Women representation in management has come a long way from the ubiquitous 90s “girl power” slogan to the widespread #MeToo movement and the gender pay gap reports in 2019. In 2020, Southeast Asia has seen growth in the proportion of women in senior management at 38%, a significant uptick from the previous year’s 28%.1 While there are substantial developments in closing the gender gap at the workplace, we should examine whether we are really walking the talk or engaging in pure lip service in an attempt to look relevant in diversity and inclusion conversations. To champion women in the workplace, we must also champion an inclusive environment for them to thrive. Women leaders are not born; they are made – and they are made so that we can do more, give more, and learn more.
In my conversation with Aanchal Sethi, we talked about her personal and professional journey as an Asian female leader in the advertising industry. Aanchal is the Global Managing Partner of Ogilvy where she manages the Unilever account. She has worked in several locations such as India, Dubai, and finally Singapore and this has informed her international mindset in embracing diversity. Her professional journey has broadened her horizons and she reflects on how far she has come and how far she still intends to go. The rise to leadership was not a straight progressive journey but an episodic collage of stories unpacking lessons she learned in transcending perceived prejudices and boundaries. She shares how she got started, what fueled her development, and how she intends to pay it forward with her present role.
Developing a Growth Mindset
Women leaders often encounter an invisible barrier while trying to climb the corporate ladder. We have come to know this as the glass ceiling. In recent years, we also learned that Asians encounter a similar kind of hurdle hindering their career growth and resulting in them getting passed over for promotions - the bamboo ceiling. Imagine now an Asian female leader climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder. A double obstruction looms above her. Not to be encumbered by neither racist nor sexist attitudes regrettably prolific in the workplace, her growth mindset would be her strongest weapon against prejudices and greatest asset for progression in the professional world.
In 2006, psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck published her seminal book about mindset and outlined the two types of mindsets we adopt: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.2 A fixed mindset believes that we have fixed traits and cannot change while a growth mindset believes that learning can grow over time and through experience. As we rise in the corporate ladder, we do not have what it takes all the time. We inevitably find walls too high to scale or ceilings too tough to break through. When the chips are down and the cards are stacked against you, a growth mindset pulls you through and enables you to look beyond present challenges.
Aanchal believes that her growth mindset propelled her rise to her position and set her on a trajectory of continuous learning and creative growth, regardless of her background or gender. Her journey started in a small town in India where it was uncommon for women to explore and pursue career paths. Her personality desired otherwise. Even in her pre-teen years, she already knew she wanted to explore the world and see new places. She left her hometown at the age of 16 to study in a different city – one that was a thousand kilometers away from home. She knew she had to do it if she wanted her career to flourish.
Aanchal was curious about the world and wanted to learn about the inner workings of culture. Her curiosity led her to the advertising world and she worked in India for about 8 years. Chances took her to Dubai on a holiday and she realised that that could be a big point in her career. She took the risk, went out of her comfort zone and found a job there. Growth was always a critical factor for her as she decided to move to Southeast Asia once she felt she was already stagnating in her role. Inherently creative, she always felt the need to stimulate her intellect. The relocation to Singapore was also strategic as she says that business is booming here and it is the epicenter of business now.
When asked if she ever encountered the bamboo or glass ceilings in her corporate experience, she admits that she was fortunate to have not been encumbered by them. She formed an unconscious bias over her work environments which are generally open to diversity. Dubai and Singapore are multicultural countries and are inclusive of different cultures. There were instances when she experienced discrimination but called it out. However, she reflects that her personal attitude also contributed to her optimism. Her growth mindset helped her focus on the “not yet” instead of thinking that there were limitations: “I’ve always sort of fought against it, have always focused on the bigger prize…where I wanted to go, rather than think that there was a ceiling for me…again, focus my energies on the big prize, which is where I want to go rather than sit with it.”
Embracing Feminine Leadership
“I think the trap that I maybe did fall into myself earlier in my career was copying masculine behavior, which is very common for women to do because that’s what’s expected in a leadership role,” reflects Aanchal. There were not that many role models for senior women leaders before but a lot of work has been done over the past few decades in promoting women in the advertising industry globally. Nowadays, the tide has changed and companies have been making conscious strides in giving women a platform, providing them with training and development, extending support, and creating a safe space for their voices to be heard. Ogilvy, in particular, has a global development program aimed specifically for top female talent called “Ogilvy 30 for 30.” They identify 30 women in the global organization across markets, to train and nurture into great leaders.
For Aanchal, feminine leadership should not mimic what masculine role models taught her. Overcompensating for weak or non-existent qualities leads to nowhere. She believes in adopting a strengths-based leadership approach enabling her to work with her strengths. Embracing inherent qualities that come naturally for women, she learned to leverage emotional intelligence, empathy, and flexibility to her advantage. When organisations tap into these nuances and give them a platform, Aanchal believes they help support women reach leadership.
But leadership in itself is a state of flux and every day is an ongoing learning journey, according to Aanchal. “Leadership is essentially learning through doing and learning through being,” she shares. She intentionally works on her self-development by following a three-step routine.
Step 1: Self-acceptance
We understand who we are and accept that we are different from other people. We may not have the same leadership style and we are comfortable with that. We understand our strengths and areas to work on.
Step 2: Self-development
We consciously ask for opportunities and voice them out to develop our own unique style of leadership.
Step 3: Self-management
We have internalised who we are and what we are not and have crafted our personal edge in leadership. This step requires consistently speaking and acting those truths in our lives. To put it succinctly, Aanchal remarks, “You can have your own authentic style and draw that fine balance to get the job done because that essentially is what we’re here to do.”
Mentorship: Coming Full Circle
Aanchal recalls a key inflexion point in her life when she felt burnout and questioned what she was doing. At that time, she had a nurturing manager who understood her. She took a sabbatical to study art in Greece. She wanted to find herself and understand the creative process again. She was grateful for the support of her manager who understood her need for a hard reset to be able to bring back a lot to the table again. Right after, she came back with so much clarity ready to hit the ground running. She knew she wanted to be in Asia right where the action is. Her relationship with her mentor proved pivotal as it carried her through different stages of her career. Even when she moved companies, her mentor supported her decision. Receiving enormous support, Aanchal recognises the value of mentors in developing women leaders like her.
Looking back, Aanchal acknowledges that she would not be where she is had it not been for the mentors and sponsors which came her way. She considers herself lucky but advises women to actively seek them as women generally find it challenging to negotiate for themselves. Mentors can help ground you and remind you of the bigger picture. They know your strengths and drive you where you are at the moment. Aanchal also recommends professional coaching which can help shape the best version of you and assist you in tackling personal and professional challenges.
As a way to pay it forward, Aanchal believes in mentoring men and women starting off in their career, helping them navigate those challenging years, and grooming them for the next level. She sees herself coming full circle, giving back to the person that she was 25 years ago thinking that someday she would be where she is today.
Advocating for women in the workplace, supporting them, and providing a platform for them digs deep into the natural core of our ability to care, include, and nurture. When we invest in programs for women, we invest in future leaders who also want to champion inclusion, grit, and resilience knowing fully well that the journey in removing ceilings is far from over.
Championing women professionally paves the way for women to advance in their careers and nurture a succeeding generation of supportive and empathetic leaders.
- Develop a growth mindset and focus your energies on the prize.
- Embrace feminine leadership and mentorship styles. Leverage soft skills like emotional intelligence, empathy, and flexibility.
- Pay it forward by supporting emerging talent in the organisation.