This week, Lama Sweis, Chief Operating Officer at Lockton, kindly attended our Women In Leadership Programme with BASF to offer her insights and wisdom on what it takes to succeed as a female leader in the Middle East.
She offered up advice that was just too good not to share. So below are my notes written up from her answers to the key questions that the attendees on the programme had for her. These tips are great whether you are male or female and an aspiring or existing leader. I hope you find them as valuable as we all did.
What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Be authentic. If you aren’t being yourself people will see straight through it, we can spot in-authenticity a mile off and this leads to distrust. So be yourself. Authenticity is a journey. It takes time to figure out who you really are. Trust is a feeling, it comes from being genuine. You can’t demand trust from others because of your position.
Ask yourself – what bring me joy? Where do I find pleasure and enjoyment in my role? Make sure you are in the right environment that allows you to play to your strengths and for your true personality to shine through. Find what you are truly passionate about and lead with your values. Once you start acting against your values you begin to lose integrity.
Authenticity is not an excuse to offend others or make excuses for your own poor behaviour. Authenticity needs to be paired with high emotional intelligence and respect for others. Being authentic doesn’t mean you don’t work on yourself. As a leader, you should be continuously learning and developing yourself.
Don’t worry too much about being liked. To be a good leader you need to be prepared to make the tough decisions that will not always be popular. You need to be respected and credible. Once people respect you and see that you are delivering results, they will probably like you. But liking is a by-product, it is not the goal.
What key strengths or characteristics are important to be a successful female leader in the Middle East?
Develop your EQ. As a female leader, use the things that you have that give you an advantage. Having high emotional intelligence is one of those things. This can help you to ‘read the room’ and know when to speak up and stay quiet, when to push and when to back off. Know what your objectives are, sense the emotions of others and choose your moment accordingly. Being authentic doesn’t mean you blurt out what you think all of the time, you consider the impact of your words and foresee the reactions you will get.
Be a standout communicator. Good communication skills are essential. It’s rare that you find a successful leader who can’t communicate well. Increase your vocabulary, practise speaking in front of the mirror. This applies not just to spoken but to written communications too. Learn to craft great emails that have an impact.
Build Resilience/Grit. This is something that I look for when promoting people. You have to be able to keep going, pick yourself back up after a bad day, a career setback or a negative comment. Resilience is built when you go through difficult experiences, in your personal and professional life. Those experiences teach you that you are stronger than you think and help you to cope when you face future challenges. Difficult people have helped to shape me throughout my career. Now when I face a difficult person or situation, I can manage it better because I know it is going to teach me something. Resilience is a muscle that you need to flex and work on.
Be Professional. When it comes to working as a female in the Middle East you need to be aware of professional boundaries and ensure you keep the respect of those you work with. This means that you might choose to take a step back from some situations. Use your high EQ to build relationships in your own way. Some of my best friends are men I have met through work so personal relationships are not off-limits. Have the judgement to be able to read people and know what is appropriate and what is not.
Let your Results do the Talking. Success is the best message for others that try to diminish you, put you down or degrade you due to your sex, age or anything else. Keep your head down and don’t worry too much about those who are jealous or want to bring you down. Stay focused on your own work and goals.
Get a Champion. It is important to have someone within the company who believes in you and will speak up on your behalf behind closed doors. These relationships happen naturally and you can’t force them, rarely does it work asking someone to be your champion. Get to know the senior people in your organisation, go for coffee and be yourself. When you open up to people and are honest you will naturally find the people who want to support you. Be a good person and you will attract good people and good things will happen.
How do you balance your work and home life?
Firstly we are in the right place. In London, the long commutes, expense of childcare and cold weather made everything more difficult. One of the reasons I moved to the Middle East was because I thought things would be easier in that respect. It is essential you have a good support network. My husband is an essential partner in all matters relating to the home and is hands-on when it comes to the children which make things a lot easier. Here you can get a nanny or cleaner to help you, making sure you get the right one you can trust will alleviate a lot of stress. Having a wider support network is also important, while many of us don’t have family here, having good friends who can support you helps massively. Make sure that in all the looking after everyone else you don’t forget about yourself. Carve out ‘me time’ to ensure you can fully relax, switch off or do a hobby you enjoy.
How do you convince more traditional male leaders of the need for female leadership and more flexibility at work?
The issue used to be that there weren’t enough women in the workplace. That is no longer the problem. Now we have the women but they drop out as you move up the ladder or don’t reach for the senior leadership roles. Companies have to adapt and change their environment in order to support women to move up the ladder. This is imperative for businesses because it makes financial sense. Companies need to be representative of the markets they serve and having all male boards and leadership teams just doesn’t work. Diversity is therefore needed not just to serve women but to also benefit the companies themselves who lose out if their boards don’t have any representation of 50% of our population.
Note – these are notes taken from an informal conversation and are not verbatim.