When her sons were 9 and 7, Gita Muralidharan went at the suggestion of a friend, for what she intended to be a quick 20-minutes exploratory interview at NIIT. The twenty-minutes conversation lasted several hours and the next week she began what became a sixteen year career at NIIT. From NIIT Gita continued to develop, moving to a leadership position within Learning and Development (L&D) area at Cognizant, a global BPO firm.
While she was very impressed by the prowess of Indira Gandhi (Gita has a special affinity for her because of their shared birthday) who took office when Gita was ten, Gita never intended to be a career woman. Following the expected path for an educated, urban Indian woman Gita married and began raising a family. It was only after her children were in school that she started to wonder about possibly what more. Teaching an hour or two a week wasn’t enough but she really didn’t have a clue what she should do.
When her friend suggested she talk to NIIT Gita had never used a computer and had not considered working in a corporate setting. After her first day, where she was the oldest one in the office, she told her husband that she intended to quit but she would stay through the week. The week morphed into months and then years. Gita learned all she needed to know about computers and leveraged her problem solving and relationship building skills into a learning and development career.
Partly she was lucky in her timing. In the late 1980’s there was a tremendous demand for IT professionals in India. NIIT rode this wave by providing training and placement. Additionally, by the time that Gita was entering the workplace other women had been the trailblazers; there were lots of young women in entry-level technology jobs. Due to the insatiable demand for talent organizations were less inclined to (overtly) discriminate against women.
However, while women and men were joining technology firms in approximately equal numbers at the entry level, women were often leaving as they hit middle-management. Gita noted that despite the strong support of extended family, and the prevalence of domestic help, many women stepped aside mid-career, just as their careers were taking off. The unrelenting demands of travel and communicating across time zones impinged on family life and many women were unwilling to make the tradeoff. Gita observed that because she began her career after her children were in school she felt less pressure in this arena.
Additionally, her attitude of “we will figure this out” resulted in her dealing with the challenges as problems to be solved not insurmountable obstacles.
It took being organized both at home and at work as well as asking others for help. Gita dryly noted that it was probably good for her boys to be
“more independent without their mother hovering over them.”
And while there was no visible discrimination, Gita did observe that it was often lonely being the only woman in the room. She didn’t feel lonely while they were all hard at work solving problems and meeting with clients. Yet there were times that the men would adjourn to have a drink and she would return to her room (when travelling) or home, to meet her family commitments.
Nonetheless Gita’s career thrived. Opportunities arose and she met them!
“I would just jump into the sea” and figure things out.
Gita learned to trust her instincts and to know that she could learn what she needed to learn.
This embracing challenges and learning not only defines Gita but are among her key hiring criteria.
“The resume speaks for itself,” candidates have demonstrated the requisite technical skills by the time Gita interviews them. But she probes to discern their attitudes, their passion for learning.
How do they learn from their mistakes?
Are they sincere in their responses?
Are they open to feedback and open to experiment?
These same attitudes are the prerequisite for a successful mentoring relationship with Gita. She has mentored, both informally and through formal mentorship programs, many employees (both male and female). Gita herself has had the privilege of learning from a myriad of leaders over the years, albeit none were formally mentors. In every relationship the openness to learning has been the hallmark.
This makes sense given that Gita’s career reached its pinnacle as Director of L&D at Cognizant. The IT/BPO world is critically dependent on employees’ willingness and ability to continually learn and develop. Gita and her team were responsible for advocating and helping with the learning-journeys and career-paths for more than 20,000 professionals, on almost every continent.
Recently Gita has stepped aside from this significant leadership position to concentrate on special projects. In this special projects role Gita has learned, first hand, the power of sponsorship. Her sponsor has quickly opened doors and enabled Gita access that would have been considerably more difficult had she not had his confidence and assistance. While she does not regret having risen to senior leadership without the benefit of a sponsor or a formal mentor, Gita acknowledges that having one might have been nice!
What is next for Gita remains to be seen.
Yet there is no doubt that it will involve her
“jumping into the (metaphorical) sea”
and learning as she goes.
1. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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