In conversation with Asha Pillai, CFO, Shell’s Hazira Group of Companies and Chairperson of CII’s Indian Women’s Network, Gujarat
My peers, managers, teams, and mentors have been a crucial part of the eco-system that has helped me thrive.
Q. If you were to define yourself, in one word, what would it be and why? Who would you owe your ability and success to so far?
To distill any person into a singular word, does not do justice to the person and the ecosystem that fosters and allows the person to thrive or otherwise. Having said that, the two words that most represent me as a person would be “fortunate” and “curious”.
I was born into a matriarchal society as a single daughter. My father, Dr. P. P. Pillai, was a fisheries scientist who had published several research papers and whose writings on “Tuna” serve as textbooks in Fisheries colleges. Both my mother, Padmaja Pillai, and father let me be and did not ever chastise me for behaving a certain way, which helped instill a certain self-assurance in me. Also, they were very progressive in their thinking. My father had bipolar disorder, and they had a great team of Doctors (a GP, a psychiatrist and a Neurologist) who helped manage his condition and he thrived despite it and continued to review thesis and research papers of students until they day before he passed. Also, very fortunate to have a very supportive spouse, Karthik, who believed that my career is equally important to his and therefore we were able to manage dual careers while being in a commuter marriage on and off. We have also been surrounded by friends and family who have been with us through thick and thin.
As a person and a professional, am deeply “Curious” and adopt a learners’ mindset when it comes to every interaction, be it my workplace, personal life or at the Women’s forum I now work with. This helps me learn the nuts and bolts of every business whose finances I have managed, every detail of a situation I’ve been through, every need or risk that another woman has had to endure and I use this learning to keep refining my own style and therefore am constantly evolving as a person and professional. My mantra at work has always been to “go wide and go deep” and collate as many experiences as is possible on the job. And to supplement the “On the job” learning with reading books on a wide variety of topics that help provide the context of the world we operate in. I’ve been blessed with a fantastic team and supportive leaders who have trusted me, irrespective of my personal challenges.
Q. How have your peers and colleagues at work supported you? Can you share an instance that you recall strongest where your fellow colleagues, while at work, played a significant role?
My peers, managers, teams, and mentors have been a crucial part of the eco-system that has helped me thrive. When I joined Shell as a finance advisor, I wanted to learn everything about the business and I’d go to site at 6 AM and 12 PM to spend time with the site staff to understand how the shift is closed, the operational controls at site and how stock valuation was done. And I remember, my business colleague at the time was very supportive and more than willing to share how the process worked and never once said that I was wasting his time. Similarly, with the business unit that I work with today, there are a number of technical aspects of operating a plant that I wanted to understand and again a colleague based in the Netherlands took out many hours to run me through the plant blue print and literally showed me the nuts and bolts of the plant. And these are just two instances. My time in Shell is peppered with interactions such as these. It’s just a matter of asking the questions (why, what, how, when and who) respectfully, irrespective of where you are, and a number of people are willing to share their knowledge with us.
Q. Issues related to Bipolarity and how support from your colleagues and company plays a significant role
As a bipolar patient, I go through periods of mania/ a high phase and periods of depression/ low phase. I was not diagnosed as having bipolar disorder until I had a crash, 4 years ago at the age of 34. This was in 2016. I had been heading the finance function for the retail business in India. My family, husband, baby and my parents were based in Kolkata. The job gave me the flexibility to be based out of home in Kolkata two weeks a month and the balance two weeks I was working out of Bangalore. This I did from the time my daughter was 3 to the time she was 5. It was an exciting time at work and we’d just signed off the strategy to exponentially grow the retail business. In January 2016, I came home from a business trip and on the same day my father had to be hospitalized. My mother had to be with my father, and I had my daughter with me and did not even know where the house keys were. My mind could not cope, and I experienced my first crash. My father passed away three months later. My line manager was my savior, keeping in touch with my spouse making sure I was ok. He helped me find a virtual global role with a bi-monthly stint in London. It was merit based, but there was no skepticism on whether I would perform despite my having had the crash. It was a fun job and I was managing finances for digital ventures that we were incubating and investing in globally. In the UK, I had several colleagues who openly shared about mental health troubles they were experiencing and that was hugely empowering. In 2018, I got the role as the CFO for Shell’s gas business in India and had to move to Ahmedabad. My spouse was to continue in Kolkata, and I was moving with my daughter, mother, and dog this time with my spouse travelling to Ahmedabad over the weekends. As I moved in, I had my next crash. My Managing Director, who didn’t know me very well at the time was extremely sympathetic and understanding and gave me space. Again, there weren’t any concerns around whether I would be able to perform. I was even introduced to another senior leader, who had come out in the media as also being a bipolar patient. She has been a role model for me. Shell provides such an enabling environment, in letter and in spirit, where it is “ok to say you are not ok” and all colleagues are non-judgmental and supportive.
Q. You have a little daughter; how do you cope with handling a personal and professional life simultaneously?
Since the time my daughter was born, my parents have lived with us, allowing me to continue my career unabated. The greatest challenge we have had is to pursue dual careers and be able to live in the same city. Shell as an organization has various options in terms of flexible working that I have considered over time viz., sabbaticals, job rotation, to part time working to semi-virtual/ virtual roles. If not for this, I probably couldn’t have continued working as I have been able to. We have very senior leaders work part time who are hugely successful and effective in their jobs.
Like I mentioned before, from the time my daughter was 3 to the time she was 5, I was working out of our office in in Bangalore for half the time and working remotely out of Kolkata, for the rest. This gave me some time together with my daughter. Then I got an opportunity to do a global virtual role with a bimonthly stint in London operating out of Kolkata. And now, I have moved the family, daughter, mom and dog to Ahmedabad while my spouse continues in Kolkata and visits us every weekend.
While the week is always very hectic, we do try and take the full weekend and take holidays to spend time focusing on the family and friends. As an organization, Shell respects a work-life balance and personal time. And unless it is an emergency, people at work will not call you over the weekends/ holidays. This in turn makes you more effective and efficient with the time you spend working.
Q. What would you like to say to people who perhaps don’t take mental health as seriously as diabetes?
To be perfectly honest, I had not taken my mental health seriously until I had the crash. And even after that it took me three crashes, to prioritise my mental health and accept that I need medication and potentially lifelong medication at that. However, now that am learning more about mental health, if there are warning symptoms(viz., lack of sleep, anxiety, low phases, suicidal/ homicidal ideation) that persist for 3 weeks, one needs to get professional help. My therapist says therapy is for everyone because problems cannot be ranked. And statistically, 1 in 4 people are likely to experience a mental health crisis in their lives. Mental health should be treated at par with physical health and there isn’t any need to shy away from getting help because of perceived stigma. At the least, one should have a mental health professional at hand, if things go wrong. Like one would have a pediatrician, dentist, gynecologist on call, we should have a psychiatrist/ psychologist to go to.
Q. How is a psychologist different from a psychiatrist? Who should a depressed person seek help from?
Psychiatrists are Doctors of Medicine who can diagnose and treat mental health illness through medication. A subset of psychiatrists, like mine can perform therapy viz., cognitive behavior therapy. Psychologists/ counsellors cannot prescribe medication and can only do therapy (by conversing with the patient). At Shell, we had a colleague, mention that we need to do a bit of shopping around to find the mental health professional that works for us. I cannot agree with this more given its about the personal chemistry between Doctor/ psychologist and patient. Also, with medication, there should be a feedback loop on how the medications feels for the Psychiatrist to be able to provide the right molecule and strength that works without it being debilitating.
Q. Did you seek medical attention for your condition in another country? Is the attention given to mental health in India sufficient, what do you think needs to be done?
I am not an expert to comment on the landscape in India viz a viz other countries. Also, our country has enormous and complex challenges unlike others. Now, that am learning about it, I realize several people have made it their lives work to provide mental health services to those who are the most vulnerable in the society. Dr. Vandana Gopikumar of Banyan, Dr. Vikram Patel of Harvard, Ms. Ratnaboli Ray of Anjali, Dr. Prabha Chandra of Nimhans to name just a few. There are also free helpline services viz. Icall (from TISS) and another by the Govt. from the Kiran foundation that provides counsellors in vernacular languages. Also, there is a field of work for the mental health of care givers who are as impacted or more impacted at times than the patient. Its incredibly humbling to learn about all the work that is being done in our country.
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