Conventional wisdom would have it that men are awkward and unnerved working with successful women, forget living with them; that men get turned off and insecure by educated, smart, self-made, go-getting women; that men don’t want to come close to women who ooze power. But then, conventional wisdom has never had a place amongst successful people and within successful institutions. What’s more, the multitude of conventionally-wise wouldn’t have stumbled upon men like John Shaw, who has few misgivings about letting on: “My wife is the star and I am delighted to be the support system,” says the Vice Chairman of Biocon, who is visibly snug and at ease in the towering shadow of his wife, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman & Managing Director of the Banagalore-based biotech giant.
Indeed, it takes a “different” kind of a man to be married to a superachiever. John Shaw is just that— different. “We are both very secure and mature individuals,” says John. He recounts how after marriage, while he was still in the textile business— the Scotsman was the Chairman of Madura Coats in the ’90s—Kiran told him: “Now that we are married, one of us has to leave the job. And I am not going to be the one.” John concurred with her. He even put his life’s savings into Biocon as proof.
As in Kiran’s case, behind many of BT’s power women exist men who haven’t hesitated in taking the backseat, and letting their wives drive solo. In fact, many of these men—unlike in John and Kiran’s case—have had little to contribute to their “better” halves’ triumphs at the workplace. The backing, encouragement and guidance may be there, but from a distance, and at a broader level. That’s because in many cases, the husband and wife are on two different tracks.
Consider, for instance, Naina Lal Kidwai, Group General Manager and Country Head of HSBC India. Husband Rashid is as removed from banking as perhaps Anjali Tendulkar (a doctor) is removed from cricket—Rashid at present runs a not-for-profit organisation called Grassroots Trading Network. In the late ’80s, when she got an opportunity to head investment banking services for Grindlays, Rashid though he had an excellent job in Delhi agreed to relocate to Mumbai. “I am still paying for it though,” chuckles Naina.
Husbands clearly have vital roles to play—even from the sidelines. Renu Sud Karnad, Joint Managing Director, HDFC, points out that when she got an opportunity in the midst of her career to go to Princeton for a year, she was a little uncertain. Married for four years, the opportunity came to her at an awkward time in terms of personal goals. Yet, her husband, Bharat Karnad, a top strategic affairs analyst, insisted that she pursue it. And to make things easier for both of them, Bharat organised for himself a job in the US. “He goaded me into it,” reminisces Renu.
Support manifests itself not just in the big career-changing opportunities but also in sharing day-to-day seemingly mundane responsibilities. Akhila Srinivasan, Managing Director, Shriram Life Insurance, recounts: “In my earlier years, I used to travel a lot and when my children were falling sick or when they had examinations, my husband would step in enthusiastically.” Hariharan Srinivasan, Akhila’s husband, is pragmatic when he says: “Affording economic independence to your wife is the first step to insuring your family. And just as I nurture the future of my son and daughter, it is no different for my wife.”
That may be the case for most women who manage the arduous climb up the slippery corporate ladder. What props them up further is the fall-back on the extended family— parents, in-laws and siblings. Many top women execs say that things might have been different if that ecosystem of support had not existed during the early years when their children were young. Ashu Suyash, Managing Director and Country Head of Fidelity International, believes that in her case success has been 90 per cent courtesy of the efforts of husband, in-laws and parents and only 10 per cent because of her own. “I found it very hard to manage after my girls were born and wanted to leave my career and perhaps pick it up later… In fact, at one point I actually resigned! While I served my notice period, my husband—and my boss— constantly asked me to reconsider. If that had not happened—who knows—I may not be where I am today,” says Suyash.
Bharat Karnad says such backing often occurs in a natural and seamless manner. “There was no great design to it. Much of it was spontaneous,” he says. Scholar and novelist Simone de Beauvoir once succinctly illustrated the torment of women as “bound hand and foot by love and motherhood, without having forgotten their former dreams.” That may be true of many women corporate executives, but it certainly is not true of BT’s power women. Most of them play the multiple roles of wives, mothers and daughters along with those of CEO, with equal elan. It's doubtless a tough balancing act and calls for sustained effort and patience—and, a few times—tenacity (along with a generous dose of empathy from the other side). Naina missed her husband’s birthday three times in a row. “It just so happens that I am not present. Obviously it is disappointing but I am understood and understood without any recriminations or a quid pro quo,” she says.
The couples guard their privacy zealously. Many of the women and their spouses that BT contacted for the story chose not to talk of their personal lives. That in itself is evidence of the continuing hard work that goes into keeping the fine balance. And most do well not to compromise on family time. The Karnads, for instance, decided early on that they would do their social rounds independent of each other to maintain sanity in family life. “If I was invited I would go, if he was invited he would go,” says Renu.
Kiran and John Shaw regularly take out the time to indulge in their common interests. Barcelona is their favourite holiday destination. Once back though, it’s back to the grind, and dealing with seeing your spouse’s name mentioned or picture splashed every other day in the often-overwhelming media. It’s not easy, but not impossible. As Bharat Karnad says: “You have to have an open mind about your female partner’s desire to pursue her dreams. Enjoy her glory and success.”