The everywomanWorld series catches up with Change Manager Saraswathi Hariharasubramanian (she goes by Saraswathi H for an easier life!), as the Royal Bank Of Scotland’s India office makes its annual preparations for International Women’s Day.
In the beginning
I hail from a very small village in Kanyakumari on the southernmost tip of India. My first exposure to the financial world came through my mother, who worked at an auditor’s firm. I’d sit next to her as she pored over the balance books and did her calculations. That’s how I became interested in numbers.
My village was known for its high educational standards and in early life there were lots of opportunities to gain skills that would give me a career advantage later on. My amazing mentor, Mr Pazhani – a teacher at my school, encouraged me to go on a leadership course while still a teenager. We were observed doing team tasks, and public speaking before doctors, lawyers and business people. I was given prizes for my presentation style and realised I had an ability to smooth team situations when they became chaotic. I was also naturally curious and always had my hand up during talks and lectures.
My mentor has been a true blessing in my life. Whenever things go my way I attribute it to his guidance. The secret to his success is that he doesn’t preach; he practices. Everything I learn from him I learn by observing his behaviour. In the early days he didn’t tell me to be confident; he showed me how I could be. He didn’t tell me to practise public speaking; he demonstrated that doing it over and over is how you get to be good at it. I have a lot to thank him for.
My career path
My commerce degree set me up for the career I was to follow, but my time as a student also taught me valuable life lessons. I was still at college when the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated the coastline in 2004. I instinctively gathered student friends and together we created relief camps in churches and temples, where we clothed, fed and cared for many young children. This taught me the value of seizing the day – not to wait to be told to do things or for opportunities to come my way.
Leaving home for my first job in the big city was a huge deal. I had a bit of an inferiority complex; I was just this girl from a small village speaking Tamil and not much English, and who knew nothing about the big wide world. When I first travelled to Chennai (the fifth most populous city in India), I didn’t even know how to get up to the train’s top bunk. I had to figure it out by watching others!
By my second role in finance I was leading a team of ten. When in 2014 a non-managerial opportunity arose at RBS, I saw a chance to learn more about the banking industry as a solo contributor.
My average day
My philosophy has always been early to bed, early to rise. So I’m up at 5.30am to do household chores and get my three-year-old daughter’s breakfast, lunch and dinner ready before I hand her over to my mother-in-law and head off on the 30-minute bus ride to the office.
Most of my day is spent liaising with stakeholders. My team deals with individuals and groups across the bank who are involved in a change process. Each stakeholder has a different need or expectation and the challenge for me is to meet these, while also ensuring I manage the governance of any migrations and transitions in progress. Once a project is complete I document all the evidence. It’s important that there’s a record of how a situation evolved which future change managers can learn from.
On public speaking
Early on in my career I recognised that being an able presenter is a necessary aspect of leadership. RBS provides lots of training support around this, and I think it’s important to pay back to the organisation by putting those skills into action, seizing every opportunity to speak in the department.
I still get nervous, particularly if the audience includes senior figures. Rehearsal is key and I do it every chance I get – in the mirror and in my head during my commute. I use stories and humour to keep it natural, consciously make eye contact with each person in the room, and remain mobile and interactive – moving around and asking questions is much easier on the nerves and the audience than being rigid in a monologue.
On workplace culture
So much has changed for women in India in such a short time. The biggest shift has been in mentality. Every woman wants to work. Even those who aren’t in the corporate world are doing something - making jewellery and saris to sell as they raise their families.
RBS India has a strong family focus and while I was having my girl I had the perfect work-life balance. I didn’t miss a single milestone – her first crawl, her first walk or her first words.
During festival time – Diwali (festival of lights in October), Christmas, and Pongal (January’s festival marking the beginning of the sun’s six month long journey toward the zodiac Capricorn) – the office is full of colour, fun and laughter. Each employee decorates his or her cubicle and the women wear traditional dress. For International Women’s Day on 8 March there’ll be talks given by senior figures within RBS, discussing confidence, networking, work-life balance and other important subjects. Last year all the women wore saris and we had a fashion show.
On job satisfaction
I am ambitious and want to be the best I can possibly be. But true job satisfaction comes from being able to carry out a great day’s work with complete mindfulness, before going home to see my daughter and getting a great night’s sleep