Leveraging Collaborative Frameworks: Seek the Tools to Thrive

Mar 01, 2022

Gone are the days when careers were run on autopilot mode and advancing onto the next stage was a given. Today, individuals are seeking proactive guidance and pivoting to stay ahead of the curve. Listen to Mahua Mukherjee and Uma Kasoji, Co-founders, The star in me, as they discuss how women leaders can leverage a collaborative professional ecosystem and a set of curated career resources to beat the barriers—both systemic and personal—to survive, thrive and take on the next challenge.


Leveraging Collaborative Frameworks: Seek the Tools to Thrive 

Mahua Mukherjee, Co-founder, The star in me
Uma Kasoji, Co-founder, The star in me


Gone are the days when careers were run on autopilot mode and advancing onto the next stage was a given. Today, individuals are seeking proactive guidance and pivoting to stay ahead of the curve. Listen to Mahua Mukherjee and Uma Kasoji, Co-founders, The star in me, as they discuss how women leaders can leverage a collaborative professional ecosystem and a set of curated career resources to beat the barriers—both systemic and personal—to survive, thrive and take on the next challenge.


Rajshree Shukla: 00:06

It is widely acknowledged that several systemic barriers hinder career advancement for women, and they often get the short end of the stick when it comes to growth opportunities as compared to men. A recent industry report[1] highlights that one-third of women in Asia believe that gender biases hampered their professional growth due to lack of guidance and fewer opportunities. The report further corroborates that seeking a level playing field continues to be a top priority for women, with 43% of them on the lookout for equal opportunity employers.

Hi, I am Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink—an online management practice journal, published bi-monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today’s session, as we discuss the significance of a collaborative professional ecosystem, we at Management Rethink are excited to have Mahua Mukherjee and Uma Kasoji with us. The duo are entrepreneurs and the brains behind a women-centric, career advancement platform called The star in me’. Through this venture, they partner with organisations and individuals to enhance the representation of women in leadership roles and ensure business effectiveness with diversity for organisations, alongside fulfilling individual aspirations.

Hi, Mahua! Hi Uma, welcome to the podcast! We are really excited to have you with us today!

Uma Kasoji: 01:34

Thanks, Rajshree. It is lovely to be here.

Mahua Mukherjee: 01:37

Thanks, Rajshree. It is our pleasure to be here with you.


Rajshree Shukla: 01:42

I would like to begin by congratulating you both on starting this unique venture! Now, as founders of an exclusive women-centric platform that serves as a one-stop-shop for women looking for career advancement, what were the gaps that you saw and how did you aim to fulfill them?


Uma Kasoji: 02:00

One key insight, Rajshree, that we gained through our experience and interactions with women professionals around the world, is that women face two types of barriers on their journey to the top. One set of barriers are internal in nature, and the other barriers are external. What I mean by internal barriers are, our own self-limiting beliefs, lack of focus on visibility and branding, reluctance to move out of comfort zones, failing to build networks and so on. And external barriers include either societal barriers or organisational barriers, like unconscious bias, gender stereotyping, lack of strong female role models, etc. Hence, in fact, in order to bridge both these types of barriers, through The star in me, we work with both sides of the equation. So, on one side, we offer a variety of career advancement solutions to women professionals around the world, and on the other side, we partner with several multinational organisations to recruit, engage, and develop women talent.


Mahua Mukherjee: 03:17

In fact, you know, Rajshree, if I can add to what Uma just mentioned, while it may seem very fuzzy, our secondary and primary research has indicated that there are structured interventions, which if applied in a systemic manner, can actually make a lot of difference to our career trajectories. And by the way, I wanted to emphasise that the interventions needed are very different depending on the career stage. During an early career, the kind of navigation challenges that one faces are very distinct from what one might possibly face in mid-career versus leadership roles. We all have learned from Marshall Goldsmith’s famous book, ‘What got you here, won't get you there’. Our career needs constant care, nurture, and uplift. So, if one is able to understand this concept, acknowledge the gaps, and apply a structured approach, then maneuvering through one's career can be a bit more predictable. Many a times, we focus extensively on our technology and functional skills, which I know are definitely non-negotiable, but at the same time, to accelerate our career journeys over and above, we need to consciously nurture the transportable skills, which are absolutely critical today for a long-term career success.


Rajshree Shukla: 04:47

My next question actually ties up with this, because I wanted to understand from your point of view, as to what are the areas that most women seek support with? And what holds them back in your experience? What is it that you've been seeing most often?


Mahua Mukherjee: 05:01

Great question, Rajshree. In fact, women professionals across career stages and geographies, predominantly reach out and look for support around four core themes. One, is to look for the right coach and mentor who can be their accountability partner in their journeys. Two, to advance their career by learning the much-needed power and meta skills, which are agnostic of the industry that they are engaged in. Third, to be part of networks with like-minded women professionals, who are possibly facing similar challenges, and they have tried and tested different hacks to overcome them. And finally, getting matched with the right job is always desirable. Now, to address the second part of your question on what holds them back, I think being vulnerable is absolutely not easy for any one of us. And we see very different approach taken by women professionals of different career stages, and there is also a deep correlation based on the geography we all belong to. The senior leaders always like to reach out through one-on-one conversations and ask for help either on their job, or coach, whereas someone who is in their early or mid-career stage might be more open and vulnerable, and share their fears and asks on the platform. We also see culture play a big role, as I mentioned before, when it comes to seeking help and thriving versus keeping it to ourselves and not making a quantum leap. I have seen so many examples where people have reached out, asked for help, and in a while, their career has taken a very different trajectory.


Rajshree Shukla: 06:56

That's great to know, I agree completely. I wanted to ask you, Uma, how has the support network curated by you helped women grow and participate more meaningfully in the workforce?


Uma Kasoji: 07:11

So, our career advancement philosophy is based on the concept of active career management. You know, if you think about it, gone are the days when careers were unidimensional and straightforward, when we could allow our careers to run in autopilot mode. But that just doesn't work in current times. You know, given the pace at which the world is changing, it requires us to be much more adaptive than we were earlier. And it literally calls for active career management, which is all about taking charge of your career and shaping it the way you want to. So, the way we define active career management is that you need to firstly have a career plan and a direction in mind as to where you want to go, the kind of goals you want to achieve. It requires continued learning, active networking. You need to create an ecosystem of mentors, sponsors. It is very essential to build a personal brand. In fact, when we work with organisations also, we build this philosophy of active career management into all our initiatives. And in fact, it is extremely satisfying to witness the impact that these initiatives have been creating on the professionals and the organisations that we work with. We are literally creating a suite of power women who are all set to conquer their goals and what better than that to help us bridge the gender gap in leadership.


Rajshree Shukla: 08:49

Yeah, very true. Times have altered drastically, and the emphasis is pretty much on being proactive and carving your own path. On that note, I want to ask you Mahua, what do you see as the crucial tools to nurture successful professional journeys? Is there a playbook that one could resort to?


Mahua Mukherjee: 09:09

There is just no secret sauce, Rajshree, but as we mentioned earlier, there are definitely frameworks and methods that will make it more predictable as we navigate. Also, not to forget, a little bit of ambiguity and experimentation in the process keeps the excitement quotient on. Now coming back to your question before I share about the framework that we follow, let me focus on an element which is overarching to the framework. I think all of us should look at our career as a marathon rather than seeing it from the lens of a sprint. In fact, these are words inspired from a book[2] by Brian Fetherstonhaugh, who was the erstwhile CEO and chairman of Ogilvy Worldwide. He emphasises on the fact that the ideal way to evaluate our career choices and decisions is from a lens of 35 to 40-45 years, rather than making choices based on our very short career view of two to three years. And now coming back to the framework after I have talked about the overall picture, what we use on our platform, the learning interventions that we organise on our platform follows a holistic, four-phased structured approach, where it starts with a self-assessment by the individual on the focussed meta skill. Then in the second phase, it gets infused with rigorous learning by the expert coach where various tools and techniques are taught and shared. The third phase constitutes of reflection and peer networking, which includes both self-reflection and cohorts’ reflection. Now, this is one of the most powerful stages, and the final and the fourth stage is where coaching gets triggered. Hence, it is actually a formulation of all these four phases that makes holistic learning powerful and helps us follow our philosophy of visible needle movement that is really needed to bridge the ‘knowing-doing’ gap. We all know that people want to have fun during learning. So, most of our learning modules have built in gamification with leaderboards, where it encourages one to push each other and push the bar in the group learning setup. Hope this gives you a fair idea of our learning framework, Rajshree.


Rajshree Shukla: 11:44

I just wanted to ask you now, that having transformed numerous career journeys, are there any anecdotes on these journeys that are witnessed by you, that you would like to share with us?


Mahua Mukherjee: 11:57

Sure, I will possibly share one journey and then Uma has a very interesting story to share. It was early 2020, a professional with around 17-18 years of work experience at an Indian IT services company reached out to us being in a career crossroad. It was a tough one. She lives in Bangalore and is very ambitious when it comes to her progression. But she had a situation at hand then. She was confused, being a mother of a 10th grade student, she was unable to balance between demands at her work and managing home along with her kid’s education priorities. Now at that point, she wanted to quit her job after spending almost two decades in various corporate roles. These stories are so relatable. And we all know this is one of the major reasons why we lose women talent between five to 15 years of work experience, who quit to stabilise and support various personal premises. Now cutting the long story short, after two years of our interaction, now in 2022, she has been recruited by a global MNC, tech MNC, in a much more challenging role. In the last 24 months, she not only excelled in her national position with the Indian company that she was associated with, she in fact, grabbed a great opportunity with one of her dream companies and she is extremely happy. Now the icing on the cake was that her daughter performed very well in grade 10, and she is super proud of her mom. And the outcome really elated us as we could play a role in being able to save one leadership talent at a time. Uma, would you now want to share your story?


Uma Kasoji: 14:06

Sure. This lady had around 20 years of work experience in the healthcare sector. She was at a senior level and played a key role in growing her organisation which was an Indian organisation. And then a multinational company came and acquired her organisation, and all of a sudden, she felt completely out of place. Her new leaders began to question her ability to interact with international stakeholders, they doubted her ability to lead a global team. And she suddenly found herself feeling very insecure, and low on confidence. She then approached The star in me, and we had taken her through a series of learning, coaching and mentoring interventions, which put her back in the driver's seat. In fact, she eventually secured a new job at a much higher level and pay grade.


Rajshree Shukla: 14:59

Thank you for those inspiring stories! I am sure our listeners would also agree that it is never too late to chase your dreams.

Alright, so, Mahua, I wanted to understand from you, what are the challenges that you faced in terms of getting more women to sign up on a platform like this? I am sure it wasn't too easy. How did you make them believe that they could excel professionally given the right guidance? What were these challenges and how did you overcome them?


Mahua Mukherjee: 15:29

I am so glad Rajshree that you have asked this question, because it is very important to discuss the journey. You know, when we try to take our solutions or the different tenets of the platform or the services within the platform directly to the individuals, and to the consumers, sometimes we see a lot of reluctance in investing in themselves. In fact, there is a feeling that, can a platform really tell us what is to be done, because there is a lot of open-source content available. And the feeling is that yes, we can figure out what we have to do. But on the contrary, we have realised that without a structured framework, much of it goes out of our horizon. Most of the times people don't have the discipline and focus to nurture it. There is a bit of consumer education that we have been doing since some time to emphasise on the ‘need’ at the right time. As we all know, in this current age of instant gratification, where at the click of a button, we get an Amazon package at our doorstep, or a food delivery parcel, or we get transformed in our health and beauty in a few hours or few sessions, I think patience and persistence, has been in short supply. And career advancement is a long-term investment. It is not something that you do today, and you get to see the benefit tomorrow. It is a long journey. I think the moment we realise the difference between an investment and expenditure, 70% of the problem is going to get resolved in our career journey. But to our surprise, when we take the same programme to enterprises and organisations, it has always been a hit, and they have been executing the programmes for their own women talent. So, the only gap that we see is, as individuals, are we in a position where we acknowledge that we need to invest on ourselves or do we always want to depend on our organisation to take that charge of investing in our growth. I think Uma did mention about it earlier that for us to take charge of our own career is absolutely important. Hence, I guess this constant education and awareness will need to be done to actually overcome the fear and for people to start investing in their continuous learning and nurturing process.


Rajshree Shukla: 18:24

While we are talking about organisations, I would like to ask you, Uma, what role can firms play in bridging the gap, as you see it, especially in addressing the need of women leadership at top levels?


Uma Kasoji: 18:37

Yeah, that is an interesting question, Rajshree. While organisations are doing fairly well in ensuring diversity at either campus recruitment or entry-level recruitment stages, more attention needs to be paid to engagement and development of diverse talent, higher up the career ladder. We have all heard of the broken rung, right, where starting from the first promotion onwards, research shows that women's growth tends to be slower than their male counterparts. And the gap only tends to get wider from there. So, organisations, in fact, need to invest in developing women leaders through niche learning programmes, coaching, networking, and also mentoring initiatives. On the other side, it is also extremely important to drive gender sensitisation initiatives, and eliminate unconscious bias, which actually creates obstacles to the growth of women talent. And in fact, this year, the theme of Women's Day, is around breaking the bias. So, it is extremely important to drive such unconscious bias initiatives.


Rajshree Shukla: 19:57

That's lovely. I think you have hit the nail on the head, you know, when you spoke about the broken rung also, because that is a major challenge, and how you know that pipeline stays leaky, because not enough number of women are actually able to make it to the next level. So, I agree about that part of gender sensitisation and breaking the bias, because deserving women ought to be going on to the next level and achieving more. And organisations can actually play a conscious role in building that. So, thank you for saying that. On a parting note, I wanted to ask you guys if you have any advice for women as they take charge and embark on high-impact roles.


Uma Kasoji: 20:38

In my experience of having interacted with women professionals from around the world, there are two key aspects that women tend to either ignore or deprioritise. These are networking and personal branding. And ignoring these could actually have a negative impact on growth. We may not realise it at that time, but later on in our careers, it will come back to bite us. So, my advice to women is to firstly make time to build a strong network, both within and outside your organisation. In fact, your network is truly a reflection of your net worth, it opens up amazing opportunities for you. So networking is really important. The second aspect is personal branding. I am a strong advocate of personal branding. All of us, in fact, have a brand, the choice that we have is to either create and share our narrative ourselves, or to just leave it to chance and let it get crafted on its own. And in that case, we actually lose control over the entire narrative. So, there is immense value in making yourself and your work visible, both within and outside the organisation. A few years ago, personal branding was something that was privy to a few celebrities and other famous people. But today, personal branding is a necessity.


Rajshree Shukla: 22:09

Absolutely, that was wonderfully put actually, and I wanted to know if Mahua would like to add something to that.


Mahua Mukherjee: 22:17

Sure, Rajshree, I would love to share some advice which is tried and tested, as I had the opportunity to implement all of it myself. And I have seen a lot of examples of career journeys benefitting by applying these. So, the first one in my list is active continuous learning. It is no more a ‘good-to-have vitamin’, but it is now a ‘must-have vitamin’. Avenues of learning can differ based on one's choice, appetite, opportunity, and budget. But there is no alternative to active continuous learning in the present context. The second one, is proactively reaching out to supervisors, or other decision-makers in the organisation to ask for stretch and demanding roles, and negotiate for more. There may be times in our career where we would like to take it slow, and that is absolutely fine. But when we know we are ready to hit a sixer, we should push ourselves, we should project our confidence and go for the coveted, in-demand, stretch roles. And the last one is to try and let go the fear of failure. Now I know it is easy to say and very difficult to demonstrate. But unless we give ourselves the chance and the opportunity to go out of our comfort zone, we will never fail in our elusive comfort bubble. And if we don't fail, we know very well that it is an indication that we are neither growing nor learning. We will definitely feel the discomfort at the beginning as we try to do new things which we haven't tried before, but we shouldn't worry about it, because we will figure that out through the journey with our commitment and perseverance, because we will never know it all when we start a new thing. Hence, give it a shot. So, these would be my three pieces of advice, Rajshree.


Rajshree Shukla: 24:30

As Mahua and Uma said, active career management, infused with continual learning and an ecosystem of mentors and sponsors goes a long way in shaping up one’s personal brand. Being in sync with the bigger picture has its advantages in the long run, and it is all about individual onus rather than waiting for organisational initiatives.

A set of predefined frameworks have proven to be helpful tools in accelerating career journeys and are increasingly becoming vital in today’s scenario. As we continue to invest in our growth at the personal level, organisations can be the beacon that help bridge the gap through gender sensitisation initiatives and equal opportunities, eliminating any microaggressions and unconscious biases along the way.

And on that note, I would like to thank the both of you for your valuable insights and time today. It was a pleasure chatting with you!


Mahua Mukherjee: 25:27

Thanks a lot, Rajshree, for having us. It was an amazing conversation.


Uma Kasoji: 25:32

Yeah, pleasure being here. Bye.


Rajshree Shukla: 25:35

Thank you for listening in folks! Watch this space for more interesting conversations with industry experts and practitioners in our upcoming issue in May 2022.


[1] LinkedIn. (2021) LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021. https://news.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/news/en-us/images/Opportunity_Index_Whitepaper_Final_1604.pdf
[2] The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far by Brian Fetherstonhaugh

Mahua Mukherjee, Co-founder, The star in me

Mahua Mukherjee is Co-founder of The star in me, a global career advancement and growth platform for women talent. Prior to starting her own entrepreneurial venture in 2018, Mahua was a Director in Consulting at Cognizant, US. In a global corporate career spanning 18 years and three continents, she has experience across IT service delivery and operations consulting. She is an alumni of IIT Kharagpur and ISB.

Uma Kasoji, Co-founder, The star in me

Uma Kasoji co-founded The star in me, post a successful corporate career spanning 17 years. She is a management consultant-turned-entrepreneur who decided to pursue her passion for diversity, with a vision to bridge the gender gap in the workforce and in leadership. Uma is a Board Member of the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode. She is a voracious reader and a prolific blogger.

The idea of ISB Management ReThink was born out of the impending need to revisit and redefine the time-tested tenets of management, and at the same time, identify how they can still hold on to their relevance in contemporary times. With the ever-changing dynamics of management philosophies, and the associated classroom teaching methodology, it is about time to readjust the focus by shaking the fundamentals, breaking myths and bringing about the change necessary to survive in this cut-throat era of stiff competition.