How to be a C-suite mum: Why strong networks are key to leadership success

How to be a C-suite mum: Why strong networks are key to leadership success

Sameena Hassam, CEO, Capacitas, tells of her journey in tech and asks how we can provide a platform for women to embrace leadership and unlock the power of the female C-suite professional. 

Sameena Hassam, CEO, Capacitas

In the ever-changing world of enterprise IT, gender equality is more than a social issue. It can also be a critical business enabler, creating a competitive edge to stay resilient and agile even through the most disruptive times. Accordingly, women in tech are making progress in breaking through the glass ceiling and advancing to senior leadership positions. Roughly one-in-four board seats at large global tech organisations are currently held by women – a significant rise from 17% in 2018. 

But there is still a long way to go to close the gender gap and achieve equality. Getting to the top can be tough, especially for women who are balancing caring responsibilities with the complex and evolving demands of business leadership. 

Since joining Capacitas in 2005, my own journey to senior leadership has been punctuated by a series of firsts. From being the company’s first ever intern and first female employee, all the way through to joining the board and becoming its first female CEO in 2021, first-hand experience of the challenges and joys of being a working mum has created a clear vision for the engaged, inclusive and collaborative C-suite of tomorrow. So how can we provide a platform for women to embrace leadership and unlock the power of the female C-suite professional?

Solid foundations

From my own experience, I know internships can bring great value to companies and communities – and roles have come a long way from the stereotypical coffee-making and photocopying duties. In the tech industry, internships help businesses to tap into a rich and diverse talent pool, nurturing the skills of tomorrow’s future leaders while drawing on their fresh perspectives to introduce new ideas to the business. 

For female graduates taking their first steps into enterprise IT, internships offer invaluable access to knowledge, contacts and on-the-job training. It’s a great time to start building networks – and having the right people around you can make all the difference in these early stages. When I joined Capacitas as an intern, I worked closely with two members of staff who gave me an excellent grounding in the technical side of the business. Having these role models kickstarted my professional development, giving me the skills and confidence to return to university and subsequently re-join the organisation as a consultant. There is only so much about the real-life workplace that you can gain through academia, so why not take an opportunity to try before you buy? Similarly, organisations need to embrace internship as a talent identification opportunity, leading to well-rounded, motivated and capable graduates that can then hit the ground running. This means investing resources to ensure that internships are supportive and nurturing experiences. 

This is why Capacitas now runs a successful internship hiring up to four people every year from nearby universities. Opening the doors of the business to fresh and diverse perspectives is a great way to shatter the old image of tech as a ‘boys’ club’ and enable an entirely new generation of talent to flourish. 

Mindset matters

Rising through the ranks of an organisation gives you a unique 360-degree view of the business, as you have insight into its workings from the bottom level to the very top. Women in tech are all too often overlooked by senior management for leadership and professional development opportunities; it’s a harsh reality that really needs to change, but together, with the right mindset, we can turn this around one role at a time. Every successful female leader that I’ve encountered on my journey has been passionate, determined and inquisitive, and that can start from the ground levels of a career. 

Coming from a family that worked hard, persevered and achieved great things against the odds, I developed a focused and determined mindset from an early age. But, when it came to business, I had to balance this with my fairly introverted personality. This is where passion came in and I learnt to use my passion for business management to be inquisitive and curious about these topics, which was fuelled further as the company grew. This curiosity allowed me to push myself forward, to get involved in strategic meetings and make my voice heard, learning from senior role models even without my own seat at the C-suite table.    

Organisations should commit to showing potential leaders all sides of the business, not just the aspects that relate to their current role. By looking behind the curtain of the C-suite, women throughout the business can access the right support and guidance to help them prepare to step into leadership.

Leaning on your network

Big life events can often happen in quick succession. My transition into the COO role at Capacitas happened while I was on maternity leave, and I joined the C-suite with a one-year-old and four-year-old in tow. Two months into the role, COVID hit and upended the entire industry.

Even in more ‘normal’ times, the move into senior leadership is tough to navigate and can feel like stepping into a different world. Managers become peers and people throughout the organisation start to see you in a different light as your responsibilities increase. When combined with the demands of being a primary caregiver and growing a family, it’s easy to see why some women believe that maintaining such a balance just isn’t possible. 

In most cases, motherhood is a grounding experience that flexes your muscles for dealing with uncertainty and constant change. It’s definitely not easy in the moment, but with hindsight I think there is very little the C-suite mum cannot handle once they have found their stride. And the key to finding this stride in the first place is having access to various support sources. 

Firstly, there is so much empowerment in hearing from other women who have trodden your path. I certainly valued the validation that I got from one female mentor who just simply said ‘this journey is going to be hard with a one-year-old’. There are opportunities to form strong networks of women in senior roles, across organisational borders, to smooth the way for others that are climbing the leadership ladder and help them to forge their own path. Secondly, as most parents find, there is so much value in a broader support network: friends, family, partners, other parents at nursery, colleagues. 

The combination of strong female mentorship and a supportive broader network helped me to progress even further and become a CEO. There is very little that you can ‘learn’ to prepare you for boardroom leadership, it really must be experienced. This means that the keys to helping unlock the gender gap can lie in the hands of those who have been there already. 

Opening the boardroom doors

Being a successful C-suite mum is about give and take; give passion and purpose to your work and take support to give you mass as you push against the boardroom doors. Work with your team, as most challenges in tech leadership cannot be solved by a single person, and while there is inequity in the system, in most instances your colleagues know *you* and want *you* to succeed.

For those already in the C-suite, think of your own journey and what legacy you want to leave for future leaders. Using our efforts to celebrate leadership and empower leaders of tomorrow will be so much more productive than keeping the doors locked.

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