07 Mar 2019 21:27 IST

Lessons from the women leaders in my life

On Women’s Day, greetings to women in the business world. May we continue to benefit from their wisdom

At TalentEase, one of the most important values we instil in the children and young adults we work with, is ‘Respect for Women’. I’ve often been asked why we don’t just call it Respect. I respond that I look forward to that day because respecting all women will be the norm. Sadly, we still have a long way to go till that happens.

In the same way, I look forward to the day we will not need an International Women’s Day. In the business world, thankfully, there are more and more examples of women breaking through — leading, disrupting, transforming and creating. I thought I’d use this piece to celebrate some of the important lessons I’ve learnt, from women leaders in my life.

Stand up for people

My first boss was a woman. I remember a time when I was pursuing a risky deal and eventually managed to muck it up royally. I had made some wrong choices. As a young management trainee just beginning a career, I was petrified of the impact on my long-term prospects at the company. But she called me up and said, “I completely back you. We can’t achieve anything by playing safe and I’m glad that even though you’re young and inexperienced, you were willing to step out of the comfort zone, we’ve been used to. I’m there for you.” It was a relief to hear and challenged me to do better. I was grateful for her confidence and faith in me, but even more grateful for the lesson she taught me about standing up for people especially when things go wrong.

While this isn’t a male vs female thing, it isn’t typical either — I have often seen male leaders willing to ditch standing up for a peer or junior or boss if they could sense the tide had changed, if management had stopped treating the person as a star. I found women colleagues much more willing to stand up for the now-fallen-then-star. They were willing to prize the relationship, even if politically it had become inconvenient to do so.

As I’d mentioned in an earlier piece, women are better able to appreciate the emotional context and layers in a situation and avoid taking just the logical view. This enables them to go beyond plain facts to see emotions at play, sensitivities that have to be taken into account and loyalties that must be preserved. This improves their leadership impact, and we can learn from it.

Discipline and commitment

I had the good fortune to work with a senior executive at a client from a major global bank. She must have been past 70, but still valued by the bank and her skills and experience relied on. We had finished a long, hard day’s work together, with the whole team working well past 1 am. When we had to decide on when to resume the next day, everyone — tired and exhausted, but all younger than the lady I’m highlighting was pushing for an 8 am or later start. She was clear — we have a lot to get done, let’s start at 6. Everyone rushed to their rooms and fell into bed, dead tired.

The next morning at 6, as we droopily trooped in, she was there already and had evidently spent at least an hour or two up after our night meeting preparing summary notes, action plans and points for the day’s discussion and had made copies for the whole team. Again, she inspired me with her energy and commitment. She had the discipline to do what needed to be done, independent of how tired she felt.

Today, when I talk to my team-mates of working based on commitment not convenience, it’s her picture that comes to my mind. Very often, I’ve seen women colleagues handle a whole range of challenges and issues at work and also be outstanding mothers and wives at home. A woman team-mate of mine informed her husband-to-be that their wedding could only happen after our client school closed for the year, so that her work with the children would not be impacted. As business leaders we should learn that leadership does not come up with a stop watch. It’s not something I can turn on based on how I feel. It is a discipline.

Learning - Stretching - Playing it straight

I’ve saved my favourite women leaders for the last — my mum, my wife, my daughter. Mum has taught us so many lessons. They would be too many to name. But let me highlight just two. Good cheer under pressure. Whatever the stress or tough problem that had to be handled at home, you couldn’t keep Mum gloomy. She would be the chirpy, cheerful presence brightening the home. With four boys and Dad, the five males would sometimes sit silently at the dinner table, but in a few seconds, Mum would destroy the silence with a comment, a joke, a probing question, and we would soon all be jabbering away. It’s a lesson that needs to be practised a lot more in the business world.

The second lesson I’ve learnt from her, is her commitment to learning. Unlike her sons or husband, she’s no postgraduate, but I would still call her the most ‘educated’ person in the home. Her reading ranges from business newspapers to The Economist, to books on leadership and philosophy. The moment she finishes a book, she’s nagging me for the next one. She took French classes when she was nudging 70, and topped her class. That learnability is a skill we need to emulate.

My wife is my hero. She is an exceptional leader and person. Again, I’ve learnt many lessons from her. She stretches beyond the normal. We use the 212 degrees analogy (grab the book if you haven’t already read it or watch the video) to explain the go-beyond principle in our leadership classes. She practises it every day. It may be the smallest thing. One of the kids has misplaced a book. We’re all searching and gradually reaching the conclusion that said book has vanished into thin air. But not my wife. She will turn out cupboards, dig deep into the recesses of a box untilshe finds it.

In business, we often see leaders happy with good enough. An improvement is fine, when what is required is radical transformation. A mild jump in numbers becomes a reason for celebration, when the potential is actually much higher. My wife also is one of the best listeners I’ve ever known (given I’m one of the biggest jabberers I’ve ever known, you could say we were made for each other). Again, a lesson that I try to imbibe from her.

And finally, my daughter, who plays it straight. She is authentic. She says what she means and means what she says. This sometimes gets her into trouble, but she has always held firm to what she believes is right. Even when she has to deal with authority, she hasn’t been bullied into changing her convictions. Leaders need this authenticity to lead with credibility.

Happy Women’s Day, especially to all the women in the business world. May we continue to benefit from their wisdom, celebrate their impact and revel in the way they are transforming the world around us. I had the privilege this last week, of spending time with some of the young girls attending our leadership sessions. I told them I was counting on them to disrupt the universe. They vehemently agreed.

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