March 2016 | Christabelle Noronha

'Do what you love or love what you do'

Reaching for the sky has become a habit with Aarthi Subramanian, a remarkably focused professional to whom terms such as glass ceilings and manmade barriers do not apply. The first woman to be appointed to the board of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Ms Subramanian has banked on talent, diligence and resolve to find and fulfill her life's calling. And a sumptuous calling it has been.

Ms Subramanian did her schooling in the steel city of Bhilai (in eastern central India), her engineering at the National Institute of Technology in Warangal (in southern India) and has a master’s from the University of Kansas. Appointed as executive director to the TCS board in March 2015, she is the global head of the delivery excellence group at the company, where she started her career more than 25 years back.

Ms Subramanian has functioned in a variety of crucial positions at TCS and has worked in, besides India, Sweden, the United States and Canada. She opens up in this interview with Christabelle Noronha on the road that has brought her this far and the experiences that have enriched the journey.

Tell us how you came to join TCS, your hopes and expectations at that point.
I joined TCS through the campus recruitment route. Our entire class went through three rounds of interviews, but only four-five of us were selected. It was a proud moment for me when the offer letter came. It was my first job offer and that too with the Tata group. There was always a lot of buzz about TCS on the campus; seniors in college had joined the company and, of course, it was a Tata enterprise.

The team: Aarthi Subramanian with Tata Sons Chairman Cyrus P Mistry (seated centre), TCS CEO and MD N Chandrasekaran (seated left on the sofa) and other members of the TCS board

You have grown steadily in your career with the company. What were the turning points in this trajectory and how did they influence you at a professional and a personal level?
I joined in 1989, the year TCS embarked on a new training programme in Chennai for trainees, in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. It was called the software engineering training programme; trainees went through one year of training and were then assigned to different projects. After that I was posted in Mumbai for a couple of years.

From 1989 to 1994 was a phase of projects, building technical depth and moving from being a team member to a lead role, which involved leading small groups. The focus was on capability building and developing deep technical skills.

From 1995 onwards there have been distinct phases in my career. Looking back, the critical period has been the last 10 years. I was part of the retail vertical from 2003 to 2009. Sometime in 2010, N Chandrasekaran — he had become the company’s chief executive in 2009 — called me and said he was considering a new role for me at the corporate level. It was ‘delivery governance’, as we call it today, and was a greenfield function. My responsibility was to provide governance and oversight for 40-50 of the company’s top projects and ensure that they were running well.

I had, between 1989 and 2004, worked with Chandra as a team member on a large programme for IBM Sweden in Chennai. I also worked, during this time, with another senior colleague, K Padmanabhan. From them I learned what rigour in work meant. I’m glad I absorbed this learning early in my career; I started ‘living’ rigour.

The next decisive phase was my role in the retail practice, where I worked with Pratik Pal. I started heading multiple retail accounts that were large and transformational. Pratik began involving me in reviews of large programmes, whether I was responsible for them or not. My passion for reviewing and contributing to other programmes developed in the retail domain.

Then the corporate role happened in 2010 and this required me to collaborate with all the senior leaders in TCS. It involved doing governance around delivery with an ‘outside-in view’. Chandra told me something rather interesting that I’ve not forgotten till date: “When you were in retail you were the owner of the programmes, and it was easy to directly control the quality of deliverables. In this role you will be responsible for 30-40 programmes, to which you will have to bring a huge sense of ownership working with account owners. It was a valuable lesson in governance, which is essentially about enabling, assuring, collaborating and building relationships.

In 2011 the delivery, governance and quality functions were merged and I was asked to run this. For the next couple of months I tried to understand the organisation and see what changes I wanted to effect. My roles and responsibilities kept progressing from there on, leading to the board member announcement in 2015.

Women comprise 34 percent of TCS's workforce. How can the company, in your opinion, bring more women into leadership roles?
If you look at the execution and delivery leadership levels, there are quite a few of us in responsible positions. I agree, though, that there are not as many women as one would want to see in leadership roles, even though opportunities exist. It is for us women to grab the opportunities and manage our constraints.

Regardless of gender, the peer-to-peer relationship in TCS is highly professional. As long as you have a point and are objective, it’s not difficult to get yourself heard. The company’s culture is detail oriented and being hands-on is part of our DNA. You have to believe in yourself and persist. You try one route but if it does not work, you try another to reach your goal.

You need to have the grit to remain firm inside and let the outside world know that you don’t give up easily about what you believe in. In fact, you try every which way to achieve it as long as your cause is right and the means to achieve it are correct.

You seem to be the kind of person who enjoys whatever she does?
There are two ways people shape their careers: do what you love or love what you do. I fall in the second bucket; I’m someone who absolutely loves what I do. If I do not love what I do, I cannot do it. I need the positive energy to push me and get me excited.

When I take up anything, I sit back and try to ask myself two questions: what can I do differently and what are the different things that I can do. These two questions generate a lot of ideas. Doing things differently is a breakthrough from the usual and that's how I have looked at my career.

What challenges do you see in the governance role?
In some of the delivery governance roles, one of the challenges was providing meaningful intervention without taking a command and control approach. My basic premise is to start off with mutual respect. Second, always remain objective and talk about the issue rather than focusing on the individual. The important point is to articulate your intent: state why you hold a certain point of view and let the team know you are there to enable their success.

Sometimes escalation can put off people if not done the right way, although I believe escalation is not a bad word. Internally, escalation generates the right timely attention because early detection and correction of issues is extremely important. Such interventions can be disconcerting to the people involved, but you have to stay your course and the only way to get people to work with you is to take a collaborative approach and add value.

TCS is famed for its learning culture and the opportunities it offers to its people. How much of a difference did these factors make in your career with the company?
The investment we make in what we call talent management is one facet of the company that has not changed since I joined. TCS is well-known for the learning and development it imparts to its associates. The approach has changed over the years, but the focus has remained relentless. The approach to honing talent has constantly evolved because learning methods have evolved, technology has evolved, the nature of work we do for our customers has also continuously evolved.

I have benefited immensely from the training I got during the first five years of my career. It helped me build the technical foundation and orientation towards detail that this business demands. Learning is about keeping your antenna up all the time; the more important aspect is to internalise and reflect on what you have imbibed.

Did you anticipate the executive director's position?
Honestly, no, not even in my wildest dreams. It was a very pleasant and big surprise when Chandra told me about my appointment on reflection now, I can see how the dots were perhaps connected but I didn’t know then.

How did it unfold?
Our Chief Risk Officer and I were in Mumbai during the quarter end. I had no idea this was going to come up. The chairman, Cyrus Mistry, and Chandra called me into the boardroom and made this announcement. The rest is history now.

Being part of the board provides huge visibility to the corporate governance function. I think it is a fantastic opportunity for me to participate, contribute and look at governance at a much broader level.

Do you feel that as the first woman on the TCS board you have the spotlight on you?
Following the announcement I was flooded with mails, messages and calls from within TCS and from the outside world. It was an overwhelming response from people, many of whom I have never met. It took me a few days to come to terms with what was happening. The support I have received from family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, college classmates and others was simply wonderful. At the same time, I recognise that it is a huge responsibility and I consider it as positive pressure to perform and create an impact.

From your perspective, what have been the highlights of the way TCS has evolved, and continues to evolve, especially in the context of its employees?
Talent management is something which drives this company and it always has. Best-in-class training is imparted to employees and then there is the people connect factor. TCS has grown so significantly in scale, with more than 335,000 employees now, that face-to-face meetings may not be the most viable option, but we have a great internal online social networking platform, called Knome, as well as other virtual collaboration mechanisms that employees use to connect with one another. The good thing is that we are always changing to stay relevant and be in tune with the times.

Have you found a way to grasp that mythical thing: a work-life balance?
I like to call it work-life prioritisation because I don't know if there is a balance. I truly enjoy what I do. Thus, for me, long or short hours or too much travel really do not matter. Besides, a company like TCS gives you the opportunities and flexibility to manage your constraints. Take my own example: after my father passed away, my mother had some health issues that required me to be with her. I did not want to compromise on my output, but I also could not stay out of the country for long, so I took a role change. It certainly did not mean compromising on my career prospects.

In my current role I travel two-to-four days a week, and I'm just a phone call away if I'm needed at home. It is human nature that if we really want to achieve something, we try everything within our means to make it happen. Believe me, each one of us has that innate capability to do it. You need to continuously learn how to manage your priorities and keep delivering.

What advice would you have for talented people, particularly women, who are starting out on a career with TCS?
First, enjoy what you do and be passionate about it. This tempo has to be maintained at every stage of your career. Second, grab opportunities and do not, at the outset, become overwhelmed with how it will be accomplished. It’s better to accept the challenge and then figure out how to achieve it. Finally, everyone, irrespective of gender, has constraints at different points in his or her career. What matters is how you handle these constraints.

The millennial generation constitutes a large part of TCS's workforce. What's your counsel for this generation that lives by the 'me first' mantra?
This generation is very connected and collaboration comes to them more naturally than it did to us. A manager's role is not just to delegate and get the work done, but also to orient the team so that a cohesive workforce is created for the future of the business. I believe that not much has changed in terms of how you can influence, energise and impact people early on in their careers in terms of commitment, discipline and work ethics.

You completed your schooling from the Bhilai Steel Plant-run middle and higher secondary school. How did those years shape you?
I went to Kendriya Vidyalaya School in Bhilai, which is run by the Bhilai Steel Plant. It was a wonderful experience growing up in the steel city. Just like Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, Bhilai Steel Plant has this very structured setup and we had access to the best schooling pretty much free, which you cannot even imagine today. The focus on education along with family and peer pressure resulted in the laying of a solid foundation in education for me.

Looking back, I did several things during my growing-up years. I was in the National Cadet Corps, which helped in providing a good grounding in education and discipline. I became serious about studies from the ninth standard onwards; there was pressure at home as my sister was always a top ranker.

In my first year of engineering, I got into metallurgy, but I wanted to change my branch to computer science. I knew that if I figured in the top five in the college I could switch over to the branch of my choice. I literally slogged to make the top-five cut and I eventually got into computer science.

In hindsight, it was the perseverance and determination to achieve a goal that helped me through. We used to have 25 marks for each subject in the semester and, in one subject, the professor gave me 24.5 marks. I actually went up to him and explained my solution and approach and I got the full marks. Many of my classmates still recall this incident. I was completely focussed on doing everything I could to get a branch change.

What are your interests beyond work?
I am a fitness enthusiast; I exercise and I walk (I'm not into running). I walk for an hour daily and I process a lot of things in the background while walking. It is my quiet time, with new ideas flashing in my mind's eye even if I'm not actively thinking.

I'm a huge Bollywood fan and love watching movies. I try and stay up to date on the new releases and the goings-on in the film world. I try and catch up on the movies whenever I can; it's my way of unwinding.

I also enjoy spending time in the kitchen. I find cooking therapeutic and relaxing, and I enjoy good food. I try my hand at different cuisines, especially soups and salads. If I happen to go without proper food while travelling, I yearn to get back home and have a proper South Indian meal.