Insights Report – Women in Leadership: Path to C-Suite

Inspiring and authentic conversation about the journey to C-Suite by Céline Brémaud, former Vice President, Sales, Operations and Marketing, Microsoft, Middle East and Africa, and Sandrine R. M. El Khodry, Vice President, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Middle East, Egypt, Africa, Pakistan.  Moderator Mina Paul, Consultant, Consumer, Digital, High-growth Tech, Media, DEI, Russell Reynolds Associates.

Mina Paul: What were some of the biggest challenges that you personally faced during your journey to C-suite leadership?

Céline Brémaud: Balancing leadership duties and being authentic at the same time is a big challenge. There is an unwritten C-suite code with certain expectant norms of behaviour. Breaking this carries a massive risk of failing, which then results in lost opportunity to create the impact you were hired to do. It is complex and not about confrontation but learning how to bridge the gap in a way you can make progress without losing who you really are.

Mina Paul: What are the learnings along the way?

Céline Brémaud: Choose your battles. Find a way to connect to the world. As a leader, aligning with my values, I tackled the diversity issue for Microsoft by bringing the diverse skills and personalities to create a bigger impact for the collective.

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: The pendulum is now swinging too much in the other direction with many companies under pressure to fill quotas to hire women. This is going to cause problems for the diversity agenda, which needs to be real and not just on paper. We are in a transition period of the change process until the right balance is reached.

Mina Paul:  What made you successful and what were the key drivers?

Céline Brémaud: There is no success in a corporate career without hard work. But it is also about the people that create an environment for you to thrive, to try, and to fail. One of the biggest acceleration periods of my career was when I miserably failed. I missed the budget by 25% one year and that year we all learnt the most. Also, you need to have ‘sponsors’ in your career, who truly believe in you and will bring opportunities for you. I have a few of them in my career, all men, but because the representation of men at that level was higher.

Mina Paul: How do you identify allies and sponsors? How do you approach them?

Céline Brémaud: An ally is a person that does not cover things. They are people that raise your voice instead of allowing others to shut it down. When things happen at work that discriminates you or makes you feel like you don’t belong, being ignored or being interrupting continuously, an ally steps in and empowers you.

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: Don’t underestimate your intuition in discerning situations and people. Use it to detect who can you count on for support. Your soft skills of empathy, patience, and listening go a long way in leading with your heart authentically. It is priceless in a world where everything is fake and pretence. Lead with transparency and you will find the right people and respect.

Mina Paul: How did you manage unconscious bias and nationality differences?

Céline Brémaud: You need to learn from people. That’s the best way. ‘Teach me what I need to know, and I will help you to get where you want to be.’ I really do practice this when faced with difficult situations. When you join a company, people already have some notion and bias about you. But if you are open, non-judgemental yourself, be generous, listen more and talk less, you can reach a better understanding. You recalibrate and become partners. I truly believe in servant leadership because I’ve tried different ways, and it was not that good. The most successful way to lead is to serve your people, company, and customers.

Audience: Women don’t have equal opportunity to acquire the required skills. How can we create equity and what are the main skills that make successful women successful?

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: We can blame everybody that we don’t have the skills and opportunities, but we still need to start somewhere by ourselves. You need to have a dream and then go for it and build your skills from wherever you can. We need to start by ourselves and not wait for help or company training programmes.

Céline Brémaud: There is another dimension too, which is, how much do you take part in the inclusivity journey of the company yourself and help others. Diversity without inclusion doesn’t make sense. We all have an opportunity to create a culture of inclusion.

Mina Paul: What do the terms diversity, equity and inclusion mean? Let’s take the football world cup as an analogy. Diversity is the right to entry – so you have your ticket, and you go to the stadium. Equity is the right to play. And inclusion is when you feel you belong to the team.

Audience: How did you manage between children and work, especially at leadership in C-suite?

Céline Brémaud: It is very hard. The problem is there is only 24 hours in a day, so how you do you spend it correctly. One of the biggest reasons I decided recently to resign from corporate world is to focus my time on my teenage son. It is about what I want to do now and not to feel guilty about the choices you make at different stages of your life.

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: Don’t let society make you feel guilty. Your career and family life are a balance that is unique to you. We will make mistakes but find your own path and don’t compare with others. We make sacrifices and try and make the best of all aspects of your life, without regrets.

Céline Brémaud: I can empathise with the struggle of a working mother, though each experience is different. I remember my 8-month-old son crying as I was leaving to go to catch my next flight, when travelling was a big part of my career. It breaks your heart and of course you feel guilty. Even if the father is very present, but still as a mother, it doesn’t take away the pain of hearing your baby crying but you must leave. Yet, I don’t regret any choice I made, because you must learn to balance your choices in a way that matters to you. You can take different directions. The important thing is to realise that you decide and then own that decision, with all its trade-offs.

Mina Paul: What is inclusive leadership for you?

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: You lead with your heart. A leader is not your business card but how you lead your people, your business and build a culture. You lead by example. And build a team that is enabled to share their opinions and ideas. An inclusive leader cares more about teams than titles.

Céline Brémaud: Leading with transparency and showing vulnerability is important to truly be inclusive. We all have unconscious bias, and so we have invested a lot in my team to bring a greater level of awareness about this. The aim is to bring the collective sense of understanding that doesn’t blame but fuels acceptance and equal responsibility.

Audience: What about other aspects of diversity?

Céline Brémaud: Diversity is much bigger than a gender conversation. It’s leveraging diverse skills and mindsets for greater impact and innovation. It goes even beyond acceptance of others. Diversity grows the individual and the collective. If we can leverage this diversity topic much more than focus on the gender issue, it will help women find a new place in the market.

Mina Paul: What is your superpower?

Sandrine R. M. El Khodry: It’s a slogan from Mandela actually – I never lose. Either I learn or I win. So, my superpower is that I never gave up. Each obstacle in life becomes a personal challenge for me to overcome, always trusting my intuition and my heart.

Céline Brémaud: My confidence in my ability to change the world around me never left me.