Women Leaders: Building Your Networks

A few of the women we spoke to for the study Reflections from Asia Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression emphasised the value of female networking groups – bothinternal and external. Networks can provide the female support and role models that maybe missing in a male-dominated organisation, as well as offer insights into the way otherwomen and other companies operate. They can put one in a better position to change jobs in the future.

Lakmali Nanayakkara explains the value of women-only networking groups. ‘Women network differently from men they are more direct, more genuine and a bit more intuitive, as well as more selective about who to network with. This means they may form stronger networks; the women-to-women relationships have more bonding and can be stronger. Therefore when these networks work, they can be very powerful as well as satisfying.’
Some companies offer coaching, which provides individual guidance and advice. Many women found this extremely helpful. Jennice Zhu describes how coaching helped her. ‘It really focuses on you as an individual. You feel close to the coach and can open up and discuss a lot of personal issues. The biggest benefit I got from my coaching programme was to change my mindset, so I started to have a different perspective on things and to improve my performance.’
The women we spoke to emphasised the need for women to assert themselves and be proactive in order to succeed, while recognising that self-promotion doesn’t often come naturally to women.
Promote yourself
The importance of self-promotion is supported by research. A study by McKinsey found that one of the keys to success is the ability to promote oneself and be assertive about one’s performance and ambitions.
However, women tend to minimise their own contributions, and are therefore less likely to assert their talents and gain recognition. Our survey found that women were less confident than men about their skills and abilities than their male counterparts and more likely to say they need to develop certain skills, in particular business acumen and leadership (despite using leadership more regularly in their jobs than men).
CIMA women’s network
CIMA has launched an exclusive women-only network for finance professionals to share tips on advancing their careers, seek advice and network. (To join, follow this link: http://community.cimaglobal.com/groups/content/cima-womens-network).
These findings are supported by a survey of MBA students from 2003, which found that 70% of women saw their own performance as equivalent to that of their co-workers, while 70% of men rated themselves as higher than co-workers.
Our survey also found that women were less likely than men to promote their own achievements, a point well illustrated by Karen O‘Duil. ‘Men tend to be more bullish. Ihave a friend who’s an HR manager who says that men look at the requirements on a jobdescription and say, ‘Ah yes, I can do six out of the eight, I’ll go for it’. Women say ‘I canonly do six out of the eight and won‘t go for the job.’
Devika Mohotti encourages women to be more proactive and ask for what they deserve. ‘Women need to ask more,’ she believes. ‘If you need a position on the board, go and ask for it. If you need a pay rise, go and ask.’
Vivian Zheng believes that simply doing your job well won’t get you noticed. ‘When female leaders don’t get to board level, it’s not because they’re not intelligent or not working hard it’s because they don’t believe that women can achieve the same level as men. You need to have a belief that you can succeed and be passionate about it,’ sheadvises.
Devika goes one step further, ‘You need to learn the rules of the game. Do your homework about what‘s needed to get that promotion, who makes the decisions and how they perceive you. Then work on your objectives.’ And this involves letting others know how well you are performing.
Shouting about your success may not come naturally to some women, but preparation and planning can really help. This could be as simple as keeping an ongoing list of your achievements so you’re always ready to give examples, or preparing well so you always have something to say in meetings or corporate events. It also helps to seize opportunities, such as giving feedback on the outcome of group discussions. This gives you the opportunity to be seen at meetings and shows you’re keen to participate.
Jennice Zhu believes that communicating clearly and confidently is vital for success. ‘When I look at senior managers, when they speak their opinion they use very simple, decisive and precise words, and deliver the message effectively. And they influence a lot of people this way.’
Widen your responsibilities
Taking on new responsibilities is another valuable way to raise your profile. A study of senior female leaders by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that nearly all had been offered opportunities, which proved to be major career milestones, by key leaders. These opportunities made the women more visible to male leaders.
The women we interviewed all agreed that it paid to make the most of opportunities. According to Amy Lam, ‘You have to get involved and be willing to do a little bit more, even if you’re not asked to. I’m always looking for opportunities to develop myself or people around me.’
Jasmin Harvey advises that you should ‘never say no to an opportunity, especially if it is outside of your comfort zone’. Jenny To agrees saying, ‘You will never learn if you don’t try different things outside the scope of your normal role.’
For many women in the Asia-Pacific region, career-changing opportunities involve working abroad. Jasmin Harvey from Australia says, ‘One of the most influential aspects on my career has been working across different cultures. This international experience has broadened my skill set and provides a distinguishing feature on my CV for future roles.’
Working overseas can prove difficult for women with family responsibilities, as discussed above, but it’s not always necessary to travel to succeed. Representing your organisation on external projects or working with senior staff on working groups can also expand your skills and raise your profile.
Taking on new responsibilities might also involve moving jobs or companies. For Devika, getting experience in a variety of settings was a key element of career progression. ‘I practice the principle of “learn, perform, add value and then move”. My strategy was tobroaden my experience in the early stages, as opposed to going up the career ladder. ‘
Top Tips:Seek support 
  • Seek out mentors and other senior colleagues who will support your career and help you progress.
  • Choose your mentor carefully ensure it’s somebody you can trust who can empathise as well as advise.
  • Consider a female mentor for support in overcoming gender barriers.
  • Build up support and contacts outside your organisation, as well as internally.
  • Join female support networks.
  • Find out about coaching opportunities.
  • Offer yourself as a mentor to more junior staff.
Get organised
Careful organisation and planning was another valuable success strategy for the women leaders we interviewed. ‘You need to have a plan A, B and C when you’re a woman’, according to Lakmali Nanayakkara. ‘I don’t think that men in general need that level of planning or support. When you have dependants who you care about, usually close family or children, and take such commitments seriously, you must always have a backup. That level of planning also enables women to be fulfilled on all fronts, including the workplace, which I think is fundamental to their wellbeing. Women need to both understand and believe in what it takes and feel that it’s all worthwhile.’
Vivian Zheng has a young child,which means she is unable to work overtime as much as some colleagues.She compensates by meticulously planning each day’s tasks. ‘I need to have a very tightschedule and be clear where I focus every day. I use a to-do list and prioritise tasks.’
To meet the challenge of balancing work and family, Karen O’Duil is careful to compartmentalise. ‘I spend my time at work working; I don’t do anything to do with my personal life in working hours. When I’m at work, I work, when I’m at home, I’m at home.I don’t blend the two.’
Amy Lam stresses the importance of prioritising. ‘The challenge of working and studying at the same time can be quite tiring and you have to plan and decide which particular area you want to spend time on. There are so many things that you have to be up-to-date with, and you have to pick the priorities.’
Karen O‘Duil advises her students that, with careful planning, they can find time to study as well as work and be with their families. ‘An hour in the morning before the family wakes up that’s your time to do something. Travelling to work, in your lunch break do it then, breaking it up into segments during the day. People tell me, “I managed to get five hours study done during the day and it didn’t impinge on the day.”’
Professor Dr Suzana Sulaiman believes women are better equipped than men to meet these organisational challenges. ‘When I compare female lecturers to men, I think that women are better at multi-tasking,’ she told us. ‘Women are also more meticulous at doing things. Most women do very thorough planning.’
About the Author
Sandra Rapacioli is responsible for producing and promoting thought leadership at CIMA. She has a special interest in leadership, particularly the progression of women into senior roles, and sustainability.
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