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Inspiring Business Women in APAC: Nureen Shariff

Nureen Shariff is the Lead Counsel - Toll Global Forwarding at Toll Group. She is a strategic business partner with global experience in the logistics and FMCG industries.

Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?

I started my legal career in Canada, practising personal injury law. It wasn’t an area that particularly interested me, but it gave me opportunities to appear before courts and tribunals on my own, from which I learnt a lot about my own capabilities. I then landed my dream job at a leading environmental law firm in Toronto before my husband and I decided to move and start a new adventure in Singapore.

We moved to Singapore during the global recession, and I struggled to find work with my limited and niche experience. While searching for the right role, I decided not to sit idle. I used the time to obtain my legal qualifications in the UK and to pursue a Masters in Public Policy and Management through distance learning (which I guess you could call the precursor to today’s “home-schooling”).

I then landed a consulting position with Diageo, a multinational drinks company, which allowed me to gain the necessary experience under a UK qualified lawyer to complete my UK qualifications. I ended up staying with Diageo for another couple of years, supporting their regional Supply Chain division, before moving to FedEx. At FedEx, I started in a general commercial role but then transitioned to covering employment, litigation and compliance, allowing me to gain some really broad experience.

A couple of years ago, I was approached about my current role at Toll, leading the Legal team for the Global Forwarding business. The rest, as they say, is history. 

What have been the biggest challenges over your career and did you ever feel that your gender played a part in those?

I have been fortunate in that I haven’t really found gender to be a challenge I have had to overcome in the course of my career.

Instead, the greatest challenge that I have had came from within. I am very introverted and often feel uncomfortable entering a room with more than a couple of people. Networking and other skills that one may need to be an effective in-house counsel just don’t come naturally to me. Over time, I have found ways to overcome this. I find that being authentic is one very effective way of dealing with this – authenticity helps me build meaningful relationships, which makes me more comfortable when speaking up. In turn, it helps me build credibility with my peers and stakeholders, so that I have no hesitation saying, “I don’t have an answer for you right now, but if you give me a couple of hours to think about it, I’ll get back to you with my thoughts” - they know I will.

How diverse is Toll Singapore, in terms of gender?

For Toll, and for me, diversity is a broader issue than that of gender. It’s about embracing the unique differences our world today has to offer and including them in what we do.  

Toll, as an organisation, operates globally. We work in 50 countries and cater to a diverse customer base. As such, we need diverse leadership. Our executive leadership team is ethnically diverse and is based across Asia and Australia.

In terms of gender equality, 26% of our leaders across Toll are female. Toll’s own global graduate program has achieved gender parity.

In Singapore, across the various Toll businesses based here, we have approximately 30% female vs 70% male team members. In the ‘corporate/office’ roles, like Legal, HR or Finance, it tends to be roughly 50% vs 50%. 

At Toll Global Forwarding, the division whose Legal team I lead, the overall percentage is higher at 54% female vs 46% male. We also have a number of female leaders in operations, which is very exciting and a trend we hope will continue.

Are there any gender diversity programmes in place in Toll?

Freight forwarding and logistics has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, and at Toll, we are working hard to change that. The numbers I spoke about are an improvement on previous years, but we acknowledge that there’s more work to be done. One of our greatest challenges has been attracting female candidates to logistics. Therefore, it is our long-term focus to improve our performance in this area. For this, we have partnered with organisations such as Deakin University to support programs which encourage females to pursue career paths in traditionally male-dominated industries.

Have you ever felt that gender has either positively or negatively impacted your progression?

No, I don’t feel that my gender has been a factor in my career progression. Instead, my career path has been about facing up to whatever situation I am in and pushing myself to go outside my comfort zone. Moving to Singapore with no job lined up and very little post qualification experience under my belt was always going to be a huge hurdle. I told my husband many times that we would have to go back home if nothing was to change in the next month. If I had chosen to stay in my comfort zone, that’s probably where we’d be right now. Instead, I chose to get qualified in the UK and re-brand as an in-house lawyer, which really felt like I was starting over. My current role also felt like a huge leap for me – not only was freight forwarding an industry I had no prior experience in, but I was also expected to lead a team and sit on the leadership team advising a global business! If I had chosen to stay within my comfort zone, I wouldn’t be where I am, in a role that I find truly fascinating and rewarding.  

Having been exposed to different cultures and people, how has this affected your management style?

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work, study and live in a number of exciting places like Kenya, the Netherlands, Canada and now Singapore. These experiences have made me very sensitive to the differences between people and taught me to look carefully at what each person can bring to the table.

First and foremost, I look for diversity within my own team. For example, diversity in terms of personality, legal background (we have team members from the IT, commodities trading, banking industries) and language capabilities (between us we can communicate in around 12 - 13 languages). I think this really helps when working in a global business, where we support people of different backgrounds to work through complex legal requirements.

Secondly, I am a huge believer in collaboration. I often seek advice from my team members, and I encourage my team to do so too. Having come from different backgrounds, they may have dealt with something I haven’t yet and would be able to provide me with valuable insights.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to management. I take the time to understand what makes each of my team members tick and where their comfort zones are so that I can try and create opportunities to help them shine without making them too uncomfortable.

Is there any advice you would give to working mums to help them succeed in their careers?

Everyone’s situation is different, so there isn’t a ‘model answer’, but I’m happy to share what works for me.

We may not be able to spend as much time as we like with our kids, but we can make sure that we make up for the shortfall in hours with quality.

I like to talk to my kids about why Mummy works and use my experiences as learning opportunities for them. I like to teach them about time management and prioritisation, safety when travelling, how to use mindfulness techniques when you feel you can’t take anymore and also about the importance of people skills and using them effectively. The most important thing for me is teaching them about being present and ensuring that the time we do have together is quality time.

The other thing is appreciating the phrase “it takes a village”. We’ve talked about diversity and how different people have different things to offer, and it’s the same with children. They will learn different things and gain different insights from spending time with different people, whether that is the helper, another parent, grandparents or friends. It’s therefore okay, if not better, that they also spend time with the proverbial village.

Have you had any mentors during your career? How have they helped you in your career?

I had a couple of managers early on in my career who ultimately became like mentors to me, even though we never really formalised a mentor-mentee relationship. The first was my manager when I was in private practice. She taught me about perseverance – when I moved to Singapore and couldn’t catch a break, she encouraged and drove me to press on. She worked her network to try and help me, gave me pep talks when I was truly down and some tough love when I needed it. I am who I am in large part because she didn’t let me feel sorry for myself!

The second was a manager I had when I first moved in-house. She was, and remains, one of my greatest cheerleaders. Whenever I need to make a decision about my career, I’d go to her for advice because I know she’ll help me make a balanced decision. She also taught me about humility and how collaboration across all levels is key to success.

I have not had a mentor, in the strict sense of the word, since then. However, I am a big believer in constantly learning, whether that is through academia or on the job. I observe and try to learn from everyone that I work with, irrespective of their role – whether it is to identify a behaviour or characteristic that I admire and find effective and therefore want to emulate, or one that leaves much to be desired and want to ensure I avoid. I wouldn’t be the lawyer or leader that I am without the lessons I learnt from people I worked with along the way. 

As a mentor, what advice would you give to your mentees?  

Embrace your uniqueness. Each of us has had a different journey, and that journey is what makes us stand out above the rest. I once had a very senior person tell me that my CV was not focused and that this would hold me back in my career. However, my varied background was my selling point for my current role – it showed that I’m adaptable, a quick learner, won’t give up easily and am up for a challenge. A unique background is in turn what I look for in my team too.

The other piece of advice is to take control of your destiny. You will get the unexpected curveball – a redundancy or being overlooked for a promotion, for example. Those are decisions that are outside your control, and as cliché as it sounds, what you can control is how you respond. You can let that affect your self-worth, or you can use it as fuel to get on to the next great thing.

Finally, there’s no place for negativity. Time spent dwelling on the negatives means time in inaction. Take a few minutes to see the learnings from the situation and then move on.

Posted over 3 years ago
About the author:
Rinku Goenka

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