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Leading Women: Interview with Davina Yeo

As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia. In this story, we speak to Davina Yeo, Chief of Staff at Microsoft Asia Pacific, who shares her thoughts on being a female leader in a male-dominated workplace, her double role as a Chief of Staff and a mother, as well as how she managed to relocate to a foreign country with three children in tow — alone.


 

Q: What is one question that you wished you had asked in the course of your professional career?

There were so many but, if I had to boil it down to one, I think it would be: ‘How will you measure your life?’, which also happens to be the title of a book by Clayton Christensen. It really speaks to me because it is about creating a strategy in life on how you spend your time, talent and energy.

Q: As a female executive, what were some of the biggest challenges and lessons learnt thus far?

I was working in Indonesia for a time, and it was my first leadership position in a very much male-dominated team. From that experience, I learnt to be unafraid to speak up and to represent. Even though I was in a privileged position then, there were many other women whom I needed to speak out for. So to me, that was the most important thing: to make sure their voices were heard. Not everyone has the platform, so we must help others.

Q: What are some strategies that can help women achieve the success they want in their workplaces, especially in male-dominated roles or industries?

I think, in Asia, it is too often that women learn too late in their careers to stand up and speak for themselves. I think that’s partially just culture and the way we’ve been taught in school. So [it’s important to find] both men and women as allies, mentors and sponsors. Also, focus on the transition points in your careers. For example, if you are having kids, you are going to need more support, [so] having the right network is really critical.

Q: What are some assumptions and biases that you have experienced as a female leader?

If you are a mother, especially in Singapore, there’s the assumption that you cannot move to another country. Don’t make assumptions. Ask the question and [see if the women] are actually open to it. It is their choice and it is for them to decide.

Q: Is empathy important at the workplace? If so, why?

Given the current situation that we are in, it is so easy to forget the circumstances of each employee and overlook why they might be performing in certain ways. My wish is for a broader emphasis on empathy, and for it to continue to stay beyond [the COVID-19 pandemic]. It’s often easier to think about the here and now, but we often forget about maintaining it for the long run. We need to listen and understand the other person’s point of view, be curious and walk in their shoes. After all, businesses are made up of relationships and trust. And I think that, as the next generation of workers and students come up, they’re looking for a lot more in their jobs beyond pay cheques. So as leaders, knowing how to build that trust and strong relationships, l think that’s the first step.

Q: What is the greatest risk you have taken?

Does having children count? From a personal point of view, having another person’s life in your hands — and, in my case, three lives — I think that to me is one of the greatest risks that I have taken. Also, because of work, I had to move overseas with my children without my husband, who stayed behind in Singapore. It was scary and exciting at the same time, and it was a tremendous opportunity in terms of opening my kids’ eyes beyond the bubble of Singapore; to have broader perspectives in life. I don’t think anything can replace that.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges ahead for the next generation of female leaders?

The next generation is just incredible. They have so much more awareness of such issues. My eldest daughter is 12 years old, and she’s constantly pushing me and asking me for my stance on gender issues, on LGBT issues, as well as race privileges. What’s important is to think beyond diversity, and to learn how to become better allies, as well as how to stand up and speak out for everyone.

Q: If I were a brand, I would be similar to…

Airbnb. I love how they have reinvented what travel is all about, and connecting people and bringing global communities together.


 

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