You have made a number of career changes from working and serving in the public sector to country leadership. What is the mindset that drove all of these changes?
We have to go back 25 years, when I first started my role in the National Computer Board. I was a business Graduate, so I knew nothing about IT. The National Computer Board set the foundation and my belief that nothing is impossible. I still remember the early days when I was trained as a programmer. So I’m quite grateful to some of my mentors at that point in time, who taught me how to program. And since then, I believed that nothing is impossible. Even though I worked for the government sector and moved to Microsoft and have now become a country leader, my passion will always be the government and public sector. Of course, I do bring that experience to the SMB, as well as the commercial enterprise sector. I strongly believe in creating impact. What is the net impact that I can contribute to the society, the community, as well as to other businesses?
There is this belief that women have to navigate a number of beliefs and biases before they climb to the top. What battles did you have to face?
I never thought that being a woman was a disadvantage as women have different strengths. We exercise a little bit more empathy. I define empathy as putting myself in other’s shoes and seeing things from their viewpoint. And also, we are good negotiators. It is a soft skill. Whether within the organization, across a line of business, or with a third party likes our partners, as well as our customer, women negotiate in a way that we can have a win-win for both parties.
Negotiation is a core skill. How did you sharpen your negotiation skills?
I wasn’t an overnight negotiator. I learned how to do this and until today, I’m still learning. Before we could even start negotiating with the customer or partners, we must put ourselves in their shoes – what do they have at the top of their mind? What can I give and get in the negotiation process? That’s why I always focus on the win-win. We can do some beautiful collaboration in this way.
You should not lead a customer conversation with, ‘I want to sell you something’. You always lead with, ‘I care’. You must genuinely care for them and care for their business, and through that the trust gets established.
You mentioned empathy. This is important when you lead teams and are engaging with customers. Are women more empathetic than men? what is your experience?
I feel that some men are also very empathetic. I was conducting a leadership workshop within my team, and someone asked me a question – ‘Does it mean we are weaker if we apply empathy?’. I said no. In fact, you must have a clear mind in terms of making the desired outcome a priority. Think about what is your desired outcome? How do you strike a win-win? Then apply empathy on top of that and put yourself in that person’s shoes. Think about how do we collaborate? How do we work together? How do we win together? Once this is done, there will be balance. So no, applying empathy will not make one appear weak. In fact, if we use the correct technique, it will be to our benefit.
They say that the biggest impediment to organizational progress is lack of teamwork. In your experience, what has worked well for teamwork and orchestration?
In this world, a lot of businesses are still fairly siloed in nature. How do we bring together great minds, and then win, not only for ourselves, but together for the customer? So teamwork and orchestration can also lead to a win-win for all parties. And teams will come together when they see that. People always want to know what’s in it for them. So you have to find a balance. Let’s say there is a team of five people, you need to think about what is each and every person’s need? Do we have an aligned goal? Once we have an aligned goal, what is the strategy we will deploy to make sure everybody has a win in that situation?
When we look at organizations and teamwork, one of the elements that people talk about, or don’t talk about, is politics.
Politics is like the undercurrent. When it comes to handling politics, I would rather not put the politics up front but instead address what is most important. For example, if we have a customer requirement, we put that customer as a common goal, and we align on that. There will still be slight politics here and there because everybody wants to gain more, but the politics is quite trivial. For example, in my current job, there is a worldwide customer based out of Europe. When they have a license, or the work system is purchased, it will get deployed worldwide. But as a country lead, I also want to serve my customer branch here. So I need to collaborate and work together to see how we can enlighten the customer and delight the customer. Not just from a headquarter standpoint, but also in the branches and the subsidiaries so that we can together and become a stronger team.
Diversity is empowerment. What is it about diversity that you would love to share?
Throughout my career, diversity has always been part and parcel of the conversation. I don’t focus on whether it is a man or a woman, I focus on the team and not on the gender. I focus on their capabilities. So when we look at forming teams, I look at what roles require what type of capabilities, and I will look for those capabilities. So men and women are equal. I will accept not only diversity in gender but diversity in races, diversity in religion, etc. I welcome all of them because we focus on the core skills that the person can bring and contribute to the success of the team.
Not many women get to where you are. What advice do you have for women who want to be at the top?
Be yourself. Be authentic. This could also be learned along the way. We also need to apply a bit more of empathy. I use the word empathy a lot. Especially in the last two years due to the Covid situation, I was checking on my team members, peers, colleagues and even my superior. Asking how people are and thinking how you can support them goes a long way. During this festive season, I have sent a small token of appreciation to each person’s home, and it puts a smile on their face.
Covid has forced a lot of organizations and people to change. From your vantage point how have sales and salespeople changed?
There were multiple changes. Not only for ourselves but for the organisation too. We had to change our mindset. For example, we had to think about how to engage with the customer via virtual meeting. I saw a lot more customers, partners, and even our counterparts in the industry, accepting virtual meetings as the norm. Most deals over the last two years have closed over a zoom negotiation since we can’t meet face to face. I realized that there were windows of opportunity for two or five people to meet up. In fact, when we bring the customer and team together, everybody tries hard. So, a strong relationship got built over this period of time through a different way of working.
How would you describe the gap or the deficit? What do salespeople need to learn more of?
Be proactive. Be curious. And, again, exercise empathy. Pick up the phone and check on the customer. Ask them how they are doing and how is everything for them. Ask if there is anything you can help with. You should not lead the conversation with, ‘I want to sell you something’. You always lead with, ‘I care’. You must genuinely care for them and care for their business, and through that the trust gets established. Have a ‘no agenda’ call or a ‘no agenda’ lunch. That will be the best advice for other salesmen for the longevity of the sales leadership.
There are a lot of people who would have helped you on this path to leadership. Tell me about your best manager and what you learned.
I have a few people who taught me how to lead. But I remember when I was an individual contributor, my direct manager helped me build a very strong powerful foundation of forecasting. He also ensured that I established my credibility because that has to float upwards. Fundamentally for a salesperson, accurate forecasting builds credibility. So, during the initial phase of my career I learned the technique. And when I became a team lead, I started to help others with the concept of forecasting. I also helped them understand the customer’s needs. We are not a product pusher; we are a solution provider. We do solutioning for the customer. We put aside what directly impacts us and instead look at the holistic picture.
When I became a segment leader, I looked at the big picture. I lead with vision and strategy, and I aligned my team members and made sure everybody was headed in the same direction. This was important. Every year, I will start with a vision, a strategy and quarterly checkpoints on whether we meet that vision and strategy, and then empower the team leads to execute the business. Even now, as a country lead, I not only share my strategy and vision, but I execute and show the team that we can do it together. I always had a philosophy of ‘better together’. And that is how we will meet our goals and objective.
There is an article in HBR that says that the most successful leader is called a ‘connector leader’. Much like you, they are able to connect people, resources, capabilities, expertise, etc. How can other leaders become the same way?
Someone on my team asked me this question before. They wanted to know if I could train them to become like me, a connector leader, where I connect the dots and see the vision more clearly. I think this is a behaviour or a habit for me. But it also takes a lot of practice. My foundation of training in the government has probably been useful because from a government standpoint, we always look at the nationwide possibility, nationwide solution, and nationwide resources. So that’s where we need to be creative and hunt for the best from the world. So connecting the dots became a natural instinct for me. When I solve a problem, I don’t solve it alone. I look at how I can bring the best talent and the best people onto the team and work on it together.
They say a person is defined by their failures because that’s what gives maximum learning. What have you learned from your failures?
I would say throughout my life, and at every turning point, there have been some great learnings. For example, in my transition of various roles as a salesperson, I’ve had great customers and also customers who were sceptical about all the products as well as the organization. So how do you overcome that? My greatest sense of achievement was when I turned around a super unhappy customer. I still remember when I was a direct salesperson, I went and asked the customer for their direct feedback – how have we offended you? Or is there any room for improvement? I sat there for three hours and listened to the customer completely download everything on me. But then, if we are patient enough to understand their problem, and we progressively make changes and day by day regain their trust, the rewards are great. In fact, this customer has been my best friend for the last 20 years. So, someone who is your customer now can become a friend later. If you ask me what the learning is, I will say be patient and practice active listening, not only for a customer but even your partners, internal colleagues and staff. Understand the problem and then think about how we can help them solve it. We may not be perfect, but we will know how to progress step by step and gain trust and gain that credibility? As a salesperson, you must have the courage to have difficult conversations. I always see the upside of things and that is my mentality.
So this customer has been with you for 20 years. How can organisations make customers for life?
I believe what makes ‘customers for life’ is that you are true to them. Then you will be the first person they will call when the company has a new vision or are looking for a transformation. Sometimes a company will call me and tell me that their business has become stagnant, and they want to leapfrog. How can they do it? I will discuss options and ideas, understand the scenario and where the customer wants to be. Most of the time, I do not have the answer myself. So how do we connect the dots? I go out into the world, and I hunt for solutions. I’d also call a few executives, talk to developers and even though I don’t understand the language they speak, I will tell them what the customer wants. I will ask them how we can put things together to support the customer’s request. What is the best solution? How can we put our best foot forward?
What has your journey taught you about your purpose in life?
My purpose in life is to see how I can bring a certain level of impact that is within my ability. I will not be able to change the world, but at every stage of my life, I am trying to create some impact. When I was in the government, we built programs to build up the capability of IT professionals. In fact, that program is still intact today. It is called CITREP+ or Critical Infocomm Technology Resource Programme PLUS. The mechanism has evolved, but the concept and the objective is still there, to support IT professionals to reskill themselves. So at every stage of my life I built and created impact for the business. For example, in my early days in Microsoft, there was a concept of introducing tablets in schools. There was a huge pilot in MOE schools and that’s how we built this. It was not successful in 100% of the schools but we kept tweaking it to make it more pervasive, especially now with Covid when children are studying from home. I also want to check through my new role and my current role as a country lead, what are the impacts that I can bring to my organization, my teams, as well as individuals in the organization. I want to bring out the best in everybody.