One of the many difficulties of women’s progress towards high-level careers is the lack of role models. The default leader is still a man – in the eyes of both women and men, and hundreds of “manuals” out there in the market encourage women to “learn the rules of the game”, to behave more like “real leaders”, i.e. to behave more like men. An outcome, needless to say, that no-one really finds attractive.
In my “Conversations with Women”, I hear a (still small) number of women speak with enthusiasm about their experience of working for a female boss. All of them describe their boss as someone who is able to ideally combine the “softer” skills they learned as girls, women and mothers with the “professional” competencies, learned on the job, that make them effective and credible in the eyes of their organizations without resorting to the dominating and intimidating demeanor that is regrettably still present in many workplaces.
Those are the women needed as role models, those who can show that it is possible for women to be successful without compromising their femininity, and how it can be done.
I have been very fortunate to meet Ruba Homaidi, a former financial executive in the Jordan-based regional offices of a multi-national group specializing in Intellectual Property Management (IP). Mrs. Homaidi has been living in Switzerland for the last year and is redirecting her life to coaching and holistic healing. She has graciously agreed to share her story of how, after encountering typical stereotyping and prejudice in her male-dominated organization, she found her very personal and very effective way and was eventually offered the CFO position.
Ruba, thank you for accepting to have this conversation with me. You told me about your professional experience that made you learn how as a woman you can be a very successful manager without compromîsing your femininity.
Would you describe to our readers what the difficulties were that you had to overcome?
I am originally from Jordan, I was born in Palestine and lived between Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Amman (Jordan) until August 2008. When I was hired as the Financial Controller in the regional office of a multi-national company, I was in charge of 8 department managers, 5 of whom where men. I was introduced to close to a hundred people working in related departments on my first day. Many of them openly expressed their surprise – referring mostly to me as being young and a woman. Several of the department managers in addition to other peer executives clearly rejected my presence.
What a difficult start to a new job! Why do you think they behaved like that?
The Company I joined had a very classical set-up which was in the process of being changed when I joined. Female presence wasn’t yet welcome in higher management, which had a fair majority of “experienced” people who helped set up the company in its early days.
How did it make you feel being treated that way?
It brought a lot of my “insecurities” to the surface. Being in a highly visible post at the time was already “scary” and it added to the “stress” of being in a new job. (She smiles) I certainly displayed lots of the features that are described in the book “Nice Girls don’t get the Corner Office” by Louis Frankel (smiling too much for example). Probably deep down I still felt like the little girl who needed approval.
What was it that encouraged you to take steps to change the situation?
My work with holistic studies encouraged me into changing my perspective, I realized very quickly how much a combination of demeanor and sincerity will affect how you are perceived and treated. I worked at being direct and non-judgmental – to a certain extent I have to say, and I was also both professional and personal in my relation to people, basically working with the strengths of being female rather than focusing on what is often considered as our weaknesses. Coaching helped me “own” my fears and work through them and focus on the moment, a change of perspective that was very helpful. I started viewing their “Young and Female” comments as a compliment, thanking them for it.
What did you do differently?
My varied background in accounting, audit and cash management allowed me to quickly assimilate and digest the huge amount of new information, which definitely helped me gain their trust, but what I felt really made a difference is that the team I worked with realized that I did understand how much they were capable of solving their own problems and realizing their department goals which they helped set. I focused on empowering them towards finding their own solutions. I did that, not because I thought a coaching role was important in my position, but because it was sincerely how I related to them at the time, and I made it a point to redirect the praise to them, celebrate their successes and focus on their growth and personal challenges, while always striving to maintain a professional demeanor.
Earlier in my career, I had learned to use the power of Assertiveness rather than the Passive-Aggressive attitude that I had previously resorted to in the face of what I perceived as threatening-overpowering male demeanor.
Which were the moments of greatest joy for you on that journey? How did people around you respond?
Within less than two years, I realized I had built a reputation for executing positive change and I was promoted to be the Group CFO. I had to decline due to the re-location decision that I had already made. I don’t want to sound exaggerated, yet the feedback from my team was the biggest gift I ever got. I have received most of it through the grapevine, yet their very warm and personalized farewellis still color the memories of my work there. I am still in touch with a few of them and with other friends at work, who make it a point to tell me that “my team” as they put it, remember me well.
What would be your recommendations for women pursuing management careers?
The top 3 would be to deeply know yourself and who you are (your fears, your drivers, your insecurities) and use the challenge to grow, work from within your strengths and trust the process (we women tend to focus on our weaknesses way too much), be assertive in your actions and make it clear what your expectations are. It is easier for people to work with someone who is direct and structured, especially if it is their manager.
Ruba, thank you so much for your time and for being ready to answer our questions so openly .
Ruba Homaidi writes about her learning experience with coaching in www.resetcoachdaily.blogspot.com