Strong Voices Interview #15: Sandra Babylon – Managing Director & Executive Board Member
"If the ship is rocking and everybody says it is not going to work out, being positive is not a sign of naivety but of leadership." - Sandra Babylon
What do you think is needed to better support women in their careers?
I can tell you what it takes, and I can tell you we're not there yet: There still is so much untapped Female talent – and still so many stereotypes and biases involved! For example, while talking about the female talents I support I sometimes get questions like "so, why are you supporting her, aren’t you afraid she might be taking your role one day, and what do you do when someone you promote is even better than you?" My answer is “Well, that's great! I will literally pull over, cheer her on and yell, ’GO GO GO’, the speed lane is all yours!". After all, leadership is about building the next generation of leaders, and my legacy will be that I can say with a big smile “Of course she is great and guess who put her there?”. Moreover, maybe sometimes I do not even say that, but instead, just say she's simply great. My best decisions in hiring people are usually looking for potential rather than 10+ years of experience or a 100% fit in skills. So when hiring a senior profile into a role, I look for that person’s potential for the next level up, and you might hear me say things such as "She's partner material, she's going to be a partner eventually, and if we don't hire her now we might not get a chance to hire her later in her career”. Women are rated differently than men when it comes to the more senior roles, and many women might feel judged based on experience and “proven” capabilities vs. potential. Sometimes they fall off the promotion list based on “she is not there yet / too junior / she can wait another x years” or “we don’t have enough slots this year to consider her”. Actually, that is not true - and yes, you don't want to hear that - but other candidates were considered for promotions or for that new role. The truth is, there are always slots, positions and new jobs. If you weren’t considered there might me other issues involved. So the real question is how are you noticed, how do you make sure you’re positioned and find sponsors and coaches to get you to the next level. Women need to proactively drive these discussions with their mentors, bosses and sponsors!
How did you get to where you are today? Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
Before I started in consulting, I worked for a publishing house - something that I've always wanted to do. I ended up leaving after 6 months because it was just terrible. Then I went into advertising, which was super-creative with great people, but also with a boss who once – only half joking - told me: "Look, your job is to look pretty and hold the cardboard." Therefore, not really what I was looking for either. By coincidence I was invited to an interview for a consulting job, very much to my surprise I ended up having survived a tedious assessment center and being picked from a bunch of - from my perspective - much better qualified candidates with relevant skills and experience. However, someone saw the potential in me, and I got the job. After getting started in a hardcore IT and banking environment that taught me to develop a growth mindset, I finally got my groove and defined learning as my key trait. Still, it took me years to define my position, my USP and advocate my skillset and talent - and I still do it today! When I was younger, I never thought that being a structured problem solver, having a strong can-do attitude and curiosity would help make a career, however I discovered that this is really what defines me and outlines what I do well: structure, manage, and take decisions. Looking back, I think career planning is NOT what I was doing, even though it might look like this from the outside. What it really was is lots of coincidences and - much more important - taking opportunities when they popped up and making the best out of them.
How was it for you to climb up in consulting? Was that difficult for you?
I stayed in my consulting job for more than 20 years and have achieved more than I ever dreamed of - but it was also a journey of frequently redefining where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve. And, of course, setbacks are part of the journey! When I took my first attempt to get promoted to the Manager ranks, I didn't get promoted. I couldn't believe it at all - I didn't get promoted!!! I was disappointed, questioned my career choices and thought about moving on - for weeks and weeks I was sulking! In hindsight, I would say my worries about not “making it” were completely irrelevant - I got that promotion 6 months later. Therefore, the lesson learned really was that your time will come, and you will be ready and then it will work - if you bring up the courage to define your path and say what you want to achieve. When you are younger, you somehow do not realize that it is important to speak up, make yourself seen and work on your network - because if you are not being noticed, you do not move forward.
Is there some advice you like to give women in the course of their careers?
Over the last years, I’ve had the pleasure of supporting and coaching many women along their career paths in several roles and I have promoted a number of them to very senior roles. One piece of advice that I shared was to be bold, and positive - the doubts and insecurities that you may have are not to be shared with your boss or stakeholders. If you are sharing your thoughts like “I do not know if I'm ready”, “I've never done this before”, or “I'm worried” you might be putting yourself in a weak spot. The recipient of these concerns, mainly men, might be thinking "Okay, she is not ready to do that, then we should not be putting her up for that promotion / that next step / in such a role, there's no point because she really doesn't want that."
How would you deal with your insecurities and doubts?
You can of course discuss uncertainties or doubts with your boss; however, it is a matter of framing it in the right way: "That's a really big pair of shoes... but I can handle it." is a completely different message than "I don't know if I can do it." My advice is to practice and use brothers, fathers, male friends as sparring partners and ask them how they perceive the message. There is a very exciting book by Iris Bohnet called "What works for women" that talks about women having to strike the right balance on the scale of competence and warmth. This is a bit easier for men because the role connotation of a man is quite similar to that of a good manager. For women, there is a relatively large discrepancy between "What do you think a woman should be", that is warm, caring, kind, caring, making people feel good, with the stereotype "What is expected of you as a manager". It is sometimes difficult to balance, and everyone also has to find their style, in my case, I combine straight talk with lots of humor. Also, I found that coaching can help you to uncover the communication issues and biases that are coming your way. I found that expertise and competencies typically aren’t the real issue, the issue is getting your expertise across competently and clearly communicating your point of view. The good thing about it: you can practice it every single day and, in every meeting. You can practice it and you get better the more you try it. Small things can make a huge change. It is worthwhile to take a short break in these moments and consciously switch into a different mode. And that's why I always encourage all women to invest in communication and coaching to become even better.
Do you have a particular principle or quote that you live by or that motivates you?
Well, not a quote, but a motto…" I can do it". I've done a lot of difficult projects in my life and there were always situations where I thought I don't know how to do it. But the truth is, you can do it - just look how much you have accomplished - just don't let yourself get rattled. At the beginning of my career, it was kind of a survival motto. In the meantime, however, it has become a very firm belief. If the ship is rocking and everybody says it is not going to work out, being positive is not a sign of naivety but of leadership. The second motto I also have is "always choose people". I don't know if you know the Navy Seals key question. "If you are in a difficult situation, would you take the most experienced person or would you take the one you trust?" I believe that trust is key, if you work with people you trust, performance usually follows. If you engage with people, you will find that everyone can contribute - and this team member who is perceived as “nagging” may in fact be very analytical and will identify 17 points that no one else has considered. I learned this from one of my managers who told me not to complain about not getting the right people, but working with the team you have, his message was in fact “If they're not successful, you've not done well as a leader. And yes, maybe they are not the ‘best’ people, but you need to make it happen nonetheless." Today I say what great coaching was that…
What helped you to be a good leader?
I remember when I got my first leadership position, I had a lot of respect for this new role and I also somehow believed that you have to do everything perfectly and know everything, anticipate everything and be the best team member as well as the best leader. Today I know that this is far from the truth and I focus on coaching people to utilize their potential. You will have people in your team who know stuff better than you ever will. Your job as a leader is to bring people together, coach the team, and develop people. Most of the time you will be the one who has to make decisions, who takes the risk. If you enjoy that role, stay humble and curious, you'll get better and better at it - and that's the greatest job in the world. Of course, there are also phases where you think it would be easier if you didn't have so many responsibilities, and it is easy to get very busy with meetings and meetings. However, managing your time and putting the priorities right is key. To still make time to think I use blockers in my calendar and reserve time for more strategic tasks – and of course, I always take time for my team!