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The Brand Builder

Sep/02/2023 / by Abhijit Masih
Soundari Mukherjea

Meet Soundari Mukherjea, a trailblazer in the realm of personal branding and business success. As the visionary CEO of Soundbytes11, she not only navigates the currents of the contemporary business landscape but also empowers leaders and teams to achieve remarkable outcomes through the art of story-powered conversations. With a wealth of experience including prominent roles at Lipton and ANZ Grindlays Bank, Soundari brings a unique blend of wisdom and dynamism to her guidance. Her insights extend beyond the surface, delving into the essential qualities required to truly distinguish oneself from the crowd. Fuelled by a passion for embracing challenges and change, Mukherjea’s journey from corporate success to entrepreneurial achievement is a testament to her unwavering dedication to excellence.

The CEO of Soundbytes11 spoke to SEEMA from her office in Hong Kong about the importance of storytelling to build a personal and professional brand.

What inspired you to leave a successful career in banking and consumer package goods and take the entrepreneurial route?

Sometimes, opportunities come from the most unexpected of places. Life has been like a river – gushing and flowing some time, sometimes being within the guardrails, especially when I had my children and I was trying to navigate that balance. Sometimes it went underground like when I took a break from work, but always finding a way to stay in motion. That’s what my career has been. The ability to shape it, to do some of the things that I wanted to do and not just staying put. I remember Leena Nair (CEO of Chanel), who is a friend, mentioning what one of her mentors told her – ‘Don’t live your life by a clock, but live by a compass.’

Tell us about your company – Soundbytes11 and the services that it offers?

Moving into entrepreneurship I just thought about what do people want? It was not an Aha or a penny drop moment. It was something that happened over a period of time. When I was working with leaders in my consultancy practice, I realized that the most effective leaders shared examples to make a point. When I’m working with clients, I’m also hearing that ‘Oh, our leaders are not great in communicating change. They’re not impactful. Our sales teams are sounding like brochures or doing a lot of bullet point presentations.’ So as a business leader, I look at working on your storytelling skills in a business context. To look at these problem statements and purposefully and deliberately applying story techniques to drive outcomes. That’s the primary work that I do. I also teach at a few universities in the same line so that the future leaders are adept with these skills. And my third vertical is on mentoring, on coaching, finding ways to really help, and pay it forward.

What’s your approach when you work with organizations and how does it help to drive business outcomes?

Part of the power of stories is that it’s just trying to pursue people. It’s actually an invitation to understand another perspective. It’s an influencing skill more than anything else. When you share those examples, it inspires people to move into action. I’m thinking about Sara Blakely the founder of Spanx. In earlier days she was a door-to-door salesperson and she could have taken her rejection like many other sales people. But she decided to lighten up her sales approach with a well-placed joke or a humorous content. One day she was targeting Nieman Marcus and the buyer was just not even opening the door to her. So she just decided to put a high heel inside a shoe box, and she wrote a handwritten note, saying, ‘just trying to get my foot in the door. Can I have a few minutes of your time?’ The buyer conceded, and gave her 10 minutes that started the upward sales trajectory for Spanx. Today, when I work with a lot of sales leaders, this is something that I always tell them – take your content and yourself seriously, but not the rejection. Examples like that is also a great way to motivate people into action and get them to think about ways of approaching their brand.

What can be done to engage women in the workplace and retain them?

I was listening to Arundhati Bhattacharya (CEO of Salesforce India) and she said that one of the things that women are faced with is the 3M challenge – marriage maternity and mobility. She said that the only way to deal with that is to look at one P – partnership, both at home and at work. A lot of the conversation is about what we do at work. While we came up with a lot of things that organizations could be doing, what could women be doing feels like a call to action. A lot of the conversation actually starts from what can happen at home. How is that support really coming up in a way that you’re able to then bring that in into the workplace? Having that conversation with your partner really makes a difference and gives you the courage to go out and have the conversation at the workplace as well.

How can one be a good mentor and a sponsor?

We all have to find ways to do that. I remember reading about this incident where an Indian woman who had spent very little time in the US. She was trying to find a voice in meetings. Her boss realized that she stays quiet; she’s not going to get noticed but has a lot of potential. So he sent her off to the ground. To go there, find out, learn from ground up. So that she can come in with that confidence of knowing the content, knowing what she needs to say instead of just leaving her at a head office. So you’re only helping them. We are creating those visual moments to make that change in organizations going with that confidence. It’s a two-way street. The mentors need to take that first step and women need to dig deep into that confidence.

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What are the 3 qualities young South Asian women should possess?

It’s very important to build your domain skills right when you start your career. I would give a lot of points to putting in the time early in your career, because life’s ebbs and flows are gonna affect as they go along. Build all the relationship credits at that point of time. Be great at building your brand. Networking, sometimes especially for South Asian women, is seen as artificial and not authentic. You just have to get over yourself and have that reframe in your mind and go ahead and do that. Also having a pool of advisors and mentors who can show a mirror to you is really useful.

‘What do you do,’ is a perennial question that we have to respond to. What is the best way to answer this question?

This is one of those questions which you dread when you go for weddings and functions. But by the time you’re through with it, answering multiple aunties and uncles about what you do, you’ve got your mission totally sharpened out. It’s my big hairy audacious goal to help leaders be more human at work. How do you look at a purpose-driven, jargon-free communication when you’re building a brand when you’re talking about your organization? So that’s just what I do. Tata Sons past chairman, R. Gopalakrishnan called it, W-A-S-T-E-ing his time. Which is Writing, Advising, Speaking, Teaching and Exercising. The C-A-T-C-H phrase for me is Consulting, Advising, Teaching, Coaching and Helping.

How do you think AI is going to affect the workplace?

It’s sort of an ‘in the moment’ question for me as well. A lot of the conversation currently is focused narrowly on generative artificial intelligence. The current buzz is more towards ChatGPT and Google Bard. What it really does is, and if you allow yourself to experiment, it gives you the scale. Today with AI, you can do experiments at scale really fast. AI can generate that for you. Check it out, and then you can go and bring on the human in the framework. I see it as a great way, not in the narrow definition of what AI will do, but looking at it in a broader way. So I’m very, very hopeful for the future.

How do you build a personal brand?

It’s all about the communication and being part of the conversation. I think that links up to branding. You don’t need to be an expert in tech or an expert in pharma or an expert in AI to start these conversations. You can build your brand as if you’re a communicator. You can build your brand by getting involved with the conversation, asking those questions, getting leaders to think about it. That’s a great brand building process. Looking at ways in which you can go and do that for yourself within organizations. Look for other people in the firm that you can be talking to. Who can you reach out for a coffee? Who can you reach out for an advice? Maybe you’re working with one department now, and you can work with some of the department later. How are you gonna find that out? And this is your golden moment to really use these opportunities. It’s giving, sharing, helping, putting your own content out, but at the same time sharing in various portals and forums.

PQ Suggestions:

“Take your content and yourself seriously, but not the rejection.”

“Networking, sometimes especially for South Asian women, is seen as artificial and not authentic.”

“The C-A-T-C-H phrase for me is Consulting, Advising, Teaching, Coaching and Helping.”

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