Why stepping back helped me to push others forward
When Robert Walters opened its Malaysia office in 2006, Sally Raj jumped at the chance to join an international business. Within three years of joining Robert Walters, Sally was promoted to country manager and later managing director. She has recently taken on a new challenge as managing director of our Indonesian business. We asked Sally about her career journey, the challenges she’s faced and what she’s learnt about leadership.
How did you get where you are today, and who helped you along the way?
There have been a couple of people that have helped me at every step of my career at Robert Walters and I feel very blessed to have had their support. I joined the company as the second employee in Malaysia and after a couple of years, I had the opportunity to step up as the country manager, and I must thank my managing director for believing in me and giving me the opportunity.
Moving into this role was a big step. I knew how to recruit, but running an organisation the Robert Walters way was something completely different and I was very fortunate to have some amazing mentors who helped me learn how to manage a specialised recruitment business. Over the years, I had a lot of success, developing teams and industries, and by 2015, I’d grown the business from a team of two to 60 people. This was a huge achievement and there were many people that helped me along the way. In addition to my mentors, I hired some incredibly loyal, motivated and dedicated people and that has been instrumental to my success. Running a profitable business is a constant thing – markets change and become increasingly competitive, but having a fantastic team around me was really the key to my success.
What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?
I’d describe myself as quite traditional in the way that I think, and after eight years of achieving consecutive growth, I suddenly found that I was dealing with much younger people who were very competent, but with a lot less experience and a very different perspective. I remember chatting with my managing director about the challenge of managing a younger generation and he advised that I try adapting my approach rather than expecting others to adapt theirs.
This turned out to be the wisest advice that anyone has ever given me. However, changing my mind-set has been one of my toughest challenges. When you’re experienced in your industry, you can’t help but think you know what’s best, but learning how to stop and to think about why someone is saying or doing something has helped me to consider new ways of working. I’ve learnt that sometimes that iron-clad mindset has to change, although it certainly isn’t easy!
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
I would say the challenges I have faced are two pronged. Firstly, in 2015, when we experienced an economic downturn, we had to rapidly adjust our approach to suit this new market. I remember very vividly sending an email to my team saying that we’d been very successful for the last eight years, but we had to change our approach to the business if we wanted to continue our success.
My second challenge has been attracting the right people. Over the years, by and large, we’ve learnt how to get it right. I’ve come to realise that it’s not all about having the right paper qualifications, but having people with the right aptitude and attitude is what makes a great team.
What have you learned about leadership?
I’ve learnt that the higher up you go in leadership; it’s always about people, and after building our business in Malaysia for 11 years, I felt it was time for me to step aside and give another set of leaders the chance to move up. In my view, a change in leadership every so often can really help a business to grow. I also felt quite strongly that I didn’t want to rob someone else of the opportunity to lead or to get stale in my approach. I had a strong team of passionate and competent directors and associate directors, and I’m delighted that me moving to our Indonesia business has enabled many of them to take the next step in their career.
Typically, women only apply for a job if they hit 100% of the candidate criteria whereas men will apply if they meet 60%*, do you think confidence is a barrier for women moving into senior roles?
Confidence is definitely one of the areas where women don’t do justice to themselves. In my experience, women are more careful by nature, so it’s perhaps less surprising that women are more likely to check they meet all the criteria when it comes to applying for roles. Conversely, men tend to be more trigger happy and prepared to send off a job application without second guessing themselves.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to push yourself. Be that little bit braver, because you have nothing to lose by trying, but being reticent could cost you a fantastic opportunity. In my experience, the more you push beyond your comfort zone, the more of a habit it becomes.
What can senior men and women do to help women move up the corporate ladder?
For me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field for everyone. However, one person alone can’t achieve this. Equality needs to be rooted in a company’s culture and examples need to be set at the top for the action to be carried through at every level; otherwise, you end up with pockets of people trying to push women up and another group trying to push them down.
I also think women should help themselves by being prepared to put themselves forward. Everyone has a role to play and we’re all responsible for our own actions. If people want to achieve something, they have to be prepared to go out and get it.
What are your three pieces of advice for women wanting to succeed in their career?
- Be passionate about what you do. If you love what you do and do it wholeheartedly, you’ll see it come out in your results.
- Keep abreast with what’s happening in your industry and take opportunities to up-skill whenever you can. If you take time out from the corporate world, keeping updated will make it a lot easier to re-enter.
- Finally, surround yourself with strong mentors and positive people. Your success is determined by your mind-set and having people that share your passion and want to push you forward can be a huge help, but ultimately if you want something, you just need to go for it.