Jean Khong
Mar 20, 2024

The habits of highly effective women

Note: No men were harmed in the writing of this piece. The author of this op-ed values mentorship from all genders, and is presently happy to work under a boss who supports women.

Jean Khong
Jean Khong

I used to approach International Women’s Day celebrations with a sense of bemusement. To be bemused is to be slightly confused. I only realised why I felt that way a few years ago, and the reason is because I have always had the privilege of working in organisations that treasure meritocracy and walked the talk about gender equity and inclusion.

Throughout the span of my career—first in PR agencies, then in banking, and now retail—I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the power of gender diversity. For example, sharper insights leading to more impactful campaign results. I have also been guided by strong female mentors who helped to open doors and pave the way by fearlessly breaking through glass ceilings.

About 18 months ago, when I first decided to make the jump from banking to the retail industry with FairPrice Group, it was a chance to advance a social mission that I wholeheartedly believe in. Amid the unprecedented cost-of-living pressures faced by the man on the street, how does one keep daily essentials within reach at affordable prices for all in Singapore? It was a challenge, especially when much of our food supply is still being imported.

So, what do women have to do with this? Well, in my role, I oversee strategic communications which encompasses PR and corporate communications, internal communications, social media and content, community engagement, and sustainability public education. It is a newly formed department to amplify our care and concern for all in Singapore.

As the team was being created and structured, there were many candidates for each leadership role. I ended up with four extremely capable female leads—not because I set out to assemble an all-female team, but because they had the best experience and heart for the job to be done.

We were essentially tasked to rebuild the plane mid-flight, but as I reflect on the time that has passed, what stood out was my team’s ability to bring their head and heart to work. As with every newly created function, there were departments which were reoganised, roles to be redefined, and most importantly feelings to be managed, and emotions to be soothed. My female leaders are the women who have been through thick and thin with me.

Without their incredible tenacity, their ability to effectively manage multiple stakeholders, and to pull rabbits out of hats regardless of resource or time pressure, the team would not have achieved such things as bringing the bulk of content creation in-house or extending our lead in share-of-voice.

So, what sets female leaders apart? Here are my ABCs of female leadership. They are what I have observed from my amazing team leads and also from my own experiences throughout the ups and downs of leadership:

  • Authenticity: Great leaders bring their ‘true’ selves to work. What you see is what you get. They are purpose-driven at work and outside of work, they are congruent in their values. Because of this, they inspire and earn the trust of their teams and stakeholders.
  • Balanced and adaptable: Women are intuitive and they somehow know when to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony. Most of us, when we allow ourselves to, will be able to hear that still-small voice telling us when to let go and when to get back in the thick of action. This isn’t easy especially for first-time managers. It takes a certain level of trust, experience and courage to take ownership when things go awry (which they most certainly will). But a woman’s can-do spirit means that nothing is too hard or too trivial for us to roll up our sleeves to get back into the thick of it.
  • Compassion and collaboration: Great leaders engage from a place of empathy and care. Being tasked with pulling the organisation together to align communications can be unwieldy and intimidating, but leaders need to always be open to collaboration, take the lead to broker win-win and practical solutions, and get on with it without hesitation no matter how complex or uncomfortable a task is deemed.
  • Courage to learn, un-learn and re-learn: Female leaders today have to be courageous. They have to be willing to make the tough decisions, take calculated risks, and embrace ambiguity especially when consumer behaviour is changing at such a rapid pace. Leaders have to be willing to develop new skills, read and research, and take a stand. I often do this by asking someone to teach me something that I don’t understand and then repeat it back to them. Or I take an online course or make an appointment with an expert in the field, and I also proactively encourage my colleagues to do the same.

I am fully aware that I write this standing on the shoulders of pioneering women who have generously mentored and coached me. I acknowledge that there are women out there who may not have had the privilege to speak up, to be developed, to be rewarded for their good work or to have strong female mentors. So what’s my top tip for getting one?

Be intentional; identify a few women that you look up to and strike up a friendship. Be humble, ask for advice, lean into it and don’t be afraid to make the first move. If you are working with the person, consistently over-deliver to build trust before building a deeper relationship. And most importantly, be thick-skinned.

And finally, my top tip to thrive in the corporate world: It’s ok to be rejected. Just take it on the chin, reflect, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come and get back in the game tomorrow.

Jean Khong is head of group strategic communications for FairPrice Group.

Campaign Asia

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