A Conversation with Lynne Anne Davis on Women in Leadership

Lynne Anne Davis

On the back of International Women’s Day and the surrounding global buzz throughout March, we interview Lynne Anne Davis, Asia Pacific President of FleishmanHillard, on a topic close to her heart – women in leadership, including challenges in Asia, personal career lessons and her advice for work-life balance as a mother of two young sons.

A 25-year veteran of FleishmanHillard, with 18 years in Asia driving the agency’s growth, Lynne Anne is widely respected as an industry leader. Among many recognitions, Lynne Anne was named to PRWeek’s 2014 Power List and NAFE named her “Global Women’s Champion” in its 2013 Women of Excellence Awards. Lynne Anne is featured in Break the Ceiling, Touch the Sky by best-selling author Anthony Rose, published in 2014, on success secrets of the world’s most inspirational women.  She is also gearing up to chair the PR Jury at the prestigious Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this June.

1. What would you say is the significance of International Women’s Day?

International Women’s Day is a global conversation starter that is translated in a million ways around the world, with a common goal: to celebrate the economic, political and social contributions of women.  By doing so, we acknowledge their distinctive value and take notice of where there are gaps, needs and issues to be overcome.  It’s a story-telling occasion that helps us look at the world in a different light — to see the importance of elevating equality and appreciating its benefits.  For me, it’s an inspirational refresher about always thinking big and encouraging others to do so, too.

2. Why is the topic of women in leadership important to you, and what are the biggest challenges you see in Asia?

While many of Asia’s most important people in both public and private sectors are women, females are still severely under-represented in the C-suite.   They are also under-represented in the pipeline that feeds those senior positions.  What a colossal waste of precious talent when half of Asia’s graduates are female and the region is in such rapid growth mode!

Asian cultures vary widely across countries, so it’s tricky to generalize, but there is definitely family pressure on women — when they marry, and when have they children — to opt out of the workforce.  As a result the proportion of women gets thinner and thinner as they move up the management hierarchy.

China, for example, has one of the world’s highest female labor participation rates, yet less than 10% of corporate board members and executive committee members are women.  Japan has one of the lowest levels of female representation on boards and executive committees in all of Asia.  Korea’s gender inequality rate is notoriously one of the highest of any developed nation – a dilemma that its first female president and her minister of Gender Equality and Family are striving to address.  The statistics are brighter for women in leadership positions in Hong Kong and Singapore, but there is still much more work to be done.

Disparities are changing, albeit slowly.  In many Asia markets, the number of women graduates is increasing and more of them are taking entry-level jobs. It’s just going to take a while for them to reach the upper echelons.

Meanwhile, hard-working, ambitious women struggle to picture themselves at the top when there are too few magnetic female leaders there to look up to and emulate.  (We all know this is not limited to Asia.)

The answer is obvious: more female leaders.  Not only as role models, but to cultivate a workplace where women have an equal voice, and they feel free to speak up on matters of importance at every level.

Women in positions of power are good for business.  Many of our clients in Asia are women, and most of their customers are too, since women control the dominant share of purchasing power.  Truly understanding them and having insights into their consumer buying patterns is an advantage.  You certainly don’t need to be one to know one, but it helps!

The gender balance of FleishmanHillard’s top 25 leaders in Asia Pacific is equal.   Half of our 18 offices are run by women, many of whom are working mothers.

A beautiful flow-on effect is created when so many of our leaders are female. Together with our male colleagues, we encourage our rising stars to stay on the path and keep climbing up and up.  It becomes a virtuous cycle of helping the next generations stick with it and succeed.

3. What’s your secret to building an illustrious career while balancing with family life and being a working mother?

I am at my best working, and that makes me a better mother, in many ways.  Balance looks and feels different for every single person.  You may have it one week, for example, but not the next.  Life ebbs and flows.  Overall, do you know when you’ve really found it?  Of course, we will always want more.

I’ve been able to manage work and family and focus in both worlds. It is in large part, thanks to a strong network of support in the office and at home.  It’s forever a work in progress, but I have the closest thing to balance that dual working parents with regional job remits could hope for.

My advice:

  • Approach flexibility as a two-way process. Work with your employer on what latitude you need and be proactive with suggestions about how it can be accommodated.  Do your part to help define a mutually satisfactory arrangement.   Keep lines of communication open on how it is working for all parties.  This applies equally to working dads and those caring for aging parents.
  • Manage your most precious commodity (time) as a top priority. Set up systems to configure your life in the office and at home in ways that boost productivity, efficiency and facilitate quality family time.  Define your boundaries and have the courage to enforce them. Utilize technology in all ways possible; these days, you actually can be in two places at once.
  • Let go of perfectionist tendencies before the point of diminishing returns. In addition to delegating, you must accept that every single thing does not have to be 100% perfect in order to get done very well.  Life goes on even when you don’t get it all done. I gave up trying to clean out my inbox entirely.  I miss that high, but it’s simply impossible.
  • Build a network of working women confidants. The most practical advice comes from those who have been there and are doing that.  Women are wonderfully open with “field-tested” work/life strategies.  All you have to do is ask.
  • Pay attention to the relationship with your partner. Harmony in the home is the best foundation for your life.  Partners are supreme sources of support, and parenting is a team sport.  Divide and conquer with clear areas of responsibility and authority.   You may be able to have it all, but you’re never going to be able to do it all (without help).
  • Be kind to yourself.   Eat healthy.   Get enough sleep.  Carve out time for exercise even when it seems unmanageable. (I have learned to love a 6:30 a.m. workout, which I never dreamed possible.)  Staying fit boosts stamina, helps stress-management and delivers overall well-being.  You already know that, but it bears reinforcing.

4. In the book Break the Ceiling, Touch the Sky, you talk about some of the lessons learned in your career, especially in leading FleishmanHillard’s growth in Asia. What advice would you give to young PR professionals?

  • Respect every assignment, no matter how small, as deserving of a big idea. Even better – a big idea that changes the world.   Campaigns that make a shared impact by melding higher purpose with commercial imperative are setting a higher standard for performance.   Doing well by doing good is the new norm. Embrace it.  As societal problem solvers and engineers of behavioral change, we have a responsibility to keep our brands’ compass pointed in the direction of progress.
  • Keep your situational awareness on high alert. Technology and the internet of things are changing life by the day.  Constantly scour news for innovations, always thinking of novel ways to leverage them for clients.  Stay on top of what’s hot, and what’s trending to be the next big thing. Most important, stay actively plugged into the conversations about how people are exchanging, sharing and gathering information.
  • Work hard and smart. My mother always says success has nothing to do with luck; it comes down to hard work and good choices. There are very few shortcuts to success without putting in the hard yards required to make a difference.  She also warned me: never learn how to use a lawnmower.  Fortunately in Asia, that’s easily sidestepped.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Go abroad to broaden your horizons.  Be the foreigner who brings a rich mix of different skills, perspectives and experience to a new environment that enriches them even further.  Overseas experience fast tracks careers and opens you up to more possibilities than you can imagine.
  • Live life deeply. Having a variety of passions and indulging in a wealth of experiences outside of work are essential in agency business.  They stoke our creativity, clear our minds, keep us close to cultural trends, and make us firsthand experts on a range of pastimes and lifestyles that will be infinitely relevant at some point.

5. What other words of wisdom would you leave us with?

To women, I’ll add that work equals freedom.  Earning your own way means you always have choices no matter what comes.

To everyone, think about your personal brand.  It counts to be known for being collaborative, innovative, connected, trustworthy, ethical, inspirational, proactive and caring.

Always have a thought-provoking point of view.  Stand for something bigger than your job.  Build a reputation based on a set of values.  Most of all, be purpose-driven and have fun.

Life is short.  Make it meaningful.