For Deborah Schembri, a Certified Public Accountant and Managing Director and CEO of STM Malta Pension Services Limited, one of the challenges for women to reach leadership roles in their careers is because most of the people in the room are men. “As a woman, I stand out but I’m also more likely to be remembered.”
As part of a series of interviews with women business leaders in Malta, Deborah shares her experience and insights as woman in top-level position within the financial services sector, one that, like many others, is largely occupied by men.
“The areas of financial services and managing a business always fascinated me, which led me to obtain a Master’s in business administration pursued with Henley Management College, UK, in 2002,” says Deborah.
She began her career holding senior finance roles with companies operating in a number of industries, with a focus on the company’s strategy and objectives. “As my career progressed, I was entrusted with C-level roles both with international and local companies, where I formulated new strategic directions and implemented the necessary changes.”
“Holding the role of a Managing Director and CEO was the natural step in my career progression,” she adds. “Over the past seven years, as the CEO and Managing Director of STM Malta Pension Services Limited, I have been instrumental in setting up and not only growing the Company, but also placing the firm as the major pensions provider.”
Addressing the shortage of women in leadership positions within organisations, Deborah pragmatically regards the issue as a series of challenges that give rise to opportunities. The first, she believes, is that “one of the uncomfortable realities of being a female leader is walking into a business meeting and realising that you’re one of the few women (if not the only woman) in the room among your male counterparts. The pressure of being the only one can be overwhelming.”
She explains that while the temptation to stick out less is strong, most successful female leaders agree that staying true to yourself and playing to your strengths are key to rising above preconceived notions of how women should appear and act at work.
“Instead of conforming to the widely held belief of what a successful leader looks like or should be, I have discovered that it is important to have confidence in myself and the skill sets that brought me to where I am today,” says the CEO. “’Sticking out’ can actually be a positive attribute, giving you the chance to spotlight the unique skills and outlook you bring to the table. So instead of shrinking back, step forward and make a lasting impression by being both seen and heard.”
The second challenge she highlights is that it’s hard for women to build a support network in a ‘boy’s club’ world, but the opportunity here lies in seeking both men and women as connections and mentors who will help along one’s career journey.
“It’s important to note that professional support and mentorship for women does not have to come exclusively from a female executive. On the contrary, I have found value in seeking counsel from men who have shared their connections, advice, expertise, and support — all of which helped catapult me into my current role as CEO.”
Thirdly, Deborah highlights the stereotype that women are more emotional and less decisive than men as another obstacle. However, the opportunity lies in a women bringing diverse physical, mental and emotional experiences to the conversation.
“It’s a common stereotype that women are ‘emotional thinkers’ and, therefore, less competent business leaders than their male counterparts. While some women may think differently than men as a result of their personal and professional experiences, I haven’t found it to be a flaw in business. If anything, it’s an advantage,” she asserts.
Deborah continues that, in today’s hypercompetitive marketplace, gender diversity is good business. “Women bring unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences to the table that enrich conversations and lead to better company decisions. It often takes great boldness to make our voices heard, but it is essential, for we have a lot of important opinions and ideas to share with the world.”
Deborah shares her top tips for women to reach their full potential at the workplace.
“Resilience is the quality that allows you to overcome stress and adversity and to come back strong (maybe even stronger than before).”
“When we approach situations from a perspective of humility, it opens us up to possibilities, as we choose open-mindedness and curiosity over protecting our point of view.”
Play to your strengths
“Focus on cultivating your strengths to build a solid career that is satisfying. If you’re working happily, then you’ll be a better, more inspiring leader to others.”
Be of service to others
“Volunteering your time, connecting others with ideas and resources, and participating in your community are great ways to demonstrate leadership.”
“What holds women back is the lack of confidence to act and take risks. To become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. Be a little risky, take a leap, give it a try, speak up, and be kind but convicted in your effort to take a seat at the table.”
Don’t compare yourself to others
“If you catch yourself in the act of comparison, try the exercise where you list all the things going well in your leadership role. Remind yourself of how far you’ve come to sustain you through the long road to the top.”
Demonstrate strength with grace and kindness
“Communicate with mindfulness. Give credit to others. Be tough but fair. Have integrity. Listen with intent to understand. Be honest. And remember, being a leader isn’t easy. Otherwise, everyone would do it!”
Offer support not criticism
“Do your fellow females a favour and offer support, not criticism. When you see another woman succeeding, cheer her on! She’s paving the way for you and future women to come, so offer her your hand, your applause, and your generosity.”
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