The Individualistic Mindset
"I am in charge of my own career and life. I am responsible for my growth and progression. It is up to me! I assume personal responsibility for where I am now and where I want to go."
The Individualistic Mindset
Get in the driver's seat and get rid of victim mentality. You must be the driving force of your own success. This was the resounding advice from women leaders.
Katie Taylor, Former President and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, grew up in the small town of Oshawa, Ontario. The second of five children, Taylor was the first person in her family to go to university and had opportunities that previous generations in her family never imagined. "I was just a kid from a small town trying to make my way in the world. I felt a need to drive my own career," she explains.
Claudia Prado, Partner and Former Global Executive Committee Member, Baker McKenzie, agrees: "Women must take ownership of their careers. They cannot wait for people to take care of their careers. They need to take control of their destiny. Women must feel that they are in the driver's seat, not the passenger's seat. They have to drive the car to be successful."
Betsy Myers, former senior advisor on women's issues to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, calls for early career women to "own it." Being the driver is about taking ownership of your career direction and your choices. She encourages us all to think: "How do I empower myself instead of feeling like a victim? Take victim out and put power in."
The individualistic mindset is founded on the concept that we are not the passenger in our life's journey nor are we the passive victim of someone else's driving and directions. Instead, we must take the steering wheel into our own hands.
Individualistic Approaches & Actions for Aspiring Leaders
Flip the Script: Think 'Why Not Me?' (Instead of 'Why Me?').
In 1991, the Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston was retiring. As a result, the Boston Fed was in search of a new COO. Cathy Minehan had worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for 24 years. There had never been a woman COO at any Federal Reserve Bank at that time, but that did not stop Minehan from putting herself forward for the position. "By that time, I had managed every operation at the Fed of New York. So, I called the President of the Boston Fed and said: 'I know you are looking for a Chief Operating Officer. Why don't you interview me?' He replied that he had not considered Minehan for the position but agreed to meet her for dinner to discuss. She interviewed and got the job. Minehan's promotion to COO was groundbreaking, but she humbly describes the move as a natural next step. "I saw an opportunity and took advantage of it," she explains.
This 'why not me?' mindset is typical of the female executives we met. Minehan's inclination to put herself forward for the role stems from her optimistic outlook on the world. Early on in her career, Minehan was often the youngest person and only woman in the room. While some may view youth and being significantly outnumbered by men as barriers, Minehan explains without hesitation that she 'loved it.'
"There has never ever been a time in my life when I have regretted being a woman. I never felt that it was a drawback. I never felt it was a hindrance. I never felt that being a woman and trying to move up was a problem."
- Cathy Minehan
Our executives suggest that it is often up to you to be your own best advocate. Others may not always consider you for an international assignment, new role, or speaking engagement. As a result, it is up to you to be confident in the value that you bring to an opportunity and put yourself forward.
Proactively Seek Out Grassroots and Line Roles.
Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, Unilever, has achieved many firsts. She is the first female, first Asian, and youngest ever CHRO of Unilever. In 2007, Nair became the first woman in the Management Committee of Hindustan Unilever in 90 years, heading HR. She was also appointed the first woman on Unilever's South Asia Leadership Team a year later. One key to her rise has been putting her hand up for what she calls 'grassroots roles.' I said, 'Yes, I will go to a factory to learn how soap is made.'
Several women mentioned that their careers accelerated because they were willing to go to places where few of their colleagues would go. The cities to which they traveled and the roles they were in were not glamorous, but the experience was critical. They learned where consumers buy products, how channels are managed, and the ins and outs of the trade. Their advice? If you have an opportunity to learn how growth happens in your business – how oil rigs are made, how a hotel is run, or how a factory is managed, this may be the break that could make the difference in advancing your career.
Knock on the Door.
When Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, was a freshman at Bryn Mawr College, she took a bold action. The legendary B.F. Skinner, arguably the most influential psychologist of the 20th century was a professor at Harvard University. Hill desperately wanted to meet him. So, she did what few would do. When visiting a friend in Boston during October break, she picked up the phone and gave Skinner's office a call. When someone answered, much to her surprise, it was Skinner himself on the line. Hill took a chance and asked if she could meet the guru. To Hill's surprise, Skinner happily agreed. "It was a formative day in my life," says Hill, who was recently named as one of the top ten management thinkers in the world. "I partly attribute my research interests and focus on learning theory to the day we spent together." Her advice to women about how to make things happen in their own lives?
"Just knock on the door. Pick up the phone."
- Linda Hill
The lesson from our executives is that when you want to achieve something, you should take action. "Whatever you want, you already have. It's just on the other side of your action," says Karen Brown, a diversity and inclusion executive, based in Chicago. For example, are you hesitant to pick up the phone to call a sales lead, pitch your idea at a meeting, or apply for a new role? The women we met would say 'just do it.' In fact, several of our interviewees said that 'just do it' was their mantra. They take the view, 'what's the worst thing that can happen?' and go for it.
Lead with 'Yes' When You Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone.
These leaders highlighted the importance of proactively seeking out opportunities. Yet, on occasion, they were unexpectedly offered an exciting role - to manage an important project, open a new office, or lead a deal. It is vital to jump on these assignments and lead with a 'yes', they say. Highpowered women partly attribute their rise to the top to taking on engagements and promotions that go beyond their comfort zone. They mention that, when offered stretch roles, too many women come across as hesitant or are apt to state the reasons why the initiative would not work for them, instead of leading with a simple 'yes.' These leaders do not over-analyze or over-communicate to others the pros and cons of taking on additional responsibility. They are willing to take on new areas and figure things out along the way.
Consider the story of Baker McKenzie's Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort. Several years ago, she was a Partner with a successful practice. When she was asked if she would consider running for Managing Partner of the German and Austrian offices, she reflected on the opportunity and discussed it with her husband and friends. Ultimately, she went for it and was elected. A self-described introvert, the campaign and election process was one of the biggest challenges she has faced in her career to-date. But, her willingness to say 'yes' to this opportunity has been a game-changer in her career. She was re-elected Managing Partner after a successful three-year term and was recently named to Baker McKenzie's Global Executive Committee.
"Say yes to opportunities that come your way. Whenever you have a chance, go for it."
- Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort
Ulmer-Eilfort, a mother of three, explains that this 'say yes' mindset also applies to women who are returning to work after having a child. "I often see mid-career women when they have children say, 'I'm not sure I can make it. I don't know how it's going to be when the child is born.' They tend to communicate to their colleagues that they are unsure when and how they will not return to work.
I always tell them, 'make them feel that you are coming back. Make them feel that they can count on you.' It is easier to tell them later on that you need another two or three months than at the beginning to say, 'I may come back in one year, perhaps in two years, or I may come back at 40%.' If you do that, then no one relies on you and people don't think that you will go for it," she explains.
Many executives mentioned that with each challenge accepted and conquered, they gained confidence. Not all had the initial goal of reaching the highest corporate ranks. Yet, with each accomplishment, they gained more belief in themselves. "With each promotion, I've reflected on the experience, thinking 'I can do this.' Gaining more responsibility has given me reason to believe in myself. Now, I'm the President of a brand," says Julie Hauser-Blanner, President, Brioche Dorée. Peerapan Tungsuwan, a Partner in Baker McKenzie's Bangkok office, echoes this sentiment. "One small success leads to a second, then a third, and so on, until you don't need to count your wins anymore. You start to do well and people believe in you and follow your guidance. Confidence comes from the successes that you slowly have over time," she says. When saying 'yes' to stretch opportunities, these women said that you may have to 'fake it until you make it.'
"Act like you belong. Introduce yourself with confidence. Have a good handshake. Look people in the eye because others will sense your fear. Own it."
- Megan Costello
Once you step out of your comfort zone, don't simply congratulate yourself for saying 'yes'. Our executives have another message: solve a problem. "The world has enough people who point out problems. Solve one that comes your way," says Nora Abd Manaf, Group Chief Human Capital Officer, Maybank Group, who is based in Malaysia. Not only do these women take on stretch roles, they are relentless problem-solvers once they assume the position. They put forth solutions to the challenges their organizations face. For example, CIMB Group's Hamidah Naziadin used her creativity to solve a problem when she and her team created a staff rejuvenation program to promote an organization that cares for its people's well-being.
This program allows for staff to organize and prioritize what matters to them whilst maintaining a balance between work and life. The employee is given an option to take up to 6 months away from work with job and opportunities remaining unchanged upon their return from their "time off". Employees take advantage of this initiative for expanded maternity leave, travel, and more. The program was such a success that it is now a key feature in CIMB's HR policies. "We turned a problem into an opportunity by being creative," Naziadin explains.
They also advise that you bring your own vision to the new role.
"Make the job your own. When you take on a new challenge, have the confidence to bring your own perspective and way of working to the position. When you do things in a way that is natural to you, you are more consistent and it is easier for others to understand you. Create a job that actually inspires you."
- Ritva Sotamaa
Their message is clear: lead with a 'yes' when taking on opportunities that go beyond your comfort zone. When you assume the role, solve a problem and put your own imprint on the job. Along the journey, you will gain experience, confidence, and a reputation as someone who can take on big challenges.
Put Yourself at the Center.
Our executives advise that you 'say yes' to stretch assignments. But, as a high-potential woman, many exciting opportunities will come your way. This begs the question: which types of roles could truly make the difference in accelerating your career?
Minehan has a viewpoint on this that has served her well. "I like being at the center of things," she explains. Early in her career, Minehan worked to make herself the secretary of various groups. "I found if I were the secretary of the group, then I could manage the agenda and who was doing what. This gave me the opportunity to interact directly with the chairman. As secretary, I ended up calling a lot of shots," she says. This thought process stayed with her throughout her early years at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "The New York Fed is the center of the markets in New York, the financial district, and the markets in the United States. For a number of years, I ran the Fed wire funds and securities transfer, which sounds quite operational, but it's where all of the markets in the United States settle every day. Each and every day, I was participating in a massively important thing," she says.
Karen Brown has a similar view. When she was working for Marriott early in her career, the hotel chain was hiring many managers to run the hotels. Brown voiced her passion for training others and volunteered to groom the new leaders of Marriott's properties.
"Training the leaders of Marriott's hotels accelerated my career to places I could never have imagined. I met a lot of people and traveled to new hotel locations. Right out of college, I was at the center of the action."
- Karen Brown
When a new opportunity comes your way, consider how central the role is to your company. Is the position essential to your organization's growth? Will the role connect you to key decision-makers at your firm? If you are at the center of things, the new position could advance your career.
Start Small… Then Scale.
What if you do not have the opportunity to take on a highly important project at your organization right now? Several women noted the importance of starting small. For example, one executive mentioned that her firm's Twitter feed is maintained by a junior associate, who is a year out of law school and is a social media maven. She knows everything about how to get the most Twitter followers. As a result of managing the Twitter feed, she is demonstrating her ability to take initiative, run with things, and lead. Is there a small committee, project, or process that you could run at your company?
Starting small applies to getting your voice heard as well. Consider how Leena Nair built her confidence to speak up in meetings early on in her career when she was one of the few women in the room. "I used to have a little book in which every time I spoke up, I would draw a star. If I opened my mouth five times, then I would draw five stars. If I made a point that really resonated, I gave myself double stars. By doing this, I kept myself accountable," she explains. So, think about an initiative that would be level-appropriate for you to own or small ways that you can articulate your point of view. By gaining small wins, doors will start opening for bigger opportunities.
Leverage Your Differentiators and Unique Point of View.
Be confident that your unique perspective on the world is what makes you valuable to your organization. You likely bring a level of diversity to your team. For example, perhaps you are the only woman, millennial, or person of Southeast Asian origin in your group. Rather than viewing this as a hindrance, take this as an opportunity to bring a different point of view.
Consider the unique mission that Margie Yang, Chairman, Esquel Group, laid out for Esquel.
"I do not make shirts. I make a difference."
- Margie Yang
Soon after joining Esquel, Yang made it a point to say that Esquel's mission extends beyond making money. As a result, she encourages the company's leaders to tackle large issues such as addressing climate change and closing the wealth gap. Yang's vision inspires employees at Esquel to think and dream big. Yang explains that her ability to see the world through a unique lens is what makes her stand out. "I bring a different perspective and way of looking at challenges and how to set goals," she says.
CIMB Group's Hamidah Naziadin also prides herself on her ability to think differently.
"What defines me is thinking outside the box and being a game changer."
- Hamidah Naziadin
Case in point is CIMB Group's 'CIMB Fusion Programme' that Naziadin, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, spearheaded along with her team. In the program, early career talent joins two companies, giving them exposure to different industries – banking and non-banking – which plays very well in terms of what is required for leaders today; versatility and adaptability in a world where everything is borderless. This was Naziadin's brainchild and was brought to life to attract the best minds to work for the company. She made a bold and conscious decision to partner with her main competitors, making them her allies instead. She believes that in today's environment and in the future, to pave the way forward, the key attributes for success will be agility, innovation and adaptability, to name a few.
The 'CIMB Fusion Programme' incorporated these elements by creating partnerships across different businesses in order to build these attributes for its talent. The exposure to different industries gives the talent the opportunity to experience different work environments, cultures, and industries. Ultimately, it allows the individual to choose the most suitable career from themselves. "With the CIMB Fusion Programme, we challenged the norm and it took a lot of courage and self-belief to go ahead with the program" says Naziadin.
This program is highly successful and Naziadin has managed to build that alliance across several industries, including auditing, consulting and technology. She enjoys challenging the norm and has become a notable game changer in the industry where she recognizes that in order to thrive in the industry, one must continuously challenge oneself and think differently. This can be seen from the program and initiatives that she has put in place to help grow the industry she serves, the organization she is a part of, and the people who work in it.
Be confident that what makes you different is what makes you great. If you have a great idea that is a bit out-of-the-box, put it forward. Ultimately, your ability to bring a unique perspective and point of view to the challenges your organization faces, will make you stand out.