Abanti Sankaranarayanan, who worked for many years with Diageo India, shares an anecdote from her time with the company. A few years ago, a trade magazine representative asked her, “Madam, do you drink (alcohol)?” As a senior woman leader in the liquor industry, this is a stereotype she often had to deal with. Shrugging this off, she remarked that, “He must be thinking that it’s bad enough that I work in the industry. I don’t think he would have asked the same question of a man.”

Given that leadership is gender-agnostic, the way one builds trust and credibility would be similar across genders. But because women often tend to be scrutinised differently, they may need to be more mindful of how others see them and of the messages communicated through their actions and words.

The incident above, although in a lighter spirit – pun intended – indicates that when it comes to establishing their credibility, women are often seen through a different lens.

This chapter takes a look at the prejudices common to many workplaces and cultures with regard to how competence in a woman is perceived. We also discuss some aspects that build or derail trust and credibility.

As a baseline, credibility is gained through one’s work being consistently good and delivering agreed-upon outcomes. Someone who epitomises this is Indra Nooyi, former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo. A leader who worked closely with her when he was heading PepsiCo South Asia, Shiv Shivakumar shares his view of her leadership style.

How Indra Nooyi built trust: A perspective
“Indra was in PepsiCo for more than 20 years; when you spend that length of time, there is an in-built trust and credibility from rank and file, because people see long-serving people as inherently “one of them”. Indra assiduously built trust with all stakeholders, from customers to captains of industry to country heads. Her unique position gave her access, and she built on that with her personal charm. Indra would work very hard and always came very well prepared for meetings. She never took a pass whether it was family commitments or travel. In the four years that I worked at PepsiCo, she was always very well prepared for at least 80 per cent of the meetings, which is saying a lot. The gap between her preparation and that of others in her senior leadership team was a mile, so that is a standout feature. Indra had a good ability to ask the right questions and dissect a problem. She could also judge if people were giving her the party line or knew their stuff. She was generous and would send all her male subordinates a tie every year. I still have mine.”  

Shiv Shivakumar’s account above of Indra Nooyi’s way of working is a great example of what it takes to build trust and credibility. Nooyi’s sense of purpose, commitment and pursuit of excellence were instrumental in her earning respect and success. It is amazing to hear how despite being in the top rungs of leadership, she continued to work hard and prepare for meetings.

This goes to the point often made, that women have to work much harder to be noticed and recognised. That seems to be the case universally although it may be a bit different for leaders in senior positions compared to those in middle management.

As Senela Jayasuriya, founder of Women Empowered Global and 1 Million Women in Power, points out, “Women who hit the 5 per cent mark are different and are respected differently. That’s not to say that they are out of trouble – there is scrutiny, but it’s at a different level. There is respect because they’ve gone through the mill!”

When it comes to establishing credibility, what happens when one doesn’t have the credentials? In the absence of the coveted degree or pedigree of education, how can you still make it work? Pavitra Singh didn’t have a human resources degree from a premier institute in India, and her first job wasn’t at one of the well-regarded multinational companies. Yet she is CHRO of PepsiCo India today, and her journey is an inspiration for anyone who believes that one always needs the required degree or pedigree of education to build credibility and a super career.

As a woman, it may not have been tougher, but it certainly wasn’t easier. How did she fit in and shine? This is what she says: You have to bring that differentiated value in your role. The most important traits are to believe in yourself and not to put yourself down. Be consistent, deliver on your promises, be very good at your work and use your strengths. Because if you are good at your job, no one will ask you “Which college do you come from?” or “What degree do you have?” And now when people ask me if I’m from one of the top-tier colleges, I take pride and say, “Actually, I’m not from


The value one brings to his or her role does not emanate only from a good degree or college. That said, one has to have the content and substance – there’s no substitute for that. Across the board, credibility is earned by bringing that differentiated value in one’s role, by being outstanding at one’s work and by delivering on promises. Consistency is a much-valued trait that helps build trust in a leader, as evident amongst some leaders I spoke with:

• Chris says that “I build trust by being consistently open and direct – I don’t change just because I have a bad day.”

• Rohini leads with integrity, which is about being fair, consistent, and transparent. As a leader especially in the large teams she has led at IBM and at Fidelity, it is “the ability to consistently show people that ‘she’s saying what she does and she does what she says, she’s fair when she has to make some trade-offs, and she shares why she is making those decisions.”

• According to Bonita, “People have got to trust you, and that comes through reliability and seeing people through. It comes through communication and giving some of yourself so that people know who you are and can relate to you.”

Excerpted with permission from How Women Work: Fitting In and Standing Out in Asia, Aarti Kelshikar, HarperCollins.