'Gen Z will bring in a fresh perspective on leadership': Top UAE CEO offers tips for aspiring leaders

Australian expat Renée McGowan on her latest book 'The Friday Email' and why cognitive diversity will define business success going forward


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 16 May 2024, 5:49 PM

The need for a new kind of leadership often arises in response to shifts in societal, economic, or technological landscapes. As we navigate complex global challenges such as climate change, technological disruption, and recovering from a pandemic, traditional leadership models may prove insufficient. So, is it time for a new kind of leadership?

This new leadership approach may emphasise collaboration, empathy, and the ability to navigate uncertainty and change effectively, argues Renée McGowan, chief executive officer, Marsh McLennan IMEA. McGowan, an Australian-born global citizen, has cultivated a 25-year career steering regional and international businesses across prominent cities worldwide.

Her insatiable thirst for knowledge and innovative approaches to strengthening human-to-human connections as a leader have culminated in her debut book, The Friday Email—88 Tips for Aspiring Leaders—at the heart of which lies her dedication to fostering the leaders of tomorrow.

In a deep-dive conversation with Khaleej Times, the CEO-turned-author delves into the importance of choosing mastery over success, the concept of slowing down to accelerate progress, and the pivotal role cognitive diversity will play in shaping business success in the years ahead.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q. How did you come up with the concept of the ‘Friday Email’?

I came up with it during Covid. It was a conversation with the team about how to manage in this environment where you can't meet people, when I had been used to travelling around all the countries and spending time with colleagues. It started off as an open conversation with the people that I was working with: How am I going to do this? How are we going to establish connections?

One of the ideas was to start with an email, but nobody wants another email, especially during Covid. Despite that, we decided to give it a try. One Friday, after I had been out for a run and was feeling quite euphoric, I recorded a little video. So the first one was actually a video. It received such a positive response that we decided to write again the following Friday, and then it just spiralled from there.

Q. As a business leader, what was the biggest emotional challenge you saw emerge in organisations during the pandemic?

The biggest thing when the pandemic hit was the stress that it caused everybody to have, for obvious reasons. But then when you add on to that employment stress, that's a whole other level of worries. I was very proud of our organisation; we came out very early in the pandemic and said that no colleague would lose their job at the peak of the pandemic globally. I wanted to reinforce that as well, so that colleagues knew that it doesn't matter if you're not doing the very best job you can right now; we know that you've got other things on your plate.

It was so they didn’t have to worry about their job on top of everything else they had to worry about, such as their family’s health, how their kids are going to school, and how people were struggling with getting food at different points. Part of it was to really remove that huge stressor that was there in terms of work uncertainty. And then it just moved into really positive messaging, which could uplift the teams.

Q. This is a really good example of empathetic leadership, which has been the need of the hour, especially since the pandemic. You speak in the book about how the leaders of tomorrow are going to be very different from the leaders of today. Could you walk me through that difference?

I have to say, it was our global CEO and president, Daniel S. Glaser at the time, who made that statement globally, setting a tone from the top. What the leadership and management does in an organisation sets a tone that then permeates throughout the entire organisation. And what Covid did, as I mentioned earlier, is that it really opened up this human-to-human connection.

It doesn't matter what your role is in the organisation or what level you're at; there's a human-to-human connection that we're all experiencing. This is what I think will be really impactful as we move forward because it will become easier to have more information at your fingertips, more decisions made through insights that are served up to you.

File photo used for illustrative purposes
File photo used for illustrative purposes

What's going to get harder, probably, is identifying what type of people you need, what type of skills you need, and how to develop people and skills. That's going to require this human-to-human connection and empathy, which will be critical for tomorrow's leaders.

Tomorrow's leader won't be able to just ask the person they're closest to for one perspective. Our issues will become far more complex, and we're going to need diverse perspectives — cognitive diversity, cultural diversity, all of those pieces. This was a huge realisation for me.

I thought I had a diverse team around me. But there was this aha moment; we were an awesome team, the most fun, high-performing team I've ever had. But it reached a point where we actually realised we were going to be limited in our high performance because we all thought the same. And that’s why we enjoyed working together.

Q. How can leaders cultivate cognitive diversity in their team?

This is why I specifically talk about cognitive diversity in the book as well because it's far more challenging as a leader to surround yourself with people who think differently than you. It feels uncomfortable, challenging, and new. And sometimes it probably would be easier and a bit more fun to have people around you who reinforce what you're thinking.

File photo used for illustrative purposes
File photo used for illustrative purposes

You could even laugh along, and maybe things would move quicker. Whereas surrounding yourself with people who think differently means you're going to have to talk through things because you'll have different perspectives. That can be a very different challenge for a leader but in the long-run, this is what will really determine the growth of the team.

Q. How do you define professional growth?

It's about constant learning. I believe that if you come to work one day and there isn't anything new to learn, you should start thinking about your next move. I've been with the organisation for 22 years, and literally, every day, I'm still learning something new. So, for me, growth really revolves around that continual learning process. What you want to do is absorb as much knowledge as possible and also learn how to ask good questions, so you can gather more information.

Q. In the book, you also mention that there's space for everyone to win. In a competitive professional setting, it often feels the opposite of that...

There's more than enough room for everybody to win because we're all going to thrive in different ways. Even if two people are doing the same job, they'll approach it differently, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. So, it comes back to that diversity puzzle for me. Once you realise that everybody is different and will bring different skills and perspectives, there's more than enough room for everyone to thrive. This is why I also speak about the importance of cultivating an abundance mindset as an essential pillar of leadership.

Q. How can we cultivate an abundance mindset? What are the main challenges people still face when trying to adopt it?

An abundance mindset is related to a ‘growth mindset’ — how you think about opportunities as being almost infinite as opposed to a scarcity mindset, where you focus on the limitations. When you think like that, you think about opportunities being sliced like a pie, so some get larger slices, others get less. This constant fear of “not enough” breeds competition instead of collaboration. When one is naturally ambitious, there's often a tendency to equate personal success with others not being as successful by the same definition you have for success.

An abundance mindset says there is more than enough room for all of us to be successful and that there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser in every scenario. The challenge that some people face is that their own natural ambition makes it hard to accept that there’s scope for others to succeed, but if you can change your mindset, you can create more than enough room for multiple people to be successful. An abundance mindset shifts your thinking from “I can’t” to “How can I?”, and “Not enough” to “There’s always more — how can we make that happen?”

Q. As a society, we're becoming overly fixated on success rather than mastering a specific skillset or professional value system. Why do you think it’s important to choose mastery over success?

It really stems from the way that we're living our lives at the moment — how ‘busy-ness’ has almost become a status symbol as we focus on how busy we are and how fast we're moving through life professionally and personally. One of the dangers of this approach is that we equate being busy with being productive. We end up opting for what's easy rather than what's hard and necessary. What I discuss in The Friday Email is the importance of choosing mastery over success.

Think of success as a moment in time and mastery as the ongoing journey, not just reaching a destination. If you truly master something, you've taken the time to learn it, become an expert, and understand where you are on your journey and how much further there is to go. Often, if you only focus on success, you try to rush through your career at the pace that the world defines for you. Mastery is about constantly striving to close the gap—the ‘near wins’ on our journey—between where we are today and where we want to be.

Q. In today’s world, we are conditioned to move ahead as fast as possible. So, how do we slow down?

Part of slowing down involves not only slowing down the pace of our lives but also our thought processes and decision-making. It means pausing to absorb information, carefully assessing our ‘To Do’ lists to discern what truly matters, rather than diving in impulsively. Often, we rush to react, merely ticking checkboxes on our lists, when what we truly need is to slow down, ask the right questions, and consider the bigger picture. Investing time to master a smaller number of things, and achieving true success in mastering them, is essential for personal and professional growth.

Q. How has your experience been living in the UAE, seeing the growth of the region?

I've had the privilege of living in several countries and large cities around the world, including New York, London, Sydney, Hong Kong and others, and one of the things I love about the UAE is that it is a global centre with a sense of its role in the world, and there is a real hustle in the way that we do business here.

I find the way we work in the UAE very energising, and I'm also very energised by the fact that there is a wonderful culture here as well as a huge international element that brings enormous diversity to the way that we live our lives and the way that we work.

File photo used for illustrative purposes
File photo used for illustrative purposes

I really admire the visionary agendas that exist here in the UAE and other parts of the Middle East. The ambition in particular — the fact that as a society the UAE sets goals and aims to be the best, and even if it doesn’t achieve every aspect of a project, it continues to learn, grow and develop. That is very inspiring to me.

Q. How has a woman's role as a business leader evolved in the region?

The UAE is a very international and cosmopolitan country, which is opening up more opportunities not just for women but also for people from different backgrounds and experiences from all over the world. From a business leadership perspective, female participation in the workforce has increased materially in the Middle East in recent years, which is excellent. I have complete confidence we'll continue to see a steady increase in the number of women in senior roles over the coming years.

Companies are recognising the value that comes with a diversity of perspectives and we'll see that compound and accelerate even further over the next five years as we begin to integrate the next generation into the workforce and into leadership. ‘Generation Z’ will usher in a fresh, new and very different perspective, particularly around technology issues and communication styles, which will be very important.



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