Thursday, August 29, 2019

Interview with Vantage Magazine...

You are the CEO of your personal brand and have to take complete responsibility for it. Your visual, vocal and verbal resume has to be synchronised in the way you present yourself to the world. Like with every brand, you need to make investments in yourself, promote yourself and send a consistent message. Welcome to the corporate etiquette training by Shital Kakkar Mehra

She is India’s only business etiquette and protocol consultant, helping CXOs upgrade their soft skills. She has trained more than 40,000 professionals across industries. She has worked with organizations like Aditya Birla Group, Accenture, Bajaj Auto, Barclays, Colgate, Deutsche Bank, Dr Reddy’s, Johnson & Johnson India, Kotak Bank, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., Tata
Chemicals, and many other.

For the uninitiated, she is Shital Kakkar Mehra. And her extraordinary journey is the first from our new series, the ‘Success Stories’.

At a time when corporate etiquette was unheard of in India, Shital had taken the unconventional step of enrolling herself at the Protocol School of Washington. Needless to say, nothing went smooth after she completed the course and returned to India. She was talking about corporate soft skills and upgrading them when no one around her thought it was even necessary. She would meet HR heads and CEOs of companies who would tell her she can come and teach, but they would also ask her why should they be paying her for it, because they thought they were doing her a favour by giving her a platform for her skills!

However, Shital continued her endeavour in trying to make company representatives understand that the day isn’t too far when corporate etiquette and protocol would become one of the topmost priority and a requirement in expanding businesses and maintaining smooth work culture. And she was right! Soon enough, her patience, perseverance and passion made her the most sought after business etiquette and international protocol expert.

Explaining the change in scene, Shital tells us, “The liberalisation reforms which were put into place in the 1990s finally began to bear fruit by early 2000. As Indian companies wanted a global footprint, they acquired firms overseas. On the other side, multi-national companies realised the potential of India as a huge market and started offices in India. This led to the situation where the Indian executive had to communicate, negotiate, network, entertain and interact with businesspersons from different parts of the world. For the first time in our history, thanks to globalisation, we had to effectively communicate and build relationships with different cultures. Also, technology was a game-changer as it made it very easy to do business with people across the world. Just by punching 10 digits into a computer, you could speak to anyone from Tokyo to San Francisco within seconds. Indian professionals saw that the world had truly become flat and there was huge potential to do business globally. As Indians are technically and intellectually very good, soft skills was an area we needed to upgrade as our academic system did not focus on it.”

People like to do business with people they like, making it extremely beneficial to polish one’s like-ability quotient. 

Like we mentioned earlier, nothing happened with a wave of a magic wand. People were not willing to listen to Shital; what she endorsed was not required, they thought. “Initially, people belonging to the corporate sector were unable to understand the full impact of learning these skills. In the first couple of years, I had to painstakingly explain what’s in it for them and how it’s a proven fact that people like to do business with people they like, making it extremely beneficial to polish one’s like-ability quotient. Also, in today’s competitive environment, building cross-border working relationships and networking skills give you a competitive edge. However, civility at the workplace is declining and it’s important for executives to understand politeness and how to work together in harmony.”

Considering she started at a time when no one was ready to give importance to corporate etiquette in doing business, we ask her what has her journey taught her, personally and professionally; and she says, “Plenty of things! Initially, it was tough to explain why professionals needed to learn these skills and how it can impact the bottom line of the organisation. By 2002, as India arrived on the world stage, an analysis on the need of training was done by large corporations and it clearly showed that there was a gap as far as soft skills were concerned. So, it made it easy for me to convince learning and business heads why their teams needed to learn these skills. I have really enjoyed interacting with professionals from all industries and have learnt a lot from them too. I have learnt about the different industries and businesses, the skill gap at workplaces and strengths/weaknesses of the Indian professional and our education system.”

Shital harped on the fact that soft skills needed to be learned more so because our education system did not lay importance on them. And since she has trained foreign executives, it would be interesting to find out the differences that she may have noticed while training Indian executives as compared to their foreign counterparts – in terms of how we speak, communicate, eat, dress or dine. “Indian executives learn fast, are open to learning new skills. This is also because our academic system trains us to take teachers seriously. I have trained over 46,000 professionals across industries and it has been a wonderful journey. At times, the best way to understand your own culture is to see the cultural traits through the eyes of others. Our relaxed attitude to punctuality and inability to take ownership are a minus while our acceptance of diversity and ability to build relationships are big strengths,” she tells us.

Shital has been training executives for 20 years now. However, with the recent global focus on sexual harassment, including at workplace, we wonder how does she teach/ train people on what can be construed as sexual harassment, and what are the etiquette one must follow in this regard. We are quite sure it must be challenging to train people in this sphere as our understanding of sexual harassment is so little! But Shital tells us, “I work with professionals to help them understand both verbal and nonverbal communication at the workplace. For example, it’s critical to comprehend how to maintain healthy eye contact when interacting with colleagues/clients. Also, understanding touch, both appropriate and inappropriate, is crucial. Using appropriate language which is gender neutral and free of biases or sexual connotations has to be strictly adhered to. With technology, using appropriate emoticons and/or forwards is important as every word sent from your laptop, your mobile phone or from your social media accounts is your responsibility and you will be held accountable for it. So, I teach them to learn to manage one’s online as well as online behaviour.”

Using appropriate language which is gender neutral and free of biases or sexual connotations has to be strictly adhered to.

Networking, especially via social media, has in fact taken over our lives and how! And it’s a grey area, one that is constantly changing and evolving. In that regard, is it an area where we still have a long way to attain finesse, we ask. “Yes, it’s an area of improvement,” she states, adding, “We think if we work hard and do a good job, our work will speak for itself. While it’s true, it’s only partly true. We need visibility, both within the organisation and outside. While most people have some sort of a social media presence, many don’t manage it. Either they post too frequently without much thought on the content or they are quiet. Very few use it as a tool to communicate or connect with their followers or audience, enhancing their visibility in the right way. So, yes, social media is definitely an area that requires more work to attain finesse.”

In 2012, Shital authored a book, Business Etiquette: A Guide for the Indian Professional, that talks about the ABC of good manners: Appearance, Behaviour and Communication. Considering business and etiquette are wide subjects, we were keen to find out if she is penning another book and what would be her focus this time around. “My first book is a business best-seller and has been translated into several regional languages. I am really grateful and humbled that people around the world have liked it. The next book is about Executive Presence
– how it impacts your career, elements of presence and how to develop it. Everything creates impact – your attire, your engagement skills, your ability to manage relation- ships at work, networking within and out- side your organisation, conducting small talk, online presence and public speaking skills. My next book is going to talk about all this,” she informs.

A long career path, one that she chose and carved on her own. While she worked relentlessly to make her dream come true, to give shape to her vision, to make people understand and believe that without soft skills, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the changing times and need for good interaction, Shital says nothing would have been possible without her family. “I am lucky to have an extremely supportive family. My family has helped me maximise my potential. As my work involves extensive travel and long hours, they have stepped in when needed. Without their support, I would not have been able to pursue this career.”

Having chosen an unconventional path, fought challenges, but reached a success point because of her belief and perseverance, what would she like to advice young professionals, who dream big, aspire to make a mark, but are often told to avoid the road not taken? “Looking back, there were few things I did which helped me. Besides hard work, I focused on making a connect with my participants and being approachable. During my workshops, I give them the comfort that they can connect with me regarding further queries related to my area of expertise as I would like to help them achieve their professional goals. Also, I read a lot on my subject of work and have spent substantial amount of time and energy upgrading my skills, helping me to stay relevant in today’s fast changing business world. If I don’t upgrade my skills, how am I going to teach others the same, right?” she says, adding, on a final note, “I read every feedback offered by my participants and try to incorporate changes suggested by them as I do believe that being humble and being flexible is a ‘must-have’ skill for a consultant.”