By Kathleen Bury
CEO of the Mowgli Foundation
As women are becoming more career focused, we are seeing a growing number of single women taking on executive and/or leadership positions. However, despite the perceived glamour that is often associated with these job titles, the levels of responsibility can lead to women, especially single women, feeling unsure, unsupported, torn between giving time to their professional and personal lives and lonely.
Kathleen Bury, CEO of the Mowgli Foundation shares some of her experiences of how she as a single woman has optimized on the positive opportunities that this position has brought her as well as the steps she made and is making to address the challenges, turning the experience into an opportunity for learning and personal growth.
The twists and turns to becoming CEO
As the saying goes, the ‘apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. From an early age, both of my parents encouraged me to be curious, to try new things, to take on challenges and to create new learning curves for myself. I thankfully listened to them and created my own varied and not so normal career path, which started off with my becoming an intern in my father’s office at the age of 12. I continued working in the office during my school holidays and when I finished university, I took a gap year and lived in Tanzania for about a year where I voluntarily taught secondary school students about HIV/AIDs, health and social studies. I then returned to London and, having loved organizing and attending parties, I decided to try my hand at event management. As I was feeling that my learning curve in the event management field was starting to taper off, I was offered an opportunity to move back to Dubai to work for the family business again, in a research and consulting capacity. Thanks to one of my greatest mentors, I progressed quickly through the ranks to an executive position and after six years, I decided to take sabbatical for one year. It was at the end of my sabbatical year that I joined Mowgli, another family organization, as the Marketing and Communications Manager and Business Development Manager. Two and a half years later, after I had learnt the operations and business model of the organization from the grassroots, the Board of Trustees asked me to be CEO.
Despite the deep gratitude I felt for my father in trusting me to take his baby forward, I actually didn’t feel ready to take on such a role; I felt daunted and under confident in my abilities to lead Mowgli and the team into their next chapter. I also knew what would be required of me in taking on the role and how much I would need to and actually give of myself to make it successful. It was around the latter point where I had to make the biggest decision; was I prepared to sacrifice my personal life for the role. After a few weeks of deep reflection and coaching, I walked up to my father in Bath, UK and with a big smile said, ‘well since you trust me, I might as well give it a go’. It was then that I realized that even if I didn’t fully believe in myself and trust own abilities, I could do it because someone I trusted immensely, had the same amount of trust and faith in me.
Single and at the top
Every situation in life comes with positives and negatives. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to take full advantage of many of the positives and opportunities associated with being a single woman in my position; I have been able to travel extensively, enabling me to continue achieving my goal of visiting a new country every year. I have been able to consider and take advantage of what some may consider being risky or demanding opportunities, such as becoming CEO. I have the luxury of my time being my own; it is generally not determined for me or controlled by others. I can experience and optimize my time fully, giving me a feeling that I am achieving more of what I want.
However, I have learnt that being in control of my own time also has its drawbacks. I am guilty of letting my drive and ambition get the better of me, forgetting that I also need time out for myself as well as my personal life. Through my coaching training, I realized that I needed to set boundaries around my time. I needed to actually give and schedule time in my diary for ‘metreats’; activities that give me solace, happiness and a chance to catch my breath i.e. a walk on the beach, a massage or a quick trip to visit my four baby orphaned elephants that I have fostered in Kenya. These metreats have helped me to regain some balance and keep my sanity when it all feels too much or when I am feeling a bit lost and/or spinning due to multiple pressures.
Having started my career in Mowgli in a more junior position, I was naturally involved in much of the operational side of the business and that meant getting involved in all of the detail. As a result of not setting time boundaries when I stepped into my CEO shoes, I initially found it difficult to let go of this, despite the fact that it was sometimes physically and emotionally exhausting for the team and I. So I set myself a challenge; by the end of 2015, I wanted to be working ‘on the business’ as opposed to ‘in the business’. Instead of micro managing my team, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and show each of my team members that I had faith and trust in their abilities to excel and yet was also there to support them when required. I began and continue to mentor, coach and empower them to fully step into the roles they have defined for themselves and be responsible and accountable for achieving the results they set themselves. I am not quite there yet, but I have taken a number of steps and am definitely a lot closer than I was two years ago. I have faith that it will be a 2016 accomplishment.
Despite having my parents and friends by my side, it was only when I took this role on that I learnt how true the saying, ‘life is lonely at the top’, really is. As a single CEO, I don’t have a trusted partner at home as a safety net to bounce difficult decisions off, boost my confidence, share my fears with and/or simply give me a hug. Knowing myself, I knew that in order for me to be successful in this role, I needed to build communities and pillars of support around me to give me the personal and business support/mentoring that I needed in the interim. I joined the East Africa chapter of a global network called Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) which offers small forums for peer-to-peer mentoring, learning and growth in the 4 key areas; personal, business, family and community. As the only woman in my forum, I truly value hearing the male perspective on issues or challenges that I am facing. As I love diversity, I counter balance this by sharing some of the same issues and challenges with a group of trusted female friends when we meet for Friday breakfast on a weekly basis, when possible in Dubai, UAE. This group acts as another key support pillar for me in this journey. I am so grateful for the support and richness in learning that these two groups in particular provide me. It is immense. When surrounded by such people and communities, the loneliness feeling that I have had in being single and at the top has subsided. They are my alternative support structures to being in a personal relationship.
Contrary to what many believe when they meet me, I am actually quite a shy person. This often makes networking situations feel quite daunting, especially when you are attending events and functions on your own. When I took on the CEO role, I realized that I needed to readdress my relationship with networking and make it work for me. I put a plan in place, I organized my own networking functions and eventually I started saying yes to more networking related opportunities. This journey helped me become aware of my natural relationship and community building tendencies, a skill which I now leverage on a daily basis.
As someone who has experienced periods of immense loneliness, whether it is because I am an only child or because I didn’t really fit in with the norm at school, I believed that I needed to have people around me to feel validated. As a CEO, I had to learn to be content with and love my own company as I traveled through numerous airports or sat in front of Nairobi National Park planning the strategy for 2015. This has given me an incredible opportunity to truly get to know myself and clarify what I do and don’t want for my life.
The experiences and coping mechanisms that I have shared are by no means a relationship replacement. They are structures and steps that have worked for me as I have tried to address some of the challenges that I have faced in being a single female CEO. Each of them has given me an opportunity to gain a deeper insight and awareness of myself, ability to develop certain skills and behaviors and gain some balance back into my life to help me stay positive and open to what may come next; perhaps even a relationship… who knows?
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