In this month’s Leadership story we hear from Christine Brown-Quinn, who rose to the ranks of Managing Director in International Finance. Christine is also the author of Step Aside Superwoman: Career and Family is for Any Woman. She draws on her own challenges and successes to provide practical and insightful advice.
What does being a leader mean to you?
In my view a leader has a vision and a set of principles, and demonstrates those through his or her actions. Being a leader also means having the courage to speak up, especially when your view may not represent the majority. My biggest leadership lesson was when I started having a family – I had to do what I said! The great thing about kids (unlike colleagues) is that they will call you out immediately as soon as they spot an inconsistency between your words and actions. This was a lesson I then consciously applied in the workplace. A leader provides the right culture and environment to help others solve their own issues so that change, or progress, sticks and lives beyond the leader. In today’s business world, change is about the only thing we can count on, so the role of leaders to engage others in a clear vision is crucial.
What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I had to overcome was learning to let go of control at home! In my mid 30's I was nearly at breaking point trying to manage everything at home and at work. This was self-inflicted I might add! Somehow I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I then realised that if I wanted to progress in the career I loved, I had to build a team around me at home - to delegate, manage and motivate – similar to the workplace. Just like at work, I realized that my home team (primarily husband, children, child care provider) did not like to be micro-managed. It was also becoming clear that if I wanted to keep pace with my male colleagues, I needed to re-energise during the evening and weekends, not be consumed by an onslaught of home tasks.
To make this shift happen, I had to ask myself some difficult questions: where did I really add value? And with that in mind, what should I STOP doing? I stopped cleaning the house; I hired a cleaner. I stopped doing the washing; whenever I hired a nanny I made sure she was ok to do the family laundry; I stopped organizing everything for the kids; I gave them the responsibility to do research on holidays, call Sky to sort out the box, etc. Yes, there were additional expenditures but I couldn’t do two jobs - I was only being paid for one – and the one I was being paid for also had a lot more upside in terms of future earnings. And when I started using my business brain at home to sort out logistics, I felt like a big boulder had been lifted from my shoulders.
The benchmark I used at home to determine how I should be spending time, fell into three categories: 1) are my actions supporting a happy marriage 2) are my actions developing well-rounded kids with good values and 3) am I engaged in activities which energise me so that when I go back to work, I’ll be at my best? The first two are about making the time to invest in relationships – and this I discovered is where I add the most value.
What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?
Professionally, rising to the ranks of MD at Nomura International was my greatest success. I was the only female MD in a division of 350 people. It was hard work figuring out what it really took to get promoted (it wasn’t what people told you – i.e. meeting certain targets). I witnessed others getting the pay rise, promotion and plum projects while I simply concentrated on working hard. I forced myself out of my comfort zone because I wanted to be part of the leadership team so that I could make a bigger impact on the organization.
Developing relationships with senior professionals outside my division was scary. I also had anxiety attending increasingly senior meetings where speaking up and being ‘seen’ was a monumental task given that almost everyone else was physically bigger, had louder voices, and were more aggressive. I learned to show strength through demonstrating integrity and embracing conflict.
Personally, my greatest success is seeing returns on my investment in a marriage of 35 years and three children who are good people.
How has your leadership changed over time?
My earlier style was heavily biased towards leading by doing. Over time, I became better at empowering others ‘to do’ by asking what they wanted and asking for their ideas and suggestions. I’m better at listening and observing other’s challenges and then figuring out a way to help them sort things out rather than jumping in and fixing it. Leadership success shifted from my direct results to seeing others achieve.
I have also become more patient. I spend more time trying to understand the people and less time focusing strictly on the task, which in the end achieves more, although it may take slightly longer. I am also more confident as a person and thus as a leader. I have become better at focusing on the outcomes I’d like to achieve and thus more flexible on the path on how to get there.
What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?
The biggest piece of advice is that leadership is a process, not a one shot deal. Don’t be too hard on yourself. When you encounter an obstacle or a ‘no’, that’s when the challenge begins rather than ends! Being truly open to asking for and receiving feedback helps you become a better leader more quickly. Those who are courageous enough to share those tough messages you’d rather not hear are truly ‘gold dust’ in your quest for leadership. Be sure to show your gratitude and keep them on your side and in your close network.
Observe closely the leaders you respect – what behaviours might you want to emulate? One leader is unlikely to encapsulate exactly all the characteristics and behaviours you’d like to have - pick and choose what works for you. Have the courage to step up to those leadership challenges you don’t feel ready for. If you’re not scared that means the challenge isn’t big enough. As long as you learn from your mistakes, they will be your greatest learning opportunities.
A leader provides the right culture and environment to help others solve their own issues so that change sticks and lives beyond the leader.