A tune of her own

I want a softer and democratic leadership in politics and business, and, by contrast, I want rowdy, uproarious, colorful, irreverent individualism/opposition/anger in arts.

More than a decade ago, the manager of a young, mid-career woman told her that they needed to talk about her management style; she needed to become more aggressive, for example, shout more, if she ever aimed to be in senior leadership teams. “That interview got me thinking – hard,” Sevgin İslekel told a group of students at the Human Resources Summit in İzmir Economy University. “I decided that I would keep my own style, rather than pretend to be someone I was not.”

After different jobs and a fast-paced, global career; one of the companies she previously worked for made an offer to İşlekel, just when she was planning to retire and settle down in her hometown, İzmir. They said they wanted her to head their Turkish operations because they needed her style of leadership; empathic, democratic and people-focused. Today, İşlekel is the general manager of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer HealthCare in Turkey – the very business she helped established in 2007.

“The offer was not just a job offer,” İşlekel said. “It was an endorsement of the decision I had made years ago – to be an authentic and people-focused leader.”

I would like to think that the applause that came from the students were not simply for a successful businesswoman or for the global career that some of them hoped they might have one day – it was the small victory of soft-power, the empathy, the thoughtful leadership in a world where the display of power was getting more and more brutal, the discourses of the powerful more and more suffocating.

İşlekel’s success story of soft power, however, is hardly representative in Turkey’s business circles. She is one of the very few women in leadership positions in Turkish companies or international companies’ Turkey branches. According to the “2015 Annual Report on Woman Directors in Publicly-Traded Companies in Turkey” prepared by Sabancı University, the ratio of women who serve as members of the Board of Directors of companies  that trade on the Istanbul Stock Exchange is 12.9. The survey covers 417 companies, 178 of which have boards that are composed entirely of men. The same figure, according to Eurobarometer’s survey among top publicly listed companies, is 23.3 percent. Is there hope for the future? McKinsey’s “Women Matter 2016” Report says yes. Certain sectors in Turkey, such as banking, insurance and, on another level, education, where women have to have senior management posts particularly in high schools, can be drivers.

Moreover, again according to McKinsey, 60% of these female leaders in executive committees are in staff functions - e.g.; human resources, corporate communications and legal positions – all key positions to influence company culture – if they choose to ignore clichés such as “women is the wolf of women” or “I had it hard, I won’t let the next generation to have it too easy” or “the queen bee syndrome” of surrounding them with male colleagues.

If İşlekel’s key message was “softly does it,” the message from the other woman who set her own tune on Women’s Day in İzmir was “Do it with color!” – French jazz singer Marie Mifsud, who participated in the 24th İzmir European Jazz Festival with two different concerts. Mifsud, who appeared in the scene with one arm painted in bright colors. The songs from the Quintet consisting of Marie Mifsud (vocal), Adrien Leconte (drums), Victor Aubert (bass), Tom Georgel (piano) and Quentin Coppalle (flute), ranged from compositions from the poems of French writer, poet, musician and singer Boris Vian to a re-interpretation of the Turkish March.

İzmir’s European Jazz Festival is a music festival that is predominantly organized by women. Lead by Filiz Eczacıbaşı Sarper, the chair of the İzmir Foundation for Culture, Arts and Education, the team is dominated by women who have strong interest in arts and want to create opportunities for the youth. In the festival, various European consulates and cultural institutes cooperate to bring their top jazz singers to the audience in İzmir. For the last two years, the French Cultural Institute has brought French female jazz musicians around on March 8, International Women’s Day. “We try to bring good musicians – male or female,” said Sirel Eksi, the Public Relations Manager of IKSEV. “But we have a history of good female musicians who have come along the 24 years of the festival, including Dee Dee Bridgewater to Eleftheria Arvanitaki, among many others,” she said.

This year’s participant Marie Mifsud’s repertoire included songs composed of poems from Boris Vian, whose best known one is Monster of Perversity, one of the signature songs of Mifsud: “I am the tomb of the unleashed passions/My only joy is seeing hearts bleed/I tear the hearts/To make donuts/I’m a monster of perversity.”

Here is my take on the flurry of activities, conferences, debates, concerts and demonstrations that happened on March 8: I want a softer and democratic leadership in politics and business, and, by contrast, I want rowdy, uproarious, colorful, irreverent individualism/opposition/anger in arts.

Published in Hurriyet Daily News on March/11/2017