EY Leader Mary Nisha Thomas shares perspectives on breaking stereotypes

EY Leader Mary Nisha Thomas shares perspectives on breaking stereotypes by being a calm leader

How have you improved your deservability in your own eyes? 

Two things come to mind when I reflect on how I brought about change within myself. First, I became aware of imposter syndrome, a phenomenon that many people experience. Recognizing this was half the solution, and I learned how to address it. Secondly, I started taking risks and trying new things, even if it meant failing. Every two to three years, I changed my role to something more challenging, with a broader scope. Even if I had doubts about my abilities, I wrote down every success story and read them to remind myself. These actions helped me to challenge my negative thoughts and move beyond them. Ultimately, it’s something that requires self-work more than external factors, and I am grateful for these lessons.

In your experience, what has actually created that urge within you to keep that inner drive alive against all odds?

We play so many roles. I am a mother, I’m a wife, I am a daughter; there are so many responsibilities. And I also have a large number of people across several countries who look up to me as their talent development leader. So, there are so many different roles at play. One of the things that’s helped me more than balance is to integrate all my roles and be able to do them as fairly as possible by asking for help. And that is something which I learned to do because there was a time I used to think that everything has to be done by me and everything has to be perfect. And I needed to be everywhere and do everything. But it’s not possible, especially when you look forward to bigger roles. So I had to ask for help. I had to ask someone to help me in the kitchen, which is my sanctuary. I had to give some of those responsibilities to someone else to assist me, and that actually helped me have more time. It’s okay to ask your family members to do something that you would usually do. And taking away the stereotypical aspects of “this has to be done by someone” or “this can only be done by someone” was a great journey. It also creates a skill set for certain people around you even at work. Asking people to do something which they could do means you don’t have to use their skill set in the process to take on some of your tasks. So you can focus on others is also a great skill. I think this is quite underplayed in our industry. We also need to build sufficient planning.

The other thing which drives me to focus on these goals is having a clear purpose, and my purpose is to bring out the best in others by developing skills and behaviors. So with that as my purpose, and if I truly believe that I have one, everything else kind of blurs out, and I’m able to see the path.

How do you tackle your demons and go the extra mile?

You know, your question is great because at the beginning, it was difficult for me. For instance, I used to ask my son to plan his own dinner when I had a late-night call in a different time zone with stakeholders. Initially, it felt like I was taking something away from him or sacrificing my responsibility. However, we need to change this mindset and the terminology we use. There’s a lot we can learn from the decisions we make, and it’s not just about sacrificing. Once we adopt this mindset, it’s easier to practice and brings a positive aspect to the changes we make in life to manage everything. It’s crucial to be aware of your feelings and name them to understand their cause. Don’t think of it as forcing someone to do something for you, but rather as helping them achieve something in life. Recognizing the positive impact of change on yourself and others will make it easier to accept. However, it’s not a simple process and requires consistent effort. As you said, it’s a habit that needs to be practiced until it becomes natural.

I live by the philosophy that if something won’t matter in five years, I shouldn’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.”

What has been your way to move from being critically judgmental to becoming compassionately curious?

I believe that empathy is a crucial superpower of leadership that every leader must possess. It’s not just a good trait to have, but a necessity. Compassion is the highest form of empathy, and it starts with being compassionate towards yourself. It’s important to recognize that you cannot do everything and to be kind to yourself while striving towards your goals. Many of us are conditioned to focus on what we didn’t achieve rather than celebrating our accomplishments. To combat this, I have found it helpful to write down my achievements at the end of each day, no matter how small. I also note areas that could have been improved, viewing them as opportunities to learn and grow. By doing this, I remind myself that what went wrong is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and I move on. I live by the philosophy that if something won’t matter in five years, I shouldn’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it. This approach has helped me, and I hope it can help others as well.

What is the one actionable change that you consistently did that brought you where you are today?

I believe that pursuing what excites us is crucial, whether it’s a new challenge, a great project, or a simple role. When we come across something that aligns with our purpose, it’s important to vocalize it to leaders and stakeholders who can help us achieve it. We should ask for what we want and explain how the partnership can bring better results. It’s easy to assume that others understand our wants and needs, but we need to actively communicate them. It may feel uncomfortable to ask, especially if we think the goal is too big, but it’s essential to push past those fears and articulate our desires.

However, there is an art to asking or speaking up effectively. Simply stating our desires without thoughtfulness or tact can be perceived as aggression, which can lead to negative stereotypes. Therefore, we should focus on cultivating the art of asking, so that our requests are motivating and help us move closer to our goals.

Throughout our life, one of the most traditional and effective methods we have learned is to help listeners see how they can win in a situation and what you can bring to the table. Instead of just expressing a desire to do something, it’s important to highlight specific skill sets and how they can lead to great results through partnership. The goal is to support and partner with the other person in an authentic way and show a willingness to participate in their journey. Rather than sounding aggressive and simply stating “I want it,” it’s important to also demonstrate what the other person can gain from the situation. This approach has proven to be successful and is something she believes in. Thank you for listening.

How have you created worked on creating an identity for yourself?

I have two specific strengths that I continue to nurture: listening and being calm during a storm. I love to listen, and I enjoy giving my all to be present when somebody shares their ideas, thoughts, or struggles. As a coach, I’m sure you’ll understand the importance of being fully present for others. The second thing that has helped me is my ability to remain calm in a crisis. Several team members and leaders have mentioned this in their feedback. These two qualities have helped me establish a personal brand that challenges traditional notions of leadership. Sometimes, talking a lot or showing negative behavior when something goes wrong can be stereotyped as leadership qualities. I strive to break those stereotypes and hope that listeners, regardless of gender, will understand that qualities like warmth, the ability to listen and speak when needed, and knowing when to be quiet are valuable. Unfortunately, these qualities are not often praised as much as stereotypical leadership qualities. I am trying to create a brand that inspires people to think differently about leadership, and I see my team members emulating this. I believe that leadership is about having followers who believe in what you do, not necessarily because they report to you. This happens when you have specific characteristics that are not always recognized as leadership qualities. However, I have seen that changing in our industry, with more focus on empathy and other important qualities. I think it’s essential to stay true to oneself and not go with the trends or what is popular. Despite changes in our roles and positions of power, we should focus on being authentic, and I have found success in doing so.

 Mary Nisha Thomas

Global Talent Development Leader, EY- Client Technologies

Mary Nisha Thomas, a Global Talent Development Leader with EY Client Technologies, keeps learning to help people get better with the way they treat themselves and the way they treat others through relevant pedagogy and behavioral and organizational transformation. With 22 years of leading talent and organizational development, she has assessed and applied behavioral science through real-time implementation to achieve organizational goals. She seamlessly works with global teams across EMEIA, Americas, and APAC for various organizations that specialize in telecom, insurance, shipping, manufacturing, technology, ITeS, and professional services.

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