There is no shortcut to success. You do the right things and success will follow.

Sonica Aron is the Founder and Managing Partner of Marching Sheep, an HR advisory firm specializing in Strategic HR advisory, Diversity and inclusion interventions, employee health and wellness and capability building.

An XLRI postgraduate, Sonica has worked with companies like PepsiCo, Vodafone, Roche Diagnostics and ICI paints. She started her career with a sound understanding of the business where she went route-riding with PepsiCo and was part of the team that launched Pepsi 200 ml at Rs 5. She was the first lady HR Manager stationed at a factory in Upcountry UP and there the seeds to her diversity practice were born.

Sonica is passionate about HR, empowering people, and all things in between. A mother of two, she decided to set up Marching Sheep in 2013 with a vision of delivering interventions that move the needle. Marching Sheep works with clients across industries on gender, generational and sexual orientation diversity.

In the past 7 years or so, Marching Sheep has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of Sonica. It boasts of a healthy roster of clients, including Reckitt Benckiser, Abbott, SBI cards, Indigrid, PepsiCo, JCB India, Continental Tyres, Diageo, Takeda, Lupin, Oetiker to name a few. It has been adjudged among the top 25 HR firms in India by Business Connect, among the top 10 in Delhi/NCR by Silicon India, and Sonica has been listening among the top 10 women entrepreneurs in 2020 by Forbes India.

Seen as a thought leader, her opinions on anxiety and burnout, motherhood penalty, unpaid work, generational diversity, the inclusion of the LGBT community have been published by leading publications including Hindu, TOI, HT, Business World, The Statesman, DNA, and the Tribune.

Prior to starting Marching Sheep, Sonica was Head of HR for the consumer lifestyle business at Philips.

Sonica is a passionate advocator of diversity, employee experience, and emotional wellness. Having been a woman professional, Sonica has both experienced and observed gender-based bias closely. Every woman in the workspace experiences this at some time or the other. This prompted her to launch her diversity practice. ‘Organizations need to move ahead of the curve and drive inclusive teams and mindsets, gender-sensitive processes and mentor and coach women’, she believes and advocates. She works on board of ‘Gender at Work India Trust’ actively delivering to the society. Sonica loves her little patch of the garden and is an avid reader.

Thank you, Sonica, for agreeing to do this interview with us. Kindly be as candid as you can.
Let’s Start!!!
How does the pandemic year affect you? What changes, professional and personal, does it bring into your life?

The year has been interesting in many ways. On the personal front, it made me spend more time with the family and made me appreciate the beauty and joy in simple things. Like having a garden full of flowers and having that extra hour in the morning to sit and enjoy that beauty. To be able to adopt a stray cat and make a pet out of her. Recently we got a dog, and she has brought new meaning to our lives.

On the professional front, while it has been a challenging year, it has been a satisfying year. We were able to withstand the negative impact of the lockdown on our business. When the lockdown got announced, all our lined-up interventions and assignments got cancelled. It was clear to us that the virtual way of working was here to stay for some time, and the needs of the clients were evolving with the changing times. So, we adapted to the times. We carried out extensive research and client outreach to understand their needs and revamped our portfolio. At the same time, we built our internal capabilities and processes to be able to deliver all our interventions and consulting virtually. Slowly but surely work picked up and am proud to say that in 2020 I was listed among the top 10 women entrepreneurs by Forbes India, among the top visionary business leaders by The Enterprise World, and among the top 100 digital influencers by Yourstory. Additionally, Marching Sheep has been adjudged the top 25 HR consulting firms in India by Business connect and top 10 HR firms in NCR by Silicon India.

Having said that, I have learned gratitude. Gratitude for the safety of my near and dear ones, gratitude for the fact that we are able to be of service to those in need of help. I am also calmer with the learning that our needs are actually very simple, and we can be happy with very little. This year has actually put a lot of things in different perspectives and priorities.

In your role, do you think work-from-home is a boon or a bane? What challenges, if any, did you face in maintaining a work-life balance? What will be the new definition of “work-life balance”?

In my role, I have found work from home to be a boon. The time spent traveling from one client location to another can be constructively used in productive work or in personal work. The internal processes that we put in place for the team ensured that there was smooth functioning for everyone. Most of my team members were working from home completely or partially even before the pandemic and hence it was not such a huge shift for them.

Having said that, we have all worked extremely hard to make the business work this year. From client acquisition to designing and curating new content, to delivery, everything was taking more time with lesser returns due to the budgetary crunch in the overall economy. We were all working longer hours. However, there were a few things that were sacrosanct. For example, as far as possible, no one in the team, including myself, would work on a weekend. Weekends were off-limits and as far as possible we would also request clients not to keep meetings or sessions on Saturdays. Another flexibility that the team had was to choose their working hours. They were accountable for the output and not for the number of hours or office timings. The same applied to all including myself. So, for example, one of my team members was more comfortable starting work by noon, take a break for household chores, and then work till late evening, it was her choice. Another team member preferred to start early and finish early so that she could help her child with homework.

I think, with WFH and hybrid working models being a long-term reality, lines between personal and professional lives are blurring. Employees will need to be given the freedom to choose how they want to manage their work-life balance. The focus will need to be more on reasonable deliverables and not on ‘timings. Moreover, empathy and sensitivity while planning meetings, discussions, reviews will be important.

What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you, and what they are important?

To me DEI means respect and equal opportunity for all, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, physical or neurological ability, or any other kind of difference. Any organization, that leverages diversity in its workforce will be more successful because it will attract diverse ideas, perspectives, solutions and thereby more innovation and agility. There is enough and more data and research that supports a business case for DEI in organizations. If we look at it from a societal lens, if we provide equal opportunity of employment and growth to people from all walks of life, we will have a positive impact on the overall economy and the GDP. The impact of increased participation of women in the workforce on the GDP is already documented. And when the GDP improves, everyone benefits.

What action would you take if you witnessed a co-worker exhibiting racist, sexist, homophobic, or culturally insensitive behavior?

I would speak up. I would call out the inappropriate behavior in a situation-appropriate manner. The intention would not be to humiliate the co-worker but to educate and sensitize. And if that does not work, well then, maybe show the mirror.

What do you think are the more common mistakes in an organization’s approach or thinking about diversity?

I think one of the most common mistakes that organizations make is that they approach diversity with a recruitment lens. They dive headlong into the recruitment of women, of members of LGBTQIA community, or PWD without creating an ecosystem which is welcoming and nurturing. Any organization that genuinely wants to leverage the power of a diverse workforce first needs to build an inclusive culture systemically, by way of inclusive systems and processes, infrastructure and sensitized workforce.

The second mistake is that Diversity and inclusion is often an HR KPI, whereas it is a cultural KPI and therefore should be in the KPIs of all the leaders and managers.

The third, very common mistake, is to treat it as a one-time intervention, whereas inclusion is a journey. It needs to be woven into cultural elements, into communication, into performance management, into sensitization sessions, into rewards and recognition, inclusive decision-making, and so on.

How do you counteract comments from leadership such as, “we just hire or promote the best person for the job, regardless of race or gender”?

Opposing such statements often have a counter effect. Mostly overcome all resistance by doing a statistical, and cultural diagnostic of the organization, the industry, and the industry best practices and presenting the data and trends. The story speaks for itself and is so compelling that we are able to overcome such comments.

What are some creative ways to proactively source candidates from underrepresented communities?

There are several platforms like PeriFerry (For the LGBTQ community), Atypical Digital (For PWD), and several for women like Jobsforher and Sheroes. Interestingly, many talented people are active on Instagram and LinkedIn. Hosting inclusive job postings will invite talent from all walks of life, one just needs to be open.

Lastly, what is your message for those students who will be graduating during this difficult time and entering the job market? How should they keep their morale high and stay motivated?

I would tell them that they should take whatever learning comes their way. Eventually, they will catch up. Those who passed out in 2008 and 2009, when we went through one of the greatest recessions and global economic meltdown, are doing pretty well. So, in the long run, this is just a blip. What they should not do, is sit idle. They should pick up a project, even if it is pro bono, get that company name and learning value on the resume, keep reading and learning, keep building their professional network, keep building their social media personal brand.

Thank you, Sonica, for your insights.
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