As this year’s Women’s Month draws to a close, QBO Innovation Hub, as part of their StartUp Pinay Program, gathered together some of the country’s most groundbreaking women leaders to talk about leadership in the tech industry.
The panel was composed of Kat Luna-Abelarde, first vice president and head of International Carrier Business Group, PLDT-Smart; Grace Vera Cruz, country head, Grab Philippines; Kass Monzon, co-founder, Workbean Employer Branding; Elaine de Velez, co-founder and CEO, FrontLearners, Inc.; and Australian Emily Rich, director of Startups for APAC, Microsoft.
These female tech leaders talked about their experiences and perspectives leading their team through a pandemic, and finding their niche in typically male-dominated industries. From the discussion, which was equal parts insightful and inspiring, we culled seven life lessons which we can apply not only for work, but to life as well.
1. Don’t underestimate the value of compassion and listening
In the professional, especially the corporate, world, “hard skills” such as coding, analytics, and marketing are prized, whereas “soft skills,” which include those that entail interacting with other people are at times undervalued. What these tech leaders emphasized is that relating to other people, especially through compassion and listening, are just as important.
“Compassion,” Monzon emphasizes, “There’s no other response to what’s going on now in a pandemic.” She revealed that when she asks younger people on what they’re looking for in an employer, they say it’s compassion. “Apart from salary, benefits, what they usually ask us is do they (employers) have compassion?”
Alongside compassion, Vera Cruz recognizes the value of listening to people, “It is comforting to know that you’re not alone as you juggle things and as you go through life.” For leaders, she advises constantly talking to the people in their team, “If you open your ears and really sincerely listen to people, you are able to come up with solutions that are very helpful to them.”
Luna-Abelarde recounts that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year there was so much panic in their company, “I really felt that my job at that point was to keep everybody calm, take a step back, and the best thing I could do was to listen.”
De Velez did the same thing, “I reached out and listened. I asked them, ‘How can we help you?’” In that way, they were able to tweak their services to help their clients carry on. Some of them were able to go through the pandemic as if it was business as usual.
2. Empowerment is for all, not just women
Among the touchpoints of the discussion were diversity and equality in the workplace. The panelists are all for empowerment, but not just for women. “We (at Grab) empower not just women, but men, PWDs, any gender, any nationality. We try to empower them through our technology, through our platform. That’s the mission that’s central to what we do.”
Vera Cruz emphasizes that they want to use their tech platform to empower their partners so they can fulfill their own missions and thrive in any situation. She also clarifies that people on their platform (i.e. drivers, riders, and merchants) are not their employees, rather they are “business partners.”
Luna-Abelarde shares a framework that encapsulates all the things she has learned in her career, which are mostly in typically male-dominated industries. “I don’t believe in hierarchy, I believe in networking. I believe in empowerment rather than micromanagement.” She believes that it is her role now as a leader to give everyone in their company a voice and to allow people to collaborate. The pandemic taught her the value of investing in platforms that allow people to work together and be noticed despite a distributed setup.
3. Find mentors and pay forward through mentorship
Vera Cruz recognizes the importance of enabling other people to succeed. “I also benefited from people’s mentorship and time. It’s really good to pay it forward by enabling others.” She mentions that at their company, some of the best ideas come from the junior staff. She added, “Inspire by being the best person you can be.”
Vera Cruz adds, “It’s actually enriching for me, to be mentoring. First, I get to know them as people, second I get to ask questions, no holds barred. They get to ask me questions, I get challenged myself. Third, seeing them grow and become the leaders they’re supposed to be is very fulfilling.”
Rich shares says, “Things that have worked for me include finding mentors and allies throughout my career. Being propped up by people.”
4. Act based on your purpose and values
The importance of knowing your purpose was stressed by Luna-Abelarde, “You are where you are because of a purpose. That specific purpose can be found in your heart, your instincts, your talents. If you do not act based on that then you’re not being yourself, especially in this age of social media and influencers. If you try to be someone else, if you’re trying to act like someone else, then you’re not uniquely you. Therefore, you’re not bringing your unique value into the world. Embrace that (yourself). It would also entail the process of staring your demons in the face and dealing with them, but that’s that. That makes you you.”
Vera Cruz says that we should all have our own set of truths that reflect our values, “I encourage every leader, everyone who aspires to be a leader to create their own truths. Write down the things you believe in and practice them and don’t be shy about them.”
It is also important to adopt practices that institutionalize these truths. “(Because) it’s not enough that you just believe in them, especially if you’re in a position where you can make changes.”
First-time leader Monzon admits that she experimented on being someone else, changing her leadership style especially because of the pandemic: “I had no idea how I could inspire my team. I experimented on being someone else just because people would tell me, ‘You need to be more firm, you need to be more strict.’ But that’s not in my nature. I’m naturally an empathetic, compassionate person, that’s why my team joined me in this whirlwind ride of a start-up.”
She shares that when she deviated from who she really was, the team “crumbled.” It was when she showed her team that compassion wins the day that they “rode through this pandemic as a team, stronger than ever.”
5. Embrace change, failures, and vulnerabilities
The panelists all agree that failures are part and parcel of our lives, and that they can be our best teachers, “You have to embrace your failures. At some point in life, you’d realize that failures are your best teachers, not only at work, but in everything that you do. Just make sure that you learn from them,” said Luna-Abelarde.
The pandemic compelled everyone, the panelists included, to recalibrate strategies, plans, frameworks even. With the money they have set aside for unforeseen circumstances, Luna-Abelarde and her team, “took the pandemic as an opportunity to redefine the benefits for our workforce, not only for the women, but also for the men, and we’re also talking here of a lot of same sex unions.”
They converted parking and gas allowance, which aren’t needed these days, to some kind of a reimbursable “open benefit.” Six months into the pandemic, upon request of the employees, they were provided with office chairs and ring lights. Luna-Abelarde adds that the pandemic helped her get to know her team more, and was able to keep them productive, “It’s really been a journey, especially for me.”
Rich emphasizes that leaders should not be afraid to show vulnerability. “I say to my team, ‘Hey, I need a mental health break. This is what I’m dealing with at the moment.’” Her mom has not been very well and she’s open to her team about that. “It’s nice to show that we’re only human. It’s okay not to be a hundred percent.”
6. Learning should be continuous
“There’s no such thing as a steady state,” Vera Cruz says. “Learning has to be continuous. If you’re not learning, you’re deteriorating. You have to constantly learn and improve.”
Luna-Abelarde talks about their development plan and one-on-one mentoring and coaching, “It’s easier now, because schools are offering courses online. You want to bring your team into a culture of continuous learning.” She likewise mentions that she believes in both formal and informal learning, that there’s also so much to learn from listening to people and engaging in hobbies.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, challenge norms
“Coming from an all-girls school, I’m grateful to all the nuns who educated me. But one of the things I had to learn in my late twenties was to ask questions, and that it’s okay to ask really good questions. Number two is confidence, that you have a voice, you have a say,” Vera Cruz says that these were things she learned after studying abroad.
Luna-Abelarde talks about growing up in the corporate world, and how this led her to challenge traditional notions of strength, which is favorably skewed towards men. “The definition of strength has to be changed. When you say ‘strength’, there’s that immediate bias towards male strength, confidence, being decisive. More often than not, what women do in order to move up is to fit into that. But kindness, compassion, being nurturing, resilience, listening, are values of equal importance.”