Singapore Writers Festival

Women can say no

Entrepreneur Mrs Moneypenny says the inability to say no can hinder one's career

British entrepreneur Heather McGregor, better known by her nom de plume Mrs Moneypenny, believes in the power of saying no.

The inability to say no, which women are particularly susceptible to, is one of 10 things that can hinder a person's career, she said in an hour-long talk at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday evening, titled Can We Have It All? With Mrs Moneypenny.

"We can have most of it," is the blunt appraisal of Dr McGregor, 53, a mother of three sons who runs a global headhunting firm, Taylor Bennett. Her 10-point checklist is based on her 2013 bestseller Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice For Ambitious Women, one of several books she has written.

As Mrs Moneypenny, she has been a Financial Times columnist for nearly 16 years and staged comedy acts in Edinburgh and New York.

Saying yes to lots of different things means doing all of them "OK, not great", she says, adding that what is unpleasant about saying no is the worrying about it.

"Saying no is a very short event," she says, quipping that it is analogous to "waxing, three minutes of hell".

British entrepreneur Heather McGregor, better known as Mrs Moneypenny, with her 2013 bestseller.
British entrepreneur Heather McGregor, better known as Mrs Moneypenny, with her 2013 bestseller. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Pursuing a goal requires focus. She encourages the audience to set a new goal every year.

In 2008, for instance, she learnt to fly a private plane.

Being a great CEO, with an amazing marriage and sex life, and perfectly well-balanced kids is "a kind of myth that's mainly per- petuated in women's magazines", she says.

With her sharp wit and down- to-earth approach, she offers career advice as varied as ensuring one has financial literacy; and accumulating both human capital (honing one's skills and CV) and social capital (expanding one's networks).

She also urges people to build a "third dimension" that is not related to home or work, such as volunteering or sports, which can add to one's human and social capital.

Laughter rippled across the cosy chamber of The Arts House when she talked about paying attention to "non-verbal communication", which could include fixing a weak handshake.

To convey a favourably competent impression, she herself "accessorises" when meeting important clients - by letting a copy of The Economist stick out of her handbag. While she thinks having it all is illusory, "there's nothing you can't achieve if you harness the power of others".

She cites the example of her own "third dimension" - the drive in her recruitment firm to ensure more minorities are employed in the communications industry she specialises in.

About 900 people and companies have helped her in this project.

While her advice is applicable to both men and women, she is clear-eyed about the "dual language" women face at work.

A man leaving earlier to attend his child's kindergarten play is "Mr Amazing Father", while a woman doing the same is "not committed enough".

"You never hear the word 'strident' used to describe a man," she adds wryly. She advises women "to be unashamed and not defensive" if they leave at 5pm and continue working at home at 8pm.

Her talk was generally well received by members of the audience.

Ms Amanda Cai, a 30-year-old assistant manager at a university, says: "She gave very useful advice. The main point of the talk was whether women could have it all. I really appreciated how honest she was."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to www.straitstimes.com/tags/singapore-writers-festival-2015

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Women can say no'. Print Edition | Subscribe