Showing the way
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we focus on the working women of the 21st century. The experience varies across the globe – many have written about the labour force participation of women, the glass ceiling and gender equality.
Working mothers have always been inspirational in terms of their agility and multitasking skills in striking a balance between family and career. This is more so when they are in leadership positions in the corporate world.
At the recent launch of the 2015 Career Comeback Programme, we learnt of many great accounts of women given the opportunity to return to work while balancing the many priorities in life.
We caught up with several senior leaders who have made it happen even with significant barriers in their way. They shared their personal journeys and lessons for other working women.
As leaders, we also asked them to offer their advice to other key decision makers on how to play a role in creating a conducive and productive work environment for women and men alike.
Of peaks and plateaus
Datin Maznah Mahbob, CEO of AmInvest, shares her wisdom on women and careers, “Women need to be comfortable with their pace of career development. It is okay to reach a plateau at some point of your working life.”
“Reaching a plateau is not a bad thing. In fact, it is during these moments that you grow deeper in your values. It strengthens your core foundation before you take off again to achieve greater success and sustainability in your career. On the other hand, one may be ‘accelerating’ all the time, but the person’s growth might be a shallow one.”
On women planning to return to work after a career break, Maznah advises, “Use the time you are away from the workforce to keep yourself updated with industry trends. Consider taking short professional courses to upskill yourself, or attend industry-related events to stay in touch with people in the field.”
“You’ll be surprised what women who return to the workforce can bring to the table. The years of hiatus from work, but managing finances and time at home, and organising your home and children are actually soft skills that can prove priceless when you return to work.”
The CEO imperative
We asked Cheryl Yeoh, CEO of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre, MaGIC, what advice she would give CEOs when faced with an “innovate/diversify or die” situation.
“It’s crucial for CEOs to start making innovation a core strategy to the company, and take that on himself/herself. Hiring or assigning this task merely to a chief innovation officer or any other CXO will not work because it will never be embedded into the culture and core activities of the company, which is what’s needed for companies to compete in this increasingly borderless and competitive new economy.
“Technology is moving at lightning speed, and has levelled the playing field for everyone and anyone around the world to compete. If companies don’t equip themselves with the right talent, positioning and look-ahead strategy, a Kodak moment might just happen to them.
“For example, as part of their innovation strategy, a lot of retail companies like Walmart, who are competing with the onset of e-commerce giants such as Amazon.com, has set up Walmart Labs, the innovation arm of the company to allow young talent to experiment and build new products for the retailer that is positioned for mainstream launch if successful.”
If circumstances or opportunities prevented someone from gaining advanced qualifications, what advice would you give?
“Paper qualifications are only as good as getting you through the door. Once through, your career progression depends on your performance on the ground, a positive attitude, and a continuous drive for learning and improvement.
“These days, the Internet has levelled the playing field and there are endless online materials that people can acquire knowledge from. Arguably, the skills that high-growing, innovative companies need these days can be acquired outside of the traditional university setting.
“So my advice would be to not give up and be resourceful. A lot of successful people that I know did not go to top universities or get a Master’s degree. They got to the top by being relentlessly resourceful, proving themselves through action and side projects, and taking the initiative on self-learning or mastering a certain skill.”
Role of leadership
We also talked to Sugunah Verumandy, human resource manager of General Electric International Inc in Malaysia and Brunei.
To women of all ages, “It is key to identify an employer with employment philosophies aligned with your personal needs and growth. In order to get the attention of such an employer, however, individuals need to prove that we are worth the investment too. In any relationship including employment, it works both ways.
“In my 20 years of work experience, I have learnt that we go through different phases of life whether personal or professional. The ride hasn’t been the same; as a fresh graduate entering workforce and today as a mother of two children working in a leading multinational company.”
Drawing from her personal journey, Sugunah shared three basic tips:
- Stay focused
- Constantly add value to your employer
- Be in the company of those who inspire and encourage you
Advice to senior leaders: “The ability to create work life flexibility is becoming a key need for most employees and this is becoming more evident amongst our millennials and next generation of leaders.”
“There are numerous benefits to flexible work arrangements including reduced turnover and recruitment costs, reduced travel costs for employees, increased employee productivity and engagement and opportunity for business continuity during emergency of crisis.”
“A 2014 survey by the Malaysian Employers Federation found that Malaysians equally value high salary and flexible work arrangements; while the Kelly Global Workforce Index 2014 reported that more than 50% of employees surveyed in Malaysia would give up higher pay and/or career growth or advancement for flexible work schedules.
“There are various types of flexible work arrangements ranging from place of work, schedules and hours of work. Decision makers in companies may choose the one that best fits their needs.
“Agencies such as TalentCorp are available to coach companies to create and implement such arrangements. Companies can try small steps by piloting with small groups.
“Leadership plays a key role in supporting the sustainability of this business imperative by reviewing and adjusting the guidelines based on business and workforce needs.”
On the Career Comeback Programme, TalentCorp CEO Johan Mahmood Merican said “We understand it can be challenging and daunting to look for a job after time out of the workforce.
“We hope to ease this process by connecting jobseekers who are women returnees to potential employers. By giving them targeted incentives, we can encourage employers to expand their talent pool and at the same time provide career opportunities for women looking to return to work”.
To all women who take on multiple roles of being a mother, sister, daughter, mentor, employee and/or employer, you are an inspiration! Stay strong!
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Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 14 March 2015