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How women can succeed in a man's world

By Savera R Someshwar
December 19, 2018 09:30 IST
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'You must remember that a career is something you can craft for yourself.'
'But if you want to be a successful leader, you need the organisation and your team to support you.'
'In order to make it all work, you need to be cognisant of the team.'
'You can't be a prima donna. These days, people don't accept that.'
'You can't ride roughshod over people.'

Maggi Noodles

Photograph: PTI Photo

The fact that 'what is seen in a store gets sold' posed another huge challenge. How could we ensure the visibility of the Maggi Noodles flexi pack... Cans and jars were easy to display, and packs of Cerelac, Milkmaid and Nescafe stood erect and smart on shop shelves...

...the bulk of the outlets were small... When we began looking for out-of-the-box ideas or tackling small storage space, this was what struck us -- there was a whole lot of 'air space' no one had thought to occupy yet!

Other than being somewhat inconvenient to hang up, hanging baskets seemed to meet the criteria of being highly noticeable, almost eye-popping in their ability to create a good presence for the brand and perhaps a little less accessible to rodents.

If the baskets were hung right, the dealer could sell the product from there -- he just had to reach up...

Though there were questions around this strategy, we were very excited about this idea...

The launch (of Maggi Noodles) in Kolkata was meticulously planned for May 1983...

Remember, this is May in Kolkata, one of the worst months -- hot as hell and very humid. We were soon sweating profusely.

Several times, a member of my team and the dealer would scream, half in fear, half in awe, as they saw me get up on to a rickety stool in a sari and slightly heeled sandals to hang up a basket!

I am sure it was a funny sight, and not a common one at that.

In my own way, perhaps, this was an attempt at leading from the front, showing the team it was a necessary and important activity, and not that hard to accomplish...

A great new idea, consistently and meticulously well executed in a sustained way, helped make Maggi noticeable in stores across the country...

The attractive displays of the red-and-yellow packets of Maggi Noodles carefully arranged in little net baskets, facing outwards so their labels could be seen, in neat rows one upon the other, beckoned the consumer to buy.

-- Sangeeta Talwar in her recently released book, The Two-Minute Revolution: The Art Of Growing Businesses


In a career that has spanned nearly four decades, Sangeeta Talwar has many firsts to her credit.

She is one of the first women leaders in India's FMCG section; the first to handle a major brand, Maggi Noodles.

Her gender may have posed practical difficulties, as you will read in the interview below, but it never deterred her from her objective -- of getting the job done.

There were many challenges she had to face, challenges she handled in her own unique way, whether it came to travelling across the country, handling a team that was predominantly male or even finding new ways to sell an old product, like she did with Tata Tea.

The Jaago Re campaign, which she helmed for Tata Tea, disrupted both the beverage and the advertising marketplace.

She helped Mattel turn towards profitability by refocusing its strategy.

As managing director of the National Dairy Development Board, she had no qualms about beginning her day at 4 am to visit a milk collection centre to understand how productivity could be improved.

Today, she in on the board of seven companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Castrol India Limited (Information: Kind courtesy Bloomberg) and heads her own consulting firm, FlyVision.

She is on the board of governors of her alma mater, IIM-Calcutta, and has been included in Business Today's 30 most powerful women in Indian business.

Yet, there is a gentleness in Sangeeta Talwar that provides a perfect foil to her determined steel core. It has led her to ignore barriers and succeed in a 'man's world'.

Among the many lessons she shares with Savera R Someshwar/ is her belief that a successful career is the result of team effort.

Women at the workplace

*IMAGE: 'Women work through different methods to be successful and their definition of success is also different.' Photograph: Kind courtesy Creative Commons

Careers are looked upon as individual achievements, but in your book, The Two-Minute Revolution, you say that careers are not possible without team effort.

No one's ever asked me this question.

See, it's very simple. I can decide there are many things I want to do, right?

But if the organisational system around me decides not to support that, it's not going to happen.

A corporate journey is all about cooperation, collaboration and, of course, leadership.

A good leader can achieve a lot by leading their team to achieve their expectations.

If you have a great idea, an orbit-shifting idea, which you want the team to adopt and run with, you have to communicate it effectively to your team. If your ideas make no sense to them, they will not pursue it.

You also must remember that a career is something you can craft for yourself. But if you want to be a successful leader, you need the organisation and your team to support you.

Men will say it is all because of me, because men take everything else for granted. They say organisation toh hai hi. Team toh hai hi. Money toh hai hi. Technology toh hai hi.

But, in order to make it all work, you need to be cognisant of the team. You can't be a prima donna. These days, people don't accept that. You can't ride roughshod over people.

Even your family needs to support you.

Isn't this aspect often not given its due?

Since there are more men than women in the corporate world -- corporates are still designed for men -- the whole rewards system and everything is still designed for men. The symbols of success are still very manly.

Women work through different methods to be successful and their definition of success is also different.

Unfortunately, it is still very much a man's world.

Sangeeta Talwar

IMAGE: Sangeeta Talwar. Photograph: Kind courtesy GlaxoSmithKline

You wore a sari all through your working career. Was that a way of building your personal brand?

Our work dress code at Nestle was formal and there were hardly any Western clothes available in India then; you could barely get a pair of decent trousers. So what better choice than a sari?

There was nothing I couldn't do in a sari. I could row a boat in a sari. I could climb a step ladder in a sari.

I pinned my sari in three places. You could hang me upside down and set me back and my sari would look exactly the same (laughs).

Did the sari create an identity for you?

It did.

When I was in Switzerland, Nestle's international CEO called me one day and said, 'You still wear this sari. I love that about you, the fact that you can still stick to tradition.'

When you started working, you were in an office full of mostly men. Did it make you feel awkward?

When I travelled for work, I was the only woman.

In the boardroom, in the business section of an aircraft, in meetings, I was the only woman. But it never made me feel awkward.

The thought never crossed my mind that I am the only woman in management. And the men did make an effort.

When they used a bad word, they said oops, sorry (laughs). When there are no women, the language changes a bit.

The Two-Minute Revolution book cover

Your job entailed a lot of travel at a time when it was not as comfortable as it is now. You probably had no idea what you were getting into as you travelled to the nooks and corners of the country.

(laughs) Well, one of the physical problems was that there were no toilets. So if you wanted to go to the toilet, it was a big deal.

It was a chain of command. The instruction went: Ma'am wants to use the toilet. Go find a toilet. And a toilet would be found. And it would be an experience to even use that toilet. But let's not get into that.

There were times when I almost fell off the hillside while using what passed off for a loo (laughs).

Not being in touch with the family was not such an issue then because we were not used to being in touch second to second, minute to minute.

In those days, your family knew you were fine when you left the house in the morning. Until you got home at night after work, they assumed you were fine (laughs). They didn't message you every half an hour to find out.

What I missed was probably the food and access to drinking water as there was no packaged water then. We used to manage with a cold drink. Or we waited for the man who dispensed water from his machine, which he carried around in a cart.

I would travel for long hours in all kinds of conditions.

I used to travel in the east, through Naxalite areas, so they would put me low in the car because you don't want the men to see there is a lady there...

It never deterred me.

*Image only posted for representational purposes.


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Savera R Someshwar /