Sugandha Singhal, Vice President – Head Treasury at SRF Limited, shares her advice on building a career in finance, and discusses the importance of being open and flexible.
SRF Limited is an India-based multi-business chemicals conglomerate engaged in the manufacturing of industrial and specialty intermediate, packaging films, and technical textiles. With a workforce of close to 7,000 employees, SRF has plants in India, Thailand, South Africa and Hungary and exports to more than 75 countries worldwide.
Since joining SRF Limited in 2005, Sugandha has gained a wide experience across strategic planning and treasury. Progressing to her current position in September 2020, she is responsible for the complete treasury function of the group.
Sugandha was the Highly Commended Winner in the Best Working Capital Management Solution category in the Adam Smith Awards Asia 2021. She holds an MBA Finance from the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
I started my career in sales at Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance, which helped me hone my skills in sales and negotiations. Later I had a brief stint in teaching before moving back to corporate life. I joined SRF Limited in 2005 as executive assistant to the CEO, and after a couple of years I gained responsibility for strategic planning and anti-dumping litigations. I then moved to the treasury department, where I am now the group treasurer.
As a group treasurer, I’m responsible for enhancing stakeholder value through competitive funding, working capital innovation, trade finance optimisation, financial risk management, strategic investment, and cost reduction through technological advancements.
Fortunately, our company continued to do very well during the last two years despite the COVID pandemic raging throughout the world. However, it was a stressful and emotional journey on the people front, as the second wave saw the loss of many lives, and the new online world made it difficult to reach out and extend support to those who needed it.
The last two years gave us the opportunity to learn to deal with change. Today, change is the only constant in our lives, and we have now become more nimble and ready to embrace change. As we have taken steps to manage significant disruption, and set up mechanisms to counter various disruptions in trade, forex, liquidity, interest rates etc, we have learned to innovate and take on new and higher-level challenges.
The conversation around inclusion and diversity has certainly evolved over the last few years. Today people are not only aware of it, but are also expressing views on diversity and inclusion. But the real question is – are these conversations translating to results? What is the actual impact?
I believe there is still a wide gap, but organisations are taking a positive step in this direction. My own organisation has embedded the diversity, equity and inclusion factors into its value system, as well as in its ESG framework. We need more and more organisations to move from treating this as a “check the box” initiative to having this embedded in the organisational culture.
First and foremost, don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and find a mentor for inspiration and advice. The second most important thing is networking and being seen a solution provider in the relevant circles. For this one, continuous upgradation of skill and knowledge is of paramount importance. Lastly, revisit your strategies and change course with agility. Don’t strive for perfection in one go – instead plan in detail for various scenarios backed by fallback plans for a higher success rate.
My father always encouraged me to challenge the normal using the phrase ‘Nulli Secundus’ – you are second to none. This motto reminds me to stay strong in testing times. It helps me challenge my own boundaries and rekindle hope and courage.
My own organisation has embedded the diversity, equity and inclusion factors into its value system, as well as in its ESG framework.
For Sugandha, flexibility and adapting to change are key to a successful career. Like many other treasury professionals, she did not set out with the goal of working in treasury. “I started my career in sales with Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance Company,” she says. “But I didn’t enjoy the sales part of the job. I decided to look for something more intellectually satisfying.”
After a period teaching statistics and financial management, Sugandha moved to the role of executive assistant to the CEO at SRF Limited, where she gained experience of strategic planning and anti-dumping litigation. She joined their treasury department in July 2012 and became Head of Treasury in 2020.
Sugandha’s advice for those looking to advance their careers is to be open and flexible – in other words, to model various scenarios rather than having a single plan based on a linear progression. “I believe the most powerful force today in finance is change,” she reflects. “Every day something new comes along. Who would have thought just a few years back that ESG would become such an important aspect of financing today?”
As such, she emphasises the importance of having a backup plan. “Do not be too tightly wedded to your initial ideas,” she cautions. “When new situations come along, new choices open around them. You need to be open to those choices. Because technology is continuously disruptive, any fixed strategy will become redundant at some point.”
For Sugandha, choosing to have a career in a field like finance is just the beginning of the story. “What exactly in finance is it that you want to do?” she asks. “Do you enjoy accounting? Or data analytics? Or trade product development? Because if you are doing something that you like, then you will do well.” Her advice for those who find themselves in positions where they are not happy is likewise clear: “If you don’t like something and you feel stuck, you should find out what it is that you do like and move to that.”
Sugandha’s advice for junior professionals who wish to challenge bias and promote diversity is to be aware of the bias in their behaviour. “Whether we realise it or not, our unconscious biases influence our lives in every aspect,” she adds. “If one is aware of these biases and how they are affecting our colleagues, one can start to address them.”
She believes it is very important for organisations to have a system in place where employees can anonymously report instances of bias. “People can recognise bias – but at times they are either afraid to confront it, or they are unsure of how to do so. Companies need to have a machinery that not only trains people on how to handle such situations but also empower them to call it out immediately,” she says. “And that system has to be anonymous.”
Sugandha is firmly of the belief that everything in our lives reflects our thoughts, beliefs and emotions, and that the world reflects the vibes that you put out. As such, for women on the path to making their voices heard within their organisation, there is a vital first step. “Before we even think about our voices being heard, we should value ourselves and believe in ourselves,” she says. “Women are harsh on themselves. They have high expectations of themselves and tend to believe that when things go wrong, it must be their fault. The first thing that needs to be changed is your mindset. Once you have the positive energy in you, you will see the changes around you.”
She cites the example of a female colleague who was unable to speak when someone else raised their voice. Once she identified the root cause, the solution was simple: “When faced with a similar situation again, she asked her colleague to keep their voice low,” explains Sugandha. “This helped her to keep calm and speak her mind.”
She concludes: “There are no standard solutions, but if you know the reason why you were unable to speak, you will find a solution. Identify what needs to be corrected – does the problem lie with the organisation or with you? Being able to recognise the root cause is very important, because only then can you introspect and resolve. Every situation is unique, every woman is unique and so is the solution.”