I’ve always had a drive for empowering others to achieve their potential and that’s very much behind my desire to transition from a technical role to a more managerial profile.
Kalyani Martinelango is an Associate Director in Corporate Research and Development with multinational chemical manufacturing giant, Dow. It’s a role she took on during the pandemic in 2020, though her career with the organisation spans more than 14 years, working primarily in the field of research. A chemist by training – she holds a PhD from Texas Tech University – Kalyani has three major passions: technology, people, and diversity and inclusion. These three passions have coalesced in her latest role which sees her simultaneously responsible for developing Dow’s research project portfolio and capabilities, while leading a team of 40 engineers and chemists; and driving the intake, development and retention of diverse talent within the organisation.
”I’m originally from India, and throughout my career with Dow, it’s been important to me to spearhead efforts to welcome and empower minority employees. I combine my formal role with being Dow’s Chair of the Asian Diversity Network, which supports Dow in attracting and retaining Asian-heritage talent in the organisation.”
Kalyani has also championed a sponsorship programme at Dow geared at accelerating leadership development among Asian employees, and challenging perceptions around race and ability.
“Of the people participating in this programme, 60% have already had a promotion or expanded responsibility, which is a function of coaching, soft skills development, and getting the right people in front of our senior decision-makers,” she says. “The Dow programme has been very successful in building visibility of Asian-heritage workers in the US, where they remain a minority.”
Understanding – and addressing – some of the challenges specific to minority groups in the workplace has very much been a feature of Kalyani’s own lived experience, both as an Asian person and as a woman. Over her long career at Dow, she has become aware of certain cultural behaviours that can limit career development: deferring to authority, and failing to challenge ideas, among them.
“There’s a natural or ingrained response to authority, especially under pressure, that is hard to change or challenge. Then, there are major cultural differences between the US and Asia, that tie to self-promotion and ‘tooting your own horn,’ which is something that we are not programmed to do. Striking that balance between showcasing your ability and being obnoxious – this is something that I still find difficult.”
While she has become an accomplished team leader, Kalyani Martinelango acknowledges that “managing up” remains a major challenge. Hers is a leadership style that she describes as collaborative rather than authoritative – and there’s an ingrained fear that this could be construed as a weakness in management, and that’s not all.
“I’ve always had a drive for empowering others to achieve their potential and that’s very much behind my desire to transition from a technical role to a more managerial profile. But it hasn’t been easy. In my early career, I enjoyed friendship and warmth in my professional relationships. Becoming a manager of people, those relationships become formalised such that you have to work really hard to gain the trust, credibility, and respect of your team. You end up asking yourself: what really changed? why don’t people like me anymore?”
Transitioning to leadership, especially as a woman, Kalyani wanted to connect with other female leaders and explore the specific challenges that women face in management within an open, safe, and supportive environment. She found this opportunity at INSEAD and within the Women Leaders Programme in 2022.
“There’s this extra layer of complexity when you step up into leadership as a woman,” says Kalyani. “This ranges from how you’re perceived or judged by others to how and when you confront or conform. The programme provides that safe space to explore different scenarios through case studies, to exchange experience and insight with other women, and to really dig deep into the issues through coaching and feedback. You emerge with a fresh take on what it means to lead as a woman – and a new support network.”
So strong were the ties Kalyani forged at INSEAD, that she remains in close contact with her peers. She and her cohort are connected via apps like WhatsApp and LinkedIn – “keeping tabs on each other,” she says. She also appreciates the post-programme touchpoints she has had with her INSEAD coach – an opportunity to review how she has implemented new ideas and approaches in her own leadership practice as she emerges from the learning experience.”
“We go through my personal action plan and revisit some of the things I have committed to working on: to be more intentional with delegating so I can be more focused on the strategic areas."
This “practical dimension” of the programme is particularly welcome, she adds, in the sense that it sheds light on areas for development while providing effective tools and approaches to drive progress.
“It’s just incredibly helpful.”