We often hear things like women who tries to voice out are viewed as alpha, aggressive; while women who don't voice out are asked to speak up. Having lived in UK, USA, India and now Singapore, The Busy Woman Project speaks to #girlboss Francesca Leighton, Senior Director of Sales - South East Asia & India at Nike, the leading athletic sports brand, with a male-dominated work environment.
What are some career tips when dealing with challenging situations? Do they differ from country to country, culture to culture? With technology and new tools developing constantly, what are ways to stay ahead of the curve - in terms of personal well-being and fostering working relationships, to thrive in today's world?
- Focus on being the authentic you; don’t change to fit in. This is how you will really shine.
- Be confident and play to your strengths; find a good mentor (male or female).
- Support your tribe / females around you; help each other step up, speak up and throughout the journey.
What are you busy with? What is your typical day like?
The nature of my work is very fluid in terms of both location and content, so there is no average day; however, I try to structure ‘me time’ daily no matter what. Since I moved to Singapore, I’ve been traveling/working in two+ countries per week on average… so I’ve learnt how to make Changi Airport one of my ‘offices on the go’ (make travel time work for me). This means, wherever I am, I have to be very diligent to vest at least some time to refuel/balance/give back each day (I definitely thank my earlier life as a competitive athlete for this discipline!). It helps that I am a morning lark, as generally it’s an early morning run exploring my surroundings or yoga.
My day time is usually 90% with people – my team, my peers, although much of it is virtual. This is the inspiring part for me, being with the team and getting things done on the ground; I’m always amazed by what they can do.
There is another part of my life, probably the most important, that I have to make time for and prioritise daily and that’s my family; my husband in Singapore and rest of our family in Europe. If I’m in Singapore, dinner time, activity time is with my husband, Philipp. We also try to travel away for a weekend every month for some quality time together. Otherwise this just wouldn’t work.
Could you share with us some of your on-the-go / travel work hacks tips for busy women?
- I make every minute of work time count, so I have more me/free time e.g. Having high quality noise cancelling earphones so you can concentrate in busy environments has changed my life, and they have also improved my sleep on flights
- I joined Priority Plus as this gives you lounge access anywhere in the world to recharge, refuel, take calls and catch up on the go. I used to find I lost so many work hours in transit; now I make the most of lounges everywhere… and if they serve champagne, that's a bonus ;)
Your work involves motivating and coordinating with a lot of people – yet, most of it is done virtually. What are some tools you use to build relationships online and ensure that efficient communication is still in place?
Technology has evolved so much recently, making the world a smaller place. I rely on huddle technology like BlueJeans to have a virtual meeting in multiple countries. When there are different languages, cultures, etc, body language and facial expressions are super important visual cues. FaceTime Video is also great when you just have one location to connect to. I know all too well that translation can be difficult over technology if there are line breaks or if people become tired, so now I always recap notes/next steps so everyone is on the same page and I find this works well.
However, no matter how good the tools are, it’s critical to intersperse remote with actual physical connection. I try to mobilise my team once a quarter at least; we find an important & inspirational city to meet up in and at the same time, learn about the market and our consumers. I always start these meetings (typically 3-4 days) with a day of team building first to re-establish relationships and build on the rapport we have before we focus on the business agenda.
What were you like as a kid / growing up?
In many ways, life was not dissimilar to many Asian kids, with high expectations for success. My parents divorced when I was young and I was only able to continue with my education through earning annual scholarships (pressure!). I found sport to be an outlet that didn’t demand the same type of pressure or conditions and was very fortunate to have people who believed in both my academic and sporting talent. I also had incredible grandparents, especially my grandfather who was an inspiration himself. He always believed I could do anything, and as a very small & petite female by European standards, not many people shared the same view!
Sport allowed me to build my confidence, to learn important skills/qualities and also took me to some incredible places in the world. Discipline, focus, commitment, and you put in what you get out are examples that help me on a daily basis, especially when the going gets tough or you can’t yet see the light… it’s times like these you need an auto-pilot that drives you to put your head down and get on with it. I also learnt how to humbly accept winning (no matter how excited you are), and also losing (no matter how broken you really are) which today resonates with me as empathy, and when used in the right way, can be an incredible tool in life and business.
Today, I’m still fascinated by the psychology of what we do/why we do things and this fascination started from my racing days; coaches would encourage me to visualise - see, feel the emotion of success & winning until it became real. This approach really helped me when I first began to present in front of large audiences. To calm my nerves, deep breathing from the belly and slowly expanding my ribcage as far as I can is a calming technique I swear by.
I also know that when I’m fit, healthy, challenging myself physically, I have more stamina and endurance not just for sport, but to deal with life’s daily ups and downs with minimal stress… looking back I have a lot to be grateful for!
What was a decision(s) that changed the course of your life?
There are two what I would call ‘life changing’ decisions that I actually reflect upon quite frequently because of their impact. The first of these was the decision to move overseas to take my first job as a graduate in Israel (during the very turbulent mid 90’s). This opened my eyes to a whole new world. By day I led a research project, by evening and every weekend I worked for the kibbutz where I lived (a collective community settlement unique to Israel). This taught me to appreciate the value of life, the strength & power of a community and gave me a vision for the future.
For me, my vision for the next several years is within the corporate world. Thereafter, it’s about balancing those parts that have definitely been sacrificed whilst working hard, traveling extensively and living far away from family. The longer term project will take Philipp and I close to nature, growing local produce, running an open kitchen & yoga workshops and inviting like-minded people to build a community or to just rejuvenate i.e. 'life on our terms & without chaos’.
The second decision (about 8 years ago) was to leave my life in London, family and move to the USA with three suitcases and a job I had no idea how I was going to deliver what was expected! This taught me many strategies to be focused, be efficient, be resilient but most of all, taught me to put ‘me first’. Look after the person and everything else can then fall into place. This remains my philosophy today – people first, business & the rest will follow.
Have you faced gender-related challenges at the negotiation table? Share with us a particular incident and how you dealt with it.
I recall quite a few instances and over the years, I learnt how to better deal with the situation ‘in the moment’. If you foresee things could present itself, being prepared and/ or proactively addressing where you feel individuals may have concerns head on has worked for me. Also having mentors, coaches, team members who fully supported me really helped to build confidence to share my point of view and ultimately present a more democratic approach to solve an issue. Situations like this used to drive me crazy, and this made me even more determined to not let it be a barrier.
It’s also good to remind yourself that generally, every male has some close association with a female – daughter, wife, mother… sometimes making this connection helps to build empathy and change a gender-stereotypical perspective.
With your moves to multiple cities including India, Singapore, US, UK for work, were there specific cultural differences in each location pertaining to gender biases / stereotypes?
India was differently the most challenging experience, and the most rewarding, both personally and professionally. I remember very clearly being told ‘white, female and non-Indian leading Sales’ was not what my customers were expecting, or something they could comprehend. However, I learnt very quickly that education & designation is king, so we crafted a new business card with every one of my qualifications captured. Surprisingly, this went a very long way. I then ensured some quick wins were delivered to build confidence further.
I will never forget the switch I experienced from being made to feel like an imposter initially to being welcomed with incredible warmth and huge bouquets of flowers. I also had to face an area that definitely wasn’t a strength of mine – dealing with conflict.
Having spent the first few months trying to create harmony and mediating what I thought were rowdy, chaotic & uncomfortable meeting environments, I learnt it was best to fully participate in the noise and chaos of the moment and let it work through to resolution. I guess this is one way to tackle a development area – head on!
Interestingly in the US, I experienced a far greater cultural transition than I had prepared myself for. I thought I ‘knew’ the US having worked for a US corporate for some time with frequent visits to the States, the same language, etc. What I experienced when I moved there was a super high confidence level and the constant ‘on-show’ approach - a big difference to the English culture being more reserved and humble.
I found it hard to constantly profile myself in the same way but over time, I found a way that better suited my personality with a more targeted & subtle approach to networking and communication.
Having worked in male dominated industries, have you been on the receiving end of any inappropriate comments?
Yes absolutely and it hurts! You again need a handful of strategies at your fingertips to close it down, or work through it. The most frequent experience, would be people giving you their jackets or asking for coffee (and more) as they enter a meeting room… not realising you will be leading the meeting. Also, if customers would openly communicate their lack of confidence, this would supercharge my intent to deliver.
Staying committed to your beliefs and providing quick wins is always a good antidote. Today, I feel much more confident to address this directly where I feel inappropriate comments are being made to me or my team and I feel very proud to call out a ‘no tolerance’ approach.
Although it may take some inner strength, I always feel it’s best to address inappropriate comments. Looking back, I could have handled things differently or spoken up more, as I do now. It’s absolutely ok to pause in the moment, turn the focus back to the individual and say ‘Do you feel that’s appropriate’, or ‘That’s not appropriate, let’s move on’ or even ‘I’d like to understand why you feel it’s ok to say what you just did’.
What’s been your greatest career challenge(s) as a corporate professional so far?
One of the greatest career challenges to date was definitely breaking through to a managerial / leadership role in the FMCG industry, where there were very few women and none in my function (Sales). Conversations & activities were focused on the majority audience (male) and the expectation was to be part of it.
On other occasions, I also felt pressure to show up a certain way, look a certain way to fit in, but this really juxtaposed me being me. Having meetings until the early hours and to stay out till the end to prove your worth, then still be 100% in form the next morning was far from enjoyable. Also, the need to be traditionally suited & booted, when all I wanted was my own style & femininity to shine through, was a constant battle - but one that I won.
The long and short of this, is that this experience allowed me to accelerate my journey, create my own leadership identity and style – elevating and refining what I needed to, yet remaining authentically me.
What’s been your greatest success as a corporate professional so far?
One success that will always make me feel proud is being recognised globally at Nike for an Outstanding Contribution. As this was in a very different type of role for me and just 18 months after I’d packed my life in three suitcases to move 6000 miles around the world and at the tail-end of a rather treacherous three-year divorce, the significance personally was very high impact. It gave me a new found belief and confidence.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I wouldn’t classify myself as having a certain text book style, I believe you adopt and adapt what is right for you …so the best of you can truly shine. My leadership principles are grounded in the following – being passionate & purposeful, collaborative & energizing, and with a constant appetite for life & learning. The key values and behaviours that bring this to life for me are to be empowering, inspiring, visionary, optimistic, trusted/ing, loyal, accountable. This means I also prefer to try/pilot newness with my team whilst embracing the value of failure. I also advocate celebrating progress over perfection -it’s all too easy to fear failure and anything less than perfection… however, life is never perfect!
I also have 3 personal mantras that shape my leadership everyday:
'Don't leave till tomorrow what you can do today'
'Make time for the fabulous'
What are the key ways you have supported women in Nike & beyond?
One area that is important to me is community and over the years, this has involved mentoring individuals within Nike and outside, and also coaching programs. I always enjoy helping people see the value sport can bring to their life, the positive ways it can impact your work and personal life through health, leadership and other qualities.
I also led a project for our Emerging Markets to address declining female leadership in the Sales/Commerce functions – this was an 18 month project and probably one of the most enlightening and rewarding, especially as the action plans were fully supported and implemented.
Woman Empowerment is...
…an ongoing process made up of many parts. It starts with inclusion, evolves to equality, followed by partnership / support to reach (your) potential with confidence and accountability.
What are some technology apps you use and wellness hacks / habits you've cultivated over the years, especially with all your moving around & travels?
I live by travel apps for hotels, airlines, other travel (AirBnB is awesome for inspiration, making bookings and curating your entire trip). They make my life so easy and everything related to your booking is in one place.
I also love two lifestyle/fitness apps – Calm (meditation app for beginners) and NTC (Nike Training Club App) for workouts on your phone anywhere you go from HIIT to Yoga.
What does success look like to you?
Success is ultimately about happiness and fulfilment. From a career perspective, I love the organisation I work for as honestly, every role is like moving to a new business, so continuing my commercial leadership journey globally is my goal.
From a personal/lifestyle perspective, my husband and I are pretty diligent in re-stating our life goals every year – usually somewhere on a beach with a bottle of wine! We re-evaluate what we’ve done in the last 12 months and set out some north stars for the next 1, 5, 10+ years. Over time, the 1 & 5 year goals evolve, but the long term still remains the same and without giving too much away, it draws on our passions for the best food, hospitality & weather!
How else can we harness technology and mindful living to thrive in our lives? Join us and Francesca at Almost Bionic for a live panel discussion.
Questions? Please feel free to drop us a note at [email protected].