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Leading, Her Way: Positive Leadership in Uncertain Times

Leading, Her Way is a Leadership Development interview series featuring a line-up of remarkable female leaders in Singapore - as they share their thoughts on self-exploration, career development, overcoming failures, and work-life alignment. In this interview, we feature Ms Vidhya Ganesan, Partner at McKinsey, who is leading the Digital Government and Economy’s portfolio for Asia. She shares her take on positive leadership, mentorship, how leaders can navigate through the crisis, and recommendations to avoid burnout when working from home. __ 1. What are three words you would use to describe your leadership style? How was it shaped by your work and educational experience? I would use Caring, Inclusive, and Collaborative to describe my leadership style.

  • Caring: At McKinsey, one of our values is “Sustain a caring meritocracy”. This means holding an objective, meritocratic and high bar, but also treating our colleagues in a caring manner. Sure, there is tension between the words “caring” and “meritocracy”. But we live by those two words in McKinsey, and I have been touched by the true care that colleagues have shown towards me at several key inflection points in my life/career. For instance, I received motivation and well-meaning advice from several mentors after coming back from my maternity leave. My team members were supportive and even covered for me when I had to attend to important personal commitments. These have really made a deep impact on my own leadership style. I am inspired to always look for ways to pay the “care” forward.

  • Inclusive: I grew up in India where I went to an all-girls school. I then went to the National University of Singapore for my undergrad studies, where I was exposed to a diverse mix of classmates in terms of ages, nationalities and native languages. At NUS, I majored in engineering and took a minor in entrepreneurship. I spent days and nights together with team-mates from diverse backgrounds, building everything from amphibious robots to startup ideas. I discovered that when I work in diverse groups, the quality and richness of perspective was high and contributed immensely to my growth at that time. This notion of embracing diversity and fostering an inclusive environment is now “table-stakes” for me.

  • Collaborative: When you collaborate and co-create answers with your team, you let people get into their natural element. You also create space for creativity, and foster high levels of ownership. Even if the process takes longer, the answer will really stick.

2. Of all the mentors you have had, who has made a profound impact on you and how has that influenced the way you mentor others? Seelan Singham is one of my most treasured mentors and sponsors. He is a senior partner in McKinsey who hired me into the firm, and with whom I’ve worked extensively over the years. Some reflections:

  • Great mentors go the extra mile and become sponsors. A mentor gives you great advice and shares his/her wisdom, while a sponsor creates opportunities and opens doors for you. As I was coming back from my second maternity leave, my client program had dissipated for a number of reasons. Seelan spotted that even before I fully did, and started creating opportunities for me.

  • Having a shared purpose and values compass. It helps when you have a mentor with a similar “north star”. Seelan and I share the drive to impact the lives of society’s most vulnerable populations at scale. That inspired us to work together on several projects in the public and social sector. Sometimes our working and leadership styles will differ, however the shared purpose and values makes the journey very positive and meaningful. It also gives us many natural avenues to collaborate.

  • Asking questions vs telling and letting me fail sometimes. Seelan has an approach of constructive inquiry, and asks me deep reflective questions that force me to think for myself. Helping me arrive at an answer and direction that I own rather than telling me what to do has been extremely valuable to me. It does mean that sometimes I fail but I learn so much from the experience.

Given those reflections, I actively seek mentees with whom I share common purpose and values. I am trying to learn the art of asking my mentees the right set of deep questions to help them improve, rather than giving in to the temptation of simply telling them what I think they should do.

3. What do you think are the necessary trade-offs a leader must make during these ambiguous times? Recognising that an institution is currently facing a crisis is the first thing leaders must do. Leaders will also need behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments, and help them look ahead to navigate the crisis. These behaviors and mindsets include forming a network of teams to be able to plan for the future, displaying deliberate calm and bounded optimism, making sound decisions amid uncertainty, demonstrating empathy and communicating effectively. Leaders will also need to look at both the aspects of lives and livelihoods - ensuring safety for their employees, customers, and suppliers while also managing healthy continuity of the company. Leaders should strike the right balance in how they communicate with teams: Too little information may cause confusion and resentment, while excessive information without clear direction may overwhelm teams. 4. How has Covid-19 affected job security for women? What can leaders do differently, if not better? Covid-19 has had challenging impacts on both men and women. However, we can already see that it is having a regressive effect on gender equality. Our analysis finds that women make up 39% of global employment, but account for 54% of overall job losses from the pandemic.

  • One reason for this is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women. Women are also disproportionately represented in sectors affected by the pandemic, such as retail, accommodation and food service. Attitudes about the role of women are also a factor, as are financial and digital access. We estimate that 4.5% of women’s employment is at risk in the pandemic globally, compared with 3.8% of men’s employment.

  • All stakeholders, across government and business, need to consider measures that push for greater gender equality. This should span three areas among others: interventions to address unpaid child care; closing the gap in digital and financial inclusion for women; and addressing attitudinal biases about women’s role in society.

5. Have you experienced unconscious bias at work? How did you navigate that? Yes. When I returned to work after my second maternity leave, there was an opportunity to co-lead a large transformation project on a topic I had extensive experience in. It was a challenging project, and the team knew it was going to be quite intense; but a well-meaning senior colleague assumed that I would not be up for it as I had just returned from maternity leave. He was colored by the experience of his wife who found her calling in being a full-time mom, and on pulling back from some challenges at her workplace then. Honestly, even I was tempted to not take up the challenge despite my passion about the client and the topic. Other colleagues helped me think through this dilemma objectively by laying out and ranking my considerations, and I arrived at a decision that I was comfortable with. We drilled deeper to find out the challenges below the iceberg (e.g. I was breastfeeding, and the client had no nursing room), what boundaries needed to be drawn (e.g. I needed to be back home by 5 pm to be with the baby before her bed-time, and could log on again after she was asleep), the expertise that I would bring to the table if I joined the team, and most importantly the support I would need to deliver impact (e.g. I needed a partner who would cover for me after I left the client site). I ended up leading the team, had a great working relationship with both my team and the client, and delivered great impact for the client. In fact, my clients helped to reinforce these boundaries better than I did. I learnt that most colleagues have the best intentions and are unconsciously biased – so we all need a heightened sense of self-awareness. Be brave enough to call it out when something doesn’t feel quite right, and ask the difficult questions of ourselves and others. The fight against unconscious bias is not won overnight - it needs patience and persistence!

6. Have you experienced burnout working from home? Any advice for professional women and working mothers? We are in the midst of tough times and it is important for leaders and employees to remember to have boundaries to avoid burnout. Here are some recommendations:

  • Reframe your mindset. Approach your work with a curious attitude rather than an opportunity to merely prove yourself. Starting with the right mindset can go a long way, and is the foundation to more conscious leadership.

  • Speak up and take action. Ensure team norms within your group, and align on what is urgent and important. Be open to also seek support when you’re struggling or need assistance.

  • Take care of yourself. Explore avenues for relaxation such as yoga or meditation, and ensure you get enough exercise, healthy food and sleep.

  • Avoid being zoomed out by scheduling meetings for 25 mins (vs 30 mins) or 50 mins (vs 1 hour) and forcing breaks.

7. In one sentence, what does “Leading, Her Way” mean to you? I would like to see myself as an enabler/ orchestrator/ catalyst who inspires and unleashes peak performance from her team members.

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