‘Lead with authenticity, compassion and resilience’. That was the key message delivered at Randstad’s Women in Leadership Panel Event, in a thought-provoking discussion led by Jo Jakobs, Senior Director NSW of Randstad Australia with financial services industry leaders Sandhya Maini, Head of Zurich Assure, and Josephine Hanna, Private Client Executive at National Australia Bank (NAB).

One theme which emerged from the conversation is that expectations of leadership have dramatically changed in the last few years. This is not only because of but accelerated by Millennials and Gen Z becoming a larger share of the workforce with new perspectives and priorities, and the pandemic, which gave change another great leap forward. 

What has become abundantly clear is that the talent of tomorrow is demanding leaders to be empathetic, inclusive, authentic, and transparent. To be ‘in touch’ with people. To have the strength to acknowledge when you don't have all the answers, and yet with a resilience and confidence to also turn to your team to find the answers. This is in contrast with the traditional, old school, command, and control bombastic styles. At the heart of modern leadership is empathy and compassion.


why diversity & inclusion matters and how to promote it?

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employees want empathic, authentic, inspiring leaders

Employees of today are looking for authentic, visionary leadership that inspires. Leaders that embrace empathy, and open-mindedness, who build trust with their teams and encourage a safe space for expression of thoughts and ideas. The key is not to let people - particularly women - shy away from their unique perspectives and strengths but use them to create a supportive and safe environment that drives creative and strategic thinking.

Social media was discussed as having a role to play in effecting positive change for women in the workplace, by portraying authentic, empathic women leaders who have the power to inspire. Executives were encouraged to use their digital presence to positively influence younger generations and promote real, balanced images of visionary women leaders.

resilience is essential

This is not just for women leaders but for all leaders and employees. Because at work and in life, we are all faced with challenges and adversity. And the journey to the top is often paved with setbacks, but it’s how these obstacles are faced that truly defines a leader. Sandhya emphasised the importance of viewing setbacks as growth opportunities, and Josephine shared how she evolved as a leader through adversity. What’s clear is that fostering resilience in the workplace will not only help you to grow as a person and as a leader, but it will also inspire your team to do the same.

A vitally important message consistently shared was for women to stop our limiting beliefs. We need to remove the imposter syndrome and to break the stereotypes of what is typically expected of women leaders. This needs to stop. We need to start believing in our abilities, to draw on our resilience and say yes to leading a business, to own that product line, and know that you deserve that seat in the boardroom. 

Sandhya shared that she is inspired by the strong display of gender equity at Zurich, including gender balance in the executive team and the fact women hold some positions typically dominated by males in the financial services industry.

foster an inclusive environment

Sandhya and Josephine shared that it’s the responsibility of leaders - regardless of gender - to champion diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Creating a safe space, with culturally literate conversations, where everyone is treated with respect, dignity, and empathy, regardless of their gender, age, or background. To recognise bias, stereotypes and assumptions in the workplace and respectfully call them out. As we strive towards gender equality in the workplace, every step we take towards inclusivity and equality will make a significant difference. 

In a 2020 McKinsey Study which investigated the business case for diversity, it revealed not only a robust business case, but also the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. And the link between diversity and outperformance continues to strengthen, translating to businesses having leaders and employees who prioritise anticipating change, the need for agility and adaptability, and embracing a culture of innovation and high performance. 

Josephine added that diversity was good for NAB’s clients, and it’s good for the industry. “If you’ve got an equal ratio of men to women who all bring different insights, then cultural diversity brings an additional lens of experience, thoughts and ideas which is just like the authenticity of food. There's more flavour, there's more colour, there's more magic. Amazing things happen.” 

Sandhya is the Executive Sponsor of the Cultural Awareness Network at Zurich, an employee resource group that aims to raise awareness and provide thought leadership on the challenges and opportunities of working and living in a multicultural world. She too shared the importance of nurturing diversity within teams and how this can lead to great outcomes.

consider career advancement as a team sport

A comment shared and endorsed by other women leaders as that their career advancement was, in part, due to invaluable sponsorship by other leaders (both men and women) who supported and advocated for them to rise the ranks. So, it’s important to recognise that women and men need to support each other. It's about allyship and having those conversations that decode the culture, understand the working environment, and build skills for the future.

Coaching and mentoring are also key - both in terms of sharing your skills, knowledge, and insights with others, while seeking out support and guidance for yourself, no matter which stage in your career. Successful leadership is not about your success alone. It's also about creating new leaders for the future by placing the career ladder down behind you, helping others to thrive.

Woman in a business suit walking in the office with her coworkers behind her
Woman in a business suit walking in the office with her coworkers behind her

raise the bar on leadership

‘Only excellent men or women need apply.’ Future leadership spots should be saved for individuals who excel, no matter their gender or background. Yet, if we want more women in leadership roles, you need to ensure you are growing your own talent. Develop women in your business, just as NAB is doing with their Private Wealth 1500 Degree Program which is being rolled out for women across all NAB. Why 1500 degrees? Because that is where glass starts to melt. A clever name, and a highly successful development program for women which focuses on creating a career plan, building critical skills for growth and progression, and being matched with a career sponsor to help you succeed.

Leaders need to see the talent, the ability, and the strengths in front of you, not the gender. To acknowledge what individuals, bring to the table, as this can unlock a superpower, particularly for women.

create psychologically safe workplaces

For employees and businesses to succeed, it’s important to create a safe environment where women (and men) can be authentic at work, knowing that if they are vulnerable, open and honest, it won’t limit their career opportunities, it won’t restrict their responsibilities and it won’t impact their ongoing growth and development. Leaders need to empower talent to speak up, to be curious, to think creatively, to be innovative, to make important decisions and not be afraid to make mistakes. Adam Grant and Melinda Gates’ powerful experiment at the Gates Foundation was referenced, where they asked leaders to show vulnerability by talking about their mistakes, to improve their culture. They already had a strong culture of performance. The aim was to create a more open and trusting work environment, to create the psychological safety for people to continuously rethink what is possible. Melinda led the experiment which succeeded in improving the learning culture at the Gates Foundation.

Amy Edmondson’s Harvard University research paper is a good reference point, to understand the concept of psychological safety as the main influencing factor in team effectiveness and learning. And Google’s research project Aristotle is also worth investigating, offering a framework and free tools to help organisations start fostering psychological safety in teams.

final thoughts

Leading with authenticity, resilience, and compassion are essential for success in today’s complex working environment. It’s important for women leaders to use your position to not only inspire but also empower others to follow in your footsteps. 

Continue to strive for ongoing improvement and transformation in financial services when it comes to gender equity and workforce diversity. Be the change that you wish to see.

7 top tips for women leaders:

  1. Learn to be empathic and authentic. Embrace it and endorse it. It will serve you well as a leader in your people and business outcomes.
  2. Build resilience. In yourself and in your teams. We work in challenging, complex, and fast-paced, dynamic environments. This will never change. There will always be hurdles and setbacks. Learn to overcome them and navigate them with resilience.
  3. Stop your self-limiting beliefs. Say no to no. Don’t hold yourself back, as that is when you will progress in life and in your career. 
  4. Know your superpower, your X-factor. Have a clear sense of what you bring to the table. This can be a real game changer in terms of battling those limiting beliefs as well as knowing that thing that you bring to the role, the team, the organisation.
  5. Think about career advancement as a team sport. Pick your stakeholders. Choose the people who you admire, who you wish to emulate, who you wish to impress. Remember you don’t need to impress everyone. Have your own mind map of who the people are that you care about, and who cares about you. This will allow you to be your authentic self. Get a sponsor. A career sponsor. A senior member in the organisation who values your skills, your experience, and your ability, who knows where you want to head in your career and will advocate for you to help you achieve your goal. Seek out a mentor or coach. They will help you with problem solving, discussing different scenarios and skills that you might need, and they’ll give you valuable feedback.
  6. Raise the bar on leadership. See, acknowledge, and develop the talent in front of you. Foster inclusivity and diversity. Be aware of and call out bias, assumptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes. Create psychologically safe workplaces where employees feel safe to share, to think creatively, to ask questions, to learn, and to make important decisions without fear of repercussions. 
  7. Ask for feedback. It will give you the insight you need to manage perceptions, and it can help you develop and gain invaluable self-awareness.

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