Poonam Barua, WILL Forum India

“You don’t reduce the barriers by making the women feel defunct or disabled or inferior in anyway. It is time to start mentoring the men, let us start fixing the eco-system first!”Poonam Barua

Poonam Barua is an Economist and Founder Chair, WILL Forum India. She has mentored more than 650 WILL Mentees and is now committed to mentoring 10,000 women online.


As a founder of WILL Forum India and a visionary yourself, you have mentored more than 650 WILL Mentees and changed their lives remarkably, how important is “Mentoring” in terms of career advancement?

The first thing, I want o say about ‘Mentoring’ is that – it a cliché and a highly used term which has become fairly commercial today. We need to understand what exactly is mentoring, and how has it become such a huge term when applied to women — why is the same amount of mentoring not being applied to children, to other human beings, or, to the men in the workplace. I also, think that the problem with “Mentoring” — is that it implicitly gives someone power over you. My job is to empower you — not to give someone power over you!

I would like to quote a small portion of what have written in my recent Book – Leadership by Proxy

“Mentors are those who can re-shape your thinking; take your mind to a higher level; put some nurturing into your soil, into which you will plant the tree of life. They will show you the possibilities you did not see; they will release your boundaries and set your mind free. They will push the horizon of your sensibility; they will show you how to imagine, inspire, ignite and indulge yourself. Mentors are not teachers, they are not coaches, they are not preachers, they are not guides, and they are not role-models. Mentor are the oxygen of life itself”

Do not ever use mentors as proxy. Mentors demonstrate, they show you ‘how-to” If, they preach you or take you for long talks, then, they become your psychiatrists or counselling chair. I have 650 mentees and I am continuously spending time with them, but, I never talk to them for long hours. They watch me, they see my videos, they see me continuously upgrading myself and talking about the ‘Power of Self’. They take my sound bites and use them. I am constantly mentoring the corporate India with my sound bites. That’s how mentoring works – it is strategic, not linear!

With WILL Digital Kick-Off which, recently, welcomed its first 100 women members, what is the level of impact you are looking at?

The whole thing about artificial intelligence and technology is – how you interact with it? Most women have got technology, but, do not know how to use it to their advantage.

One of the ways they can do it, is, simply by putting together a digital program that will enable the to interact with people like you and me. That’s how it works – You empower them with the capacity to interact with technology. We have got women all the way from Kerala to West Bengal to Kashmir — how are we going to mentor 500 Million women of India? We will ensure, we have the technology to talk to them. If we can simply upload some of our videos, talks or research reports, that alone will be empowering for many of the women, who have little or no exposure. My goal is to create 10,000 women leaders online in the next two years and I am hoping to complete that mission.

Feedback is an integral part of a mentoring process. According to a report by – World Economic Forum, Women are 20% less likely to receive a constructive feedback as compared to men. What is your opinion about it? Do you see it as a major hurdle in their progress?

Firstly, I don’t read many reports – as I often find them distracting. I have written 15 WILL Research Reports on women in leadership – and that is all I can quote with authenticity. Secondly, I am not so sure of the benefits of feedback – as that can also be quite distracting. Being an Economist, for us – It’s all about “productivity.” You don’t need feedback for productivity — you need tools, resources, energy, and you need an eco-system. We are talking business right now – and how business will enhance productivity by using internal skills, intelligence, hardwork and innovative drive of women. There is no need to give them feedback on productivity – we need to give women the “tools.” Let the HR specialists provide women with guidance and tools, action oriented uplifting promotions, gender-neutral environment — that’s what feedback is. In fact, feedback is now often being used negatively as a method of putting down people, not just women. If you are in a managerial position, the only thing you really need to give — is a “Point of View, “and, that shouldn’t be called feedback.

You have spoken about – ‘No Barriers for Women’, do you believe that some of the barriers that women face are self-created too (for e.g. a lot of women seldom don a crown of being ‘self-made’)?

There is nothing wrong with the women – let us please stop “fixing” the women and stop mentoring the women. Let us start mentoring the men. It’s the ecosystem which is the problem. Nobody focuses on that, because, that’s the tough part. They just simply want to extend a patronizing attitude towards women by saying women have an “aspiration- deficit” as if women are lacking in some way. There are no self-made barriers — it’s called the Gender Context of Leadership. We have to change that context. We cannot expect women to become leaders in an ecosystem that is unequal. I cannot change the ecosystem, but, I can get companies to validate, that, they have got equal opportunities for everybody in the company. That is why we started ‘The Best Employers for Women’ benchmarking. You don’t reduce the barriers by making the women feel defunct or disabled or inferior in anyway. Let us start fixing the men, or, let us start fixing the environment.

Inclusion of more women at the Board level, naturally, invites some positive changes in board dynamics, for e.g. – enhanced dialogue, in-depth monitoring, systematic board work, effective risk management, increased relationship building…. Does this mean there are no challenges present?

Well, there is only one kind of competency that needs to be looked at, when you are hiring a Board Director – fiduciary responsibility of the Director must be correct and intact. Most of the boards do not do that, and, men and women are equally capable. That is why we have started the Board Directors Certification Program for Women and we have already certified 300 women for boards. It’s not just about certifying people — it’s really about making sure they have equal opportunity to get to the board.

There is never a risk on taking women on the Board – as women are known to be risk-rational which is very good for companies, particularly, in the present volatile, turbulent, economic environment we see today, where both – geopolitics as well as the millennial generation is changing on a daily basis. Most of the men are known to be fairly “cow-boyish” in their mentality on corporate boards — therefore, women bring a lot more steadiness to the Board dynamics.

Why we don’t see more women on boards? Here are the reasons:

  1. They want to include women who are “safe” which means, she is going to do only what the board decides
  2. They want to see” invisible” women on the board – who do not ask any questions
  3. Boards do not want to have smart innovative woman directors – they want to have “comfortable” women board directors who are predictable and follow the board.

A lot of times, women come up to me and say, “We are told that we ask too many questions” and therefore cannot be invited to the Board. Asking too many questions is the single most import symbol of good diversity. If you want a board where questions are not asked – you don’t want a diverse board, but rather a homogenous one.

With more organizations, actively supporting women, seeking leadership roles, are they also paying greater attention to their work-life balance policy?

I have written a book – Leadership by Proxy with 85,000 words — and I do not mention the word ‘diversity’ at all throughout the Book, because, this has to be taken as part of our cultural DNA and it has to be embraced. Just like the code of conduct in a company — similarly, giving policies that make sure that women are able to cope with their personal commitments should be a part of the code of conduct of HR policies. So, we have given the WILL Handbook “50 Best Practices for Women in the Workplace” out of which ~25% of them are on work-life balance. Work-life balance is a compliance issue — and should remain a compliance issue for companies, not a “choice” issue.

Companies have to stop making noise — and putting their CEO’s in front of the media and calling them a “women champion.” CEOs will only become champions when the percentage of women grows to 40% in the total workforce and 25% in the top management. That will only happen when they will have all the policies in place.

As the author of a pioneering book – Leadership by Proxy: The Story of Women in Corporate India, a valuable piece of advice from your end for our readers…

The first thing is that I see my mission – as trying to enrich the soil in which you will plant your tree. What you plant into the soil, its upto you and your Choice. That is the diversity of your leadership that will come out — when we don’t tell you what to plant. Leadership is about your own hunger, where you want to go and that’s what people must be teaching you. Authentic leaders are restless leaders, they want to learn every day.

Remember three words- Discipline, Focus and Control – and try to use them together. And along with that, use three other things – Your Body, Mind and Spirit. Keep them aligned, make your roadmap clear, and don’t get distracted by feedbacks or role-models. Identify your own leadership style. There is no leadership by proxy, it simply doesn’t work!

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