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.
Q: What’s one career experience that’s unique to being a woman?
When I first started my career as a fresh graduate, I had to choose between a merchandising role in the garment industry or a role in electronics. I chose to go into electronics and I worked for a family business. It’s very technical and, since I graduated from business school, I had no idea about technical engineering. On top of that, at the board table, there was always a group of men, and I remember really struggling at the time. I remember my boss actually asked if he needed to hire someone else to help me. That was a really difficult moment in my career. However, I met a lot of good people who coached me along the way. So to all the women out there: there might be times when you feel defeated, especially when you are surrounded by a lot more male colleagues. It’s up to you to say, “You know what? I can do this.”
Q: Was it always part of your plan to be in a leadership position?
I am the eldest child in the family, and my father is an entrepreneur. So I was greatly influenced by him growing up. He travelled around the world for work and I loved it because he would always bring back gifts. I remember my first Disney-themed gift was from him after he returned from the US. So I always had the impression that travelling for work was a wonderful thing.
Also, me being the eldest child, I had to take care of my siblings. They used to ask me all sorts of questions and advice, and I think that has something to do with my current position. Like, I am comfortable with being at the forefront, and it is natural for me to do so. Finally, in business school, a big part of that was training you to work in different business environments. When I worked for General Electric, everybody had heard of Jack Welch, the Chairman and CEO there, who’s known for his leadership style among other things. When he first joined, he was just an entry-level manager, but he had a vision of becoming the CEO of General Electric. I didn’t have that kind of vision but when your organisation promotes that concept to you, you do start to think of the possibilities. I also received a lot of mentoring by people and was involved in several mentoring programmes. These things eventually led me to fill a leadership role.
With that said, I still get nervous about it. I mean, if you are doing something that you love, and you enjoy what you do, you do become a bit more natural. Even if you fail a couple of times, you learn from your mistakes. It’s all just practise.
Q: What advice would you give to other mentors or people in a similar position as yourself?
When I was a mentor for the Women’s Network, we didn’t have a mentor-mentee relationship. We treated each other like friends, and we met up and talked about personal things along with the professional ones. Of course, the objective was to coach somebody but, even as a mentor, there’s room to learn something new. Even though it might not seem necessary from a job perspective, personal things in life can inspire you in many ways. So I always suggest that, even if you are already a mentor, listen to what the mentee is sharing with you and what they are really looking for. Rather than seeing the relationship as hierarchical, like I am the mentor and you are the mentee, it’s about learning from each other.
I have had both experiences. I’ve been mentored and I have mentored. That is why I love the mentoring programme. I feel that it benefits everybody, and I would like to give back a little, and you really learn more from each other. I remember another mentor told me once that she was paired with a mentee who was quite different from herself. So she had to adapt and that’s another benefit as a mentor, right?
Q: What’s the greatest risk you have taken?
Growing up, I didn’t have good grades when I was still a student in Hong Kong. In order to continue my studies, the only option was to go abroad. So I moved to Canada when I was 17 years old, and that was a big move. I had no parents with me at the time, I didn’t drive and the only person I knew was a friend of my father’s. I didn’t even have relatives over there. As a teenager, I cried every month whenever I received letters. My father preferred to write letters to give that personal touch. I remember getting those letters and crying every time. I felt very lonely out there.
An even bigger risk, though, was the decision to live in Canada later down the road. I guess I am naturally a risk taker. When I moved there, I didn’t think of moving back at all. I did not set a timeline. As a family, we sold everything and moved — even my dogs. I mean, it’s one thing to study there, but moving there and learning a new culture was very different. With that said it did give me a good opportunity to learn how things work in North America. That’s how I ended up in my current position, really. I speak the language but I also have international experience, which is invaluable to a lot of companies.
Q: So having established yourself in Canada, why move back to Hong Kong eventually?
It was quite a natural thing for me. After some time, my whole family moved back, including my parents, leaving just my husband and I in Toronto. Even though I didn’t have a set timeline for moving back, it was around this time when I started to think about my career in Canada. When I was working with an international company, I had the privilege of exploring myself outside of Canada. There were personal and professional reasons that drove me to come back to Hong Kong eventually. Part of it had to do with the fact that my parents were growing older, and I wasn’t seeing them every day. Only a few weeks at a time. When I got the opportunity to transfer from Canada to Hong Kong, I took it and never looked back.
Q: Do you ever experience self doubt?
As a leader, you are not the only one executing everything. You work with your team, you work with your peers and you work with your managers. So sometimes you don’t know how a decision is going to be perceived, how it is aligned with everything or if it will turn out the way you envision. Also it is inevitable to make mistakes along the way, and you will feel defeated. Maybe it is my personality, but I just cry for a bit and move on.
Take COVID-19, for example. When it first hit, I had just returned from my trip to the US. The shutdown happened five days after I returned, and I remember joking that everything would be open by April last year. When that didn’t happen, we said it’d probably be open by summer, and that didn’t happen either. Now it’s April 2021. So we do doubt our business decisions, if we were making the right call during the pandemic, things like that. Should we continue to grow the business? Where’s this COVID-19 going to take us? Am I going to stay in Hong Kong? Will I have a job? Ultimately, it’s OK to doubt, but I think it is not OK to freeze and stop working.
Q: Did you ever feel left behind because of your gender?
Never. Not even when I was 17 years old. I guess I never put gender in front of me. The only time when I felt that way was during a five- to six-year period, when some of my peers had moved on to become CEOs of companies. This was before I moved back to Hong Kong. At the time I was still a VP or a GM, so I did feel, at least during that time, like I was left behind. But there are always trade-offs, right? I enjoyed my time in Canada and the professional experiences I had there. So rather than thinking of this as a gendered thing, I would say it was a personal choice.
Q: What advice do you have for other female leaders?
People make mistakes, and it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, young or old. If you put your heart into something and it doesn’t get you to where you want to be, it’s important to reflect on what happened, what the next steps should be and how to do it again. It sounds very process driven and very business like, but it’s true. At the end of the day, if you’ve decided that you wanted a career in this area, you need to do what you need to do.
Besides, every generation has its own challenges, right? My mother used to tell me that I was privileged because I didn’t have to survive the war. However, COVID-19 is hitting everybody now, right? A lot of businesses are not profitable and even downsizing. Personally, we’ve also had to deal with the 1997 financial crisis, and the one in 2007. So I think it’s about adapting to the circumstances, enjoying every moment, reflecting and being ready for change.
Q: What’s one personal trait that gets you in the most trouble?
I speak really fast and sometimes I’m a bit impatient. I am quite result-oriented even on a personal level. I remember this one time when I really wanted this leather wallet, so I went through all the stores throughout Hong Kong to find it. I’m just crazy that way sometimes. With that said, because of that, it can be a bit of a pressure for those around me. They might feel like they have to do something because I want it to be done. Going back to the mentorship programme, it’s allowed me to adapt my style. Ultimately, we can still get to the same results with different ways of doing it.
This interview was conducted by Steve Parkes, Head of Page Executive’s Hong Kong office. He is also the Practice Leader for Consumer and Industrial / Manufacturing across Greater China.
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