The Incandescent Vignette
Date: Saturday , September 30, 2006
To grow an organization that has charm, vitality, energy, and belonging,” was Chitra’s concern when she was deputed to head the Mobility division of Lucent Technologies three years ago. Having worked in the U.S. all her life, it was a challenge to reckon-a challenge similar to when she started her work career.
Hailing from an orthodox Brahmin family from the temple town of Srirangam in South India, Chitra Kasthuri was a liberal by nature and good student by God’s grace. Her interest in studies encouraged her to complete her Masters in Mathematics. But she had to follow the traditional path of marriage and family. However, events turned in her favor and she and her husband left for the U.S. to pursue their higher studies leaving the child behind.
Kasthuri was pooled into Mathematics and Computer Science for another Masters program. “I didn’t know what a CPU or memory meant at that time,” she says. Under the mentoring of a professor at the University, Kasthuri started from ground zero, taking several courses in computer science. Even before she completed her Masters she was absorbed into a small company to do backend programming. Months later, Kasthuri switched over to SwitchCo, a packet data switching company and from there she graduated into AT&T, then into Lucent Technologies, Bell Labs Innovations upon its spin-off in 1986.
“It was a huge shift. I was somebody in SwitchCo and now I was one among hundreds of thousands people,” she says. Work was challenging and Kasthuri needed a work-life balance. For a few years she skipped lunches and travels to stick to her 9 to 6 schedule and rush home to care for the family.
In 1991, she experienced a turnaround. Kasthuri met her inspirational idol and mentor, Mary Chan, at AT&T Bell Labs and realized it was time for her to concentrate on her career growth. Chan’s energy, enthusiasm, demeanor and high achieving goals found Kasthuri paving her own path and setting personal goals that would build her career in the organization.
Growth in Lucent
“The most important lesson I learnt from her (Chan) was to take up jobs that didn’t attract others. Whether we win or lose, we should see a gain. It shows your guts, confidence and difference,” says Kasthuri. Kasthuri got her chance to prove her difference when she was appointed as CDMA Test Supervisor at AT&T in 1995. Two years later, Kasthuri was promoted to Director to manage TDMA technology. Kasthuri understood the significance of this new position, tackled the difficult technical issues associated with product development and developed expert customer relationship skills.
It’s this forte of Kasthuri that brought her to Lucent India as an expat to grow the organization. When Kasthuri came to head the India shop in 2003 she had to face the challenge of a work environment very different from the U.S., the travails of being a woman leader in a male dominated society and with the additional strain of leaving her family back in the U.S. “I had to chisel myself into the Indian working mode and build the organization to develop and deliver on leading edge wireless data technologies as part of Lucent Global team.
In the early 2000s the entire global telecom market was seeing declining growth and many people in the industry began to lose faith. At this time Lucent experienced a change in management, attrition increased, and Kasthuri had to straighten things out. “Growth is always easy but when it comes to scaling down, people can’t take it. And when I explain that it’s for business reasons in India, it’s even harder for the kids here to digest the fact of losing their job,” she explains.
Growing an organization in hot job market in India was tough. There were frustrating times when people wondered if there was a lasting future in telecommunications. But her confidence in her work and nearly a year of smart management found her gaining the trust of her employees again as the market rebounded. She had to build competence quickly and ensure delivery of product in three months time. Chitra and her management team worked hard, convincing youngsters to stay with Lucent through mentoring programs, focus group meetings and town hall meetings. Attrition fell over the following year and she was a happy woman with a proven track record.
Additionally, hiring a few experienced people from the industry outside of the confines of Lucent made some of the managers at Lucent nervous. “We determined for some roles we needed to reach outside for talent and we were successful in bringing a few talented individuals on board,” Kasthuri says. At the time in Lucent, internal promotions were more common practice as people were fostered inside the organization to ensure they knew the processes. “You need to be prepared for the job ahead and when you are, then promotions will come.” Kasthuri herself says she has learnt this over the years.
Reaching the goals.
Back in the U.S., she was promoted to the post of Distinguished MTS (DMTS). This was a first memorable event. Chitra had aspired for her career to take her into management and she expressed her interest to superiors and soon found herself climbing the managerial ladder. Understanding the needs of senior management through her mentor, Chitra understood how to delegate work as necessary and get certain tasks done through others unique competencies. This became an important milestone in her professional life and she learned the important lesson to be upfront about one’s career ambitions and goals by clear communication to her direct management. This lesson learned, Chitra has been teaching the same to her mentees throughout her career.
Working in India
Kasthuri realized that in India, above average attrition rates are a fact of life and people have many choices in the country’s booming technology sector. Kasthuri realized that job-hopping is prevalent in people with 3-5 years working experience. “But it hurts me personally when people leave, especially the kids,” she says. Kasthuri has made it a regular practice to enquire into every person’s reason for leaving.
“I am passionate about my work and I need to know things,” she explains. A highly focused manager with a quest for knowledge, Kasthuri makes it a point to understand the technical details of her work and the interest zones of her employees to get the required work done in time and at top quality. “When I discuss details, if I am not strong technically, I feel disarmed,” she says. She understands the strengths and interests of her team and delegates work accordingly to achieve best results.
This attitude has helped her through her two decades with Lucent Technologies, and Kasthuri is still going great guns!