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Leading Women: Interview with Sharmini Wainwright

As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia. In this story, Sharmini Wainwright, Senior Managing Director - NSW at PageGroup, shares her biggest personal sacrifices, how vulnerability builds confidence and how one disruptive boss changed her views on talent development for the better.  


 

Q: What is one lesson you learnt that’s unique to being a female leader?  

At times, I’ve been told, “Oh, Sharmini, is she tough enough to take on that challenge?” or “Sharmini, can she make the hard calls?”. And right through to the other end of the extreme is, “Sharmini, she can be a bit direct at times”. So I feel like, for women, there is this additional expectation to be loud, yet soft. To be bold, yet conservative. To be decisive, yet collaborative with others. I found that to be the toughest challenge because people do view you with different lenses.  

Q: What sacrifices have you made for your career?  

I had my first child five years ago. At that point, I was determined to be a career woman, a great mother and a great wife at the same time. I wanted to have it all. Then six months after returning from maternity leave, I realised that someone else was actually looking after my child all day. I broke down at one point to one of my good friends from Australia. She said, “You know what? It’s so important that you do what you love, and that your child is getting loved and supported at the same time. That’s the important thing. It doesn’t matter who that person is.” So I think of the word’ Sacrifice’, and I think about the times when I’ve not been able to spend time with my kids. Just last week, they had a party at the beach, but I couldn’t make it because I had my day booked out.  

Now I am much more at peace with that and I don’t view it as a sacrifice because I’ve changed the way I talk about it to my children. I tell them, “Work makes mum really happy, and this is why mum goes to work.” So they see this as a positive thing, and that’s what I’ve had to work through over the last five years. I’ve also asked for some flexibility in terms of my work arrangement. I do a nine-day fortnight because that one extra day gives me 26 extra days a year with the children. So I’ve had to reconcile in different ways.  

Q: What is the best decision that you have made with regard to your career? 

I spent 10 years working in our Australian business, and I honestly couldn’t have asked for a more brilliant decade. I was in my 20s, I didn’t know a lot of things, so I could just enjoy the career for what it was. The business and I grew up together, and there was such a great group of colleagues. At 33, however, I figured that I needed to leave and board the Asia growth bandwagon that I kept hearing about. I was nervous but I thought, what have I got to lose? So I landed here as a director, I was given a portfolio of people to look after and grow the business — but I didn’t know anybody in Hong Kong. I had no track record there, the team looked at me and was like, “Who’s this Aussie Indian chick? What’s she going to do?” That was a huge year of just being uncomfortable, meeting as many people as possible and trying to connect with and understand Hong Kong. What an experience, you know, to be thrown into the deep and after 10 years on the job just to prove yourself.  

Q: How have you developed a sense of confidence in yourself?  

My sister would say that I have no shortage of confidence, and it annoyed her when we were little. I think in business, when you look back on your earlier days, you cringe when you think about how you dealt with situations, ignored your gut feelings or didn’t seize certain opportunities. More recently, though, where I’ve got confidence is the fact that the world is becoming much more open, so being vulnerable with your people and serving them is a great leadership trait. That may have been viewed as being weak back in the day, but I feel that there’s a huge opportunity to really get rid of those barriers and build trust with your people by being more open and vulnerable about what you’re going through, what you’re feeling, how you can work together. I think I’ve also become much more confident that I don’t have to have all the answers to every business problem. We work together to achieve that, and I think that’s been a big change for me personally. We are a team here in Hong Kong, and the team is more powerful than any one individual.  

Q: Why is it so important to be a mentor to others?  

When I started working, I was a wide-eyed graduate, [but] I am lucky to have worked with some great people along the way. Even when I moved to Page, I had different people to help me through, and I am very grateful for that. I feel that people need help at certain times, and it’s easier for someone to help you see the bigger picture, to tell you what the macro perspective is. It’s a huge part of why I do what I do now. It’s about supporting them, giving them context or just giving them the confidence to do certain things.  

Q: What advice do you have for mentees?  

There was a huge moment that happened with our business in Hong Kong probably about seven years ago. We got a new boss who came in and threw out how we used to look at an individual’s performance. We used to look at someone’s performance and say, “Great, this is what you’ve achieved” or “What are your areas of focus?” These areas of focus were inevitably the things you weren’t great at. Andy Bentote, the Regional Managing Director of Greater China at PageGroup, came on board and said, “You know what, that is not the best way to look at personal development and growth. How about this concept?” The so-called ‘concept’ was to focus on your strengths. It was about identifying one or two strengths that were so profoundly strong that, as soon as anyone said your name, they’d think of these qualities. He believed that, as long as you didn’t have any weaknesses that were so bad that they would overshadow your work, then that’s good enough. I think that was such a positive change in how individuals looked at themselves from a progress perspective. So my advice to mentees would be to find what you’re great at and invest in it to make it better. In turn, I think it gives your purpose for why you do what you do. That’s a more positive conversation to have with someone than “So, those things you’re not great on, tell me about the progress for that.”  

Q: What is something that you believe now that has never occurred to you previously?  

The biggest thing is that life is not certain. It is fragile. Anything could happen at any minute. You could be on a high at the moment, then thrown into something difficult in the next. Who would have thought that this pandemic was even a possibility this time last year? In Hong Kong, we’ve gone through our fair share of challenges over the last 12 months, be it economically or clinically,  due to COVID-19. It’s a beautiful business I get to run here in Hong Kong, and it’s a golden business for PageGroup. This year, we’ve just had to deal with challenges from a results perspective, clients perspective, internal people perspective and change perspective. 

Q: Where is your hometown and how important is it to you?  

Sydney! I’m such a tourist when I go back home because we will stay in the city for one or two nights, walk around the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House and just enjoy the city. I just miss the Aussie spirit, the ‘mate-ship’. Nothing ever changes there compared to Hong Kong, which is a bustling, fast-paced, crazy city that I’ve grown to love. Sydney is just the opposite. It will always be home. It’s where my parents, my sister and family are.  

Q: Which personality trait of yours gets in your way the most?  

Talking without thinking. I think my mouth gets me in trouble because I get overly passionate about something and just shoot off without thinking about what I am saying.  

 

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