Sabrina Ghouse is breaking stereotypes. If her goal to be CEO of a multinational corporation sounds far-fetched in Sri Lanka, her land of birth, think again.Appointed in June as Vice President of AAA Digital San Francisco Bay Area at age 28, she’s getting close. Before that, she managed AAA Auto Insurance Product and Marketing–hot seats [...]


Breaking the mould

Sabrina Ghouse, 28, is charting a path to the C-Suite for herself and other women, writes Daleena Samara

Sabrina Ghouse is breaking stereotypes. If her goal to be CEO of a multinational corporation sounds far-fetched in Sri Lanka, her land of birth, think again.Appointed in June as Vice President of AAA Digital San Francisco Bay Area at age 28, she’s getting close. Before that, she managed AAA Auto Insurance Product and Marketing–hot seats for a young woman in a man’s world, the world of automobiles.

Women are CEO material: Sabrina with her book ‘Built to be CEO’

If asked to comment, Sabrina’s probable answer would be automobiles are as much a part of a woman’s world as that of a man’s. She’s not buying into stereotypes. Her gender-bending book, “Built to be CEO: A woman’s journey to the top” spells out why women are CEO material even if they are a rarity in seats of power, and what they must do to draw out their leadership potential.

Sabrina has come a long way from the Elizabeth Moir straight-A student and animal lover who told her mum, Shahareen Ghouse, she wanted to be a veterinarian.“I loved animals and wanted to spend more time with them – it was that simple,” she recalls.

Growing up, she realised the complexities of career and shifted focus to the corporate world.  Her mum, her first and lifetime mentor, urged her daughter to cross 10,000 miles to set a family milestone as the first girl in the Ghouse family to get a college degree, at Harvard, following a scholarship award. Rich foundational experiences and wider vistas followed.

Of the many hats Sabrina has worn since graduation, a defining role was that of Chief of Staff (COS) to CEO, a role traditional to the military but which has over the past two decades spread to government and the corporate world in the West, but rare in corporate Sri Lanka.CEO Magazine describes the COS role as a foundation of leadership success in government and business.

Sabrina did her hard yards–80 hours a week for three years– as COS to the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company and worked on critical projects for him. The journey imparted valuable lessons on the mettle of a successful CEO, for example a strong resume, networking ability, situational leadership, self-awareness, drive and brand building.

Her contact with the CEO and other CEOs he interacted with, and the guidance and inspiration she received from successful female role models, mentors and sponsors; Emmy-winning reporter Patti Lee; Olympic medallist Jennifer Botterill, fighting champ Alexis Davis, and Laura Furstenthal, a managing partner at McKinsey, shaped her dream.

“Built to be CEO” shares the take-aways from these interactions, systematically laid out with infectious confidence to fire up other young women.

The value of time

Perhaps the most important tip Sabrina learned was Money Value of Time (MVT). The success of the COS role centred on MVT – “A COS will calculate the value of a CEO’s time and ensure it is preserved at minimum, and ideally enhanced over time.” She became adept at making the CEO’s life easier, saving time so that he could focus on the company’s vision.

She managed time through precision work in12-hour cycles – completing projects in 12 hours or fewer, dividing tasks into four slots: one week, one day, one hour or one-minute.

“My position on ‘time’ is that we must value it more than any other resource at our disposal,” she says. “It is our job to convince those around us of this concept.”

MVT is a concept for all to master. “Regardless of socio-economic status, everyone has the same number of hours in a day. Time is the lowest common denominator.”

Early career is premium time. “The earlier you start, the better your lead, since it is in early career that you have the benefit of making mistakes,” she writes.

Beating the odds

Women are scarce in positions of power. “Women make up half of the population, but only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs,” she says.

The first three chapters of Built to be CEO highlight barriers to success: For example, subtle gender stereotyping pervading Hollywood Disney blockbusters that place women in secondary roles, shaping prejudice at a young age.

“It is an invisible force field. You interact with it often and willingly. It reflects and reinforces our biases and may even cause them. We have allowed it to become our reality.”

But these are surmountable barriers;“We can all agree on one thing: to change this, we need more women in leadership positions.”

Built to be CEO charts a course to rectify the imbalance. Hard facts counter stereotypes: for example, businesses listed on the S&P 500 run by women are outperforming those run by their male counterparts and generated a median total shareholder return of 18.4 percent in 2016, compared with 15.7 percent for those run by men; and female CEOs at some of the largest US companies, such as those on the S&P 500, are offered higher compensation packages and repeatedly out-earn their male counterparts.

Such underlying factors must be addressed by fostering an environment that empowers women to strive to become CEOs and by actively altering one’s own career trajectory.

She urges young women to rise to the challenge by asking themselves: “Am I built for more?” Believing you can be CEO is the start and your choices thereafter define outcome.

What it takes to be a leader

An uncle recalls a time when teenage Sabrina commented on his choice of beverage, Coca Cola, with a mind-blowing ‘thesis on Coca Cola production’ … she’s that kind of girl, he says proudly.

Do you have to be born special to achieve so much, so fast? A chapter on personality types and traits answers this question.Importantly, personality types exist but change over time and circumstance. Traits can be developed. Sabrina identifies key traits that accelerate the careers of future CEOs. Excuses for failure that obstruct achievements are also highlighted.

The right track record is all-important. And personality and leadership skills take priority over technical skills, although a deep understanding of and experience in corporate finance is non-negotiable, she says. Communications and influence are crucial skills because a CEO has to read and convince people about herself and her ideas.

Women must also build their unique personal brands and speak out about the value they bring to their workplace, industry and community.

Luck can be made

You make your luck, she says, citing the CEO Genome Project conducted by American leadership advisors ghSMART, which identified “CEO sprinters” – those who fast track to CEO before the average of 24 years from their first job. Sprinters had one thing in common: 97 percent of them took at least one “catapult” experience – a bold and unexpected opportunity that thrust them out of their comfort zone.

Excelling in such a “catapult” experience enables you to leapfrog your way up, she says. “Make a habit of replying “yes” to bold opportunities – ready or not. But if you are prepared to travel off the beaten path, learn: how to potentially embrace unexpected bold moves; thrive in uncertain circumstances; and manage associated risks.

Crisis management, as in the current pandemic situation, may be a catapult experience that births leaders. More than 30 percent of CEO “sprinters” identified by CEO Genome led their teams through a big mess they inherited. In most cases, they fixed it.

All of us are lucky all of the time, she says. The difference is that you may not recognise it.For that to happen, your mindset about luck needs to change. Successful leaders see opportunity in crisis to demonstrate positive governance and emotional maturity.

Soft skills are powerful

Skills like empathy and caring are powerful. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for leaders to care for their people. Ideally, people want to stay at an organisation because of the culture and not because they have no other career option.

Sabrina never forgets her mother’s words: “Some people are so poor, they only have money.” Thus, she prioritises family and health over career.

Sleeping and napping are R&R favourites! So is time with close friends and her pets.Travel is an escape hatch:across the US and the world. “I’ve been to over 60 countries now!” she says.

Gratitude is a habit: “I have been fortunate enough to go to a great school in Sri Lanka, and I am still thankful to have got a scholarship … Whenever I achieve something in my career, I email the principal of Elizabeth Moir and thank her for her material impact on my professional development…”.

Recently, Sabrina posted this meme on her LinkedIn profile: ‘You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.’ It’s a wake-up call for the new generation of leaders navigating a world erupting with the fallout of bad decision-making by preceding generations. The future belongs to them. For them, male or female,Sabrina provides an invaluable roadmap.

 “Built to be CEO” is available on and Makeen Books, Colombo 03.


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