From The Straits Times    |

Can a woman really have it all? Peta Latimer took on the role of president of Mercer Asia in March 2023, and in June, she gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. Understandably, when we met for this interview at the end of last year, she mentioned that juggling these two significant roles had been tiring. However, she remains relentless in her commitment to maintaining an outstanding work ethic and doing what she believes is the right thing.

She had formerly been CEO of Mercer Singapore for five years, before taking on the role of president of Asia. In fact, Peta stresses that she told Mercer that she was pregnant within the first three months of her pregnancy, as she knew they were undergoing a restructure – a move that her well-wishers warned her against. To their credit, every Mercer leader responded with, “And, so what?” And to their credit again, they ended up hiring her for the top role in Asia.

In her new role, Peta’s day-to-day life has changed considerably. “It’s gotten 10 times more challenging,” she says with a laugh. Asia is not a monolith, she explains. She needs to manage different markets that have completely different client needs and levels of maturity.

“I spend a significant amount of my time externally just listening to what’s really happening in the market,” says Peta. “If I only listen to what my teams are telling me, I tend to only get a view based on what our clients are buying today, not on where the markets and client needs are moving. So now looking as president of Mercer Asia, I spend a lot of time investing in external networks like trade associations, education bodies and leadership forums is paramount.”

Moving to Asia

And to think that Peta didn’t really know what she wanted to do when she was in her early 20s. The South-African born Australian was working in Sydney at an FMCG company, where she’d travel across the poorest parts of New South Wales to sell biscuits to grocery stores. The “raw sales environment” taught her the importance of leadership, and how a top-down, tell-you-what-to-do culture is never effective.

She then moved to a leadership assessment company, which was eventually acquired by IBM. The strategic acquisition saw her move to London, and then subsequently to Asia. And it also marked a turning point in her life, where she experienced “far better leadership”. 

Her experiences with different spectrums of leadership taught her valuable lessons, ones that have guided her throughout her career. She approaches each crossroad with an open mind, and believes in embracing new opportunities, as uncomfortable they might be. 

The business leader tells us about the greatest lessons she’s learnt throughout her career, and how they can help us build a workplace where we’re heard and appreciated.

1. Don’t be afraid of asking for what you want

“Individuals who proactively make requests [whether for pay rises or promotions] are likely to garner more support as they’ve made it simpler for management. Please understand, a leader’s life is already quite challenging. It’s busy, and work is demanding. So, [it becomes more manageable] for [leaders] when employees clearly express their needs. It doesn’t guarantee a swift response, but if you have specific financial and career goals in mind, we can discuss a plan of how to get there and over what time period.”

2. Women need to ask for more 

“Women are generally less inclined to [make requests], less likely to proactively discuss pay.

This aligns with research findings. I once conducted a project with one of the big four firms in the UK, exploring why females were not being promoted to partner grade.

“No one can support or help you if they don’t know what you want.  If you express your ambition to take on more responsibilities, most organisations will support you.”

Peta Latimer

Upon examining various metrics, including revenue generation, team size, and expertise, the only notable difference was that men explicitly communicated their career aspirations to the firm’s partners. In contrast, women tended to adopt the perspective that their abilities should be evident, expecting recognition without explicitly expressing their career desires.

Research has shown that there are differences in communication styles between men and women, which can be influenced by societal expectations and gender norms. If you’re speaking to a man and say, ‘We did this,’ referring to the team’s effort, they may not necessarily recognise your individual value. This isn’t bias; it’s just about understanding your audience. Women often find it uncomfortable to claim credit individually, as there’s a general tendency to attribute success to the team.

However, in situations like job interviews or seeking a promotion, it’s crucial to emphasise your own role. For instance, if you led the team, you should confidently state that. If you were the top salesperson, highlight your achievements. Regardless of gender, some people might find this uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to communicate your contributions.

It’s important to express your needs and desires clearly, and of course deliver your commitments through the value you bring. No one can support or help you if they don’t know what you want. If you express your ambition to take on more responsibilities, most organisations will support you.

Of course, sometimes the organisation might not be able to accommodate your request immediately. This is why open communication from the beginning, as discussed earlier, makes the process smoother.”

3. More women in the leadership roles means shifting conversations

“Once again, we see a significant drop in the number of women at a specific rank, just before reaching senior leadership positions. The conversation tends to be very corporate and economically driven. We try to frame it positively around women in leadership, built on the notion that increased labour market participation drives economic growth. The narrative often encourages women to return to work quickly, promoting the idea that you should aspire to ‘reach the top’ and that you can ‘have it all’.

However, I wish the conversation would encompass both sides – the economic and the social. While the corporate aspect is undoubtedly crucial, there’s also a significant social dimension. It feels like we’re placing too much emphasis on being a corporate woman and not giving enough recognition to the traditional roles in our society.”

4. Change the way we approach societal norms  

“In the ongoing conversation about gender equality and diversity, we still grapple with preconceived notions, such as the expectation that the man is the breadwinner or that women should not enquire about certain things. How can we bridge these gaps in small yet significant ways?

There’s a part of me that feels we may have lost touch with reality on this matter. In a family, the conversation isn’t necessarily about the man asserting, ‘I’m going to earn more.’ It’s about the choices we make as individuals and as families, considering factors like who earns more money, who has more flexibility, or who possesses more patience and desire for certain responsibilities.

While there may be a systemic bias hindering these discussions, societal norms persist. The question arises: do we want to change those norms? My perspective on this has evolved over the years. Initially, I was inclined to say yes, but now I see the importance of acknowledging the significance of roles like motherhood. Why convey the message that being an accountant is as important or more important than being a mother?

The most crucial role one can undertake is that of raising a human, a realisation I only truly grasped after becoming a mother recently. As much as we can empathise with others, it’s our own experiences that shape how we view the world.  Given my expanded role, I am so often given airtime to talk about being a mum-at-work. I don’t mean to preach, and I feel a sense of guilt about it. So many women before me and around me have been juggling similar workloads for a longer time.

Concerning men, I genuinely empathise with them. I believe there are very few men out there who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their families. However, the reality of inflation, education costs, societal expectations, and the desire to provide the best for their children adds complexity to the situation.

Moreover, the jobs that offer higher pay often come with more significant responsibilities and longer hours. Those who travel for work, for instance, are compensated for the time spent away from their families. This reality seems to be overlooked in our current conversations about work-life balance and the choices we make.”

5. Stop being limited by the trope of ‘it happened to someone else so it might happen to me too’

“It’s hard to generalise about such topics, because we tend to share stories about others.  And there’s often context missing. For example, ‘don’t tell the company you’re pregnant until the last possible moment because a friend of mine got fired.’  Decision making is complex, and a story like this assumes that was the only reason.  You don’t know if that person was already on a performance improvement plan, for instance.

Ideally, we would see both employers and employees being more transparent about decisions and needs. To get there though, both sides need to lean into trust and respect.”

6. It’s ok not to be liked

“What appears positive and motivating to one person may differ for someone else.

So, I make a conscious effort to embody what I believe constitutes being a good leader, drawing from my experiences. Does that mean I’m an effective leader for all the 2,800 people who report to me? Perhaps not. However, it’s about ensuring that people are clear about what we need to do, why we need to do it, and the role they play in executing.  I’m focused on creating a  culture that is oriented towards community so it can perform at its best. I strive to ensure that anyone I interact with carries these shared values throughout the organisation.

I’ve begun to articulate something I never used to say before. In my leadership journey, initially, it was about making the best decisions for the client or customer – doing whatever was necessary to support them. Then, as a leader of people, the focus shifted to making the best decisions for my team. Now, at an executive level, it’s truly about making the best decisions for the firm, taking a long-term view and holding the ‘North Star’.

A good decision positively impacts 60% of people, with 40% experiencing either neutral or negative impact. A great decision, on the other hand, typically results in an 80-20 split. So even with a great decision, 20% of people may be affected neutrally or negatively. The challenge for leaders is dealing with the noisy 20%, as most people don’t provide daily feedback on what’s going well; instead, feedback tends to flood in the moment something goes slightly off course. It’s tough for leaders to stay the course when they’re uncertain if it’s just noise.”

7. Connect with as many people as possible

“Explore new roles and broaden your horizons; seek more exposure. If you’ve only ever worked with one leader and sought advice from a limited few in your career, it’s not surprising if you’re not getting promoted or finding fulfilment. In situations where that person’s job becomes constrained, you might worry about your own role. It’s essential to connect with as many people as possible. 

Not only for you to learn about different roles, but also to expand your network that gives you insight into different leadership styles, skill sets and ultimately opportunities.  Most leaders genuinely care for others, and it’s evident that internal mobility is easier than hiring externally.  So if you can demonstrate your ability to deliver results and your trustworthiness, and you’ve broadened your network, you should find continued career growth.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Clement Goh

ART DIRECTION Ray Christian Ticsay

HAIR & MAKEUP Madiha Shaikh