Article (July-2018)


In pursuit of Excellence, with Courage

Mridula Sankhyayan

Designation : -   Head learning and development

Organization : -  Flipkart


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In pursuit of excellence, one must persevere with courage despite all odds.
This has been the guiding principle as I navigated my Human Resources career to senior leadership roles over last two decades.
I have selected real stories that defined and shaped my career at three important stages -
1. Campus to corporate
2. Voice of a junior executive
3. Leadership in the face of adversity
My biggest driving force was to achieve excellence in all I did. But what got me there was Courage. Having courage in difficult situations and navigating difficult relationships. Courage is the underlying yet defining theme of my success.
1. Courage from Campus to Corporate
You can achieve any milestone, if you put your heart and mind to it.
English was not my first language, neither did I speak fluently when I entered BITS, Pilani to pursue Master of Management Studies. I was determined though to not let this language barrier get in my way. So I listened and I learned. I spoke less, listened more and over 6 months learnt to speak enough to get by college without being ridiculed.
A few years later, I was conducting Voice and Language Training classes for BPO customer service executives who were communicating with American and Australian clients. It was quite a journey and it taught me one important lesson - If you are determined and willing enough, anything is possible.
I could never have dreamt of being a Voice and Language trainer in BITS Pilani. But looking back as I connected the dots I knew I made intentional effort to make it happen and it took significant amount of courage.
I celebrated and basked in the glory of this achievement. Celebrating mini milestones are crucial steps to success. They encouraged me and gave me confidence and more importantly in my classes I used this as an example to motivate others.
2. Courage to find my Voice
Knowledge coupled with practice builds conviction to speak up!
In my early role as a junior executive, I often found myself overwhelmed to face senior leaders and struggled to find my voice.
  • When I didn't speak up in an important meeting out of fear, even though I knew the answer, I missed a big opportunity and regretted it.
  • When I didn't call out an inappropriate behavior of a manager humiliating his team publicly, I felt small, weak and guilty.
  • When I listened along as people made racial jokes as I was too nervous to confront, I felt sad and incapable of standing up for what's right.
Each day we have opportunity to stand up for what's right or look the other way and walk off with tail between our legs.
But then I found courage to give feedback to the abusive manager, risking my career. Some called it a 'career limiting move'. However, I gave him feedback that I believed was in his best interest. That gave me the courage to speak with confidence and have conviction to act upon my beliefs.
The manager was able to listen to me as he believed that I was putting his interest first. I earned his respect and felt self - assured as I had never felt before.
One evening amidst my circle of friends I called out inappropriate remarks against gay men. I stayed in that conversation as others tried to trivialize it and then seeing my conviction, they started to slowly listen to me and I could see a tinge of respect in the corner of their eyes. That mini success, gave me enough encouragement to never sit quiet in that face of inappropriate behavior.
I must say it is never easy and one has to muster courage every time and risk being alienated. And yet I chose to do what I believed in. I stood up for the weaker person without a voice. Knowledge and courage to do what's right helped to build my trust and credibility.
3. Courage to lead and conquer adversity :
When you get shot at often, know that you are flying over something important.
Imagine sitting in a review with your CEO and Head of HR within 3 months of joining the organization where your entire team has revolted against you and you don't have a clue!
It's an awful situation to be in. I was in one such situation - accused of being biased, not walking the talk, unfair, un-empathetic. There were 4 pages of feedback. It caught me by surprise as these challenged my value system of being fair, empathetic, and driving for excellence.
I was stunned and did not know what hit me. I was scared and heartbroken. I wanted to instantly parachute out of this situation. It felt unbearable to go back in that vicious environment. I cried the entire night, brooded, sulked and did all I needed to do to get every strand of negative emotion out and expressed - in the quiet of my home and four walls.
I went back to office mustering courage and to face my fears. A couple of days later, I faced my entire team along with CEO and HR Head and addressed each accusation, complain one by one. I faced them with every intention and determination to turn around this team. I owed that I will not quit till I fix it.
I encouraged them to share specific examples so I could change and do better for the team. I assured them of my intention and as I walked out of the room something quite amazing started to happen. My team members started to come to me one by one - some apologized, others broke down, others tried to be friend me and some said nothing out of shame or guilt.
It turned out that Head of HR held a huge grudge against me as he was not part of my selection and hiring. So, he instigated the team against me and they fell like prey to his conniving drama.
I started spending more time with my team, communicating vigorously and ensuring they are aware of my decisions and rationale of my actions. 15 years later, most of them are my close friends, we have stayed connected over the years.
My learning - Don't quit a bad situation without making it better. It is an important lesson that helped me not only keep my self-esteem strong, it gave me immense confidence to navigate difficult situations and unexpected challenges, it got me many loyal and great friends.
In the end I will leave you with these thoughts :
Have one goal that's worth fighting for. In my case it was Excellence. Build courage through knowledge and perseverance. It's a weapon that will help you overcome difficult people and adverse situations.
Remember courage is not the absence of fear, it is persevering in face of fear.