‘I’ve learned to give myself permission not to be a superwoman’: Savitha Balachandran | Autocar Professional

Savitha Balachandran the CFO of Tata Technologies, has an unusual philosophy she lives by. “I would like to strive for harmony more than perfection. At different points of time, different things are going to take precedence, so achieving that balance is going to be a continuous journey, and therefore harmony for me is more important than trying to achieve perfection.” 

I think it’s fashionable to say you are a ‘superwoman’ and you can do multiple things perfectly, but I see that that could be the cause for a lot more damage for a purposeful life, she adds.

This is quite an anomaly for the illustrious career Balachandran has had, starting from a string of strategic projects at Tata Motors, to heading Tata Technologies in the capacity of CFO, a stint of around four years to date. “It has been close to about four years now and when I was offered this role, this was by far one of the most complex and largest diaspora of sorts that I have had to lead,” she adds.

Assuming the role of CFO at Tata Technologies in mid-2020, Balachandran not only significantly transformed the effectiveness of the finance function, but also played a pivotal role in propelling the company’s growth, profitability, and cashflows in partnership with the leadership team. The latest testament to her leadership prowess is the blockbuster success of the recent IPO of Tata Technologies, which was subscribed in under an hour, broke multiple records and set new benchmarks in the Indian stock market where it listed in November 2023.

Reflecting on her career path, one that she deems unusual, she says she didn’t get placed in a typical financing or accounting role. “In the early 2000s, I was offered a role at Tata Motors as part of my placements, and that’s really how I came into the Group. I think for almost two decades now, I’ve made a career in the Tata Group.  It’s truly been an uncommon career path for me, especially for someone who wanted to build a career in finance. I was not a trained accountant. I was not a CA.” “When I connect the dots backwards, that was an important milestone in my career, because that was my first brush with corporate professional life. Rather than a typical role, I started in a business focused strategic role. That exposure played a significant role in the way I developed my mindset in terms of building my career and what kinds of roles I was attracted to,” Balachandran adds.

She goes on to talk about how the hallmark of several strategic instances has been the importance of leaders that help people to grow. “When you spot a talent with potential, the risk that you take with that talent communicates your confidence in them and you can never underestimate how much power of self-assurance and self-belief that can create in a young talent.”

“It goes to prove the foresight that senior leaders need to have to be able to spot talent and communicate their belief. Even before you believe that you are ready for something like this, someone else takes a chance on you and you literally have to learn to swim. That’s how my career shaped up,” she adds. “It’s a combination of gratitude and willingness to be ambitious, which brought me to where I am today.” Talking of her learnings, she says that women need to want something first. “You also have to be ambitious. It’s not useful to just keep saying I want a place at the table. You have to be someone who needs to deliver the goods, and then you will find a place at the table, but for that, you need to be committed to that ambition yourself.”

When she began her career, there were fewer role models in a typical male dominated industry, especially in engineering or even finance, as a functional area. Many organisations adopt policies that encourage diversity. Not just gender diversity but diversity in its true sense.  “The culture was one of positivity, and the barriers, if any, were a reflection of the times of societal structures, rather than something that was just about the culture of the organisation.”

While she struggled to find the right role models in the initial years of her career, she is cognisant that this happened in the context of an organisation like the Tata Group. “Even while I say this, I was very fortunate that I experienced all of this in the context of a group like the Tata Group, which has always been at the forefront of adopting and implementing a lot of rules and practices, even before they become fashionable or a regulatory mandate.” Women needed to learn to become comfortable with keeping your authentic voice in a work atmosphere. It was important to remain ambitious and have that certain level of self-belief, she adds. “Self belief was a journey for me,” she adds. So what is her advice to women? “Being purposeful and confidently ambitious is very important, no matter what the purpose. You could choose to be a homemaker if that’s where your passion lies, or have your own business. One thing I keep encouraging everyone to do is what Tennyson said. “Seek, strive, find, and never yield.”

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional’s March 15, 2024 issue.

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