As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of women we work with here in Asia.  

In this feature, Sophia Lim, CEO of WWF Malaysia, shares leadership learnings during the pandemic as an NGO, and how individuals and corporations can do their part to integrate sustainability into their business goals. 

May Wah Chan, Regional Director at Page Executive Malaysia, speaks with Sophia Lim, CEO of WWF Malaysia to find out how companies can give back to the environment. 

Q: What leadership lessons did you learn when managing the organisation during the pandemic?  

These three years have passed by so fast. Like everybody else, the pandemic came out of nowhere. Nobody expected it. When the pandemic hit, one of the key learnings was taking stock. How do we continue to do our job in a landscape that has changed? 

The key thing is, being an NGO, we still have to work on conservation on the ground. At the same time, the challenge is keeping our donors engaged and funds coming in, so we can carry out conservation work. So, the keyword for us is pivoting. 

We had to be very quick on our feet. First, we must be able to communicate digitally, drive our fundraising programs digitally, and constantly engage with our staff. The way we pivoted and at the speed that we did were vital. However, pivoting on my own was not enough. I had a good team supporting me in navigating the pandemic. Also, our staff were aligned on the same purpose and values. 

I'm very proud to say that despite the pandemic and having to work from home, we improved our engagements twofold. This is in ways of reaching out to all our stakeholders, our webinars, and direct communication online with our donors and network offices. So, I hope that gives you a perspective on what the two years meant to us, and I'm very proud. 

Q: What role do you think companies play in sustainability today?  

A lot more companies are embarking on a transformational journey. This is a great opportunity, an excellent opportunity for us to ride on. And today, business and financial institutions are one of the strongest forces, if not the strongest, to drive environmental sustainability. 

And many more companies are thinking about the longer term, and they recognise a critical need to balance the environment against the economics. Now, that is the landscape, so it's a great opportunity that companies to move with us. WWF has engaged with corporations very actively as we advocate with the government. And communicate with individuals, with our role as an NGO. 

Now, I would like to, on this note, say that consumer demands are driving the behaviour and actions of organisations in a way. Consumers today are more affluent. They are more aware, demanding organisations be greener on the agenda, source sustainability and be responsible for taking care of the environment as organisations pursue profits. So, consumers today play a very important role in driving that as well, which is excellent. 

Q: As a leader, what advice do you have for future leaders to be passionate about society and the environment?  

I have a strong passion for environmental protection and conservation, so I joined WWF. I'm very blessed with a role as WWF's Executive Director and CEO, where I can help shape and influence policies and regulations on various environmental matters. At the same time, I can't work on my own. As a certified coach, and from my experience and leadership roles, I learnt that being a leader is not about a position or a title. 

In the past two years during the pandemic, I'm so proud of the team in WWF Malaysia. They all became leaders in their own right – working remotely, working digitally. We did more as a team than we ever had. I was very proud when I saw my teams actively participating in our webinars, speaking up for the environment and sustainability. 

Q: What can corporations do better in driving corporate social responsibility (CSR) forward?  

I would first look at what has worked previously. Also, organisations must have a strong and a clear sense of purpose. What is their vision? What is their mission? What will be the DNA of your organisation, and what did it set out to do? There needs to be a clear sense of purpose. And if you could get staff behind you who are aligned and with the same values, I believe success will just be, you know, almost a natural outcome. 

So, if that's aligned or any CSR programs that the organisation can impact on that purpose, I'm sure that staff will be behind it, acting, supporting, and carrying it out as one. Companies can consider engaging in charitable work aligned to their purpose. For one, they could source responsibly. 

Q: How do you think individuals who don't work for an NGO can contribute and give back?  

A lot of people have also come to me with the same question. I always respond by saying that everybody plays a part in giving back. Not one organisation or party can do this alone. Every individual's actions contribute to this. Small actions by individuals can create a significant impact. And this is in line with our motto of together possible. So, individuals can play their part, whether it is, you know, just simple daily stuff as we go on with our routine life, they can make a difference. 

Recycle, and be conscious of not wasting food. Think of ways you can do your part to reduce carbon and single-use plastic. These simple measures are crucial. Of course, be a volunteer, support or donate to causes. So, for example, at WWF, we have a volunteer programme, and you can register your interest on our website. That way, even as an individual, you can help support bigger causes. 

Q: Are there any upcoming WWF programmes you would like to share with us?  

We have a lot of regular programs. We also have a lot of projects where we would ask for pledges. For example, to save the Malayan Tiger. If you come across it on social media platforms, please do pledge. We also embarked on Earth hour with a virtual run where donations went to our conservation cause. 

I'm also delighted and proud to share that it is WWF Malaysia's 50th anniversary this year. In conjunction with this, there'll be a lot of events. There will be many programmes we are embarking on, such as pledges. Just sign up because our voices become collectively bigger than just an NGO like WWF. We can lead the way, but we can only be successful if we have the public behind us. 

On this, I would like to mention that we are very passionate about saving our Malayan Tiger, which is on the brink of extinction. Our request is for all the public to support us on that. And I'm also very pleased to note that through our years of advocacy, the government has also launched some strategic points on saving the tiger. 

It takes the government and the public sector to work together. On this note, for example, I mentioned that a corporation like Maybank has been a corporate partner through the years in helping us to save our tiger, and the public can play a role. Voice out. Speak out for the tiger that has no voice. The tiger is our national jata, and this year is the year of the tiger.  

This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below:  

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May Wah Chan

May Wah Chan
Regional Director

This interview was conducted by May Wah, Regional Director at Page Executive’s Malaysia office. She has a successful track record of executive search mandates within the Services and Consumer sectors, with deep knowledge of Digital, Technology and Fintech businesses

Partner with May Wah to strengthen your senior leadership team, discuss your next opportunity, or contribute to our Leading Women series to inspire others.