Leadership Lessons: Perot's top woman

Every month Hashi Syedain talks to a business leader about their personal management issues.

by Hashi Syedain, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

- Padma Ravichander, MD, consulting and applications solutions, Perot Systems

Over the past two decades, Padma Ravichander has watched her native India grow into a major global centre for IT services. Ravichander started her career in Canada, where she studied and worked for 15 years before being lured back to India in 1994 to set up the first offshore operation for Hewlett-Packard in Bangalore. In 2005 she joined Perot Systems, a Texas-based IT service provider with revenues of $2.3 billion, founded by one-time US presidential candidate Ross Perot.

- How did Bangalore become India's IT capital?

When the Indian economy was opening up in the 1990s, after two decades of tight state control, the government in Karnataka set up a tax-free zone for IT. It built software technology parks that brought people to Bangalore, which is a great place to live. The climate is like that of Silicon Valley and in those days there was very little congestion. South India produces lots of software engineers: 300,000 new engineers qualify every year and about 60% of them come from the south.

- Was it hard setting up an operation in India after so many years in Canada?

When I came to Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Bangalore, it had 17 employees in a four-storey building and each person sat in a corner of one floor. They said I could set up in the middle on any floor. Actually, my priority was to get a female washroom. All the employees were men and they had turned the one female washroom into a store.

It was very hard in those days to get through the bureaucracy to bring equipment into the country, and to ensure a reliable power supply and internet connections. The culture was also more chauvinistic. Many of the men didn't like having a woman as boss. They couldn't imagine that I could accomplish things that they couldn't. I had to show my calibre professionally and socially, going out to bars and cafes. But then business picked up.

We grew to 300 employees in the first year and won two big contracts. Everybody likes being in a growing company because it means good career opportunities.

- You're still the only woman in a leadership position at Perot Systems. Does it get any easier?

I am used to walking into a room full of men and being the only woman. Now I hardly notice it. The only time it makes a difference is in a very tough meeting when people become angry. Men are more emphatic and authoritative, and maybe I don't come across as strongly. Sometimes, though only rarely, my voice isn't even heard.

- How do you attract people to Perot Systems in India, when you are competing with much better known firms?

When I joined Perot Systems in 2005, I personally had a better brand than Perot Systems - no-one had heard of it, but I had hired thousands of people for HP and lots of people from HP moved to Perot. The profile of a company is very important in attracting people here, and the big names such as Microsoft, Oracle, HP cream off all the best graduates.

I had a high attrition rate at Perot. The process has to start from within. I've taken my population of 3,000 engineers and I've made them my brand ambassadors. There used to be a philosophy here of "we can't do that, we're not good enough" that held us back. I've launched seven initiatives, starting with recruitment and integrating new employees into the work environment, as well as improving training, mentoring and reward and recognition.

Employee referrals have gone up to 30% from nothing and the attrition rate is down to 13% from 24% in 18 months. I think I can bring it down to single digits.

- You spent three years in Shanghai for HP; how has India developed in comparison with China?

India has the big advantage of a population familiar with the English language and many of its people have very strong project management skills. When I was in Shanghai, only two people out of 100 employees spoke English. Those two people had to be in every meeting and then translate for the others.

Many Indians have studied in North America. In the 1970s and '80s, there was a big brain-drain because the Indian economy was so closed, but many of those people have now returned and act as a link between the cultures.

- How do you manage your time?

Work is always the priority. My customers come first, then my people, then my family, then myself. I get up really early to have some time to myself and I try to cram 27 hours into a 24-hour day by taking advantage of time differences. With email and my BlackBerry, I'm always on call. It's just what's expected. Multi-tasking is what tomorrow's world is about.

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