If you had a chance, what would you ask an aspirational leader?

If you had a chance, what would you ask an aspirational leader? The leader whose life is filled with enriching experiences, courageous career moves, and pursuit of excellence in personal and professional life. Through SAEINDIA, I got a chance to catch hold of one such leader from her busy yet productive life. I ensured I asked her some difficult questions. To no one’s surprise- the insights that came from her experience sharing could well be documented as a leadership masterclass. Therefore, I hope that through the blurb of this conversation, you identify relevant leadership lessons for yourself.

Lata Variawa, Head of Manufacturing Engineering, John Deere Tech Centre is a hands-on leader and hands-on mother to two young boys. She has 17+ years of experience in leading global organizations on multiple fronts. Every few years into a role, she has switched gears to move into a different cross-functional role and has come out with success stories for herself and the group. I asked her, “What does it take to move out of one’s comfort zone and be successful in the new roles?”  As if reminiscing her multi-department moves from Manufacturing and operations, to Marketing and Business Development, and Strategy and communication, she said with a smile, “It is easier said than done. You can bag a role but, striving and thriving at it is a different ball game altogether.” As per her, you have to be on the personal mission to outperform yourself every single time. There is no secret recipe to guarantee a favorable outcome. But the process she usually follows is:

  1. Heavy immersion in the role for the first quarter- getting your basics clear,
  2. Understanding the expectations from the role- getting the big picture by connecting dots and asking the right questions to the right people,
  3. Beginning with the end in the mind- focusing on how you can move the needle with your approach.

To follow this process, she uses three strengths from her tool kit- courage, sincerity, and passion to make a difference. I believe each individual needs to assess and identify their strengths and aspirations. With this awareness, they can tweak and follow the process shared by Lata.

For a professional at any stage in their career, I wanted to know from Lata-why and how should they select their next stint? As per Lata, it boils down to one’s inner aspirations. She envisioned herself going to a certain level in the organization in a long term. Therefore, all her decisions and actions were informed and aligned with her long-term customized plan. Her manufacturing role taught her technical acumen, innovation role taught how to tackle uncertainty, strategy taught thinking ahead and country-level strategy taught business acumen.

At every juncture, she asked herself, “How is this role related to the next one that I want to take?” On the ground, she went into the depth of her current role, while understanding the needs of the next level and weaving both these pictures together. To me, it sounded complex and dynamic. But Lata assured that if you plan your roadmap well and can take lessons from each of the past ones you are bound to succeed in the long term. To summarize her advice- check your internal driver before any move and understand the substance required to succeed in it.

The grueling pandemic and prevalent WFH has made us realize the importance of holistic success. Therefore, the question of the balancing act is more relevant today than ever before. How does our leader achieve a balancing act on work-life? I love how she takes responsibility for her success. “If one becomes one’s critic, has locus of control inside, everything else is peripheral.” She further added that if you pursue excellence in all fields, success and consistency become your second nature and personality. However, working women like her are facing the unique challenges of juggling multiple responsibilities. She recalled Indra Nooyi, ex-Chairman and CEO, Pepsico’s words for women- “The career clock and the biological clock are in total conflict with each other, and the guilt will kill you.”

Lata has experienced this herself and comments that the situation is changing but, not at a higher rate and better pace. As per her, for women to succeed, we need workspaces where-

  1. More male counterparts are diversity partners,
  2. More women understand and support each other,
  3. More transparent environment allows women to candidly share their experiences.

In her view, to turn this ideal situation into a reality- everyone in the workforce would have to understand the struggles of women with open space and mindset.

Since we were talking of gender diversity, I wanted to get her perspective on the future of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in India and its impact in the coming decades. Lata was quick to point out that there are enough surveys and data available which prompts us to accept D&I as a business imperative and not as a catchphrase. She added that diversity has a wide spectrum in terms of gender, generations, sexual orientations, physical handicap, etc. To capitalize on different thoughts and working styles, each organization should invest in a diverse pool of talent. My favorite part was when she said, “I believe in sensitizing employees to the needs and challenges of the diverse group. In my employee resource group (ERG) leading experience at John Deere, we were able to turn it into a business resource group (BRG) owing to the impact and culture shift we could create.”

She wrapped her leadership lessons mentioning that for her all her leadership roles she kept her team and its purpose as the primary driver. As Jim Collins says in his book, ‘Good to Great’, ‘L5 leaders are incredibly ambitious, but their ambitions are first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not for themselves’. Lata as an L5 leader envisions creating an environment where each of her team members outperforms and covers the delta that takes them from great to excellent. For her, the true measure of success is the difference she can make to the organization and people’s life through her action, choices, and sharing.

Ms. Riya Shah, Functional Safety Manager, Mahindra Electric, interviewed and edited Lata’s story on behalf of the SAEINDIA group.  We at SAEINDIA, thank Lata V. and Riya S. for sharing inspirational and aspirational leadership stories.


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