As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia.

In this feature, Nagashree SR, Finance Director at Cargill, shares her strategies to build a successful and meaningful career and how there is a need to reinvent ourselves and adapt in a world that is hurling towards digitalisation.

Q: Who was the first woman you looked up to, and why did you want to be like her?

There are many women who inspire me and keep inspiring me. To begin with, my mum. She had a great role in our family and was a key influencer of our family. She ran the finances of our family, and literally the household. There’s a lot to learn from her when I was young – be it her tenacity, her empowerment, prioritisation, agility. She didn’t even quit her job to raise both of us – me and my brother. I learnt a lot from her; I’m still learning from her.

At work, I had the opportunity to work with many great women leaders. And there’s this fantastic lady by the name, Anita. She’s been a great inspiration to me. Fortunately, I met her very early in my career. And she's one who had a strong influence on my leadership style as well. She had great courage and backbone to call spade a spade. I’m still impressed with her style.

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Q: As you progress in your career, have you become more risk-averse or risk-seeking?

Let me share my secret recipe for building a strong career, and I am still building one. I think we have to be self-aware, very open and adventurous. And when I say self-aware, we need to understand what we really love to do, what really makes us happy, what are our areas in which we are really strong at and what are the areas to work on.

These things really help us make choices in our careers. And in my mind, I am not so risk-averse and not risk-taking. [Leaning on either extreme] would constrict someone's growth. So I would strongly let people be very open and adventurous at times to seek great heights in their careers.

Q: What are some moments of self-doubt you have had in your journey, and how do you manage them?

I think the best way for oneself is to work towards the causes of self-doubt. That’s the only way which can help dispel it. I think it’s also very important to build self-confidence and measure your level of optimism and deal with life with humility, also at the same time.

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Q: What is the one lesson or story you can share from your experiences that is unique to being a woman?

I think a woman goes through several stages or phases of life. And some of the phases of life do change her physically and emotionally, right. And that’s something that enables her to further her ability to deal with things multi-dimensionally.

She brings a lot of empathy. And she can raise the bar in the softer aspects of communication. I think it’s inherent in all women, but I’m saying some of the stages of life further enable or enrich that life experience.

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Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

On one [hand], there is a consistent increase in competition, pressure to keep excelling at whatever we have been doing. With machine learning, artificial intelligence [and] replacing humans, there’s a constant need to reinvent and identify value-adding interventions. We have to keep working towards making ourselves relevant all the time.

It’s constant pressure on all of us. We have to live as balanced individuals, with enhanced social skills and adapt and learn, especially in a world that is hurtling towards digitalisation, machine learning and also remote working.

Q: Why do you think empathy is such a key part of leadership?

To me, you know, honestly, empathy is always an untold leadership, leadership talent, right? It was always there, I wouldn’t call a person a great leader if he lacked empathy. But times like this, what we’re dealing with are unprecedented, extremely challenging, and everyone needs to step up their game and have to be more, you know, balanced, more mature and show that leadership. That’s the reason I think we are speaking about empathy more vocally these days. Otherwise, I see this as the most important tenet for any leader.

Q: What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in often male-dominated industries or organisations?

The trick is being self-aware; understand one’s strengths and areas to work on. What kind of support systems do we really have to enable us to pursue whatever we have been doing or whatever we aspire to do. That’s very, very important. Second, we should articulate and set the right expectations with both the stakeholders, personal professions, it’s very important to set those expectations on what they can expect from us. That’s a must.

When I became a new mum, I can tell you by my example, I have to set certain expectations that there are certain periods of time I can’t take calls and I have to focus on my baby and so on. There have been instances where we have to set those expectations. And we always live with this bias that they may not understand us but many times, it’s just in our minds. People are quite understanding because they also have gone through or seen someone go through in their circles. So it’s important to set expectations.

The third is to try to take the best of what we get from the system and ignore what doesn’t shape our thinking or values. There are many leaders and peers who offer constructive criticism, which helps to shape us as better individuals, but there are also people who don’t always try to get the best out of us. [Therefore, the] ability to identify that [difference] is most important, we need to be very agile, amenable to feedback and change ourselves, but it’s also important to know who is helping to get the best out of us.

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Q: What are some assumptions or biases you have noticed as a female leader around you?

Many. [That] women can’t do challenging jobs. They can’t be hardworking, they can’t do stretch assignments. If you hire young women during their reproductive age, they will go for maternity leave. And these days, the funniest thing, which I’ve been hearing a lot is that many people look at us as privileged and preferred, as every company is trying to increase their diversity score.

At times, you know, it gets very annoying because you know women always existed as part of this whole system. It’s just that we’ve been driving something now because just to increase the scope, but I think there’s nothing which, what do I say, we don’t get any exemptions because we are women. We have to do whatever it takes to do our jobs. I don’t know why people think like that. I think we need to change some of these thinking around us.

This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below

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Leading Women: The fight against uneven expectations
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