Finding Your Way Forward - an Interview with Cheri Ong

Liquid Learning | The 4th Women in Operations Leadership Summit

10-11th April, 2018, Melbourne, Australia


I had the privilege of interviewing Cheri Ong, Chair and Founder of the Asian Australian Foundation and Former Asia Pacific Chief Operating Officer for KPMG Asia Pacific Risk Management for The 4th Women in Operations Leadership Summit by Liquid Learning.

Cheri is an inspiring leader, passionate about passing forward learnings and wisdom from her years of experience to the many generations of women to come. This article is a must-read for women aspiring to be or already in leadership roles and highlights the valuable learnings gained in Leadership Summits held by Liquid Learning.

Did you always know you wanted to have a highly influential career as a strong female leader?

No. My reality early on in financial services law saw me slightly bored and I couldn’t see myself continuing down that path. It was same-old-same-old. I turned my mind to my strengths, which happened to be in structure and process. I think self-awareness in leadership is important, especially knowing your strengths. Law gave structured thinking and I have a knack for getting from to A to B. Lawyers are very good at giving legal advice but sometimes not great at operationally implementing that advice. That was how I found my niche. I was able to demonstrate my ability to do that with organisations I was working with.

The key message is that sometimes you don’t see your strengths or the opportunities immediately, and if you’re trained in a particular field then your skills fall into that school of thinking. If you can look for strengths that are transferrable it avoids the difficulties that arise from being identified as a particular ‘category’.

My advice – find opportunity. When leading through change, people need to see that change is the one constant. In a professional mindset, change is scary. Change and risk management go hand-in-hand at higher levels. It’s not the process that’s difficult, it’s the change that’s difficult but it’s the one constant. If you can accept and adopt that as your mindset, you can look for the opportunities that come with those changes. People don’t look for the opportunities enough.

Change in my career provided me with the opportunity of being able to demonstrate and personally test myself as to whether I could do it. I’ve got to take a risk and back myself. More often than not, most women when given the opportunity, run away from change that will actually bring the opportunities. The result of change has always presented opportunities that enabled career progression. So embrace change. Don’t fight it. Many people, both men and women, look for the multitude of reasons that they can’t instead of thinking about ways that they can. For example, when I was offered the role of COO for Asia Pacific with KPMG, the role hadn’t existed. The initial expectation for the role was the usual stereotypical “type” i.e. male; it was not a “wanted” role. This became an opportunity.

By seeing beyond obstacles and looking for possibilities, I was able to make the role into what I wanted it to be. I got to put my mark on the role and I believe I did that successfully. The role and the operations moved up a step. I was the first female and first Asian in that role. I didn’t think much of it until a young lady in Seoul said “I’m so amazed that you are in this role”. I said “what do you mean?” and she said she didn’t think a woman, let alone an Asian woman, could be in this role. This was because in her organisation at the time, the number of women in leadership roles was minimal. She hadn’t seen it happen and until she saw me in the role, she didn’t consider it possible. Now, that role keeps being filled by women. I surprised myself. I had the courage not to be intimidated by change.

Once you’re committed, then you work through the hardship that comes. So put up your hands, take a risk and back yourself.

Question: How do you manage people trying to tear you down and how important is the support of your superiors?

Things fail terribly when staff are not supported – you can’t achieve change when you’re trying to fight. I developed a very thick skin. One thing I made sure to ask is that my bosses backed me 100% with their support and guidance. I knew there were things that I didn’t know – politics, who’s who, etcetera and I relied on their senior wisdom and their help to navigate that. It takes time to attain wisdom and accurate judgement. I learnt great lessons from people who were “grey-haired” at the time. You need that sponsorship to succeed and my bosses were very good.

Question: How did you know when it was time to move on from a role?

I had made commitments to the organisation and to my team and I chose to honour my commitments. My professional integrity has always been very important to me and I stay until the job I said I would do has been done. Eventually I believe we make ourselves redundant. So I always plan for my exit and succession..

Build those who do support you - there is a risk management strategy in this. Carry yourself with integrity and you will always have respect. You can agree to disagree and have heated discussions but at the end of the day you have respect. Do it for the benefit of the organisation first and you have respect.

Question: In times of adversity when people are disagreeing and you’re the advocate for change – do you have strategy for managing that?

Build trust as much as you can. Asking people to change is difficult. Some days you win, some days you lose. Many times I think “Could I have done something or approached things differently?”. Maybe. One mistake I’ve made is being too trusting; too often giving people the benefit of the doubt. In saying that, each scenario is different. You learn from each scenario and even then, it’s about observing human nature.

Question: In your eyes, what are the key differences between a leader and a manager?

You manage people operationally. Whereas a leader inspires. You can’t lead if nobody follows. A leader walks beside his or her team. You bring out the best in others and help them be their best. I have also encountered many women that don’t aspire to be a leader or be in a leadership role and that’s an interesting counter-point for me.

Too often people assume leaders are leaders because they’re given a role that’s viewed as a ‘leadership role’ or a title and with that title comes expectation that you will earn respect automatically. This is particularly evident with less mature people. With a title, people, (often in their earlier days) tend to put their interests first and respond in a manner that they think someone in that role should behave. Leadership and respect is definitely earned. Leadership is very much about contribution and it’s about “duty before self”. More often than not we see people given titles and ‘roles of leadership’ or because they’re good at something and have strong technical skills; not because they inspire and bring out the best in others. We often get these things mixed up.

Question: You mentioned an interesting counter-point earlier. What did you mean by that?

It’s been a difficult journey for women. In the past it was a terrible thing to fall pregnant and women weren’t expected rise to leadership roles. Women were also expected to take their husband’s name. I didn’t and it felt like an odd defiance during that time.

Sometimes I wonder whether some women have forgotten that journey, but I understand more and more that right now is an opportunity for women to define who they want to be and the type of leadership they want. Women bring to the platform a new definition of leadership. The constructs we have today are very male oriented. Hopefully as more and more women rise up, we begin to find a way to effect change within these constructs. For example, women aren’t men but we seem to believe that we have to gravitate behaviour wise towards a “male template” to progress our careers. That’s not the case. It’s ok to show compassion and be nurturing. It’s ok to be human..

Women have an opportunity to pay it forward. We have a way of making work more inclusive and by paying it forward, like the #metoo movement, we pave the path for women, generations to come.

Question: Is there anything you see happening today that if we did it differently we could effect change sooner?

The main point that comes to mind is for us to acknowledge both gender disparity and that existing criteria which form the basis of many power constructs are usually influenced and applied through “male coloured lenses” by both men and women. For example, awareness of the application rather than the criteria, such as the often quoted “people are promoted on merit” needs further consideration. If this were wholly true, more women would be in senior executive and leadership roles. It doesn’t happen that way because it’s interpretational. It should be ok for a woman not to sound or behave like a man. Women shouldn’t have to prove themselves against a measure interpreted and applied through such a lens. When we consider cultural diversity, that is an additional coloured (pardon the pun!) lens.

I hope that more organisations will reflect on this and as women, we need to watch ourselves. We’ve learnt the rules of the game. We need to be more self-aware of when we interpret criteria in a way that reinforces such constructs. We’ve grown up in the game, learnt the game and we play the game. We need to make sure we don’t reinforce the game and lose ourselves in the game but instead, should aim to change the game. Women are often the ones who enforce tradition in society, so we need to reflect and ask ourselves, are we reinforcing the very attributes that we ourselves object to?

Another point is that success is not success if you cannot bring others with you. We should have the courage to stand up, to find our voice to bring about change.

Question: What advice would you give for others?

  1. Support – talk to someone if you’re unsure. Select your mentors and your sponsors carefully. Often you can be overly optimistic of an opportunity or be underwhelmed. It depends on whether you’re a glass half full or empty kind of person.

  2. Have coaches and people around you that you trust and who are objective, mature and wise. People who will actually help you. Most women, when given the opportunity and the door creeps open a little, if they walk through it they’ll be able to do it. If you find that there are things in your SWOT analysis that you don’t know how to do – turn your mind to how you can fill that gap.

  3. Weakness – I don’t generally suffer fools very well, I can get impatient. Relying on your team to make decisions is important. It can be annoying if the information’s not up to scratch and in high performance environments there’s a lot of competition. So quality of information is important. Find ways to plug your weaknesses. I’ve built a really good team around me that complements me and also keeps me in check. For example, if we have a need for more junior people, I put someone else in charge of that person so not only does the junior person get the attention they need, the person I appoint is given responsibility. Find ways that don’t turn your mind to the barriers. Do what you can to plug it with something or someone else and empower that person by giving them ownership.

  4. Be efficient. Manage to people’s strengths. Why not let them run with things they’re good at? Don’t micromanage. The buck of course stops with you as their leader and you have that responsibility so do keep an eye out. By building your team, you’ll create a good team. That’s essential. You need to be able to trust them. Always aim for loyalty in a team, it’s the most under-rated but most rare of attributes in any team. “A house divided falls but a house united will always pull through in times of change.” If we fail, we fail as one. If we succeed we succeed as one. Success is not singular. I prioritise spending time, at least 1 hour a week, with each team member to talk. Not just about work but generally and even more personally. On a practical level we spend between 10 – 12 hours together each day. That’s more time than with our partner or family. By spending time, it engenders loyalty. You have to care for your team. That’s what makes them come to work and improves your likelihood of trust, loyalty and success.

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