted…’ 

We are apologetic about being right, ‘I am sorry, but I think this is the right way…’ 

We need to stop apologising and start celebrating our wins. 

What more do Indian corporates need to do to encourage and groom women leaders?
In my experience, where we are running a company with 60 per cent women population, the companies need to be fair in their approach. There does not need to be any special training or actions taken. Be fair at the time of hiring, in the meetings, at the time of promotions, etc. A place should not assess the growth path by judging or pre-empting promotions based on gender and certainly not on reasons of getting married or starting a family. The reason why we have a female skew is not because we like to hire only women…I would ideally like a balance in the team, but in the interviews women just turn out to be way more confident, articulate and go-getters. 

According to you, what are the Do’s and Don’ts for today’s women to break through the glass ceiling?
I don’t think it’s about the glass ceiling, it is about the sticky floor. In the Indian context, girls still are very guided and controlled. They need to seek permissions/ approvals from their families for everything. Imagine, a guy is asked from an office to go on a week’s tour. He comes home and ‘Announces’ and everybody, unquestioningly starts preparing for his tour. Scene change, a woman is asked to go on a tour for 1 week, she comes home…has to answer whole loads of questions, and then needs approval from all family members. The point is we never believe it is our right to pursue our careers with the same rigour that a man does. We are expected to take a back seat and we start believing in it. So, it’s the floor we need to loosen first. Then there is no glass ceiling. In case of couples, both need to manage their homes and families as equal partners, and have compromises at both ends at the right places. 

How acute is the gender pay gap issue in India today? What needs to be done to address this in an effective manner?
I really wouldn’t know the statistics, but I don’t think there is a pay gap. Today, women demand and get what they deserve if they have guts to ask for it. Women need to know their true worth and go for it. Fractal Ink has a very fair pay structure, if not skewed towards women. But I think this is my very myopic view given my industry. It might be different in different industries. 

Do you think the leadership effectiveness of women is higher than men? Why?
I don’t think there is a comparison. There are great examples in each gender that are very effective in their leadership methods. It is not a trait of gender, it is a trait of personality that can be adorned by any gender. 

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

  • Don’t have a complex that you are the only woman in the room. Be proud of it. You are there for a reason
  • Be the change you want to see. Help women to come out of women complex. Mentor them to effectively break away from the sticky floor with care and reason, without disrupting their ecosystem.
  • Your people, your colleagues are most important and come before any client. Be empathetic to their needs.
  • Make an impact by practicing what you preach.

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?
Honestly, there are 4 things I have done to maintain this balance: 

Be very clear in my priorities at every point. If I need to a particular task or travel I do it without any guilt of leaving the family. Families need to be participative and competent in taking care of the responsibilities of the house and kids in my absence as I can do in theirs. 

The other thing that takes up lots of bandwidth is house management. We need to delegate effectively. Don’t take up everything on your own shoulders. Hire help. There should be no guilt in hiring help. Become an effective manager, not an implementor of all tasks. 

Discipline by both partners– since the time my kid was born, we have, to the best of our ability, tried to leave office in time. If, due to any circumstances we are getting late, then we try to assess whose work on that day is more important and the other reaches back in time. Kids’ time is kids’ time. The second shift usually started after the kids go to bed or 2 am in the morning. 

Don’t try and please everyone…You will hurt yourself. As women it is ingrained in our upbringing… ‘don’t sit like this, don’t talk like this…don’t wear this…what will people say’. Forget people. Believe in what you feel is right and act on it. Not everyone will agree with you everytime. But they will learn to accept you as you are. 

How prevalent are instances of sexual harassment in work places in India? What should the industry collectively do to tackle such a serious issue?
In my opinion, today corporates are extremely careful and cautious about sexual harassment. The way we deal with it is that we are very open to conversation. If any person is feeling or undergoing any such issue, they feel extremely comfortable in coming and talking to us. We make sure that the issue is taken care of then and there. But most of these are reactive actions rather than proactive. Imbibing in the DNA of the company that any such acts will not be tolerated that forbid people to even think in that direction would be a welcome change. Also, these incidents are fewer in nature than the sexists’ comments that happen in boardrooms, and meeting. I think there has to be a drive to equip women to respond well and effectively in those situations rather than looking at their shoes or passing it off with a smile.

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