‘I look at opportunities before looking at challenges’

Head of Marketing, Eaton Africa, Sumaya Abdool

Head of Marketing, Eaton Africa, Sumaya Abdool assumed her post in June 2014, and has travelled across the continent talking about the company. The Guardian caught up with her recently in Lagos, and in this chat she talked about some of the challenges women face as top executives from her experience thus far. She said this and many more in this excerpt

Tell Us More About Yourself
In terms of my career, which is always a nice starting point for me, it’s been a very exciting journey. I have had more than a decade experience in B2B marketing and I have worked with various global brands with Eaton being one of them, the other being Xerox and my predominant focus has been on growing brands in emerging markets, supporting our customers to take our brands into the market, and equipping them with the right tools and skill.

I am also very passionate about talent development because I believe you are only as good as your team is. I have a team across key countries and aside from them growing in their roles, I’m also interested in their personal growth. I encourage each one of my team members to have development plan to them meet their goals.

I have a Master’s degree in strategic marketing. Through the years, my qualification has probably been one of my biggest achievement because I faced some financial challenges in my career where I needed to make a decision between work and studying fulltime. I opted to study part-time and working fulltime so I could afford to pay for my qualifications and at every point when I did, I asked myself if my qualifications were enough to get me at where I wanted to be. I often answered that question with a NO until I got my Master’s qualification. I am glad I persevered

My role right now is as the head of marketing for Eaton Africa and it has been one of the highlights of my career, because it touches so many people. I am able to develop talents and it allows me to reach various regions within the African continent.

I am very passionate about Africa and its development. So it’s exciting to have a role that allows me to enjoy what I’m doing and also make a difference. That’s ultimately what truly drives me as an individual.

What is it like being a top female executive in a global company?
I feel very special; I feel I’m bringing a unique value proposition; women have very different views in terms of communication style as well as bringing some nurturing to the team and I think people often under-estimate that kind of value in a global organisation. I have been able to add value on various platforms, not only in the marketing positions, but also in a strategic role within the company and the company has realised my expertise, capitalised on that, and given me more opportunities to be able to expand on and within the organization. So it feels really special but I think I really need to have shown them my value proposition and what my brand really entails as an individual.

Without that I don’t think that they would have seen what I can really bring to the table or utilised it to make a difference within the organisation. It’s also very exciting to know that we have a global company that really supports women development, and I think that makes my work a lot easier.

Before I joined Eaton, I never had the reason to worry about being a female in a predominantly male environment and I still don’t because I feel very empowered and supported here.

It’s never been something that’s been top of mind when I walked into a room, I would generally be sometimes the only woman in the room and think nothing of it until someone pointed it out to me and asked me, ‘how does it make you feel?’ That was the only time I had given it much thought and I realized other women in similar positions and other organisations might consider it challenging

Have you faced any challenges?
I don’t know if it is predominantly because you are a female or it’s generally just balancing it all out. I find that being a female is not necessarily a challenge, but the work of an executive becomes more challenging as you move on. So balancing the work life, being able to travel and leave your family back at home and still looking after yourself, is very important.

The way I balance it all is  that I look at the opportunities before looking at the challenges because the more opportunities I get, the more exposure to learn, and the more I can be able to pass knowledge on to the youths because I believe our role is to make sure we constantly focus on the youth and development as well as the other females within the organization and share our experiences with them to upskill them and give them theconfidence to help them move forward, if they have not had that opportunity yet.

How would you describe the support you have received from your organization and peers?
My mentor has been amazing, though he is not based in Africa. I have a culture of constant learning. Eaton promotes this constant learning environment, but I have always been curious-minded and I think that’s what happened throughout these years as, growing in my development, I needed to learn with my colleagues and my mentor. Curiosity makes me go to them for support and it’s like constant learning, ensuring that I have the right answers to new things that I learn and understanding the new things that I’m learning. I think that has been the biggest support with my colleagues and my mentor. Feedback is something that I know is very important and I see feedback as a gift and you can always learn and grow from that.

With my colleagues I do 360 reviews and with my team I always do biannual review twice a year. Some of the feedback I have received has helped me in planning and development.

Based on your experience, would you say women are well represented in most of these companies, like Eaton for example?
I believe at Eaton we are doing an exceptional job, in our recent statistics, our female board members, most especially in the United States, have increased in number and I was appointed on one of the board members for the local business in South Africa. So the focus on women empowerment is something that Eaton is really driving quite heavily.

We have an inclusion and diversity program, called Women Adding Values at Eaton (WAVES). At Eaton we get women to speak to every employee across the globe and it’s a scheduled seminar around their experience, what it feels like to be a woman at Eaton and anyone is allowed to join us, not just the females but men because it is also about helping men understand the kind of challenges women face and how to be a little more sensitive to it.

That’s something that Eaton has developed and has been running for a few years.

What do you have to say to women who have the qualifications but are afraid to stand out?
We underestimate the value of ourselves as females and one thing that we should be doing is really investing in learning, not just formal education, but the constant learning that ensures you are relevant. One thing I would advise is for women to make sure they study and understand their interest sectors and the things they would like to be and be part of. It is also important for us to be exposed to technology, forums, seminars and speaking events that we can go to.

Most of all women need to support each other and for me that is something that is really important because it’s very easy for me to walk past you and not acknowledge you, even a simple compliment is something that would help a woman to be able to grow confidence and believe in herself. I really believe that supporting and helping each other is something that we women should be mindful of and look at to be able to move forward.



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