The road to the top of the corporate ladder can be difficult, if one is a women. But Phal Leakhena has managed to break barriers and on International Women’s Day she reminds other women that strong resolve and sacrifice can pay off. Claire Baker-Munton reports.
Phal Leakhena is a great example to women everywhere; living proof that anything is possible with sufficient strength of will and support from your family and colleagues. Coming from modest circumstances as the second daughter of an Interior Ministry civil servant, Leakhena has worked her way up to the top of Cambodian hospitality giant, Almond Group.
But getting there was not easy and it’s not difficult too, it required strong resolve and sacrifice at times.
After finishing her associate degree in economic planning while studying for her bachelor degree in accounting, Leakhena started her first role for celebrated chef Luu Meng in November 2007, taking the position of entry-level administrator at Almond Hotel Sothearos, flagship outlet of the newly established Almond Group.
“At first, it was a job like any other that gave me a salary, allowing me to financially support my family members,” she recalls. Leakhena is one of seven children and was expected to fill the income gap left by her father’s illness. Rising early every morning, she worked at the hotel from 8am until 5pm, after which she proceeded to classes for her BA which finished late in the evening. Despite this, Leakhena was eager and quick to learn, qualities which were soon recognised.
She was trusted with more and more responsibility, in customer-facing positions within the hotel.
Often Leakhena was the first and last person guests had contact with – she greeted them when they arrived and collected feedback during and after their stay. Most customers were happy but a small number directed their negative comments towards Leakhena, one of the multiple challenges of her position.
But the feedback was very valuable, because Leakhena was able to use it to develop a clear idea of the hotel’s clientele to further improve service quality and customer satisfaction. Leakhena took the initiative to set up and keep accurate customer records herself.
In her next position as cost controller, Leakhena found that mutual respect for her staff and acknowledgement of their achievements was essential. “I enjoyed a lot and also got a lot from my colleagues,” she explained. From here, she graduated to positions in management.
Over time, with the faith and support of the Almond Group, particularly from Luu Meng and his wife the group executive director, Ber Ly, Leakhena was able to continue her studies in management abroad. She returned to Cambodia to share her enhanced knowledge with Almond Group staff, and in addition to assisting the Ministry of Tourism with some important missions.
She continued her progress up the scale, learning from CEO Luu Meng that “success is won first and foremost through mutual respect and motivation amongst colleagues.” He placed great faith in Leakhena based on impressive results she produced with the help of her customer records and expertise.
When the position of group general manager became available, Leakhena was first in line for consideration. “Let’s try it out, and if it works, you’ll be leading the group,” CEO Luu Meng said.
Since becoming group general manager, Leakhena has not wasted any time. She counts helping establish and develop Almond Bassac Hotel, World Dining food court at Aeon Mall and newest group brand, Uy Kuyteav, which will soon open its 6th outlet, amongst her numerous successes. In addition, every month Leakhena leads Almond Group staff in their Clean & Green Campaign to help reveal Phnom Penh’s beauty by removing litter from public spaces – the reason why some friends call her “Ms Environment.”
As group general manager, Leakhena needed to make tough calls and act decisively at times for the benefit of the group. Her nickname, “Iron Lady” reflects her strong determination, but staff recognise that this is necessary.
“Even with many years of experience in this industry, it’s hard to meet all customer expectations,” says one employee. “But working with Bong Leak, even if she often dictates what to do and requires follow- up, things work well.”
One reason for the group’s success is the close bonds between staff built on trust.
“Without the support of these, the group could not have been so successful,” said Leakhena. “In the end, we worked and progressed together, and continue to do so.”
In addition, like Leakhena, staff are given space and support to develop their skills with continuing professional development opportunities, which enabled many of today’s senior staff to work up the scale.
Leakhena’s job requires balancing many responsibilities: “At first it was difficult to manage the pressure of employees and customers.”
So what strategy does she use in tough times?
“I take a step back and take time to think before acting. This is a good way to stay calm” she continues. “Plus, I have the advantage of knowing the operation of the group because I entered at the bottom of the scale.”
Today, the Almond Group is at the centre of Cambodia’s blossoming service industry, thanks in great part to Leakhena’s expertise. Starting from one outlet and a staff of 68, the group now has over 15 outlets and employs over 700 staff, which Leakhena oversees in addition to sitting on the board for several brand parent companies.
But great power means great responsibility, which does not allow for much leisure time. “In my job, you have to know how to be flexible because meetings can take place unexpectedly or last much longer than expected, “she reflects. “Every day is pretty full and can end quite late, because there are additional engagements and events to attend in the evenings.”
Those outside the hospitality industry in Almond Group have also noticed Leakhena’s success and contribution. In November last year, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs honoured her with the award for outstanding achievement by women in tourism.
When it comes to her career path, Leakhena has no doubt: “In five or ten years, I would still like to be in this position to work for this group.” For her it is simple. “By working in the hospitality sector, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot, to evolve and become who I am today.”
After more than a decade in the hospitality industry, what is Leakhena’s advice for others? “The most important thing is to be in the present moment, and enjoy what we have today.”