A talk with Anuranjita Kumar, author and Head of Human Resources in Citibank

Can I have it all? This is a question that every woman contemplating a career invariably asks herself. Is it really possible to rise to the top of my field, bring up intelligent ,well behaved children, maintain a loving relationship with my spouse and stay sane and stress free?

While there is no single formula for success, several women leaders have worked out some way to balance their diverse responsibilities. Some of them are writing about it. Most of us would have read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In- Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

Anuranjita Kumar, the Human Resources Head of Citibank has now written about her experiencesin her book- Can I have it all? Anu and I were batchmates at XLRI. I joined Citibank from campus in Corporate Banking. She joined Citibank around the time I left, some fifteen years ago. While several other women, including me, opted for alternate careers or dropped out of the rat race, Anuranjita hung on. She made it through the birth of her two children, global relocations, her husband’s career shifts and is back in India in a senior leadership role.

Can I have it All?’ is a candid, emotive and intriguing narrative that delves into the personal experiences and observations of a woman leader through her journey in a complex, global corporate environment. It touches upon Anuranjita’s struggles in the proverbial corporate jungle, juxtaposed with a heartwarming account of a mother balancing a healthy home and work life. It brings to life the dilemmas and challenges that women face through various stages of their lives such as education, marriage, maternity and mobility, as they aim to make it big in the corporate world.

My first book, Keep The Change, was a fictitious account of a young woman in a large international bank (any resemblance to my workplace was of course coincidental). Now, there is a book about the real story. I was excited and curious to know more.

In a candid chat, Anuranjita answers the question ‘Can I have it all’ and talks about what it means to be a successful career woman, mother, wife and daughter in today’s world.

Why was writing ‘Can I have it all’ important for you at this stage of your career?

This book was born out of my many enjoyable and some tough experiences as a corporate professional, a mother, a homemaker, friend, colleague, and daughter! However, through my own journey and observing others around me, I realized that right from childhood, girls and women are brought up within certain social norms /expectations and at times unconscious biases related to that dictate the roles in life that they can and can’t play.

I have also experienced how simple things such as a listening ear and care support system could go a long way in helping women to continue striving for their dreams. This book is my way of bringing to life the dilemmas women face; providing them with a sense of comfort that they are not alone and sharing simple but powerful tips that they could use on their own journey.

Did you think of giving up your career at any stage? If so, what made you change your mind and stay the course?

It would be incorrect to say that I was never overwhelmed or that I didn’t feel like giving up at some trying moments. Whether it was a difficult work situation, a daunting health concern, staying away from my children and missing some of the best days of them growing up, it wasn’t easy but I was determined to make it work. Having being raised by my parents more like their “offspring” rather than the traditional definition of a daughter helped! There were times I had to prioritize, make a tough choice and live with the repercussions but in the end it was all worth it. Also, as I witnessed first-hand from my husband, climbing the corporate ladder is tough for both women and men! I have always been an optimist and believe that destiny is with people who believe that things will work out rather than giving up in despair. When you undertake a tough journey, any self-doubt can be dangerous and will kill your morale; one should certainly not dwell upon it!

How do you manage relocation, frequent travel and still stay connected to the family? Did you have to make any sacrifices?

In the last two decades there have been many moves, adjustments, long distance connections and travelling far and wide to stay connected to my family. While it may not always be ideal, we made it work in the most optimum way possible, between two cities with support from parents, staying connected on Skype and frequent travel across the globe. The distance actually got us closer as a family, as we had to make conscious efforts to ensure that the miles between us were never too much for our emotional connections. I learnt the importance of maintaining the discipline around some ground rules that we had- such as having meals together, ensuring that either my husband or I were present at school functions and avoiding work travel on weekends. In retrospect I learnt about how your inner strength keeps you going when you are faced with these situations.

What kind of support system did/do you have that enables you to have it all? How can women develop this kind of network?

We all need support in our journey – whether formal or informal, men or women- at the workplace or at home. I have been fortunate enough to have various support systems – whether it was my family or friends, colleagues, a great manager, mentors or a fantastic team, I am a firm believer in creating a circle of trust. There have been many occasions in my life when I was drowned with problems, unsure of the next step. Every time, I choked on the trials of life and raised my hand out of the water for help, someone was there to hold it and pull me out. A personal or family network plays a very important role as a support system when bringing up children- my parents and in-laws have been invaluable!

However, I am also acutely aware that it requires tremendous effort and planning to build and nurture these networks. Reaching out to people reciprocates feelings of camaraderie and creates bonds. Also, these networks last in the long run only if your intent is genuine.

In my observations, as women grow through their corporate journey, they tend to focus a lot on building their content expertise. They may want to however, leverage their natural strengths more, to nurture connections at various levels: within their teams, peers and seniors in the organization and personal associations. An example is as simple as being well-connected with other parents in the PTA!

Further as they grow into more senior roles, internal connections are not enough. External contacts, awareness of what is going on in the environment can become critical differentiators. My book delves into the various elements of building a great network based on trust and mutual respect.

As the HR head, you must have seen several women, struggle to manage hectic work schedules and family commitments- What kind of conversations have you had with them?

In a work life of a woman, there are usually three common cross roads wherein women are challenged to take key decisions with regards to their career. Tiding over these cross roads requires huge amounts of conviction in what she wants and how she wishes to make it work. The 3 M’s as I call them – Marriage, Mobility & Maternity. Through these life changing events, I find that conversations and some coaching with the women grappling with the changes really help.

Each story is unique and brings with itself different joy and challenges. As a HR leader, I always focused on understanding the individual’s situation and then working with them to work out a solution. Sometimes the solution seemed tough and daunting and requires adjustment on the part of the individual and the organization; at other times it has been simply about guiding them to leverage existing support well. Regardless of a male or a female colleague, providing support and coaching goes a long way. Organizations are taking several concrete actions to provide women with the tools to strike a balance and excel- whether through flexible working options, coaching & mentoring, diversity sensitization efforts and second careers programs.

Many people have spoken about the ambition deficit that women have, especially as compared to men- What has been your experience? Is ambitious still a ‘ bad’ word for working women in India?

In my experience, I wouldn’t say that women lack ambition or drive, rather what sometimes seems to be lacking is the confidence to ask for what one may want. While the world around us is becoming more and more ambitious for women, women themselves sometimes shy away from being ambitious enough to realize their potential – partly because of their social conditioning (possibly more so in India), and partly because of the society in which they function. Women are often willing to put their own ambitions on the back-burner to ensure familial harmony.

While conscious and sub-conscious biases still prevail in our culture, it is not an impossible battle. Families, communities, businesses and nations are increasingly working to bridge the gender gap via more emphasis on education, realizing the criticality of women in senior roles in corporations. These are mindset changes, shifts in our world view that will go a long way in building a more congenial work environment for women.
Eventually however, what keeps you going is your inner strength, conviction in your purpose and the tenacity to keep striving to having it all!

I wrote a piece on ‘ How to have it all’ for this column. The first step was to define your ‘ All”. What is yours? Any goals/dreams that you have now?

For me, the notion of having it all encompassed every sphere of my life – academics, my professional aspirations and my family life. At every crossroad in life, I had to make choices and then make the most of the choices I made! While it came naturally to me, it was also a conscious choice to challenge the social norms and stereotypes around gender, race and other deep-rooted biases. At every point, we naturally want to have it all, but wisdom and experience teaches us that we can have it all some of the times and we can have some of it all of the time but to really have all of it, all the time, one needs to carefully define what their personal definition of ‘All’ is, rather than what the world might dictate for you. I look forward to continue growing personally and professionally. Giving back to society keeps me connected to my larger purpose, and this book is also an endeavor towards that!

This article was first published on IBN Live’s blog