What makes an effective leader and a successful career?

Ann Cairns, Executive Vice Chair at Mastercard, speaks about the key attributes of an effective leader and about lessons learnt from her successful career in a recent interview with Griselda Togobo, CEO of Forward Ladies.

Female business leader conducting a meeting


Ann Cairns has been the Executive Vice Chair at Mastercard for three years, but has been managing the 200+ countries that the company has business in for the last 10 years. In her recent interview with Griselda Togobo, CEO of Forward Ladies, she speaks about her career, the pandemic, taking breaks, what it takes to be a successful leader, as well as giving tips on decision-making and negotiating salary.

These are some of main takeaways from the interview.

The conversation started with Cairns recalling all the steps of her career which led her to her current role. Originally from Newcastle, her first job was research scientist for British Gas in the seventies after her master’s degree, but she always knew she wanted to lead.

However, she also says that she found the inspiration to get to her current position through the fact that she was always led to believe she should just follow her dreams and her dad has always encouraged her to be anything she wanted.

Believing in yourself, in your capabilities and persevering are important traits to achieve anything in your life even outside of your professional career, she said.

Leadership, Covid-19 and taking breaks

Just like the majority of other workers, Cairns had to readjust her working dynamic and lifestyle due to Covid-19. Indeed, when she first joined Mastercard, Cairns used to travel around the world to meet the people she was working with face to face, but when the pandemic hit she had to switch to remote working.

Recently, she also started a position as the Lead Non-Executive Director for the business group based in the UK and the majority of her time was spent talking to her colleagues on Zoom and sending each other WhatsApps, sharing things that they have been reading, to try and get to know the people she was working with.

When asked how she switches off from being on screen all day long, Cairns’ routine may resonate with many. Some of her actives involve walking her dog, talking to family and friends and meeting up for meals.

Talking about her routine and looking at how it has changed over the decades she advised people to enjoy the different phases in you life and to keep on learning new things and do all of the activities that you are physically capable of doing at that given time. She added that it is important to appreciate how your life evolves and not to take its changing nature for granted.

She is very active on social media, predominately Twitter and LinkedIn. On these platforms she is aware of not mixing personal and professional matters and she uses them as an outlet to network and share work-related opinions. She also believes that it is important to keep up with the times and adapt to new ways of communication and new technology, particularly in these current times when the majority of interactions take place online.

Tips for future leaders

Cairns’ advice to anyone at the beginning of their career is that “life’s a marathon and not a sprint” and “don’t rush things. It’s very hard to make mistakes when you’re young, but you can always change tack.” Changing career is not unusual and it is never too late to change direction or apply for jobs later on, whether that is after a year or 25 years.

Another tip she shared is one from one of her previous employers, which is that “you need to slow down to speed up”. Cairns explained that you should approach decisions in the same way as you would play a chess game: think three moves ahead. As someones who is very decisive, Cairns used to make decisions without taking much time to reflect on them and had to change her mind later. This didn’t happen when she started to slow down more. It also meant approaching the future with more confidence because you have already thought about it and about the consequences of the steps that you are taking down the road.

Her approach to keeping up with developments through her activity on social media is part of a belief in the importance of being willing to learn new things and skills and knowing that that there are always things people know that you might not.

She added that self-doubt is normal and she says that changing roles a lot taught her humility and that she needs to listen to the people she is working with. Also, learning from employees and respecting their opinions are key attributes for any leader, she says.

Cairns also spoke about some of the challenges in her career, for instance, when she thought she was going to get her boss’ job when he moved, but it was given to a less qualified male colleague. When she subsequently asked to move to a different department in the company she was turned down because she needed to help her new boss to navigate his new position. However, it all turned out well in the end.  A few weeks later she was contacted by a head hunter and decided to take that call, which led her to a new position and new career trajectory.

In this regard, a tip she gives specifically to female workers is “don’t be a lady in waiting” because you deserve more than that number two position and staying with a company teaching a guy how to be successful. Additionally, she says, women should know how much they are worth and, despite discussing salary being an unpleasant conversation, she says it is an important one to have.

Cairns said that it is important to know what you want from your career and what your ultimate goal is in order to reach it. This does not necessarily mean having a clear goal in your twenties or even forties, but it does mean at least having a general idea of the direction you are going in.

Finally, as someone who has rarely waited for a job opportunity to be advertised, Cairns encouraged people to actively look for the job they really want. She advised against  waiting for the perfect moment or opportunity to follow your dreams. Instead, she said, you need to go ahead and create those opportunities for yourself.

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