My journey of becoming a better person: five key leadership lessons from the UNDP Regional Women Mentorship Programme

Posted June 28, 2022

Leadership belongs in the echelons of superachievers. They are intelligent, eloquent, have a mysterious sense of purpose and ooze confidence – not traits I identify with. I had thought these qualities to be largely intrinsic and that I should slog along, playing the hand I was dealt, the best I could. And so I kept my head low, dreading both attention and criticism. 

In July 2021, this all changed. I was selected to participate in the UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and Pacific (RBAP) Women Mentorship Programme. Behind this innocuous name was a storm that brought salvation from my pandemic lull. The training started with a 360° Assessment, and was followed by matching with an Executive Mentor, setting up of peer group, and then a series of monthly training sessions, homework and the formulation of an individual development plan.  

 

 

The cohort represents all 24 country offices from the Asia Pacific region. 

The mentorship programme has changed me for the better. Here are five key lessons I learned: 

1. Leadership journey is about becoming a better person. 

The programme made me aware that being a leader is about striving to be a better version of oneself. Aspects such as impactful communication, forming alliances, managing change etc., applied consistently, reap the rewards in both personal and professional life. 

Moreover, many senior leaders I interviewed place emphasis on the importance of humanity (integrity, empathy and a genuine interest in others) over technical aptitude as key attributes of a leader. In other words, a trusted leader is, first of all, a good person. 

This realization speaks to my goal and has accelerated my learning. As I absorbed the materials, I sought out avenues to apply them. For example, I have emceed a high-stakes public seminar, proactively asked for feedback, reached out to engage colleagues abroad, and I am even contemplating international positions within UNDP. Gradually, my head is lifting up more, and the world seemingly has opened up for me. 

Benefits from the mentorship programme also split over to my personal life. I take greater responsibility in my daily social interactions, and now enjoying a more rewarding relationship with my family, friends and colleagues. This came as an unexpected bonus! 

2. When it comes to learning, you snowball what you focus on. 

Learning works like an investment that reaps compounding interest. As I learn and apply tips from the programme, I improved exponentially Small actions each day count by the end of a week, and paying attention to these small steps boosts morale and confidence. 

Equally crucial is the safe environment accorded by the mentorship programme. Each training, check-in with my mentor, peer-group meeting, and senior leader interview imparts new insights and information that branch out like a tree of knowledge. With free online resources aplenty, I regularly draw from courses available on UNDP talent development hub, Youtube for Leadership (personal pick: 1, 2, and 3), as well as the Medium website. 

 

3. Having a mentor accelerated my growth journey. 

The mentorship programme assigned me an Executive Mentor I would meet every month – Ms Beate Trankmann (Resident Representative of UNDP China). Beate has been a role model, a sounding board and a trusted advisor, providing comments and guiding questions to keep me on course. I also initiated lunches with my supervisor – Mr. Niloy Banerjee (Resident Representative of UNDP Malaysia) and other senior colleagues. Outside the office, I benefitted from guidance from informal mentors/acquaintances.   

 

 

One of the monthly check-in sessions with my mentor, Ms Beate. 

An additional dimension is the Senior Leaders’ Interviews I conducted. I have spoken to 15 leaders in various capacities from across country offices, regional office and HQ. Aside from revealing stories behind what made each of them a leader, each interview opened doors to new resources and opportunities - recommended books, leadership articles, and career advancement opportunities. My current read is “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a must-read according to Ms Asa Torkelsson, the UNFPA Representative for Malaysia. 

 

4. The saying: “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” pertains to leadership development 

Like any endeavor, good planning is key to achieving one’s goals. The mentorship programme provided a leadership plan template to develop my goals. Initially, I crammed my plan with more than 20 actions. It was way too much. So, early this year, I scaled it down and with my Monitoring and Evaluation hat firmly on, I set time-bound and measurable indicators to help track progress and ensure my accountability to myself. 

To start measuring progress, I decided to: 

   a. Keep a daily journal setting my goal before I start and ending my day with reflections;

   b. Proactively use my calendar to plan my week including scheduling specific learning actions; 

   c. Initiate a ‘feedback list’ to document all positive comments; 

   d. Schedule regular discussions with supervisor and friends who inspire me and care about my growth 

A source of motivation was a quote from psychology professor Jordan Peterson: “If you can’t follow your plan, others will dictate you to their plan”. 

 

5. Building inner strength to counter the impostor syndrome 

Sometimes, we, women, can be our own worst enemies. Studies show that, on average, women do better than men on qualities for effective leadership (See this article). Yet, women are also more prone to the impostor syndrome – the feeling that we don’t deserve our achievements and would be found out. Hence, overcoming my defeating inner voice is a daily quest.  

 

The mentorship programme has empowered me to counter such negative self-talk, through knowledge and tips to push my boundaries. One homework following the “Impactful Communications” training session was to apply the tips at work. These are: downward inflection at the end of a sentence, pause after a key message, and appropriate gesturing and eye contact.  

 

I was determined to deliver this homework by doing something bold. The opportunity presented itself when I was nominated to be the emcee for a UNDP-government seminar in December 2021 - the first physical event since lockdown.  

 

On the day when I took to the podium, my chest pounded, my voice was shaking, my body trembling. The bright lights made me lose track of the script. I wanted to hide at each segment break,  and not face the 150-strong crowd again. 

 

By the end, though, I found myself enjoying the stint. “This is it, I got it!” I remember saying to myself. When the lights went out, I felt pride welling up inside me. 

 

Conquering my fear of public speaking has unleashed my self-confidence. The experience gave me a ‘kick’ to continue pushing my limits. I learned to ask myself: “What makes you scared?” and face it, head held high.