As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia.
In this story, Neha Arur, Senior Director of Human Resources India at Midland Credit Management (an Encore Group Company), shares the two greatest career decisions of her life, as well as how today’s women leaders have to battle uneven expectations at work, at home and within the society at large.
Michael Page India's Senior Consultant Stuti Pathak speaks with Neha Arur, Senior Director of Human Resources India at Midland Credit Management, to learn more about her path to success.
Q: Who was the first woman you looked up to and why did you want to be like her?
I have worked with so many women leaders and there are so many women in my family. One name that pops out for me is actually my grandmother’s. As I was growing up, my grandmother remained strong and kept the family together. Even though she was the oldest person in the family, she always found time for us.
She eventually became my confidant as well. I was also amazed by the way she was able to adapt through different stages of life, providing comfort and a listening ear. So I do wish I could be as adaptable and humble as my grandmother was. I consider her to be my guardian angel. She continues to inspire me, even today when she’s no longer here.
Q: How have you become more risk-averse or risk-seeking as you have progressed in your career?
I have become more of a risk seeker in my career. As the years have gone by, after 16 years of HR, I decided to drop it all and become an entrepreneur — and my entrepreneurial venture had nothing to do with HR, either. It was in commercial real estate, and there were not very many women venturing there because it’s a very male-dominated field. This was the life I chose and, over the years, I have found confidence in myself. I’ve become more willing to take chances. Even if I failed, I would pick myself up again.
Q: Have you ever had moments of self-doubt in the course of your career? How did you manage it?
My biggest self-doubt came when I wanted to start a family. I was at the top of my game, I was doing very well, and I was holding a global role. I was sceptical to start a family at the time because I didn’t know if I could manage both work and family.
I had a lot of self-doubt with regard to creating that balance and remaining relevant after my maternity break. I feared that, as I was taking care of my child, the entire world would change and I’d not even know how to work on a laptop. I was also afraid that I would be judged for the life choices I made. Some of these were unfounded fears, but fears nonetheless. The way I managed it was to take baby steps, one day at a time. It was just a matter of days or weeks before I was back to being my normal self.
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Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the next generation of women leaders?
So the current generation, which has more working women than the previous generation, is going through a lot of conflict. We are getting a lot of mixed messages. At work, they are doing very but, at home, they are still being told to get married and have children. So to me, until the workplace, your home life and the society at large progress at the same pace, the conflict will always be there.
That’s why it’s important for certain paths to pick up the pace to create a more seamless experience. The bias does exist for men also, but I think women do go through it a little more because of the conditioning. Men are still expected to be the providers and women are still expected to stay at home. Even though those rules have changed, society hasn’t changed as much.
Q: What is the best decision you’ve made in your career?
I think the best decision that I have ever made was probably to take the leap as an entrepreneur. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me as a professional. I got to find out if I had it in me to do something very different from what I had done before.
I was out on the road for five hours a day, which was a very different experience for me. I had to speak to venture capitalists, raise funds for the company, set up our operations, and these were all very challenging to me. I think that was the best and boldest decision that I’ve made.
The other is that I took a long maternity break. It was a good decision because there are times when you have to accelerate in life but, when I became pregnant, I made the conscious choice to slow down and take a break. I am so happy that I did that because I did what I wanted to do. I was not just chasing my professional goals, but I was chasing my personal happiness as well. I am intensely proud of both decisions. One was a strong career change, and the other was a personal choice of how I wanted to be.
Q: Why do you think empathy is a key part of good leadership?
‘Empathy’ has been a buzzword for the past 12 months. Since Covid-19 happened, I think the pandemic has put a huge spotlight on empathy and how it is a core skill of a good leader. In the past, it was all about driving for scale, driving for results or building effective partnerships. We were also talking about other skills and competencies, but not so much about empathy.
I think what happened was none of us was prepared for the pandemic. We quickly realised that people were going through so much, and nobody was ready to work in a remote environment. There was also the risk of losing your livelihood. I mean, look at India. The way the migrant labourers had to walk home in order to get to a safe place.
It was heart-wrenching. Also, a team member could be going through so much at home. There could be someone who’s sick, they don’t have help at home, or there are children who are not going to school. Under such circumstances, we had to come together and get through all of this. I think leaders who did that in the past year emerged much stronger.
Q: What are some strategies that will help women achieve more prominent roles in male-dominated industries or organisations?
I am lucky to be in an organisation that’s very open-minded and has given me space. At times, I feel women limit themselves as well. We sometimes let gender elements play up too much and we wait to be invited to the table. I think right now we have an equal right to pull the chair up and claim our own space. I suppose the first tip is to stop waiting for an invitation.
The second is that sometimes we limit ourselves because we feel that the job is not for women. We say ‘I can’t do this’. I think we should give ourselves more credit than that.
The third is, as women, we sometimes judge other women instead of supporting them. I’ve seen that a lot. We need to stop making judgments about what the other person is looking like, where they are from, what they are wearing, how they think, etc. We should instead hold the other person’s hand, mentor them and be their ally. So I would say that creating a women’s networking group, where we can talk about such fears, will help us feel less alone in this journey.
Q: What are some assumptions or biases you have noticed as a female leader?
Lots of them! When women get promoted, a lot of people feel that it happened because they were women. It’s very disrespectful. Even if a company does have a diversity agenda, it is unlikely that they will promote someone and compromise on merit, right? Do not take away someone’s achievements.
That’s a stereotype that I’ve seen a lot. I have never asked a man or heard any man being asked the same questions that women get asked. For example, whether I plan to have a family. If I want to do it, it is my personal choice. It shouldn’t be the reason to deny me my opportunities.
Q: What is the one advice you would give to your 10-year-old self?
You can be whoever you want to be. Your gender is not going to limit you or be a weakness. In fact, all of it is going to become your strength someday.
This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below:
How to ask your boss for more responsibility
6 performance and career progression secrets they don’t teach you at school
The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company
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