My Career Path: Interview with Chitra Nayak, Board Member

This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Chitra Nayak, Member of the Board at Infosys (INFY), LifeWorks (TSE: LWRK), Invitae (NVTA), ForwardAir (FWRD) and Intercom, about her career path and the decisions that contributed to her success. Here at Stage 4 Solutions, we are committed to supporting professionals’ career growth, and we believe that one way to enable success is learning from leaders.

Chitra Nayak has over 25 years of experience in go-to-market, general management, and operations leadership roles at various organizations. Prior to her Board roles, she was the Chief Operating Officer at Comfy, a real-estate tech startup, and prior to that, she was COO at Funding Circle, an online SMB lending marketplace. Chitra has been in leadership roles at Salesforce for eight years as COO, Platform, and Senior Vice President, Global Sales Development. Earlier, she worked at AAA, Charles Schwab, and the Boston Consulting Group.

After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and Cornell University, what were your career goals?

Chitra Nayak: Everyone I have ever spoken to who is late in their careers always talks about how their career goals have changed, and mine have too. When I was at IIT, I actually became very engaged in environmental engineering and spent my last year working on my thesis in environmental engineering. And then, I pursued my Master’s degree in environmental engineering at Cornell University. After graduating, I basically decided I wanted to go and make the world a better place and joined an environmental engineering consulting firm. My goal was really as simple as that at that point: what could I do to make things different, better.

After graduating from Harvard with your MBA, how did you decide to join Boston Consulting Group?

Chitra Nayak: After 4 years in environmental consulting, I realized that very little was actually getting done and the focus and money spent were more on lawyers vs. building things to affect environmental change. Now, I am very gratified to see that environmental issues are coming back in a much more positive way.

I went to business school because partly I got disillusioned with my experience in environmental consulting, and partly I realized engineering was not necessarily the right thing for me because it was very very deep. I realized that I liked to be a part of the broader business decisions where people, business and financial elements were all important. I was fortunate enough to get in to Harvard, and liked that it focused on broad/strategic learning. When I left Harvard, I actually had no clue what I wanted to do! I considered marketing, but then I realized that for me, unless you are in the top job where you are setting up the strategy, marketing wasn’t that exciting. Although I couldn’t figure out what I was really interested in, I decided to go into management consulting, thinking it was a good way to broaden exposure to many new learning opportunities.

I really liked the consulting world and Boston Consulting Group because you get to help different companies with their problems, and then you get to move on and learn new things with the next company and help them.

As you progressed through your career, how did you assess new opportunities?

Chitra Nayak: Throughout my career, I have always been in quest of learning and looked for opportunities where I could continuously learn. As I progressed in my career, it became evident to me that the mission of the company and people in the company – would you like to work with them and can you learn from them – both have become equally important.

Along with mission, people and learning opportunities, it is about what the role is and how broad the role is. I always tell people to look for 2 things in any company: first one is growth, and the second one is that you can see evidence of people moving between roles and growing professionally and that the company is open and encouraging of this movement.

You were switching not only between functional areas but also industries. How did you make those decisions to move between industries?

Chitra Nayak: I am a firm nonbeliever in 5 year or 10 year plans. I personally believe in what I call the “career meander” –  you are able to look for new opportunities and interesting things to do that attract you and that you can learn from irrespective of the industry. You can actually shapeshift and take your experiences to new industries. The openness to any new opportunity has been pretty much what has contributed to where I am today.

What has surprised you the most in your career?

Chitra Nayak: I’ve done the Myers Briggs (MBTI) framework four times at different points in my career, and I was always the same for three out of four dimensions, but one dimension, which was about thinking vs. feeling, has interestingly switched through my career. During my time at Salesforce, when I started to run teams of young wanna-be sales people and relatively young managers learning to manage people for the first time, my personality profile switched to more caring/feeling about my team. Prior to that, I mostly hired former data or consulting professionals, and my focus was more on developing strategy and driving execution, but this role was more an operational role about how you generate pipeline for the company with these early-career sales people. It was fascinating to me that my personality profile switched and I realized that at the end of the day, you need to change for the needs of your job, and that change comes naturally.

When I think about the question – when you are gone, how would you like to be remembered?, my answer is more around the positive impact I have been able to make on the careers of so many who worked with me. I had always thought of myself as strongly analytical, and my impact would be on the numbers, but interestingly, I would say increasingly it has been on what I have been able to do for people in their careers over time.

Can you tell us about an important career risk you took?

Chitra Nayak: Going to Salesforce was the biggest risk I took. At the time, I had the opportunity to go to Wells Fargo, be an SVP, and start a more comfortable and more familiar job. And then, I had this offer from Salesforce – a company with only 1,000 employees and $300M revenue at that time. Just the idea of going to Salesforce, even things as simple as working in an open office – which now I would be stifled by if I didn’t have an open office – made me feel very uncomfortable. I thought, how could I even work with all the noise and people around me? It was a very high-growth company, and it felt like a risk for me, considering my background and previous experiences. However, I was very fortunate to have taken this risk! I had 8 fabulous years and had the chance to be a part of Salesforce’s growth – from $300M in revenue to $5B and 1,000 employees to over 20,000 employees.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

Chitra Nayak: Managing the imposter syndrome. I realize that especially in my board work now –  everything from genetics, IT services, and transportation to HR services or SaaS companies – if I am in an “always be learning” mode, the imposter syndrome will always be my companion. I have this feeling of “do I know enough to actually contribute value”, and so I ask for feedback from fellow board members to see how else I can add value. A challenge has always been if you are always going to be changing what you focus on, you are never going to be that deep expert. However, interestingly, this very aspect of my career has helped me be nominated for and accepted on boards – having the backdrop of multiple industries that can help you shapeshift and think about what might be applicable to the particular industry or organization.

How do you balance your professional and personal goals?

Chitra Nayak: I have to admit I don’t do that very well. Although I enjoyed a lot of the learnings at my jobs, having a more conscious ability to actually integrate work and life, especially in my early career, would have been good. Maybe I would not have gotten to where I am now, or perhaps I would have. I don’t know!

What advice would you give to your younger professionals?

Chitra Nayak: My advice would be to keep in mind that there is a “rest of your life” beyond your job, and if you are very driven,  the odds are that this part of your life will be short-changed and not your job. It is very important to intentionally address personal life – your family, spouse, kids and your own time. The good thing now is that there is more awareness in the workplace. In many ways, the workplace has become and is even becoming more accommodating for work-life integration, with people realizing the importance of this and demanding more.

Can you tell us more about your experience as a woman corporate board member?

Chitra Nayak: When I was still at my last startup, and I knew that we were selling it within 6 months, I decided to experiment with a “portfolio approach to life”, which is: you don’t work one full-time job, but a set of experiences that together let you add more value and have more interesting experiences. That was my mindset when Spencer Stuart came to me with my first board opportunity. And the first thing I asked was, “are there other women on the board?” because I did not want to be the one who was on there because I was “a woman”; I wanted to be on a board because of what I could bring in. I am very pleased to say that there are many strong women on the boards I am on.

Nowadays, there is a lot of conversations around how the Zoom environment has been difficult for women board members due to not being in the room but for me, it has been a nice leveler. Because I found in the board room, just because of the attributes of being a woman – sometimes men have louder voices – therefore – by unconscious accident, they may talk over women, but on a video conference, this is actually a level playing field. It actually has been an interesting dimension!

What advice do you have for women leaders pursuing board membership?

Chitra Nayak: Patience, Persistence and Networking.

Patience is very, very critical. Even finding a new job, especially as you get more senior, is all about chance and about “right place, right time” and takes a lot of time. And finding your first few board memberships takes even more. The average process takes about 18 months after you begin looking for a board member role. It can also vary – my Infosys board took 5 weeks, even during the holidays. It was the most efficient board process I have ever seen!

You have to be persistent and structured about how you approach it. You have to think about where you are most relevant – what industries, what functional areas and why a company would bring you on a board. Also, a lot of people who are strong operators don’t necessarily understand the difference between an operator role and a board role so attending a program that prepares for boards is very helpful.

The third thing is networking – a lot of women sometimes feel like they don’t want to just network. And I always point out that  I only network with people who I like and respect, and I really enjoy it! A lot of people misinterpret networking. It’s never the people you know – it’s the people who know the people you know who will get you opportunities in life and – it is equally important for boards! Often your board opportunities will come from people you know. There are search firms too, but relationships still mean a lot. So remember these three key words: patience, persistence and networking!

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