Are wives more resilient than their husbands in business leadership?

(Left to right) Malavika Hegde, Jyotsna Suri, Anu Aga
Earlier this month, Cafe Coffee Day founder late V G Siddhartha’s wife, 51-year-old Malavika Hegde, took charge as the chief executive of the troubled company, shifting from her role as a non-executive director.

Spouses of corporate founders who have passed away prematurely or suddenly have moved into the corner office in the past too — both in India and overseas. Some of the well-known ones in India include Jyotsna Suri at Bharat Hotels, Anu Aga at Thermax, and Harjeet Kaur at Le Meridien. Internationally, one of the most celebrated cases of a wife succeeding her husband after death is that of Katherine Graham Meyer at the Washington Post. The above are all instances of well-known and relatively large companies. But Professor Kavil Ramachandran, executive director of the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise at the Indian School of Business (ISB) says that such cases are quite frequent in the medium and small family enterprises of India.

In all such cases, the point to note is that the female successors have by and large gone on to change the fortunes or profiles of their company positively. What accounts for this? Are female CEOs in such cases more resilient? Will Malavika Hegde follow that fortunate trend? Business Standard spoke to global and Indian experts to find answers to the above.

There are at least six principal reasons to the above questions:

  • Deep determination; lack of legacy issues in inheritance
  • Survival at stake strategy
  • Children were not old enough to take charge
  • New blended professional team of loyal faithful with young blood
  • Some exposure to business in the past helped
  • Had already won the respect and heart of employees through work in social causes

First is the deep desire and determination to prove themselves from a past when they were overshadowed by their husbands. But professor Ramachandran avers that even though all of them were not perhaps involved with business affairs — especially those in the MSME segment — they did the ‘small things’ at home like organising a birthday party or a wedding very well. Running and managing a home is also a multi-faceted task. This sense of focusing on quality stood them in a good stead, he argues.

Second, when suddenly the security blanket that they had was pulled off with the passing away of their husbands, they were staring into darkness and uncertainty. So, taking up the reigns of the company was almost a survival strategy. Anu Aga, speaking at IESE Business School in Spain some years back, recalled: “I became the CEO by default. There were two (other) reasons that undermined my sense of well-being. A year after I took over, there was a downturn in the Indian economy and from being a very successful company, our performance started deteriorating. Our share price, which had gone over Rs 400 (around 10 dollars) plunged to Rs 37 (less than a dollar). The second reason was that a little over a year after my husband’s death, my 25-year-old son died in a car accident. It was a difficult time, but as I struggled with the turmoil, I realised I had a choice of either feeling helpless and wallowing in self-pity, allowing my sense of inadequacy to grow, or to hold my self together and take charge of my life.”

Says Sapna Popli, Professor of marketing and chairperson of MDPs and certificate programmes at IMT, Ghaziabad: “Sometimes people find strength in times like these. They introspect and reflect, resolve to be better, more compassionate, sensitive and resilient. These qualities surely go a long way for leaders and also enable building and re-building an organisation. These may be post-crisis phenomena, and the resolve of the leaders to prove to themselves, their families and to the world that they can. But I am not so sure if it is a gender-specific response.”

Anu Aga, for her part, went for a 10-day Vipassana course soon after assuming charge. That helped her find her inner strengths and centredness. She interacted with other CEOs through the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) network and benefited from these interactions, divested non-core businesses, let go of some employees, reconstituted the board, introduced a rigorous performance culture partly through variable pay compensation, sought help when needed, and finally turned the company around.

Third, very often like in the cases of Anu Aga and Jyotsna Suri, while they sought new teams and young blood, a few loyal old employees supported the new boss to make the change with continuity as smooth as possible. They professionalised their companies much more than in the past and were willing to let go of the past. In short, there was continuity with a change.

Fourth, in the cases of Malavika Hegde, Anu Aga and Jyotsna Suri, they were involved in some areas of the business before they took over as the executive head of their companies.

For example, Jyotsna Suri had some experience as the joint managing director in the company before taking over as the chairperson following the demise of her husband. With that background, on coming to the helm, she rebranded the hotels ‘The Lalit’, established hotels overseas, moved into the luxury end of the hospitality segment, brought in diversity into the workforce and inducted sustainable design practices. All this brought about key transformations to the group under Jyotsna Suri.

Finally, many of them had a credible and respected past. Anu Aga, for example, had built a powerful reputation as a flagbearer of social causes.

But Professor Nirmalya Kumar, the Lee Kong Chian professor of marketing at Singapore Management University and Distinguished Fellow at INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute sums up: “This is classic case of selection and availability bias. The selection bias is that those self-selecting themselves to do this are probably having high levels of motivation and ability compared to the base. Just because there are few cases that succeed, and because it is so unusual, they become prominent in our consciousness and we think it is a trend rather than the exception. Most spouses, male or female, unless they are trained and have relevant business experience, will fail. The best advice is to surround yourself with the best professionals, agree on clear objectives, and then let them do the job.”

Therefore, while the jury is still out on whether the inheritor wives have irrevocably changed the financial fortunes of their companies in a dramatic way, what is undeniable is that they have rewritten the future and course of their firms after their inheritance.

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