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, we speak to Anita Menon, Chief Risk Officer at Prudential BSN Takaful Berhad and winner of ‘Upcoming Personality (Risk Management)’ at the Global Islamic Finance Awards, as well as the Top 50 Women in Islamic Business & Finance by Cambridge IFA in 2019. She shares how she navigated her way through several male-dominated industries, the importance of having a sense of humour in leaders, as well as how equality begins not at the workplace, but at home with the family.
Q: As a leader, how do you empower others on the team?
I think the culture of an organisation and the behaviours within it are direct reflections of the style of leadership by the leaders. For me, empowerment is about trust and delegation. It’s about setting up objectives and expectations for your team members up front so that they are aware of their responsibilities.
The other thing that I feel is really critical is communication and communicating on a timely basis. I try to explain the ‘Why’, as famously mentioned by Simon Sinek, a British-born American author and motivational speaker. Also, Asians tend to be very polite, so I actively encourage my team to speak up and voice their opinions. I am also particularly excited that we’ve recently launched an app called ‘Tell Me’, which is rolled out to all levels of staff. It allows them to provide direct feedback in real time.
Q: What are some of the top challenges for future female leaders?
I think there are huge opportunities for the current generation of women, especially with the COVID-19 crisis at hand, we saw many leaders stepping up. There’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand who demonstrated that it was possible to be a strong yet empathetic leader. Having said that, though, I think women still face a number of challenges, such as the conflict between work and life. Society still expects women to do most of the heavy lifting at work and at home. This puts a lot of pressure on them. Secondly, women face unequal treatment when it comes to opportunities, so we try very much to have diversity and inclusion as an agenda.
As a leader and a mother, I tell my two boys that responsibilities at home are shared equally between men and women. That’s the message that we, as women leaders, can impart on our families.
Q: What leadership traits resonate with you the most?
The first thing that comes to mind is authenticity. Increasingly, I think leadership is really about being true to yourself and being authentic. I’ve had the privilege of working with many such leaders in the course of my career, and they all have clear visions and strong sets of values. They are also people who are willing to mentor and lift others up. They also give credit where credit is due, and they are very professional. I also admire leaders who have the courage and the conviction to speak up, even if it is not a popular choice to do so. Lastly, I think a sense of humour is very important, too, because it creates bonds with the team.
Q: What leadership lessons have you learnt across your career?
Personally, my values have been dictated by the organisations that I’ve worked with. When you have a strong set of values or guiding principles, it’s easier to make decisions. Paying attention to details is a big one for me because, as they say, the devil is in the details. I also enjoy mentoring others, men and women, in their career journeys. It’s important to be empathetic as it helps you create bonds of trust. I’m also a firm believer in surrounding yourself with very diverse views, because these people bring fresh perspectives to the table and challenge you. Lastly, I think it’s always important for leaders to remain grounded and practise humility.
Q: Do you have any advice for female leaders in male-dominated industries?
Progress starts with awareness. In recent years, we’ve seen and read about women in the media who’ve played prominent roles in traditionally male-dominated industries, and that helps to create awareness. At the same time, it inspires other people to hopefully pursue similar careers.
The second most important thing is to build a support system and identify allies as you progress through an organisation. This is something that men are generally better at, and I think women can take a leaf from that.
Thirdly, it’s about removing unconscious biases. At Prudential BSN Takaful, we certainly don’t lack women in the workplace, but I do observe that, when they get higher in the organisation, they tend to drop out of the workplace due to unconscious bias. Even they believe that they are the ones who should give up their careers to focus on their families. So if organisations are able to address that, we will certainly help women go a long way.
Q: If you were a brand, which would it be — and why?
I would say Amazon. It’s interesting to me that what started off as an online platform that primarily sold books has evolved into a one-stop shop for every imaginable thing. It’s truly inspiring to see how Jeff Bezos built up the brand and the business. He brought in people with very diverse backgrounds and I can somehow relate that to my personal and professional journey.
Q: How do you develop confidence as a leader?
What’s worked for me is taking risks, which sounds unusual coming from a Chief Risk Officer, but it’s really about taking calculated risks. For example, when I was working at KPMG as a partner, and I really enjoyed that role. However, when this opportunity came up at Prudential BSN Takaful, I took the role because I really wanted to step out of my comfort zone, challenge myself and learn new things. In fact, I started my career as a scientist in the STEM industry. I discovered, however, that it wasn’t my cup of tea, and that I enjoyed working with people much more. That’s why I switched to consulting and financial services. These experiences have been truly invaluable. And I guess speaking at conferences and publishing thought leadership articles help too.
Q: What energises you?
I enjoy sitting down with my team and brainstorming new ideas and solutions to existing problems. I enjoy working on different projects, which allows me to collaborate with different teams. Mostly, though, it’s about the work I do here at Prudential BSN, and knowing that it plays a key role in the lives of our customers, to be there in their times of need. That really energises me. On a personal level, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I love going for runs and going to the gym. It puts me in the right frame of mind in the morning. Watching funny movies with my two boys helps too!
Q: Name a woman who’s inspired you the most.
My role model is my mother. My mother came from a very traditional Indian background, and she was a homemaker. However, she was also someone who had a clear sense of responsibility and independence. From her, I learnt that I could go out there and achieve whatever I set my mind on. If I were to choose someone from the corporate field, it would be Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. I was hugely inspired by her story about how she moved to the US, how she became the CEO of a Top 500 company, and the sort of decisions she had to make at every step of the way. She also comes across as a very grounded and humble person. I read somewhere that whenever she came home, she would leave her CEO title at the door and focus on the family. I think that’s the hallmark of a truly great leader.
Q: Can you walk us through the moment when you thought you were the most brave?
When I first returned to Malaysia after completing my Master’s degree, it was during the Global Financial Crisis. I landed a job in Port Klang in Malaysia, and my responsibilities as an Account Manager was to manage shipping lines, freight forwarders and logistics operators. It was a field that was very male dominated, and very few women played key roles. During the initial months, I had to meet with these freight forwarders and I was met with a degree of hostility. However, in time, I won their respect because I demonstrated that I could do the job, and I could do the job well.
A similar thing happened when I was with KPMG also. I had a couple of assignments in Nigeria, Ghana and Mongolia, and they were very challenging assignments with demanding clients. I had to stand up for my team on many occasions and, despite being a fairly young leader, I realised that as long as I was clear of my purpose, then it was easier to be brave.