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
In March 2020, London Business School interviewed three female leaders who took part in the school’s inaugural Women in Leadership programme, to find out the difference it had made to their careers. Two years later, we catch up with them again, to learn how they navigated their way through pandemic, their work-life balance, their reflections on International Women’s Day, and what lies ahead
Xingying Liu, MBA, CAIA, Trade & Commodity Finance executive, the Netherlands
In 2019, Xinying was Desk head of the Metals and Energy Team at ABNAMRO Bank in the Netherlands. She had been at the same bank for 20 years and felt she had reached a plateau. Wanting to develop her leadership skills, the WiL programme caught her eye. She thought: ‘Instead of thinking women are no different from men, we could be as good leaders or even better leaders than men.’ Being taught by high-calibre female professors such as Herminia Ibarra and Kathleen O’Connor, Xinying said, ‘was transformational’ and prepared her for the next step. The next step, however, was unexpected
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 a lot of people were affected personally and professionally. I was no exception. I lost some dear ones. And I lost my job. The bank had a new CEO and a new strategy, and they decided to shut down our global division. About 100 colleagues in the Netherlands alone also lost their jobs. It felt like a loss of work identity, but it wasn’t a plunge off the cliff, it was slow motion, because we were given over a year to unwind our portfolios. We had to take care of our clients’ interests and close off this division which had existed for 300 years, because Dutch banks are known as good trade banks.
So professionally, I found myself in this valley of despair. And although I didn’t stay at the bottom for long, the past two years were anything but smooth. I went from being a professional management woman, confident and competent, to a 40-something jobseeker. I was soul-searching, job-searching and reinventing myself – all at the same time. But as the saying goes, don’t waste a good crisis! And don’t waste time. To stay focused, I enrolled for a CAIA [chartered alternative investment analyst] qualification. It consisted of two levels of about 600 hours’ study time (including the snooze time during the reading) altogether, which I did fit in alongside work. It was crazy. All these huge books to get through! But it was worth it. I passed the exam last September.
A friend from my LBS network told me about alternative asset management. I must be frank, when I lost my job, I felt a bit awkward approaching the network. And though it may have been natural to feel like that, it was unnecessary. They are a fabulous group of women, who were managing their own way through the crisis. The advice they gave me, in such an open, candid way, was super-valuable. They were so willing to help, share their own experiences and connect me to new possibilities. I am so grateful to them.
I also found it helpful to recall theories we learned on the WiL programme. For example, as a leader, as a person, you have your own magnetic field that impacts on others. That really helped: I needed to show I was resilient and had the confidence and a new perspective to continue. Now I can say this has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life and living proof that you can go on to your next big role.
Over the past two years, I’ve found two things really challenging. In the old days we talked about work-life balance. But the pandemic has changed how we work. Life and work have become mingled together, so now, instead of talking about separating it, we need to find ways to combine it in a more efficient, enjoyable way. The second is, as a leader of our own personal life or in business, we constantly face all kinds of decision-making moments. Sometimes you don’t have enough information, sometimes too much, but you still need to make a judgment. That challenge we have seen through the pandemic, and now through this regional conflict.
I officially left the bank at the end of last year. I’m currently doing consultancy work on a project basis. It’s really interesting and very different. I feel I’ve reached the end of the tunnel. I’ve also been having discussions with prospective employers. Suddenly, as I half-joke, I’m in my mid-life, sometimes over-qualified, too specialised, and interviewing alongside Generation Y… Generation Z, if I’m lucky! But I can take my time to find the next step, to really figure out the type of job I want and the people I want to work with. I am grateful for all the support I have to allow such luxury.
International Women’s Day has passed and it’s always special. It brought me back to the start of the WiL programme, when we were asked to find a female role model or a relevant quote. I came across Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Women. It still puts a smile on my face:
When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud.
I say, It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Luigia Ingianni, Commissioner of the Employment Standards Office at Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) Authority
The Women in Leadership programme was, in Luigia’s words, ‘a game-changer’. Soon after completing it, she was promoted to director, making her the only female expat leader in her company. Two years on, she is still a director, and although her job title hasn’t changed, the way she lives and leads it is profoundly different.
The pandemic gave me an opportunity to reflect on myself and my values. Looking at what other leaders around me were doing gave me a chance to think about the kind of leader I wanted to be and what I wanted to be remembered for.
In Qatar we were privileged because the way the government managed the beginning and the peak of the pandemic was courageous: the total lockdown allowed us to return to an almost-normal life in less than four months. Both the person in charge of the crisis committee and the minister of public health were women, and the pandemic clearly showed to the entire world that being led by women, as in New Zealand and Germany, made a huge difference.
The beginning of the imposed remote-working period was really tough and I was so unaware of my own struggling I couldn’t see my team struggling. It was a kind of denial phase, like “Let’s try and pretend everything is normal”, “Let’s chat every day and we’ll be fine”.
But communicating via MS Teams was very different, and at first I missed lots of clues signalling that nothing was the same. It took me time to realise I needed to ask my team: “How are you? What are you feeling? What are your difficulties?” I had to reframe how I’d be managing things and give priority to the human side of our work relations to establish new routines and rituals.
I also had to shift my focus on results, giving my team clear objectives and the autonomy to accomplish their tasks and goals at their own pace. It was a “trust-exercise” that empowered everyone.
Empathy and compassion also made a real difference within the team and the clients.
After our clients’ initial reaction and their urgency to reduce the financial burden imposed by the closure of the businesses, we discussed how, in times of crisis, we had to put employees and human relationships at the heart of the business and minimise lay-offs, and find creative ways to reduce costs. We had to hold difficult conversations and ask delicate questions with no clear answers, such as: “If we terminate employees or a category of employees who are redundant, would we be able to hire new employees when the situation is different and the business runs again? If not, what are our options?”
When laying off employees was the only way to keep organisations running, we had to manage these emotionally and cognitively overwhelming situations with questions such as: “How will you deliver the news when you can’t meet face-to-face?” “What should you say to your employees who stay?” “How would you manage fear about the future and recreate psychological safety?”
To create more connection among employees in our organisation, one thing I’m very proud of was the “Dare to Share” initiative, where each of our colleagues was asked to share a 30-second or one-minute video to talk about their struggles, difficulties, or even just show their home office. This helped us regain the sense of belonging the pandemic destroyed.
Together with colleagues of the World of Work initiative, established by the World Health Organization, we analysed how low-cost initiatives such as “Dare to Share” could make a tangible impact on the morale of employees. We also reflected on the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on women and how to tackle the deepened gender divide.
What I learnt during the WiL programme really helped. I realised my work wasn’t about managing human resources, but developing resourceful human beings. It was a huge, important shift – to lead with purpose and be an authentic, vulnerable and inclusive leader.
Throughout, I kept in touch with my LBS network and we’re planning a reunion in September, at a castle in France. It’s a great idea - to bring back all that energy, that injection of values.
Although I’m a gender-equality advocate, in an interview held to mark International Women’s Day I said, in addition to celebrating women, I wanted to celebrate men – men who support women, men who take their fair share of responsibilities in the house and allow their wife or partner to dedicate more time to their career without making them feel guilty; men who acknowledge the contribution women give at the decision-making table, our unicity – our talents and contributions; and men who call out the different shades of microaggressions in the workplace, to raise awareness and contribute to the elimination of violence from the world of work.
I’m now 100% back in the office. I love seeing people and their smiles, and the energy is completely different now. We need more flexibility to choose if and when we want to work from home, without affecting performance, of course. One of the greatest lessons we've learned from the pandemic is we cannot predict and control everything. My focus is now on what I can control, which is building trust and connections with resourceful human beings, giving them a sense of autonomy, direction and belonging for healthy and sustainable relationships and productivity.
Müge Mentes, Head of Debt Capital Markets CEEMEA (Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa) at UniCredit
Müge was nominated by her bank to do the WiL course as part of a programme to support senior-level women. She saw it as an opportunity to evolve and recognise the type of leader she was. One of her most important takeaways was to ‘be the manager you would want to see’. Two years later, Müge is still head of her department, but huge changes are in the works
At the end of last year, it was agreed that I would move to Milan. Italy is our headquarters, so I seized the opportunity. I’m quite an international person – I have a Turkish background, grew up in Canada and have worked in both Turkey and the UK, covering clients in Central and Eastern Europe. Working and living in an international, multicultural environment is what I enjoy most, so packing up and going to a new country is a wonderful challenge. It will also be the first time working at our headquarters after many years at the London branch, so I’m excited about new opportunities that may present. Despite being a pan-European bank with Italian roots, I believe moving people of all backgrounds and nationalities to HQ is beneficial as it will add to the diversity of experience on the ground.
Looking back at the pandemic, we all went through different stages. First, there was shock while we digested the reality of the situation, then adaptation and acceptance. Do you allow things to come to a standstill or find a new way forward? I like to think I reached the acceptance stage relatively quickly and adjusted my thinking, as well as the way I operate, professionally and personally.
I looked back at all those wonderful tools we learnt on the WiL course about taking ownership of your career, involving networking, understanding ebbs and flows in company dynamics and anticipating trends, as well as reading the soft and the hard issues. When we stopped seeing people face-to-face, all the cues changed and I don’t think the cards have landed yet. The pandemic pared down everything and gave us a window to step back, reassess and reinvent how we approach and do things.
I felt fortunate to be with a strong employer, and our business performed well. I manage a small team and everyone made the best of the circumstances. We found new ways to work together and look after our clients. This was absolutely critical. In the first instance, how do you maintain, then enhance, your client contact? Naturally, we leveraged the technology. In the early days, it seemed companies were on different platforms; there were compliance issues and IT hitches that didn’t always lead to the smoothest communication. That’s all sorted now and everyday interaction over video calls is an irrevocable part of working life.
I kept in touch with the LBS network throughout. We shared thought-provoking articles, our successes, our challenges. We felt connected. The group are professional, ambitious women who are like-minded, caring and inspiring. Staying in touch both contributes to my growth and enriches my perspective.
I think International Women’s Day is fantastic. It used to pass by in a less-recognised way, but awareness and support has risen and our industry is making tangible progress around gender equality, inclusion and bias. It is about coming together to move towards what we know is right. Building equality for all must be embedded in everything we do – it is a continued effort and collective commitment that must be maintained. These are principles we must protect as diversity is a key strength and driver behind business success.
The main thing that has changed for me over the past two years has been my relationship with time. Before, I was a full-time, working mother who never worked from home. I was juggling so many balls: being a mom, professional responsibilities, business travel, personal commitments – it was a whirlwind and I’d yearn for some time at home, even just a couple of hours. Then when it was handed to us in abundance, it made me more intentional and aware of how I’d spend it.
One of the key learnings from the LBS programme that stayed with many of us was the notion of “slapping the desk”. This means putting yourself forward when an opportunity arises outside your comfort zone. With this in mind, I have taken it upon myself to get involved in projects outside my area of responsibility, such as a recently adopted digital initiative and additional product coverage. If you sit back, nobody is going to volunteer you. Sometimes you have to put your hand up and say, “I can do this”, otherwise growth opportunities like these will pass you by.
Another mantra that stayed with me is “what got you here, won’t get you there”. This is especially true now. As I alluded to before, in recent years all the cards have been thrown in the air and haven’t quite landed yet. This gives us opportunities to reinvent and re-engage. So I’m really looking forward to transferring to Milan. I don’t speak Italian yet, but I’ve started lessons. The learning never stops.