Powered by Women: Mary Handen

Powered by: Mary Handen

The Powered by Women interviews, bring together successful women from across PNG to share their insights and experiences into what has helped them create successful careers.

In this episode we interview Mary Handen. 
Mary Handen is businesswoman and a role model for many women in PNG. Mary trained as an accountant and held a number of positions in businesses throughout her lifetime, her most notable moment was in 2001 when she upset the status quo and was appointed General Manager of Human rResources for Steamship Trading Company – she was the only Papua New Guinean woman to enter the company’s male-dominated senior management team at that time. Mary’s journey has been divers and very interesting, she has touched a whole range of different industries in her lifetime and it’s been an honour to interview her.

Q: Looking at those achievements if we sort of kick start the conversation and ask you about your career path itself, can you give us a quick overview of how you got to where you are in terms of your career and maybe what was that journey like for you? 

Mary: My journey(career) has actually taken me 35 years to be in employment, and those 35 years was very colourful. It all started when I was 20 years old and in second last year at university. I progressed through my career in a very steady kind of way, when I look at it, I would have considered myself to be one of those women that progressed normally. I started as a graduate accountant and then I worked my way through to become a GM in one of the biggest organizations in those days. There were moments of joy, there were moments of happiness there were moments of despair, there were challenging moments. It was very colourful.

Q: You talk about some of those challenges, what sort of challenges did you encounter on your path and, are there strategies that we can maybe share with some of the woman that will be listening and reading this, in terms of overcoming those obstacles to advancement?

Mary: Some of the challenges that I found were more or less to do with the tradition where women are always second. I always had that at the back of my mind, so I had to be very careful as to the way I went about my role, and how I interacted with others. For me the challenge was not actually coming from my fellow Papua New Guinea. The challenge was actually coming from non Papua New Guineans, whom I was working with. I was progressing and I was put into a role of HR, they started seeing me as a person who could hire and fire and this is where a lot of the challenges were coming from. There was an event that happened (in my HR role) where upon my investigation I had to sack non Papua New Guinean and this actually made me a very unpopular person in the organization. Therefore, I had a CEO who was very supportive of what I did. A CEO must be a person that is be supportive and actually creates a culture where everything is fair, regardless of race, gender, or whatever. This actually permitted me to do the role I’m supposed to do, without fear. Delivering at my delivery at my full potential, which was a really great experience for me as well.

Q: I mean, this is not necessarily your situation but sometimes as women in this industry, and especially in in HR roles we don’t always get the support from managers around the table. Do you have any strategies that you can give us or ways that you dealt with some of the other managers to get them alongside and to work with you, as opposed to be fighting against you?

Mary: When you enter in a leading role as a woman, you’ve got to make friends, with everybody that you’re going to be dealing with and create those friends so that they’re there to support you. Often with the personality I had it helped me as well and that was the strategy I used. I?d visit people I know can make a difference for me and I would have time for them. I would listen to what they have to say and take into consideration what they are sharing with me. So you’ve got to have ears for them as well. Take some of the things they say whether it’s wrong or, right, you acknowledge and make as many friends as you can.

Q:So was your manager at that time that the CEO, did you see him as a bit of a mentor at all? Mary: Definitely he was a mentor and the fact that he gave me so much empowerment in terms of the decision I was making. He believed in my capability of making decisions and therefore he was not micromanaging me, but he knows that he put me in the role and believes totally in me to make my decision. That empowered me a lot, and I was able to deliver and display my potential, and that’s the right kind of management style that needs to be in organisations. Q: Do you think mentoring is important or what’s your opinion about having a mentor?

Mary: Mentoring is very important, because we often walk into situation where we would want to talk to somebody ? and that somebody will be your mentor. If you have a mentor, you can always go to them to ask about things that you do not know or situations that you have walked into and ask how to get out of it. So, a mentor is a very important part of any person’s life I would say, not only women but anybody who wants to grow in whatever they do. I’ve seen it work for me, and therefore I’m actually in a role providing the kind of services for.

When I walked out of my job, I realized that there was a whole other world out there that I haven’t explored because in my career I’d actually just focused on my job. When I retired in 2013 there was this whole world out there of empowerment and this is where I found that I had a lot of things to offer and mentoring became one of those things. I was able to read a lot, you know have that growth mindset that mindset of reading and learning for yourself, self-learning I did quite a lot of that. I built onto the knowledge that I had gained from being in a corporate role and therefore I was able to mentor a lot of women and especially in the area of entrepreneurship and, and personal development as well. I noticed that I had that background.

Q: I love the fact that you speak about that mindset of learning because I think it’s such a critical principle for us all to have, not just women, but to constantly want to grow and learn and develop. So, thank you for raising that and I think that’s excellent. Looking back through your career, was there a point where you sort of worked out your purpose?

Mary: My parents were not educated so purpose was not a word in my vocabulary. I did not understand what it was, nor understood the concept, until I was well into my career. This is when I started learning about my purpose and this is when I picked up what my purpose was – from then on, I realized that my purpose was about changing lives and impacting lives of others through whatever means I could. So mentoring is one way, where I could change the life of a person by just exchanging ideas or helping them along with something they don’t know. My current business is selling solar lights, this is impacting lots of people in in rural areas. And so, I’m living my purpose now, but I learned that a lot later, after I’ve left a paid job. This is where I see my contribution to younger people that are now coming up. I can make a difference in their lives, because I’ve gone through it and I can see how they can improve their lives.

Young people, need to start finding their purpose at an earlier age, they have a lot of information now at their fingertips, through the use of internet, so they’re able to go and do a lot of reading, again we’re coming back to the growth mindset. But the point is they can pick up a lot of things on online and learn about it themselves. My advice to younger generations that are coming up, ?don’t wait until your 50?. Start planning your life as soon as you get into university or even at the secondary level. What do you want to achieve at 40, at 50 where should you be, what kind of life should you have. Be in control of your own life. 

Q: One of our drivers is to help companies and people build legacy. What, what would you say about your own legacy?

Mary: This life is meaningless for me if I don’t leave a legacy behind. With the purpose that I’m living and with the business that I’m doing and with everything else it is all to do with leaving a legacy behind. I would hope that my kids can see my life and say, this is what mum did, she touched the lives of others. I would love them to read a eulogy at my funeral, telling everyone how I have touched people’s lives and other people who might come across me would also validate it by saying this is how Mary touched my life by mentoring me, or by providing the service that improves my life. Leaving a legacy is very important for me. I’m making sure that when I go take there is a legacy left behind for me.

Q: I’m sure these pearls of wisdom will land well with our young PNG, young ladies that are coming through. Is there anything else you wanted to say in closing?

Mary: I don’t think gender should be an issue at all. If you plan your life, set your goals and live the life you want and be friends with everyone and be supportive to everyone around you, you will see your life unfold before you. My advice is that I don’t see gender as an issue, just live your life.

Q: On that note, thank you very much and I know you’ve got a busy schedule, but we appreciate your input and taking the time to have this discussion with us.

Mary:Thank you so much, Kristin, thank you.

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