Melissa Arulappan, Head, Corporate Communications, IQVIA India speaks to Sameera Fernandes about her journey in the field of Public Relations & Communication, the leadership challenges faced and the importance of changing the business narrative in today’s times.
You have been in the field of communications for decades now. How has it evolved through the years?
My journey in communications has been an amazing ride and nothing short of serendipitous moments. As a post graduate in Medical & Psychiatric Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, I worked in a Ford Foundation funded organisation for six months before I was head hunted by Glaxo India’s PR Department as Executive, Social Work and Public Affairs. It was then and, even by today’s standards, one of the best run and managed corporate communication departments in the country and I was fortunate to receive my formative training in PR by Jane Swamy, one of the best PR practitioners of all time. I was sponsored by Glaxo to an Advanced Diploma Course in PR at the Xavier Institute of Communications. Three years later, I moved to Bangalore, kept both PR and Social Work opportunities open, and landed a job with Corporate Voice | Weber Shandwick (CV|WS, now Weber Shandwick).
PR Consulting was in its very nascent stages and there were only three consultancies in India at the time. I joined CV|WS when there was only one employee who was on her way out and I had to literally build the consultancy from scratch. With very little to go by except intuition and gut and Mrs Swamy’s training, I had the most wonderful ride, building a fabulous portfolio of clients, a fun-loving, work-hard team and helping grow the agency into one of the most reputed in the country. As VP South and a national role as Director of Training and Development, I quit CV|WS after 19 long years when I felt the urge to rejoin the corporate sector. With a 19-year gap since being in the corporate sector, I gave myself two years to work my way back, doing strategic consulting like an in-house communications resource but in the role of a consultant. It was also a time when I did all the fun stuff I hadn’t been able to do for 19 long years – travel, help kick start my nine year old’s animal charity baking venture, joined an NGO in the arts and crafts sector as an advisor and more.
Two years later, with two offers in hand, I joined IQVIA (then Quintiles) as head of communications for India. It was a very exciting time – setting up the function from scratch at a very volatile period in the external industry, going through a merger and now the pandemic but it has been immensely satisfying. If I look back at my roles, every one of them was a straight dive into the deep end of an industry or profession I knew nothing about and that has brought its own rewards, while adding the excitement and adrenaline I needed to create afresh and propel myself forward.
What is the greatest communication challenge for leaders?
The digital workplace has given us a lot to think about. I think the greatest communication challenges for leaders today is building visibility and authenticity in a largely invisible world, and preserving the integrity of an organisation’s culture. With employees working from home, as many currently are, or working a hybrid model as many are veering towards, the leader is no longer the omnipresent, visible face in office corridors. One therefore has to find new and creative ways of building leadership presence and impact with a virtual workforce. And second, how do you preserve the integrity of an organisation’s culture in a world where icons and symbols of culture – whether office décor, posters, people, etc – no longer co-exist? How do you ensure disbursed groups sing the same song?
What one aspect / decision in your professional career makes you most proud?
With over three decades behind me, what fills me with immense pride is the success and achievements of those who have been a part of my team at work, or students I have taught PR to. So many wet their toes in PR with me and as I look back on what they have gone on to achieve, I feel immense happiness and joy. It makes whatever I have done truly worth it!
How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
I read, listen, watch, network, learn, teach. I do a lot to keep myself going, to learn new skills, to engage with people I can learn from. I also teach PR and I learn and grow so much in the process.
What is the one actionable leadership advice you wish to share?
A happy workforce is key to reaching your targets. Make your people happy and you will never have to worry about winning clients or meeting your goals. This sustained me through 19 years in my PR Consultancy.
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