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Sunday Profile: Alka Mittal, ONGC’s first woman director

Last week, Alka Mittal was handed additional charge of Chairperson and Managing Director of ONGC. Karunjit Singh writes on how Mittal made her way to the top position in one of the country’s biggest PSUs — and how she has cleared the course for others to follow in her footsteps

Written by Karunjit Singh |
Updated: January 9, 2022 12:00:07 pm
alka mittar ongcWith her move to the corner office, Mittal has shattered the glass ceiling twice in the space of three years — in 2018, she became the first ONGC full-time woman director as Director, Human Resources.

For an organisation where women constitute less than 8 per cent of the workforce, the New Year heralded change. Alka Mittal, 59, moved to the helm of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), India’s largest oil and gas exploration company and among the country’s biggest PSUs, holding additional charge of Chairperson and Managing Director of the company.

With her move to the corner office, Mittal has shattered the glass ceiling twice in the space of three years — in 2018, she became the first ONGC full-time woman director as Director, Human Resources.

PSU top jobs are largely a male preserve. Soma Mondal (SAIL) is currently the only other woman heading a Maharatna PSU. Of the 47 executive directors at the 10 Maharatna Central Public Sector Enterprises, only four are women. Mittal is currently the only woman executive director on the board of ONGC.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, former chairperson of State Bank of India, the first woman to lead an Indian Fortune 500 company, welcomes Mittal’s appointment as a “role model”. “Even after retirement, they (women CMDs) will be in a position to get on boards of other companies,” Bhattacharya told The Sunday Express, noting that this would in turn help other women reach senior roles.

It’s a responsibility Mittal is well aware of, but one she wears with ease.

“When I was interviewing women for senior roles as part of the Board of Directors, I saw that they would normally give answers to me, regardless of who was asking the questions,” Mittal tells The Sunday Express, indicating that women feel more comfortable applying for senior positions when they see other women in such roles.

“We have to create a critical mass of women in leadership positions,” she adds.

A Master’s in Economics from DAV College, Dehradun, Mittal has an MBA and a PhD in business and commerce with specialisation in corporate governance from Jamia Millia Islamia.

As ONGC’s Head of HR, Mittal conceptualised ‘People’s Connect’, an initiative to facilitate exchange between retiring employees and young professionals. Her colleagues say it reflects her collaborative style that extends to even competitors within the organisation.

“Alka and I were once both in contention for a senior role, but she kept giving me ideas on my strengths that I should highlight,” says Somesh Ranjan, chief of CSR at ONGC.

Mittal also spearheaded the National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme, as part of which more than 5,000 apprentices are engaged across ONGC’s work centres.

Ranjan talks of how Mittal digitised the whole process. “Earlier we had to sort through paper applications that we got by the sack-loads.”

Mittal admits facing issues as a woman early in her career, but says her seniors always recognised the value of her work. Starting out as an administrative officer in Vadodara, she saw people did not want to report issues to a woman. “I decided it was important that they feel comfortable. I would chat with them, ask them about their families till they saw me as one of their own.”

On the work-home balance, Mittal says women professionals must prioritise the role that needs their attention at any given moment. “While I was posted in Assam, away from my family, my younger daughter was facing some health issues. It was a very difficult time but my family and I realised that we could manage it. I was in charge of HR-ER (Human Resources-Employee Relations) then and I knew that if I didn’t do this role sincerely, no one would ever give this assignment to a woman. So I stayed on and completed the goals I had set for my time there.”

Mittal also set up several leadership programmes at ONGC to shepherd talented individuals to appropriate roles within the organisation, and pushed women employees to lean in and take on more challenging roles, including field jobs such as those at offshore rigs.

“She has paid special attention to having more women in technical and field-role assignments,” says Mehgna Pegu, ONGC’s Deputy General Manager, HR, who has worked with Mittal for about a decade. Pegu says Mittal’s push was also keeping in mind that people with technical and field experience would always have an edge in the sector.
There are currently about 160 women at onshore and offshore installations of ONGC.

Mittal herself regularly visits the onshore and offshore facilities to touch base with employees and, according to Ranjan, unfailingly “comes back with sweets for everyone”.

It was on one such visit to an offshore installation, says Pegu, that Mittal, who was wearing the same uniform as the women working there, realised that the orange overalls were evidently designed for men and were “quite uncomfortable” for women.

“She asked us to connect with the National Institute of Design to enquire about uniforms for women,” says Pegu, describing Mittal as more of a leader than a boss.

Before taking over as HR Director, Mittal was ONGC’s Chief of Skill Development (CSD), during which she is credited with streamlining operations across its skill development centres. Mittal has also headed the company’s CSR operations, during which it built a 300-bed hospital at Sivasagar, Assam.

Mittal also set up Urjasvini, a programme to mentor women employees for Board-level roles in the company.
With more women now in senior and middle management level roles in the company, Mittal foresees many of them in Board-level positions in the near future. “Sixty-five per cent of our women executives are from technical disciplines. I believe that in times to come, a woman director in our core area is very likely,” says Mittal. ‘Core areas’ for ONGC include technical and field services, onshore and offshore exploration operations.

Mittal, who superannuates in August, has a lot on her table now. The key priority for ONGC right now is raising crude oil and natural gas production. The government has been leaning on the company to bring in foreign partners to enhance oil and gas recovery from existing fields, which have become less productive and for exploration in new fields such as ultra-deep water fields.

“We are looking at international partners who have had successes in similar analogous basins in other parts of the world. We are approaching them with an open mind,” says Mittal.

Another challenge, she says, would be succession planning. “With many of our experts superannuating in the near future, we have to ensure that their wisdom is passed on to the younger generation. We have to make them future-ready to take on challenging roles.”

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