When you are a woman leading teams of scientists and technicians in a STEM-oriented organisation, the stakes can be pretty high. When you are a woman leading teams at the forefront of international efforts to eradicate life-threatening diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, those stakes are stratospheric.
Dr Samia Elfekih knows this perhaps better than anyone. A leading research scientist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Dr Elfekih has been building her career in the application of genomics and bioinformatics to address global health problems. For the last few years, she has been promoted to leading an international consortium of researchers looking at mosquitoes as vectors of disease and ways to eradicate the threats they poise. Simultaneously, hers remains a field where female scientists are still very much the minority; and even more so in terms of leadership.
A unique opportunity to develop her own leadership approach and competencies arose in 2020, sponsored by a prestigious Julius career development award from her organisation. It was an opportunity that led her to INSEAD’s Virtual Executive Coaching.
“Over the course of my early career, I’ve been focused on the science and the research, but making the transition to leading teams, not to mention global teams from diverse backgrounds, meant I had to forge new skills in management – particularly in the management of people. As a scientist, it can be a big ask making the shift to being a leader. And as a woman in STEM, that ask is bigger still. So I was looking for a training and development experience that would really rise to the challenge.”
INSEAD Virtual Executive Coaching, she says, ticked a number of boxes. First, there was the flexibility of the experience and the option to pursue the coaching beyond the boundaries or constraints of the classic coaching structure, thanks in part to its virtual format. Then there was the intimacy of the coaching: “objective eyes,” says Dr Elfekih, on her challenges and objectives, but a safe and focused space to explore ideas and strategies. That and the fact that choosing INSEAD, she would be in “safe hands.”
“I knew about the reputation of INSEAD and was well aware of the diversity and global outlook of the school. This particular offering was a really big deal. Here was a chance to go one-to-one with a personal coach. Boundaries would remain, but this was a safe and trusted environment, with the neutrality of perspective, to really get to grips with my own challenges as a female leader in a STEM world.”
In the first sessions of the coaching, Dr Elfekih says that a mutual sense of trust and confidentiality empowered her to open up and share core vulnerabilities that would help set out the roadmap for personal and professional development – this, she adds, in a context free of judgment or bias.
“The absolutely key thing about one-to-one coaching when you are making a major transition is the support you receive without judgment. In my field there can be a lot of competition, and levelling up to the management of others, you have to tread carefully. There can be push-backs, high expectations, and a lot of pressure. The coaching has been critically helpful in identifying the issues, and finding the ways to resolve them – even conflictive challenges – while balancing passion for my work with my management responsibilities; driving research forward while simultaneously leading multiple teams.”
One of the main breakthroughs the coaching experience has given her has been the capacity and the confidence to “stay herself” while exercising influence and authority in her leadership.
“I think there’s a commonly-held belief that women are ‘nice,’ and that being nice is the same as being weak. What I am building through the coaching are the resources and strategies to manage people without changing the way I am; to demonstrate authority while still being kind.”
Another breakthrough has been understanding the “power in silence.”
“Especially as a woman, it can be hard to really build that belief in yourself and your own authority. When you’re ambushed in a meeting or someone is pushing back against your decisions, it’s hard to hold your ground. But what I am discovering is that you can stand your ground, quite literally. As the key decision-maker, there’s power in learning to be quiet; to be composed and calm; and to be assertive without aggression. It’s about learning to brave.”
“Really, it’s been a privilege to be able to do Virtual Executive Coaching at INSEAD, a learning experience I would recommend to anyone. At the start of my journey I had reservations about how successful I would be, but those doubts have completely vanished and everyone – my supportive bosses, my peers, my team – can see the shift in my attitude and leadership. Coaching is so powerful in the way that it can challenge deeply-held beliefs and perceptions about yourself and others. It’s a challenge to change your thinking and it works.