BONUS | Sangeeta Shankaran Sumesh - Women in Finance

Sangeeta Shankaran Sumesh, CFO of Dun & Bradstreet Technologies, joins Rouba Zeidan of Count Me In to talk about women as leaders in the finance industry. Sangeeta has received recognition and numerous accolades, including “Leading Woman Chief Financial Officer in India”, “India’s most influential women in Finance” by rediff.com, "Innovator in Finance” at International Women Leaders Forum, “100 inspiring authors of India”, and was awarded the "Outstanding Professional” Award by FICCI. In this episode, Sangeeta and Rouba tackle gender equality in India, rising up the corporate ladder and leadership amid COVID-19. Sangeeta also shares her expertise on managing company finances during this pandemic as well as her advice on optimizing career opportunities for young finance professionals. Download and listen now!

Contact Sangeeta Sumesh: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sangeetasumesh/
Sangeeta's Website: http://sss.coach/
"What the Finance" Book: https://www.amazon.in/What-Finance-Easy-learn-entrepreneurs/dp/1645467961

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Adam: (00:00)
Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. This is Adam Larson, and I'm your host who will be introducing you to our bonus episode's guest speaker, Sangeeta Shankaran Sumesh. Sangeeta is a chartered accountant and management accountant with over two decades of experience, including leadership positions with multinationals across geographies, and most recently serving as executive director and CFO of Dun & Bradstreet Technologies. In this conversation by cohost Rouba Zeidan talks with Sangeeta about various aspects of being an influential woman in finance, including gender equality, rising up the corporate ladder and the importance of leadership and career optimization amid COVID-19. So to hear more, let's head over to their conversation now.

Rouba: (00:59)
So good morning Sangeeta, and thank you so much for joining us on Count Me In’s podcast this morning.

Sangeeta: (01:07)
Very good morning Rouba. It is great to connect with you, and pleasure being on your show.

Rouba: (01:13)
So I have so many questions for you because India is one of our biggest regions for IMA globally, and we're very keen to learn more about your experience as a seasoned finance professional and a woman. So women in finance in India represent a mere 11% compared to 16% globally. I personally find these figures a little shocking and an indication that much work, I mean, even on the global stage, don't get me wrong and that much work still needs to be done to establish gender equality within the finance sector. But what comes to mind when I mentioned this to you? I mean, what is your takeout from this.

Sangeeta: (01:50)
To be honest I find it ironical and surprising as well because you're right to say that the percentage is pretty less, but you know, if you look at women, I think woman are actually so good with money management. It is woman who are actually running them,  how big or small the budget, maybe, you know, they like to fit everything in within that, and it's so beautiful and they're so efficient and they don't even need assistance there. To come to think, logically speaking, there must be a lot more women in finance, which I find it surprising that it's not the case. But having said that I think  there are a lot more of the women who are a lot younger who want to get into finance, and I think there are  already quite a few of them in the finance domain compared to lets say a you know few decades ago. So in that way, it's kind of promising, and I think it all it needs is I think most women have to overcome this mental resistance. I think some of them tend to get bogged down because if you look at the CFO's nominee, you know the number two position, you know right hand of the CEO and stuff like that, so woman need to come out of this mental resistance and at the same time, I think they need a lot more motivation and they need to be encouraged by the seniors, the male colleagues, and definitely their family as well.

Rouba: (03:08)
From your personal experience. Have there been any particular challenges that you faced when it came to promotions and climbing up the corporate ladder? I mean, as you mentioned, it's important to have a support system at home, as well as within the companies that you work in, but for you personally, how has it been? Has there been a limitation and you know, the, the facilitation of you're climbing up that ladder, professionally?

Sangeeta: (03:31)
I think I have been really blessed, you know, because the kind of mindset my parents in calculating within me when I was younger was that gender has never been an issue. So it's either that you are capable of achieving what you want to achieve or not. So it was like, you know, coming down to my individual cells and I think ignorance is bliss because, you know, during my growing up years in, especially in my career, it was not this so much stops on this gender equality and all that. So, and coming from this background and the mindset, so it was more like, you know, am I capable of achieving this? Can I do this? Can I grow? Can I balance my family and my career? It was always those types of thoughts. So I strongly believe that, you know, a person, I mean, male or female, whoever is able to add value. I think, you know, all the promotions and everything else becomes secondary. So firstly, you must have the confidence in you. You know, I always say, when you want to start off your career, you should just take a pause and ask yourself, why do you want the career for yourself? What is it? Yes, yes. So you need to first be aware and clear of why you want to get up. And of course, if not, you can always explore other options, like, you know, work from home or entrepreneurship or anything like that. So I think this gender thing, you know, I think a person must remove doubt and, you know, focus on adding value. And what is it, how are you contributing to the organization. Then I think your growth becomes quite automatic. In my instance, I think I was really, really blessed. When my son was born, I was promoted as assistant manager, my daughter was born, I was promoted as a manager. You know, everything happened at the same time and yes, I must admit, yeah, it was actually overwhelming because I was a new mom and the new responsibilities at work, and you already facing the postpartum blues as well. So it was a bit of a challenge that way. But I think, you know, once you're able to tide over that and you know, you have your set career goals, your own self. And go by that, I think that's a lot better.

Rouba: (05:42)
Brilliant and very empowering advice, by the way, in the Arab world, we have a saying that every child comes with his own fortune. So I guess that manifested in the promotions that you are in

Sangeeta: (05:53)
Yeah.

Rouba: (05:53)
So you've done really well in your career and as a leader in your industry and amidst such a turning point in history, not just on the Indian economies platform, but also globally. So what kind of leadership transformation are you looking to implement or at least propose and suggest and facilitate within your organization? And is that something that you're working on currently in your capacity?

Sangeeta: (06:19)
Right, before we even dive into this.. You know, I want to talk about this wonderful experience that I had. So I'm also a high performance business coach. So I think about a year ago, I conducted a leadership workshop for some of the CXOs. You know, we have a CXO club here and I did like a workshop on leadership. So it was all very senior leaders from different industries were present. And what emerged the end of the workshop was something so beautiful.  They came of with five very important aspects for any leader. This will get more out of self realization and everything, and the reason I want to share this here is I think, you know, in respect to the current crisis,  or anything you know as a leader, I think these are very valuable things. So the first thing that they said was, you know, the listening skills. Many times leaders, you know, we're so caught up in our own things that, you know, we don't even listen to what the team members feeling, what are they viewpoints? Yeah, so that becomes very important. So it was surprising that not a lot of them even admitted to the fact that their listening skills are a good thing. Everybody committed to working on them. So once this awareness is there, I think that had, so the first is the listening skills. The second was on appreciation. You know, do we even go out and appreciate our team members for work That they done well, whatever you like you know. Yeah, okay, fine, you're done with this, okay, what's next? Or, you know, criticizing and saying, you know, this was not done, right. This is not done we. It was not on time, it could have been better, but you know, if it comes out in a positive way, in an appreciating manner, I think the team was also motivated to do more. The second was the appreciation. The third aspect was the learning. Even though you may be a leader, I think it's really important for you to keep learning and, you know, being up to date with what's happening in your industries and you know, knowledge is power. So once you know everything, you're also in a position to guide your team in a better matter. So third was on the learning and the fourth was ego., You know, they were saying ego sometimes, yeah, tends to come in the way, because, you know, as a leader, you think, you know more, but if somebody wants to, you know, saying something,.

Rouba: (08:39)
And you're expected to always have the answers. I mean, it's that kind of a catch 22 for leaders?

Sangeeta: (08:44)
Absolutely. Absolutely Yes. Yes. So the ego was also playing and the last point was, you know, how mindful are you in your actions? Because the team is always like, you know, looking upon you as a leader. So, you know, every little thing that you do, how mindful are you doing? You know, take them along with you. How was your presence being said? So you know all the actions that you take and all this. So, I think these five points that I mentioned that is like, you know, listening, appreciation, learning, ego and the mindfulness, I think it's very relevant at any point in time for a leader. So once you go that extra mile, you may be like, you know, very, very good in your domain, you may be expert. But if you don't have good team handling skills and you know, if you're not able to come across as a leader, a leader is not necessarily being a boss.

Rouba: (09:43)
Absolutely, that's one of the biggest misconceptions of the 21st century.

Sangeeta: (09:46)
That's right. That's right. That's right. So I think these were very good lessons that remained with a lot of people. I love to share them because I think it's, you know, the kind of transformation that I would really like is since I'm a coach, I like to have the coaching mindset on and you know, I like to wear the hat of a coach. So I'm like, you know, always trying to see what way I can maximize potentials, nurture the team.

Rouba: (10:13)
I can sense a lot of empowerment coming from you. So I think the coaching element is quite a good fit for you and which, which brings me to my next point about the human element, you know, being such a fundamental aspect of organizations everywhere in the world. And so trying to juggle business priorities with staff's mental wellness, for example, would be a potential challenge. But how much of a priority is that for you personally? And then what are the steps? I mean, you've mentioned all of the work that you've been doing on a leadership level because that's the top down animal, which is wonderful, but what other steps are you taking to safeguard your teams as they operate within this abnormal, normal?

Sangeeta: (10:58)
So, contradictory you know, to most finance people, I normally wouldn't like to say human resources, but I would say human capital, because I think, you know, the people are the most important asset of any organization. You know, I remember when I've been on a holiday to Glasgow in Scotland, there were huge banners that say  “ The people make Glasgow,” which is so true even for an organization. I mean, it's people who actually make what the organization is all about. So once we are able to acknowledge this to say, you know, the people are the most important asset and everything else becomes secondary. So people are not machines, we're not global, right? So we need to have feelings and, you know, we need to see how to capitalize on that. Especially as leaders, we need to display empathy, we have to see what sort of mental support can be given to people at times they require. So I think those are very critical, you know, you're like, you know, it cant be all about just work, you know, there's a lot more to it, you need to have that relationship build, and then the rapport and the progress meter. So I think what has worked pretty well for me personally, and, you know, I do tell my other colleagues team members what I follow is yoga and meditation. So I have personally been into active living for I think the last what 15 some odd years, and its sincerely helped me is simple breathing exercises. So like every morning, itt's like become a routine like how you brush your teeth and bathe every morning. I set aside about 15-20 minutes, you know I ensure I do these  simple breathing exercises and that has really helped me to de-stress and has taken me all the way to, I would say so I definitely encourage people. So even at work, you know, we keep having shop workshops or, you know, desktop yoga, you have people coming in talking about nutrition and stuff like that, so that people, you know, you need to look at it from the other side as well, trying to see what, what is the best thing that can be done

Rouba: (13:03)
So, that kind of puts a lot of focus on, as you mentioned, the human capital, not the human element, which is wonderful. It is capital indeed, but then you know contrasting that with the essential role of the business element, you know, the business continuity side of things. So one of the 101 statements that business figures are extremely familiar with is cashflow is king, and how does that play out at such a turning point in history and how can companies safeguard that cashflow without having to let go of their staff or putting them on furloughs, which is kind of the magic switch that immediately manages cash flow.

Sangeeta: (13:40)
So like you said, yeah, cash is King, cash is also oxygen, I would say, you know, because even without cash you can't do any business. So what is required is a whole lot of cash planning. So, you know, what I always say is your cash outflows under your control, but not your cash inflow. So especially in places like this, you know, what you can really control at this point in time is your cash out flow. So I would like restate the five things again on how you can be proactive and see how you can get tons of cash. So the first thing I would say is, you know, bucket all your cash out flow into highly essential, essential, and non essential. So that way, you know which one to prioritize.  If it is something highly essentially, you definitely have to go for it . Essential is your are depending on your cash situation, and of course non-essential during times of crisis. So one is planning these expenses. Two can be on the tax planning. What can you really do as an offer from the organization perspective, so right now, you know, every drop matters. So maybe a good idea to go to and see what sort of tax planning can be done. Third would also be to see if there are any special government fees or benefits that are being offered. So, you know, considering the crisis, I mean, even globally, it may be a good option to check what are the schemes that are typical, how you get benefited from them So that would be option number three. Fourth would obviously be to renegotiate for better terms and conditions of both your customers and your suppliers to see how you can go that extra mile and create better cash situation for you.  And fifth would be to explore the possibilities, you know, along with your teams, because, you know, once you take the team as part of the bigger team, then you can actually end up creating a win-win  situation. Like I know of a friend, you know, he runs a small business, and obviously the business it was greatly affected by the crisis and what he actually did , and he did not have a cash run he didn't have enough cash. So what he actually did was he took it upon himself, and got a team and this is the cash situation I have and you know how business is right now, so what is it that you want me to do? And when he put this out, so the team said like, you know, it's all right, let's all go for a 50% salary cut right now. And then, you know,  at a later date, when the business picks up, probably we could be compensated with bonuses and stuff. So he like makes a lot of difference when it comes from the staff, rather than you telling them, Hey, you know, I am going to cut 50% of your salary, or I want you to go on furlough.  You know there is a lot of difference when it's created from within. So I think that if you take everybody together as a team and definitely, you know, many brains is better than one single brain, you get a lot more ideas as well.

Rouba: (16:55)
If they're willing to listen, of course, and ego is not in the way.

Sangeeta: (17:01)
Yeah, but I think the beauty of the human being is, you know, especially during times of crisis and challenging times, I think most of the times, most people can come together, and support each other. It's in the welfare of everybody, the individual and the organization, so I think that is pretty good. So the important thing is to communicate, you know, obviously communicate, communicate, communicate, because getting everybody to be aware of what's really happening, and how they are being affecting. I always, not to sound preachy, but then I like to keep stressing on the importance of cash. So I have looked to this book. called "What The Finance, "it has become a best seller. So based on that, every week I keep posting on  my YouTube channel. It’s called, “  “ so I keep posting different 3-4 minute tid-bits on finance, and most of these are on cash especially on the current scenario. I keep telling people like how you need to conserve cash, especially if you’re an entrepreneur or SME how cash is crucial.  And it is funny before this crisis, I always used to say that you really need to get into the habit of creating reserves. So if you notice right now people who had good amount of reserves, at least they can manage and get ends meet. So I think that is important. And what I also normally like to give is an acronym, and the acronym is C.A.S.H. C is to collect on time. A is to anticipate your inflow and outflow. S is to systematically monitor. And H is the habit of reserves. So these are the basic principles for any business.

Rouba: (18:59)
So cashflow is queen indeed. That's amazing advice. Thank you for that. I'm sure our listeners are gonna benefit from especially people within the finance function. I have one last question for you as an ambitious career-driven woman. What is your advice to, you know, young, I was going to say women only, but in your case, since you've completely neutralized the gender gap, something that I genuinely value, and I respect you for, what would you say to a young woman or man who are entering the finance profession today? What would be your advice to them?

Sangeeta: (19:39)
Just one thing: let your work speak for itself. So once you've given your very best, nobody can really dispute that, you know, once you're able to add value and contribute to the organization with growth and success. Everything else becomes secondary like gender or difference of opinion everything else will fall apart. So the best way to shut the voices of others is to just prove yourself, believe in yourself, know that you have the capacity and potential to really get what you want. I think that is your driving factor, then it makes life a whole lot easier for everybody.

Closing: (20:24)
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.
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