In the interconnected world that we live in, it is hard to ignore the role of corporate communication in building, protecting and preserving the brand reputation of an organization.
Ananya Mukherjee, our next pathbreaker, leads Global Communications in Asia & Europe for Cargill Protein, with an eye on the business’ approach towards people, planet and profits.
Ananya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about loving the challenge of delivering compelling content for diverse audiences from different verticals including Public Relations, Brand, Digital and Internal Communications.
For students, communication weaves together every aspect of the organization into a single entity by conveying the right stories to the right audience at the right time using the right channel.
Ananya, Your background?
I was born in Jammu in August, 1975. For the first four years of my life, I lived in the Kashmir valley, the most beautiful natural landscape tucked in the mountains in the north of India. My Dad was a civil engineer, a senior government official. He was managing a Hydro-electric project in J&K during that time. My mother was a homemaker and my sister, older to me by four years, was my role model. A Nepalese male nanny called Dhan Bahadur Gurkha or Gunja as I used to call him, brought me up.
From there, we moved to a quaint township on the banks of river Wainganga in Maharashtra where I started going to a make-shift school for the first time in my life. There were no schools within 30 kms of that town. From there to a sleepy place called Bhadrakh in Orissa to Bokaro Steel City, Durgapur, Kolkata, Bilaspur, Bhilai, Nagpur, Jamshedpur, Kamptee, Bhopal, Patiala, Hyderabad, Vizag…my home address has changed several times exposing me to people, places, languages, cuisines and cultures within the Indian peninsula. I graduated from the 11th institution in which I studied, and made friends with people from diverse backgrounds even while in India, until I migrated with my husband and daughter, all lock, stock and barrel to Singapore for good almost 18 years back.
Apart from being an avid reader as a child, I had always wanted to be a writer and a journalist. I knew my calling since I was in Grade 6 in school. Any other option was out of question. In hindsight, I consider myself one of those fortunate few who had not only been able to identify their passion early in life but made the most of opportunities thrown their way or grabbed them with both hands. Of course, there were challenges and social stigmas. Back in those days in the country of my birth, high potential, high performing students weren’t expected to shun the path of brilliance to IITs and medical schools and end up studying an ambiguous and new subject such as communications. What’s worse.. it meant signing up for a shoestring budget for life! Yet, my focus was clear. I wanted to be a journalist and ultimately an Editor ( which sounded like an accomplishment worth writing home about then).
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
As I always knew my interest was in Humanities, after my high school, I majored in Philosophy and studied Political Science and Sociology as supplementary subjects. I did my Master’s degree in Mass Communications and then specialized in Television Journalism.
What were the key influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Television journalism was just beginning to change the dimensions of traditional news reporting in the early 90s in India and with my interest in reading, writing, public speaking, debating and especially, keenness on content relevant to news and current affairs, it seemed like the most exciting path tailored to my interest.
It was mostly self – motivated as in those times, there weren’t many who had walked on the same path. I knew what I wanted to do and what I was good at. Fortunately, for me, these two were the same things- communication. My maternal aunt is a well – known columnist in the Bengali literary circles and though I was never quite under her direct tutelage, she inspired me a great deal.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I pursued my passion despite the roadblocks, became the Editor of an esteemed international trade title in Singapore just before my 31st birthday in August 2006 and lived my dream. At that time, I was the youngest editor, the first female and the first Asian to grab that role. My dream shattered several glass ceilings.
I hadn’t ever thought I would get too comfortable in my seat. Yet, writing the 18th article on work – life balance and the 5th cover story on the impacts of a maturing workforce on the business landscape made me wonder how long could I rehash my creativity. So after nearly ten years of my super successful career as a business editor, I took a leap! Blindfolded, into the corporate world. Again, five days short of my 36th birthday.
Having spent a substantial time using borrowed wisdom on business, human resources and employee communication in particular, for my business magazine, and partnering with some of the biggest companies of the world, opened my mind to exploring the opportunities of corporate communications. It was a conscious decision though a significant one. I wanted to make use of the insight I had gathered by understanding some of the best corporate comms practices across the world and was super excited to be in a role where I could implement all that learning. I spearheaded internal communications for Olam International, a significant player in the agriculture and commodities industry. My responsibility was to design, develop and manage an internal communication strategy for 70 countries and an employee base of 70,000. I started from scratch and shaped that role and function. It was an amazing journey and I learnt each day. I wasn’t dealing with a bunch of creatives or readers who were of a typical profile type, but a diverse profile of audiences- starting from farmers to production workers in our factories to management leaders from Harvard Business School. The diversity of my audience was mind boggling and I learnt how to communicate with targeted audience. Within a year, I received a prestigious individual corporate award for Excellence in Execution from the CEO, and then a functional award for corporate communications, few years down the line when we strengthened as a team and delivered across all verticals including Public Relations, Brand, Digital and Internal Communications. I spent seven years in Olam in that role and each day was a learning, unlearning and re-learning experience.
This August, I completed 10 years of my career in corporate communications and as I look back at the journey, I have much to be grateful for. The timely opportunities, the right organisations, the right leadership coaching, the right career moves. And most importantly, the right moments of truth when I have stood in front of the mirror and asked myself, “ Is this what I can do best? Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?” Don’t simply rehash your passion; regenerate, reimagine and reinvent a new you!
How did you get your first break?
My first real good break came to me when I landed in Singapore 18 years back as a trailing spouse with a lot of dreams in my eyes but practically, no clue how to achieve them. Those were really difficult times. I had to find a meaningful job to support my family and I was completely lost in this very competitive market. The challenges were manifold. But ultimately, I found the role of a journalist/news editor in a reputed trade magazine within a week of landing here.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The interview was tough and I clearly remember I had to submit an assignment in three days in a foreign country where I knew no one. How was I ever going to write an article, get relevant quotes and submit something substantial when I had just landed on foreign shores? I didn’t know a soul, I had no laptop, I didn’t even have the faintest idea what I was expected to do. So, I bought a few copies of that magazine and read up as much as I could. I jotted down the names of every single person I could find in that magazine and borrowed my husband’s laptop to track them down. Then I contacted the ones that seemed most appropriate and made a submission in 2 days! The managing director of the publishing house was dumbfounded when he read my well researched, well substantiated article. He couldn’t believe that I had only landed in Singapore a week back. He made me an offer right away.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role
I lead Global Communications in Asia & Europe for one of the biggest US based multinational companies of the world. Cargill, as you may know has been in the business of nourishing the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way for the last 155 years. We bring protein to the tables of the world and serve customers and communities in 70 plus countries, employ over 155,000 people across our businesses and are one of the largest privately owned companies of the world.
The role of communication, which is to support the business strategy and ensure that we continue to deliver high quality and safe products to our customers and consumers, is therefore pegged on building, protecting and preserving the brand reputation of our organization as a market leader. Also, to identify the red flags and potential risks that could impact the business and ensure preparedness for risk mitigation.
In my current role as Communications Director, Cargill Protein- Asia & Europe, I am responsible for the entire span of corporate communications, both internal and external, including crisis and issues management and manage the function and talent for the business across the two continents.
When I am not chasing timelines and trying to crack a strategy, I write stories and theatre scripts, spend time in performance arts and love to travel.
Of course, communication skills both verbal and written are needed for a role like mine. But that’s basic. Strategic thinking, creativity, business acumen, emotional intelligence, talent management, people development, leadership, problem solving, power of listening, stakeholder management skills, agility, empathy….all of these add to building the personal leadership brand.
How does your work benefit society?
As I have already outlined the skills required to excel in a corporate communication role, I won’t delve further into that but what’s truly important here is to understand the value you bring is not in a chic newsletter or a sleek website. As a corporate communicator, you are responsible to build and protect your company’s brand positioning, you are responsible to create compelling content and tell the right stories to the right audience at the right time using the right channel. You are responsible to influence and counsel your senior leadership, train and coach them to be brand ambassadors of your company. Just being creative isn’t enough. You need to be a great storyteller but with a good understanding of the business’ approach to people, planet and profits.
I think my story is an example of dreaming big, working hard, partying harder and celebrating yourself. Define your success and work for it, harder than anyone else. You could be hugely talented, but you must still work hard, work smart and strive to be better than your best self. No one can stop you from being at the top if you believe that’s where you belong.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My books, Ardh- Satya and An Unborn Desire. Despite having a 12–15-hour workday almost 5 days a week, managing a home, a family and a million other things, if I have had the time to pursue my passion and still write and publish books, I don’t know why people complain of not finding time to do what they like.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Look yourself in the eye in the mirror every day. Remember your journey- yes, all the way, where you started from to where you are today, and what you have made of yourself. Be humble and grateful to the people who stood by you. Your friends, your teachers, your parents. Remember your blunders and forgive yourself. You are better equipped today because of what went wrong yesterday. Now, pat yourself on the back and say, “Well done”. I don’t need to validate. You will know you are invincible.
To write more books, spend a lot more time with children supporting the community service work that I like to do, travel to at least another 50 countries before my bones start giving up. ☺