Quietly Dispelling Stereotypes of a Banker

Shalini-Warrier

Kochi: She is arguably the most influential women in Kerala’s banking sector now. Shalini Warrier, who took charge as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Federal Bank in November 2015, is spearheading the Bank’s digital strategy. A native of Thrissur, the dynamic professional has more than 25 years of banking experience. She worked with Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) in multiple disciplines across various geographies that include India, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and United Arab Emirates. She was the CEO and Head of Consumer Banking of SCB in Brunei. A member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, she brings in first-hand global experience in Branch Banking, Process Management, Service Quality and Client Experience, Project Management, Operations, Technology, and Compliance with special emphasis on Client Due Diligence and Anti Money Laundering. In an exclusive chat with Destination Kerala, the woman leader shares her inspiring success story.

What were the difficulties you faced in your career?

Twenty six years ago when I joined the banking industry there were very few women in the field. There was a group of 11 who joined Standard Chartered Bank and I was the only woman among them. Being a woman, I needed to convince everybody that I could meet all the demands of the job. The initial years were a bit difficult, trying to prove oneself and walk ‘that extra mile’, and then after a few years, it became more comfortable as my own self confidence grew. My first international posting with Standard Chartered Bank was in Brunei. Standard Chartered Bank or for that matter none of the other banks had ever posted an Asian woman in the region as their chief executive. I had to literally spend the first five months entirely on networking, meeting customers, regulators, industrialists etc., and make them understand that I was there on my own merit. The first few months of every assignment had its challenges.

I returned to the banking industry in India in November 2015 by joining Federal Bank, and in the initial days I had the same experience. Here also initially I had to prove my credibility to the team and the peer group that I was working with.

How did you manage to overcome the social and cultural barriers which generally curb the freedom of women?

I was probably lucky in that sense. I come from a typical Kerala matriarchal family which has given me the freedom to do what I think is appropriate. And, in a way, I was better placed than many others. It is unfair if I do not acknowledge the role they have played in making what I am today. But even then, I faced issues as a single woman. Questions about trade-off between career and marriage come up often. It is just the path I have chosen and I do not feel that one is correct or the other is wrong. Each path has its own merits and demerits, and I am pretty happy with my decision. But banks like Federal Bank do not support such socio-cultural barriers. We have a lot of women coming to us. We help women employees with very friendly leave policies, day-care facilities and maternity and even paternity leaves. It is up to organisations to provide such an atmosphere to women to help them overcome hindrances that impact their productivity. 

How is entrepreneurship and working women important for India?

The biggest benefit we bring as women to the table is that we are genetically different. We can offer very different viewpoints on issues that are being discussed. If we have a group of men and women discussing a particular subject, we can immediately see the diversity of thoughts and views that come up. Progress will happen only when you get this diversity and when you are able to debate them. Women have this unique ability to be compassionate while being demanding. Our people management skills are not uni-dimensional but multi-dimensional in nature. 

Many women entrepreneurs find it difficult to get their funding requests positively considered by financial institutions. What do you feel is lacking in their submissions?

Lack of ambition is one thing which is lacking in the proposals submitted to the banks for funding their entrepreneurship ventures. Men end up putting more ambitions on paper. Women often appear to be a lot more diffident. What can be done is not explained. Finance does not seem to be a core competence of a lot of women. The cost of running a project, revenue opportunities, some of the fixed elements of cost etc. are found usually missing or vaguely included in the project plans submitted by women entrepreneurs. However, they appear to be more responsible borrowers compared to their male counterparts. They tend to get worried about the stigma associated with non-repayments. Being ambitious and getting their planning process streamlined will definitely make their proposals stand out from the rest. 

How do you reach at the right decision when everyone around you airs different opinions?

The leadership style I have adopted could not get more democratic. When there is something that needs to be discussed we sit together and discuss it. Having said that I take a rational approach and try to convince others why it is appropriate to take decision ‘A’ rather than ‘B.’ Beyond a point, when you have to conclude the discussion, I may have to air my strong opinion and make them understand why we need do it in a certain way. With the self-confidence and clear understating of the technicalities of what I am putting on the table, I go forward with my decisions. 

What are the things that you think young women entrepreneurs should focus on?

Open up your mind to the myriad opportunities in front of you. Do not limit yourselves to ‘boutiques or beauty parlours.’ There is so much information available out there on the internet unlike in the past.

I always encourage people to seek a mentor. Because mentoring plays a very important role whether you are in a profession like what I am in or an entrepreneurial venture. Today, startups have a lot of access to mentoring.

You have to understand your own skills. If you are an intrinsically artistic type, go for something which excites you than doing the usual stuff. Know where your strength lies and eventually choose an appropriate pursuit.

As a woman professional, how do you help groom the women employees around you?

What I have started practicing for women is an open-door policy. If they want to discuss an idea or anything with me, they can come in and discuss at any given point of time.  I do not do any formal mentoring but have started some kind of informal mentoring. I spent time with some of the senior women employees who, I think, can come up to a different level from where they are right now. I do not wait for them to approach me rather we somehow find time to meet over a cup of coffee or lunch and discuss issues.