Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Harlina Sodhi, CEO & Co-Founder of Believe In Yourself, a community of human development leaders and practitioners with the shared goal of innovating around culture, coaching, and diversity.
Harlina has spent over two decades in senior-level HR leadership roles at companies like GE and IDFC Bank, and now focuses on spreading transformation and diversity thought leadership around the globe.
In this episode she shares how to set up a D&I practice, why leaders may not be driving the D&I agenda, and the impact a more diverse workforce will have on the future of work.
“The CEO should be the culture custodian, builder, and architect for the business.”Harlina Sodhi
Patrick Cournoyer: Being, thinking, doing, all of these words, elicit passion in people, including myself. Balancing the three though, is not easy, but it’s quite necessary in our lives both professionally and personally. My guest today has a true passion for driving this balance and inspiring others to do the same.
Harlina Sodhi is the Co-Founder of Belief In Yourself, which is a community of human development leaders and practitioners with a shared goal of innovating thought and process focused on culture, coaching, and diversity. She spent over two decades in senior level HR leadership roles at companies like GE, and IDFC Bank. She now focuses on driving thought leadership around the world, specifically with transformation and diversity. Harlina, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.
Harlina: Hey, everyone, very happy to be here with all of you today and it’s certainly time to believe, so Patrick let’s roll.
Patrick: Absolutely, great. Okay, let’s start out with what inspired you to start your organization, Believe In Yourself and to leave a very successful 20-year plus career in corporate work?
Harlina: Well, that’s a little story that I need to tell you to get to what got me into Believe In Yourself. A couple of years ago, when I lived in Mumbai, early January, one morning, I heard at about 4:30 AM in the morning, I heard lots of sounds, and disturbance on the road outside. I lived on the sea-facing road and there shouldn’t have been all that noise. I woke up, I stepped out onto the balcony and looked out and I– Guess what? There is a road but there’s a [unintelligible 00:02:20] on that and it was a Mumbai Marathon day. There were about 40,000 people running that day and I stood there looking at them and eventually I went down, also to cheer them on.
I said to myself, “Next year, I want other people cheering me on.” I really weighed in the 90-kilo range, and I couldn’t run 100 meters to save my life. But that’s a pledge or a promise I made to myself and through that here, really, I had very little to go on the first six months except belief in myself. It was something I wanted, I had put it out there in the universe and I wanted to make it happen. I played that I believed in myself to myself multiple times over, eventually got into physical therapy, personal trainer, a better diet.
And I did run the marathon, 21 kilometers in about seven months. This kind of really gave me a lot of confidence and hope. Saying these words in themselves is so powerful and if I can just scale it up and extrapolate it to many people, it can bring cheer to everyone’s life. There the seed of Believe in Yourself was sown and then I did a little project. We went to 16 cities, spoke to about 500 people, give or take, and asked them one simple question, saying if there’s one thing you wish you had, what would that be?
Or if there is one gift that you could ask from God, what would that be? And repeatedly, Patrick, we heard this over and over again, saying, I have it all, I have the domain technical knowledge, I have the experience, but I want to believe. I need to strengthen my being. I need more self-confidence. When I heard all of these conversations coupled with my own experience, it seemed I’d found my purpose and that was really the beginning of Believe In Yourself.
Patrick: That is amazing and incredibly inspiring, and you’re still a marathon runner, correct?
Harlina: That’s right.
Harlina: I run small and big races all the time.
Patrick: That’s amazing. Over your career, you worked in senior level, HR leadership roles and was responsible for all aspects of people experience within organizations, big global organizations. You have quite an impressive background with the experience of leading people function within large businesses As the past 10 years has unfolded, particularly around areas like transformation, diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s been a lot of change. Today I’d like to talk with you a bit around diversity and inclusion, because I know that is a passion area for you. You do a lot of speaking, you drive a lot of thought leadership in organizations. How did you become so passionate about driving diversity and inclusion, thought and agendas within organizations?
Harlina: All right, that is a great question, Patrick and you’re right, I’m absolutely passionate about it and I will do whatever it takes to push the mandate on this subject. Many, many, many moons ago in my first job, really with Xerox, I was part of the sales function, I was the growth leader, I was a sales manager driving the numbers and when you’re in sales, there is so much training which I was given along with the other people, which was on how to be assertive, how to be aggressive, how to go for the kill, how to spot closing opportunities, how to hunt and form the account, how to put yourself out there, how to network and those 10 years that I spent in Xerox kind of deeply ingrained this skillset in me.
When I moved into HR, this came to me more easily and naturally, but voila, what I noticed around me was that women in functions like legal or HR, operations, a back office, executive did not display any of these behaviors at all. They were wonderful on interpersonal relationships, putting them– They’re doing a great job, but not putting themselves out there, that it struck me, it was like a bolt of lightning saying, “Oh, my God, I’m able to climb faster and higher, just because I had this different set of capabilities and a skill set that I was trained for.”
This is a trainable skill, it’s a capability transfer. That idea germinated in my mind, I was working with GE, General Electric Company at that time, global organization, very supportive of diversity inclusion agenda and I was trained to go ask for the things I wanted and I did the same with my CEO at that time Pramod Bhasin said, “I’d like to work on this charter, and see if we can broad base it, and really put a structure and a process around it, and do a capability build for the women.
That was really the beginning of it all, Patrick, and when you work for a company like GE, it’s empowering environment, they give you the space, and they tell you to go do it end-to-end which is what I managed to do, setting up the content, the processes, the training program, the launches and the events.
Patrick: You’ve taken that a step further now, you help organizations build their diversity and inclusion approach. Recently you did that with Reliance Industries, can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Harlina: Yes, absolutely and you’re right. As part of my firm Belief In Yourself, we do help companies really do end-to-end diversity, inclusion agenda. Reliance is India’s largest private company with $60 to $80 billion revenue, give or take any time of the year. I didn’t really do it for them from an external sign point of view, I worked with Reliance Industries for five years, a great company, great b2b businesses.
Very few senior leaders, women senior leaders, and they wanted me to look at building the contemporary HR function, which really meant building a center of excellence for diversity and inclusion, focus on employee engagement and experiences, talk to us about how to build a great culture for the future and manage and work better with millennials. That’s how I kind of did it for Reliance really, in Reliance whenever you do something, it has to be at scale, minimum, you talk about India in that company, you don’t really talk about the company or community or your colleagues.
I was mandated by Mr Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman at that time to say, build the best processes, systems, platforms, content and program to support women, build them into a leadership gene pool but make sure whatever that you’re doing can be extrapolated by all other Indian companies like Anand Mahindra, like Tata, like Aditya Birla group, so on and so forth.
I had a charter to do it over three years which is what I did. The approach node, the design, the roadmap, the content building by identifying the women, putting them to programs, getting sponsorship and coaching, mentoring from relevant leaders, and we ran it that way. There were two things that we really focused on Patrick, one was get the numbers and diversity to my mind is more about the numbers. Get the women in, get the younger people in, get the people of color in. That’s the time when I started to think and work on it more, I realized that getting is one part, but integrating them and getting them to feel belonged was perhaps the bigger charter. Around that time, about five years ago, I started thinking and talking about inclusion and belonging.
Patrick: Back in 2016, you were writing and obviously, speaking quite a bit around thought leadership in the diversity and inclusion space. You wrote a great article that was titled, “Are leaders drivers of diversity or is diversity riding in a driverless car?” It’s a great article, particularly at the end of the article, you give five calls to actions. One is weaving diversity and inclusion into the language of the company. Two, articulate documents and publish our diversity agenda, and then measure it. Three continuously check how your diverse populations feel. Four, set up employee resource groups. Five run unique programs that leaders truly understand the nuances of diversity. Those are so relevant.
They were incredibly relevant five years ago and now really everybody that is focused on diversity inclusion within the organizations, which is the high majority of organizations today, which is amazing, are very focused on these five areas. How do you feel that organizations have taken more control of this, have got into the driver’s seat here? The follow-up question is where do you see organizations falling down with this?
First let’s start with, how do you see over the past five years, where have you seen the positive changes where organizations have gotten into the driver’s seat and taken responsibility for this in a meaningful way?
Harlina: Patrick, the dramatic change that I’ve seen at least in the Indian landscape in the last five years is that we’ve had a refresh of the CEOs and the CHROs and CXOs. The relatively newer generation came into the saddle. These were the people who were so fixated and obsessed with building the right culture, figuring out the right environment, making sure the ecosystem is great and everything is run more holistically. That was like music to my ears when I started seeing the sign.
Of course it took me and my company in the backend to connect the dots and be able to figure it out and see, “Oh, this is the way we see, which is happening.” We absolutely jumped into the arena and started working with a couple of companies, large companies who could influence other companies who could then further spread the message to say, “Think of it, Think of diversity inclusion as a cultural agenda.”
The moment you say culture, Patrick, straightaway the doors to the CEO room opens because the CEO is the culture custodian, culture builder, culture architect for a company. That’s the little bit of a pivoting that we did saying, “Okay, diversity and inclusion is not a mandate. It’s not another program. It’s about building the culture for the company.” Then the CEO started to give their ears, given their global background and newer upbringings things started to happen.
We said to ourselves, ” As Believe In Yourself, if we can touch 100 CEOs and get them to feel and want it at a soul level, things will begin to happen.” We use the organizational culture route to really drive a culture of acceptance, belonging, inclusion. Like I said, diversity was just numbers, which is easy for any good company worth its salt to get. That’s the approach we took.
Patrick: That is definitely inspiring for organizations today because like you, we very much believe in data and understanding the data perspective, the numbers perspective, but this focus on culture and focus on a feeling of belonging, you just mentioned around empowering and encouraging senior leadership to feel this and to make an emotional connection to this from a cultural perspective.
I think there’s so much in that because when people start feeling a bit more about how the workplace is, how people are experiencing the workplace, that’s your point around believing, that’s when you start to drive change in organizations because it feels right. It’s the right thing to do.
You mentioned cultural centers of excellence when you were talking about the work that you were doing with Reliance and many of our listeners today are really building their centers of excellence around diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations. Many organizations that are listening today are going through significant transformation and also significant cultural transformation because the fundamentals of their business have changed or the fundamentals of their people’s experience has changed. We all definitely know that.
How do you suggest, or what are maybe a couple of top suggestions you could have for organizations that are really focused on becoming a center of excellence this year around diversity and inclusion? If you had to give them two, maybe two or three areas to focus on or suggestions from your experience and from your passion around this, what would you say to those people?
Harlina: Okay, here it goes and I don’t even have to think about this Patrick. Number one recommendation is weave this into your values and behaviors. It should almost be like a company value to say, we will be diverse and we will be inclusive and we will make everyone belong. That’s one. Then obviously, leaders and everyone holds themselves to the culture and the values and the behaviors. Number two, make it a part of the leadership development. Many times it’s just ignorance. It’s a lack of awareness on the parts of the larger organization that this agenda doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.
If you want men as allies, they need to know that we want them as allies. They need to also be given equal amounts of training and learnings and exposure opportunities for them to be able to display inclusive behaviors. All leadership programs, whether it’s frontline managers to mid manager, mid to senior, senior to CXO to CEO, should have this embedded into the part of the program, how to be an inclusive leader.
The third is to really provide coaching and mentoring opportunities to the women. It’s not for the lack of wanting. It’s just like I said, for the lack of confidence and lack of capability that women don’t have that razor-sharp edge to be able to crack through the glass ceiling. Give them a coach whose job is to support them and give them confidence and nudge them and explore them and help them with different things that they’re already good at.
Give them capability training opportunities to build skills like assertiveness, communication, storytelling, language of business. These three things put together are a powerful combination. Embed the agenda into the values and behaviors of the company. Hard-wire or hard-code them into your leadership development across levels, and third provide coaching opportunities to the women.
Patrick: Thank you for that, Harlina. I’ve been asking my guests this recently, and I’m curious as to what your response will be. Who do you look to, or who do you see as inspiration in this space? When you read somebody’s content, posts, books, who do you gain inspiration from?
Harlina: Several Patrick. I’m a voracious reader of articles, books, even simple things like Tweet chat, listen to podcasts, get my takeaways and learnings from Netflix and Amazon. It’s really everywhere. Few people, if I had to just name some, Oprah Winfrey, eternal inspiration, her entire life was an inspiration and what she does and did, it’s like golden nuggets. Michelle Obama. Another inspiration, hugely, hugely, about making a difference.
Indeed, if I come closer to our Prime Minister really, it doesn’t have to be a woman. Our prime minister has aggressively driven the agenda as part of the four or five national initiatives that he has driven. One of those initiatives is Nari Shakti, which means women power/women empowerment. When a Prime Minister of a country like India drives it, lots of things get done. I draw lots of inspiration from him as well.
There are little stories all over, a 90-year old woman in India just got the highest civilian honor award on our Republic Day, three days ago. 90-years old, has just set up a home business as an entrepreneur. Very inspirational. Lots of things like that as well.
Patrick: It’s excellent. We’re going to wrap up on a bit of a different note because I love hearing how people have different passions in life. I do believe that having unique passions and bringing those passions to your personal lives to your work lives allows us to be our full selves at work, in this concept of belonging and feeling really– Just feeling good and confident about ourselves. You have a passion for poetry, can you tell us a bit about that? Where did that come from, and how has your passion for poetry inspired you in the work that you’re doing because I’m curious if there’s a connection between the two?
Harlina: Well, I’ve also done my Master’s in English literature, and even before that, when I was a little girl, my father used to read Urdu poems to me when I was growing up, and he would sing me these little songs. I think a combination of all of that led me into English literature and English literature is all about poetry and Shakespeare and learning. I believe, perhaps it came from there. It came from there, and you’re right, you picked a sweet spot, I can speak on it for hours.
Today, why do I continue to do that, you know literature, poetry? Because it helped me just go deeper within myself. Poets have a very sublime way of getting a person to reflect and think and go deep within themselves to figure out life messages, bigger purpose. I believe that kind of talks to me, it helps me internalize. I also learn a lot towards philosophers like Rumi, Confucius, which is kind of a stream of poetry, so that helps center me.
Then my other passion, and I know you haven’t asked me that, which is like running a marathon, why do I do that? Why am I so much pushing myself all the time, and being out there? Because it teaches me perseverance and resilience and coming back stronger and faster. A marathon is always about doing your personal best, it’s never the race, it’s never looking at the other person. The external manifestation of my life, which is running, teaches me all of that. The internal pieces come to me from my love for literature and poetry.
Patrick: I believe that personal reflection, as you mentioned, with poetry, and how that creates the ability for you to have individual personal reflection. I feel that that is something that we all can look out for this coming year. We think about diversity inclusion, and we talk a lot. There’s a lot that is said right now around organizations being responsible for driving diversity and inclusion, belonging initiatives, and strategy within an organization. It’s the responsibility of senior leaders to drive this.
I agree with all of that, but I also agree, or I also feel I’m curious, if you feel the same. I feel it is all of our individual responsibilities to reflect internally, to think about how we are in the workplace, to think about how we interact with other people on an individual one-on-one basis or in groups because I just– I feel like we all have this opportunity to make this great, and to truly support what organizations are doing with diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I just feel it, it can’t just be with leadership. I feel like every single person at an organization has a responsibility in this. I’m curious, A, do you feel the same? Also, how do we help to empower that within everybody out of company?
Harlina: I absolutely resonate with what you just said, Patrick. I absolutely believe that it is everybody’s responsibility. Corporate leaders, of course. They do need the help of their HR heads and their external advisors and consultants to put the policy in place, to create the ecosystem, and track and measure all the leaders against it. That’s one part of it, but I deeply believe that the women themselves, and if you’re only talking about the gender part of the diversity, the women themselves, the younger people themselves, if you’re talking of millenial part of the diversity or people of color, it is up to them.
The learning nuggets are all out there, the environment and the ecosystem is built up. Everything is available at a click of a button, they must want it. The hunger and the appetite is something that I often find missing. That razor-sharp edge comes from that hunger. Build the hunger, allow yourself time to reflect and work purpose by saying, “What is my purpose? Is it to grow?” “Well, great, then.” You kind of got to reach out and seek out and make it happen. If it is just to get peace and calm, then figure life out accordingly.
Then third, the third category of people, so there is this corporate leader, the people themselves, and the third category of people are perhaps people like me. It is our responsibility to continuously give back to a larger community like we’re trying to do via this podcast, talk about it constantly, be on every stage, where we can say this repeatedly. Be available to people who want to grow, share all that I have. I think a combination of all three is a deadly concoction.
Patrick: Harlina, I have very much enjoyed our conversation today, we’re coming to the end of our time, but first off, thank you for your passion and for sharing your passion with us. I know the audience will be very inspired by what you have to say, and also just your personal story. How can our audience find out more about your organization Believe In Yourself? Where can they find you?
Harlina: Well, it’d be hard not to be able to find us if somebody was really looking out for us, Patrick. We have a website called believeinyourself.co.in That’s one, you hit my name in the Google search bar, and the first 10 pages will give you some information about me or the other. By the way, it was also one of my life goals a couple of years ago, Patrick to say that when a person typed my name in the Google search box, the first 10 pages should show me up organically. I’m very happy I met that goal, and LinkedIn, those three are great places.
Patrick: Perfect. Harlina, thank you again for joining the conversation today. Thank you for the continued work that you’re doing and your continued inspiration, and thank you for being a thought leader. We appreciate it.
Harlina: Very happy to have been here with you today, Patrick. Thanks so much, happy to help and believe in yourself.