Transitioning from a Playful Youth to the Visionary Leader
When I look back at my pictures from my younger days, I see a very naughty eyed kid that was popular in the neighborhood for all the wrong reasons (breaking windows) but also for some right ones (being affectionate towards almost everyone including strangers). I remember clearly growing up as a tomboy in a traditional Punjabi joint family surrounded by cousins younger and older to me. My parents thankfully did not put me in a gender box which helped me to always kind of challenge the stereotypes from a young age and gain confidence in the process. I was always curious and wanting to do the things that I was told not to. I wanted to find out the “what if”. I also had a very natural inclination to manage and organize things from a young age. I think I got that from my mother.
All the cousins were allowed to go to our family-owned shop of Indian sweets and work there. I remember my dad asking me to manage them all and define what they will do: organizing trays, smiling at customers, packing boxes etc. Not much has changed since then, I currently lead a fantastic group of people at Walmart who appreciate my leadership not because of my designation but because of who I am and what I have done to get here.
I did come from a place of privilege, now that I look back but having seen some very difficult times, I know everything is temporary but your approach to life can be permanent which for me means, being resilient and patient and riding through it all with gratitude and hope. I have seen it all: A joint family disintegrate because of financial matters and lineage, to having sexual orientation confusions, being a below average student at school, seeing my father struggle as a businessman and eventually losing him to that struggle. By the grace of the universe and blessings, I have come a long way from all of that and still riding the wave of life with enthusiasm and hope.
Harnessing Setbacks as Fuel for Growth
I personally feel like people who have had setbacks and failures, radiate a different fire in the belly. I have often seen this in interviews that I conduct. I most certainly have had my share of failures and far too many to most people’s surprise. One of the top ones that comes to my mind as I write this is, me failing in the Class 10th Maths board exam.
I never did like mathematics and always struggled with it. When this happened, I felt a lot of shame and judgement coming my way as I was otherwise a popular school kid and a sportsperson. My sports teacher told me, I could not sign up for the position of games captain with these scores and that was quite the jolt.
I had to obviously get out of it, and I did by signing up for tuitions for almost 6-8 hours in a day and giving it all I had. I did manage to clear the exam but barely so in the re-appear. I scored 5 marks above the clearing score. I did never get to be the games captain though. It was time to make some hard decisions and show courage. I went up to my parents and told them I wanted to take Arts in the last 2 years of school and not commerce which they were against as we were a business family.
I told them I wasn’t good at a few things, and I wanted to embrace that and move ahead. My teachers helped me to talk my parents into it and there I was, a year later, accepting the “outstanding student” award in 11th standard for scoring a whooping 90+ in history. It was my favorite subject. It still is! I also did well in the other subjects like Sociology and Political science.
My lesson from this was that you need to be abashedly honest to yourself and then face the world. You must embrace your reality and let go of things that don’t serve you well. After that point, I never signed up for things that didn’t resonate with me. I picked up a career of my choice and grew exactly the way I wanted to, which is being a servant leader and a diversity and inclusion champion at a company that has Culture at its forefront.
Evolving Workplace: Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Focus
I think we have come a long way in the concepts of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Having started my career in India in 2006, I have witnessed the journey becoming more fruitful, conscious, and meaningful though there is still a long way to go. Rewind to 2006, I had not heard of terms like ENG (Employee network group), ARG (Associate Resource Group) or even a support group for communities like PWD (People with Disability), LGBT+, Women in tech etc.
Now, a lot of companies, small and big have focused groups working on these causes and evaluating their policies, benefits, and Infrastructure with a new lens. People and cultures have also evolved like they rightfully should, realizing the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive thought process. Associates/employees these days don’t want just money, they want respect, they want flexibility, they want ethical grounding, and they want to work for sustainable brands.
On my journey as a people leader, I have seen a huge shift in the needs of employees over the last 2 decades. The sense of belonging and pride have moved up the list for sure. More and more companies are realizing this and focusing efforts on building a deep culture that stands on values such as respect, ethics, and inclusion.
Companies that don’t evolve with the shifting needs of this workforce, might eventually see the doomsday. Back in 2006, I didn’t anticipate seeing positions like Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer but now I do, and it makes me so proud. Who knows, one of these days, I am going to be in those shoes!
My two cents: Define your niche and be your own competition:
My foremost advice to any professional in any career is don’t compare your success to others and be your own competition. Focus on yourself and skills that you have and can develop. Define your area of expertise as that will bring confidence. As you start looking to others, and their journey, you lose sight of your own and start working on borrowed dreams and expectations which eventually leads to disappointment and a dip in performance. You are unique and so is your journey, embrace that and move ahead.
Lessons in Servant Leadership: The Impact of Mentors and Allies:
Mentors and allies have played a huge role in my journey as a person and as a professional. Think of them as the guard rails who protect you from going to extremes. It is very important to have people that you can look up to and learn from. It is also important to build an authentic connection with such people and consistently show up with the aim of sharing and learning.
I met my first mentor on my first job in London back in 2004. A humble Punjabi lady in her 50’s who was working as a floor supervisor for nonfood category in the cash and carry depot which was huge by the way. It took hours to get around the whole depot. I learnt servant leadership from her and the art of leading by example.
She would start her day by greeting everyone with a smile and making huge batches of tea/coffee for her team and handing it out to them during the daily huddle where everyone would update her on the activities of the previous day and plans for current day. These team members were the entry level employees in the company while she was a supervisor. She didn’t have to do this, but she did because she genuinely enjoyed chatting with everyone together like a small family. I was a graduate trainee officer, so I was there to attend all huddles and learn from these supervisors.
I enjoyed her huddles the most. She would spend rest of her day roaming around the aisles, fixing things and boxes, and making the displays look perfect for the customer. If a customer approached her, she wouldn’t call out for someone, she would walk with them even if it wasn’t her category and talk to them and guide them. She made sure the customer went back with a full heart.
She taught me that you don’t command respect, you earn it and that you lead by example and humility. We are still in touch, and I lovingly call her Mrs. Kumar
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