Sustainable Success Stories: Bidisha Chakrabarty
Bidisha Chakrabarty, Global ERP Program Director and Lead Architect at Fugro, is a leader with a proven track record of success in technology-enabled transformation. For most of the last two decades, she’s worked across a diverse range of industries, cultures and geographies. Based in Europe since 2005, she’s worked in manufacturing, high tech, wholesale and energy sectors with hands-on experience of organization change with digital and IT-enabled transformation.
Job Voorhoeve, Partner in Amrop's Amsterdam office and Leader of Amrop's global Digital Practice, spoke to Bidisha about her experience as a female leader in tech, leading international teams and life as an expat.
“I’ve always accepted opportunities where I knew I would learn something, hard skills, and soft skills, and that’s still my driving force to this day. That’s also the reason why I’ve been bold enough to experiment in different industries even though I know that sticking to one industry often could potentially lead to a faster vertical rise than cross-industry moves.”
Job Voorhoeve: Thank you, Bidisha, for making the time available for this talk. It’s great to speak to you again and talk about digital leadership, which is such an important topic for companies in the current environment. In order to go successfully on that transformation journey, companies need digital leaders who really understand the business, can bring the tech insight and have the digital DNA, so to speak. As a leader with a track record of success in technology-enabled transformation, working in manufacturing, high tech, wholesale and energy sectors, which are traditionally male-dominated industries, what has been your experience being a female-leader in these fields?
Bidisha Chakrabarty: It’s evolved over the years. I started my career in India, but the majority has been based out in Europe - in Germany and the Netherlands. Way back post my MBA it was almost overwhelming for me to see the male dominance in the industries, where I’d consciously pivoted, to understand real day to day business, to understand how strategy translates to processes and how technology adds value.
So as a young professional and also as someone who was not born into the culture, there were elements which felt quite overwhelming. What you do slowly but surely also realize is that topics like stakeholder engagement are not textbook topics - they are practical topics for you to implement every day. It’s also important to get rid of your preconceived notions across cultures, and when in doubt, just ask – choose a very humble approach as a starting point. A prerequisite, of course, is that you need to be confident about what you consider your areas of expertise to be. Technology is evolving so fast that you cannot be an expert in everything, but what I often tell my team is: ‘there should be a sort of sweet spot based upon which you can build your competence’. So, there's a human element of growth - emotional growth, and also the practical element of learning, a bit academic but largely also on the job.
JV: That’s a really great insight from your career and business experience so far. What challenges have you faced and what were your strategies in overcoming these?
BC: The one obvious one for me, which we tend to see even today, when there's a lot more awareness of diversity, is related to unconscious bias. Experience - depth of or breadth of experience is not always proportional to the number of years of experience. Yes, years of experience often add value, but that's not the only factor to take into account. And that's what me and my peer group focus on when we recruit people. Let's bring in people from different industries, different cultures, and let's not focus on gender diversity alone. One of my very interesting learnings in Europe is that to make a high-performance team you don't necessarily need to hire only ambitious and intelligent people with university degrees. You equally need people who have long-term experience and who know what failure is. So, it’s about the element of balance, which different backgrounds from different industries bring to the table.
JV: And that also helps to remove the unconscious bias, right? Because when you have such a diverse group, it becomes natural to work within a team, and it doesn't matter what your gender and background is - it's all focused on building success. And there’s also the element of respect and humbleness. In my experience there’s much more humbleness in a diverse international team than in a one-culture, local team.
BC: Absolutely agree. Also, is that unconscious bias, by definition, is unconscious, which is where the structural elements of formal diversity programs - eg. unconscious bias trainings can really help. They really function as eye-openers sometimes, because people are not necessarily consciously biased. I genuinely believe that people, more often than not, intend to deliver their best, especially in the transformation field; there you tend to have people who are dedicated to trying something new, something different, something which hasn’t been tested before, in order to achieve the company’s objectives. And if you deal with such a complex ecosystem, basic training on change management and unconscious bias can go a long way to create a solid foundation.
A couple of jobs back we used an external company for organizing unconscious bias training and I have to admit, I myself went into it with a bit of skepticism - here's another training half a day's work will go down the drain. And yet it was valuable, though it always depends at least partly on the ability of the trainer. But as they used the right, thought-provoking questions, it was almost as if they were co-creating the understanding of unconscious bias as part of the training. There was no direct pointing out of unconscious biases, but instead it was a genuine co-creation where they were asking provocative questions. It takes strong facilitation skills to draw out the awareness in people, and then some practical tips and tricks for the people to use in their day to day later. A hub-and-spoke model works in this context too, where you start with a core group of people.
JV: So, they become your ambassadors in a sense, for the program.
BC: Yes, and the ambassadors then turn into champions and so on. But it’s important not to forget the skeptics, which, I believe, are often skeptics for a reason. They might have genuine questions you need to consider and build into a process improvement plan.
JV: And these changes are really important. If you look back, across the last two decades, what changes have you experienced in these industries when it comes to more balanced gender diversity?
BC: First of all, I definitely see that there’s now a genuine recognition that diversity adds value directly to the company’s KPIs. You see that when you talk to middle management, recruitment managers – fifteen years ago you would see that in the last interview round, when you have two contenders left with the exact same skill set, the most likely choice would still be to revert back to the tried and tested statistic hire. Today that’s changing. People recognize the need for diversity consciously. So, at times, if the candidates go neck to neck, we’d have hired the woman candidate, even if you could say that she was perhaps not as articulate in her explanation of A and B, but when her answers to other questions helped us understand that she knows exactly what she’s talking about. So, this openness of thought, not sticking to the comfort zone and choosing to take risks, drawing people out – that’s a real change. And it’s a direct acknowledgement of the fact that they know that their business KPIs will be addressed. Now there’s also a more structured approach to diversity programs, and, because I work in the transformation space, this is almost a prerequisite. I see things changing every time I take on a new project – the clear recognition of the benefits diversity brings, the recognition of tangible results. McKinsey had predicted it already 20 years ago, and now there’s a widespread recognition. It’s important to note that some industries are much more forthcoming than others because of their customer engagement models. I have worked primarily in B2B, which historically tends to be quite conservative, but in certain industry segments this has become the bread and butter, and the so-called coffee machine gossip is also a proof of that. In the past this was where you heard things like: oh my God, there’s another female in my team, which I have to nurture… Now that’s totally changed. They know she brings value. And these signals tell you it’s now bottom-up rather than top-down – it’s embraced across the layers of the organization. And once the critical mass has been achieved, it’s a snowball effect.
JV: Yes, I echo that, and during my time at Deloitte in the 2000s when our strategy for talent attraction also for leaders was that we should be focused on the whole population and should not ignore the differences between men and women – that we should have specific strategy for attracting female leaders, especially in the audit business, which in the past was a very male-dominated sector; but now you see many women coming through the ranks and becoming CFOs. And I also see a lot of opportunities in the Digital and IT leadership space, where the same route can be developed and where more women can become CIOs.
BC: One risk that I see, however, is that there can be genuinely good non-diverse candidates, who are by far ahead, and they, of course, also need to be hired. Otherwise, I have been in conversations where young talent in management trainee programs are there with their female counterparts, and sometimes go: What am I doing here? Because the choice might already seem obvious. And that’s not fair either.
JV: No, and I’ve heard the criticism on that too, for example, one of the large consulting firms has two separate promotion tracks for men and women. And men who miss the promotion tend to complain that there’s positive discrimination happening. I think it’s important to get them on board, to really have them understand that this is strategy, which is focused on being more successful in teams, that it’s not one against the other. I agree with you on that one.
And, as a female leader in tech sectors, you are undoubtedly an inspiration to other women aspiring to have fulfilling careers in typically male-dominated sectors. Do you see it as an important goal - to mentor and inspire, and what has been your approach when it comes to that?
BC: It is absolutely mission critical, and I personally have benefited a lot from mentoring programs and from coaching. I have to say, however, that my coaching and mentoring experience has been consciously different, because my approach as a young professional – and I’m aware that it was and still is a controversial approach - was to ask for a male mentor. The reason why I did it was that I had to build a career in an ecosystem, where I was still a minority, and it was important for me to understand how the majority thinks, acts, and behaves. I’ve had some valuable discussions about it with my peer group, where they brought up the other side of the argument – that women who have built a career before you would also understand your struggle better, which men don’t. So, I do see both sides of it, but it does depend at least a little on your own ecosystem, how mature your organization is and most importantly, what do you as an individual want to get out of it. Coach is a different role; they are often not even part of the organization, they’re external, and if you have a good coach who is willing to put in the work of learning from your peer group, almost doing a neutral 360, and then embed the feedback back into your aspirations, that’s brilliant. In some cases, it’s been an eye-opener for me. Statistics show that women, when they think of their improvement opportunities, tend to focus on the “glass is half-empty”, rather than place equal focus on their strengths that they can build on. I had a coach who held up a mirror and said: These are your strengths. During the last 15 minutes you’ve been talking only about the things you want to improve, and I didn’t hear much about your strengths that you want to build on. It’s very simple but it was a huge eye-opener for me – when it came to my self-reflection, I didn’t focus on my strengths. And mentoring and coaching doesn’t need to be a high-cost investment for the company – it’s possible to just set up a simple mentoring program within the organization: two individuals, one hour per month. Let’s do it!
JV: Great insight. There’s definitely a difference between mentoring and coaching done internally and externally, and if you’re in a male-dominated environment it’s crucial to have someone who understands how it works, help you – to overcome the burdens of the bias, to understand how the structures and networking works, and also how the language works, as it’s all around language. That’s really good learning, thank you for that.
You have been based in Europe since 2005, after you completed your BA in Electrical Engineering in India. Can you talk about your experience in the new environment as an expat, and what challenges have you had to overcome in this respect?
BC: I only have the best memories of being an expat! Though I did experience something of a crash-landing – I grew up in Kolkata, worked in Mumbai, two of the busiest cities in the world, to a comparatively small European city Leipzig. Could the change be bigger than that? What helped was not having the comfort zone of fellow Indians. It helped because to build your friendships, lifelong friendships you have to turn to Europeans, Americans, whoever is there next to you; and not judge whether they come from the same cultural background or not.
What worked for me also was – when in doubt, ask. For me that was key. To be open to experimenting, even just by going to a pub. So what if at the age of 23 you’ve never been to a pub until midnight in your own city? Here, try it – you might just hear interesting conversations on how students do networking. I came from a very different education system: in India, even today, when a company hires, they go to a university campus and hire 100+ students in one go. That doesn’t happen in Europe. Here, once you have a university degree, you’re on your own – you have to find your own job. So, being open to experimenting and learning was crucial for me. Moving to Germany, the language barrier didn’t help either, so I did learn a basic level of German. Now in the Netherlands I’ve gotten lazy, because most of the Dutch people speak English, but learning the language can help the non-verbal communication aspect. Understanding the language and the culture is as critical as the hard skills in your pocket. So, I also learnt Dutch, and, though I don’t practice enough, at least the hidden barrier is not there, for example, my Dutch colleagues don’t need to feel uncomfortable if, for some reason, they need to switch to Dutch to explain something. Also, in engineering and manufacturing companies the language is very important if I’m talking about the technological solutions. I have to understand the current process, the current challenges, and then translate it back into the technological solution – and why would I expect someone who’s been doing their job for 40 years to explain it to me in English all the time? If it happens, great. If not – I just tell them to switch to Dutch and, worst case, I can use Google translate too!
JV: What has been your driving force and what characteristics have helped you build your career according to your vision?
BC: For me one important driving force, when it comes to the hard skills, is to focus on jobs where there’s a problem-statement to solve and to have intellectual learning along the way. I have been working in the field of technology-enabled transformation, post-merger integration, and in all the transformation areas where I’ve specialized in the last 10-15 years, I’ve always accepted opportunities where I knew I would learn something, hard skills, and soft skills, and that’s still my driving force to this day. That’s also the reason why I’ve been bold enough to experiment in different industries even though I know that sticking to one industry often could potentially lead to a faster vertical rise than cross-industry moves.
Another thing is that I’m a people-player – and I need a lot of laughter and humor in my environment. Because transformation equals stress. If the investment numbers you’re working with are counted in millions, there’s an expectation of return of investment and there’s a deadline. In stressful situations such as these, in order to cope you need people you can trust, delegate and empower – and after-work, laugh and have a few glasses of wine together.
JV: Yes, I completely agree. And there’s a lot at stake, because, even if an SAP implementation goes wrong and the company cannot send out invoices anymore, you’re in big trouble, and there’s so many examples where that has happened in the past. So, it’s really important. Another thing that I wanted to ask you is: what competencies do you believe a tech leader is required to have in order to succeed in today's environment and to guide a technology-enabled transformation?
BC: There are three elements to it for me. First, a tech leader needs to have an open mind about technology. It might seem intuitive, but you would be surprised how often people try to connect back the old and the new, rather than trying to understand the value that the new technology brings to the table. A good example is the understanding around agile when it comes to the way technology is implemented. Agile is based on pretty strong, lean principles. If you really think about it, agile mechanisms bring a lot of discipline. But if you do agile wrong, you end up being fragile. And then people go: Agile doesn’t just happen, agile is a myth. It’s just a glorified waterfall in shorter cycles. It’s not!
Another thing to consider is the customer experience space. People debate: is CRM digital or is CRM traditional IT? Does it really matter? No. But are you capable of understanding the customer value-add of that CRM platform in your day-to-day engagement and explain it to the sales guy when he’s in his car in the suburbs of the UK, signing up new customers? That’s more important. It’s crucial to understand the core capabilities that the technology brings and how it helps you solve your day-to-day challenges.
Finally, the people's side. Gone are the days when the technology leader can just say: That is business. Yes, business is supposed to lead, but you need to really handhold the business in their new personas on what is their role, what is the shared objective, and what is the role that IT plays. It is a real partnership, and an advisory conversation, and it is definitely not a silo-ed operation that can make you successful.
JV: A key thing I would like to add to that is the capability to implement and go-live, to get it done. I think we’re sometimes doing too many projects and never finishing them.
BC: In my own career I’ve primarily been with stock-listed companies, and for me, the objective is not negotiable. The objective and KPIs are set, and, once they’re set, we deliver; we can discuss how, we can use course corrections and learn from our mistakes. But the objective needs to be delivered.
JV: My final question for you is: where would you further like to develop yourself in the coming years?
BC: I want to consciously make more time to meet industry peers. There are so many lessons to be learnt from every talk of experimenting, from innovation to incubation, to scale-up, which is so important in the digital space. While keeping an open mind on “learn fast, fail fast”, you don’t actually need to fail if you speak more to industry peers! Secondly, the same industry peers can help, often with references, to make hiring easier, because you can trust people. And, thirdly, I want to make more time to keep myself up to date. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making more efforts to make time for my own personal learning. Admittedly, no tech leader knows all within the technology space – that’s just not human, and we must accept it. And I’m very humble about it. On the other hand, if you’re part of a high-performance tech team, nothing’s more frustrating than having a leader who just doesn’t understand your basic language. So, I’d like to have a wider know-how portfolio, to have a shared understanding of the broad spectrum of the tech ecosystem.