Business Today

BT's Most powerful women 2011 event: Sara Mathew inspires audience with her thoughts

Dunn & Bradstreet Chairman and CEO Sara Mathew graced the occasion and gave away awards to the six Hall of Famers and the 25 achievers identified by BT as India's Most Powerful Women in business. Text of her speech.

September 3, 2011 | Updated 12:26 IST

Dunn & Bradstreet Chairman and CEO Sara Mathew graced the Most Powerfful Women in Business Awards night on August 30, 2011 and gave away awards to the six Hall of Famers and the 25 achievers identified by BT as India's Most Powerful Women in business . She inspired the audience with her speech given below.

Thank you Arun and Good evening. It's a privilege to be with you today.  

When Chaitanya asked me to speak at this event, I quickly agreed.  However, as it got closer, I found myself struggling to find the right message for you. After all, what could I possibly tell you, that you don't already know?  My research into the word "power" had mostly negative connotations.  British historian Acton claimed "All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely".

That's when I had an epiphany.  It stems from my belief that power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts.  Fear of losing power. Fear of people in power. Fear in every form, in every manifestation and in every guise, takes us prisoner, paralyzes and corrupts us, completely and absolutely.  

And what is the antidote to fear?  Well, that's my message - "to Dare to lead" regardless of the circumstances.  It's based on reflections after 28 years in Corporate America.  Five lessons in about 20 minutes and then I'll take your questions.

Lesson 1- Dare to dream - Redefine your aspiration and pursue it with passion
Let me provide context. Like you, I was born and educated in India. College in Chennai was a blur of fun, freedom, and, being a woman, in India marking time for marriage.  My aspiration to be a "kept woman".  Marry someone rich, to enable a lifestyle of leisure.  

However, that aspiration was quickly shattered. Marriage brought me to the US, and in a very short time, I realized that if I wanted the basic comforts of life, I had to work.  So my aspiration evolved.  I now wanted a job, any job.

My job search started in Cincinnati, and I quickly realized that to get a good job, you need an American degree.  Which, I didn't have, so that dramatically limited my options.  However, after months of rejection, Procter and Gamble hired me. I was ecstatic - until I got home.  

My husband looked at the weekly pay offer and asked why I had accepted a job as a clerk!  I was so naïve; I didn't understand the implications of starting out as a clerk.  

In a week, I realized I had made a big mistake.  P&G hires from the top business schools across America.  If you start as a clerk you retire as a clerk.  But with no American degree, and no work experience, they were not willing to give me much more.  Deep down, I thought I deserved more. I even dreamed about being a manager, but filled with self-doubt; hanging on to that dream was hard.

You see, there were so many naysayers' who told me that no one moves up the P&G ladder if you start as a clerk.  I was so naïve I refused to believe them.  And, to make a long story short, in about 2-1/2 years,  I was ahead of everyone who started in management.  By this time, I got my MBA at night, and this gave me the American stamp I desperately needed.

As I step back and think of the crazy 18 hour days between a full-time job and full-time school, I never questioned my ability to do both, and do them well.  Most important, I realized the power of a dream.  To dream is to "believe before you can see".

My Mom taught me to dream, by encouraging my various acts of foolishness and believing in me, even when I didn't give her much reason to do so. This was further cemented by my husband of 30 years whose unfailing belief in me is a gift I cherish every day.

So my first piece of advice.  Never, EVER stop dreaming.  In the words of Anatole France, "To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also DREAM, not only plan, but also BELIEVE"

Which brings me to my second lesson - Dare to take risk, even fail 
When you fail, pick yourself up, and move forward - Focus on the solution, not the problem.  Let me share another story with you.  

I had been with P&G for about 10 years, when I became the head of Investor Relations.  Since I have this intense need for change, I decided we should communicate directly to investors through a web cast.  This was a first for P&G, and I got the CEO's buy-in to proceed.  And then, everything went wrong.  

For starters, our results that quarter were lackluster, but by the time I was done talking, I had destroyed about three billion of P&G's market cap in one fell swoop.  As I reflected back, it was clear that my somewhat casual communication style had failed miserably.  It was my idea, my script and definitely my fault.  

As the week progressed the stock dropped further and I found myself struggling to make it in to work.  Failure is tough.  Public failure is devastating.  By weekend, the solution was clear.  We needed to stay with web casts, and get it right the next time.  I now had a plan.  

Unfortunately, P&G's CEO had other ideas; I came to work on Monday to find a neatly handwritten note … A dear Sara note...saying we should never do a web cast again, since the "old" approach worked better.  

I knew this was a mistake, so I went back and pled my case.  Looking back, it was clear my CEO did not want to try this AGAIN, but after listening to my impassioned plea, he agreed to give me a second chance.  The second time was magic.  And today, this is how P&G communicates with investors.

More than fifteen years later, I still feel the bitter taste of failure….  I will never forget.  It was not just that I failed.  I failed very publicly.  I was quoted in the WSJ, CNBC - I even made the papers in India!  Everyone knew I messed up!  But I learned so much from this experience - I learned to pick myself up and try again.  And my biggest learning - Failure teaches you much more than success ever will.  

This became apparent when I decided to leave P&G to join D&B.  I called the CEO to say goodbye.  This was a man who gave me a second chance.  It was this second chance that made me the person I am today.

I thanked him for that. Imagine my surprise when he could not remember the incident.  All he said was that when he thought of Investor Relations, he thought I set the benchmark for excellence!  

So today, I am not afraid to fail.  I realize that people, who fail, just took more risk than you and me.  

In the words of Winston Churchill - "Success is not final, failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts".

Which brings me to my third lesson- Dare to do the right thing
When I look at the long list of fallen heroes in Corporate America, I am reminded everyday about the importance of character.  Another story…

Less than a year after I joined D&B, we had a sales decline.  While chatting with the sales leader, I learned that the decline traced to a method of accounting instituted by my new Finance team.  They were put in place to "get things right" at D&B. The flaw in my thinking was that while I was preventing new errors, I had assumed that everything "older" was correct.  Was it possible that we had accounting errors that had been in place for years?  I had to find out.

So, I conducted a review, and we found errors… enough to know that I was looking at a possible restatement of our books.  

I remember informing my CEO of what I had found.  I remember the alarm in his face…  "like the Enron restatement? " he asked.  I remember saying "yes, like Enron, I don't think there is fraud, but I'll have to check.

"What are we going to do" he asked.  
I remember thinking -  "Heck…  I don't know.  I've never done this before".
Then, instincts kicked in.  I committed to get it done in 6 weeks.
He asked if this was possible.  To which I said anything is possible.  

Looking back, I had no idea how long it would take, or whether I was capable of the task at hand.  I just made a commitment and now I had to deliver.  

I remember experiencing severe discomfort and real fear.  I lacked visibility into the magnitude of the restatement.  I knew that if it was large, we would get a very negative reaction from Wall Street. So I wanted the restatement to be small and inconsequential.

This was hard.   Most of my life I had focused on delivering outcomes - decide what to do, and then make it happen.  Now, I could not plan the outcome.  I had to lead with integrity - regardless of the outcome.  

It was a grueling experience, and one I learned so much from.  The accounting was wrong - and had been for over 10 years.  There was no fraud, and we ultimately restated our books and communicated a sizable adjustment to investors in 6 weeks, without any loss of confidence.  

Looking back, I feel so fortunate.  How many CFO's get a learning experience like that?  Most important, I learned to lead with my VALUES.  It was a great lesson in the importance of integrity.

Which brings me to my fourth lesson - Dare to become a learning leader
Restating D&B's books in 6 weeks put me on the map.  I received accolades and monetary awards.  I was on a proverbial "high". That is, until our employee survey results came in.  My results were close to last!  

My organization was sending me a message about how I got the restatement done.  The long hours and unyielding focus had taken its' toll.  I was now back in the CEO's office, and he was not happy.  I remember the conversation- "You are not leading well Sara".  To which I responded "you need to make a choice - What do you want, great results or happy people?  His response - "Great leaders do both".  Simple words - Profound meaning.  It forced me to take pause and reflect on who I am.  How I get things done, and the impact I can sometimes have in my urgency to deliver.  

You see, I am good strategically, a natural problem solver who gets things done. BUT, I am a terrible listener; I am direct to the point of being blunt.  I am tough, demanding, and I play to win.  If you're on the other side of the table, it can be an intimidating experience.  By re-examining how I got the restatement done, I was forced
to focus on my areas of opportunity, and that focus paid off.  In 2 years my employee scores were world class.  
    This experience taught me a valuable lesson about leadership and greatly improved my understanding of this complex subject.  To me, leadership begins with clarity of purpose.  That purpose galvanizes the leader and and inspires the team.  Beyond purpose, leadership has 3 components - values, competencies and attributes.   I'll touch on each.
    At the foundation of great leadership are values - like Integrity, respect for others, performance excellence and teamwork…
    Then come the critical 5 competencies
    Envision - which is the ability to develop a vision, chart a course and set direction
    Energize - to galvanize the organization behind this vision
    Enable - to move barriers out of the way so the team moves forward
    Execution - which is the ability to convert the vision into a crisp and simple plan, that is easy to execute, monitor and track
    and Edge - that inimitable attitude that ensures you never, EVER give up, even when the chips are down
The final and most critical components of leadership are Attributes.  These are attitudinal and very difficult to sustain.  Attributes include qualities like Courage, Risk-taking, Decisiveness, Mental toughness, Humility and Caring.  
However, to the observer, leadership is all about behavior, as we leverage some combination of values, competencies and attributes to do what we think is right.  So to become a better leader, you have to open yourself up to feedback, even criticism, and commit to do better every day.

Which brings me to my final lesson - Dare to live each day as if it were your last   
If you somehow knew you had just 24 hours to live, how would you spend that time?  Think about it - it will shift your perspective.
Let me set context.  I would not be where I am, were it not for people in my life who made it possible.  So when I was promoted to COO, I reflected on the many people I should thank.  The first person who came to mind was Candace, my first boss at P&G.  Candy helped me acclimate to P&G and Corporate America.  
We stayed close friends for years, until P&G moved me to Singapore, and then we just lost touch.  I felt this urge to reconnect and thank her.  So I called P&G. They had no record of her.  I tried Linked-in and Facebook - still no sign, so I finally resorted to a Google search.  There it was, in black and white - an obituary.  She passed away a year earlier.  
It took me 3 weeks to muster enough courage to call her husband John.  What would I tell him? That I got too busy to care?  I eventually reconnected, and learned that she bravely battled cancer for over eight years and the last year was especially tough.  
Candy was my age, and an amazing person who did so much for me, early in my career.  I just missed the opportunity to say thanks.
So, after 28 years of working in Corporate America, I have come full circle.  Back to my roots, my values and my beliefs.  I would characterize my career in 3 phases.  The first five years of complete naiveté followed by 20 years of blinding ambition, and the last three years of introspection, learning and personal growth.   

I realize I am human and imperfect. And I am comfortable the way I am.  I realize how little I really know and how much I still have to learn.  So, today I can say I have graduated from the "school of management" only to become a student in the college of leadership.  I believe leadership is a journey.  One that never ends.  It is an ongoing commitment, to make every day count.  In the words of Gandhi "To become the change you want to see in the world".   

It's the simple stuff, like saying thank you, or sorry, or forgiving someone who did you wrong.  And never, ever taking life for granted.  So before the night is out, I have a request of everyone here today.  Reach out to one person you really care about, and let them know how you feel. I promise you won't regret it.

Life is short.  Don't take shortcuts on the important stuff. 

I'll close with a few final words (none original) for the women who are being honored today.  

I wish you could know what it's like to run with all you heart, and lose, horribly - I've done that

I hope you make some stupid mistake and get caught red-handed, and are big enough to say those magic words - I was wrong.

I wish you could achieve some great good for someone else, and have nobody know, except you -- There is no greater reward.

I hope you are faced with a challenge so big that it frightens you - Yet, you find that inner strength to push beyond the barriers of your personal limitations - you will grow as a leader.

I wish you could find something so worthwhile that you deem it worthy of investing your life in - that's when your job becomes a calling.

I wish for you a magnificent obsession that will give you reason for living and purpose and direction in your life …. 

I wish for you the extraordinary experience called leadership. 

For to lead, is to learn, to care, to serve, to subordinate your needs and desires for the greater good - the good of your customers, your shareholders and your employees.
So, if you are up to the challenge, I'd like to extend a personal invitation to each of you to join me on my mission to "dare to lead". 

Business Today and I will create a social platform "" that will enable you to share your personal story with a broader audience of women.  That way, a new generation of women leaders can learn from your experiences and be inspired to follow in your footsteps.  

Will you join me in my crusade? - India needs you and you will be better for it.

Congratulations, Good Luck and God Bless.

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