Women Leaders: Getting the Balance Right

It’s clear that the stresses of being a leader can be even greater for women than men. The phrase ‘the glass cliff’ refers to the high levels of burnout experienced by women when they get to the top, as a result of the challenges of achieving their success.


McKinsey research finds that female leaders ‘tend to experience emotional ups and downs more often and more intensely than most men do’. Theresa Chan sums up how important it is for women leaders to look after themselves, for example, by building in time to relax, in order to manage these emotional pressures and perform well.


‘Career development is a lifelong process and it has to be sustainable,’ she says. ‘I believe you need to maintain a good balance between mental health, social health and physical health. We need physical health because we need a high level of energy to deliver results. We need social health to keep ourselves happy and we need mental health to think positively and survive stress and pressure at work.’


Irelan Tam explains how she reduces stress. ‘Every day I spend some time exercising. Going jogging is the main way I release the stress of my work. You have fresh air and a clear mind to think over the issues and able to develop the plan for the whole day. It also leaves me feeling more energetic.’


Never stop learning 

The women we spoke to for the study, Reflections from Asia Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression, all agreed on the importance of studying and keeping abreast of developments, both to help you succeed in your current job and to pave the way for future opportunities.


‘I think for most women working in the industry, the most important thing is that we have to continue learning,’ says Irelan Tam. ‘It’s critical that you are willing to take up some new assignments, widen your scope, open your mind and continue to learn.’


Karen O’Duil is also passionate about the importance of learning and studying. ‘To someone who doesn’t have qualifications, I’d say, “You can do it. I don’t care if you’re 35 and you’ve got three young kids at home, you can do it, you can make the time in the day.” You need to get some core qualifications behind you and always have that to fall back on. People say that it’s just a piece of paper but qualifications are fundamental.’


Several of the women were passionate about the role of CIMA qualifications in advancing their careers. Devika Mohotti, for example, has this to say. ‘CIMA thinks “business first and the numbers next”. It’s very unique in developing people who are both finance- and business trained. There’s something in the CIMA formula that builds a certain type of person. There are not many CIMA people around, so there are a number of instances where I’ve been sought for particular roles because of my qualifications.’


Karen O‘Duil says that gaining the CIMA qualification changed her life. ‘It’s the application of the theory to the practical rather than the other way round,’ is how she describes studying for the qualification. ‘I loved it.’


As well as external qualifications such as CIMA’s, several women mentioned the useful in-house training they had received. Amy Lam, for example, went through a series of management development programmes run by her employer, tailored to different stages, from junior executive to director.


Garris Chen advises women to learn as much as they can on the job, not just through formal training. ‘Take on new challenges while you’re still young and mobile and learn as much as possible and be humble along the way. You have to be like a sponge: when people give you information, you just absorb it and don’t try and act like you’re smarter than them.’ 


Being a leader 

Developing interpersonal and business skills alongside technical skills is vital for management accountants, both male and female, who aspire to leadership roles. Research from the CIMA Centre of Excellence at the University of Bath School of Management found that the technical and business competencies required in advisory and management accounting roles are closely aligned to leadership competencies, far more so than in other finance roles. However, the study says, management accountants need to improve their communication, problem-solving and business competencies in order to reach the top.


Top Tips: Never stop learning 

  • Make time to study and keep abreast of developments.
  • Use CIMA’s unique focus to gain a broad perspective on business.
  • Make the most of in-house training and development opportunities.
  • Keep learning through new challenges at work.


The research shows that the role played by finance professionals is evolving, with more emphasis on activities that guide and support an organisation’s strategic direction. Respondents from both east and west reported moves away from the traditional accounting operations and more in the direction of management support, though more of those in the west are already more focused on these ‘added value’ activities.


Business and management skills

Jenny To’s experience illustrates why developing wider business and management skills is so important for leaders. ‘When I was promoted to managing director, it was a big challenge to move from finance into management. I now look after the business in Hong Kong and have my own sales and marketing teams. However, even when I was in a financial role, I wasn’t just looking at the numbers; I was involved with the management team and able to talk about different aspects of the business, for example, the sales strategy or the marketing strategy.’


Sandhya Rajapakse agrees, ‘Being in the finance field, one is always viewed as a blocker, the one who insists on control and regulations. It’s therefore important to gel well with the team and create solutions and value additions, and also have a thorough knowledge of the business apart from the technicalities of one’s role.’


Irelan Tam explains how it‘s important to fit in with the culture of the organisation. ‘You have to understand about the business objectives and strategic imperatives. For example, our company focuses on credo-based decision making, so we have to follow the suggested process in evaluating our investment opportunities. Also, we focus on creating value for our customers, so we have to partner with our sales and marketing department to understand the business process in fulfilling our customers’ requirements, and not just finance.’


The last word goes to Boonsiri Somchit-Ong, who simply believes that ‘being a good leader is being a good human.’


For Garris Chen, developing people skills is imperative for aspiring leaders. ‘[Being at the] management level is the time to develop your technical knowledge; when you get more senior, people skills are what’s important.’ 


Women’s leadership styles

Several studies have concluded that women tend to lead in different ways from most men — and that these differences can have a positive impact on the organisation’s success. Research from McKinsey found that women are more likely than men to demonstrate leadership traits that have a positive impact on corporate performance, including being inspiring, building collaborative teams, defining expectations and rewarding people.


A study by US management consultants Caliper also identified a number of characteristics that distinguish women’s leadership styles from those of men. It found that women leaders:


  • are more persuasive — more able to bring others round to their point of view
  • are more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills
  • learn from adversity and carry on
  • demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.


Similarly, CIMA's recent gender at work survey shows that women, in their jobs, tend to use interpersonal skills, such as teamwork, conflict management, influencing and negotiation skills, more frequently than men, as show by the chart below (click to enlarge).



Top Tips: Raise your profile 

  • Be assertive and ask for what you deserve.
  • Be pro-active – speak up about your career ambitions and keep a log of your successes.
  • Network widely to make yourself known.
  • Play on your strengths and don’t feel the need to emulate male colleagues.
  • Work on communication and presentation skills – for example, via training courses.
  • Seize new responsibilities and opportunities.


Top Tips: Get organised 

  • Make plans for all eventualities, such as ensuring you have backup childcare.
  • Prioritise your daily tasks and delegate where appropriate.
  • Make the most of travelling time to catch up on study.
  • Keep work and home life separate.
  • Find ways to manage stress.
  • Take steps to stay physically healthy.


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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