Ep. 83: Sandhya Sriram - Strategic Planning, Prioritization, and Motivation

Sandhya Sriram, VP of Finance and Global Head of Audit & Risks at Wipro Enterprises, joins Count Me In to talk about planning, prioritizaiton, and motivation. With most finance professionals looking to make sense of the current economic climate, Rouba Zeidan speaks to Sandhya to find out more about where the priorities lie in business. Before her current role, Sandhya was with Wipro Technologies as the Global Head of Finance for Consumer Business Unit. Prior to joining Wipro, Sandhya worked close to a decade and a half with Unilever in various roles including Business Partnering, Controllership, Shared Services, IT, Project Management, Supply Chain Finance etc. Sandhya is One Among India’s Top 100 Women in Finance, has been awarded the CA CFO - Services Sector, an Economic Times Top 50 Young Leader, and a Public Speaker. During this podcast, she shares her expertise on strategic planning during a pandemic and how professionals can best balance organizational priorities while managing their teams--particularly remotely. Download and listen now!

Contact Sandhya Sriram: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandhyasriram2005/

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Mitch: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In,  IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong and I'm here to bring you episode 83 of our series. With most finance professionals looking to make sense of the current economic climate, my cohost Rouba Zeidan speaks with Sandhya Sriram to find out more about where certain priorities lie in business. In this episode, Sandhya shares her expertise on strategic planning during a pandemic and how professionals can best balance organizational priorities while managing their teams, particularly remotely. With so much changing in business on a regular basis, it's important to strategize, prioritize, and stay motivated. So now, let's keep listening for some practical insights on how to do just that.

Rouba: (00:57)
So let, let's get right into it with, with all companies around the world, migrating to remote work, more specifically work from home, major compromises that have to be made that's ensure that business continuity is done under extremely limited data security circumstances. So that being the case of staff connecting from home, what are some of the best practices you have identified within your practice to protect company data?

Sandhya : (01:26)
So, I think there are different aspects of remote working. One is how do you secure access to your network when people are connecting remotely? How do you secure access? Now, both of them is not a COVID thing, it was existing pre-COVID as well. But what has really changed is the scale. . Now I am for a minute, not talking about knowledge workers who work with sensitive data, so where they have to be, have to have restricted physical access, you know. Some of these KPOs where people can't take their mobile cant take pictures because they deal with  really sensitive stuff. Now I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about operations in general. I think the new aspect of remote working, which was also there before, but has significantly amplified, is who else can potentially access your data. So everyone is working from everywhere. So your employee could be in a PG. The person in the adjacent room or the adjacent bed, as she or he can afford may have access to the phone calls that your employee makes. Maybe they have access to the data that he or she is viewing, and therefore the level of what can be compromised is what is maybe worrying companies or what they're faced with. Now under normal circumstances, physical security used to give that extra layer of comforting. Yes, it's all within my office. But now what most companies are doing is that they've heightened the security checks, they perform. A lot of companies are doing self testing, vulnerability testing, where they are creating like a Trojan. They are creating circumstances of compromise and they're trying to affect their systems themselves to see where the system can be compromised. They're also heightening the, governance or the control that they have on the data leakage tools that they have deployed. So like you are aware most devices, most laptops, desktops have data leakage tools, depending on the nature or the sensitivity of the work that you do. For example, some companies do not allow say pen drive or any drive to be attached to the laptop. Some companies do not allow, from your phone to be able to, share data into a WhatsApp or your Gmail. Some companies do not allow upload into public server. So they're are a lot of data leakage techniques that exist, and what companies have started doing is to start monitoring the noise that comes out of this, these data leakage tools, because these are continuously looking at data, that's passing through the network and are continuously flagging alerts, saying these are the type of activities that are happening with the data. So they have strengthened the monitoring of these alerts that go. But this is a evolution. You know, there are a lot of tools that are there, deployment and enhancement will be to what people specifically need, but they have to build more tools as well. So for example, what prevents me working from home, taking a picture, no matter what security you put on my laptop, I can still take a picture from my mobile ofmy laptop screen. And I can still, you know, compromise a particular data element. And therefore then companies are looking at how do I look what activities happening on the camera. Now, when companies start looking at your camera, then are they breaching your privacy? Then that becomes the next question. So there is a evolution also that is happening in this space on where companies will draw a line, and that line  will be dependent on what level of security they need from their operations. But if you ask me personally, it is a problem that will solve. It's not an answer. It's not, for example, if you ask me today saying when will economies recover? You know, I don't think that is an answer to that problem yet today, but this is a problem that will solve. People are solving it as we speak. They will enhance and upgrade their solutions to what their needs are, and they will figure answers. Now, some answers may come at a price like compromise of personal, of privacy or, you know, enhanced monitoring. Some answers may come simply with y like more costs, you know, utilization of better tools, and therefore there may be a cost impact of that, but answers will  come

Rouba: (06:30)
It's ongoing. As you said, that's, by the minute, there are ongoing developments that are unfolding, changes in decision making amid this pandemic. What are some of the top priorities that organizations need to consider in your view and what are some of the measures that they can take to manage them?

Sandhya : (06:50)
So, first really, first priority of organizations is to ensure safety of the people. Now, I'm not saying that, you know, everyone should continue to work from home, because in some cases  for certain business outcomes, certain people have to come out of their homes, but we need to find that balance. And more importantly, organizations need to make the whatever will be the working environment for the employee, whether it is in home or outside their homes, safe so that they can perform their roles in an effective way. That's the first priority for any organization, and especially in countries like India, where, the number of cases have significantly increased. It's extremely important for companies to ensure safety of their employees. The second priority, according to me is to have an Eagle eye on cash. Now this is the time where revenue profits, all the 20,000 different dashboards that people make are subservient to the cash that the company has in its bank account. If the company is not going to be able to pay its bills in the next quarter, then it's going to be very difficult for companies to find way forward on the business. So immediate action is how do they conserve cash? How do they create adequate measures to keep bringing cash into their bank account? And that means they have to continuously assess how they can build resilience and sustenance in the way they work. The third one for me is adaptability. You know, there are many, many that are seeing significant downturn, but there are pockets that are opening up. We saw Lam making face masks, you know.  There is a saying that says that only the grass that can bend with the wind can sustain the force of the wind. You know, so there is a burning need today for companies than ever before to be adaptable to what is relevant in today’s climate. andHow they can make them sense have a piece of the small pie that is available. The last for me, there are many, but like these are my top four. So the last and not the least is the stress in the system. People are under tremendous stress. You know, many people are experiencing, pay cuts they're experiencing no variable pays. They're experiencing job losses in their family extended family. So therefore people are going to be under stress, not just from a work point of view, but also from a personal context. This is, yes, this is where the, you know, the integrity framework of the organization, the value systems of the organization, get tested. And this is where leaders of organizations have to stand tall, what their values and reinforce the same every minute they talk to their people. You know. keep  their  ears strongly to the ground so they can sense what people are going through and how they can help them and be able to maintain the integrity borders of the organization infact. So these are, according to me, the four top priorities, which organizations should look at.

Rouba: (10:16)
Very valid concerns, actually some great advice back to it. So would this entire planet facing one of its most challenging blows at least, I mean, both economically and from a humanitarian standpoint, since the 1930s. h\How is that impacting your strategic planning for business continuity and what are some of the challenges that you're facing within that parameter?

Sandhya : (10:39)
So from that perspective, I will give a more generic view. For me, I think if I have to simplify the business continuity situation, I would say there are three pillars. The first pillar is cash. I spoke about it quite a bit earlier, and I'm not repeating myself, but the biggest challenge that most organizations are facing is cash. Now the government is trying to do a lot of things to put cash in the hands of people. but then for each country has its own complexity and for a country like India for the size scale and the disparate manner in which entrepreneurship has evolved in this country, it is, very, very, difficult for the the government to be  able to make the current country, find answers. So each company has to find their own answers for their cash needs. Now, the second one is continuity. Now say, I may be a small company that may be producing some small component in a very efficient way to a large manufacturing facility. Now that large manufacturing facility is shut because there is no deep demand for their product, the large company, they will have the capital, they have the borrowing ability, they will find other ways to redivert their capability and build something in. So for example, we saw a lot of paint companies started making sanitizers. Let's say if I was a small supplier that is supplying a certain component to the paint company, and that's where all my skills are, then I'm faced with this big challenge of how do I give myself continuity. So that's the second, I think, big, big piece. Now that then leads me to the third piece, which is capability. Now, then how do I have the agility to create something that is relevant in today's context? And so how do I pivot myself,  re-divert, my resources, relook at my ability and create something that can bring cash, that can give me continuity and that can build on my capability. So I think these three C's is the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for companies in today’s times.

Rouba: (13:16)
How does the post COVID-19 ecosystem look like? And specifically for female professionals in finance? 
 
 
 
 
 
Sandhya :
 
 
So obviously the work as we call, it will definitely change, and so many people have spoken about it. And there are companies that have said they only want to bring 25% of the people back to office. Some companies, they've gone on record and they want to shut down their office and not want to have people, working from your office locations. So a lot is changing in people's mind about how work can be delivered, and I feel that the biggest beneficiary of this change will be women. Now, if you look at the traditional reasons why, and I'm not trying to stereotype, but if you talk, if you empirically and based on a lot of research that people would have done what you see the reasons why female professionals drop out or, you know, fall back in the race is because either they are not able to continue in the location in which opportunity exists for their skills. They are not able to give the requisite amount of time that the job requires, and they are not able to network or be part of the informal clubs. You know, the, and I'm not saying women smoke, but you know, more as a common example, the smokers clubs and the, you know, the evening dinner clubs and women are not able to be part of it, and therefore they miss out on that informal networking. Now, a lot of these, when the paradigm of work changes when half your people are never going to come to work, the way people will behave in the work environment will significantly change. And therefore formal structures will become more important. Formal networks will gain equal strength. Informal networks will still be there, but there will be a value to how the formal networks operate. That's one part of it. The second part of it, of course, the most obvious one, which is location. This will give tremendous flexibility for women to work from the location which they have to be in, and still be able to work for a particular company or a particular activity, where their heart lies or, their skills lies. So that's going to make a big difference. I think another aspect is that this lockdown has significantly improved the sensitivity towards the role of the woman in the family. So if you open WhatsApp and now its  it's reduced, but a little while earlier every day, there would be one joke on how the man in the family is learning to wash vessels or how he is learning to cut onions. And, you know, there is some joke or some video, it just shows that it was so alien to people in the past that they can give a hand and help their wife. And it's not just about spouses. It's also about the children. The way children have stepped up to help their parents, and the way the concept of sharing responsibility in families have got established during the pandemic willcreate a big culture change in the way people are going to come back, and that I think will be a big benefit for women, not just in finance, but then every profession.
 
  Rouba: (17:17)
So as a leader, a female leader in the finance industry, how do you intend to use your position to disrupt the status quo going forward? And how have you been leveraging your position this far in your career to empower others and empower women as well?

Sandhya : (17:36)
I am a believer, that women don't need any concessions. They just need to be understood. Everyone wants to be valued for the skills that they bring to the table, and sometimes, I'm the consultants call me. And then they say, you know, they are very specific that this position has to be a diversity hire, and hence I'm calling you. And most of the time I tell them, you know, respectfully, that you please call me for who I am. Please call me for what skills I bring to the table. Don't call me because I'm a woman. So I personally feel... I am not a believer that you must do something for women specifically, but I definitely feel is that the more we create women leaders, the more we are able to allow them to express themselves, create opportunities for them to flourish,. The more they will be equally understanding and more women will come. And it's not about bringing women, but it's about bringing talent and every talent comes with their unique value. By bringing more women into the workforce, we are just creating the talent pool. We are just making the horizon of the talent pool to become much, much, much larger. So I think it's in the interest of organizations to be able to succeed in a world where creativity, adaptability, and being able to respond quickly to the changing timesis  so important. They have the right talent mix, so you are able to respond to it. So in my own selfish interest, I need to have the right talent on board. And therefore I need to find a way to make it work for women. And it's not just to, for me as a woman leader, but it's true for every leader. Now, having said that, what could people do now? One of the things that people, which we've also done, and I have always been a big proponent of that is being able to give women the choice of career, they give them the choice of timing, be able to do project engagements. So when women have to take breaks, they can stay engaged with work and be able to add value to themselves and to organizations. So there is a program called My Career, My Choice, which we run in ourorganization, where women can come and work part time at hours of their choice and can pick up projects and run. So that's one intervention, the data of course, series of interventions that my organization does, but I don't want to talk about it in this forum. For me, what is most important for every leader, not just women is to understand the value of what every talent brings to the table at one end and understand the constraints or the situations under which the talent operates. And therefore, how do we enable in a way that they're able to express themselves in the best way possible? And how do we marry the two to create value for the organization?

Rouba: (20:57)
I completely agree with you. And I want it to also, I mean, you seem like an amazing leader in your own, right? And I wanted to know more about under these grants, economic and humanitarian circumstances. How do you keep your team motivated? I know you're not representing your company, but if you're just to consider your small cluster, your little silo, if you like, how are you keeping them motivated?

Sandhya : (21:22)
So, I think it's true for me, and it's true for organizations in general. We have to be honest with our people. Now it's not an easy time for anybody and each individual in any capacity is making choices, and those choices may not be what you would have done under under normal circumstances and what you would like to do as well. But one of the most important trait that any leader has to bring to the table and which I tried to bring in my interaction in my little cluster is to be as honest as possible about the choices we make and be as honest about why we're doing what we're doing, and be honest with people in where our mind is and what we are thinking and be able to have open conversations on what are the, future, problems or difficulties we may face. There is uncertainty. Therefore, there are certain things we can do, certain things we cant do. Certain answers we have found certain answers we have not found. So keeping that open line of communication and being honest with the team is extremely important. The second aspect is to buildcollective resilience in the team. Now it's not an easy thing for the team. So I have team members that are youngsters living alone, their parents in some place, and they all worried because they can't go back to their parents. The parents are worried that they're alone here, what will happen if they fall sick, there are lots of fear that runs in people's mind. Being able to make people feel confident that whatever it is, we will stand behind them, and we will ensure that they're kept safely. It's something that builds resilience and builds confidence for you and builds confidence for your people back home, wherever you are from. So that I think is another thing that we are trying actively to stay with our people and be resilient yourself and help them be resilient  themselves in their capacity. A third aspect of, the current situation is this entire thing around how our work packets are getting delivered. And there is a very fine line that one has to draw between trust and verify, you know.  Obviously everything runs on trust, but we have to have reasonable governances reasonable reviews so that you're connected with your people. And you are able to ensure that your work packets are delivered effectively. So finding that right balance between trust and verifying. Giving the right guidance and support to people, especially when they're working remotely and therefore be able to make them effective. See, all of us don't have all the answers. We haven't found answers to some work problems which didn't exist in the past and have now come up, be able to to back your people to solve them is another aspect of keeping that conversation going. That is one more part of keeping people motivated. Now, having said that, I think it all comes down to people feeling that they belong. No as long as we as individuals. We may have a disagreement with our father. We may have fought with our sister, but at any point in time, what keeps us bonded with our family is because of the feeling of belonging to a family. We know we belong here and therefore, whatever it is  we find an answer creating that same sense of belonging with our people, making them feel that they are part of the family.

Closing: (25:39)
This has been Count Me In IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.
©Copyright 2020 Institute of Management Accountants. All rights reserved.