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 Connie Chan, Chief Executive Officer of Nippecraft Limited, an SGX-listed company, who speaks of the woman she most admires, how little the opinion of others should matter, as well as how empathy at the workplace leads to better business decisions.
Q: What are the main challenges that the next generation of female leaders need to be cognizant of?
I think it is the pressure to conform. Many people are not used to having women in senior roles, and they have a lot of opinions on who you are, who you should be, how you should behave, if you are too aggressive, things like that. And these opinions could come from the family, colleagues or even well-meaning managers. So I think the main challenge is how to navigate that. The way I went through this myself was to listen, learn to adapt and do things your own way, because you may not have too many exact role models out there. So listen with an open mind, but understand people have biases of their own.
Q: Can you think of a specific woman who’s inspired you the most?
The most recent one would be Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. I have been really impressed by her. She’s firm and compassionate, and just so authentic. What I just said, about doing things your way and making it work for you, she’s totally done that. More importantly, she delivers herself.
Q: What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
You don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to know what’s the right question to ask. That’s the most valuable advice that I’ve received during my career.
Q: Was it always always your career plan to have a leadership role?
Not at all! In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was actually very clear and adamant about not becoming a business leader, because I noticed that, among the managers and leaders that I admire, they grew old quickly after getting the job! [laughs] It didn’t come across as being worth it, you know? I would rather focus more on the ‘fun’ part of business, like marketing. But overtime, I came to realise that it’s more logical to take on a general management role.
Q: Why is empathy so important at the workplace?
I think the workplace is a reflection of the world, which is changing rapidly now. There’s more diversity, so you are working around people who are different from you. If it was back in the old days, you can work with people who are very homogenous in terms of values, and there was perhaps less need for empathy because everybody acted in the same manner. Also, there’s been a blur in terms of working life. When I started working, there was a clearer distinction between work and life and, to a certain extent, you had to park your emotions aside. At work, you were expected to deliver and execute, focus on the results and everything. There was less emphasis on the humane side of people. There was less acknowledgement that people had fears and motivations — but we have a much better understanding now. The reason is that, when you have empathy, it does help you make better business decisions, and leadership becomes more effective. I think it’s a reflection of the changing dynamics of the workplace, and you need different needs of skill set and understanding.
Q: How do you unplug from work?
I’ve always maintained a very good work-life balance. In the spirit of honesty, I indulge in really nice spa retreats, where I just do nothing in a nice place, and I also enjoy general travel because I’ve gone to so many places by now, and my preferred destinations are usually fairly exotic like, you know, Machu Picchu in Peru, Cuba, those kinds of places are my favourite.
Q: Finish this sentence. If I were a brand, I would be similar to…
It would be the brand of my company, Collins. The brand has been around for 200 years. When I first joined, one of the first things is to hire someone to really refresh the brand. As we started, it turned out that the brand is actually all about being true to yourself and being authentic to who you are. So it really resonates with me, staying true to do what you want and then just go where you wish to go.
Q: How is your hometown important to you?
So Hong Kong is my hometown, and it is important because it shaped me to who I am. It’s given me so many opportunities. Also, Hong Kong has been facing a lot of unprecedented challenges these days, and it’s really heartbreaking to see what’s going on there. But really, that is still where home is and, without it, I wouldn’t be on the road I’m on right now.
Q: What’s the greatest risk you have taken from a career perspective?
I would say that’s working in the US. I had just moved to a different job and relocated to Chicago. My life was going to start anew, but then suddenly there was a family crisis, and I had to unplug everything and move back. It was a real career risk from that standpoint, but obviously from a personal point of view it was a no-brainer. I just had to do what I did. In hindsight, if I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have joined General Electric, and I wouldn't have started this career path that I am on.