Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #9. Leading through Change with Soo Yee Leong

March 27, 2022 Jean Balfour Season 1 Episode 9
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #9. Leading through Change with Soo Yee Leong
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode Jean is joined by Soo Yee Leong. 

Soo Yee is an entrepreneurial corporate leader who enjoys working with people to create the future through innovating, solving problems and seizing opportunities, Soo Yee's energy, and her entrepreneurial spirit led her to becoming the first Asian member of the global executive team of the UK based ACCA (The Association for Chartered Certified Accountants). 

Over her 20 years of experience Soo Yee worked on a huge range of things, including business strategy, P & L management, enterprise growth, business, and digital transformation, marketing, strategic partnerships, and government relationships. She’s worked across many sectors, including professional educational, banking, insurance, quick service restaurants and energy.

She is passionate about the power of technology, particularly digital on improving lives and uplifting communities. She's also a strong advocate of inclusion and diversity and environmental sustainability. In addition to all this Soo Yee is a mentor on the look up mentor club, a mentoring platform that connects aspiring women professionals with industry leaders.

In this podcast Jean and Soo Yee talk about

  • The importance of vulnerability in leadership
  • How to make career transitions from expert to generalist and how to move sectors
  • Learning about how to break through glass ceilings

You can find Soo Yee here

https://www.linkedin.com/in/soo-yee-leong-928bb721/

Adam Grant’s Website

https://www.adamgrant.net/

Give and Take - Adam Grant

The Originals - Adam Grant

#vLookUpMentorClub

https://www.vlookup.ai/

Jean can be found here

https://jeanbalfour.com/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeanbalfour/

Jean:

Hi everyone. And welcome to this episode of making sense of work. Today I'm really pleased to be joined by Soo Yee Leong, Soo Yee and I have known each other for about six years. I think Soo Yee when we first met in a professional capacity. So welcome to the podcast.

Soo Yee:

It's my pleasure.

Jean:

Let me tell you a bit about Soo Yee. She is an entrepreneurial corporate leader with a growth mindset who enjoys working with people to create the future through innovating solving problems and seizing opportunities, Soo Yee's energy, and her entrepreneurial spirit led her to becoming the first Asian member of the global executive team of the UK based ACCA that's the association for chartered certified accountants for those of you who don't know. Over her 20 years of experience. Soo Yee worked. A huge range of things, including business strategy, P L management, enterprise growth, business, and digital transformation, marketing, strategic partnerships, and government relationships. And she's done this across many sectors, including professional educational memberships, banking, insurance, and quick service restaurants. I kind of look forward to hearing a bit about that. Soo Yee She is passionate about the power of technology, particularly digital on improving lives and uplifting communities. She's also a strong advocate of inclusion and diversity and environmental sustainability. In addition to all this Soo Yee is a mentor on the look up mentor club, a mentoring platform that connects aspiring women professionals with industry leaders. And I will put a link to that in the show notes. So again, Soo Yee welcome to the podcast today.

Soo Yee:

Thanks Jean. As I said, a huge pleasure to, to be here with you today.

Jean:

Good. I feel I so many questions to ask you, but I I'd like to start as we always start by asking you how's work at the moment.

Soo Yee:

Well, Jean, I have been on a sabbatical since November last year, so I'm coming into the 5th month and I know that I'm tremendously privileged to be able to do that. But I think that clarity of distance having the opportunity to step back and to kind of reflect. And to be more connected with myself has been doing wonders for me. and also thinking about what would be my life and career for the next 15 to 20 years. So it has been a most refreshing and invigorating sabbatical and time off work for me. And I, I would really recommend that to anybody. Uh, but of course, coming back to the point that I know I'm incredibly privileged to be able to do that. And not everyone maybe able to do that.

Jean:

Thank you for sharing that. I think, it's something that I often talk about this importance of taking the break, which you've described to get that perspective, to be able to step back and look at things. And also I imagine to regain some energy because you've had a pretty fast and full on career to this point and having that break, I imagine has really helped you to, to reboot yourself in a way.

Soo Yee:

Yes, I, I think, I really like the word reboot, rebooting myself and getting the energy from building new, new connections with people and learning about new things. So through my volunteer work and for the first time in my life, I'm doing physical volunteer work. Um, and I've said I've wanted to do that for the longest time. So finally, I've taken the plunge to start to do that and meeting new communities and segments of the community that I've never had exposure to and I've also signed up for some programs. So it has been really invigorating learning new staff, um, as well as, as those new connections,

Jean:

it doesn't sound like you are using your sabbatical to lie on the beach, then so

Soo Yee:

well, it's, it's a constant reminder to myself to continue to slow down.

Jean:

For all of us, I think in a, in a kind of link to that when you are working, what makes a good day for you at work?

Soo Yee:

A good day to me would have to be first, very intentional about how I show up to the workplace, whatever is the agenda of that day. But at the same time, at the end of the day, to be, to acknowledge myself that I've showed up the way that I intended to, um, as well as to have made a difference. And what I meant by showing up is with we've all worked through and we're still working through the pandemic. Mm. And enough said about how challenging it is, or it is still working through the pandemic. Um, so I, I think showing up to be very intentional about not only the, what to achieve in the day, but how one does it and the interaction with the people and being intentional and aware of how people may be going through their lives through it might be challenging situation it's important and I think that would help the, how would help to shape the, what that we want to achieve out of the day. Yeah. Wow.

Jean:

This is so important because that's that part about us being very intentional about being aligned with our values and leading in a way that is good for the people around us and working in a way is so important because often we, when we have regrets at the end of the day, it's not about what we did, but it's about how we have been.

Soo Yee:

Absolutely Jean. Absolutely.

Jean:

Mm. Yeah, no, that's, that's wonderful. It kind of nudges me actually to think about how I start my day to, to be very intentional about how do I want to be today and to add that to my list and my, to do list, I can have a, to be list as well.

Soo Yee:

Yeah, yeah. That has been one of the key learnings and insights and experimentation for me in the past two, two and a half years, because leading and working in the pandemic, it can be the same old play list. So with that experimentation it made a difference to myself as well as the people that I was working with. um, and I, I could see the impact and the outcome, the, what it was very clear. Mm. But, that leads us to kind of think and reflect, right. I been thinking about what leadership needs to look like now and into the future. And I'm, I'm still quite active, kind of consuming a lot of, insights and publications and social media posts on leadership and culture. And I think that would be one of the big areas that we need to continue to push for transformation, to continue to share learnings and insights. Um, as we work through, uh, what would be the upcoming few years, because there's a lot of. Studies and research that people are not going back to that old world prior to the pandemic. Mm mm.

Jean:

Yes. It's a, a massive number of people rethinking work and that we, as leaders are required to also rethink leadership. Then I'm, I'm really curious about that. And I'm curious about perhaps what's one aspect that you think as leaders we are required to pivot or shift in, in order to be more effective for the people we are leading in this space.

Soo Yee:

So I've been listening to some podcast on philosophy, philosophy bites, and of course, I know philosophers have been quite obsessed and they're still obsessing over how do we look at paradoxes? Right? And when I. Think about that to leadership and to the workplace when I first started to work and that were like decades ago, leadership of what that looked like is very different from what leadership is today. And I think that tension and is still happening about what a strong leader is, but versus what a weak leader is. But actually that blend of one can be strong and weak at the same time, but when I say weak, it's not a bad thing, right. Weak, it might be another word might be soft. So one can be a very go getting, process driven leader that is able to have all the technical knowledges and the processes. To get things done and achieved, but that soft, the softer part, the culture and the values of, and the behaviors is really important. And when I shared with you of my reflections about being a leader in the past two and a half years, that realisation that one needs to be hard and soft at the same time. It just brought things to life so much clearer for me. And the part about being soft. Um, we talked about being intentional, but at the same time show showing vulnerability was again, another big experimentation of mine. And I think without doing that, it would probably have been very different from that experience of working with people as well as the outcomes. So. again, showing vulnerability. What do I mean by that? Right? It's it's, it's being more open to be sharing as a person of where one was at the beginning of the day or every interaction. And they were all virtual for me, right in Singapore. And working with people, partners all over the world in different time zones. To me, it was even more important to step up on being present and showing more of myself and to at the reciprocity, to be able to do that through the virtual space, it opened up, a wider, shared neutral space to talk to connect, and to cocreate and therefore I think the outcomes were better and the connections were a lot more resilient.

Jean:

I'm gonna go into the weekend. I think thinking about hard and soft Soo Yee in that piece about vulnerability, I'm really struck by that. I think I love that idea that. We have to hold them in tension and share more of ourselves. Yeah. I also, um, Appreciate that journey that I hear you've been on of really honestly, perhaps even at the beginning of the pandemic, think about how do I need to lead differently through this and how do I need to be different in order for that to, to be effective in this virtual world, in this space. And that hearing you say that I needed to share more of myself to be more open. And, and I sometimes talk about it as being a bit more human. And, I personally believe it's been one of the beautiful things that have come out of the pandemic of people needing to sit in their living room, where the children running around having conversations with senior leaders somewhere else has been a little bit of a leveler, I think helped us to see each other for who we are in our whole and not just our work persona.

Soo Yee:

And, I really like how you Des describe that in terms of what is one of the beautiful things that meant have come out from, from this massive tragedy, um, and something that the world is still trying to work through as we speak. Um, I, I think that, beautiful, reflection and, and journey and the, and what leadership needs to look like and through the experimentation in the past two and a half years, I, I think it will transform leadership and culture of organisations, and that can be beautiful and that's very positive and, and very optimistic.

Jean:

And we need it to happen as well because actually people will continue to leave. If we don't make that shift to being more able, I think to create a sense of belonging in organizations, to help people to feel a part of something, to help people feel that they are genuinely valued and not just align on the P and L basically. And it's so important that we find the heart in leadership, I think, and we have an opportunity now to really dial that up.

Soo Yee:

To, to your point, Jean people are requiring that, and we are seeing that particularly on the next gen and, and the younger group. And I think the pace of change that we are seeing demands that change to. Better culture and better leadership. So in a way, it is, to me beyond a nice to do it is a business imperative for a business to survive actually from now into the future. Because if there is no transformation, they won't get the best people, but the same time, they won't be able to get the people in the organization to continue to innovate to the pace, which is required by any organization today.

Jean:

Your career, as we heard earlier has spanned, a wide range of types of work that you've done. And when I was looking at your bio, I was particularly struck by the move that you made from working in a, a leadership role in marketing, in insurance, into more general leadership, I guess, in a different sector in the professional body. And I know for a lot of people they're curious about how can we make transitions in our careers into different types of work perhaps, or different areas or different types of organizations. And I'd love to hear from you a little bit maybe, about how you did that and what the lessons are for from that type of transition.

Soo Yee:

This is a really interesting topic Jean. And I must say that my story was when I went into university. and I did, uh, a business, a BBA in the national university of Singapore. I was quite clear during that time that marketing and communications was the area I wanted to specialize in. And when I started to work I focused on marketing, I think for the first 20 years of my career. Um, and I, I couldn't see beyond marketing and I, I wasn't particularly having confidence and also seeing the need of why I needed to get out of the marketing specialization. So to your point, I was one of those of people, one of those groups of people that were focusing on the specialization, because I enjoyed it. I was passionate about it and I, I was doing well and. It brought me to different organizations and also acknowledgement. So why would I need to change? But, um, when I joined the insurance industry and it was at AIA, the organization was going through quite a number of changes in organization, and that was post the financial crisis. And at that time, one of my bosses at that time suggested to me to pick up an, a customer service and an operational role on top of my marketing portfolio. And I hesitated and I thought about it, uh, for a long time. And I said, okay, it's on top. It's a portfolio on top of marketing. So that gave me, I suppose, a back stop and a confidence. to just, okay, let's try out another portfolio. Uh, I took that up. It was eyeopening to go into the world of operations, insurance, underwriting customer experience that I had already a little bit of exposure, but, and I was in the prior companies. And after that, the next part of transformation was that there was a suggestion for me to transfer from marketing and operations, to do a sales job. For that I really hesitated. Um, and I was really at a crossroad about, oh, whether I need to make the shift. And I said, well, I was already in my forties. Right. If, if I don't try it, I, I never know. I would never know whether I can do sales and business development or not. So I took that up. It was eyeopening about business development, high engagement, and it was something that the experience and the insights proved to be so helpful in opening up my mind about the possibilities and looking and working on the other side of the fence. And, with that, I brought that on to then my career at the association of chartered certified accountants where marketing operations, customer service, business development sales, all just clicked into plates. So my insight and learning. Would be, is never say no. Yes. And when one is fearful, it probably is good to say yes, because that would be where the biggest learning would be. I'm. So that was the biggest insight and reflection for me. So since then, I've always been leaning in to when I feel uncomfortable and to try to make sense of that and try to take on more, more challenges that way, because I found that that was the easiest and the fastest way to grow as a human, as a professional and as a leader. Mm. And I wish that that transformation happened to me earlier, but it only happened to me in my forties.

Jean:

Never late, never too late though. true. That it's better that it happens. Yeah. Yeah. In a recent episode, I was talking with Andrew, Calvert a about lifelong learning and, and what you are describing is a really beautiful example of taking that risk. You, you took risks, you leaned into the discomfort and that in that there was a lot of learning and personal growth and career growth that served you very well. I think in, and taking those risks and leaning into it, even if it was scary, probably terrifying. And sometimes

Soo Yee:

Jean that leaning into fear, to be honest, that's still happening today. So even this podcast, right. That it's, it's something that I hesitated and I've got to kind of think about, and I was kind of feeling that, oh, is it something that I think I'm up to and I am I prepared to do it? And I've, I've got to just take the plunge to say yes. And here I am. So I, I think that journey of taking risk of leaning into the fear to grow and to learn, I think it, it never stops to your point, right. And it's a continued to journey for me.

Jean:

And, I wish for you and for me, and for everyone listening that we have the courage to keep doing that actually to keep leaning in, even when it's scary. And I'm very grateful. To you for leaning in to join me on the podcast.

Soo Yee:

thanks Jean my pleasure again, um, enjoying the conversation very much.

Jean:

When I was preparing for this, I read, an article about you that was in the business times here in Singapore. And in the article, you talked a bit about your father and the inspiration he had on your career. Would you be willing to share a little bit about him and how he inspired you in your career journey?

Soo Yee:

Well, my dad, um, was an entrepreneur quite late in life. I think it was only about in his forties that he started and he's always been working prior to that in different organizations. So I, I could see when I was. Like a teenager when I was a teenager, how he was trying to build his business and that entreprenurial approach and the go getting approach. And in those days, I remember that he was making all these trips to Europe to work on business opportunities and coming back home, telling us, all about his experiences and how being excited about the opportunities. So I, I could see that he, he was very, uh, driven because he had to provide for the family, but yet he took the plunge when he had a young family to feed because he had a dream and he, he just put everything that he had to work towards his dream and to build his business. So that actually had a very positive impact on me. And it was very inspirational to me, that spirit of going after one dream was really, you know, it really stayed with me.

Jean:

I'm also hearing a parallel to your own description of leaning into fear, actually, 'cos I imagined that he, some of those things, he had to lean into fear as well in, in what he was doing very much so mm-hmm. Mm. And yet that, that was a wonderful inspiration for you. Yeah. As we've been hearing, one of the things that you've. achieved in your career is that you've broken at least one glass ceiling. And, um, I'm curious about that you are learning. So what you would share to people who are, um, perhaps looking up in the organization and not seeing people who are similar to them yet are feeling ambitious and know they want to grow. What advice would you give to them to help them to keep pressing against that ceiling? Whatever it is, whether it's being a woman or being Asian in a multinational? What are the suggestions that you have for people?

Soo Yee:

For me, the key learning and reflection was that it's about, it starts with awareness. So it's like a child. who visits a new playground for the first time and joins a group of friends that have been played that forever. So if the individual was that child, how would the child be joining that group? Because the way that they play the swings may be very different from how you play this way in your own neighborhood or the way that they take their turns or not take turns, you know, play the roundabout or the slides might be very different from, you know, so for, for that new group, it might be whoever gets their first, get the chance, but in your neighborhood and in your group of friends, it may be, oh, the youngest. Get to go first for instance. So my reflection and learning about joining a new group or team would be the piece first about awareness. So when I say awareness is not only about awareness of that group, the behaviors and the unspoken rules, the culture, is also about awareness of one self right on, are there blind spots or things that we haven't acknowledged or recognized within ourselves so that we are able to first be aware of. The operating rythym and also chat with the group and work with the group so that they are aware of what you stand for your values why is that? So right. So that from awareness, it turns into understanding the why behind you do what you do and everyone on the team do what they do. And also why one suggestions or insights are that way. Right? So, because your earlier point Jean, about if one or minority trying to join, there is actually a lot of interest. and wanting to know your views, the insights and what you can bring to the table. So to provide that understanding of the worldview and to clearly articulate what your stakeholders need is so important to shape the outcomes, the how, and the what of this group, if you get what I think. Right? So through awareness of the group and one self, the understanding of the group and telling the story so that the group understands what you stand for, what is needed by your group of stakeholders, then we'll be able to, develop trust and trust is so important, right? Because then back to that group at the playground, For that group to embrace this newcomer in and to play games where they know that this individual can be trusted and therefore to have open conversations, even challenging conversations can be had is important, right. For good play. Um, and I think that trust it doesn't come easy. It needs to be earned and it takes all parties within the group to make it work. So to me, those are the reflection for awareness, understanding and trust. Um, because as, as I said, To anyone who is kind of thinking about joining a group and looking upwards or joining a group that he or she may not be comfortable with is to think about that. That group is really interested in your story and your insights because is you'll be able to provide the perspective so that the outcome and objective of the group can be so much better because of your insights so that hopefully can give the confidence and the impetus to kind of confronting that question today.

Jean:

I love how you've, shared that. I I've never really thought about it like this, that some of what you're describing is is that when I go into a space where I'm different to the people there, I find a way to share more of myself and my story and how I came to be there then less. And I think often when we go into those settings, we're inclined to be quite quiet. And then of course, people can make assumptions about us, but if we are willing and lean into the fear again, to share a little bit of not only our perspective, but the story and the culture and the heritage, but behind our perspective and how it links into, our worldview then we help people to understand us more. And I imagine, listen to us more, I that's really powerful that we also have a responsibility, as you are saying, to be curious about the backstory behind everybody else as well. And that it's in, in that curiosity, that we can come into those groups where hopefully the difference slips away and we are able to come together and work really effectively together.

Soo Yee:

On the effort and the stepping up to tell the story and to speak up. I, I think, uh, another key point would be stepping up to build those human connections. That shared understanding and to build the trust because I, I don't think there is any shortcut. Of course it will be very jarring, right? If, the, the new kid on the block, joins this group and start to, I suppose shout, and give lots of suggestions without buildings, one's credibility, building sufficient understanding and connection. So I think that investment in individual relationships, understanding and trust would be very important as one joins.

Jean:

Thanks, Soo Yee There's, some group theory that talks about actually, it's really hard to break into a group. Because the group has its norms, it's like your playground example. It's beautiful. Actually those group norms are there. Um, and one way to do that is, as you are saying, is to build those individual connections, to take as much time as it takes, to get to know the individuals within the group, because then you build the trust on the individual level. And that helps to bring that trust into the group level and across that. Yeah. As we come towards the end of our conversation, would you be willing to share a book or a podcast, or you've already mentioned that you are doing lots of learning at the moment on your sabbatical. So what's one or two things that you are leaning into listening to, to help you with that process?

Soo Yee:

Well, I've always enjoyed, Adam Grant who is a professor at the Wharton Business school and has written a number of books. The latest one that I've just read is give and take. And I'm repeating another one, which is the originals. I think the key areas of, of interest and what he shares to his books is really about having a scientific lens to human psychology and using that scientifically based insights to shape how we into interact with people and lead teams. And I it's incredible from the insights perspective and how, if we don't have the insights from the science approach, that if we approach our, our interactions, without that knowledge it's reinventing the wheel and so I would really encourage, the podcast audience and everyone who's interested to be engaging in this role of. The science based human psychology, because I, I think it'll make our own lives so much easier. and enjoyable.

Jean:

And I can see you coming alive as you talk about it. So I can see the impact. And I will, of course put a, a link in the show notes to, to Adam Grant's work and body of work. Soo Yee thank you so much for joining me. The time has gone really quickly in our conversation. Um, as I've mentioned, there's a theme for me that I hear in your career that you've been willing to, um, lean into things that were. different and new and exciting in the right from when you were asked to take on additional duties in your insurance role, in your own marketing, right through to taking a sabbatical now, which I'm sure was another one of those steps. And I'm also hearing, um, your thoughtfulness and your intentionality about how you are as a leader and, and how you are willing also to change in that and how you have done that through the pandemic and thinking about how do I need to show up differently. And I, I know you did that successfully because I know people who know you in that context. Um, So thank you so much for sharing today. So much of yourself and your wisdom and insights, and yeah, it's been great to have this time with you. Thanks so much, Jean.