Pakistani native Durdana Achakzai has been the only woman at the table more often than not. The first woman VP and Chief Digital Officer at Telenor Pakistan, she says this is something she’s just had to get used to.
“As you get more senior in companies, it starts to feel like an uphill climb for women; the lack of female role models and ‘sponsors’ ( male or female) means that women have to try that much harder to realize their ambitions,” she says.
Durdana’s journey has included a Harvard MBA, a Fulbright Scholarship, leadership positions in financial technology in London, motherhood and now serving as Telenor Pakistan’s first Chief Digital Officer. While she says there isn’t one magic formula for women and girls who want to edge their way up financial and technical career paths, she shares some valuable tips that might help:
1. Let the results do the talking
Define what success in any role looks like, clarify it with your stakeholders and then pursue regular upward management and check – ins. This is even more important in broad and generalist roles where results are not as specific as for example ‘writing one thousand lines of code’. Corporate environments can sometimes be full of distractions and it can be quite easy to get distracted by noise. Staying focused on what you want to get out of a role and validating those outcomes through the journey helps one build that initial credibility that over time just becomes a habit.
2. Be thick-skinned and keep an open mind
Temporary obstacles, personal struggles and difficult personalities will come and go. So too will open doors to new opportunities, lessons to learn and positive people who could make a lasting mark. Don’t let temporary negativity dispirit you or close you to new opportunities. And know when to compartmentalize: try to find ways to keep productivity and creativity in one area of your life from getting bogged down by temporary struggles in another.
3. Surround yourself with positive voices, yours especially
Listen to those who empower you and don’t take the negative feedback loop too far in. This doesn’t mean building a circle of sycophants to drown you in false praise. Positive voices are the ones that help you stay inspired, motivated and self-assured, but also don’t hesitate to tell you when you’re in the wrong. And if you don’t have them, be your own.
It’s important that this voice first and foremost comes from within ourselves.
4. Choose the right partner (if you want one)
For those women who want partners to share their lives with, I think it’s important that your chosen partners value your ambitions, are supportive of your plans, can accommodate your trajectory and find ways to fit their lives into yours – just as they, no doubt, would expect you to do of theirs.
Getting this choice right can make the difference between doing fine versus doing excellently at your careers – and is a key part of your journey.
5. Embrace work-life integration
As a mother of two young girls and a full time senior role, the desire to derive satisfaction in both personal and professional spheres has meant embracing work life integration – as opposed to work-life ‘balance’. Integration in this sense means constant, almost real-time priority calls between personal and professional matters as well as meticulous planning. Make no mistake though – there isn’t a perfect state and just knowing what really matters in the constant juggling of priorities helps one maintain that much needed perspective and focus.
Durdana also believes that society and industries have a lot more work to do in order to help women break through the glass ceiling in a way that lets women be themselves. We need ‘realistic’ role models at senior levels that women at various levels can relate to and would like to emulate. We need men and women both to understand that gender equality at senior levels in fact correlates to better business performance and should be at the top of any executive’s agenda.