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, Sylvia Wong, Regional Finance Director at PageGroup, shares the most common assumption leaders make, the importance of empathy in these troubled times, as well as how her hometown shaped who she is as a leader today.
Q: How do you set the tone for your business?
I strongly believe that you need to walk the talk and practise what you preach. I believe that if I did something myself, my team would notice it, be influenced by it and do it at the same time.
Q: What is your strategy when it comes to engaging and empowering the team?
I am a very approachable person and I believe in open communication. So I think my team and stakeholders have no qualms about reaching out to me regarding anything. I think the key here is to earn the trust of others, and the engagement will follow naturally.
Q: What are some traits that you admire the most in leaders?
Leaders who procrastinate are a big ‘No-No’ for me, so I admire those who can make decisions and take actions decisively, especially in situations like the current pandemic, where there is no clear right or wrong. Leaders who genuinely care for people and their well being, their personal development, those are the ones I look up to.
Q: What leadership lessons have you learnt?
One thing that I have learnt is that you cannot possibly make popular decisions all the time. You also cannot always worry about what other people think. Women tend to worry about that a lot. We think too much but, if it is the right decision, we should stand by it.
Q: Why is empathy so important to you as a leader?
Empathy is the ability to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel about things. Considering the unprecedented times, many people are going through different types of challenges, so I think, as leaders, we cannot assume that we know what others are going through. We need to consciously remind ourselves to make time, listen to the team and find out how they are doing. I feel that leaders who take the time to understand the needs of their employees are the ones who can provide the support they actually need, to press ahead and deal with the challenges they’re facing. In the past, leaders, including myself, tend to make assumptions. That’s why I need to make a conscious effort to ask them how they are feeling and what they need from me.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders?
Firstly, it is important that women are offered opportunities to test their skill levels. Through this, they build confidence in their own abilities, which creates the internal visibility necessary for their advancement. Many women I know are too harsh on themselves, and they unconsciously doubt their own competence. They are very good, but they also tend to think too much and are too hard on themselves. So I think they need to be given the opportunity to shine. The second thing is to look for a role model. Having a role model, especially at the senior level, plays a crucial role in overcoming the perception that success and career progression are difficult for women who want to achieve motherhood and have a family at the same time.
Q: Who’s the first woman who inspired you?
That has to be my mother. She’s extremely resilient, no matter how bad the situation is. She never gives up and simply soldiers on. Thinking back on all the challenges that she has gone through over the years, I am still amazed. So whenever I am faced with tough times, I remind myself of what my mother would have done.
Q: What creates self doubt for you, and how do you overcome it?
This is a hard one because, whenever things do not go as planned, or if there is an issue at work that I could have prevented, I beat myself up over it. I would think: “I could have done better? Why did I say that?” I’m one of those women who tend to be a bit too harsh on themselves. Over the years, I’ve learnt to be better at reminding myself that, as long as I put in my best, it is good enough.
Q: What was the greatest risk you have taken?
That would be me leaving my career and lifestyle back in 2008 when I was living in London. I left there and returned to Southeast Asia to be with my then boyfriend and now husband. At the time, we didn’t want to continue with the long distance relationship, but I also felt that I was giving up a lot to come back to the region. I am glad that it turned out to be one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. After more than 10 years, I have progressed well into my career, and I am also happily married to the same man with three beautiful children. So, hey, risk well taken.
Q: Why is your hometown so important to you?
My hometown is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and it is important for me because that is where I grew up, where I studied, where most of my close friends still live. It is also where I got my first job, where I spent my formative years. I have many fond memories of Kuala Lumpur, and I feel that I am who I am today due to the years spent there.