“What you see
is what you get!”
She Moves Us Interview with Lian Buckingham, Branch Manager Apparel ＆Accessories at PUMA South AfricaAugust 1, 2022
She Moves Us Interview with Lian Buckingham, Branch Manager Apparel ＆Accessories at PUMA South AfricaAugust 1, 2022
Lian Buckingham has worked at PUMA for six years and is currently Branch Manager Apparel and Accessories at PUMA South Africa. In our ‘She Moves Us’ interview, she tells us how she deals with adversity, how she balances her extended family and job, and what she thinks matters most.
Lian was a regional swimmer from seven until she was 14 years old. “When I am in the water, I feel free; it’s endless, you’re weightless… as I got older, I realized it was quite a lonely sport and I like to be surrounded by people”. That’s when Lian decided she would pursue design as a career. Her entire family, though, is in the medical industry. Still, no one ever said to her she had to follow that path too. “My family was always very supportive and just told me to go for it. Even when I wanted to stop swimming competitively my parents were ok with it. They told me it was my own choice. It gave me the chance to experiment a lot of different sports thanks to them”.
After studying clothing production and fashion in Cape Town, South Africa, Lian started off at a manufacturer. She stayed in manufacturing for about six years. “It gave me my grounding because it was not an easy field. It was all a lot of stress but I was young and went for it”. Then after those six years Lian wanted to get into the retail part of the business, which looked more glamorous, in her opinion. “At that point, I didn’t really want to do designing anymore but would rather have been in the selecting process in a retail space”. She joined a a fast-fashion retailer and stayed there for about four years. Then she was approached by one of the biggest South African retailers. Through the years she worked herself up and moved around in the business. “I ended up a head of buying for the sports division and I worked with all the big sports brands. I also headed up e-commerce for the company but didn’t have the nicest boss and, funny enough, she was a female. I’ve always heard that you should never leave a job because of someone but really it got to a stage where it was affecting me mentally and health-wise. I also had two small children to take care of so at some point I told myself ‘That’s it!’ and I quit. I knew all the big sports brands well but I always had a liking for PUMA. I felt I fit in and could be myself within the company”. Lian was home for about six months after leaving her job, focusing on feeling better before being approached by PUMA South Africa.
How you treat others is how you are going to be treated
When it didn’t go well at work with her boss in her prior job, Lian did a lot of soul searching: “When you are not treated well, you will react accordingly. She was my boss for almost six years and it took me a long time to realize that ‘How you treat others is how you are going to be treated’. I knew our struggle wasn’t because we were two women but because of our difference in personality. I felt really knocked off by her but she also made me grow”. Lian says she didn’t realize it at the time but thanks to her she became ready for the next step. “I believe things happen for a reason. It didn’t feel like a nice way for it to happen but it has given me a lot of insight on how to deal with people in the company. So many women still have so much on their plate. Most of the time, they still are the ones taking care of the family, have their jobs to deal with and they might have activities that they do next to all of that, too. So, when other women are coming up in the ranks of the business, from my bad experience, I sometimes talk to them about the things they need to be aware of, like what can happen to you in life. It’s important to understand that you don’t have to step on people to be who you want to be. I think it is important to be yourself and not to forget to stay empathetic. You will achieve much more by being nice towards others. It’s always better to team up. We are all just humans at the end of the day. There’s nothing to prove, be yourself, do what needs to be done and you will shine”.
That moment was the hardest in Lian’s career. “I had two little girls to take care of, I was getting divorced… It was a very vulnerable time in my life and career”. Nevertheless, Lian came out of her experience stronger: “It taught me everything I shouldn’t do as a leader and how you should treat people as a leader”. She was Head of Buying and she had a lot of people looking up to her. She says she couldn’t show that she was emotionally being drained.
At home, Lian was lucky to have an amazing support structure with her mom and her three brothers: “But your children still need their mom, especially when they’re small. It’s a fine line when to show that you’re breaking or not”.
It felt incredible for Lian when she finally said: “No! No more”. “I think women suffer a lot of abuse and I am not just saying it only comes from men but also from other women. I am also not only talking about physical abuse but also emotional abuse. What’s terrible is that with emotional abuse, you eventually start believing what someone else is saying”. Lian doesn’t allow cruelty anymore around her. “There are other ways to get things out of people, you don’t have to rip that person apart for it. You should be helping and growing that person instead. Feeling you are being appreciated gives you energy to continue”. Lian was scared of showing emotions before because she thought that meant she would be seen as weak. “It took time for me to realize that it was ok”.
After she quit her job, Lian decided to take the time to think about what she wanted to do and what she wanted her next step to be in her career. “I had to think about what kind of company I wanted to work for, with which type of management and who I wanted to be around. I wasn’t just going to work for anyone again just for the sake of having a job. I was determined in my choice and wanted to be able to be myself. I didn’t want to be in a company where I would be for a year and then feel that it wasn’t for me. I was already 44 and I didn’t want to jump around anymore. I wanted to make sure that this would be the right fit for me. Again, the support I got at home where people pick you up and make you feel like you are worth something made a huge difference for me to be able to move on in a positive way.”
Thriving of the constant moving energy
Lian needs to be busy all the time. She gets bored very quickly, she says. “If you don’t keep me focused on a topic, I’ll move on. I really like the business around me. There are times, believe me, where I like to be alone as well; usually, for a little bit in the morning. The rest of the time I need people around me. I thrive in the constant moving energy, the noise, the chaos… around me. It keeps me going. It makes my life exciting. There’s always something and from that you learn—the fun about it is to constantly learn new things. Thanks to my children, I am so up to date with social media and I’m very curious about things overall. My kids like it too that I’m aware of things that are mainly linked to their universe. Sometimes they want to see a movie and I’ll tag along so I know what their interests are. It keeps me relatable; it keeps me energized”.
Respect each other
Lian’s household when she was small was always very busy, too. Dealing with different personalities already from a young age was probably in her DNA, she says. She loves listening to others’ stories, learning about different cultures… “I have two girls of my own, I have remarried. My partner, whom I had dated in my young twenties, he went and got married and had children, I went and got married and had children. He got divorced, I got divorced. All of a sudden, we’re back together. We’ve been together now for 10 years. We have all the children living with us. I went from myself and my two daughters for a few years to once again a big household with two boys, two girls, five dogs and a cat. I told myself the other day how grateful I am that his boys are living with us. The kids live with a very grounded mother and father. They also have sisters and brothers. They learn to deal with each other. It’s important when kids are young to learn to respect each other as male and female. Things could have been so different for them if they weren’t part of a family like ours, with one another since they were small. We sometimes don’t think how important it is for children to integrate how to behave with one another.”
“Sink or swim”
“Our kids are quite self-sufficient. I have taught them from a young age that they can make choices but that they have to take responsibility for those. I’ve never really been a mother that says: “Come on let’s sit and do your homework”. I’m more of a “sink or swim” kind of person. Therefore, my kids are quite independent. They move around and get around on their own. In South Africa we don’t have public transport, we very much rely on someone fetching and taking. I do the morning run, which is dropping the kids to four different locations before I get to work. I wake up at 5AM and that’s not to prepare anything for children, that’s to prepare myself mentally for my day. I need 45 minutes with a cup of coffee on my own. Then, once everyone is ready to go to school and work because our children are going to school in different locations, we have the time to have a one-on-one kind of moment where we have serious conversations. They can talk about what’s been bothering them or things that they are not understanding or tips I can give them. We also have a family WhatsApp group for general things. If they ring me, I know there is something going on and they need me. Once I leave work my day is not over. Nevertheless, the kids are getting older so they now help me a lot—for instance, with the cooking. I’m lucky that they are at a self-sufficient age between 15 and 20 years old. With my husband we also divide our tasks and help each other so that the kids get where they need to be. I always make sure that if there is something important going on in their life at least one of us attends. My team is also very supportive when it comes to those important family moments. It’s allowed and people respect it. Your life is not just about work, it’s also about your home and your family. It’s important to find a balance.”
Woman with responsibilities
Lian has been challenged a few times though about the fact that she’s working and has important responsibilities as a woman. “Usually, when somebody addresses me in that way, my facial expression will tell them exactly what I think of it. I’ll make my point of view on the matter very clear to them so that I don’t have to ever be asked something like that again by that person. I will speak up and tell that person how I feel about them saying something as demoralizing and degrading towards women. I think it’s important to tell people how I feel and what they said isn’t ok otherwise they’ll keep doing it. I will nevertheless do so by taking them on the side and try to talk to them in an empathic way to get the message through. I will be respected. Eventually those types of people will have to change or they will have to leave the progressive environment that they are in”.
In Lian’s opinion, women plan their careers differently from men. “I think they have to. In my generation we definitely had to. A lot of women want to have children but also want to be ambitious in their career so the planning I think is different than for men. I think society now has evolved, women don’t have to prove themselves again after maternity leave, there is much more equality than before”. Lian says that when she was younger, she could see men getting a promotion two or three years before women. It was harder for women to get back into the game after having had children. “In those sorts of male dominant arenas, you sometime feel that you’ll never be able to progress. I think today you can find companies that will treat you the same way whether you’re a woman or a man. Also, you don’t make a child on your own and now I feel responsibility tends to be shared among parents. The playing fields are finally a lot more even”.
Empowered to be a Woman
Lian grew up surrounded by her three brothers; therefore she says men never intimidate her, even when she finds herself to be the only woman in the room. “I always felt empowered to be a woman. I also think it’s exciting to be a woman today, we have so many more opportunities than women had 20, 30 years ago. I think it’s just going to get better as men get more in touch with their feminine side and that there is more gender fluidity; people are becoming more and more equal. It’s no longer a gender-based society we live in as much”.
Treating people well is the way to success
In Lian’s point of view, as a leader it’s important to understand people and to know how to deal with them. “Treating people well in my opinion is the way to success”.
Lian has a very diverse team. “There are lots of different personalities around me, which I love. The one thing among us that I need from us, and my team knows this, is absolute trust and absolute clear communication. They have the freedom to talk to me about everything. The transparency and the comradery are very important in the way I lead my team. We’ve got each other’s backs. Multi-tasking is also something we have to learn, I tell them: ‘There is not one job, you learn to do all and you jump in where you are needed. You learn and that’s how you develop and grow. It’s important to me that you know how to do everything. You don’t need to be a specialist but at least have the courtesy to understand other fields so you can relate a lot easier to people’s situations. To me, they are more than my team, they’re my second family. We’re like a puzzle and we need to all fit together. When we are looking to employ someone, it’s not so much the skills because skills can be taught; it’s how that person is going to fit into my puzzle and how that puzzle will get even better”.
Communication is key
Communication is 100 percent key, says Lian. “When communication is easy that’s when you can break down all the issues. You learn how to talk to each other. If something is going wrong, we all get together and keep open communication among us. When problems arise, there is someone there to catch you. We are all on the same train and we know which direction it’s taking. When someone isn’t feeling it a hundred percent, we talk about it”.
Lian is proud when she can make someone in her team feel good about themselves. When someone is good at something she tells them. “They feel proud of it, that you noticed that about them. That’s when people also go the extra mile because you’ve highlighted something about them, you saw them. It’s important to connect to one another”.
Lian’s advice would be: “Fight for what you want, stay true to yourself, and show passion in everything you want and do. I started as a designer then went into merchandising before heading the sales department. What I wanted, though, was to become a buyer. Every company I went to told me: ‘Oh no you don’t have any buying experience… you can’t do this.’ That made me more determined. I didn’t accept no for an answer. After a lot of hard work, it eventually happened. I made sure someone noticed me. It paid off. Even today, at a much higher level, when you believe in something you need to fight for it. Understand when there are set backs and why there are set backs and learn from them and move on. You go for it and persuade people how passionate you are. If you chase your dreams, they will come true”.