As we mark the International Women`s Day this Sunday we at Forum celebrate all women in business for their achievements. Often challenging, female leadership is on the rise and we would like to inspire and encourage all aspiring women by sharing insights from our very own senior female executives.
Launching today, we are starting our “Celebrating Women in Business” monthly series, where Forum’s female leaders will share their challenges and advice on succeeding in business.
Starting the series, Nithya Ramaswamy, Design and Development Consultant shares her personal and professional experience and lessons learned that shaped her career.
Nithya Ramaswamy, Design & Development Consultant, APAC
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be many things. A doctor, a vet, a teacher, an actor, a lawyer, a pilot and the list goes on. I suppose I didn’t have a specific idea of what I wanted to be, but I knew that it had to be in the field of working with different people and helping them solve daily problems.
What, if any personal challenges did you face to get into business and a leadership role and how did you overcome these? What lessons have you learnt in your personal life which helped in business?
While I was born and brought up in Singapore, I come from a very traditional, orthodox Indian family where boys are seen as the pride of the family. My parents, akin to many other traditional Indian families, always believed in raising girls to be pretty, well-mannered and educated to a point where they are able to fulfil their roles as supportive wives and mothers. Having a great job, furthering my education or being a business leader was never really expected of me.
This kind of narrow-minded thinking in a strange, unintentional way stirred up a burning desire within me to want to prove them wrong, and show them that I could do anything a boy is capable of. It was personally challenging as it meant being self-driven and achievement-oriented to get where I wanted. Watching my mum work extremely hard as a homemaker and not having the empowerment to make her own choices motivated me to work hard, have a sense of independence, and strive for recognition outside of home.
The biggest lesson in life for me is that you can do or achieve anything, only if you want to. Sheer determination to succeed and achieve your goals comes from within. Opportunities do present themselves if you work hard and plan ahead. Obstacles, setbacks, whatever discourages you – take that as a challenge, learn from it and bounce back up.
What, if anything, would you have done differently in your career to date?
I can say that I have made the most out of the opportunities presented to me, and am quite happy with the outcome. There are always times where I wonder if I should have made a quicker decision or should have done things differently, but I think it is all part and parcel of evaluating your options and choosing what you think is best at that point in time. What is important is to make the most of what you have at any given time, without compromising your values, and back yourself up.
Have you had a bad boss along the way and why was this person a poor leader?
Yes, I think no one is perfect, every boss has their strengths and weaknesses. But the ones who are poor leaders are those who acknowledge their weaknesses but don’t act to improve or overcome them. I had a boss in my earlier organisation who was a great motivator and extremely supportive of my projects and decisions. However, he struggled to give direct feedback about areas I need to improve on, and focus on my development needs. I am critical of the work I do, and therefore appreciate candid feedback on what needs to be better. Not having that kind of direct feedback made me lose interest in what I was doing after some time, and I decided to leave the organisation for a more challenging environment.
What’s the hardest business conversation you have ever had and what did you learn from it?
In my previous role as a Talent Development Manager in logistics organisation, which was male-dominated and where training and development was perceived to be a waste of time, trying to get the buy-in and managing up through impactful business conversations was a huge challenge. One of those hard conversations happened when I mustered enough courage to barge in to the HR VP’s office and present a business case to him on looking at training and development as an asset instead of a cost, and re-framing the role of our talent development and management function in the region.
It was a great experience as no one had attempted to have these conversations in the past as they had all assumed leaders who are engineering professionals will view these efforts with scepticism and had continued with the status quo. That one conversation spiralled into a series of conversations between our regional talent team and the senior leadership to take our ideas forward. The end result of these conversations was a keenness on the leadership team’s part to have my department engage in more strategic work and engage more frequently with the line. They tagged us as “Super Heroes” encouraging us to travel the region, explore where the talent development and management gaps are and to come back and make recommendations. What I have learnt from that is having courage to change the status quo and taking things in your stride, being willing to take baby steps to be the change you are seeking.
Who is your most admired female leader and why?
I think there are many women leaders I admire. Whether it is well-known leaders like Angela Merkel and Indra Nooyi or fellow women leaders whom I know personally as my family members, friends and colleagues that I work with, they are all extraordinary women leaders who stand by their values, communicate openly, and aren’t afraid to think innovatively or adapt their leadership style.
Do you think women make better leaders than men and what’s the reason for your answer? Are there some things that certain genders are just better at in business?
I don’t think that the effectiveness of one’s leadership can be accorded to one’s gender. We are all so diverse, and our personalities, upbringing, systemic and environmental factors, daily interactions mould us to who we are and what we are good at/not so good at. For example, we often hear that women are better at multi-tasking and men aren’t. Again, I have seen plenty of male leaders who are great at multi-tasking and I certainly find it hard to multi-task to be honest! Another perception is that women leaders are more micro-managing in their style whereas male leaders empower their staff more. Again from my experience, I have seen this can go either way. The key here is balance, whether one is a male or female leader. Getting the right balance by adapting and communicating according to the situation is the way to go, in order to be a better leader.
What are the strengths of women in business and how can women maximise these and build on them to get ahead? What are the weaknesses and how can they overcome them?
For a woman to become a leader, she has to fight harder against the status quo and stereotypes, and therefore has to be a lot more focused and determined. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s sums this up by saying, “Stop whingeing, get on with it, and prove them all wrong.”
By virtue of this, strong women leaders recognise these challenges and set a new standard by being more assertive and persuasive when they need to, and take a keen effort to build relationships and promote collaborative workplaces. Conversely, weak women leaders succumb to the status quo and stereotypes, and it is a downward spiral from there.
What is the one piece of advice you would give other women in business who are aiming to be senior leaders?
The advice I would give all women who aspire to be senior leaders is that success and balance go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to make decisions and back yourself out, while reaching out to others for counsel and support, taking care in surrounding yourself with people whom you can count on. Balance is also about being authentic yet adaptable in a variety of situations, and having an unending curiosity to know more, acknowledge what you don’t know and keep at it.
How do you think leadership in the workplace will look different in 5 to 10 years’ time and how will these affect women? How is globalisation affecting this change?
Leaders, both men and women need to be a lot more adaptive to changes and be able to deal with ambiguity and various complex situations. Globalisation causes the workforce to work in flexible and untethered formats, keep learning on the job and collaborate across boundaries. Leaders more than ever need to recognise the changing landscape, think creatively with limited amounts of information and manage business dilemmas by engaging their employees regularly.
There is a long way to go for organisations world-wide in promoting diversity in leadership and enabling women to realise their leadership potential by providing development scaffolds through their leadership journey such as mentorship schemes and impactful leadership development programmes. There are many organisations that are starting to promote workplace flexibility and encourage the growth of women leaders in their leadership pipeline. Women leaders should take advantage of these efforts and continue to lead with a great degree of self-awareness and courage. Women leaders should also be mindful of the common stereotypes that exist around women leaders and avoid falling into potential role traps by casting themselves as victims.