A rendezvous with Lila Poonawala

New years are great in different ways. One is an opportunity to look back for prized moments, inspirations, and umm unfinished things as well. I too have some of those. Meeting Lila Poonawala was one such moment from 2013. Finally I’m happy to publish a saved draft from many, many days.

I was extremely excited when I got to know that she was going to be the guest of honour at one of the office events some time back. Lila has always been someone I have had deep admiration for. She was one of the most accomplished alumni at College of Engineering, Pune (COEP) about whom we heard stories of the many firsts accredited to her. Alfa Laval was a familiar name during college days. We often heard about it from my very dear friend Ashwini Oke (Devi) and her dad Subhash Uncle who had directly worked with Lila at Alfa Laval. From there on too, on many instances there have been stories of girl students who have been able to pursue their dreams further due to assistance from the Lila Poonawala Foundation. The sense of giving back was immense and immensely motivating as well. It turned out that the context just kept changing but there was always some or the other event or news that continued the admiration for Lila.

Finally there was an occasion to meet her. One of the best hours of 2013 was hearing Lila Poonawala speak in-person where she talked about various topics and experiences. This post captures highlights of the truly inspirational, pragmatic and “can-do” advice from someone been there, done that; on topics relevant to most of us.

Lila on success:

Right at the onset Lila set the emphasis on what’s required for being successful. While luck could be a factor, success could not come without hard-work and talent. Her key advice on being successful was:

  • To try to be like a sponge to be able to absorb as much as one can. This allows taking in learnings from every opportunity.
  • To listen; to really learn to listen.
  • To be close to the product, to the area one is involved with. One needs to feel them. One needs to feel the passion for the product or area to be able to able to successfully “manage” it in the true sense.
  • To enjoy the ride. To celebrate small successes so that one can stay inspired and draw motivation from these interim accomplishments. She shared how even vada-pav treats with her team were special in these celebrations along the way. She stayed focused on each of the milestones of her long journey and enjoyed the successes as they came through.

Lila on leadership:

Unlike what is a common myth, Lila dismissed the belief that leadership comes by having people work for you. Leadership is not even power. It is beyond that. Her message on leadership was:

  • The ability to have people “want” to follow you and not “have” to follow you.
  • To manage “have to” to “want to” by making it your own goal, not of those you need to lead.
  • Leaders have to be true champions. They need to work with soldiers in the trenches. If a leader can do that, they have the right to demand it from the entire team.
  • To have a lot of stamina. When the team is tired, leaders need to bring the energy on and take the team ahead.
  • To be very perseverant. Lila shared an interesting story where a friend’s child was trying to solve a puzzle. After a long time when a small part of it was unfinished, and her dad told her she could try another day, the child asked why should she give up. In the same spirit, Lila shared how perseverance can be a great tool for a leader to have in situations when solutions might not be obvious; but being perseverant could help change the game.
  • To be transparent with teams. By doing this, not only are teams more informed; it also makes them give back more.

Lila on gender diversity:

Being a successful leader in what was still typically a man’s world in the mechanical products industry, Lila had the most proven guidance on promoting healthy gender diversity at work was:

  • To give women more opportunities to provide a platform that benefits from different styles and focusses employees from both genders bring to the table.
  • For women to take on more when there is a chance. This is the best way to showcase how the otherwise commonly assumed methods may not be the only ways to get things done. This will encourage women participation and leadership across wider areas.
  • To turn negatives into positives. Her opinion was that all said and done, a woman needs to accept there are different biases a woman needs to address to not get bogged down. The first step is to accept the non-negotiable and find ways to turn negatives into positives.
  • As a work-life (home) balance mantra, to learn to be in other people’s shoes (spouses, in-laws, etc.). If one needs to be do some things, the tip Lila shared was to take it in stride rather than a downside (e.g. if one is expected to always make that evening cup of tea, tell yourself “I am capable of doing it, let me do it…” J and move on to the other things that interests you more to grow the harmony. Another beautiful aspect Lila shared was for companies to find ways to involve families in different ways so that not just the employee but also the family takes pride in the association with the company.

All in all, it was such a soaking session and my admiration for Lila Poonawala only grew more. Looking ahead to the continued admiration, and hopefully more such opportunities.