Throughout history, there has been no shortage of different leadership styles exerted by memorable female leaders. From the fearless approaches of Boudica or Joan of Arc to the nurturing roles of Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale, two largely contrasting stereotypes have been drawn.
Some were tough female leaders, some more caring and relational, but each woman changed the course of human history thanks to their ability to harness their personalities.
When trying to develop their own leadership styles, many people would be inclined to use their natural disposition as a baseline. And while this is usually the best recipe for success in coming off as genuine to those under your payroll, you may need to curtail certain elements of yourself to enhance your leadership capabilities.
One of the most successful female leaders in Malaysia, Piktochart chief executive officer and co-founder Goh Ai Ching, is one such leader who, by her own admission, may have been too nice at certain points in her career.
Developing the company from humble beginnings in Penang with her then-partner, now-husband Andrea Zaggia, Ai Ching has grown Piktochart into one of the most popular infographic companies in the world and leads a team of more than 50 people.
The balance of Ai Ching’s nurturing nature and Andrea’s more goal-oriented mindset have led the company to unprecedented success. Finding the sweet spot of how best to harness her relational nature, however, has been one of Ai Ching’s biggest challenges.
Her litany of stories from her time running the business are laden with examples of times when she, while firing an employee, has been known to cry more than the person being laid off!
“When I first set up my company, I knew that my natural relational personality would be an asset when leading a team,” she says.
“It definitely has its disadvantages as well though and there have been times when I was caught being too soft on the hiring and firing practices. I made a lot of mistakes but I have learnt to balance out my personality.
“Previously I was too nice, and it was very tough for me to let somebody go, or make a decision that might hurt somebody’s feelings.”
She developed a mindset of “speak the truth with love” – which means that she has since learnt to channel that nurturing nature into one that can, at times, be upfront with people about their failings. Except, that it comes from a place of wanting to help them develop.
That growth for her, has been met by her husband, who has learnt to embrace his people skills.
“Sometimes, when working with my husband I need to be his copywriter and filter out the things that he’s saying,” says Ai Ching.
“Before he sends an e-mail or something, I will need to read through it and say, ‘maybe you shouldn’t say things like this’. He tends to just deliver messages; he doesn’t tend to think about how he is trying to get them across and I think he is learning over time how to be a more relational person.
I don’t want to call my husband and me a yin and yang but it almost feels as if having a man and a woman leader in place is a recipe for success – they balance each other out very well to be honest.
A Malaysian female leader belonging more to Andrea’s mould of leadership than Ai Ching’s is Acestar founder and CEO Natalie Sit. The tech entrepreneur set up her company in Kuala Lumpur, coming from a sales role in which she was highly successful. Those skills, however, did not necessarily transfer well to the job of managing people.
“I thought that sales was the be-all-and-end-all. I knew I could handle the sales and therefore thought that I could run a company,” says Natalie.
“In actual fact, it was totally different. I used to think that if you pay somebody a good salary, then they will work hard for you.”
She put her sales skills to work and people skills on the back burner, never understanding why her employees were not as engaged in their jobs as she was.
Following an extended leave in the early days of Acestar, Natalie returned to work to find that all three of her employees had resigned. She undertook a leadership course in London to better understand how to develop her people.
Her eyes were opened to the need to create an internal culture that would give her people pride in the work they were doing. She has since grown the company from those early days to a team of 14 highly motivated people, who work harmoniously in a well-established company culture.
I learnt that if I take care of my people, they will take care of my clients, she says.
“Nowadays, I will always invest my time into my people because they are my company’s greatest asset. In order to build a culture, you need something that people can identify with. That’s why we have company trips, to bring people together and to see each other as more than just colleagues.”
Those company trips have become the hallmarks of life working as an “Acestarian”; the workforce went to Japan last year and the Maldives earlier this year. The spirit of teamwork has become the focal point of Natalie’s leadership journey and she always encourages her people to develop the “we” attitude when approaching their work.
“My style of leadership could best be described as ‘soft but powerful’ and very focused on team building,” she says.
Every task a team member takes on, I ask ‘Is this something you can do yourself or would it be easier if we pull together as a team on this?’
Taking leadership international
Undertaking a leadership journey is not the only thing that these two successful female leaders have in common, as both have used the GAIN programme, launched by the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) in order to take their company’s next steps.
As Piktochart builds its reputation as one of Penang’s biggest multi-nationals and Acestar builds solid connections overseas, MDEC have given them the platform they need to grow their companies.
“We have always had a good relationship with MDEC and the chance to be a part of GAIN was a golden opportunity to scale that we could not miss,” says Ai Ching.
“They have always taken an interest in how best to help us, and identify where the gaps are in our company. It’s comforting to know that they are there to help us succeed.”
Natalie echoes similar sentiments as she speaks enthusiastically of her time in the programme.
“I grew my company to a certain level, but to take those next steps internationally, I needed some guidance,” admits Natalie.
“I was very lucky that I found GAIN and I knew how ambitious they were to grow Malaysian companies regionally. By myself, it would have been very difficult to have the kind of international access that I have had and I owe them a lot for their knowledge transfer and development help.
“Our dream is to go global. If you want to grow out of Malaysia, GAIN is the perfect platform to do that.”