Authentic leadership and the future of work – a new opportunity for women

Article by Karen Penney, Vice President Payment Products, Western Union Business Solutions

Serious international diverse business team people and african female leader boss discuss financial result review paperwork, being an allyAs the dust settles and we emerge from waves of lockdown over the past year and a half, a fresh chance to take stock shows us that the pandemic – including its hardships – may usher in a new age of opportunity for women.

Working in the payments sector, I have witnessed this evolution first-hand. More importantly, I have been encouraged to see how the changes we have all witnessed since 2020 are set to positively impact women across the industry.

Digitisation was already becoming synonymous with progress – only to be sped up at an unprecedented rate by the pandemic. This brought the boost to technological progress that we have all witnessed recently – Zoom meetings replacing board rooms; customers turning to online channels, with their needs and expectations changing.

These industry-altering changes, with a working world that requires more remote cooperation and more personalised customer service, call for diverse thinking and a wider spectrum of insights.  As COVID-19 continues to transform the nature of numerous sectors through digitisation, it therefore continues to highlight the need and purpose of women in the workplace.

I have witnessed female colleagues at WU, across our industry and across the world, stepping up and taking on this new future, leading us through this incredibly challenging time. Indeed, according to a study by Harvard Business Review, women are better leaders during a crisis than men, displaying key strengths including taking the initiative, learning agility and crucially, motivating others. And so the challenges we’ve experienced over the last year have highlighted just how vital a role female leaders have to play in the workplace.

It is therefore important to note here that as women across the industry step up and climb the career ladder, they must remain authentic in their approach to leadership and place a focus on empathy, whatever their seniority. With more physical distancing, teams need to feel bonded while working remotely. In fact, with both employees and clients in mind, openness has become central to my working philosophy. My leadership style is very much communications-led, and I have seen first-hand how authenticity and empathy are effective in boosting employee confidence, undoubtedly creating a happier and healthier workforce.

This communications-led approach has been essential throughout the COVID-19 crisis. I have seen just how important personal engagement can be – after all, people want to know that you really understand the specific situations they’re going through, whether it’s been worrying about relatives or dealing with the challenges of childcare. And as we all look forward and beyond the challenges of COVID-19, the pandemic has made us leaders acutely aware of the importance of having a personal understanding of our colleagues’ and clients’ situations.

With the finance, payments and tech sectors being traditionally male-dominated, it has been encouraging to see women at WU feel increasingly empowered to bring their whole selves to work. Too long have women across these industries tried to alter their behaviour to ‘fit in’, rather than lead through authenticity. I have myself experienced the temptation to refrain from showing too much personality at work with the desire to be ‘formal’, but I have learnt over time that this has only held me back.

These lessons in leadership, highlighted through the events of the pandemic, have made it clear that people want to feel seen and heard at work more than ever – and so authenticity and empathy are essential. As we look ahead and begin a more digitised ‘future of work’, more opportunities for women lie on the horizon. It is now the time for new perspectives, new voices and new leadership.

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How to find your authentic voice as an ethnic minority leader

Most of us are hyper aware of how we present ourselves in the workplace; we actively manage our behaviour, our emotions and how we come across. We do this for several reasons; some may feel they are not able to openly express emotion amongst their colleagues; others may think their sense of humour is too different and some – largely influenced by the misconceived notion that the best leaders ‘have it all together’ – fear they risk hurting their reputation or credibility if they are emotional or show their real self.

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