Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


Give people the benefit of doubt and be fearless

Uma Wilson

Executive Vice President, Chief Information & Product Officer, UMB Bank
You teach people how to treat you
Uma Wilson in conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director at The Exco Group

Adam Bryant: As a woman in business, what are some headwinds that you’ve encountered over your career?

Uma Wilson: I migrated to United States in my early twenties. Coming from a different country, there are headwinds to begin with. It's a different culture. How you interact with people is much different than what I was accustomed to. And so that created internal headwinds. I look different. I sound different. I have an accent. Do people understand me? Will they appreciate what I have to say in a meeting? It was more about inner fears.

IYou learn that you have to be fearless—I am different, but this is who I am. Don't be apologetic. People do accept who you are. And a number of great leaders, many of whom were male, helped me overcome obstacles. I absolutely leaned on them and asked them for their feedback and advice on reaching my career goals. What should I be thinking about? What should I be doing differently?

Adam: What about external headwinds? Have you encountered those familiar dynamics in meetings like mansplaining and people taking credit for your ideas?

Uma: I have encountered those. When someone interrupts me, I'll wait for them to finish and then say, “Would you like for me to give you my perspective now? Is that okay with you?” It's a nice way of saying, “Don't do that again. I have something to share, as well. Hear me out.”

Or if I say something and they ignore it, and then somebody else says the same thing, I'm not afraid to speak up and say, “I just said that a few minutes ago.” If you want to come up in corporate America, you have to let people know when you're not comfortable with something or if you don't like how you've been treated.

Adam: Have you ever had to deal with a repeat offender?

Uma: Our CEO always says, don't hold back. If someone is not treating you appropriately, stand up and speak up. I really do take his advice to the heart and I absolutely will reach out to someone if there’s a problem to say, “Hey, do you have a few minutes to talk about something?” It's so uncomfortable, but I do my best to share how I felt in that moment.

I will let them know what frustrated me in the situation. At the same time, I will also pause and ask, did I do anything that gave the other person an indication that it was okay to dismiss my feedback or concerns? It's a two-way street. You have to hear feedback. Because I'm not perfect. I may have done something that made the other person upset. I need to be open to asking them questions and take their feedback, as well.

Adam: What were early influences that shaped who you are today?

Uma: Growing up, my mom and dad always said that I could be whatever I wanted. And they said that to be the best at what you do, you always have to work hard. I've got to continuously get better. All the credit goes to my parents because they pushed me very hard.

Adam: Do you feel like things are getting better for women in the workplace?

Uma: Yes, 100 percent. I went back to India about a year and a half ago after a long break. My bank has established a site there. The way women are being treated there now—the inclusion and the empowerment—is obvious everywhere. So we've got to take a pause and acknowledge how far we've come compared to where we were.

Adam: When you mentor and coach younger women about navigating these headwinds, what advice do you give them?

Uma: The first thing I say is, don’t let your inner voice get to you, such as worrying that some person doesn’t like you or that you are going to be treated differently. Stay focused. Be fearless. You don't have to be confrontational. But people need to know if you felt like you were not given the right opportunity or if you were not given space to share your opinion and thoughts.

Also, give people the benefit of doubt. You don't know what's going on in their life. You don't always have to think that there's some sort of an agenda or that somebody's trying to sabotage you. So you have to give people the benefit of doubt and be fearless.