A Civil Servant Daring to Dream Big: Meet Cambodia’s H.E Kim Sethany

This is a single part of a series of stories of 21 women leaders of Cambodia. Download the full publication here.

Give a short introduction about your life (family, education, marital status) and how has your experience been as a leader and what achievements are you most proud of?

I would like to share a brief description of my life in four parts: family, education, marriage and career.

First, is my family life. My parents have two daughters, and I am the eldest. I was born on 12th January, 1979 in Kratie province, where my father was a former Director of the information department and my mother was a former Chief of Cabinet of the provincial city hall. My mother is currently serving as a National Assembly member representative of the Kratie province constituency.

Second is my educational life. I graduated and received my high school diploma in Kratie in 1995 with the best ranking scores of all Kratie province’s candidates. In 2000, I received my bachelor’s degree in Public Law at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh. In 2002, I graduated from the Royal School of Administration (RSA). In 2010, I obtained a Master’s degree in Public Administration and Policy from Western University. In 2014, I achieved a Certificate of Leadership, Governance and Public Policy for senior officials at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I participated in the Reform Communication in World Bank-Annenberg Summer Institute at the University of Southern California, in 2015. In 2016, I attended a 100-hour training course on “Women in Leadership” at the Royal School of Administration and a training course on Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Third is my marriage. In 2003, I married Mr. Nouth Pouth Dara, who is currently the Governor of Dangkor District in Phnom Penh; We have three daughters born in 2004, 2007 and 2009.

For my career, I was raised in a civil servant family. I always dreamed of becoming a good and full-time civil servant since I was in high school. My dream was a driving force for me to go to college after graduating from high school. With great support from my family and my personal commitment, I was accepted by three universities: Faculty of Law and Economics, the National Faculty of Management, and the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Khmer Literature in 1995. With my dream of becoming a civil servant, I decided to study only Public Law at the Royal University of Law and Economics. Public law is the basic requirement for becoming a good public official, and many opportunities were provided for RSA’s students. By defining a clear career goal and putting a strong commitment to my learning, at that time, I faced criticism from neighbors. They felt that young women should not live alone in Phnom Penh, far from the family, facing inconvenience and instability. It was felt that a woman doesn’t need higher education, because later in their life they would become a mother and stay at home to take care of the kids and the family.

In 2000, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in law, I passed as a high-ranking public administration officer student in the Royal School of Administration, which was a huge pride for both me and my family. I was also accepted to 3 other major universities. There were thousands of candidates with higher degrees and greater experiences, yet only 30 were selected, and only two of them were women. I had already made it halfway through my journey of becoming a real senior civil servant.

After graduating from the Royal School of Administration at the end of 2002, I started to work in the Phnom Penh Municipality as a senior public official, but I did not have the opportunity to take up the position as a Director yet.

On the first day of work at the municipal, I asked the staff there, “Which is the room of Her Excellency Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh?” Before returning home, I looked up to her room with confidence and committed to myself that someday in the future I would have the opportunity to sit there and become a woman with the largest role in the Phnom Penh municipal.

Through the commitment of achieving this dream, I worked for 11 years with the Phnom Penh Municipality. I worked so hard, I had little-to-no holidays and faced many struggles to receive the best results from my work. I was working in the area of Decentralization and Deconcentration and was promoted to Deputy Director of the Local Administration Unit for 7 years, and in the areas of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Unit for three years as Director, the youngest and only woman Director of the Phnom Penh Municipality.

My biggest challenges included satisfying the high responsibilities (of work) as well as being occupied with the roles of a housewife, a mother of three daughters, combined with the need to spend time studying for my MBA degree. All while experiencing pregnancy and giving birth again and again.

This caused me to have some problems with my husband. We would argue because I was always busy, rarely home, and because we had different perspectives on my work life balance.

At that time because of the pressure from work, study and family, I almost decided to give up my work. But after many family discussions I found a way to improve the balance between my life & work, and my husband understood how important both were to me and was able to provide more support to me when I faced these challenges. In 2012, her HE Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh retired. As a result of my solid work performance it was proposed that I could be a suitable candidate for this position. This was the attainment of the dream position for me. Unfortunately, according to the Municipal and Provincial Organization law, a member of the Governors’ board is required to be at least 35 years old. At the time, I was 7 months away from being that age. This caused me to miss out on a great opportunity. Even so, my passion was still there, and my determination never faded. Instead, this became motivation fuelling me to work even harder and take more responsibility. Hence, when another opportunity came along in 2013, I was ready for it. In 2013, I was officially nominated to be Secretary of State of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, one of the top and most desired positions in national politics, a position I could never imagine for myself.


The principles of success can never be sidestepped regardless of your gender.

When you first started out with your career, what were your most significant challenges?

I worked as Secretary of State at the Ministry of Education in 2013 in the 5th Government mandate. In 2018, I was also appointed as Secretary of State of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports for the 6th Government mandate. There were several major challenges during my career. My first challenge was the transformation from the Sub-National administration to the politicians in the field of relevant national education and educational activities. I never dared dream I would have this opportunity, rank or role. The second challenge was the skeptical ideas of others in my ability to work as a young leader in field of education. Furthermore, in the 5th Government mandate, the Ministry of Education introduced and implemented deeper educational reforms requiring a higher degree of leadership to ensure the reforms were successful and effective. I was new to this job, which required hard work, commitment and obtaining new knowledge. Therefore, I slept for only three to four hours per day, especially during the first year. I forced myself to read countless pages of documents daily, even though it is not one of my preferred hobbies. I read for 5-10 hours just to be able to lead a technical meeting effectively that lasted for only an hour or two.

Over the years, what valuable lessons have you learned as a leader?

In our Government today we need leadership more than ever before. And especially, we need leadership to take us into the future. We need people who have vision and courage, people with the ability to charge into new seas and break new grounds. We need two types of leaders;

The first type is the most important or ‘foundational’: the transactional leader, which is the person who gets things done by collaborating with others.

The second type of leader is the transformational leader, the person who is the ‘path-maker’. This leader is the visionary, who motivates, uplifts, inspires and empowers people to perform at levels far beyond anything they have ever done before.

What I have found is that leaders are made, not born. Nobody comes into the world as a natural leader. Leadership is the ability to get followers (not the ones on social media). Today, the type of leadership that comes from position, money or authority is short-lived. The only kind of leadership that is lasting is where people decide that they are going to follow the direction, the guidance, and vision of someone else. In other words, it is the voluntary form of following that makes our best leaders today.

If you want to be a leader or a better one, remember that it’s all up to you. It’s in your hands or even more importantly, in your mind. You are what you think. Your self-image determines your performance. You can become a much more effective leader by changing your self-perception, the way you think about yourself as a leader.

As a leader, the most important quality you can have for yourself is to be the best you can be, and that same principle must apply to your business or your organization. You will accept nothing less for yourself or your company than to be the best at what you do.

What are your core values and how do you ensure your team is aligned with your values?

A good leader needs to have a clear vision and determination of the values of his/her mission for the institution. There must be common values for everyone. For instance, the visions and goals of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport are:

  1. To support the cause of reform launched to improve human resources,
  2. To support socio-economic development for the future generation of young people and the prosperity of the nation.

All educational staff are proud of the part they play in achieving the goals of the educational reform with the great support from students, parents, and the public.

According to my work experience, there are some ways to recognize people’s contributions to their work place, such as:

  • Encourage and support all staff in the institution for their hard work and quality of their work to achieve the institution goals,
  • Allow them to share ideas and to take part in implementation.
  • Continue to give incentives, through rewarding and fulfilling roles to all staff in the institution; make them more committed and able to understand their value to the organization.
  • Paying close attention to every voice in the workplace is one of the most important points of being a good leader.

People will lose their determination to work toward the institution’s goal if they do not clearly understand it. They don’t consider themselves to be an important key person in an institution if they only receive orders without any opportunities to provide input and receive feedback for their work.

  • It is also important to be friends with your colleagues. I personally have found it to be much easier while working with them. I have developed tight bonds and very special relationships that I feel could last a lifetime. We’ve understood and put our trust in one another. As a leader, I know what is suitable for them, and as my subordinate, they know what I want. By doing this, we’ve developed an amazing team spirit.

What are some of the behaviors or traits that you think are negatively impacting leadership?

Leaders need to have initiative, practice entrepreneurship, problem-solving skills, and practical assignments. Initiatives or innovations mean carrying out new things without waiting for these to happen independently.

Active leaders today are thinking about the future, thinking of what’s new, implementing it, and constantly improving what’s wrong. Failing to make clear decisions, immediate responses, and instead making time-consuming analysis are not keys to success. Therefore, it is necessary to begin to apply these step-by-step towards the defined goals. “Do not hesitate and spend months and years on the analysis, do something, move forward.” Most people fail because they do not act to reach their set target. This is one of the greatest mistakes of leadership.

What are you doing to continue to excel as a leader (leadership tips in doing business and promoting women’s economic empowerment or gender equality)?

For leadership in business and women’s promotion, I will put my efforts on self-development to greater satisfy the requirements of this position. In addition, I will continue to learn great lessons from successful people to help improve the quality and effectiveness of my leadership skills.

As a woman leader, I will provide opportunities to support and encourage other females to strengthen their leadership skills and to develop capacities and roles in decision-making in educational management at all levels from schools, offices, the Education, Youth and Sport Department of Education and the Youth and Sport and National Structure.

Furthermore, I will promote the implementation of policies on gender equality in education as a key factor in giving women the opportunity to develop their skills, enabling them to have the courage to take on economic, social and political authority. I will participate more in relevant forums and women in leadership and entrepreneurship to share lessons learned from successful women in business and in politics for all girls and women in Cambodia.

What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken in your career and how did they turn out?

Challenge 1: Finding the balance between Family and Work
My solutions to this challenge are as follows:

  • Set priorities between responsibilities which can be changed according to the circumstances. Remember that family always comes first. Don’t be afraid to utilize your working time sometimes to take care of loved ones, spend time with them, comfort them to make them feel loved, and fulfil their basic needs.
  • Find some time in your work time to connect with family. Try to find ways to involve your family with what you do. Bring them to work events to let them better understand and support you. It can be a great learning experience for them as well. For me, I like to take my kids to sports events and educational fairs. Whilst there, they have fun and experience new things, and we also get to spend quality time together.
  • No matter how hard, how tiring it gets, how busy your schedule becomes or when any obstacles come your way, you must face these problems head-on, as there are no shortcuts to achieving this balance. You have to solve them step-by-step, remain true to what is important, and you will soon get the hang of things. Even though family and work might become unbalanced at times, as these things are inevitable, don’t be discouraged and always give it your best.

Challenge 2: The lack of time and resources in the work-place, the limit of team spirit and common interests.
My solutions to this challenge are as follows:

  • Take full advantage of available resources. Make sure you know what you have at hand and use it to the best of your ability. Find the most effective and effcient ways to use all available resources.
  • Try to manage your time by setting monthly, weekly, and daily activities to help achieve the defined goals. Do whatever you can today, without waiting for tomorrow. Balance between time and resources (including people and money), both of which will have a great influence on your goals.
  • Set up good goals and remember, a clear sense unites everyone with a common cause. Resolve any conflicts of interest between individuals in institutions which could impact the institution’s goal. Continue to cultivate the spirit of solidarity and the benefit of the larger institutions, regardless of own interests, especially to be exemplary in sacrificial self-directed leadership, regardless of difficulties and personal benefits.

What makes Cambodian culture unique and how do you think Cambodia can thrive in this age of entrepreneurship & dynamic leadership.

Driven by garment exports and tourism, Cambodia has sustained an average growth rate of 7.7% between 1995-2017, and is the sixth fastest-growing economy in the world. As global demand peaks in 2018, economic growth is expected to reach 7%, compared to 6.9% in 2017. This growth impact of increased female entrepreneurial participation is significant and holds the potential to continue to be a major driver of economic growth. Furthermore, I am very proud to say that Cambodia has very enthusiastic female entrepreneurs. Cambodian women represent 51 percent of the country’s population and are a potentially powerful source of growth. Based on this, the Government has worked hard to support them. With the efforts to support business leadership through training, providing access to credit, creating networking opportunities and connecting Cambodia’s female entrepreneurs to local and international companies and professional networks, we can empower them and encourage them to move forward. These connections can help Cambodia’s businesswomen break down barriers, lead to world-class training opportunities, and pass along best practices. With continued support from all stakeholders, Cambodia could market itself as the best country for women entrepreneurs in Asia.

What advice do you have for young Cambodian female entrepreneurs?

To be a successful young female Cambodian entrepreneur, I would recommend:

1. Believe in yourself!

The fundamental key to success in business is self-belief and women are naturally known for underestimating their own abilities. To succeed in business, you must believe in yourself. This is very important because no one will believe in you and your products or services if you don’t first believe in them yourself. No investor will invest in you if you lack self-confidence and your employees will not perform at their peak capacity because you lack the spirit to inspire them.

In fact, without self-belief, no amount of effort in your business will yield positive results. So, boost your self-belief today; develop the belief that you have something valuable inside of you that the world wants, and it will be so.

2. Have a strong mission

Why do you want to start a business? This question may sound casual, but it is a silent factor that determines whether you will succeed or fail as an entrepreneur. Take a look at the world’s most successful women entrepreneurs and you will see that they all have a strong reason for going into business and that reason became their business mission.

3. Prepare your mindset

Success in business is highly dependent on the mindset on which that business was started. To become a successful entrepreneur in general, you must put your mind in the right place. For all the women entrepreneurs out there, you must never look at yourself as being the ‘weaker sex’. You must have the mindset to deal with whatever inconveniences come your way. Success will never be handed to you just because you are a woman, nor can it be taken away from you because you are a woman. You must be strong minded even if it means putting yourself on the line.

4. Be willing to fail

The principles of success can never be side-stepped regardless of your gender. This means that to become a success, you must be willing to fail. Business is a risk, but its reward is worth it. I have observed that the most successful business women are women who acted without giving a care if they fail. So, if you are going to be among the few women who make things happen, then you must be willing to accept failure as part of the journey to success.

Failure isn’t a bad thing either, and should never be looked at in a negative light. Instead, try to take note of what led to it, and keep these things in mind as areas you need to avoid while re-building your way to success. It is never too late to try again. The more you learn, the easier it will be to pick yourself up, and the faster your journey will get before you arrive at success.

5. Increase your business skills

Some entrepreneurs were born great; others made themselves great through hard work. If a business empire wasn’t handed over to you by your family; then you have to make your own way to attain it. You will need to develop the required entrepreneurial skills. What do you do in your spare time?
The answer to this question will determine if you will succeed or not. Instead of watching a movie or shopping in your spare time, why don’t you attend a seminar or read a business book? You will never know the situation you will find yourself in tomorrow and the knowledge you acquired in your spare time may turn out to be a life saver.

6. Understand your business to the core

How well do you understand your business? Are you running a business you are passionate about? Or did you jump into an industry for the money? Regardless of the type of business you are engaged in; make sure you understand the ins and outs of it. And yes, you do pick up a lot of knowledge from running a business along the way. However, before hopping on this train you must at least educate yourself on the basics of what you want to achieve. If you already understand the basics, then ask yourself again, do you understand your business to the core? If you don’t then always remember that there is no limit to knowledge and there is always room for improvement. Of course, no one can know every single detail, but try to learn as many things as you can. Once you’ve trained your brain, solutions to problems will comes easier as you get used to figuring things out while trying to understand your business.

7. Manage your time effectively

One of the major business challenges women entrepreneurs face is time constraint. Business women are usually strapped for time because of the multiple responsibilities they face. Women entrepreneurs must attend to their business needs while still raising a family and taking care of their personal needs. Certainly, it is much more challenging than one may think. If you are ever going to overcome this challenge and become a successful business woman, then you must master the act of delegation. Learn to give out tasks to other people, the ones that are not too big of a deal, this will give you time to focus on the ones that are.

8. Take care of your customers

I believe women take care of their customers better than their male counterparts. Remember that your customers are the reason you are in business. No woman ever became successful in business without the loyalty of her customers. So never look down on these important stakeholders as they significantly determine the direction of the business.

9. Stick to the process

Statistics show that 90% of all businesses started to fail in their first ten years. The reason is because not all who start a business have the guts to stick to the process. The entrepreneurial process of building a successful business is challenging; you will have to bounce from one problem to another without losing your enthusiasm. If you can do this, then you will end up a successful business woman. Last but not least, I want to let it sink in that building a successful business or becoming a successful business woman is not an overnight venture; it’s a perpetual process that requires dedication. If you can persevere and solve business problems as they arise, slowly but surely, you will arrive at your desired destination.


© Copyright 2019

This is a joint publication by Woomentum and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Download the full publication here.

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