The first few months of a baby’s life are when they need their mothers the most.
So, when Noor Farilla Abdullah had to leave her seven-month-old son at home to go to Indonesia for a merger integration project that she was managing, it was one of the toughest things she has ever had to do.
“I was only back during the weekends. . . I could have left the company at that time, but I kept on saying this is not going to be permanent.
“I hoped and prayed that whatever happened in that period of his life wouldn’t affect him later on.”
The story above highlights the real struggles that working mothers everywhere face.
The culture of today has indeed progressed from days gone by, as women now have a vast array of career options to choose from and are taking up leadership positions.
According to a 2017 Hays report, while men still hold 80% of top jobs and a large proportion of line manager roles in Asia, Malaysia recorded the highest percentage of female leaders at 24%.
The Malaysian government and private corporations are indeed moving to include more women in leadership positions as can be seen by the efforts undertaken by the 30% club in Malaysia to have more female directors on company boards. However, some industries remain male-driven, such as the transportation industry.
How then does a woman make her mark in this industry and dismantle the stigma of what has conventionally been deemed a “man’s job”?
Leaderonomics spoke to two women leaders from Touch ‘n Go to understand their leadership journeys in this industry.
Noor Farilla Abdullah, 41
Farilla set foot into Touch ‘n Go with an impressive repertoire, having worked as a consultant overseeing complex projects in Accenture, and as a programme manager handling large-scale strategic projects and merger integrations at CIMB.
When CIMB became the parent company to Touch ‘n Go, she was seconded to be the acting head of finance in 2013.
Two years later, she advanced to the role of chief operating officer (COO), overseeing the entire Touch ‘n Go operations, which runs with 450 employees.
Farilla admits to “having toiled in her earlier years” before reaching this point in her career where she now has more flexibility, and a strong team working under her.
When she first came into the company, they were faced with issues that needed immediate attention and strategic solutions, and so there was a lot of work involved in having to overcome them.
“I love challenges and there were many opportunities to transform and innovate,” she says with a glint of excitement in her eyes.
On top of managing operations, Farilla today oversees the development of new products and works closely with the government to reduce traffic congestion, as both serve as catalysts to growing the business.
How does she do it?
1. Strive for effectiveness
“Yes, this is a male-dominated industry, but that doesn’t mean that, as a woman, you can’t be effective,” she emphasises.
One of the key things she learnt throughout the course of her career is knowing how to be effective in any scenario.
We have to accept the fact that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Be it female or male, it doesn’t matter.
The question to ask, she says, is how do you harness the resources and infrastructure around you to become effective?
If a team’s strengths do not fit a specific scenario, look to other teams that have the right combination of strengths to bring out the desired results, she advises.
2. Logic vs emotion
Most times, being effective is about being logical, but other times it’s more about being passionate and enthusiastic.
As a leader, you need a bit of both when it comes to influencing your followers.
She admits (with a laugh): “I’m still learning to balance both. I mean, I still come out of meetings not getting what I want.”
3. Nothing is permanent
Over the years, Farilla has learnt to accept the fact that, regardless of the phase of life she is in, nothing is ever permanent. Every hurdle, project and initiative will eventually come to an end.
There are times when you have to give more to your career and other times, to your family. It is within your power and control to manage such things, the mother of two shares.
Asma Hanim Ahmad Marikan, 38
Asma has been working at Touch ‘n Go for just over a year and heads the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) project. This project − which is driven by the Malaysian Highway Authority (MHA) and requires close collaboration with highway concession companies − is focused on finding innovative solutions to improve the driver’s experience.
With 15 years of IT and project management experience under her belt, it comes as no surprise that the leaders at Touch ‘n Go entrusted her with a project as strategic as this.
Asma shares that it takes a lot to gain the respect of the people you’re working with, especially when you’re a young leader and that too, in a mature and male-dominated field like the highway and tolling industry.
On top of that, the mother of two admits that juggling family and work is a whole other ball game.
It’s not an easy task. . . Kids are very honest. They will ask, ‘Mummy, why do you come back so late?’. It’s quite heart-breaking at times.
Challenges of being a Gen X leader
“You have to prove yourself through your knowledge, what you say and how you say it,” Asma tells us.
She says, having a leadership title doesn’t automatically make you one. You must prove yourself first before you can earn the respect of others.
As for juggling work and family, Asma emphasises the importance of having a good support system.
“It’s not as easy for women to let go of their family responsibilities during the times when their career demands it. You must have that support. I am lucky to have that with my family.”
The attraction factor
Being an IT professional, Asma finds fintech to be an incredibly exciting area. So, the fact that Touch ‘n Go operates in this space and rides on innovation attracted Asma to join the company.
Apart from that, she has faith and admiration for the company’s leaders and their vision, as not just anyone is able to take their company in this direction.
She adds: “You have to have the speed and innovation to move into and keep up with this space.”
A steep learning curve
The project that Asma is leading is not unlike a typical project. It is a national project that requires dealing with various external stakeholders such as government agencies and several corporate entities. Internally, she has to rope in individuals from other departments to buy into her ideas and plans.
This is not an easy feat, she says, as employees may question what’s in it for them if the project does not have a direct impact on them or the team.
So, it’s about convincing, educating as well as communicating with them in the right way. These are new skills that I had to develop.
“You have to have good mentors to succeed,” Asma advises.
But before finding a mentor, it’s important to assess your own strengths and weaknesses.
She says you shouldn’t limit yourself to having one mentor as different individuals possess strengths in different areas.
The key is to observe them and see how an individual can guide you.
In a nutshell
A working mother typically has to juggle a lot more compared to men. However, this does not mean they can’t “sit at a table” as Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook said in a TED Talk video in 2010.
Mentorship, flexibility and training are all crucial elements to enable women to become leaders. But if you don’t work hard to find that balance between work and family, and you don’t take the opportunities presented to you (and you don’t try), you may just miss that promotion.
As these ladies have demonstrated, anything is possible.