“Successful women are ambitious and focussed on their careers,” Shalini Pillay

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She understands the imperatives for an organisation from a talent perspective. She possesses the consulting skills required to provide solutions. She is also a specialist in finance and has been a successful HR leader. When not at work, she enjoys celebrating life with her family and friends. In conversation with free-spirited Shalini Pillay, office managing partner, KPMG, Bangalore, who is an eternal learner and draws inspiration from the quote, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.”

After engineering, a stint at being a financial consultant, and then some time in chartered accountancy, followed by people management and now the role of business head — how has such wide experience shaped you as a professional?

To step back and take you through my career journey and the opportunity I have had to make some interesting shifts along the way……

After engineering, I wanted to go to the US to pursue higher studies in technology, but that did not happen due to family reasons.

I come from a business family and at some point, felt strongly about learning the ropes of Finance. A campus offer from Arthur Andersen seemed to provide the perfect learning opportunity.

I absolutely loved working at Andersen given the rich learning and the fantastic exposure to the corporate world that it provided me. While building a strong foundation in finance, through qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, very early on in my career, I moved to into the world of Business Consulting. A very enriching journey over two decades in consulting across Andersen and then KPMG, provided me the opportunity to work across a wide spectrum of sectors, solving business problems through various solutions.

In 2013, our CEO and leadership team wanted a line partner to run the HR function and the role was offered to me. Initially, it seemed like a bizarre suggestion given that I wasn’t a trained HR professional. But quickly I realised and appreciated, the perspective of wanting to drive the people agenda using a business lens and hence realigning some core elements on how the HR function ought to support and deliver to the needs of the business.

I moved into the HR role, which was yet another awesome learning and gave me a great vantage point to understand and contribute to my organisation where I had spent over a decade. From my own individual professional standpoint, the HR experience added a very different dimension and further shaped my professional career journey.

“being prepared to meet organisation demands with the ability to strike a good balance between what the organisation wants you to do and how strong -willed and focussed women are, is what will help women successfully develop and take on leadership roles.”

Interestingly, you have worked with one company throughout your career – a very rare quality to be found among professionals these days. You have also set a great example for the new generation, which considers longevity of tenure a drawback. What has been your learning and how have you benefited from being at one place for so long?

Technically you can say I have been with two organisations— Arthur Andersen and KPMG. Andersen helped me build a sound foundation for a career in management consulting especially given the organisation’s focus on learning and development which was very impressive. I loved the decade I spent there.

Subsequently, our consulting team at Andersen was acquired by KPMG and that is when I moved to KPMG, in November 2002 and I have been with the Firm ever since.

Being in management consultancy is what I have always loved, it has provided me varied experiences and exposure to the most interesting segments of corporate India, while keep abreast of market dynamics and hence work on interesting , evolving solutions. I have led Post-Merger Integration and CFO Advisory solutions for the Firm during my career.

My transition to HR also provided me an impetus to learn and contribute differently. Have led the HR function for five years, at one level my learning curve had begun to flatten and I also realised how much I missed my first love- consulting, working with clients. So, when an opportunity came to lead and manage one of our largest regions—a very fast-paced exciting market, such as Bangalore—I took on that role and hence moved back to our core business.

“At entry level employees should be willing to learn and experience a different dynamism of business, wanting to soak it all in.”

The problem with women is not leadership but getting into leadership positions. You can defy this statement based on your personal achievement – but do you think that this holds true for many other women who are out there in the workforce? If yes, to what extent?

The very fact that we continue to talk of gender diversity as a challenge at the top leadership roles is the symptom of a problem. Today, organisations are very conscious of the need to change this, enhance the gender diversity ratios, and have embarked upon a whole host of initiatives to drive a more inclusive, agile and flexible work environment.

Having said that, there is only so much the wider ecosystem can do to help and enable the cause. I do believe that Women’s successful careers truly also depend on how ambitious and how focussed they are on their careers and how badly they want to realise their ambitions. Being aware of the organisations expectations, the demands of the job, being prepared to meet those demands with the ability to strike a good balance between what the organisation wants you to do and how strong -willed and focussed women are, is what will help women successfully develop and take on leadership roles.

“‘JOSH’ is how I would sum the culture here — young, energetic, and raring to go!”

What would be your advice to women who want to return to their professional life post a long sabbatical for maternity or other family issues? How can they stay relevant during their absence?

My advice would be to stay relevant during the sabbatical. It doesn’t take much to simply pick up the pink daily every morning to stay up to date with the business world. On a maternity leave, you should access the emails and stay updated with your company. It’s a wonderful time in between to pick up online courses. There is no dearth of avenues to stay relevant if one wants to.

This career continuum is often alluded to as a rat race, with individuals at different levels of ambition and aspirations. As I see it, our career journey is a means to a higher purpose that each of us individuals are working towards, balancing other life priorities along the way. It is perfectly alright to prioritise your personal life and when needed sit out of a lap or two of this so called race. If one has the ambition and the ability, it is only a matter of time before you are back in the race and ready to outdo others from where you left off.

“My entry into HR was to drive the people agenda using a business lens and hence realigning some core elements on how the HR function ought to support and deliver to the needs of the business.”

In the consultancy space, there are these BIG 4 companies and also innumerable specialised consultants that have mushroomed in the last few years. How has talent retention become a problem given that there is frequent movement of people from the BIG 4 to these niche consultancy companies? Or does it make more business sense to let people go after a certain period of time, to keep costs under control?

We see movements of all sorts, look at the Big 4 world, you have people moving out to join industries, niche consulting companies and sometimes to set up their own consulting business. Given the new emerging market opportunities, talent retention continues to be an area of focus

When we look at it, from our perspective, it really boils down to relevance of a resource from a skill and delivery perspective. As long as people ensure that they upskill themselves and stay relevant to the needs of the business, clearly it is a win-win for the organisation and the individual(s). We have seen people move out to industry for a different exposure and many of them join us back, bringing back wider perspectives, experience and exposure to the table.

As I see it, individuals aiming for super-specialisation don’t need to leave us because we have different service lines, and cutting edge solutions which are constantly growing and investing in. One could pick an area of specialisation and build a very successful career anchored around the same.

And, to the last part of your question, I believe if employees’ skills help contribute to, grow the business, then cost is not a consideration. It’s only when someone is not upskilling and has reached a saturation point that the cost becomes a burden as opposed to the outcome the person is driving.

“This career continuum is often alluded to as a rat race, with individuals at different levels of ambition and aspirations.”

What is your advice for those starting their career in management consulting? Being a super specialist, a generalist or a jack of all trades – what will offer them a greater career rise?

I would say at an entry level it is best for people to come in with a broad and open mind. They should be willing to learn and experience a different dynamism of business, wanting to soak it all in. The Consulting market provides a wide spectrum of skills, knowledge and experience and hence I believe making your choices restrictive at the early stages may not be a good idea. In fact, for most of our consultants we have a fairly vast learning curriculum and opportunities to rotate within functions. Individuals should choose specialisation only after having experienced different projects early in their career.

“My advice would be to stay relevant during the sabbatical. It doesn’t take much to simply pick up the pink daily every morning to stay up to date with the business world.”

How well has HR transitioned from IR to ER? Is there a missing link somewhere? What is it that HR needs to catch up on? What is the biggest issue that plagues HR today? Is it adopting new technologies or maintaining the human side of HR?

This is an interesting question. It does seem like IR has gotten toned down, perhaps because of how the Indian economy is dominated by services, as compared to fifteen years ago. When I look at the HR function, there is a lot of emphasis on how the function needs to adapt and align to what the business requires. The importance of talent for an organisation has really reached a level of maturity. We have seen, HR increasingly get a seat at the top table, and there are enough and more reports that talk of CHROs being the right hand to the CEOs as they help define and execute business strategy and plans.

In terms of where HR still needs to catch up, I think the HR training curriculum needs to bring in a lot more of business appreciation into it. While this is changing, it perhaps needs to get accelerated at a certain pace. Today’s HR leaders are really out there working shoulder to shoulder with business leaders dealing with business problems and finding solutions. Perhaps mandating secondments into the business will help upskill HR professionals.

To your last part of question on adopting new technologies, I think there is enough and more recognition of the fact that the function needs to get digitised even more than any other function. Whether it is using analytics or driving efficiency through better systems and hence focussing on business problem as opposed to getting bogged down by manual ways of working.

“individuals aiming for super-specialisation don’t need to leave us because we have different service lines, and cutting edge solutions which are constantly growing and investing in.”

If you were to describe the culture at KPMG in one word, what would it be and why?

‘JOSHful’! Recently, we have launched a high-octane campaign to celebrate our 25th year in India. We are the youngest professional services firm in the country and I believe there is a certain passion and energy that KPMG represents, with a very people friendly touch,

‘JOSH’ is how I would sum the culture here — young, energetic, and raring to go!

“HR is increasingly getting a seat at the top table, and there are enough and more reports that talk of CHROs being the right hand to the CEOs as they help define and execute business strategy and plans.”

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