The Thorn Among The Roses

Apr 24, 2014 7 Min Read

Last week, TalentCorp, Malaysia’s talent organisation, launched the Women in Leadership (WIL) programme and showcased 17 mentors for top Malaysian women being groomed for leadership greatness. Of the 17 mentors, there was only one male mentor. All the rest were females. Lily Cheah, editor of, the one-stop-global leadership development portal, had a good laugh with the one male mentor, who also happened to be her boss, the CEO of Leaderonomics, Roshan Thiran. She thought it would be interesting to ‘interrogate’ him and find out how he ended up being the last man standing amongst the other roses. Here is how their conversation went:

1. What motivates you to be involved in WIL MY? Why do you think this is an important programme to be a part of?

Developing women leaders in Malaysia is an important business agenda. Women make great leaders. Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman that comprised a study they did of 7,280 leaders in 2011 looked at leaders that were employed in a variety of positions – from very senior management to individual contributors. In the study, they asked others to rate the leaders in 16 leadership competencies. According to the data, they found that women out-scored men in all but one of the 16 competencies. In fact, in 12 of the 16 areas women were better by a significant margin.

They build better teams; they’re more liked and respected as managers; they tend to be able to combine intuitive and logical thinking more seamlessly; they’re more aware of the implications of the their own and others’ actions; and they think more accurately about the resources needed to accomplish a given outcome.

Given that, it makes more sense to help develop the women leadership pool in Malaysia. My team and I believe in growing everyone into leaders. This includes women. And so, when the TalentCorp team came to me asking to involve myself as a mentor, I didn’t really hesitate.

2. In your opinion, what are the main factors that hold women back from pursuing senior leadership positions?

There are a number of factors including aspiration. Many women, although talented and with a huge potential runway, prefer to focus on other areas instead of career progression upwards. However, as more and more role models appear of women who achieve a harmony of family, career and personal fulfilment, we see more women willing to endure the learning pains of leadership.

Learning to be a leader is not an easy path – even for males. It requires sacrifice, growth and constant learning. These are painful. Yet to become a great leader, one has to go through these growing pains.

Back to the research by Zenger and Folkman, of the 16 leadership competencies they assessed, the only one where men outranked women was developing a strategic perspective. This is a skill that requires significant amount of experience and context. Great leaders develop a strategic orientation as they experiment, amass experience and constantly disrupt status quo. This again is a painful process of learning.

Finally culture and legacy can play a big part. In the 19th century in most parts of the world, women were not expected to earn their own living. Women seldom had jobs let alone careers. In fact, most professions refused entry to women. At that point in time, it was virtually impossible for women to become doctors, engineers, architects, accountants or bankers. Women were allowed to be teachers though. In 1861 over 72% of teachers were women, but teaching was a low status job and was also very badly paid.

After a long struggle, the medical profession allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. In fact, it was a huge struggle to convince the world that women would make great doctors. In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake wrote a booklet, Medicine as a Profession for Women, where she attempted to answer some of the objections made against women becoming doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers.

However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges. This varied slightly from country to country but overall, women throughout history were not given much opportunity to truly fulfill their talent and potential. But that has changed this past century.

Today, women have clearly displayed they are as good or better than men in virtually all professions. In fact, every year, there are more women who graduate from university than men. So, essentially, a combination of various factors may be holding women back. But each person is different so it may be hard to generalize.

3. Are women different to men in the context of work and careers? If so, how?

I personally believe that all of us are unique. We all have our own set of gifts, skills and thinking styles. The differences we bring to the table make us all unique and brings new ideas and innovation to the world. We are truly blessed to have women in our workplace today as they have made the workplace a much better place with their high bonding and inter-personal presence.

There is some data that shows having diverse people (women, folks with different backgrounds etc) enable company valuations to rise over a period of time. So, regardless of the difference, I suggest we celebrate these differences.

4. In your personal journey, what have been the main factors that have led you to your senior leadership position today? (e.g. inspiration from a particular mentor/ ambition / support etc)

I think the most important factor for me was my first boss. He was a great mentor and a great coach, constantly having impossible expectations from me and demanding me to fulfil those expectations. At first it was an extremely tough working environment with my first boss Mike Petrucelli.

But after some time, I not only thrived when he kept pushing impossible tasks and expectations on me, I became confident that nothing was ever impossible. Having a great boss or a mentor can do wonder for you as these formative leadership lessons early in your career will carry significant weight later on in the success of your career.

5. If you could tell your younger self 3 things about career and success, what would you say?

a. Work Hard and keep working hard – I learnt this lesson from my first football coach Mokhtar Dahari. He once told me that being talented is good but working hard is even better. And I believe much of success is derived from pushing yourself to keep going, delaying gratification and constantly pushing yourself to greatness

b. Constant learning – learning is painful yet much needed for growth and success. This means constantly putting yourself out of your comfort zone so that you are constantly learning new things and growing. Never worry about what others think of you learning new things. Go ahead and learn. Go ahead and experiment. Go ahead and seek new experiences. They will ultimately enable you to become an awesome leader

c. People are key to success – help develop others, care for people and love the people you work with.

Lily Thanks for the conversation, Roshan. I hope your example will encourage more men to step up to be mentors. Women need to learn from men, just as men need to learn from women. Thanks for your time.

To watch a great video on Reverse Mentoring, refer to video below:

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.

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