Ep 61: Mamatha Chamarthi: Change Agent Who “Never Has Lunch Alone”

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Mamatha Chamarthi, Senior Vice President, and Chief Digital Officer for ZF Friedrichshafen AG. (www.zf.com) a worldwide automotive industry leader, employing over 137,000 people in 40 countries, with annual revenues of $43 billion.  Mamatha drives ZF’s digitalization strategy and emergent technologies to transform business models and provide extensive revenue and value-producing opportunities.  She heads a substantial global digital transformation team and is responsible for the newest ZF Innovation Hubs in Silicon Valley and Hyderabad, India.

Mamatha’s robust career spans more than two decades beginning in India, where she received her degree in Psychology, Sociology and English, and a masters’ degree in English. “I got married to my childhood best friend,” she said, moving to Bangalore, where she taught English to undergraduate Indian students.  “Somehow, I loved teaching, but I didn’t like to teach the same subject every day.”  She needed “a more dynamic mission,” and entered Sri Venkateswara University for a second master’s in marketing, with a minor in information systems.  A chance meeting in a restaurant landed Mamatha an initial role at a boutique market research firm. A changemaker even then, “I convinced the CEO of the company to buy a computer” she laughed, and built the firm’s first server. Then she programmed the Visual Basic front-end and Oracle back-end, running Crystal reports to automate research data and reporting. (“That was my first technology job!”)  

After completing her master’s, Mamatha followed her husband to the U.S. and eventually Michigan where her husband landed his “dream job” at Ford Motor Company (www.ford.com). They were expecting their first child, and “it was an interesting transition,” she said.  “I enrolled at Wayne State University for a masters in computer science because that was when the tech boom started to happen!”  

Mamatha also accepted a job as a consultant at Chrysler Corporation, now Fiat Chrysler (www.fcagroup.com) and plunged into the automotive industry with gusto, thankfully benefitting from woman-to-woman support.  “That first interview was a phone interview. I had my 3-month-old baby in my lap and he started crying 10 minutes into the interview! The woman interviewer said: ‘I totally understand; just go take care of the baby first. And call me back.’  That was my first lesson: being a woman, you should be empathetic to other women.”

Mamatha began her Chrysler career as a consultant, using Lotus to develop systems for both corporate communications and government affairs departments of the company. “I had to really observe them doing their jobs”, so she shadowed the government affairs team, and “what started as a small client/server application for tracking tax incentives turned into a paperless office for government affairs.”  Mamatha’s insistence on understanding the full breadth of business, not just technology requirements, has been a hallmark of her career, ever since.  At Chrysler, she went on to support the public relations department, and moved client-server applications into Web server applications.  “Then we started introducing Internet and Intranet technologies,” a competitive differentiator at the time. Mamatha rolled out a global employee Intranet as well as media sites for PR releases and press kits.  Additionally, she provided after hours tutoring for employees in technology-related topics.  After leaving her consulting role for another company, during a business downturn, a number of those employees lobbied to get her back as a full-time Chrysler Senior Business Analyst.

Soon after, Daimler and Chrysler merged.  Mamatha was in the thick of the transition, as part of the post-merger integration team.  “No one was looking at a standardized approach to Web technologies,” so she decided to lead the charge. She put together a business plan to capitalize on the strengths of both entities, streamline individual departmental efforts, while inaugurating a major internal tech evolution. “I went around the world, selling the business plan” to Daimler Chrysler leaders, and “from scratch, I created a $10 million department supporting global Web technologies.”  From there, Mamatha worked on reinvigorating a project to develop an optimal production planning system which saved approximately $28 million annually.  

Then, Mamatha decided to make a major change.  “I was really blessed,” she said. “Somehow, I came to the attention of Sue Unger,” (then the CIO for Daimler Chrysler). “Slowly I developed a mentoring relationship with her. To this day, I talk to her, almost every month.”   Meeting initial resistance to getting sponsorship to pursue another masters’ degree, Mamatha boldly wrote a white paper describing what she had done for Daimler and why the company should further invest in her.  Receiving Sue’s blessing, and full corporate support, Mamatha enrolled for her MBA at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/), emphasizing global business. She chose Kellogg for its thought diversity (“so we could bring some disruption to the automotive industry”).  She then met with Sue quarterly to talk about what she learned.  She credits Sue with teaching her the simple lesson of pure focus when meeting with a mentee or colleague (“she never looked at her Blackberry; she never looked at her watch.”).

From Daimler Chrysler, Mamatha migrated briefly to Daimler Financial Services (the finance arm of the automotive conglomerate) and became “the program manager for the separation of Daimler and Chrysler” --- a very sensitive and delicate role at a highly disruptive time.  Mamatha considered this a valuable formative period for her, personally.  “It goes back to empathy,” she said.  “There were so many of my colleagues that I was leaving behind in Chrysler. I felt guilty.  But it was an exciting opportunity, too. As Charles Dickens would say: ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’…”.  The project involved reducing an 8-month transition program to 4 months “including moving to a new building, setting up a new infrastructure, determining who was going to move, and the most important thing on Day One:  ensuring that people got paid!“  There was so much to be done that Mamatha and her leadership coined a program called: “Feed IT” ensuring that all the tech staff were well taken care of, during the arduous transition.  

Mamatha worked directly for Daimler until 2010; then the company offered her the option to move to Germany.  But, instead, she chose to become the very first CIO for Consumers Energy (https://www.consumersenergy.com/), a Michigan state-regulated, publicly traded energy company, one of the top combined natural gas and electric companies in the United States.  Her first imperative was to work with leadership, and ensure that “They understand the CIO role as not just someone doing IT systems. The world is changing, and the CEO and all his direct reports needed to get a view of the changing world.” To that end, Mamatha took the senior management team to Silicon Valley to visit with breakthrough technology companies and then debrief at IDEO (www.ideo.com), a leading global design company creating positive change. “It was a huge ‘ah ha’ moment for the executive team.”  Mamatha considers one of her greatest accomplishments assisting the transformation of that company to a consumer-oriented entity. “Every element of the company was subsequently focused on the customer experience,” she said.

Mamatha missed being part of a global team, so she became CIO at TRW Automotive, with 200 worldwide locations, and an average of $16.9 billion in annual revenue. Within 5 months of her joining, the company was acquired by ZF.  This did not phase Mamatha.  “I concentrated on the business results we need to achieve,” she said.  The acquisition was completed in January of 2015, leading to the structural integration of the IT organization worldwide. In August 2016, she assumed her new role as Chief Digital Officer, directed by ZF’s CEO: “to change all aspects of the company, digitally.”  Mamatha is passionate about this role “because we have a very strong purpose:  Vision Zero --- moving to a world of zero accidents and zero emissions.”  The ZF mission to save lives is accomplished by providing the best in intelligent mechanical systems. “The intelligence comes from digital,” said Mamatha. “With artificial intelligence, machine learning, data, the car can understand more about the road, and the path from Point A to Point B.  We can keep vehicle occupants safer. And that’s our business.”  She is very excited because her team drives the fundamental evolution of the company. “Most ZF processes are from the industrial age.  We need to transform them to the digital age.  Also, we need to start opening up to innovation. That’s the challenge.”

Contributing to her career growth, Mamatha’s key achievement-oriented qualities include:  a love of continuous learning; bringing integrated strengths and experiences to any challenge; courage; the ability to drive change and enjoy the process; empathy for colleagues, customers, and partners; and a clear vision.  She created and maintains her own personal Board of Directors --- mentors who have guided her, and strong sponsors along the way. “Build a relationship,” she advised. “So, you never have a need to ask for advice. It comes naturally as a part of the relationship.”

“There is no generic work/life balance formula that applies to everyone. You need to take it, a day at a time.” Very family-oriented, Mamatha comments: “My happiness comes from my kids. It is not the quantity of time I spend, it is the quality of time. No matter where I am in the world, I am always connected to them.”

Mamatha’s other key lessons for women aspiring to lead include:

  • Be bold and grasp opportunities; move out of your “comfort zone.”

  • Don’t think you need to meet every facet of a position in which you are interested; look at your potential.

  • Ensure you have a good network.  “Performance is your foundation, but network creates that exponential factor.”

She also advises: “Give back.  Give back as much as you can.”  Since she has benefitted from mentoring, she engages actively in it, herself.  When meeting challenges: “Believe in yourself. Be comfortable in your shoes.  If I set expectations of how I should be treated, then people will automatically treat me that way.”

And her final note to our audience?  “Never have lunch alone.”

You can reach Mamatha Chamarthi at her personal email address:  Chamarthimamatha@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter at @mchamarthi.

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