Think at London Business School
Chinese sports legend and world table tennis champion Dr Yaping Deng talks to Professor Herminia Ibarra about embracing challenge
By Alison Benson
We asked three female leaders how their careers were impacted by participating in LBS’s Women in Leadership programme.
Luigia Ingianni, Commissioner of the Employment Standards Office at Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) Authority
The Women in Leadership (WIL) programme was a game-changer for me. I gained a deep insight into how I perceived myself and how I thought others perceived me. I learnt how to communicate my achievements clearly, which was something I really struggled with before: I didn’t want to be seen as arrogant or blowing my own trumpet, but I knew I had to find the right language to communicate the importance of what I was doing.
The Employment Standards Office I created wasn’t important just for the QFC jurisdiction, but also for the state of Qatar and the entire labour market in the state. I was aware of the greatness of what my team and I were doing, so I choose to take the risk of looking arrogant and I published a detailed report of our work to show it to everyone.
Before I participated in the programme, I was a grade below director and was promoted as director in an unexpected way. After a post-training coaching session from the WIL programme, I found the courage to have a ”difficult conversation” with my line manager, during which we talked about how our different styles of communication were impacting me and my work.
I spoke kindly, but I was firm and assertive. It was a great opportunity to reiterate my values and align our mutual visions and expectations. A few weeks later, I was promoted to director, which makes me the only female expat leader in my company – a semi-governmental entity in Qatar.
The experience – 37 women in a room together – was extremely powerful. We were totally immersed in the course: we analysed our situations from different angles, assessing the impact of emotions in our working lives, and looked at how to resolve the common issues we were facing in the different contexts in which we worked.
I strongly believe that a totally female group, reinforced by the energy of the trainers, has the extraordinary power to unlock our potential, intensify our achievements and allow all of us to thrive.
We embraced the ability to be vulnerable and to see this as a strength. Vulnerability is now an important part of my leadership skills I don’t mind sharing, even at directorial level, as it’s also about creating a safe space for others to share their vulnerabilities. Now I'm sharing what I learnt with other women and I recommend them to enrol in this programme to increase the number of women at the table.
This programme contributed immensely to a profound mindshift: I now understand how to communicate in the language of the receiver, not just in my own language. This has completely changed the impact of what I do and how people perceive me and my work.
The power of external networking was another huge learning, as was the importance of supporting any project, report or strategic proposal with factual data. I often thought, because what I was doing was clear in my mind, everyone could understand it, including people with a different background. Now, whatever I do and propose is backed by facts and data, which increase credibility and trust.
I still get energy from the course remotely. We meet on Zoom and WhatsApp and keep connected, sharing stories, experiences, struggles, articles…. The intimacy is still there, as well as the joy for other colleagues, their achievements and the empathy for those who struggle. We’ll stay connected for years. I recently had a couple of webinars with some of the trainers and they brought me right back to the energy we had during the programme. This was priceless.
Every day I take an additional step and find myself more able to communicate in a very respectful, clear way – “kindly assertive”, I call it. This is powerful and I believe that my new communication style contributed significantly to my promotion in such a short period of time from the programme as well as to my appointment as speaker at the WHO World of Work Dialogue in December 2020.
Shortly after the course, during a meeting with members of an international agency, I came under a very personal attack. I didn’t react, and although it was negative feedback, I took it as constructive criticism and stated my perspective, once again in a kindly assertive manner.
Afterwards, someone in the room said, “What happened to you? You were so strong, there was so much calmness in your words, you had such gravity we couldn't recognise you.” And they were right: normally I’d have been apologetic: “I'm sorry - I really apologise, that wasn’t my intention.”
But I was totally aware that the attack was unjustified, that the man was bullying me and, simply, I did not accept it and I said NO. A respectful and unmovable NO. That’s exactly the moment when I knew I had really changed. I wasn’t allowing anyone to belittle me, even though the person I was talking to was a very powerful man, in a very high position, in a very important international agency. And I felt great.
Müge Mentes, Head of Debt Capital Markets CEEMEA (Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa) at UniCredit
I was nominated by my bank to Women In Leadership as part of a programme to support senior-level women. I didn’t realise it was an inaugural LBS programme. It felt really special to be part of it.
The campus content was compressed into one week. It was both an opportunity to learn and evolve. I met women at similar stages of their careers, facing similar challenges and opportunities. There were participants from the US, Australia, Africa, the Middle East and all over Europe. To come across people working in different sectors was both refreshing and stimulating.
A lot of time was spent observing leadership styles. Those who are forceful, aggressive, outspoken, “the loudest voice in the room” types. We also considered those who are more humble, full of empathy and good listeners, who are recognised as very successful leaders in their own right.
This helped me recognise the type of leader I am. When I started working in banking, I thought you had to fit a certain stereotype or mould, but through the years you learn that it’s more impactful to be yourself. I have an analytical approach, am assertive and always endeavour to think strategically outside the box, but I know my style can come across as being soft. Leadership calls for soft and hard skills: having that balance is not contradictory.
Another great lesson was recognising the difference between being a “know-it-all” leader and a “learn-it-all” leader. This involves shifting one’s focus from internal knowledge and past experiences, to external knowledge and opportunities for growth.
Be open to networking, but change how you do it. Sit back and consider, “If I stay within the parameters of my own network, what am I really doing? Do I need to reach out in a different way to different people?” Networking isn’t just about going for that coffee or to that seminar; it’s about diversifying, creating opportunities and bringing the right people together to do it.
We were taught about a concept called “slapping the desk”, which for me meant being bolder overall. It was inspiring to see a roomful of professionals doing this! It’s a change in mindset which encourages you to “just do it” and take the plunge rather than holding back. If you’re given an opportunity, instead of thinking, “Is this right for me?” and “How should I go about it?”, act first and let the thoughts follow. The notion of not being afraid to take some risks was a key takeaway for me.
There are different types of leaders. Those who act as a hub, where everything needs to come to them – they make the decisions and instruct how to implement them. And those who are bridges: people who act as a resource, providing support, unlocking opportunities and fostering growth. I want to be a bridge, not a hub. The course really clarified that for me. Be the manager you would want to see.
I’ve learned that you need to be present and visible to your team: understand where they are, what they need, while all the time ensuring they feel supported and visible. This has taken on a heightened importance during the pandemic.
Furthermore, we received specific coaching around speaking in front of a crowd and in meetings, as well as tips regarding our breathing and posture, which helps ground and calm you. Immediately after the course I had to deliver a presentation to 50 people. Implementing these tweaks had an incredibly positive impact.
I would say my biggest learning was: “What got you here, won’t get you there”. Everything we’ve accomplished up to now, our knowledge and our networks, have served us well, but they won’t necessarily take us to the next step. So leave your comfort zone and figure out what you need to do to get where you want to end up. Your career isn’t something that happens to you, but something you can own and plan.
It was amazing to see how such small tweaks can make a huge difference. There’s still room for improvement, trust me, but my awareness has risen a lot. The course really sharpened my thinking.
Finally, I met some amazing women on the programme and we are still in touch, sharing valuable information and feedback. I hope to be able to hold onto this network for the foreseeable future.
Xingying Liu, Desk Head Energy & Metals Commodities EMEA, ABN AMRO Bank, the Netherlands
After 20 years with the same bank, I felt I’d reached a plateau, even though I’d changed my job or location every three to five years. I knew I had to develop my leadership skills. The LBS Women In Leadership programme really caught my eye. I thought, “Maybe, instead of thinking women are no different from men, we could be as good leaders or even better leaders than men. So why don’t I try this?”
One of my struggles was how to define my success. Despite doing the things I’m most competent at - I hire people, train them, build high-performance teams, have good results – I didn’t feel successful. One objective of this training is: how can you be ready for the next big role?
I felt so excited to go back to school after 20 years of working. To be in the same classroom with nearly 40 powerful women was like being in a group with 40 mirrors – you can see yourself so much better. I didn’t realise how lonely I felt at work. But listening to the other women’s stories, I realised I wasn’t the only one thinking in certain ways! Now if I have a frustration I say to myself, “Take your smallest violin off the wall, it’s not that big an issue.” Everything is surmountable.
The training was transformational. Being taught by high-calibre female professors, Herminia Ibarra and Kathleen O’Connor, we learnt from case studies of influential female leaders how to change our mindset, present ourselves, behave like leaders. And I realised I can redefine myself. The “all-women” aspect is very pronounced; we learn from each other, support each other. A mixed-sex class wouldn’t have had the same effect.
There have already been visible positive changes in my work. Through learning I decided I’d do things differently, develop my network, delegate more, not be a micro-manager, be inspirational… My colleagues have noticed the difference! Now when I face challenging situations I take a deep breath and approach things from a different angle, not just jump on things. I’ve already changed the atmosphere. Suddenly I’m more approachable. I’m enjoying experimenting with what I’ve learnt – being more playful.
In the past, even though my team had done a good job, my default reaction would be, “Hmmm, pretty good, but we should do better.” I’d have the same conversation with my son’s teacher. He’s doing brilliantly, but I’d say to the teacher, “How can we make him even better?” She replied, “No, just celebrate. Just feel happy and celebrate. He’s doing fine.” That triggered me to think about my approach to work and how I talk to myself. Sometimes I need to stop and celebrate what I’ve achieved. I learnt that if we want to be seen as a good leader, you need to be a leader in your own life too.
The whole package is so powerful. We learnt that career development isn’t just about climbing the ladder – you can also go sideways, there are different ways to get there. You have to look at your goals. Is becoming a board member my ultimate goal? Probably not.
The course might be over but I still have this strong support network, and LBS webinars. Myself and the other participants regularly get together online or on WhatsApp. We’re always there to give each other a little push, a nudge, support, advice, when we really need it. I still carry my notebook and the professors’ words still leap out of the pages at me!
When I told my manager (and sponsor) what I’d taken away from the programme, he said: “This is what I’ve already taught you! But you weren’t doing it. Now you are!” The LBS training delivers the theories in such an impactful way, they’ll stick with me in the journeys to come.
Over the coming year, I need to work out what my next goal is. I want to get to the next level - it might mean a bigger role, a different role, or doing what I’m doing now but in a different way. I want to aim higher. I can’t wait. I’m already moving.