POWER MUMS: Nina Bhatia, managing director, British Gas Connected Homes

Former McKinsey partner Nina Bhatia says too much pressure is put on parents by schools. 'If a full-time working, male politician had to figure out how to fill the school holidays, we'd design the whole system differently'.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
Nina spent 23 years at McKinsey before joining British Gas three years ago. She is married - her husband is COO of Digital Banking at Lloyds - and they have two daughters aged 11 and 13. They live in Chelsea.

Tell me about your move from McKinsey to British Gas.

I reinvented myself at least three times at McKinsey so it has become a bit of a habit  My first British Gas role was as far as I could get from premium St James’ strategy consulting as possible: running an electrics, plumbing and drains business, including Dyno-Rod.

When I was in that role, my MD asked me to figure out what we should do next in the smart/connected homes space, which was how I ended up as MD of our Connected Homes division. It’s been amazing to have the chance to build an entrepreneurial, tech-led business within an established business.

What surprised you about the change from consulting?

It is very grounding to be on the receiving end of customer feedback -  both the positive and negative - which can bring you out in a sweat. I called every customer who ever wrote to me. They are sometimes surprised but if you call and listen it makes a huge difference. I guess I know that because I do a lot of complaining myself…

The other thing is you have to live with the consequences of your decisions. You make business calls and you can’t later say ‘that was management’. You are responsible. That is a very different world from consulting

Tell me about your day.

I wake up at 6am, get my head in order, write some emails. If I have to write documents I sometimes set an alarm and get up earlier. When you have a complicated life and children you have to find time free from the clutter. In general, we try and have breakfast together, with at least one parent there.

I do three days in our office in London and two days at British Gas HQ in Staines. If I drop one of the kids off I get into work at 8.30am. At the end of the day we have someone who is at home between 4.30pm and 7.30pm as an after-school person.

It used to be our housekeeper but now, at 11 and 13, their homework is more challenging. They need supervision and finding that person is really hard. We’ve tried lots of options and no one is perfect, although we once had a medical student from Imperial and she was great. I need someone for the next academic year and it’s a constant worry. When I can I do look at their homework... I confess I once tore up a piece of homework because it was appalling, I said she could do it again or not submit but she couldn’t hand it in like that.

That said, I don’t honestly have a feeling I have to be there or it won’t work. I have to be there enough to be in balance with the person who’s there.

We always have dinner together. I ideally get home by 7.30pm, as does my husband. I probably have an engagement or dinner twice a week. We eat dinner later than most, at 8.30pm, But the interaction is really important – as is their connection to food and how it is cooked every day.

How do you and your husband share responsibilities?

My husband and I share the burden. He cooks and deals with food. I worry about nannies, cleaners, school kits, clubs, laundry. We have a reasonably good balance. We are both equally committed to education and parents’ evenings and school events. We rely on my mother and sister a lot for help, support and just knowing family are around. I feel like I take more of the ongoing worry…  he would say that is because I fret and like to be in control. Which is probably a fair point.

What could/should the government do to help?

There are three big things for me.

Firstly, childcare is expensive and very hard to get right. When I think of what we have had to earn to pay for our childcare for 12 years…. Wow. And I have a real problem with it coming from after-tax income. That needs changing.

Secondly, the school year is a relic. I get to every summer holiday and think, ‘how will we manage eight weeks?’.  The system is designed around a stay-at-home person: in my more strident moments I think that if a full-time working, male politician had to figure out how to fill the school holidays, we’d design the whole system differently.

We have to get these issues out of the working women’s ghetto and into the mainstream. We have to balance the conversation from ‘how do we help mothers?’ to ‘how do we help parents?’ No one ever asks my husband how he balances things or questions him about whether he would work full-time after we had kids. Yet we both share this responsibility.

Finally, we have to change the way educators and the media talk to and about girls. We have to give girls a broader view of the opportunities open to them. I worry about the combination of what they see on TV and in celebrity magazines and the distorted impression created by things like The Apprentice. I have sisters who are doctors and many of my girlfriends are in really diverse fields – from banking, business, the law, through publishing, retail and the creative sectors I think careers advice is still narrow and rather conventional. We need more nuance here.

For my part, I’m trying to be the best role model I can - it is why I do things like this. I want my own financial independence. And I say to my daughters, don’t rely on someone else to earn money for you. They see equal debate between me and my husband - which can seem rather argumentative because we don’t always agree. I want them to see that the life that they have isn’t an entitlement but is earned by their parents working their socks off.

What do the other mums make of you?

They see me as nice but busy and probably a bit disconnected. I probably make one out of three sports days. Most have a healthy respect for you and the fact that you manage it and they are kind and help you out. Some perceive you as having different priorities - which is probably true. And a bit demanding and high maintenance.

Why high maintenance?

[laughs] My daughter came home one day and said ‘you need to come to something at 2 pm tomorrow that I’m playing in’ and I was very exasperated. I said: ‘you need to tell your teachers that they need not to schedule things at 2 pm when the average working mother is working’. Which she repeated verbatim! If they had it at the end of the day I would have a chance of getting there.

In the school context, I am always asking ‘why are we doing it this way?’. You turn up at parents’ evenings and everyone is at pains to tell you what you should do with your kids at home. But it’s not my job to provide remedial teaching for things they didn’t cover properly at school. They are responsible for the lion’s share of her academic development.

The standard patter of schools makes the assumption there is a parent at home full-time to bake cakes, provide extra-curricular support and help with projects. I don’t think that’s realistic. Can we construct a model that doesn’t involve me or my husband having to take half a day off every time my child has an event?

What have you learned since having children?

You can't have it all - whether you are a man or a woman. You can have some of what you want and you have to make choices. On a good day I’ve made breakfast, taken one or both to school, had a good chat  - not a tetchy one  - about homework, done something good at work, got through my to do list, had a meaningful conversation with my husband, been a good daughter, sister and friend. It’s a really tough gig doing all of that.

On a bad day, I think I’m a crap mother, a crap wife, a crap sister, a crap daughter and a crap worker and I think I’m not getting any of it right.

How would you describe your approach to parenting?

My mother regards my treatment of my children as positively benign. Because if I came home with less than an ‘A’ or 95% , she would ask why. Our parents both expected us to be the best in class, active, working and financially independent. My work ethic comes from our family and a certain immigrant mentality.

I work hard on the girls’ habits – doing their best, getting their homework done, being organized for the next day, writing thank you letters, being a good conversationalist. Being engaging and interesting are important. I have not mastered the ‘screen time’ issue yet.

I am brisk about problems with friends at school. I don’t follow all the ins and outs like other parents do. The other parents would say ‘Nina has no idea’ and perhaps they are right. I say ‘they have to grow up and deal with their own friends’. But I’ve not completely resolved it in my mind, I am constantly asking ‘am I here enough or there enough?’

Thriving or surviving?

On balance, thriving: but you’ve got me on a good day. There are days, though, when it all feels so hard and I think ‘I don’t want to do this and I don’t know how I’ll get through the week. Overall, I think I am lucky to have a really interesting job and choices to make.

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