What I Learned From Benazir Bhutto—and My First Boss

November 25, 2013Earlier on Catalyzing we ran a Women Can profile of Josefine M.C. van Zanten, Senior Vice President, ONE DSM Culture Agenda, DSM, The Netherlands. We recently had an opportunity to learn more about the role models who inspired Ms. van Zanten to become a Catalyst for change in her field.

There are two people who really helped shape my professional outlook. When I was working for HP, I had the incredible honor of meeting and speaking with Benazir Bhutto (the first and to date only female Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was assassinated in 2007). She was tall and strong, as well as kind and inspirational. We talked about what it takes to raise daughters to become leaders. Despite the many differences in our backgrounds, I felt we had a number of thoughts and feelings in common. It’s amazing how much women share with one another, regardless of their backgrounds, and how much more we could collaborate across ethnic, geographical, and professional boundaries.

The other person who profoundly influenced my career is one of my first managers, Martin Carter, a director in the HP Support unit when I was at HP. Martin showed me my unique skills and talents and encouraged me to use them. I’ve worked for many excellent managers since then, but Martin always stood out. I was lucky to have met him early in my career, when I really needed someone to shore up my confidence, offer support, and challenge me with direct and honest feedback. He took on an entrenched, bureaucratic, and deeply unfair system of compensation under which I was earning 24% less than my similarly qualified male colleagues. He made up the difference within one year. I didn’t understand back then what it took in terms of convincing the right people and altering certain long-established systems and processes for him to obtain such an increase, but I do now! It took me years of holding leadership positions of my own to fully appreciate the extent of his advocacy, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

What Catalyst research has revealed about women being over-mentored and under-sponsored is really true in my experience. Over the years, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. I got more out of acting as a mentor myself and helping other women to identify opportunities for advancement than I did from being mentored. In my current role with DSM, I’ve been visibly sponsored by several senior leaders, and the difference this has made is palpable. My sponsors watch my back (as women leaders often attract more criticism than men), provide helpful feedback, offer valuable insights, listen carefully, challenge me honestly, and help me to continuously develop. It’s been exhilarating and motivating.

In addition to the sponsors and role models who have helped and inspired me, I have had the added benefit of a husband who provides practical and emotional support and career-related advice on a daily basis.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.