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Neelam Pandey Pathak

SDA Bocconi, IEMB, Class of 2021. Director – Sustaining Engineering-Philips HIC. SWE Global Ambassador, PMI ACAC Member, VP NRV Bihar, PMP®, VMA

Senior Professionals look for different strategies, motivations, and frameworks to balance work, education, and family. Many of them are parents who have to figure out what works best for them and their families while ensuring they stay focussed on their Executive MBA pursuits.

One of the reasons why senior executives join SDA Bocconi’s International Executive Master In Business (IEMB) program in Mumbai is to get access to Europe’s top-ranked business school right here in India. SDA Bocconi School of Management is amongst a few prestigious b-schools that has triple crown accreditation and ranks 7th Worldwide for combined executive education by FT Rankings 2022. Anchoring on the International brand value of SDA Bocconi becomes a key reason for choosing the IEMB Program delivered at the Asia Center, Mumbai


I graduated in Mechanical Engineering in 2001 from the University of Pune and started my career with the auto behemoth Tata Motors. Over the years, however, the onus was back on me to equip myself further in order to not just excel in what I was doing but also unlock new opportunities by gaining more knowledge and qualifications outside of what the typical ‘on-the-job’ experience provided. In 2011, it led me to enrol in one of the top Indian management institutes to pursue a one-year on-campus program for executives.

As usual, given the era we live in, there was this urge to further up-skill again after 4 to 5 years to counter complacency and career stagnancy. Around that time, the industry was also witnessing major transitions. Digital transformation, analytics, and globalisation were new themes that were gaining massive traction. So, the realisation set in that I needed an international executive MBA that would help me take on leadership roles in a global context. That’s when I decided to opt for SDA Bocconi’s executive MBA program.

I realised that if I needed to transform from a managerial position to a leadership position — and when I say leadership position, I mean taking up the entire responsibility of a business line — I had to evolve professionally and develop a global outlook. When you are working with MNCs, you need to have this global perspective about the interlinkages of economic paradigms.

Pursuing my executive MBA from SDA Bocconi not only allowed me to up-skill with contemporary skills but also helped me cultivate a global perspective of business realities. And it surely helped me with my next career move, as I joined an international organisation headquartered outside of India. Having that global exposure and perspective paved the way for me to undertake leadership responsibilities that required me to know how businesses operated across different regions.

How did you manage the stress when juggling work, family, and education?

I have two children; one was eleven years old and the other was two and a half years old when I enrolled in SDA Bocconi’s executive masters in Mumbai. From the get-go, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but I had the clarity and willingness to pursue the program. I had to communicate to my husband that the IEMB program required me to travel from Pune to Bombay every weekend, stay there for two days to attend my classes, and then return to resume my full-time job. Explaining to my husband that this would be my life for the next two years paved a path around a discussion about how we would navigate the myriad parenting challenges that came with the decision. It was important to talk to my eleven-year-old and explain how my availability would change for the next two years. But once I had the confidence of my family, I knew we would manage.

There are a few things that I wanted to highlight here. First of all, when you are thinking about enrolling in a program like IEMB, you should build a matrix of pros and cons. You won’t believe it, but I plotted mine in excel. There needs to be clarity about how the program will help you, how your life will be affected, how your decision will affect your family, how you will prevent burnout, and how you will sustain your efforts for the next two years. And I must emphasise that you need to plan till the end to prevent burnout. In my case, I even did a demo of what it would be like for my kids to be away from me.

Secondly, I would say having a discussion with your family and managers is essential to convey how exactly things would change after you enrol in the program. This ensures you have a support system to rely upon during the entire two-year journey. It also takes away the emotional and mental strain of second-guessing how they would cope with your regular unavailability. On the professional end, it is important that you communicate with your bosses that you are going to need flexibility in terms of office timings. You have to take them into confidence that your work will not be impacted.

 

I became intentional about my time, and I learned to say no to certain commitments early on. This is when you need to step back, look at the bigger picture, and prioritize accordingly. 

You have often mentioned your perspective on the scarcity of women in top management and especially in core engineering/manufacturing companies. Can you share what solutions as a leader you have implemented to improve the situation in your capacity?

 

If you look at the numbers, women are underrepresented at managerial and leadership levels. So, it is very important that women are given equal opportunities and avenues that increase their representation at the top levels. How I have approached this problem is through a two-front solution. Firstly, by focussing on diversity hiring, which in my experience, has worked. Secondly, by providing women with the required coaching, mentorship, and guidance to progress in their careers. If you see a woman’s career graph, sometimes we even observe it plummets over time.

If we look at the data, we see many women drop out of the workforce to fulfil their domestic commitments as it becomes difficult for them to manage their personal and professional commitments. As such, I believe it’s very important to provide the right guidance and support system to women during these phases of life so they don’t drop out of the workforce.

We are also witnessing more women take an interest in STEM fields and associated careers. The numbers have increased over the years, and that’s the reason I’m working at the ground level as part of the Society of Women Engineers to catalyse this change by helping women choose STEM paths. Because when we have a good intake of women in STEM fields, we will also have more women pursuing careers in those fields. And then, if we have a good intake at the base level, more women can aspire to leadership roles in those domains in the future. So, it’s essential to work at the grassroots and, at the same time, use a top-down policy approach to create conducive environments that allow women to ascend the corporate ladder.

What was the highlight or the impact moment for you during the program?

If you ask me, the primary highlight of the program was my cohort and peer group. The batch size of our program was around thirty-five people, and all my peers came from diverse domains with established career tracks. Many of them were leaders in the banking industry.

I must tell you, I always thought my shortcomings in finance would hold me back from leadership roles in my career. Our program also had core finance concentrations, which I thought would prove challenging. But part of the pedagogy involved peer discussions. I derived a lot of clarity from those discussions; for example, I was able to understand how acquisitions work or how company valuations work. It was one of the best learning experiences for me personally. I instinctively learned the nuances of finance through case studies and group discussions and by just being around peers from the industry.

The international faculty that taught us had years of experience in both corporate and academic domains, and thus they introduced us to contemporary theories and their practical applications in our fields. Your professors have so much more to teach you than you can imagine. This experience, complemented by a robust administration from the B-school’s management, added to the richness of my SDA Bocconi experience. The program, even though rigorous, provided us with the flexibility to maintain our work, life, and education balance.

How did you leverage the IEMB program?

IEMB gave me the freedom to explore more career pathways and opportunities. My alumni and peer network comprises industry leaders and having the brand pedigree of SDA Bocconi opens up a wide range of career possibilities.

When I enrolled in the IEMB program, I landed a director-level role in the commercial space, which came through a peer referral. You see, after a certain point, when you are applying for senior leadership roles, you don’t get jobs through traditional gateways. Mostly you land a job through referrals.

A company hiring for a senior leadership role will take extra precautions to ensure the employee joining them is a match for the job responsibilities and the company’s culture. Referrals achieve that efficiently.

A core benefit of an international program like IEMB is your alumni and peer group and the networking channels that are facilitated through those relationships. So, yes, I was able to leverage my academic brand pedigree and peer network to propel my career forward by joining a global brand in a leadership capacity.

What would be your advice for women who are looking to upgrade their careers?

My advice to them would be never shy away from taking up challenges. You need to push the envelope of what you can achieve, and you know you need to up-skill. So, don’t be in your comfort zone; if you decide to take up this journey, plan it thoroughly until the last step. Have discussions with all the stakeholders, bring everyone in confidence, create a support system, and maybe even run demos on how the journey will look for the next two years. Time management will be a deciding factor in how well you do in the program.

Finally, I would say go for it. Give yourself this chance, and back yourself while you do it. Your career will take a different direction, and you will thank yourself later for putting in the grind.

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