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Peta Latimer - Women In Leadership Interview Series

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We curated the Women in Leadership Interview Series to gain insights from some of the most successful female leaders in APAC who have scaled to the top of their profession. The series addresses work place issues that affect all professionals, and hones in on the unique challenges women encounter.


















Peta Latimer is the CEO of Singapore at Mercer. To learn her diverse childhood, how her experience is like being the youngest CEO and 9 months into the role. She has also shared the 4 greatest lessons she has learned, why Michelle Obama and Kris Jenner are her role models, her 6 months backpacking adventures and got locked out of her bank account and many more.

Full Transcript

[Sabrina] So Peta thank you so much for today, can you share with us what was your childhood like? 

[Peta]  Thank You Sabrina very nice to be here. I would really describe my childhood as diverse, I was lucky enough to be born and raised in South Africa and at about the age 7 moved across to Australia so from a very young age I had experienced different cultures different languages different accents different expectations. 

[Sabrina] What were your ambitions as a child. 

[Peta] Take over the world! I've always joked about that! But the reality was I think deep down I knew that I wanted to be in corporate and you know have the opportunity to make a difference in everything that I was doing. 

[Sabrina] Peta I understand you studied a master in organizational behavior, how did you get interested in it? 

[Peta] I never decided that I wanted to work in consulting or in HR or as a psychologist and actually what I really wanted to do was get into Investment Banking and quite soon after university, I did some graduate programs and didn't enjoy it at all sitting in front of a computer every day crunching numbers definitely not my strength or my area of passion. So quite quickly I moved into another FMCG organization in Australia a fast-moving consumer good and that was a really great rotation program where I was able to experience so many different sides of a corporate in a two-year rotation scheme and the one thing that I really did learn and was bad leadership, you know being in in that type of environment with very strong very male orientated was  quite a challenge for me and I had an opportunity to move into a business that was selling psychometric assessments and at the time they did some assessments on me and I'd asked my boss who I was having quite a difficult relationship with to do the assessment so that I could practice and see if it was something I liked and just the insight I gained from that both in terms of myself but also into my boss and how I understood why he was what he was like just made me really want to go and move into that organization and to much more interested in the psychology and so that's what really got me into this leadership assessment and development space which is what I would say is my real core and my real passion.  

[Sabrina] Can you tell us more about your current role? 

[Peta] Yeah sure so I joined about nine months into the CEO role here at Mercer in Singapore. Mercer has been a long-term brand that I've always looked at we've always competed against Mercer in my many different organizations it's very well known as the biggest HR consultancy  

firm so when I had the opportunity to come across and join. It was a difficult decision to retire from my last firm and come across but you know the opportunity to one, take a broader leadership opposition two, have full control and oversight of the P&L (Profit & Loss) and the financial management of the business and three, the opportunity I guess to bring all my consulting skills together and see if I can really execute against the things that I've been advising my clients about for so long and so here in Singapore I have the opportunity to look across all three of our service lines, we have a health business which is our employee health and benefits and broking business, we have a wealth business which really looks at our investment advisory and management expertise helping companies with pensions and then we also have our careers business which is where Mercer is very well known for our salaries and HR consulting capability. 

[Sabrina] Peta you just share with me it was a difficult decision for you to leave your previous company and join Mercer and changes are very uncomfortable for a lot of people how did you overcome that change during that time. 

[Peta] Yeah it was extremely uncomfortable, and it was uncomfortable because I had only just 

started to get my feet under the desk and when you join a big four you know big four is a very relationship oriented, you really have to build your business from scratch it's usually entrepreneurial, you hire your own team people join you as a partner and your vision and so I was just at about two and a half years into the firm at the time and really felt a strong affinity to the brand to my team and to the clients that we've been working on, so it wasn't so much that it was a difficult decision to leave to join Mercer but it was a difficult decision to leave and at the time that I was in, I felt like it was a little bit premature and you know that was really hard for me to try and reconcile whether it was the right thing to do or if I should stay and make sure that I gave more time to the business that I've been trying to build. 

I've got some very strong mentors and mentors that have known me for a long time and a lovely managing partner in the firm that I was in where I was able to just have a dialogue and ask for advice and you know it's very rare that you get an opportunity to take a CEO position especially as a lateral hire especially as somebody quite young and you know these things don't come around that often and it was a big question around was I ready to lean in and take the opportunity and that was the decision and that came through you know embrace it and take it even if you're nervous about it you know that's how that's how you learn. 

[Sabrina] I love it! I love it and Peter what motivates you as a leader? 

[Peta] Learning! And I really love being in a consulting type position because you get to experience different challenges, different clients, different environments and bring the best of many many types of expertise together to solve problems, so as an employee that really motivates me as a leader. It's a different shift, it's about really seeing if we can help the entire organization pivot in the right direction and you know are we able to bring everybody along with us and help give people the best careers that they have that they can get. One of the things I always say to my staffs is my responsibility as a leader is to make sure that like I can't promise you lifelong employment, I can't promise you career acceleration, what I can promise you is the best experience for the time that you choose to work with us. 

It won't always be fun, it won't always be easy but you will definitely walk away with a significant amount of personal development and growth and if I can do that for people like my former bosses have been able to do for me then that would make me very very satisfied. 

[Sabrina] As a female leader managing such a big team, Peta what have been the main challenges you have faced? 

[Peta] As per any leader there's many difficulties that we face one of the biggest issues is how do you manage BAU you know business as usual right while trying to change the business at 

the same time how do you make sure that you're motivating people and sending them Right clear message so that people all align and buy in, how do you make sure that there's resiliency in the business and  

Helping people understand that change is inevitable and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  

and I think that one of the big key takeaways for me over the last nine months is how do you also maintain the energy yourself throughout that period because you do have to be front and center a lot of the time, you do need to be hugely energetic, motivational you have to have strong attentive skills you have to be able to listen you know you have to give everyone your due attention and at the same time you also need to find time for one yourself to make sure that you're learning and two find some time to have some form of personal life if that's possible outside of work so I think it's a juggle of time at this stage and I think that affects all leaders and that affects a lot of our employees. 

[Sabrina] Peta who have been your role models? 

[Peta] I like Michelle Obama for her poise and the way that she can handle and be herself in front of the cameras and go through some of that extreme criticism at the time through to people like Kris Jenner who I think completely changing the face of business and social media and you've just got to give credit to massive empire building. Through the people like you know my father who was extremely successful and my mother who chose to be a stay-at-home mom and actually was the one that really made us a family. 

[Sabrina] Peta throughout your career journey what have been the greatest lesson you have learned? 

[Peta] If I think of greatest lessons I probably try and roughly categorize them into four.  

One would be know what your end goal is but you don't necessarily have to have a plan.

and when I think about that what that means for me is you know a lot of us used to talk about what our 5-year plans were or anything about career self-development being very structured about what it is that you want but for me I think if you know what success looks like to you and you can hold to what true success is, how you get there doesn't matter and if you don't have a plan that makes you a lot more flexible and more agile to take opportunities as and when they come along and for me that was really important because my career is one of total fits and starts, I've gone in different directions I've quit and gone backpacking for six months at a time on my own, I've restarted again I've moved to countries halfway through with a 15 kilo backpack and $5,000 in the bank account and you know I just think that you can take all of those lessons but all of them you know there was no clear direction or plan in place that stopped me from being able to take these opportunities.  

The other one would be open to all opportunities and lean In.  

I think you have to be able to know what's right, you know we talked about balance for better and work-life balance and  

I do believe that you can have it all you just can't have it all at the same time.  

so throughout that period make choices and it's all up to a choice and know what you want to do and there has been times in my life where I just think okay this is my career turn now and it's a very dedicated one to two years of focus on your career, the next time will be okay I need to finish my Master's so career comes onto the back burner and it was a hundred percent focus on completing my Master's so just you know really be able to lean in at the times that you want and know when other things are more important than that. 

One of the things I would say from a lesson learnt is no one can give you a mentor you choose a mentor and that person chooses you, so again make sure that you've got a wide access to people that you respect and over time you'll build really strong mentor relationships and for me you know I would say that I pretty much owe my career to three very important mentors – very senior men who either worked directly with or they were clients of mine at the time and people who just took an interest in my career and really helped me and these are the people in terms of more than just being mentors played active sponsorship roles, so it helped me with new jobs would give introductions would be endorsements it would give me an endorsement for a new role I was going for would help me practice for an interview in advance and you know I think it's rare when you find people like that and you know all of us should be looking for that person and manage those relationships right it's you've got to really spend time with people like that and give back as well.  

Then lastly a big lesson for me and it's something that I have learned over time and I would say that everybody needs to learn which is be comfortable with being Uncomfortable, the world changes every time you make a decision there is no guarantee until you've executed against that decision will be what you are required to do and you know and it's okay! People are very very resilient, people deal with many many issues in their life and come through the other side so  

As long as we're embracing all of this change and you know the steps to improve ourselves or understand the lessons that we're learning then I think that that's the strongest way forward.

There's some amazing lessons that I've learnt already a long bunch of lessons after many mistakes many trials many successes. 

[Sabrina] Exactly, and Peta I want to deep dive a little bit on the mentorship and the sponsorship how can we manage the relationship with our mentors with our sponsors? 

[Peta] Well I think it's a two-way relationship isn't it? You're not going to invest or you're not going to gain a strong relationship if somebody's only taking so one of the things I always make sure I do is I just can't be ringing and engaging my sponsors or my mentors only for input that I need at that time I have to make sure that I am saying connected to them I'm sharing useful information that they all live overseas now and they're all doing very very different things but I just make sure I keep them up to date with what I think would be of use to them I've continued to get engaged a few of them in my business around come in and please speak to my teams, meet my people, let me introduce you to some other clients that you might find of use and then they've been able to get work through that as well so you know I think it's a two-way street and you've got to make sure that! You’re really fulfilling that relationship properly.  

[Sabrina] Yeah thank you for sharing as well. and Peta I'm being a little bit selfish because I want to know more about your backpacking experience where did you go, what did you do, what makes you decide to you know what I'm just gonna stop and took a six months off?  

[Peta] Yeah so I think and this is not by any intention but it seems to be every three to four years I get itchy feet and you know I want to do something a bit different and I've always just picked up a backpack, so I've done it twice, one around Southeast Asia and one around most recently in 2016, I did it around Latin America and it was probably the best experience I remember just thinking I'm gone for six Months, backpack on, didn't know where I was going at all, got locked out of my bank account because they didn't understand why I was moving so fast around different countries and you know just said yes again to everything, what started out as something that should have been a bit more reflective like I'm going to go away and see some new sights and spend some time thinking about what I want to do next ended up being I just want to say yes to every opportunity and climb to Machu Picchu, went to the Bolivia salt flats that was when I got the call that they had offered me the partnership at KPMG and to come back so you know it changed what should have been a much longer backpack experience became much shorter you truly adventurous well I just think it's fun and by the way you know it it's just a different type of adventure and lessons learned and I think the ability to travel on your own, meet new people ask questions, do things that you wouldn't normally do, it's probably the things that I love the most out of travel, one of the reasons why I'm in Asia so I can continue to do that more frequently. 

[Sabrina] Definitely! And Peta you are clearly a very accomplished individual what advice would you give to other female professionals who are just starting out in their career? 

[Peta] I think it comes back to you know  

You don't have to know exactly what role you want but you do need to know what good looks like or what success would look like for you. 

so what in ten years would you be happy with or satisfied with in terms of achievement once you know that then you should be asking yourself what types of skills you need to get there and I always say to people it's really good to think about making decisions on career based on the skills that you'll get through each of those positions and I think one of the things I would say to women is  

Be proactive know those skills and put yourself in position to pick those up. 

so me making this decision to move across to Mercer one of the skills that I didn't have was you know big P&L (profit & loss) responsibilities so I'd run smaller P&L and smaller revenue targets before but I hadn't had the opportunity to run a much bigger one in a business from a financial perspective and from a skills piece we know that that's really important if you want to progress your career up into the more senior ranks and so that was you know  

Trying to remove some of the emotions out of making a decision around which company you want to join, it was also a little bit easier to say will I get these skills in my current job, No. I can get them now in my new job? Yes! 

[Sabrina] hmm there's a very good tip Peta what are the traits necessary to succeed as a CEO in your field? 

[Peta] Well I'm still figuring that out because I am nine months in, I recently got some great dvice because new into role I'm also doing something executive coaching myself which by the way I think is important and all of us should always go and continue to invest in your own learning and you know I recently got challenged on the skills that got me to where I'm at today and not the skills are gonna take me forward so when I think about what my strengths are it's always been speed, Intuition, the ability to solve problems, get in the trenches with my team, solution for clients and actually now in a CEO position those skills are not what is required of me in a bigger leadership role so I need to think about what those skills are going forward and it was an interesting conversation we had the other day about it should be about perspective not perspiration in this role so you know I need to be able to have a much broader view of the business, understand many more of the financial levers, think much more strategic and long-term and really then help people unblock some of their challenges so that they can move forward but you know like I said I'm just figuring it out now the one thing that I've certainly learned my first nine months is resiliency and you know it's very different in terms of just the volume of requests and topics that you're dealing with any one time, so you know being able to manage yourself and your stress levels and not get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work is really important. 

[Sabrina] Yeah I absolutely agree with you because the other day I was just speaking to my friend about being a CEO there's no textbook so we're learning by doing it day by day. 

[Peta] Well so here's the thing that I learnt actually a few years ago when I took the role when I moved out to Singapore in the first place, to come and set a business up for IBM,  

You don't know what you don't know until you've done it and nobody does, so every time you get promoted up which everybody gets promoted up, there is going to be nervousness about doing that role.  

and whether you can be succeeding so you know your first one or two years you should be a bit kinder to yourself around what it is that you're learning and just learn quickly, ask questions and learn quickly, so I think it's a really interesting opportunity. 

[Sabrina] It's very comforting to know from you as well no one knows how to do it till we get into it and say yes to the opportunities always say yes. 

[Peta] Say yes! I think the thing that really differentiates people in these roles is your ability to ask good questions and understand, you know when we talk about skills and I think there's a lot of conversations that at a senior level and certainly a board level right now so do boards know about Cybersecurity, do they know about the blockchain and all the technologies that are coming through and actually it's quite difficult to at a very senior level like I said when you're dealing with so many diverse topics at any one time to have depth of expertise across all of that so it really is about what makes you comfortable enough to make decisions.  

Do you understand things conceptually, can you ask the right questions and do you know the right people to go and get the information from. 

[Sabrina] As the CEO of Mercer and a global business leader with a strong interest in the future of work in your opinion what roles are most likely to be disrupted or automated? 

[Peta] I think every role is going to be disrupted that doesn't mean that all roles will be automated but I think pretty much most roles that we are doing these days will have elements of the job role that can be automated. 

or at least synched with technology at the same time so I would expect as we develop in this future of work space that many more of us will be leveraging technology to do many more of the core standard pieces of work that we do, we did an activity recently with some clients which asked people to list their daily activities and you know how do you spend your time throughout the day and then throughout that really getting to the question around what is standard what could be done if you had information provided could that shrink time spent and even me when I did that activity more than 30% of my current time could be automated and things like better sourcing of information, more access to faster sorting through emails, you know not having to go and speak to so many people because data is curated for you to make decisions more real-time things like that will free up a lot more time that allow you then to spend more time with people and clients and making the decisions. 

[Sabrina] Peta, how can female professionals stay relevant in the workforce of tomorrow? 

[Peta] Well I think it's again back to skills, collect as many skills as you can along the way and that's not about deep technical skills, that is about understanding the technology out there conceptually what it can do, it is about your soft skills, your ability to solve problems, it is about people management and getting the most out of people so I would just say be collecting that series of skills that you need to take you to whatever end goal it is that you're looking for. 

[Sabrina] Peta with the growing push by organizations to become diversity ready, how do we balance the concept of diversity with a drive of cultural fit? 

[Peta] That's a good question and this is something that lots of organizations are really struggled with right because when you think about culture fit lots of people say this idea of purpose let's start there everybody's talking about if we as an organization can come up with a purpose and attract people that match that purpose and work in the ways that we need them to be working in a way that you know is the value of our organization then you get a really nice fit and some organizations choose to say we only want to hire people of that exact same style that will fit the type of organization that we want, there could be different nationalities, they could be different ethnicities, they could be different genders but they want the same type of style, so I would argue is that diversity or not right just because you and I look different because we're from different backgrounds yet we've been to the same type of schooling, have the same approach and work ethic and style actually that doesn't really add any diversity into the business, it does from a demographic perspective but not necessarily in terms of this diversity of thought and problem-solving so it really comes down to strategy so some organizations like I said choose to say we want a very clear type of working like IKEA for example is very clear you can go into any IKEA store around the world and it will be your experience will be exactly the same you'll walk the same floor you'll interact with the same store clerks in the same way they're trained exactly the same, places like Johnson and Johnson who are very very big on diversity and inclusion, try and bring everyone together with their credo in terms of ways of working and then allow people to work around what that credo is to them so and then there are others that say we won't determine a purpose or a vision what we want is our staff to create that from scratch, so it comes down to it comes down to really what you're looking to do as an organization and then if you can attract the right people  

[Sabrina] Peta what’s your life motto? 

[Peta] You're allowed to laugh your way through problems. 

I think it's the one thing that keeps me sane remember to laugh and you know someone said to me the other day that that was a terrible motto because it minimizes the problem that we're doing you know that we're working through or makes it look not as challenging and I said that's exactly the point you know I'm in a very different role, I consult on workforce strategy and making great places to work when it's not a life-saving role it can be I hope that we contribute to communities and people but you know I come from a different perspective of everything that we do is a problem and it should be fun trying to solve that problem and again I spend 70 percent of my life at work so if I wasn't laughing my way through the day then I'd be quite a sad human being. 

[Sabrina] That's true but I think in all situations sometimes we just gotta have a laugh. 

[Peta] You do yeah you do and you want to enjoy the people that you work with too. 

[Sabrina] Peta half the sky is a career platform for women and it connects woman to better jobs at companies that care, What do you think company should do to broaden the talent pool to attract and retain female talent? 

[Peta] There's so many things that company should be doing. One I definitely think companies from a recruitment perspective need to be very clear around the outcomes that they're wanting from the role so we tend to put up job descriptions and you're talking about key responsibilities whereas I think you know if we went from an outcome perspective could you do these things and add this value and that would help people understand more about the intent of the role so that just kind of pivots how to talk about the jobs that are available, two, I'm a fan of looking at diverse slates and making sure that we've looked at all forms of talent pools so I don't want to see five candidates that look the same, I'd like to see candidates from different backgrounds and make sure that we are asking the right questions and testing our assumptions, I think it's really important that that is measured and reported against because I think you can say these nice things but if you're not actually measuring your diversity slate or if you're not being proactive in terms of the number of part-time roles etc you will just become something that you're talking about they're not executing against. Walk the talk walk the talk but I do think that companies have an obligation to look broader and we have a social obligation but also at this stage you know  

It's really really hard to find Talent, you know it's hugely competitive out there we've gotten an ageing workforce, we've gotten limitations in the country like Singapore with foreign labor. 

as well so you've got to think very creatively and very flexibly around the talent that you want to hire absolutely talent is in shortage globally yup and There is a significant talent pool it just looks a bit different. 

[Sabrina] Peta what are your thoughts on a platform like half the sky? 

[Peta] Well I think anything that provides people that don't have access or normal access to the roles and opportunities out there it can only be a good thing so I applaud you for the work that you're doing. 

[Sabrina] Thank you so much for supporting us as well. Peta your role is highly successful and stressful so besides backpacking, how do you like to unwind? 

[Peta] Oh good question! I'm very lucky actually that I do enjoy my job so I have enjoyed all my job so when everyone says to me what's your hobby people think I'm quite sad when I say my work but no I really enjoy what I do I think how do I unwind is with a good book and a glass of wine and a walk on the beach with my dog. 

[Sabrina] Amazing that sounds so relaxing already! 

[Peta] I know actually it would be quite nice to go home and do that now. 

[Sabrina] Thank you so much Peta for your time today thank you it's a wrap! 

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