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Diverse thinking – The key to creativity and innovation

May 14, 2020

Pratibha Advani   

Chief Financial Officer

We are operating in an environment where change is the only constant, forcing organisations and individuals to evolve rapidly. Technology is driving organisations to become more agile and creative in order to fully leverage the benefits and create new value chains for the company. In this new business landscape, creativity is an asset that helps generate new ideas, leading to innovation and addressing challenges through creative use of technology. In this blog, Tata Communications’ Chief Financial Officer, Pratibha Advani, discusses why a diverse workforce is key to this. 

In order to fully leverage the creative powerhouse in organisations, diversity is key. In a diverse workforce, employees bring their own unique experiences and capabilities to the forefront, enabling better communication, collaboration, innovation, and creative thinking. Diversity, particularly at the board and C-suite, is critical as equal representation also means better understanding of the diverse customer base.

Yet, when it comes to representation, we have a long way to go. Over the past 17 years, women have made up just about 10% of new appointments to top-level CEO or CFO roles at Russell 3000 companies. Closer home, since 2014, out of every 100 CEOs and MDs of companies listed on the National Stock Exchange, only about three are women.

“Even if you screen the various awards promoted in our country, presence of women is miniscule. Clearly, there is a lot to be done to bring equal representation at the top level. While in the technology and financial sectors you find large number of women represented at the mid management level, as you move up the organisation, the numbers start to dwindle.”

Statistically, there is a clear case for more women to be visible in these roles. A 2019 study by S&P Global Market Intelligence found that public companies with women CEOs or CFOs often are more profitable and produced better stock price performance. These companies also generated a combined $1.8 trillion more than the average, while investors also saw these companies as being less risky.

Look beyond the ‘typical’ leader

In recent years, the role of a CFO has evolved beyond simply finance. CFOs are playing an overarching role of a “Chief Facilitation Officer”, with a more dominant business partnering and strategic role that encompasses not only finance, but also strategy, risk, legal, secretarial, investor relations, operations, communications and procurement.

“CFOs need to act as a catalyst, promoting new ideas, sowing the seeds of innovation and improvisation and driving productivity and efficiency within the organisation while also pursuing growth within a highly regulated environment.”

It is a job that involves much more forward thinking, particularly through adoption of new technologies, with data and past experience increasingly used to take informed decisions that guide the future of the business.

As such, our idea of what makes a good CFO itself is dynamic and is continuously evolving. A good CFO of yester years may well be out of depth if he or she has not embraced transformation and evolved in their way of working and thinking. Any outdated stereotypes must be left behind.

The invaluable power of soft-skills 

Through my career, I have worked across industries ranging from manufacturing to the service industry. My rich experience across the service industry includes – hospitality, financial services, private equity, BPO, IT services and now telecom. This varied experience has allowed me to develop a keener focus on business drivers and has helped me to appreciate the intrinsic value and role of diversity – in enriching one’s professional experience with a multitude of ideas that a diverse workforce brings along with it.

“Being a woman has not deterred me from rubbing shoulder to shoulder with men. Even in the early days of my career when finance roles were dominated by men, I did not feel like a fish out of water. Harmonising within the work environment was easy for me as I did not type cast myself as a woman or expect any differential treatment.”

Being an artist at heart, creativity was intrinsic to me; this added to my ability to handle complex business problems in a more adept, inventive, ingenious and imaginative manner. Women’s ability to multitask and multi-process needs no elaboration; this added with heightened EQ and strong communication skills helps us to shine in whatever we undertake.

These skills are particularly important for people working in finance roles, where the choices we make can have a very real impact on people all across the organisation.

With digital transformation heralding the rise of automation in the workplace, these so-called soft skills are going to be even more important than ever. There will be less demand for skills like reading, database management and analytics as core skills, as artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough to take over these mundane tasks. As a result, those who excel at soft skills coupled with a multi-dimensional and creative personality will find themselves in demand.

Added to this, there has to be a deep curiosity to learn, commitment to hone and continuously master your skills and re-invent yourself. Learning and the continuous need to excel must never stop. Another important skill is to have the mental strength to manage both, good and bad days and have the ability to rise above and beyond the mundane.

While some of these skills come naturally to us, in many cases, they are carefully cultivated and developed over time through experience and practice – just the way I grew and honed them in my career.

Challenge the status-quo

Organisations need to recognise the value of diverse thinking and representation and use technology as an enabler to address challenges and biases. At Tata Communications, for example, we have recruited AI-based solutions to address the gender imbalance in the workforce – a common problem at all levels across most industries – by using an algorithm to eradicate any references to gender from the bio-data of the prospective employee.

“Competence and suitability for the role are the only criteria for any hiring across the organisation. We need to genuinely move away from looking at diversity as a mere tick in the box activity to embracing it whole heartedly in every realm of life.”

My career journey has been exciting, as I have consciously and continuously challenged myself by moving across industries and taking on challenging roles that have required me to step out of my comfort zone and push myself. Companies should adopt a similar attitude – by continuously differentiating their products, building their brand value but more importantly, embracing the rhythm of innovation and recruiting diverse talent, that goes beyond gender, for C-suite and other management roles.

The disruptive environment of today forces us to re-engineer ourselves to be better professionals and the many hats that women wear, allow us to bring different perspectives to solve today’s unique problems. From my own personal experiences and the different roles and responsibilities I have, I noticed that one has to keep re-innovating oneself to be a better mother, wife, friend and professional. This ability to re-invent and re-innovate sets one apart.

I would like to conclude with my favourite quote, “We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, so disciplined they can be free”.