Lessons in leadership with Krithika Swaminathan

In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day, Intuit’s VP of Global Data shares her remarkable career journey.

Krithika Swaminathan’s leadership journey began at a young age and in very unusual circumstances. In her early 20s, she was hired to lead a team of developers working on a special project for a monarchical head of state in Southeast Asia. The assignment was as challenging as it was rich in growth opportunities and leadership lessons. It launched an achievement-studded career for Krithika that included winning Intuit’s CEO Leadership Award and serving as Intuit’s VP, Global Data.

In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day on June 23, Krithika shares more about her career journey and her advice for aspiring leaders.

Tell us what you learned about leadership while working for a royal client.

I literally got the job because I could speak English. I was put in charge of a team of brilliant developers—all men, all older than me—but they spoke only the local language of Bahasa Indonesia. I learned enough of the local language to translate technical requirements back to the team. I had to travel back and forth between our office and the client’s palace in another country to demo what we were building, then take the requirements back to my team. I was in my early 20s, a feisty personality, and had no experience leading a team.

It was extremely humbling. The developers weren’t happy that they didn’t get to present directly to the client. In the beginning, I’d call meetings and nobody would even show up. I’d sit there in tears. I had to work really hard to earn their trust and respect, so I reached out to every single person on the team and appealed to them as humans and fellow technologists. I said that I wanted to work with them, that I would remove obstacles for them, and showcase the great work they were doing. I implored them to “help me help them”—because when I failed, the whole team failed. And toward the end, once I made this connection and demonstrated a high say/do ratio, these men became my biggest cheerleaders. This experience taught me the value of deeply connecting with team members as individuals.

How did that experience set the tone for what came later in your career?

One thing I learned about myself is that I’m a continuous learner. I never shy away from any challenge that’s thrown at me. When I moved to the US, I actively sought out opportunities to take on challenging roles that allowed me to showcase my skills and leadership potential. For example, I left and rejoined Intuit twice, and both times it was for roles that were created for me to drive growth in the company. I encourage all current and future leaders to continuously venture out of their comfort zone.

When I’m offered a new challenge, I don’t think so much about whether I can do the job; I think about how I’m going to turn this around and help this person who trusted or invested so much in me, and how I’m going to do this for the company. When I was asked to lead AI at Intuit, I didn’t know much about AI, but I knew how to see strengths and build high-performing teams. I took it as a personal challenge. How would I earn the respect of the highly qualified data scientists, some of them with double PhDs? I realized it’s not about how much I know; it’s about how I lead from the front—how effectively I set the team up for success, so the organization benefits from their work, and so they see the benefits of my leadership. Applying the lesson learned from my first leadership experience, I first worked really hard to earn the trust of the people, then I led with a lot of conviction and sincerity. 

What other challenges have you faced and how have you handled them?

Throughout my journey, I’ve faced various challenges that tested my resilience and determination, from navigating workplace politics to overcoming self-doubt and imposter syndrome. To handle them, I adopted a proactive approach by seeking feedback, learning from failures, and continuously honing my skills. Building a strong support network of mentors, colleagues, and friends also played a crucial role in helping me navigate tough times.

What advice do you have for other women engineers and aspiring leaders?

If there’s one message I want to pass along, it’s to go through the door when a door opens for you. The worst-case scenario is you will fail, but the lesson you learn will propel you forward. If I hadn’t accepted that first challenging role in Southeast Asia, I would never have learned how critically important it is to win the trust and respect of your team to be able to deliver outstanding results. 

I’ve taken the same approach with each of the many opportunities Intuit has given me. In each case, I told myself that if this doesn’t work out, the worst-case scenario is I’m going to fail, and the best-case scenario is I’ll learn, and Intuit will be in a better place. So don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Be vulnerable and take the chance and learn from it. I’ll also add, stay curious, cultivate strong relationships with peers and mentors, seek feedback regularly, prioritize self-care to maintain balance, and never stop investing in your personal growth and development.

How important is finding a mentor or a sponsor?

I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is. Mentors provide guidance, support, and valuable insights based on their own experiences, while sponsors advocate for your advancement within the organization. Both play key roles in helping you navigate your career path, develop new skills, and unlock opportunities for advancement. In my case, I had to work on creating a huge network of mentors and sponsors. The advice I give is to ask for help, but at the same time make sure your work stands out—so it gives the mentor or sponsor a lot of ammunition to truly champion you. My philosophy has always been to make your mentors extremely proud of you. It’s a two-way street.

How do you choose a mentor or a sponsor?

Something I learned from my grandmother is that everybody has unique strengths. She’d point them out to me, even in simple people doing everyday tasks. Do you see how well that person is plucking the flowers from the garden? Do you see how neatly this person has organized the vegetables on the mat? Everyone has a strength, and this is something to bear in mind as you look for mentors. I have always gone to multiple mentors and coaches throughout my life. I gravitate toward people who have handled failures with extreme grace and resilience and who have taken on extraordinary challenges in life and in their career. Don’t limit yourself to people with lofty titles or positions. So many people have so much to offer, so keep expanding your network, and seek out more mentors.

Any parting words for those looking to increase their level of leadership?

For me, it took hard work, dedication, and a continuous focus on self-improvement, as well as taking on increasing levels of responsibility, and demonstrating my ability to lead teams effectively. What’s stayed consistent in my entire career, especially at Intuit, is to lead with conviction and authenticity, to be bold, to never hesitate to ask for help, and to be as vulnerable as possible. Then, the world opens up and a lot of people want to work with you.