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International Women’s Day: Q&A with Debbie Mannas

International Women’s Day: Q&A with Debbie Mannas

Michelle Jackson International Women's Day

Frazer Jones is proud to be supporting International Women's Day 2019. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Whilst we all know that gender parity within the workplace has improved over the past decades, we all also know that there is still a long way to go.

We would like to join the discussion and be part of International Women's Day 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign on the 8th March by interviewing inspiring women we work with and, in particular, understanding the role confidence has played in their career.

We interviewed Debbie Mannas, Head of Organisation Development and Talent, Asia, SunLife Financial.


How do you define confidence, particularly in the workplace?

When I think of confidence, I think it goes beyond “presence” and “presentation skills” and “polish” to being deeply secure in our own skin. This shows up in risk taking and accepting roles even if you know you don’t have the experience. I think confidence shows up in how you let go of things and trust and empower others too. It shows up in optimism and kindness. It shows up in not hiring people who are like you and in developing the talent under you.

How do you think the confidence gap affects women?

Studies show that men will accept opportunities even if they don’t know or don’t have most of the expertise needed, but women will reject opportunities if they are not 100% sure they can fulfil the ask. This limits how often we put ourselves forward when opportunities present themselves. And sometimes this shows up in paradoxical swings, from reluctance to knee jerk acceptance without a plan.

Do you think women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades? Please explain why.

I think since we’ve started having the “gender” conversation, women are feeling more comfortable about not playing at being men. About 15 years ago I learned what not to be from a bad example of a female leader who believed her aggressiveness and workaholism was leader-like but emerged instead as an out of control bully. I actually wrote a poem about this last year - Crisis Magnet - it’s about the hoops women believe we have to jump through to be seen as worthy.

I was overjoyed when another empowered and strong female leader stood up to her. So, I had two great opposing examples to learn from... We have improved, but I’m still not sure we’re there. There are still old school women leaders who judge women with caregiver roles or outside hobbies harshly. We have to do better to support each other.

How important have confidence and self-belief been in achieving your career goals? Please explain why.

I’ve never rejected an opportunity because I didn’t know how. In every role and new initiative, I’ve undertaken, I knew I didn’t have the exact experience, but I was confident in my learning agility, resilience, energy, and sheer doggedness. I believe in the goodness of people and am the eternal optimist, so I’ve had no trouble asking for help (and giving it!) I find it immensely thrilling to learn something new and execute something I’ve never done before. From researching and designing workshops, configuring and implementing talent management systems, to running experiential projects, to being a guest speaker, to mentoring, to producing a solo music album… I had to start somewhere every time! But I know I still have a journey.

I guard my energies preciously and always gravitate towards people with positive energy and will support them all the way. There are those who would see you fail. When that happens, I do a lot of introspection, self-talk and sounding off. I then remind myself of this powerful quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which Brene Brown cites in Dare to Lead:

It is not the critic who counts; nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”.

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome (where you doubt your achievements and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”)? If so, how did you overcome it?

Yes, I have. I’m not sure who hasn’t. I think I’m my own worst critic and enemy! But I take a deep breath and remind myself that I wouldn’t be asked to do something if people didn’t believe in me. And I also think about how what I’m doing serves others. For example, I was asked to speak about my influences on my music and song writing at Asia Society’s women empowerment (Strength, Hardwork, Empowerment) SHE programme, on 14 December 2018. And my first instinct was, why would anybody what to hear about my influences? Can’t I just sing? And then I thought of all the men and women like me, who have other talents to share and want to have that balance in their lives, and I did it. It went down really well, I was supported by some wonderful friends, and I am so grateful for gathering the courage to do it. I credit being a mentor at The Women’s Foundation for giving me that confidence.

How much has risk-taking contributed to your career development?

A lot. Calculated risks, strategising, learning, lots of feedback and the willingness to change. I’m not sure I’d call myself a super financial risk taker, that’s another journey!

Can you give an example of a risk you’ve taken that has paid dividend?

At work, rolling out new initiatives, such as an experiential programme across Asia that we’ve just completed which has had very good reviews. It was designed by myself and I had to engage many people to execute it. I didn’t know when I started out how it would play out.

On the personal side, I’ve invested in myself in higher education, property purchasing and over the last year my solo album, Deborah Inspired. Producing the album gave me so many skills in resilience and endurance, from writing lyrics, composing melodies, coordinating musicians and studios, designers, physical CD production, online promo, gigs, rehearsals and performing…As an original artist, I’ve had so many opportunities to meet and perform with fantastic musicians in Hong Kong and internationally, including with Robin Banerjee, Amy Winehouse’s ex-guitarist. Robin plays six songs on my new album! Taking the risk to fund and produce my own album has given me more resilience, patience, creativity in my day job, and a boldness with social media. I learnt so much from it, and my next album is now a much smoother experience!

How important is mentoring, coaching and sponsorship in helping women to grow their confidence at work?

I can’t begin to describe how important it is for women to be mentors, to empower other women, and in the process, how much personal growth we have. We must also seek out both formal and informal mentoring relationships. Let’s admit that we need others and can’t do it all ourselves. I’ve had wonderful male and female mentors. Sponsorship hasn’t quite caught on in Asia, but it’s a formal relationship with a male mentor who actively raises your profile and advocates for you. I’ve seen it work with other women!

How can confidence-building be built into career development strategies?

Seek out opportunities to stretch yourself and test yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to focus on YOU.

What can be done to ensure a woman being assertive in the workplace doesn’t negatively impact on colleagues’ perceptions of her?

It’s so important to be a decent human being. It’s all in your intentions. If people perceive you to be agenda driven and selfish, they will make you fail. If they understand that your intentions are altruistic, they will work with you. People confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness. You can ask for your due and drive results without being obnoxious and demanding. This shows up in the respect you show others, how you collaborate with them, recognise efforts and credit others with helping you.