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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E5: Conversation with Joanne Chua, Robert Walters

In this special episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia, we commemorate International Women’s Day by celebrating women in leadership roles.

Hear from Joanne Chua, Regional Client Development Director - Asia at Robert Walters, as we explore her career journey and life experience that made her the female leader that she is today.

From discovering and taking the personal responsibility to speak up about issues, to spearheading women-led initiatives to raise greater awareness for fellow females, to the inspirational stories of female professionals that she has encountered over the years in recruitment, Joanne shares how at the end of the day, we should all embrace our gifts and weaknesses, and be kind to ourselves and each other.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights in the world of work. Watch the videocast for this episode here.

Interested in hearing more stories of women who are making a difference to the people and communities around them? Download our ‘Women Who Inspire – 20 Stories From Across Asia’ e-book to draw inspiration for the next chapter of your own success story.

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ChyiHuey Joon: Hello, welcome to Powering Potential with Robert Walters. I'm Joon, Senior Marketing Manager of South East Asia at Robert Walters. I'll be your host for this special episode of our International Women's Day leadership series. Joining me on a bright sunny day is my colleague, Joanne Chua, Client Development Director for Asia. Welcome Jo.

Joanne Chua: Thanks Joon! It feels a bit really strange because often I'm on the other end interviewing people. It's been a while. So I'm looking forward to the conversation with you.

Joon: It feels the same for me, but I'm sure we will have a good conversation today. Jo, you joined Robert Walters in 2006 as a consultant, and for the past 15 years, not only have you moved up the ranks, but your remit has also expanded from Singapore to South East Asia and also to Asia. How has your work or life experience shaped you as a leader you are today?

Joanne: Well, okay. 15 years - sounds like a long time. I feel like sometimes I'm an antique in the business. I've often said that the person I am today is the sum total of all the experiences that I've accumulated. Good, bad, highs, lows. But if I were to basically identify two particular life experiences that shaped me and helped me to become the person I am today would be one that took place in my early twenties on the home front, and another, in my early thirties at work.

Let me share about the first experience that took place on the family front. Just to take you a bit back to my background. So I come from a family of four girls. I'm the second child. My mum always say that I was like the son that she never had. I think it's because of my personality.

And my dad - we came from a relatively humble background. My dad was running a distribution business of Barbie dolls for Mattel toys. And in the early nineties, Mattel decided to take back the distributorship and then he pivoted into another industry, and it was still doing very well. But unfortunately the business took a hit following the Asian Financial Crisis, and a couple of wrong business decisions led to him struggling a fair bit. Back then, I was still schooling in university; had no idea what was going on.

But shortly after I graduated, I felt a very strong prompting to go and help my father in his family business. At that time my sisters were all still in school. And I never wanted to help him; never wanted to work in the business, but that prompting was so strong that I could not ignore.

And I approached him, and he said, "Yeah, it'll be nice if you can come in and help me. And lo and behold, when I stepped into the office, going through all the financial statements and all that, I was stunned, shocked. Basically, it was in a very bad state. And I was like, wow. And at that time, I only had like one year of working experience in a non-management role. I had to figure out how best to improve our cashflow position and so on and so forth. So, needless to say initially I told him I'll give him two years of my life, but in the end, it was like a national service of sorts. But it became a four and a half years to five years kind of stint. Very challenging moments, very dark moments with creditors hounding us. I had to be the bad guy going after our customers because they were not paying up. And it was a very trying moment for somebody in her early twenties, with her friends all enjoying themselves, progressing their careers, going out clubbing, having fun.

I grew up very quickly in my early twenties. Through that experience, I learned grit, I learned resilience I learned about being creative. My dad always says you, young graduates - you only know how to make money using money. But the proof is in the pudding when you rely on whatever limited resources you are given to progress. And that phrase has always stayed with me till today. And that life experience had also shaped me in terms of how I engage with people because we came from a position of being an underdog. And I think that helped me a lot in my career in recruitment because I don't look at people for what their CVs present.

I often listen to their stories and look for the gems that's hidden within them. And suffice to say, I feel that that was one of the differentiators in how I offer my services to candidates. So that was the first, probably the most definitive experience. And I often have this phrase, it's often in the valley moments where I experienced the greatest personal growth and development. But one verse that has always stayed with me is that even though I walked through the valleys of the shadows of death, I will not fear any evil. For he is with me, his rod and his staff, they comfort me. And I never enjoyed the valley moments. But without the valley moments, you wouldn't be able to experience what it's like on the mountain tops. Who likes that, it's painful, it's trying, it's emotional and all that.

So yeah, I experienced a lot of valley moments in my early twenties. And then, I had the opportunity to join Robert Walters, as you introduced earlier, in 2006. Did well; I made my first placement in my second week, and qualified for the global incentive trip. So everything was really smooth sailing, and I was really thankful, and the money that I earned went on to paying my family debts.

But I was running, in my early thirties, probably about three, four years into my career at Robert Walters, I was then running a couple of divisions, HR and Supply Chain, very successful. But I was struggling tremendously under this particular line manager that I was reporting into, but typical me, I never had the courage to raise the issues. I would basically wallow, and have my own thoughts, ruin my own negative thoughts and all that sort of stuff. Not having the courage to even address it with my line manager and also to senior leadership. I was just talking behind their backs, guilty as charged.

And one thing led to another, and I found myself in the room of the then Regional MD. And he was trying to find out the reason for my dissatisfaction and disengagement and unhappiness. And for an hour, I refused to tell him the truth because I didn't want to burn any bridge. And I was unsure who he was going to believe. But he was really great with his soft interrogation, and he broke the walls down, and I decided I have nothing to lose. Because I had already had some plans in mind, so I shared with him the truth, and he responded with this question - if you did not tell us, how would we know? And address whatever you are facing. And I was like, stunned. I was pleasantly surprised by his response.

And it was after that conversation, I went back home. I deliberated and I thought to myself, in order to effect positive changes in your environment, whether is it at home or in your organisation, in this case for me, it was the organisation, I own the personal responsibility to raise issues, and to seek redress if there was any injustice or wrongdoings within the firm. And I thought that in order for change to happen, I need to have a tenure within the organisation.

Because that's where people have already known me. They know what I stand for, my values, and they trust me. And so that was a very pivotal moment. So Joon you got to know me when you joined the business about four and a half, five years ago, I was really very outspoken but trust me when I first joined the business, I was this timid mouse. I was just getting on with my job, and just making placements, going out to meet clients and candidates. But it was that pivotal episode that changed, shifted the way I operate and approach. And I decided that I will not just be one of those naysayers, complaining behind the bosses' back, complaining about leadership and management.

I own the responsibility of speaking up. I decided that I need to take personal responsibility. So since then, I've been pretty vocal and upfront with things I see in the business and provide necessary feedback where possible. And enough with the whispers, and who's to say the bosses know everything? I mean, we all have our blind spots. Having been a leader myself, I have my blind spots and I rely on people around me to feedback to me. So these are probably the two defining life experiences that I've had that made me the person I am today.

Joon: It's amazing how the various experience have such a significant effect on who you are. And what I notice over time is it's not so much about the experience itself that's important, but it's the meaning that we assign to all these experience, and the story we tell the audience about that experience, which also affects who we are, the decision that we make, and how we interact with others.

Joanne: Absolutely. Yeah.

Joon: You have spearheaded a couple of our women-led initiatives at Robert Walters, in particular raising awareness of the challenges faced by women in the workplace. I know that in the past few years when I worked with you on this project, your eyes always lit up when we talked about this. Why are you so passionate about this then?

Joanne: Firstly I have to say I'm not a feminist. And I said earlier that I come from a family of four girls. I went to an all-girls school from primary right up to secondary, and even in my junior college, I was in a classroom where majority of the students were females. So I never wore the lenses or saw any significant difference between the way men and women operate. I had no clarity. But so it was upon one day where I found myself in the boardroom, and I was part of the Singapore senior leadership team. There were five of us in that room, and I noticed that I was the only female, only Asian. And I can't remember the conversations we had that day or the topics that we discussed, but I found difficulty in communicating during that meeting my thoughts and my approach towards some of these topics that we were discussing. And I don't think my male colleagues were disregarding my views and opinions.

They heard me, they listened to me. But they were just like, no, let's just do this. And everybody was in line with what the boss wanted. And so I came out of that meeting feeling perplexed, feeling confused. And I was like, well, was it because I was not able to communicate and articulate myself well, I was not able to pitch my solutions well? And one thing I noticed was that there was a significant difference in terms of my approach to dealing with a problem versus the guys' approach to dealing with a problem.

And the difference at that time, and which I found subsequently in a lot of other conversations, is that us women, we have a tendency to consider the different impacts of the solution that we think we want to administer to a particular problem. We consider this, we consider that, and we want to cover all areas. But with the guys, I noticed it's like, yeah, this is the way, let's just do it.

And then, whatever happens then happens, and then we'll just deal with it. It's more direct, to the point. And so maybe sometimes guys will find why are you guys so long-winded? Why do you think so much? But it's not because we think so much, we are more considered. Anyhow, some people may disagree, but anyhow, so I came out of that meeting and I decided because there were no other female counterparts I could reach out to. That's where I started reaching out to female leaders in the network. And I hosted what I called the 'What Women Want' luncheons.

And I started putting forth some of my observations to these female leaders, and I asked them to share their personal experiences. And I realised I was not alone in this journey! That was when I decided, okay, again, about taking personal responsibility, rather than being a naysayer on the side; complaining about the men don't get it, the guys don't understand.

I decided to raise that awareness. And it's really just raising the voice and awareness for fellow female counterparts, particularly in the workplace.

Joon: So every year we celebrate International Women's Day, which is on the 8 of March. And then during this day, there's many conversations, initiatives being held to empower and uplift women. Coincidentally, this year Singapore government has declared as the year of celebrating Singapore women. So to what extent do you think women have progressed in the workplace?

Joanne: I'll speak in the context of the region, Asia. I think we've definitely progressed significantly.

Firstly, more men are more aware. I remembered the first event I hosted to raise the awareness of the challenges that females face, and my former legal counsel colleague, he came up to me. Jo, why are you doing this? What for? And I was like, it's precisely because of this kind of question that I want to raise the awareness because clearly, he did not wear the lens, right?

So it's about helping people to raise the awareness. So back to your question, I think we've definitely made significant advancements. However, I think it's still largely dependent on the society that we live in. I think in places, progressive societies like that of Singapore, Hong Kong and even China, women really have stepped up and in part also due to support from the network, et cetera. We have been able to assume senior roles, while still managing, what I deem, successful, balance of families and careers. But in the more patriarchal societies, while the needle has shifted however, I think it's a deeply entrenched culture that the voice of women is still relatively new. There's definitely a lot more talk and more conversations. But I think we are still a long way away from what we want to achieve. Whether is it equality or having more women in board positions.

Joon: What do you think then will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

Joanne: Hmm. Well, look, I can't look into the crystal ball and tell what's going to happen in the future. And I do not think it's any different to the challenges we face today. I mean the different types of challenges, external and internal, but I think the one, the single biggest challenge that women face is the self-limitations we impose on ourselves, where we always deem ourselves as never good enough. We are always so hard on ourselves. We seek to be a perfectionist. We excel. We want excellence both at work and at home. And we often shortchange ourselves, and disregard or not paying, giving much credit to what we have accomplished, guilty as charged.

So yeah, I think if there's one thing it's overcome our own personal, mental limitations.

Joon: So earlier on, we spoke a bit about your career journey with the company. With what you have achieved so far, is there anything you would do differently in your career knowing what you know now?

Joanne: I wouldn't be here talking to you Joon, if I haven't developed my career the way it has developed, and look, to be honest, I never regretted the choices I've made. And the choices I've made has always gone back to why I do what I do, which is to help people overcome their barriers to achieve their fullest potential.

And I think I'm very fortunate in that this industry and this organisation has allowed me to fulfill my purpose in life as well. But if there's one thing that I could perhaps, change is to pursue an overseas opportunity. I was given the opportunity to take up a country head role in an emerging market in Vietnam, probably about I think about more than eight, nine years ago. I can't remember. Yeah, probably about eight, nine years ago. But I rejected it and to be honest, why did I reject it? I mean I gave the answers as parents, aging parents, and all that, but I was actually fundamentally a coward.

Because I was running a very successful business here in Singapore. And it was a re-bill business back in that particular market. And I was like, can I do it? What if I fail, what if I do not succeed, it would be then embarrassing, blah, blah, blah. So yeah, I was a coward and I said no to that opportunity. God knows where I'll be if I had taken up that opportunity, and the thing is even if I fail, I will have battle scars that I can look at with pride. But I think it's also largely due to the shadows cast in my earlier days working for my family business, where I cannot afford another failure in my life. That was, I think my thought process during that period.

Joon: Any women who have inspired you then?

Joanne: Wow, I mean I don't want to provide the cliché response - my mom, I mean, although don't get me wrong, she's been a very strong role model to me. She represents grit, resilience, loyalty, strength, inner strength, and all that. But I think the beautiful part about what I do and what this industry provides is the opportunity to interact with people from various walks of life. So I've been very privileged right? And everyone I talk to, I often ask myself, what is your story? What made them the person they are today, just like what we seek to achieve in this conversation that we are having today.

And I'll always be looking for things to learn from them. These are people who are my colleagues, my candidates, my clients - I learned different things from different individuals. So from the colleague, who was a single mom who packed up her bags and moving to a new country where she had no friends, no family and helping her company set up a new office. Wow, that's inner strength too. Another colleague who was going through a very bad, personal life circumstances. And despite that she overcame the odds to become one of the top billers of the business years back.

To the candidate who basically put her career on hold and followed her husband who was on this expatriate career. And she, in the midst of finding herself without getting herself lost, defined her true value as a working professional. And now, 10, 15 years later, I've known them for 15 years now, she's the one who's leading that conversation as to where the family is moving to, what role etc. So it was really great, and she had great support from her husband, kudos to him.

And to individuals, young recruiters. I mean I had someone from another recruitment firm reaching out to me on LinkedIn just a couple of months ago, saying that she's heard about me in the market, and she would like me to be her mentor. We caught up for coffee and I learned about her story, I mean, young, 28 year old girl, bright, driven. And I heard about her story and I was so encouraged. At age of 28, I had only joined Robert Walters, there you go I revealed my age if you make the sums.

So yeah, I learned from different individuals, and from you Joon, you have a young family, and you came into our industry with no previous industry experience. But you always seek to ask the question, how can I help you? How can I help your business progress? And you've always been also asking me, okay, what kind of books are you reading now? And you are always seeking for personal development and at the same time, pursuing your hobby and sport, which is in windsurfing. Yeah. And learning how to have fun outside of work. I learned a lot from you as well. Yeah. So these are the individuals that I have the privilege of getting to know over the years. And I tell you if one day I have time, I'll sit down and I'll do an interview with every single one and compile a book of amazing women's stories.

And of course, the authors, books I've read written by female authors. The most recent one is called the Gift and the Choice by Dr. Edith Eger. She is a Holocaust survivor. And one thing that I learned from her is that we do not choose the situations we have found ourselves in, but we can choose how we approach, how we get over or overcome these situations that we have found ourselves in. So changing the lenses. Another one would be Dr. Brené Brown, vulnerable, daring greatly leadership.

And of course, Dr. Carol Dweck around this growth mindset conversation. So, yeah, I mean, plentiful of female leaders that I've had in my life.

Joon: Well, amazing. I'm honored and also humbled by you as well, Jo. Before we wrap up the session, what's the one piece of advice you would like to give to all the women out there?

Joanne: I don't claim to know it all. I'm still on this journey of learning and of growth like many of you who is listening in to this conversation. But drawing from my personal experience, this is what I would have to say. Do not despise your humble beginnings. Embrace the gifts and weaknesses, and who say we want a perfect human being or person? So, overcome your fears and go out there to make a difference. And last but not least, be kind; be kind to yourself, and be kind to the women around us.

And yeah, and as you carry on in this career journey, and as you climb the corporate ladder, and for some, they may not want to climb the corporate ladder, that's fine. But those of us who are on this journey, reach out a hand to the next person who is seeking to grow and develop as well. Support one another.

Joon: Well-said. Lovely to have you here, Joanne. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and also appreciate the words of advice to all the women out there. To our listeners and viewers, if you have missed the previous episodes of our International Women's Day leadership series, which we talk about recruiting female leaders at C-suite level, and also bridging the gap for women in tech, log on to our channel, Powering Potential with Robert Walters, which is available on Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts.

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