Gender diversity in business, but particularly in the boardroom, is an issue which has moved up the agenda in recent years, with companies around the globe accepting the need for more women to hold senior positions of real authority.
Taking practical steps, the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA program has shown its own commitment to the cause by establishing a scholarship for women, so that select individuals with the potential to reach the highest echelons also have the in-depth training and all-round skills to help them get there.
The first recipient of the scholarship was Charlene Lee Chu Wa, a member of the KH17 cohort, who has already made her mark as vice president of finance for the Far East and Australia for oil and gas company Proserv Inc, but has ambitions to go further. In particular, she knows that her company offers the chance to transfer to other regions, notably North America, and to move into general management roles. But, to seize such opportunities, she is well aware of the need to master the broad concepts and real-world application of disciplines like marketing, strategy, human resources and IT to be ready for the next steps up the career ladder.
“Having been in finance for 15 years, I wanted to be challenged in the way I think and the way I manage,” says Kuala Lumpur-based Lee. “That is why I am so excited about the EMBA program and feel it will be a transformative experience. I am used to making decisions based on certain assumptions, but realise the importance of changing that habitual approach and being open to different ideas and influences if I want to keep progressing.”
After just the first few courses, Lee found she was looking at business problems with new insight and from multiple angles. She was able to apply this learning at work and even to aspects of her personal life, making it easier to appraise situations and appreciate – if not necessarily agree with – contrasting points of view.
In one early assignment, she recalls, the class was asked to consider how the human brain works. The exercise allowed her to see the difference between applying a set of rules and being truly effective.
“Now, I am more conscious of what I am doing, the people around me, and the actual objective,” she says. “To really think about what you are doing and how to do it better is a very powerful tool.”
Working in a sector which is still close to 90 per cent male-dominated, Lee has often found herself the only woman in meetings and leadership groups. She has, though, always made a point of speaking up and willingly accepts a responsibility for mentoring female colleagues and encouraging them to aim higher.
This has led some to branch out, moving, for example, from finance to operations. And it has helped others achieve firsts, perhaps as country finance managers, or to find a new assurance in expressing personal opinions and questioning the status quo.
No doubt, this commitment to change also impressed the scholarship committee which, in making the award, took due note of Lee’s leadership potential and her track record in increasing gender and viewpoint diversity.
“I believe it is very important to increase diversity, hear different perspectives, and see more female leaders and entrepreneurs in the corporate world,” Lee says. “Whether in a business situation or a study group, I want to add value and say what I think. I don’t need to emphasise it is a woman’s perspective or be a female ‘activist’, just contribute my individual point of view and, if necessary, challenge people to think differently.
She adds that the ability to make the right decisions is one of the most important skills for managers in any business. In many cases, that comes down a combination of experience and gut feeling. But having the range of tools the EMBA provides to analyse and assess introduces an extra intellectual element and narrows the odds on success.
“I can now see the possibility of being a CEO which, previously, I never thought could happen,” Lee says. “Thanks to the EMBA, I am changing, looking at everything that goes into running a business – not just the finance side. The program is academically challenging, interesting, and very thought-provoking.”
- Vice President Finance - Far East & Australia
- Global CFO
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