Manju Palakkat got her first taste of leadership at a very early age. When her family moved from India to Kuwait, preschool-age Palakkat was put in charge of her younger brother while her parents were at work because daycare wasn’t available.
From childhood through adolescence, Palakkat watched over her brother according to the detailed instructions left by their parents. Everything from meals to TV viewing was under her control. With no phone in the apartment (private phone service in Kuwait circa 1980 had a long waitlist), Palakkat was on her own until a parent came home.
“My earliest recollection is when I was about 5. My parents would give me specific instructions before they left for work,” says Palakkat. “They didn’t have a choice at the time. For me, that was normal and taking care of my younger brother seemed like the right thing to do. The added bonus was that I got to boss my brother around.”
Shouldering adult responsibilities while still a child helped prepare Palakkat for the life she chose to lead as a highly educated, married career professional and multitasking mother of two sons, ages 18 and 8. Palakkat, Chief Transformation & Technology Officer of OUC – The Reliable One, is as a panelist at the 2021 Orlando Women in Leadership Symposium on March 30 and a speaker on the topic of “work-life integration,” something she could be considered a subject matter expert on.
Palakkat says she sees the Women in Leadership Symposium “as an avenue to encourage more women to pursue the opportunities they deserve. We have to support and raise each other up so that collectively we can change the status quo. The good news is that more and more organizations are recognizing the benefits of having women on the leadership team and the importance of having diversity in making business decisions.”
Palakkat has an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, master’s degrees in computer science, business analytics, and an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For two years she traveled every two weeks from Las Vegas to Boston to attend the program at MIT, which she completed in early 2020 while working for Caesars Entertainment in a leadership position. She joined OUC in June 2020 to drive digital transformation, as well as lead corporate strategy to help achieve OUC’s vision of being an innovative leader and the partner of choice.
Looking back on her upbringing, Palakkat says her parents provided a template for balancing family and careers. “They represented something for their time that was not very common. They shared parenting responsibilities while pursuing their respective career aspirations,” she says. “And they didn’t bring work home.”
Working a hybrid schedule as OUC observes COVID-19 precautions in the workplace, Palakkat can’t avoid talking about work while at home on some days. But she tries to maintain the rhythms of work-life integration, flowing from the former to the latter and repeating the cycle as needed. She does not compartmentalize her life to an 8 to 5 schedule.
For her, the goal is to meet her professional obligations and personal aspirations as a mother and wife, a choreography that begins weekdays at 3 a.m. with emails and planning, followed by getting her boys off to school, then resuming work either from home or at the office, and wrapping up with evenings split between family and loose ends at work. As for weekends, they share some similarities with the other days ending in “y.”
“It’s about being flexible and changing your perspective. If you really want to try to balance out work and life you have to find a schedule that works for you. I think I am happier and more productive now because I don’t compartmentalize,” she says.
She and her husband both made sacrifices early in their marriage to accommodate childcare. Both quit jobs at different times to stay home when they couldn’t find a work-life balance that worked for them. Her husband has since started his own business and has more flexibility with his schedule, though it includes international travel.
“I realized that there’s no such thing as work-life balance,” Palakkat says. “I have to juggle kids, parents, other activities and professional priorities. It helps to have the flexibility to shape my life every day. So, for me, work-life integration is ideal.”
Palakkat advises women who aspire for challenging careers to not “limit yourself to the job description that was given to you. Know your strengths and figure out ways to get more creative and effective at what you do. Be willing to take on challenging roles, get out of your comfort zone, make mistakes, learn, adapt and do it all over again.”