As a part of the Morning Lazziness series about strong women leaders who attained success with their incredible ideas, I had the pleasure of interviewing Manisha Shaikh, operations manager turned trainer/coach.
Manisha’s career began with a decade-long stint at a reputed publishing house. Determined to pursue her passion of honing communication skills in young professionals, she embarked upon a solo entrepreneurial venture with Catalyst. Driven by her belief in the strength of human potential, Manisha performed a one-woman show in the soft-skills training realm for four years. Realising that her vision was truly transforming lives, she upskilled herself further, allowing her firm to expand into the domains of psychometrics, leadership development, and organisation behaviour.
From its humble one-woman origin, 18-years hence, Catalyst is now a boutique enterprise comprising a core team of six dynamic professionals with Manisha at the helm. Together they partner organisations and individuals in the areas of training, coaching, and human resources to drive meaningful and impactful solutions. Let’s meet this knowledgeable, grounded, a businesswoman whose core endeavour remains constant – to discover, enhance and unleash the “hidden” human potential!
What made you quit a plush corporate job to going solo with your firm?
The trajectory of my career at the Times of India (TOI) soared in tandem with that of my personal life. I started out as a single woman and a front office executive, transitioned into a married woman, mother of two, and operations team-lead over a 10-year-span. As Scheduling Head (Response), Pune, I managed a 14-member team responsible for front and back-office operations. This meant 12+ hours working days, and though I thrived in the high-pressure environment. Eventually, it felt as if I wasn’t learning much.
Despite the daily adrenaline rush of delivering on a deadline, I couldn’t see myself working like this in the long term. My duty’s demands took a toll on the time I spent with my family, particularly my little ones. This fact hit home when my younger daughter turned three, and I realised that I’d have almost no memories of her growing up – those beautiful, crucial milestones (crawling, 1st tooth, step, word) …absolutely nothing! That triggering emotion firmed up my decision to quit, so I could explore other opportunities, imbibe new learnings, and most importantly, strive towards a healthy work-life balance.
Was there a plan before resigning, describe your post-quitting phase?
The primary reason for not resigning earlier was financial – my husband had just started a venture which needed time to stabilise, and we had a housing loan to pay off. Our first priority, therefore, was to plan our finances to sustain us through a year (if not more) without my contribution. Parallelly, I continued to evaluate my skills/interests to convert them into a possible enterprise. When we achieved the desired financial goal, I put in my papers.
Post-quitting, I remember oscillating between euphoric and gloomy periods – days I basked in my freedom from corporate responsibilities and the days I grappled with self-doubt. I was often troubled by the notion that I may never be gainfully employed again. One of the most painful aspects during this phase was the perceived status-loss, suddenly from ‘Manisha ma’am,’ Scheduling Head (TOI Pune), I felt like a nobody.
It was tough to accept that one’s power and stature come from the organisation and doesn’t really belong to you! That crucial lesson made my resolve stronger, to carve out an identity rooted in myself as an individual, one that couldn’t be taken away from me. This became one of the driving forces in my initial years as a ‘solopreneur.’
After TOI, I restarted my self-assessment/introspection exercise, culminating into a realisation of what truly satisfied me as a professional. Hence, I deliberated over ways to unite my love for training/mentoring with my English language proficiency. Further, inspired by my aunt, an established trainer/coach, it seemed natural to explore prospects in this area.
What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
I had a management degree and a decade-plus of corporate exposure but lacked HR/training experience. Companies were reluctant to offer me training assignments. Hence I found myself stuck in a vicious circle (no experience-no assignments, no assignments-no experience). Still, what I lacked in formal experience/ knowledge, I compensated with confidence and willingness to go the extra mile. I travelled to remote client locations, hopped onto flights/buses/trains, spent days in nondescript motels in C-Zone industrial areas; I grabbed every assignment viewing it as an opportunity to deliver customer delight, form a relationship with another client, add one more brand to my portfolio.
At the time, the internet and laptops were at a nascent stage, so I spent hours in bookstores scouring through management/self-improvement books. I also made efforts to develop my inadequate tech skills to stay relevant. To upskill, I took up an English language course, simultaneously completed a train-the-trainer certification, and enrolled for a Diploma in Organisation Studies at a reputed local management college.
Believing English-language competency to be a game-changer, I began classes from home. Lack of funds shouldn’t limit those striving to succeed in their career; hence I ensured, 20% of my participants were pro-bono. Within a year, I moved onto training assignments where I learned from senior trainers, eventually progressing to independent assignments. Over the next 4-5 years period, I built an extensive body of work and capitalised upon the immense potential in soft-skills training and leadership development programs. I consciously invested in acquiring relevant credentials to hone my training/coaching skills through Hogan, Marshal Goldsmith, Belbin, and ICF (to name a few).
When did you decide to scale up, and how’s your team shaping up?
In 2007, I was approached by a VFX & animation company that had grown exponentially from 5 to 35 employees within a year, wishing to build leadership capabilities, professionalism, and a bonded team. My services were still limited to communication skills, but I undertook the challenge to research/design a program tailored to their requirements.
The client was so happy with the end result that he requested me to take up an HR project – creating policies, organisation structure, performance management process, etc. Despite informing me that I was inexperienced in this area, he trusted me to find the best person for the project with me leading it. I was both terrified and humbled, with absolutely no idea how to pull this off!
This project acted as a catalyst for me to seek out and welcome onboard Michelle Fernandes, a talented, competent HR professional looking for the freedom/flexibility that a career outside the corporate world offered. Our collaboration was a great success; since then, she has and continues to play a crucial role in Catalyst’s success story.
Today, including Michelle, my partner, we are a six-member core team with an expanding group of professionals whom we impanel on a project basis. Over time, my vision for Catalyst has evolved, too, and I am happy to say that our team has persevered in delivering value to our clients while staying anchored to our dream of achieving a work-life balance.
What exactly are the Catalyst offerings?
Catalyst broadly offers services falling under three verticals – Training & Facilitation, Executive & Behavioural Coaching, OD & HR Consulting. Under training, we curate/design/deliver modules on leadership development, corporate etiquette, effective communication, emotional intelligence, cross-cultural communication, team-building, vision-mission-values creation (to name a few). Over the last six years, we’ve created/customised learning & development journeys conducted over 4-12 months targeted at specific cohort profiles within the organisations. In OD, our offerings include creating – HR policy manuals, performance management processes, and employee-communication processes from induction to exit.
What’s been your experience of coaching senior management members?
One key observation is that many senior leaders suffer from a ‘lonely at the top’ syndrome – the relentless burden of expectations and the pressure of always being looked to for all the answers. Yet, I’ve never coached a senior leader who hasn’t impressed me with their outstanding work ethic, introspective ability, and determination. After each coaching engagement, I walk away wiser and energised, merely by interacting with these emotionally intelligent, courageous, gifted individuals.
Give us examples of how you’re transforming lives?
This is a tricky one to answer without sounding presumptuous! The best testimonial of our performance is that Catalyst doesn’t have a dedicated business development function, and we invest next to nothing in sales-related activities. We’re proud to say that our clients remain loyal to us with long-lasting relationships. They also go ahead and recommend us to others. This reinforces our conviction that we’ve stayed true to our core purpose – to be the Catalysts that bring positive, impactful, and sustainable change for our clientele.
Few customers’ post-training feedback:
“I reached out to Manisha to take Hogan assessments and related executive coaching sessions. My experience has been enlightening and smooth. She blends years of corporate leadership experience and a deep passion for helping individuals. Manisha is good at reading her audience and tailoring feedback to give tough love when required but is also empathetic and encouraging to get them to change. One of the things that impressed me the most is how she handled my questions on the many contradictory findings of Hogan assessments and how she tied them together into a “behavioural whole.” Those were my “a-ha” moments. At no point did I feel judged or sensed irritation. Have enjoyed our coaching sessions, and I am looking forward to continuing my development journey with her” – Financial Services Executive & Management Consultant, USA.
“Our HR consulting mandate was clear from the get-go when we partnered with Catalyst; ‘Build people processes that impact productivity yet maintain our inherent people-centric culture.’ Right from working with the Directors to the employees, Michelle & Manisha guided and mentored us to change our approach by looking inward at our strengths and improvement opportunities. Some HR & OD-related changes involved rolling out frameworks for our organisation structure, creating job descriptions, performance management, rewards & recognition.The training conducted by Manisha were impactful yet fun. The learning was immense, and the individual coaching sessions with Senior Management team were super-helpful. We as Directors found our strengths, one of our directors even excited about finding her true calling while bringing in another, who turned to be a great success. Michelle was extremely straightforward and clear during one-on-ones performance appraisals and also aided in mapping market compensation and skill with the employee.
Thanks for supporting in bringing role clarity among the Directors leading us with unity towards a common goal. You both are a blessing to the Legacy family, we never felt you were consultants, more like one of us, to the extent of treating me as your younger brother whose success you cared for!” – Naresh Vaswani, CEO & MD (Legacy Life Space)
How did Catalyst deal with the pandemic situation?
When the pandemic began to loom in March 2020, our clients put on hold all ongoing classroom and coaching projects until further notice. During the lockdown, realising that the situation was not short-term, we began asking ourselves how we could evolve to continue to serve our clients in these uncertain times?
Agility and innovativeness were required to weather this storm; we actioned multiple initiatives to seamlessly transition into the online space. This meant endless hours on the phone with an old friend and IT visionary, Vijayan. We focussed on upgrading our website/training tools, a critical step towards delivering the same quality and impact we were reputed for.
Come 1st June 2020; we were ready to roll. We encouraged clients to try our virtual offerings, ensuring to not offer anything pro-bono, knowing it would be a disservice not only to the trainers/consultants but also to the field of training/consulting at large. Our efforts to adapt to the ‘new normal’ proved to be a success, and we are grateful to the clients who gave us the opportunity to showcase our ability, yet again.
Have you managed to find the right work-life balance you craved for?
For the most part, I can say, my colleagues and I are very close to achieving the work-life balance we sought. This, however, is not the idyllic situation one may imagine. The biggest drawback of performing independently is to accept that we’ll be deprived of the stability of a steady monthly paycheque and the perks that full-time employees of large organisations enjoy. I admit, there are times we are busier, more stretched than we’d like to be, but we collaborate, share the load, and manage. The best part of a close-knit team is knowing we have each other’s back, come what may.
Tell us about the person/s who played a significant role in your career.
I am truly blessed to have this set of people around me who helped me make this journey a reality.
My mother, Iris, is an absolute pillar of strength. All this would have been impossible without her support in caring for my little ones during TOI’s long working hours and subsequently when I began travelling frequently for training sessions. My aunt Indu’s advice, enabled me to make sound decisions and make wise choices.
The wind beneath my wings, my husband, Basheer – was a steady sounding board for my ideas/ambitions. Now, he juggles between the roles of Catalyst’s business advisor and senior English language trainer/coach. My daughters, Anisa and Sameera (now in their 20’s), are my biggest cheerleaders; I owe my understanding of this fast-changing world to their insightful inputs.
My sisters Aarti & Sapna constantly encouraged/pushed me to keep growing. In fact, my 1st corporate assignment pitch was facilitated by Aarti, who introduced me to a friend of hers – MD of a large Pune-based forging company. That project acted as a stepping stone for future assignments; I will always be indebted to them for the trust they placed in a young, raw, trainer-in-the-making. I was privileged to go on to do excellent work with this firm for over a decade.
Catalyst’s future plans?
Catalyst has and always will favour quality over quantity. We are not pursuing huge work volumes; rather, we emphasise value-building for our customers. Our future plans involve delivering sustainable and positive impact for our client partners, continuous learning, skill-building, and creating innovative services and solutions while remaining relevant in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
Your advice to others who may want to carve their own path?
That’s difficult to say because everyone is unique, and their context is also unique. What might be the best plan for me might not apply to someone else. As a fundamentally risk-averse and inherently cautious person, I needed financial security before quitting my job. The approach I used was to start small and build my practice as trainer/coach over an 18-year span. Some may find this pace slow and prefer a steeper, bigger, faster career track.
However, I can say this for sure – be self-aware and honest with yourself, understand what you truly value. Don’t get swayed by ‘shoulds and should-haves, peer pressure, and comparisons. Introspect and clearly identify your life’s vision and mission, then make a solid action plan to achieve it. Plan your work and work your plan – day by day, week by week, and you’ll get there. Lastly, never stop learning – invest time, effort, and money to keep yourself abreast with the latest developments in your field.
Manisha Shaikh | LinkedIn Founder, Catalyst
Mail: [email protected]