The Inward Mindset
"I dedicate time to personal reflection and self-development. I know a deep understanding of self is the key cornerstone of all other aspects of my career and life."
The Inward Mindset
The Inward Mindset is a focus on understanding and improving oneself. The women we met prioritized inward reflection and personal growth. Many women had spiritual or meditation practices, carving out time and space for solitude, reflection, and personal exploration.
Along the same vein, the leaders shared that they seek intrinsic sources of inspiration: "Inspiration comes from within," they say. They take time to tap into their personal motivations and leverage inner inspiration as their drive.
As Leena Nair highlighted, a deep understanding of oneself is viewed as the cornerstone of all other aspects of one's career and life. In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, competing priorities, busy seasons, and aggressive corporate agendas, women leaders invest time in deepening their knowledge of self and leveraging this knowledge to fuel self-improvement, exploration, and personal development.
Inward Approaches & Actions for Aspiring Leaders
Take Time to Build a Deep Understanding of Your Values (Use These as Your Guide).
Our executives have a strong sense of who they are. Their values guide the decisions – big and small – that they make. They stick to their principles and stay true to their beliefs.
"It is important to have a clear sense of yourself and your personal values. If you have authentic, deeply held beliefs about how to behave and treat others and you have a clear sense of how you want yourself and your company to be regarded, these principles are bigger than the daily decisions that you have to make and are incredibly helpful at times of crisis and indecision."
- Su-Mei Thompson
Susie Flook, Group General Counsel, The Body Shop, agrees. "I hold true to my principles. I influence as many people around me as I can to keep true to those values, stand tall, and to believe that those principles will prevail," she says. When explaining the values that they hold dear, a few essential elements emerged:
One value – drive – stood out above and beyond the rest. The women stressed that there are no shortcuts to success. A surprising number of the executives we met came from humble or challenging backgrounds. This instilled in them a strong drive to succeed and provide a better life for their families. They draw from their history, past experiences, and circumstances to propel themselves to make an impact to the industries, organizations, and people they serve. Consider Leena Nair, Unilever's Chief HR Officer, who grew up in a small town in India. She was the first girl in her family to have the opportunity to attend a proper school that taught English and had a formal curriculum. Each day, she cycled twenty-four miles to get to her modest school and back. Now, as a senior leader, her upbringing inspires her to pay it forward. "I am very centered on my purpose.
My purpose is about igniting the human spark in everyone to build a better business and a better world. I have a deep sense of responsibility to do everything I can to make a huge difference and that drives me. I still feel like I have so much to do to make the world a better place," she says. CIMB Group's Hamidah Naziadin, whose father passed away when she was three years old, tells us how she has inherited the resilience of her late mother who single-handedly raised her and her siblings. She embodies this resilience today, continuing to press forward and always bouncing back from trying and challenging times. Naziadin has incorporated this mind-set and philosophy in her efforts to take CIMB and its people to the next level. Looking back at her humble beginnings, Naziadin shares that it is clearly evident that the lessons she learned are rich and strong in value, which in turn has given her the resilience and passion to continuously strive forward.
"My childhood is made up of stories that tearjerker movies are made of. My parents had an interracial marriage and both were disowned by their families at the beginning. A sense of belonging was not there for me. That shaped me. I have a drive to matter because I was a person who was almost non-existent. I am always looking out for minority interests. I believe in giving people second chances and a platform to have a voice."
- Nora Abd Manaf
Or, consider Kate Stonestreet, who grew up in a small village of 200 people in the north of England. Stonestreet and her siblings were raised by her father because her mom left the family when Stonestreet was a young girl. "My children clearly are what drive me to do well. I want to create stability for their future that I did not have growing up," she explains. Perhaps what surprised us most during our conversations with these high-powered women was that more often than not, these senior executives had challenging childhoods. Yet, these difficult early years instilled in them a strong drive to succeed, give back, and make an impact.
These high-powered executives are also exceptionally gritty. Although they are at the top of their fields, they are not arrogant and are happy to get involved in the micro details of their organizations. Consider Su-Mei Thompson. When she was applying to business school, one of her referees wrote this about her: 'Nothing is beneath her and nothing is beyond her.' "I definitely feel that these two strands define me and underscore my success. I was the CEO of a small under-resourced NGO. I had to do a lot of things that were pretty basic and menial. At the same time, I was trying to be that transformational visionary pushing the organization to be ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing world," Thompson explains.
Another value – empathy – was a common theme that many of the leaders mentioned. "I have a strong sense of empathy. This has led me to be passionate about tackling inequality for women and girls and other under-represented groups to ensure they have a stronger voice," says Thompson.
The women we met had a deep sense of gratitude as well. "I am deeply conscious of the opportunities that I have. I want to make a difference in the world because I am so grateful for everything that has happened that brought me to where I am today," says Nair, who keeps a gratitude journal. She writes down three things she is grateful for each day and shares them with her children.
These senior leaders also highlighted the importance of having fun and having an optimistic outlook. "There is so much pressure on young women today. I think we could all stand to lighten up a bit, especially on the short term measuring stick," says Katie Taylor. Others reinforced the value in bringing their personalities to the office. Nora Abd Manaf learned the importance of fun from one of her mentors.
"Early in my career, I was so driven and had such a strong desire to prove myself, that I was not always likeable. A mentor told me to 'let my hair down.' I realized I did not know how to relax. It was the first time that anyone had given me permission not to put the problems of the world on my shoulders."
- Nora Abd Manaf
Or, think of Leena Nair, who is the self-described best Bollywood dancer within Unilever. "No one challenges me, so I must be the best," she says with a laugh. Nair's favorite quote is, "Life isn't about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about dancing in the rain." Ultimately, these women bring a sense of joy and optimism to their careers and lives. They understand that tough times will pass, so they do not dwell on them. They enjoy life to the fullest and are able to keep problems in perspective.
Many of the executives we met also stated that they are unfailingly inclusive, kind, and respectful to everyone – whether they are interacting with the doorman or the CEO. They recognize that relationships matter and they believe that they never know when somebody they meet at an event one day, could be their boss in the future.
The point here is not to necessarily adapt these values as your own (although we think these themes are a great place to start) but to take the time to reflect on what your personal values are. Knowing what matters most to you, the values, traits and characteristics you want to embody, will make difficult decisions easier because you can use your these as a guide.
Reflect on What You Love to Do and Go Confidently Towards What Energizes You.
The women we met are deeply passionate. Consider how they speak: "I fell in love with the Fed," says Cathy Minehan. Or, "everybody asks me about how come I have so much energy and can go non-stop? It is because I am passionate about what I do. Anything I do comes from the heart," explains CIMB Group's Hamidah Naziadin. Some of these leaders highlighted that women who are extremely passionate about their careers sometimes feel guilty. Fidelity's Kristen Robinson explains the importance of articulating your passion for work with pride. "I have always just loved to work. Especially being a working mom, it is okay to say you actually love what you do at work. It is commendable to say, 'I go to work because I love it,'" she says.
Consider Baker McKenzie's Claudia Prado, who is deeply passionate about many aspects of life: her career, family, cooking, and seeking adventures, to name a few.
"First and foremost, you need to have a passion. I am very passionate about my career and my family. For me, it has not been about doing one thing without the other. It has been trying to cope with both and doing the best I can."
- Claudia Prado
She explains that building a career was not always easy. Although she was born and currently lives in Brazil, she comes from a traditional Middle Eastern family. "I am the fourth out of five children and the only one who decided to pursue a professional career," she says. Her eighty-seven-yearold mother still calls each evening to see if she has returned home from work. Prado has held many senior-level positions at Baker McKenzie – Partner, Managing Partner, Global Executive Committee Member – but above all, she makes her family her priority. She is the mother of three sons, the oldest of whom is twenty-seven, and she has never missed either of her children's birthdays. Also, she loves to cook. "For me, the most sacred thing is to cook lunch on Sundays. This is a Middle Eastern tradition of providing love and care," Prado says.
The message here is to live a passionate life. Take the time to reflect on what excites you, both in and out of work, and go confidently towards that. Love what you do for as many hours of the day as is humanly possible. Where do you get energy? What do you enjoy doing? When time is flying by at work, what are you working on? You will invest more discretionary effort into work you enjoy so it is worth it to invest the time to reflect on your passions.
"Resist the urge to look sideways at your peer group for benchmarking. Make your benchmark internal. How is your family doing? How is your career progressing? Are your children thriving? Is your marriage getting better by the day? Set your own personal benchmarks. You can't have it all, but you can have 'your' all."
- Katie Taylor
Too often, we hear women benchmarking themselves against a co-worker or talking about their life in comparison to their sister, mother, or their friends. Yet, remember that these people have made completely different choices. They have lives that in no way mirror yours. You do not know the inner workings of their financial situation, marriage dynamics, and other factors. High-powered women leaders suggest looking inward to assess how you are doing.
Even though they have reached the highest levels of their professions, many of these highpowered executives suffer from impostor syndrome – a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. As one said, "every day I doubt myself. I doubt that I am good enough to be where I am. I have a fear that I will be found out." As a result, these ambitious women stressed the importance of being kind to yourself. This is especially important when you step out of your comfort zone and fail. For example, consider Maybank Group's Nora Abd Manaf's story of when she was a young leader at Intel. "Early in my career, I was working in an operations role, which was beyond my area of expertise. I do not remember being taught how to make decisions about shipping and how to know whether we had enough chips. But, because of the time zone difference, I was in charge," she says. In the early days of working in this job, Manaf made an error. "I made the wrong call and it literally could have cost Intel millions. I sent a ship off and said we had enough chips in stock when we did not," she explains. The team frantically scrambled to fix the mistake and by lunch time, the error was resolved. At the end of the day, Manaf asked her boss when she would be fired.
His reply shocked her and remains of value to her. "The experience shaped me because nobody blamed me. Nobody looked at me with daggers in their eyes," she says. Today, as a senior leader, Manaf takes this lesson forward when she leads teams. She also brings the lesson inward as it enables her to bounce back from inevitable setbacks. "I have been wrong in my career, but I have been right more than I have been wrong. The most powerful guidance I can give is not to be too hard on yourself and bounce right back," she says.
Peerapan Tungsuwan, a Partner in Baker McKenzie's Bangkok office, learned a similar lesson early in her career. She joined Baker McKenzie as a summer clerk during law school and earned a permanent position with the firm after graduation. She had always been a successful student, so she was surprised to discover that during her first two years as an associate, she was struggling. She almost quit, yet decided to stay at the encouragement of her colleagues and coaches at Baker McKenzie.
"I had to recognize and work on my weaknesses. The experience made me a fighter. I now teach young associates to work on their weaknesses but not to lose their self-confidence. Work on your weaknesses and do not run away from problems. But, appreciate your strengths because those are your wings."
- Peerapan Tungsuwan
Despite her early struggles, Tungsuwan has flourished at Baker McKenzie and has been one of the key leaders who has built up the firm's healthcare practice in Asia. Her experience as a young associate taught Tungsuwan to be compassionate towards herself and others. She currently loves coaching associates who are struggling and enjoys helping them succeed. "I never give up on people," she says.
Margie Yang says practicing self-compassion can be challenging for driven women, yet it is essential. She says, "Love yourself today without having to make your goals happen. Respect yourself and say 'I am wonderful' even without having to do something more. You can't always be chasing after dreams. It is important that we focus on the person that is here and now and appreciate that person. Every morning hug yourself and say 'I love you. You are fantastic.' Then, go out in the world. Now you are the warrior."