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Humans of CODA - Emma Anderson

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At CODA, we want to celebrate women leaders in the tech space in this region and what better way to do this than to sit down with them and have a chat about their journey, learnings, obstacles, experiences etc. First, we approached Emma Anderson 

Emma Anderson is a Senior Director, Solution Delivery - Payment products at Planet, Dubai. Prior to this, she was a Senior Solution Delivery Manager - MEA at 3C Payment in Dubai. Before heading to the Middle East she worked for names like Visa , Barclay and Elavon. Let’s find out a little more about her professional and personal journey: 

CODA :When you landed your first job in Sales and Operations, how did you navigate through the job, having an educational background in medicine? Do you think that being a woman made it more difficult to enter a technical field? Do you think if you would have had to do that in this day and age, things would be different? 

Emma:I think there’s two different areas when you’re looking at changing your career. Sometimes it’s about your expertise within a specific industry and if you understand the area enough to move around in different roles. For eg - within payments, I’ve done Sales, Marketing, Product and Tech etc. 

Whereas when I was moving from Medicine, I already had administrative skills and customer service skills because I had done admin tasks like handling calls, typing up medical notes, dealing with patients etc.. When I moved industries, I was still doing administration and eventually landed up being the Sales and Operations coordinator when they saw how good I was at Relationship Manager of the Dealership network and the staff.

Men don't have the same worry about failure that women do. Women tend to look at job descriptions and think, “I can't do all of that” forgetting that we actually don't need to do all of that. A lot of job descriptions entail the work you will do, but the company will train you in many those areas and tasks. So what they're really asking is - “do you have the skills and the aptitude to learn to do this kind of role?”. Men look at job descriptions and if they can do more than half of it, they just go for it! If they get rejected, they don't take that personally. But us as women we’re generally quite hard on ourselves. Much harder on ourselves than our male colleagues. We set the bar much higher in our minds of what we need to prove and hesitate to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Often we also have more outside of work responsibilities and therefore feel that we may not have the time to commit to succeeding at that next step. If you've got children or a family, you've also got responsibilities at home and maybe you don't feel like you have the same mental capacity to take on such a stretch. But I think most of us underestimate our capability and almost self select ourselves from moving forward.

CODA: Moving to your career, did you feel like that at any particular point of time or where you were made to feel like that from someone at your workplace or someone in your personal life?

Emma: Absolutely. I think as a woman, your biggest enemy is yourself. But your second biggest enemy is often certain people around you in the workplace that like you to stay where you are, especially if you are doing a really good job – they don’t want you to progress or move up, as that would mean they would have to find someone else and train them up. 

After I had progressed through a few roles over 5 years within the first Payment company I had worked in, moving from Sales into the Commercial Product team, I kept being a top performer but when I was applying for promotions I kept getting rejected. Obviously, that's very painful and what I kept hearing was that the successful candidates came with external experience. They had other payment market experience that I didn’t have. This made me realise that I was ready for the next step and I needed to move on because I had reached my glass ceiling there.

I was then successful and got a role at Visa in London, but suddenly I had to kind of mentally prepare myself for commuting every day and for traveling a lot across Europe and working with colleagues and customers from many different countries, which I had never done. There was a lot of internal fear where I said - “I'm not good enough, I don’t know enough. I'm not capable of doing a job with lots of traveling, moving around Corporate offices, speaking with customers and partners from different payment companies in so many countries and being in such different environments etc.” But I had to keep telling myself that I will figure it out and learn as I go. I did and it was so worth it. It was a big leap career wise, also financially, but it was worth taking that risk and though took some adjustment  I did it!! Visa was an amazing company to work for and I had a great female manager who really supported and developed me. 

I also encountered a situation in my first job in Heavy Industry where I was told I couldn’t be paid more even though they were giving me more and more responsibilities because I didn’t have an Engineering Degree. It was unfair because I was going to be doing the same as the Operations Director who eventually got promoted to run the company and I was asked to do his role for a very minor pay rise. Basically, I knew that they thought that I was competent enough to do the job but not deserving enough for a  bigger pay rise. That was the trigger for me to know that this was not the company to develop in. Surprisingly, the moment I handed in my resignation, they doubled my salary and offered me a company car but I told them that they’ve already broken my trust. They’ve  already demonstrated to me that there is no long term future with them. 

CODA: What’s your viewpoint of the current hold that women have in the tech sector? Do you see companies here making efforts to ensure that the male to female ratio is equal?

Emma: I think that within the payments industry, the workforce is still incredibly male heavy but I have seen a real desire to change that especially in the Middle East or Asia Pacific or Latin America, but less so in Europe or North America. This change will be something that can take decades. The skill sets of the people that you're looking to try and put into your funnel have to start wanting to work in our area of Technology in High School as well as selecting those subjects at  university stage, especially in the coding and computer engineering and fin tech development. So I think that there has been quite a big cultural shift in terms of focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) that are proactively targeting girls, and movements such as a huge step forward. Girls need to be able to see for  themselves that they have the opportunity to have fun and learn about these types of careers to invest in the subjects and university courses that can feed them into some parts of the Fin Tech space. 

We also have mentorship programs that are trying to work around unique yet very common situations that cause problems for women, for example maternity leave or returning to work after a long absence. Once they’re back, how can we help them have a more flexible working model that works around her commitments. Or for women who are older, how do we support women who are going through the menopause or coming to a later stage in their life where they may have responsibilities for elderly relatives? 

The leadership team that I'm part of now in the product and tech team is 50 percent female. I've got a team of six and I have two girls and four guys. In the project management team, that's pretty much 50 - 50 as well. They kind of worked very hard to try and maintain a balance in terms of gender equality so we have 52 percent male and 48 percent women across the company of over 1,500 colleagues with staff in over 55 countries

But it’s the stretch as you go up the leadership level that we’re still working on. We’ve achieved almost equal numbers in the middle management but we’re working on how we can get a better distribution in the higher levels of management. 

So I know for a fact that in the company I work for, it’s not just a mandate but I can’t say the same for all the other companies in the region. I’ve worked with very large corporate and more European or US based companies who are further along in that journey as compared to the UAE, but I can definitely see that there's a desire to move towards that. The older leadership teams in that sense are a little old school and have a paternalistic kind of approach. They definitely value the contribution of women, but mentally have not yet created that kind of space for them to influence to the same extent. It’s not so much about getting women in these roles but more of - do you allow them to have influence and complete empowerment and ownership? I’ve witnessed situations that were painful to watch where in a board room, a woman suggests something that gets ignored. Later on, when a man suggests the exact same thing, it becomes a good idea which is soul destroying for that woman. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin and find different ways to influence and sometimes just making sure your voice gets heard.

CODA :  Any particular way that has worked with you and can probably help the readers? 

Emma :Something I learnt from one of the Managing Directors at my first Payments company has always been invaluable and I’d like to share it in case it might help. If you're ever going to be successful in managing effective meetings , you have to do these 3 things.

One, you need to learn how to set your agendas for your meeting and send them out so people know why they're coming. And you need to stick to that – don’t allow your meetings to get derailed. Its ok to say “let’s take that offline” – which means “let’s talk about that later, this is not the time or the place”. 

Two, if you've got key decisions that you want to be made in that meeting, you need to know where everybody stands on that point before the meeting and lobby for the decision that you want ahead of the meeting as well as inside the meeting. You can't go in there and present that need or decision for the first time. Everybody else in that room is suddenly trying to assess the information and might not move ahead either because they've got their own perspectives or haven’t completely understood it.

Three, always record minutes and send it out to everybody so you can reinforce the decision that was made in the meeting. How do we follow through on that? How can you give me the resources that you promised? Ensure accountability and follow up with people’s actions. Also post pandemic, with so many meetings on Zoom or Teams, I have often learnt to record meetings, so that I can refer back to help with notes/taking minutes, so that I can be more present and influence in the meeting more effectively.

CODA: Thank you for the tips!Was there a corporate culture shock in any way when you moved to the Middle East? Any key learnings from working in the region?

Emma: Working with other cultures, definitely. So I realized that I was speaking too fast or not speaking clearly to other people because it was not their first language. So I kind of had to work around that and make sure that agendas and if possible, presentations were sent ahead of time and minutes afterwards to confirm understanding or actions. Culture wise back in Europe, it would be totally fine for me to go out for coffee with a male colleague or go for a drink after work but it’s not the same thing here. It's possibly not as appropriate, especially if they're not married or if you're going out with other men. This means, over here, you need to work really hard on relational connections, how you build trust and how you execute that. You need to always have cultural awareness of what's going on, know how to take people, be sensitive to the challenges that they're facing and look for ways to support them in that. This is where a woman’s emotional intelligence becomes incredibly powerful and it acts as an umbrella that you can use to read and understand people. We care about the output more than being the most powerful in the room. We’re very skilled at helping everybody clearly see what the big picture is and what we're aiming for. 

CODA : How supportive is your company about having a good work-life balance? How do you ensure that you’re getting to have a rich professional and personal life?

Emma: In terms of women in the workforce, authenticity also comes in how I talk about my family and where I set my boundaries. I have a global role where most of my colleagues are in other markets. I’m with the Asian markets in the morning and the American markets later in the evening. I am open about the fact that I finish off by six thirty, seven. After I drop my daughter off at the nursery first thing in the morning, I will take about an hour to exercise, have a coffee or do something just for me. I start work at half past 9 and then work all the way till seven. So when my daughter comes home from her nursery just after 1pm or even when she comes home after her afternoon out with our Nanny, I might not be able to spend much time with her right away because I’ll be on calls. But I always make sure that I do the bedtime routine.  I think sometimes women feel like they can't talk about their home responsibilities because they think they will be judged.

If my daughter was sick during the night and I was up with her, I'm going to be tired in the morning and I’m open with my team about it. I’ll tell them that I’ve only had a couple of hours to sleep but I’m here. You might find me a little tired here and there. You need to always bring your whole self to work and be open about the challenges of being a working mother and having a family. I could be working till 8 or 9 pm and the team in America would be more than happy but I usually want to spend that time doing the bedtime routine and reading bedtime stories to my daughter so I have to draw the line and say, no, my daughter comes first. You have to draw the lines and the boundaries of what works for you and your family because it’s different for different people. More hours does not mean more productivity. I know some women that work a lot less hours than the others in the company but actually produce a better quality output because they're more refreshed and their brains are in the right place when they are working. 

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