People often have questions about leadership and how to do it well.
If Shireen Chua, Director of Third Culture Solutions, could summarise the role of a leader in one phrase it would be “to empower people”.
“Leadership is about empowering people to make a difference,” Chua says. “There is leading and there is managing, both are important in an organisation. Leaders influence people and managers ensure tasks and projects are completed. “So, there’s a difference between both, and at the heart of it is people,” she adds, “the people matter.”
“People can do amazing things if they are empowered, equipped and harnessed together with a common vision and goal, and given the opportunity to make contributions,” she says. “What brought me most joy was growing the potential of my team, and empowering and equipping them with an environment and a chance to move forward together.” She adds that the leader’s place is important in making sure the team “heads in the right direction”.
Being a first-time manager, Chua admits that her initial perception of management was very much a top-down viewpoint. “It was almost: ‘This is the job that needs to be done, I’ll tell you how to do it, and then you go to it’. But having the team be a part of the solution rather than being told the solution, was the most surprising and rewarding thing that I experienced,” she says. “It was great to see the deep satisfaction amongst the team when they worked together. That it could be fun, progressive and really get amazing things done.”
For all those aspiring leaders, Chua has some advice that she would give her former self, “Breathe and slow down, and know yourself. Not necessarily know what you want to achieve but know who you are and make sure you’re constantly gaining your self-awareness.” She adds that really knowing the people in your team is the secret sauce to success as a leader, “Get to know them, because they’re a part of why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
In contrast to what many people think, and what Chua once thought, competency is the least required skill needed to be a great leader. Despite it being the likely reason, you were hired into the role. “You need competency of your abilities to do the technical things, but it’s more about the chemistry of your team that you need as a leader,” Chua explains. Rather, you’d need EQ, or even CQ, over IQ to face new challenges with fluidity.
“There are circumstances where my expectations were so much higher than the challenges I was facing. Learning to reframe was a very important lesson. There were other times when the challenges were enormous, and I needed to step up my expectations. So, one of the things I learned was being agile; being flexible enough to reframe expectations. I also needed to shift my view that failure was fatal, it isn’t, in fact, it’s how we grow.” With the clarity of hindsight, today Chua sees that at the beginning of her management career she over-worked to get the job done. It’s something she’d advise against now.
“I realised the importance of prioritisation and delegation; find people to help to get the job done. And more importantly, that there's always tomorrow and things don't always have to be done that day.”
As for maintaining a positive balance in the team, Chua says it’s simple. “Celebrations,” she says, “or laughing at things in life. “Taking in the lighter side of things and not necessarily all the seriousness. Enjoying others and not just for the task that they’re doing, or the job that they’re doing, but for each other. “Doing fun things together is also a great way to keep your sense of humour because where there’s people around, there’s always a chance to laugh together if the environment’s right.”