Jeanette Cheah: Changing the face of leadership is everyone’s job

Jeanette Cheah

Source: SmartCompany/supplied.

Before I became an entrepreneur, I worked about 14 years in a few large companies. I honestly liked my corporate career. I learned a lot, had fun, and grew as a professional during that time. 

But even though I had some amazing managers and colleagues, I have a very clear memory of ‘looking up’ – looking around at the people who were in charge and realising I was playing a game that was rigged. 

The deeply entrenched power structures and the generational stickiness of senior management meant that even if I was able to outperform, play politics, and make it to the top, it was unlikely I’d ever become the leader I truly wanted to be if I had to operate within the rules of that game. 

This was one of my key motivators to becoming an entrepreneur. 

Change the rules of your own game

I wanted to redesign the game I was playing and run my business in a way that aligned to my values. I wanted to make decisions that would empower and support a diverse team, and serve my customers in the way they deserved. I wanted to be able to stand tall as an example in business for people who look like me. And I suspect I’m not alone. 

As business owners and founders, we’ve taken our leadership into our own hands. What an amazing gift we’ve given ourselves and our communities! 

We get to make those key decisions about how we treat our staff, and who we promote and what stories we celebrate. We get to make decisions about what content we produce, what products we build, and how we spend our capital. 

My call to you today is to make those decisions count. Make it so every decision adds up to the kind of world that you want to live in. 

Because the opposite of unconscious bias is active consideration. 

And the more of us who choose to play our own game, or break the rules of the existing game, the faster we can start to redesign and reshape the systems we operate in. 

I recently closed my very first capital raise. It was a big moment for us. But right from the start, one of the decisions I made was that I wanted a gender diverse cap table. I wanted to create a situation where our success is shared and distributed amongst a diverse group of people. So I actively sought that out. As a result, 90% of our capital has come from women-led syndicates, women angels, or firms with a female partner. 

Decisions matter. 

Existing leaders, make more conscious decisions

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #breakthebias. It’s catchy, sure. But how? 

For those of us already in decision-making roles, we can choose to be more conscious and deliberate to break our own biases. I remember being asked to choose imagery for a tech marketing campaign – and even as a migrant female CEO, I still unconsciously selected all the pictures of young men in hoodies. This bias is ingrained so deeply. Thank goodness for the video editor who awkwardly yet bravely pointed this out!

Even as I grow HEX, I’m questioning myself all the time. Am I building a culture that is truly inclusive? We have neurodiverse team members, parents, migrants, non-binary colleagues, and people with caring responsibilities. So last year, I decided to put my people first, adding an Employee Assistance Program and 10 days of paid ‘pandemic leave’ to their entitlements. 

I still battle between ‘productivity Jeanette’ and ‘values-led Jeanette’, but I think being aware of this dichotomy is the first step to helping to break the system that holds certain people back. 

Emerging leaders, empower yourselves today 

Another amazing way to #breakthebias is to put new and different people into decision-making roles. This is why I get out of bed in the morning. I believe that to change the face of leadership, we need to educate and empower a new generation of people – sooner. 

At HEX, we exist to do just this, and we do it through our digital, uni-accredited ‘innovation gap year’ and intensive programs, which help students explore non-traditional career pathways and develop future-ready skills.

I get so excited when I see new kinds of leaders making moves. 

How empowering to see a group of Gen Zs and young Millennials coming together to invest in their peers, like at Afterwork Ventures. Or when a few professional women in Queensland band together to create shebacks.me, a revenue-share investment group supporting women and non-binary founders. Or to see Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow, co-founders of DivTal, pivot their experiences as migrant job seekers into a vibrant, inclusive talent agency. 

I believe we need to overcorrect the balance of leadership in the short term. It took me 14 years of my working life to gain the confidence to step up and be seen. We cannot afford to wait that long to unleash the power of these new leaders. 

When we look around, the inequities and the big-picture stuff can seem insurmountable, but it’s not. Creating change is everyone’s job.

Systemic change is overwhelming but crucial. Individual change is possible but seems insignificant. Collective, individual change – this is where the magic happens. 

This International Women’s Day, embrace your own leadership power and from here on, make every decision count. 

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