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“Stay Agile, Reinvent And Always Put People Before Business”

By Anvita Pillai ,

Added 25 March 2022

The role of women is evolving across sectors, but there is still a long way to go and plenty to figure out. In conversation with the first woman to lead a German tech conglomerate, Sindhu Gangadharan, the SVP & MD of SAP Labs India and Head of SAP User Enablement, where she discusses everything right from her journey to becoming the first woman to lead SAP to the secret of building a culture and gender-inclusive workforce, enabling the upcoming workforce of tomorrow and journey as a leader during pandemic and more. Excerpts…


Let’s start from the early days. What prompted you into the field of technology, especially in a time when technology was in its nascent stage in India?  

I guess a lot of it has to do with my upbringing in Bangalore. I was raised in Bangalore at a time when the city was on the cusp of a technology revolution in India. During my final years in school, we saw the charming neighbourhoods of Bangalore fast transform into the Silicon Valley of India. While these developments impacted how I saw my career shaping up, I was always more inclined towards technology and its incredible possibilities. As a child, I started reading more about technology and the immense potential to help society and the world in general. 

I am very fortunate to have been raised by my strong working parents, who always encouraged me to pursue a highly rewarding career. I grew up with my two brothers. And I have to say, growing up, my parents had the same expectations from me as they had from my two brothers. We were treated alike – we were provided with equal opportunities, equal encouragement and an equal voice. I was never told “not to dream” or “not to have career ambitions”. My parents were working professionals who encouraged me to be fiercely independent and pursue a rewarding career. This further motivated me to take up software engineering and explore the opportunities in the industry.

When SAP Labs India set up its base in Bangalore, I was among the first few engineers to be hired here. Though the brand SAP was quite big worldwide, especially in Europe, it was still nascent in India. I’m very fortunate that I pretty much started off my career with SAP and continue to be a part of this glorious company 22 years later.   

Today, SAP solutions are largely used in labour-intensive sectors, such as manufacturing. Women in the labour-intensive field was a rather shied upon concept until recent times. Can you draw a comparison, based on your experience, on how the outlook toward women working in the manufacturing and technology sector has changed over the years? 

It is rather unfortunate that certain industries, like manufacturing and technology, have traditionally been considered ‘suitable’ for a particular gender. With focussed efforts, we are seeing a marked shift in this trend. Today, women constitute 36% (~1.6 million) of the Indian tech workforce. Women's participation in the tech workforce is 1.5x overall India Inc. We have come a long way in not just having more women in people-intensive industries, like tech and manufacturing, but also having them in leadership positions and driving change in their respective industries. For instance, the leadership team of the tech and trade industry body, NASSCOM, is led by Debjani Ghosh (President) and Rekha Menon (Chairperson). So, the message is loud and clear from an industry perspective. As organisations, it is now up to us how we take conscious efforts to change the narrative at scale and create more inclusive workplaces for women. 

Every company had a different journey and learning curve during the pandemic. Being in the leadership role, how difficult/easy was it for you to adapt to the challenges of covid? What were some of the changes put in place that, while it puts employees first, helped you grow as a leader?  

I think it’s safe to say that no amount of training or experience prepares you enough to deal with the aftermath of a pandemic or a crisis of this magnitude. Just when we started to believe that the pandemic was almost over, the second wave caught us all off guard in April 2021. As a leader, my top priority and concerns were the safety and well-being of our 12,000+ employees and their families. At SAP, we set the tone with our managers and LoB heads to prioritise our employees over the business. It was humbling to see the entire SAP family, beyond boundaries, stand up for each other and go beyond their capacity to mobilise resources and provide emergency relief for our affected colleagues and their loved ones.

Along with our Crisis Management Team (CMT), we worked 24/7 to offer emergency services and arrange essential supplies, including medical oxygen, ventilators, ICU beds, etc., for our colleagues and their families, irrespective of their locations. When I look back, empathy and compassion emerged as the most dominant traits during the pandemic. Our company was also among the country's first few organisations to run a dedicated vaccination drive for employees and their families across Indian locations. While a major section of us have loved remote working, it has not been so pleasant for many others. Being empathetic to the new working model and extending our commitment to helping promote better work-life, SAP Labs India recently announced ‘No Meetings Fridays/Focus Fridays’ to create a happier and healthier workforce. Inspired by the success in India, the initiative is now being adopted globally at SAP.

In a nutshell, my biggest learnings from the pandemic have been to stay agile and reinvent in the face of challenges and always put your people before your business. 

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Customer expectation patterns have changed during covid. How has the customer preference style evolved in the last two years? How are you working on better serving the customer requirements? 

Yes, the pandemic has deeply influenced customer behaviour and expectation from the products and services. Our vision is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. With SAP technology, we are empowering half a million organisations worldwide to embark on a digital transformation journey to become intelligent, sustainable enterprises. The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation journey of every single enterprise, large or small. Every CIO I interact with wants to accelerate their move to the cloud to fool-proof their business from ungoverned factors like the pandemic. 

In order to deliver a seamless and efficient customer experience, we have come up with the One SAP framework, which is designed to work on strategic customer projects with a long-term objective of helping our customers in their digital transformation journey towards being intelligent enterprises. Through this program, we co-innovate with customers, build proof of concept solutions and handhold them in the innovation journey. 

What have been some of the measures implemented to ensure more female inclusivity in SAP Labs? Given the disparity in the male-female pay scale gap, how has there been a conscious approach to ensuring remuneration fairness?

Taking into consideration the demands of the different roles a woman is expected to play – be it that of a mother, daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mentor, manager, etc. – I think it is important that we, as responsible and inclusive organisations, not put the onus on women to bring the best versions of themselves to work. Instead, we should take responsibility to create that right environment where they feel encouraged and motivated every day at work and receive the necessary guidance to deliver their best.   

When we talk about creating the right environment, it consists of certain aspects, including – pay equity, flexible work options, equal opportunity, leadership development, mentoring, etc. Fortunately, SAP has made conscious and sustained efforts on these fronts with comprehensive policies and daily practices. For instance, we take pride in SAP being an equal pay and equal opportunity organisation. We have adopted the equal pay for equal work policy. Therefore, we proactively promote pay transparency, which further strengthens the trust between our female colleagues and the organisation, driving them to give their best.  

So, long story short, effective intervention is needed on the part of the organisations, more than the individuals to foster a genuinely diverse & inclusive workspace, where women feel comfortable and empowered to come to work each day, every day, and thereby contribute to the organisation's growth trajectory.  

In fact, I am happy to share that SAP Labs India’s pioneering D&I practices were recently adopted as a case study in Harvard Business Review’s curriculum.  

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A safe working environment is a key to having a healthy relationship with work. What steps has SAP established to ensure effective grievance addressal, especially for women?

At SAP Labs India, we believe in creating a culture where everyone feels respected, included and can contribute to their full potential without any bias or threat to their safety and well-being. 

We have created various channels for our employees to be heard through sounding boards, which can advise and guide them when they are in a dilemma or facing any difficult situation involving their career, work environment or even their personal lives. This ensures that even before a situation becomes a grievance, the employee has access to someone to seek advice confidentially without any fear of judgement or retribution.

We have launched an offering called Employee Experience, where any employee can reach out to a specialist if they seek advice on any personal matter at work. A specialist connects and speaks to the employee 1:1 confidentially and in a trusted environment and guides them on their situation, which may sometimes also involve advising employees about the formal grievance redressal processes.

In addition, our conflict clarification service called Conflict Lounge is available to all employees for consulting under challenging situations. Employees can request a consultation with a trained coach who can provide an unbiased view to the employee and coach them for managing the situation. 

We also have a strong training curriculum for managers and all employees to sensitise and create awareness about creating a respectful work environment. 

When an employee faces a situation where only advice or sounding board is not enough, whether it is workplace harassment, career-related concerns or any situation that makes the employee uncomfortable, ‘Respect at Work’ or RAW is our formal grievance redressal mechanism. RAW is a forum where any employee can write to the internal committee, and their complaint is treated with the utmost confidentiality. The team has various experienced managers and experts from different teams, including the local employee relations partner. They have been trained specially to handle sensitive issues, ensuring confidentiality and maintaining respect and dignity of the complainant in the entire process. The team keeps the employee updated and apprised of the progress through the whole process, ensures timely closures and supports the employee during the entire resolution process, which can be a difficult and unsettling experience. In case formal counselling is required by the employee, we involve professionals from ‘Sahayog’ – our employee assistance program. We also ensure that we are not only supporting the employee during the process but even after the resolution of the concern by following a zero-tolerance policy and no retaliation. Our IC team has been trained to ensure this during the closure process for any investigation. We have an official policy to support employees & their families against domestic violence. We established a strong support channel for anyone in distress, including seasoned EAP partners and an employee support group, so that, as an organisation, we stand united with our people to fight this violence.

There has been a persistent gap in the industry regarding aptly training today's students, especially girls, to turn into a capable workforce of tomorrow. How are you working on bridging this gap effectively and efficiently?

SAP has targeted intervention amongst women youth towards building employable and future IT skills and workforce readiness. Women comprise almost half of India’s population, but their representation and participation in the IT ecosystem is 24% and even less, i.e., around 17% in other industries. Our vision while building the enabling ecosystem for young women is to equip them with advanced career training in topics viz., data science, cloud computing, AI, Machine Learning and programming languages; provide them mentorship on how to build a career with IT industry and prepare them for future skills ready. We invest in building, strengthening and supporting every important milestone on career development & growth for women to ensure that they become a part of mainstream career opportunities. 

In the last couple of years, we worked with & provided career opportunities to more than 5,000 young women. This effort was even more profound during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, wherein we provided virtual mentorship and training support under the guidance of SAP experts. To further extend our vision and scale up our efforts, SAP partners with companies like Microsoft and HP to replicate future IT skilling and coding skilling across different parts of India.

You were the first woman to lead a German tech giant company. What is your key to success? What would your message be for young students, especially female students who look up to you as a role model?  

I would give them the same advice that I shared with my daughters: Neither your gender nor your backgrounds define you or what you do – it is you, what you achieve, what you want to do – whatever that may be – that defines you. Do not let anyone prescribe it for you, do not let anyone tell you, ‘Okay, this is what you should do, this is what you shouldn't. Take that call for yourself and own it!

“We co-innovate with customers, build proof of concept solutions and handhold them in the innovation journey”

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