As part of their career development strategy, the women we interviewed for the study Reflections from Asia Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression employed a variety of approaches to help them succeed. These ranged from setting clear career goals to finding mentors to simply working hard, which are all meant to help raise their profile within the organisation and externally. In general, Asian women are more likely than their Western counterparts to use a range of techniques to advance their careers.
Make a plan
Several of the women we interviewed stressed the importance of setting clear goals and making plans for their career. They had different aspirations and different definitions for success. For example, not all had ambitions to be on the board. Pursuing a board position could mean relocation, which would be too disruptive to their home lives. Others were simply too passionate about their current jobs and enjoyed the more hands-on nature of their roles.
Boonsiri Somchit-Ong stresses the importance of making a choice about the type of career one desires — for example how much family time a person is willing to sacrifice. ‘You can’t be everything at the same time. You need to make a choice and then feel confident about it. That way you’ll feel less guilty about all the things you‘re not doing.’
Karen O‘Duil believes clear goals are important. ‘You’ve really got to focus,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to verbalise your goal and then go for it. That’s one of the things that sometimes women baulk at. It’s really important to say, “I want that and I want it by that date and say this is where I want to be.” It’s important to have that clear vision so you can make your way towards it.’
Irelan Tam agrees. ‘I always have had aspirations regarding my future career. Once I have determined the goals I would work towards achieving them. For example, when I was made responsible for the supply chain, which I don’t have much knowledge about, I sought some expertise and set some goals for myself and then worked towards achieving them. I always enjoy new assignments given to me. It means I have a chance at learning something new. I usually work with my boss to determine key tasks that I want to achieve.’
Vivian Zheng also recommends planning your career path in detail and focusing on every step along the way. ‘You really need to have a plan to achieve your career goals,’ she advises. ‘You need a long-term goal and to turn this into smaller steps. Look at what you’ve already achieved and what you need to work on in the near future.’
Several studies demonstrate that women with mentors are more successful. Certainly, the women we spoke to felt that having a mentor or a role model to learn from was vital to their success. ‘We’re not perfect, so be prepared to draw in help from others,’ says Amy Lam.
‘Some fabulous people have supported me through different things,’ explains Karen O‘Duil. ‘They’ve just offered me a little bit of their experience, which makes the learning curve so much faster. I’ve found it really useful just having an ear to talk to.’
Ruchira Vaidya regrets not having had a mentor in her career. ‘A lack of [mentorship] in the initial year of my career was a challenge professionally. It was up to me to discover myself, chart a career path and eventually develop my leadership skills.’
What mentors offer
With the right mentor or role model, women can overcome many of the barriers they typically face in a male-dominated business.
A mentor can help women:
- plan their career path
- develop the right experience
- seek out new opportunities
- understand the business from a senior manager’s point of view
- deal with day-to-day challenges
- develop confidence and self-belief.
Jasmin Harvey sums up the value of a mentor relationship. ‘Mentors offer an independent perspective and provide a great sounding board for current challenges and workplace issues. They can also motivate you and ensure you remain active in managing your career.’
Vivian Zheng explains how valuable it can be to learn from somebody else’s experience. ‘My mentor has been through what I’m now experiencing, so she can give advice on which areas to focus on and which direction I should move in.’
Many women used the examples set by mentors or role models to guide their own careers. This is the case for Theresa Chan. ‘The reason I’m doing CIMA is [because I am] following the footsteps of the finance director I worked for in London. He did CIMA, then eventually his MBA.’
As well as helping with career planning, mentors are useful for moral support, as Theresa explains. ‘When you’re tired and stressed it can be good to have this person to talk to. Especially when you’re high up the ladder, it can get a little bit lonely sometimes.’
Choosing a mentor
Finding the right mentor can be vital to success. In most cases, the women had carefully sought out and developed relationships with senior people who could help them. However, the mentor’s position in the company may be less important than their insight and honesty. According to Boonsiri Somchit-Ong, ‘It’s important to build relationships with people who’ll tell you exactly what your faults are.’ Theresa Chan agrees that a good mentor knows you well and gives direct feedback. ‘It’s very difficult for me to see myself and my strengths and weaknesses but they can easily see them.’
Several of the women said they relied on various different people to guide them in different areas of their career. Devika Mohotti explains her approach, ‘My mentors are in different age groups, with different levels of expertise. I have mentors who guide me on situational challenges and leadership issues. Then I have people who mentor me on the technological aspects, because the technology changes dramatically and the higher up you go the less opportunity you have to keep abreast of it.’
Irelan Tam has also sought specialist support for different aspects of her career, ‘When I was working in country, I had an unofficial mentor in the sales and marketing field, who worked with me on a project on Efficient Health Care Response with the local health authority. When I moved to the regional Finance Organisation, I had a mentor from Australia who is the Senior Leader and she specifically helped me on solving complexity when working across different cultures.’
Most of these relationships were informal, and some women felt this worked well for them. Boonsiri Somchit-Ong says, ‘I don’t like formal rigid mentoring relationships; sometimes you just want to go out for a coffee to discuss things with somebody. As a mentor myself I learn more from people in an informal setting.’
In many cases, women’s mentors were from outside their own organisation. Jasmin Harvey sees value in both internal and external mentoring relationships. ‘Internally, a mentor can act as a talent broker, and help you progress to the next level. Externally a mentor can ensure you are focused on the bigger picture and on your long-term aspirations.’
Perhaps due to the lack of senior female finance professionals, most of the women’s mentors and role models were male. Few women saw this as a problem, though most felt female mentors could provide more support and guidance in certain situations, for example when balancing family and work demands.
Jennice Zhu says, ‘I would have loved to have had a female mentor. Sometimes you just need to talk and for somebody to listen to you is enough. Sometimes a male boss will try to give you a solution. [But] with a woman, you may be able to express emotions more and this can help release pressure.’
Ruchira Vaidya also comments, ‘Without doubt, female role models are important. It is easy to relate your own obstacles to hers and then learn by drawing parallels.’
As well as listening and understanding, female mentors and role models can provide real-life examples of how to succeed in a male-dominated environment, as Karen O’Duil describes. ‘In Jetstar there are some fairly strong women, which has been exceptionally encouraging,’ she says. ‘There are women who are just fabulous at what they do and [they] do it all with flair and style and command, [all the while] having courtesy and respect for people.’ Theresa Chan agrees that ‘learning from other women’s success stories is really helpful and inspiring.’
It’s due to this need for real-life inspiration that Karen O’Duil makes herself accessible as a role model for younger female colleagues. ‘It’s very important for other women to see that you can study, have a family and work. It is possible to juggle the whole lot.’
TOP TIPS: Make a plan
- Decide what success means for you and identify your ambitions
- Plan your career path in detail — focusing on short-term and long-term goals.
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.