Updated: Aug 27
Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Heba Makram, Transformation Advisor I Future of Work Expert I Keynote Speaker I Researcher I Author, Emirates Group.
How would you describe your career path in a few words?
It's been quite a rollercoaster. It was certainly not a walk in the park: it had its ups and downs, twists and turns. There were moments when it felt like I was taking two steps forward and ten steps back. Despite this, I have never settled for waiting for someone to show me the way, or for someone to create opportunities for me. Instead, I chose to be the director, producer, and lead actor in my career story. Although there were people who supported me, there were quite a few who set hurdles in my way. Funnily enough, it's from them that I learned the most.
Early on, I learned that I should never linger in my comfort zone, so I treated every role as temporary, and was always driven by what came next. At the time, every career move I made felt like a risk, I never knew exactly where I might land, but took the risk regardless. Sometimes it felt like it was all part of an orchestrated, implicit plan. Other times it felt like I was going completely off-track. There were times when my choices failed me, allowing self-doubt to cripple me, resulting in a few regrets, and there were also times when I savored the joy of having made the right move.
So, if I would to summarise my career path, it was a non-linear, challenging, yet rewarding and intense ride.
What was your most challenging experience, that changed who you are?
It’s quite a personal experience, and it shaped both my life and my personality. I was unfortunate to lose my father as a teenager, and growing up as a woman without a father was not easy. At such a young age, it is like losing your backbone, quite crippling. Despite having the support of a strong and wonderful mother, I had no other option but to learn at a very young age to take responsibility for my own destiny. I learned that I can’t expect anyone to hold my hand through life (not in a way a father would do), that if I wanted to become successful I needed to figure things out on my own.
This experience pushed me to defy the expectations set for Arab women, to push some cultural boundaries. For example, I relocated and lived alone in another country, fully responsible for every aspect of my life – at that time this was quite unusual and was not always easily accepted by some family members. I nevertheless made it happen for me and I never backed-off. I used to tell myself that if I was indeed choosing my own path then I would not bend over just because others thought I should. This approach then became the norm for me, even in my career. When people doubted my capabilities or tried to talk me out of a choice I made, I had the tenacity and resilience to follow my dreams and deal with the consequences of my choices no matter what.
Experiencing such an unfortunate loss breaks you down into million pieces, but it teaches you how to put yourself back together and bounce back. I found this to be a blessing, even if it is something that can only be learned the hard way. I had a few breakdowns in my life and bumps in my career but because of my past experience, I always found a way to rebound and come back stronger.
Based on your experience, what’s the key success factor for a female leader?
Okay let’s get one thing clear from the start: women at work face many more obstacles than their male counterparts and in turn have a harder time progressing with their careers to reach the highest rungs. This said, luckily, we now live in an era where women have become more self-empowered, more equipped to stand up for themselves and take ownership of their own careers.
So, in my experience, here are the ideas and principles which I found very rewarding and served as the cornerstone of my success:
Being a humble learner. I have a natural thirst for learning which has always been fueled by the feeling that "the more I learn, the less I know". That is why, throughout my career, I have never stopped learning. From one degree to another, from one assignment to another, from one project to another – I consciously and intentionally treated every interaction and each experience as an opportunity to learn. I believe this to be one critical skill female leaders need to acquire. As women, we need to work harder to build our credibility, and learning supports us in doing that. Female leaders, if they want to stand-out and succeed, need to be humble learners
Being resilient. Our career path is never easy, and for a female leader it can be even more difficult, in light of the significant career trade-offs women must make, and the gender and societal biases they have to deal with. Overcoming setbacks, developing the ability to stay grounded, to handle adversity and somehow harness it, is critical to success. I firmly believe being resilient is not just a "nice skill to have". Rather, it is a must for women who aspire to joining industry and business leaders.
Staying true to yourself. As you progress in your career, you will always be faced with moments which trigger your core values, your identity, and who you believe you are. This will happen all the time, and most people around you, from colleagues to peers to bosses, will do their best to change you and make you fit in the box they have constructed for you. My advice to any woman who wishes to stand-out is to always stay true to your values and to yourself. Compromising on who you are, abandoning your core values to fit in and be accepted can only take you so far. Furthermore, let’s face it, you will never please everyone. In the long term, remaining true to yourself, defending your values and what you believe in, will always be respected by others even if they don’t show it.
Celebrate other women. One thing I found rather disappointing is how some female leaders become so unkind to other women. I genuinely believe that when women support each other incredible things happen. Our careers are harsh as it is, and a successful female leader should always bear in mind that her own success was made possible by other successful women. Accepting other women, collaborating with them, is a skill to be developed, whereas may women seem to feel threatened by other women's success or capabilities. As women, supporting each other is important – it is our responsibility to inspire future female leaders.