03 Nov The Risk-taker
Very few women run billion-dollar global companies.
Revathi Advaithi’s remarkable rise from the shop floor to CEO of a billion-dollar manufacturing company has been fueled by determination, a gift for connecting with people, and, most of all, the willingness to take risks
Very few women run billion-dollar global companies. One such woman is Revathi Advaithi, who helms Flex, a multi-billion-dollar global manufacturing company.
Advaithi’s path from growing up in a single-parent household in India to head a $24 billion, half-century-old, global manufacturing and supply chain company based in Singapore, with corporate headquarters in the Bay Area, is a story of twists and turns, expectations defied, and, above all, talent and determination.
“I am extremely impressed with Revathi’s remarkable ability to simplify extremely complex issues,” says Scott Offer, Flex’s executive vice president and general counsel. Revathi is super smart, disciplined, and results driven. She combines these attributes with the ability to motivate and influence people. She also maintains her composure remarkably well in a crisis and makes sound decisions. Because Revathi has very high standards, she is very demanding. At the same time, she has a big heart. At her core, she really cares about people and is committed to doing the right thing.”
After her engineer father died when she was young, Advaithi was raised along with four sisters by her mother in India. Her mother, who did not have a formal education or a job, had one goal for her daughters—getting a good college education to ensure their self-sufficiency. “She wanted us to control our own future,” says Advaithi, who was named number 36 on Fortune’s list of the most powerful women in business in 2020.
Advaithi realized at a young age that to control her own future, especially as a woman, she would have to be not only smart and determined—but also bold.
Among her first of many bold steps was her choice of a major. Advaithi received her degree in mechanical engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in 1990. “I chose mechanical engineering because I was always a very hands-on person,” she says.
After graduation, Advaithi was working at Xerox’s Indian subsidiary when one of her sisters, who was studying anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, urged her to join her there. In 1995 she began applying for jobs. The offer she accepted was on the factory shop floor at a branch of Eaton, a global industrial and power company, in tiny Shawnee, Oklahoma, that primarily made gears and piston pumps.
“I was paid like all of $36,000, but I was so excited!” she says.
Little did Advaithi know, but that posting in Shawnee was the beginning of her journey to CEO. Not only did she gain valuable on-the-ground experience by working on the shop floor, but it was here, she says, that she began to understand America and, perhaps more importantly, American morals and expectations.
“I didn’t know anything about small-town America before then,” she says. “I learned about the culture of sports and also family gatherings and barbecues and square dancing. As it turned out, Shawnee was the best experience for me to learn about the United States. I love making things, but I also love the human psychology and learning about what made people who they are.”
She also learned, at her first square dance, how much she stood out. “When I went, the music literally stopped because I don’t think they’d ever seen somebody like me,” she laughs.
Her years in Shawnee taught Advaithi how to lead and also shaped her philosophy of leadership. “It came down to how can you best motivate this group of 50 people who are very different from you, but who have some interests in common?” she says. “It’s all about human nature and finding that connection to each person.”
Advaithi began climbing the ranks at Eaton. “Revathi was never afraid to speak her position and ask lots of questions,” says Molly Murphy, senior vice president of North American Sales at Eaton. “She also knew how to use humor to make her point.”
Her next stop was in Hutchinson, Kansas, where she met her future husband. Then she was transferred to England, where she honed her leadership skills further in her three years there.
She was also gaining attention in the manufacturing field. Honeywell hired her away from Eaton, and she and her husband and young son moved to Phoenix. At Honeywell, she was the company’s director of global sourcing and then vice president/general manager of automation controls. “Honeywell was great because it really sharpened my strategy, in terms of how to get results,” she says. “It was a tough, results-oriented culture, so I got to see a whole different world within Corporate America.”
Then Eaton came calling, wanting to lure her back. Once again, she and her husband picked up their kids (they had a daughter by then) and moved, this time to Shanghai to run Eaton’s electrical unit. “It was a fantastic experience because it’s different from traveling there as a tourist,” she says. “When you live in another country, you’re meeting people, and you begin to understand the culture and what makes people tick.”
She and her family enjoyed China so much that her son became fluent in Mandarin, and to this day, the family’s comfort food is Chinese.
When Eaton’s CEO asked her to relocate to Pittsburgh to run a recently acquired company, her first reaction was to turn him down, as she and her family were happy in China. But they ultimately decided to make the move to Pittsburgh, where Advaithi was named president of Eaton’s largest business line, the American Region Electrical Sector. She later was promoted to COO and was managing a $13 billion division.
“Revathi is successful not because she is a woman. She is successful because she is a talented, competitive leader,” says Sandy Cutler, the retired CEO and chair of Eaton. “She has balanced all of her roles remarkably—as executive, wife, mother of two children, sister, and daughter—all the while expanding her professional responsibilities through progressively challenging job assignments. She tackled each initiative with great energy and focus and never ceased to enrich her leadership skills and breadth of knowledge.”
Then came the big offer. Flex, a manufacturing, product design, and supply chain company with 160,000 employees worldwide and headquartered in Silicon Valley, hired her as its CEO in 2019. Advaithi was ready. By this stage in her career, she had accrued significant experience in managing all aspects of the manufacturing process and had developed skills leading large and diverse global teams.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with Revathi for a number of years, and she has many strengths that are expected in a successful CEO,” says Nadia Morozowich, a former Eaton executive. “She has strong business acumen, is a visionary, and can quickly assess people’s capabilities. But I believe her approach to confronting challenging situations has been a key contributor to her success in a male-dominated industry; she is levelheaded, direct, and engages with just enough dialogue using well-chosen words to take control of a situation. The situation is diffused or resolved without anyone feeling demotivated, demoralized, or disengaged. In my mentoring of others, I refer to this approach as ‘channeling Revathi’—having a calm command of the situation.”
Today, as she reflects on the twists and turns of her career path, Advaithi describes the keys to her success—and how those skills can serve as models for younger women hoping to follow in her path to the C-suite.
Advaithi says probably the most important quality that served her well is risk-taking. “You have to be ready to jump in and roll up your sleeves and say, ‘I can do this!’”
Another factor that comes into play, she says, is finding a way to connect with people, while remaining authentic. Her first reaction when she went to Pittsburgh, was, “I can’t hunt or fish or golf! How am I going to succeed at this job?”
One of her mentors told her not to worry. “He told me I could hold my own and, besides, you know how to drink a good whiskey, so you’ll be fine!”
Advaithi excelled because she genuinely loves getting to know people and has the gift of always finding a way to connect. She also put a great deal of currency in being authentic—one of her cardinal rules for leadership success.
“I have found that it is important to focus on a few things that are important to you,” she says “Find ways to connect and lead that don’t compromise your values or your integrity. Keep your individuality.”
After risk-taking and authenticity, Advaithi cites networking as her third pillar of leadership success. Take the time to develop your network and your sponsors and people who understand you and will serve as your supporters. “This is harder for women, as many are so busy at home and with their kids,” she says.
Women leaders can use other tools to their advantage. Advaithi cites a 2017 Korn Ferry and Rockefeller Foundation study on the qualities that make women CEOs successful. One common trait was the ability to bring teams together and collaborate. “I think women sometimes can see little things that men don’t see, such as a person who is not participating in a conversation. It is important to pull that person in.”
Surprisingly, Advaithi thinks that risk-taking comes naturally to women, because women always need to prove themselves in the workplace, so they are ready to jump in and try to tackle new challenges. “I think I had to take two or three more risks over the course of my career to make myself seen or heard,” she says. “I tell women, ‘Don’t be the person who’s stepping back and doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic proved her point. She quickly realized that her top priority was making sure Flex’s 160,000 employees were as safe as possible. She closed down production lines and sent people home. Customers supplied by Flex called to plead with her to open up, but she refused.
“I am a competitive, results-oriented person,” she says. “Suddenly none of that was important. The most important thing was the health of the people around you, your family, your friends, and your colleagues. We just needed to do what was right, which was to shut down. Customers were looking for our products. But we just had to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t.’”
Advaithi has never second-guessed the decision of forcing employees to work from home. She worries, however, about the resulting long-term impact on pay equity and advancement opportunities for women. This is one of the issues she feels passionate about and why she joined Catalyst’s CEO Champions for Change, a group of 70-plus CEOs who have pledged to accelerate the advancement of more women into leadership positions in their companies.
She says that as life returns to some form of normalcy, she will be closely watching the data on who goes back into the office and who stays at home.
“I worry about so-called flexibility—where women are going to be the ones who stay at home and the men are going to show up at work,” she says. “Then you miss out on the networking and the opportunities to be at the table. We cannot take this lightly. It’s really important to watch the trends very, very carefully. If women’s promotion rates start to drop, we all should be worried, because next they may be taking a pay cut because they’re staying at home longer and the men are working in person.
“We cannot allow the pandemic to set us back. That would be unfortunate because it’s taken years and years and years to get to this point [in starting to close the wage gap]. In the long run, those human interactions will matter. And it’s taken us a lot to get a seat at the table.”
No one knows that more than Revathi Advaithi.
by Jackie Krentzman