Vara Lakshmi P is heading the QA Operations for APAC region at Global Blue, headquartered in Switzerland best known for tax-free shopping and a leader in all of its global markets. In this role she is responsible for delivering quality software for around 300,000 GB clients. Prior to joining GB, Vara worked in various industries such as Telecom, Financial Services, Medical Tourism and Retail.
Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?
I have about 14+ years’ experience in testing and quality assurance. I started with Microsoft as a contractor from HCL, and even though it was a welcoming company, I felt very small in such a huge space. This gave me the mindset to challenge myself, which saw me move to the US and then later Singapore. Whenever I change jobs, it’s always been to upskill or challenge myself with a new learning curve. I have also made some drastic decisions such as joining a start-up when I had a two-year-old, but it’s those decisions which really helped my career progress.
You've worked in different locations, what cultural differences have you noticed, and have they affected your management style?
I have worked in America, Europe, Singapore and India; whilst the focus on the hours spent at work verses the quality of time spent at work vary in each country and company, I have found that these differences have not impacted my management style.
Anyone can tell people what to do but listening and understanding people is a real skill. Once you can do that, you can align your own expectations with theirs, which is a much healthier bond to have with a team. I also don’t micromanage people, I give them the freedom to get the work done, which works regardless of cultural differences.
Is there a point in time when you noticed an emphasis on diversity?
I think it happened at once in both my private and professional life, when conversations around gender, relationships, and workplaces arose. That was around 6 years ago, when I really started to notice programmes aiming to sponsor women to get to those leadership positions.
Have you had a mentor or role model in your career and what value do you see in having one?
I don’t have one specific mentor because I think the more knowledge and input I receive from a range of people, the better I can synthesise and develop my own approach. When I want to learn a new technical skill, I talk to at least 5 or 6 people about it, to learn as much as I can, listening to ideas from all of them. Having a mentor can definitely help but finding the right one is tough. I did reach out earlier in my career to a few people, but mentoring doesn’t suit everyone, so I developed my micro mentoring approach, to ensure I had meaningful input and discussions without taking too much of their time.
In terms of role models, I do have two. One is from the industry, the former CEO of HCL, Vineet Nayar, because his technique is employee first, rather than customer first, which I think is very impactful and which I have tried to adopt for my teams. The second is a politician, CBN (Chandrababu Naidu – we call him CEO of Andhra Pradesh State) who I admire because he always talks about the bigger picture and the future and also what you need to get there. Again, it’s a model that we can take into business projects.
How do you balance long hours with your personal life successfully?
Family, particularly after becoming a mother, helps to balance me emotionally and de-stress me from work. Lots of the questions and problems from work that you take home with you can be resolved or improved by talking with your family, so their support really helps me achieve a better work-life balance. I do take work home with me that I can do after everyone is asleep. I know this is not a style suited for everyone but I see the benefits so I encourage flexible working hours with in my team.
Looking back on your career to date, can you pinpoint when you first noticed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion around you?
The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about diversity is definitely gender, followed by ethnicity, and now there is an increasing awareness to be inclusive of disabilities in the work place. In the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve seen a lot of women in IT, but before that it was at a 70/30 or even 80/20 men to women ratio within IT teams. If you further break it down into software and hardware, you wouldn’t find many women in the hardware side, this is still an area requiring focus and rebalancing. I have been hiring for 7 or 8 years now and the first thing I look at is how balanced the team I am hiring for is, in terms of gender, nationality, and if there is an opportunity for qualified individuals with disabilities. It’s really valuable to get the different thought processes from cultural diversity, which is why I tell this to my managers when they are hiring. Diversity in understanding, approach and challenges in life help teams develop solutions for the whole community.
Are there any Women in Leadership programmes at Global Blue?
We do have women in leadership roles and also a programme that promotes it. The interesting thing about Global Blue is our 50/50 gender diversity split, which is rare in the IT industry. We have lots of leadership skills sharing sessions internally for women, something that we’ve started to share with our European counterpart as well.
In your experience, what are the benefits of diverse teams and organisations?
If you only hire people of the same nationality, a lot of their thinking processes will be the same. As I mentioned before, few nationalities might see hard work as the answer, whereas few others might look for a smarter option to solve a problem. So, in a diverse working environment, there will be people looking for a faster solution, quality and for stability, etc. You may have a lot of debates, but you get a better balance because of the multiple perspectives and in turn a steadier performance. There will always be a need for compromise when there are different opinions, which the manager has to handle, but the benefits of diversity are worth it.
What is your advice to leaders who want to create a more diverse and inclusive culture?
Embrace your inner strength and value diversity of thoughts and actions. Instil an open mindset in your team. It’s easy to hire a diverse team but keeping that open mindset once you are leading a diverse team is the key to leveraging creativity and encouraging relentless questioning of the status quo, to ensure maximum benefit from your hiring decisions. There is no book of rules on how to do this because every team and individual is different, but you need to listen to your teams to make sure integration is happening and nurture that diverse environment.