In Conversation with Kavita Rao

What does it really feel to be in a situation that felt as surreal as stepping into the fantasy world? No one could answer this better than Kavita Rao, President & CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies India, for “surreal” it was for her, as she was named as President and CEO at H+K Strategies – a life-changing moment, indeed, that threw open opportunities galore.

Backed by over two decades of experience in strategic Public Relations and communication, Kavita’s core expertise lies in corporate communication, brand and reputation management, crisis and issues management, with extensive experience in building creative, data-driven external and internal communication outreach programmes with measurable impact.

Prior to H+K Strategies, Kavita was the Chief Talent Engagement Officer and a member of the India Management Team of Genesis Burson-Marsteller (now Genesis BCW) and PPR South Asia where she led the Talent Management, Learning & Development and Technology Functions for both organisations. She was responsible for developing and driving the People & Culture strategy for the firms to enable them to be one of the most preferred PR Firms in the country. Prior to H+K Strategies, Kavita spent almost a decade with HSBC Bank Plc. and was the Global Head of Communications, HSBC Technologies and Services (HTS).

Today, she shares her views on women leadership, what is lacking in today’s talent, her plans for H+K Strategies, technology impacting storytelling, some advice for newcomers and more …

RT: Hill+Knowlton Strategies India named you as President and CEO. What was running in your mind while taking up this challenge?

That it was surreal, that it was a great honour & opportunity and a life-changing moment. Surreal because I had just landed in Goa for a holiday and I was in a cab and I got a call from our Global Chairman Jack Martin offering me the role of President & CEO of H+K Strategies, India.

RT: Why do we see fewer women in leadership positions at the top 20 PR firms in India?

I think it’s the same reason why you don’t see too many women in leadership roles across Industries. Women compete for the top job while balancing lives (as daughters, wives, mothers) and much more than their male counter parts, often slowing down or taking a back seat in their careers to balance their priorities. Also, if you look across the globe, there are more men in leadership positions at the top PR firms than there are women, so India reflects the same disparity. There is a disparity in mid/senior levels with women getting fewer opportunities for leadership development. Another key factor is that India still has a long way to go before we begin accepting strong leadership skills in women and there is a lack of confidence among women preventing them from asking for promotions and climbing the career ladder. Clearly organisations and consultancies need to be investing in leadership development for women and mentoring to help them realise their potential and creating an environment that helps them grow. The interesting thing is that there are a lot more women in Corporate Communication top jobs as compared to women in leadership roles in PR firms.

RT: How was the transition from having headed Corporate Communications and led Talent Management to now leading a firm as its Chief Executive.

Not easy! The words adapt and change have become a default in my career as I have deliberately chosen roles that throw me out of my comfort zone and make me learn new skills. I had to upskill to learn Talent & Culture management and by the time I left in early 2018, I played a key role in making Genesis BCW one of the most sought-after places to work for. While having the experience of different elements of what it takes to run an organisation, the most difficult transition has been of the role of Chief Executive especially because H+K Strategies is an organisation going through significant transition and transformation. It’s a great opportunity as a professional as it challenges you like never before and makes you question what we know and what we need to do differently to be able to succeed. There truly is no role like the CEO!

RT: During your tenure at HSBC Technology & Services, as global head of communications, what was the defining campaign you executed?

A best practice, culture, integration, and meritocracy campaign called Platinum League that integrated all lines of business and connected 100,000 employees across all 87 countries. This campaign was aimed at addressing a real business challenge as HSBC was going through transformation across all business and geographies. I led the team that designed and delivered this programme and the proof of success is that it got the buy in, attention and support of the entire Senior Management team at HSBC.

RT: Since you have been both, a client and a consultancy leader, what is your advice to young clients who have no consultancy experience?

That its all about Partnership and how we work together respectfully to achieve great measurable results that has a $ impact for the client. That great campaigns are built when partners are involved early in the planning stage and ideas are discussed and implemented. Most importantly everyone should be willing to listen, debate the outcomes and learn from people with more experience

RT: What is today’s talent lacking and how can the gap be filled to make things better?

  1. Curiosity, resourcefulness, drive, pride in the work they do and problem-solving abilities with the patience to achieve their dreams. They are too quick to give up and loose interest.
  2. With better training, a culture of meritocracy and job rotation that keeps the interest going and enables people to do different roles in a shorter period and a robust Reward & Recognition mechanism.

RT: What is your outlook for H+K Strategies in India?

We want to be one of the most preferred PR firms in India and our agenda is one of Growth & Transformation. H+K Strategies India has gone through significant challenges in the past few years and we are working towards building a strong team, doing great work and creating a strong culture of belongingness and winning.

RT: How is technology impacting brand storytelling today?

Today everything is visual, and no one has the time to read. Technology is enabling audience participation & instant feedback helping brands shape their narrative for their audiences. Brands must be able to weave in facts & emotions in visual snackable formats and technology is making that happen.

RT: What is your advice for young PR professionals who are stepping into a career in the PR universe?

Make visual content (ideating, creating & executing) your forte. Understand data and analytics because insights create compelling narratives and campaigns. Constantly upskill. Be curious – ask questions and aspire to create your own brand. Be prepared that PR is a hard-stressful job where you will spend hours and days on mundane tasks. That it’s the only job in the world where you have the unique opportunity of working with a team to shape the narrative of many brands – brands that as the years go by, you will proudly remember.

RT: How do you spend leisure time to ensure work-life balance?

My family is based in Hyderabad & Bangalore and I am based in Gurgaon. We are a very close family, so any opportunity I get, I make a trip back home to spend time with them and my friends. Distance should not be the reason to create distance between loved ones, but it takes an extra effort. When I am not with them, I work out, I garden, I travel for photography and spend time with friends.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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