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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E3: Conversation with Sammie Sam, Robert Walters Malaysia

In this special episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia, we commemorate International Women’s Day by celebrating women in leadership roles.

Hear from Sammie Sam, Director, Executive Search at Robert Walters Malaysia, as we discuss her career journey to the top, the rise of female leaders in the boardroom, and how female professionals can make the most of their professions.

From overcoming perfectionism to taking the leap of faith and embracing new challenges despite our doubts, Sammie looks back at her years of recruiting leaders at the C-suite level, and distils key advice for female talent looking to race to the top.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature different leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights in the world of work. Watch the videocast for this episode here.

Interested in hearing more stories of women who are making a difference to the people and communities around them? Download our ‘Women Who Inspire – 20 Stories From Across Asia’ e-book to draw inspiration for the next chapter of your own success story.

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Transcript
 

ChyiHuey Joon: Hi, I'm Joon, Senior Marketing Manager for South East Asia at Robert Walters. I'm your host for this special episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. This episode is not only part of our ongoing leadership interview series, it's the first of our three dedicated episodes, where we celebrate female leadership on International Women's Day.

Today, I'm excited to have my colleague, Sammie Sam, Director of Executive Search at Robert Walters Malaysia, joining us. Thank you Sammie for making the time for us.

Sammie Sam: Thank you Joon for having me.

Joon: Let's get started. Tell us a little bit of yourself and your career so far then.

Sammie: Ah, sure Joon. So among my colleagues and friends, I am famous for my name, Sammie Sam. I think because they always like to ask if I can sing as well as Sammi Cheng, the singer from Hong Kong, or am I related to Sammo Hung, the kung fu actor. I'm not sure why - I think it's because they know that I have worked in Hong Kong for a number of years before I came back to KL, hence the connections of the dots. So as a quick introduction, I am a qualified accountant. I worked in audit firms and the banks before I joined the recruitment industry.

So I started my recruitment career in Hong Kong, and my husband is the one who connected me to this field. So now, fast forward to Robert Walters Group, this is my 12th year with the Group and 3rd year in the executive search division. So the shift to the executive search division came naturally when hiring managers know that I'm connected to the talent with whom I have basically built the connections with over the years. So some of them are already in the top management level, and that's where I can connect them and open the doors of opportunities.

Joon: Great. That is a very interesting background that you have. So what has been the key to your own success leading to where you are right now, then?

Sammie: I would say the people who surrounded me in the organisation and really pushed me on to the path of leadership. During the early part of my career, I truly enjoyed what I'm doing, and to be honest, I never consciously aspired to achieve the top level of leadership. Rather, I worked hard at every stage of my career, and made sure I maintain the best of my values to the company.

I remember the time when I was promoted from Manager to Associate Director when I came back from maternity leave, after giving birth to twins. Oh, wow, it was a very overwhelming experience because it was like having to juggle the new responsibilities and between work and family. However, the trust from the top leaders and the support from my teammates were really the keys that really shaped me to where I am today.

So, the lesson learned for me is always take the leap of faith. Embrace the new challenges, even though you have doubt that you can do it, and just do it.

Joon: That's a great piece of advice for our listeners as well. Well, according to a 2020 business report from Grant Thornton, ASEAN has seen its percentage of women in senior leadership going up from 28% to 35%. Have you seen a similar trend of female talent increasingly taking on positions at the C-suite level then?

Sammie: Yes, indeed. We do see the rise of female leaders being in a positive trend. Some companies are also taking efforts in building out the leaders in their pipeline for the group of women. I have also seen companies basically roll out programmes to encourage women to come back to the workforce, not just for the junior level but also for the senior level.

Looking internally at our own female leader talent data, it is also very encouraging to see the pattern that women are also taking very significant positions in the field of business operations. For example, in the field of people and strategy, like the Human Resource Directors, Chief Financial Officers, and Chief Operating Officers.

I believe the importance of having the diversity mix at the top level and the board level that can lead to an all-rounded view for the customers, for the employees, the trading partners and a more effective risk management. So having said that, I think it is good to see that the topic of DNI (Diversity and Inclusion) has been a topic on fire over this year, but there is still much work to do about this.

Joon: Are there any observations you would like to share from your experience in recruiting female leaders at the C-suite level?

Sammie: That's a good question Joon. I would like you to take a guess on this. Can you tell me whether the below response is from a male candidate or a female candidate? Okay. Sammie, I like to hear what you share, and I want to explore these new opportunities, even though I am maybe about 50% fit to the job. What do you think Joon? Do you think the response is from a male candidate or a female candidate?

Joon: Wow. I would like to say that men are probably the ones who gave those answers, but then, sometimes I think the response could also come from the women as well.

Sammie: Yeah, you are right but throughout my observations, I think that men are the ones who always say yes when they are not a hundred per cent sure if they are the perfect fit for the role. So, my observation is men are prone to take risks. Whereas when you come to the other spectrum of it, when I engage with the female candidates, they tend to want to make sure they are ready for the next move before they say yes to the new opportunities. This means they are also more loyal to their organisations.

So I think basically for me throughout the candidate engagements, I need to spend more time in having the messages and conversations to gain the trust from my female candidates. So my advice to women who are a bit reserved or conservative in their next career move, and if you are doing these over and over again, over 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years, the fact is that the accumulative effect is you might be less advanced compared to the person that always take risks.

Joon: What do you think are the most significant barriers for female leaders in advancing their careers to the C-suite level then?

Sammie: Oh, wow, this is a very interesting question, Joon. So, there are definitely a number of reasons. The number one reason that I can think of is the limited number of female leaders at the top as a role model. Though just now during our conversation we mentioned that we see a rise of female leaders at the top. However, the number is still not sufficient enough. So, if we have more female leaders at the top, that's where I believe women at the entry level will also have the aspirations to actually model them and rise to the top.

Secondly, throughout my experience, I interviewed a lot of capable and very intelligent women. They have made a conscious decision in focusing on their family instead of their career because when we rise up to the top level, it can be challenging or it is indeed challenging because of the increased expectations, the increased responsibilities. So, I think sometimes we women want to be perfect in managing both expectations, and we might feel overwhelmed.

Like for me as an example, I decided to return to the workplace after my maternity leave. I think for me, it's because I truly love what I'm doing, I want to be financially independent, and I want to continue to grow professionally in the workplace. So, I think the reason that I can pursue my dreams is because I can lean on a very strong family support system. So ladies, I think it is possible to manage both when we ask for help. So I think it's important for us to ask for help.

Thirdly, I think the reason for the barriers of women rising to the top is the inadequate access to sponsorships. Women might find it difficult to look for these sponsorships because male leaders sometimes might have less in common with the female colleagues. And when it comes to relating to female colleagues, they may tend to feel a little bit uncomfortable to give them feedback or mentorship, or it is uncomfortable for them to go out for dinner or for drinks. So as a result, women are less likely than men to have the managers who can act as their advocates, and also direct them, or point to them what career or opportunities to pursue.

So women at the entry level must really know about the importance of having a strong sponsorship. And again, sometimes a lot of the women at the entry level see that having excellent performance is the strong driver to career advancements; having good communication skill, being an effective team player, or delivering exceptional results. They see it as the path to the successful C-level journey. But bear in mind, it is also important to

Joon: Well said, Sammie. Totally agree with that about not just delivering the performance but also having access to a strong network of sponsorship as well. So from your perspective, do you think female leaders will have to make certain trade-offs in order to reach the C-suite level then?

Sammie: I would think no. Because leaders in the making, be it female or male, you equally need to put in the effort and make a personal or work tradeoff for you to climb to the C-suites level. So, not necessarily just female candidates. Recently, I just spoke to one of my male candidates. He was sharing with me "Sammie, I'm sharing the parenting responsibility with my wife. So we have an arrangement that if our kids fall sick, all of us will take turn to take the emergency leave.” So traditionally, we see women playing 80% or even 90% role as the main caregiver. But now, I see the shift that men are also playing an important role as a caregiver in raising good children.

Joon: That's a very interesting perspective that you have highlighted Sammie, and completely agree as well that many of the modern men I've come across, they are very active at taking on parental duties with their wives compared to our parents' generation. So with what we talked about the barriers for women moving into the C-suite level, what do you think female leaders could do better to prepare and position themselves to take on this role then?

Sammie: Oh, yes. I think it's very important that we women always take risks early and often. So all my female leaders, they told me that they took their risks early in their career in moving to different business unit, different business role, or even different locations or new industry, because this will really help them to build a stronger ground of foundation that serves them to their future leadership positions.

I have a female leader who shared with me that she really raised her hand for a new regional role in a new country after she came back from her maternity leave. So this is really a bold decision. And today, she's a very successful Chief Business Officer in the marketplace. So I think women, if you are conservative about your career options, over and over again in the time of 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years, I think the cumulative effect is you will be less advanced compared to the person that takes risks. So, take risks! And the point here is if you are asked to try out something new, something different that excites you, and you have doubt if you are ready for it, the answer is say yes first, then figure the how later.

And secondly, I think it's also important, like what I mentioned earlier, to start cultivating the network of support and sponsorships. Because again, all the female leaders are huge proponents of sponsorship, and they can track the times their career accelerated because of the sponsorship.

Now, how can we raise this awareness? I have seen companies that have asked the board and their executives to sponsor at least one female, and these leaders in turn, will set the same expectations among their teams. And this has created the sponsorship chain within the organisation. So in this process, these motions really will help to set the motions for women to race to the top.

Joon: I love the point you made earlier on about saying yes, and then figuring the how later. We women tend to want to meet up to the perfect standards than men. And sometimes, we miss the opportunities that are right in front of us because women tend to be more cautious and less likely to make a reckless decision. But like you say, instead of being a hundred per cent confident about taking on a leadership role, we should all lean towards taking risks.

Sammie: Yes, correct. And be vocal because sometimes we cannot assume that the management will want what we want to do. So be vocal and ask for it. So sometimes what I've seen is again, back to what my female leader was saying just now, she just came back from maternity leave and if she don't raise her hand to appoint herself to the new regional role, then she might not have that opportunity to explore. So yeah, we need to be vocal and ask for it.

Joon: Great. As a key female leader yourself, then in Robert Walters Malaysia, could you give our listeners any personal advice on making the most of their careers then?

Sammie: Hmm. Good question Joon. I think for me, we always have to remember - don't fall to the perfection trap. I mean, women are vulnerable to the desire to be perfect, but when we want to step up our career level, it is okay to lay our burden down because sometimes when we have high expectations upon ourselves, that means we also have high expectations on our work colleagues and people that work with us. This definitely will create stress for everyone, because when we want to be perfect, that means we can't tolerate the failures. And when we can't tolerate the failures, we tend to micromanage, and this really will drive everyone to exhaustion. So if you know that you have the tendency of being a perfectionist, take and look into the long-term interest by learning how to delegate, to prioritise, and to take the measured risk. So, when you have embraced these, that means you are also ready to move forward to the next level.

Secondly, like what I have mentioned, it's always important to let people like you, build a strong network of your supporters and your sponsorships, and how can we do it? So it's really through the assignments or the projects that you are doing. And that's where it's a good opportunity for you to start to build and deepen the relationship. Yes, that's my two tips.

Joon: Thank you Sammie. Are there any female role models who have inspired and made an impact to both your personal and professional life then?

Sammie: Okay. Let me think. I would say yes, my mom. My mom is my role model because since young, she has imparted me all the personal values. And I remember until now that she told me how important it is for us to have a right attitude because the attitude that we have can turn our problem into blessings. And our attitude will also determine our approaches to our life. So that also resonates to the story that I read about David and Goliath. Joon, have you heard about this story?

Yes! So, the soldiers see Goliath as a big giant, and it's too big that they can't afford to bring him down. But for David, he was a shepherd boy and with his perspective, he said that, he is so big that I wouldn't be able to miss him and it will be easy for me to aim at him.

So I think having a right attitude can really lead us to this positive perspective. It is important. And of course, besides that, most of the female leaders that I have encountered, they shared with me that they definitely have one female leader, coach, or mentor that they really attribute the success of their career path.

This includes me because I am very fortunate that I have a good female leader that I can always trust, lean in, and to learn from. She creates a very safe environment for me to identify my strengths and continue to grow. Yes, I'm blessed.

Joon: Thank you Sammie. It was a lovely session to have you sharing your own experience and insights with us. Thank you so much for today. We have come to the end of our Robert Walters Powering Potential, special interview with Sammie Sam for International Women's Day.

Sammie: Thank you Joon. Thank you for having me.

Joon: To our listeners and viewers, stay tuned for our next episode, where we sit down with Nismar Dar, Technology Business Partner for Asia Pacific at Robert Walters, as we find out about her personal reflections on entering and excelling in the traditional male dominated function, which is on technology.

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