By Kenny Mah
In life, there are many lessons to learn and teachers from whom to learn, if one is open to them. For what it’s worth, I feel I have learned from some of the best. And the best, it turns out, includes a trio of powerful and inspiring women I’ve had the good fortune to work with.
Here are their stories, told by a pupil very much in awe.
The first – let’s call her E for anonymity’s sake – was a friend before she became my supervisor. We had gone dancing together at social mixers and I had shamelessly flirted with her, of course. So it was with some trepidation that I considered a job offer from her, to join her new unit at an investment agency.
Was I worried about potential sexual harassment suits in the future or complaints about preferential treatment at work? Perhaps, but as it turned out, the sexy lady on the dance floor was a tiger in the office. E was no-nonsense, professional and a person of the highest integrity.
We had to deal with plenty of universities and governmental departments through the course of our work, and E taught me how to be tactful and delicate, mindful of the labyrinthine protocols while never losing sight of our objectives, never allowing the other party to divert too far from whatever agenda was on the table. She taught me to strategise and to plan, both in advance and on the spot – ‘crisis management’ became our favourite phrase.
Outside of work, E continued to inspire me. When the tsunami hit our region in 2005, one of the worst hit areas was the province of Acheh in Indonesia. She took a sabbatical and headed straight there to volunteer and help where she could; at one point she had a gun pointed to her head but her resolve never wavered.
A few years later, I found myself roped in to mentor some of her social entrepreneurship graduates from Acheh in marketing their new businesses – where others have faltered after making rousing speeches or turned a blind eye, E had done something and made a difference.
When I was promoted, my new boss was the Senior Vice-President of the company — let’s call her K. You won’t find her in war-torn villages but know that she has already fought most of her battles. She’s equally comfortable in her role of managing the most important division of the firm while relishing her duty as grandmother to her daughter’s young children.
K was a lady who taught me about grace under fire – how to keep one’s cool when everyone else around us is losing theirs. She taught me nothing ever got done faster by panicking; if anything, things got slowed down or not done at all.
She is the calm when all my male colleagues are screaming “Fire! Fire!” and she is the rudder that navigates us through the storm. She seems like the sweetest lady until you step out of line; then one sharp look and you know you are in trouble.
K hated micro-managing; she always told me it’s easier to hire good people, and then trust them to do their work well – our job is only to guide, not to get in the way. She had a lot of trust for her team, but then again the came be said for how her team felt towards her. It’s hard not to trust someone who has more faith in you than you do yourself.
Above all, I think K showed me how it’s not impossible to have a balance between my work life and my personal life. She disliked the phrase “work-life balance” though – it wasn’t a concept she understood. Why have two separate lives, she once told me, when you should aim to have one great life? Just run it properly and you will live well.
I believe it’s hugely due to the lessons and skills I’ve picked up from these two formidable women that I could handle my new staff S when she was first joined. S was a firecracker, the proverbial cili padi. A few of my colleagues warned me that she might not last, not if she’s unable to take instructions well. Yet it is in this that I learned yet another lesson.
S would move at lightning speed and I needed to teach her to slow down, to observe, to evaluate and then decide on a course of action. In my efforts to do exactly this, I noticed that I had slowed down and observed more. I started to see how my methods adapted to suit her needs and her learning pace. It’s true what they say — when you teach someone, you teach yourself.
The greatest gift that S has given me is perhaps the opportunity to leave a legacy — to take part in the chain of people transferring knowledge and skills from one level to the next, and to keep that value in place and do one better, to have them grow it further.
I remember observing S once as she presented to an audience of senior officials and every one of them hanging on to her every single word, and I saw a part of me in her, in the body language we discussed, the signposting and the tone of voice, but she did it better.
I have never been so proud in my life.
These days I still get asked at job interviews if I could work with a female superior. (Could I ever!) It’s a strange question, one would think, but perhaps not. Perhaps male chauvinism still reigns supreme at the workplace and the query serves only to prepare potential hires for possible conflicts. Perhaps gender is still a huge divide. What a pity if this is true.
Some might argue for affirmative action for women at the workplace as a solution; I’m not certain this will solve anything. If nothing else, it seems terribly condescending as though women are inferior to men in any way and would thus need a “leg up”.
Some might argue that I’m being foolish; women have been and are still disadvantaged in a man’s world. Perhaps. But tell this to any of the three women I’ve highlighted here and they are likely to laugh in your face.
They have gotten where they are now by their own two hands, thank you very much. No need for crutches. As far as they are concerned, it’s very much a woman’s world.