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Perception is reality

Winnie Law Experian

Experian Asia Pacific CFO, Winnie Law leads the organisation’s diversity and inclusion committee for global finance and is a passionate advocate for advancing women’s potential in the workplace. Anna James talked to her about her journey to leadership, the power of perception and the importance of bouncing back quickly from mistakes.

 

What are the key qualities for a leader in today’s global world?

Authenticity and genuine care for the people you are leading and their wellbeing. This means making sure you are constantly creating opportunities for their growth. As a modern leader, you have to be a few steps ahead all the time, thinking about what you need as an organisation and balancing it with people’s aspirations - because you’re managing a new generation.

The millennials want very different things to previous generations and they expect to switch jobs every one or two years – on the other hand, you want them to stick with the role long enough to add value. A global leader needs to be flexible and communicative and to be able to bring people along the journey with them. You have to tell this cohort your next few moves and to share the vision with them because otherwise, they will just move on.

 

What are the specific challenges for women in leadership roles?

Learning to be comfortable in your skin. For a long time I tried to be a certain way; I was very serious and dressed in dark colours all the time, which was totally different from who I am in my personal life. I developed the persona that I thought I had to have in order to gain the same respect as my male colleagues. I felt that if I wasn’t standing out as much as a female it would make me blend in and therefore be accepted.

But as I got more comfortable in my own skin and understood I deserved to be where I was, I started to realise it’s special to be a woman in the room. By then, I was no longer trying to blend in, I was trying to stand out. I think there’s still a journey to go through for many women, while they’re moving up in organisations, that involves the challenges of wanting to fit in, then wanting to stand out - and eventually having the confidence to just be authentically themselves.

 

What do you want to impart to the women coming up behind you?

Firstly, don’t be so hard on yourself. Women tend to take longer to forgive themselves for their mistakes, while their male counterparts generally have a two-second rule (“nobody noticed!”). 

Let’s say you make a mistake in a presentation in front of a group of senior executives. You might mull it over for a week, worrying about what they think of you. However, half the time the people in a meeting room are thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch that day - and even if they had noticed, they will likely have forgotten it the minute the meeting is over. People think about you a lot less than you think they do, so learning to get over things, forgive yourself and recover quickly is an important trait.

Second, know your worth. Time and again I’ve seen women consistently accept a lower salary for doing the same job as a man with the equivalent credentials and capabilities. That is one of the key reasons why we continue to observe pay disparity between women and men in the same position in an organisation.

When you are negotiating your next package, ask yourself, ‘what would a male counterpart have asked for?’ Remember, you can always ask - they can say no. But if you don’t even ask, no one will offer to pay you more.  By the way, that rule applies with regard to going for the opportunity in the first place. If you don’t throw your hat in the ring, the opportunity isn’t going to magically fall on your lap.   

Lastly, it is important that you ‘pay it forward’ as you become successful in your organisation or community. That means creating room for other women at the top when you get there, and supporting and coaching other women along the way – it would be an awfully lonely place at the top otherwise. 

 

What does no one tell you when you start out in a career as a woman?

That perception is reality. It took me a long time to understand and reconcile with that. I used to think that if you work really hard and do good work, people will naturally notice you, give you opportunities and promote you. But that is often not the case. The reason why someone gets a job is at least 50 per cent down to how others perceive their ability and potential, rather than what they can really do.

Our male counterparts are often better at this than we are; exuding the self-confidence and creating the belief that they deserve that big job, that big opportunity. Often, women need evidence to prove to themselves first that they can do something before they can convince others.

Ultimately, you have to have confidence in yourself – to have “belief without proof”, if you like, so others can believe it too. If you tell me you’re not really sure you can do something, then I’m not really sure you can do it either. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. 

Clearly, you still need to work hard, be competent and deliver, but I would argue many people do that but don’t conquer the second part of the equation - and that's the difference between someone who makes it and someone who doesn’t.