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Chay Geok Lee - Women In Leadership Interview Series

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We curated the Women in Leadership Interview Series to gain insights from some of the most successful female leaders in APAC who have scaled to the top of their profession. The series addresses work place issues that affect all professionals, and hones in on the unique challenges women encounter.

Chay Geok Lee is the Head Of Operations, Corporate Risk & Broking, Asia Pacific at Willis Towers Watson. To learn her wild childhood, how tic-tac-toe game sparked her interest to study computer science to today heading the insurance operations for Asia Pacific and covering 15 countries at Willis Towers Watson. She has also shared the greatest lessons she has learned, advice to other female professionals who are just starting out in their career, how can female executives stay relevant in tech space, how can we attract more females to be interested in STEM while women are traditionally intimidated by it and many more.

Full Transcript

[Sabrina] So Chay Geok thank you so much for today. First question is "What was your childhood like?"

[Chay Geok] I’m a little wild-child you know, I like to roam around, like to run, like to explore things as a whole. I would be out in the fields, catching spiders, and crickets, and stuff like that. You know in Singapore we’re in a village area. So you can find these rough patches of grass, where you find grasshopper and stuff like that.

And as I was growing up I have a sister who’s in computer science. She was developing tic-tac-toe at home. Of course, you know how programming was feeling left right center but then it caught my interest. And well this is really interesting. So I was a history, geography, literature major but after seeing what my sister was doing. I decided to switch computer science in the university.

[Sabrina] Can I say that your ambition at that time as a child, is to study Computer Science because you saw how amazing things your sister was doing just with codes?

[Chay Geok] It was. I mean. It was the realization that I can program my own games that caught me motivated. Really.

[Sabrina] And Chay Geok can you tell us more about your current role now?

[Chay Geok] I am in a very interesting role. I’m heading the operations. Insurance operations for Asia Pacific, so covering around 15 countries. So Willis Towers Watson is a broking insurance company, we’re responsible for basically as operations and to make sure that the brokers have enough support at the back end. Our team is basically responsible for supporting the brokers on day to day basis especially when it comes to entering data into the system. Generating the documentation and doing all the follow up.

So I run basically also a center in Mumbai and China. Basically, offshoring a lot of operations for these two companies in these two countries.

[Sabrina] Chay Geok what are the main challenges you face as a female leader?

[Chay Geok] Perhaps you could say I’ve been quite fortunate. I don’t see much difference between a female and male leader. I have been, maybe perhaps you can say, I’m quite blessed I have been in great companies that doesn’t do distinction between a male and female. We have given equal opportunities.

But of course there are certain things, for example Willis Towers Watson. It’s a fantastic company that promotes mobility, promotes flexibility, especially female leaders that has family commitments they can actually work from home. Any point in time. There’s no limit. You can work 5 days a week if it’s required and come up for client meetings or team meetings.

[Sabrina] That’s wonderful. I think that’s probably one of the top policies and benefits that female are looking for. And Chay Geok, you’re one a growing number of women in largely male dominated field. What was it like when you’re first started out?

[Chay Geok] It’s good interesting question. Well I could really feel it. Actually in university because Computer Science as a college has always been male dominated. So coming out to work. Well you kinda feel comfortable with that.

However, you still have to continue to prove your worth. You have to be as good as your male counterparts basically. If not more, because you have to prove yourself, especially as you mention it’s a male dominated industry.

But I think we’re all equal you know, whether it’s a male or female, there’s no stopping you to seek opportunities, there is actually there.

[Sabrina] Definitely. The sky is the limit.

[Chay Geok] Precisely.

[Sabrina] Who have been your role models?

[Chay Geok] A very influential role model for me is actually my first boss when I joined Allianz.

She’s a French lady working in Singapore. And her personal life is reflective of, she has a personality. She’s French but she left to work in Germany as a nanny, and then she went to US to work as a nanny, and she decided to go to Japan to study Japanese.

Subsequently she came to Singapore. And like, wow this person is fantastic. She was my first manager when I joined Allianz and I’ve learned a lot from her, I looked up to her.

So today she’s still doing very very well. She’s in a senior role in one of the insurance companies here. And I still go to her for advices, she’s always my reference person whenever there’s a job.

[Sabrina] And how has she influenced you? Because you shared with us how diverse she basically is, and yeah, what did she do to influence you?

[Chay Geok] I was a growing manager at that point in time. So she acts a manager, she was showing to me literally her management styles and I really really enjoyed it. I really embraced it.

You could say she’s a strong manager but yet she has empathy. And that to me was very important. She’s a no nonsense person but yet when you have your challenges when you talk to her. She’ll be able to guide you to resolve your issues on hand. So for me it’s a fantastic role model in terms of manager, when I saw her and work with her. I’ve decided this is kind of a manager I want to be and this is the management style I want to adopt. It’s really be a strong leader but you must have empathy, you must treasure the team that you work with.

[Sabrina] Chay Geok, what have been the greatest lessons you learned along the way?

[Chay Geok] The ability to adapt changes. I think agility this is something very very key, you must be agile, you must be able to adapt to changes that is around you. Because there’s nothing that is constant in this world in this environment. Things are constantly changing around us. Business changing. Environment is changing and work is changing as well. I mean bosses are changing all the time as well.

[Sabrina] And what would you say is the hardest decision you have had to make to grow your career?

[Chay Geok] I stayed for a very long time in my second job, Allianz but within the company, I had several roles, as well as learnings as well. For me to leave the company, I love the company really. To leave that company after more than 15 years, was a very big challenge for me, I had you could say sleepless nights.

But for me it was that decision, to be bold and not to be fearful, you know, to really explore what is out there in the market, well the market is not just Allianz even though it’s really one of the top insurance companies.

But really to see what is out there in the world. It’s that decision to be bold and not to look back, and just go.

[Sabrina] Took the leap of fate.

[Chay Geok] Yes. More than the leap of fate is to believe in yourself basically to make the decision.

[Sabrina] Be confident. Believe in yourself. That’s amazing.

[Sabrina] And Chay Geok, you’re clearly a very accomplished individual. And what advice would you give to other female professionals who are just starting out in their career?

[Chay Geok] I would say perhaps three points. I’d like to give to these young people joining the market.

First of all, is to be agile, you need to change. Second is be bold, no fear, just do what you think is right. Final point is be happy, I think we all need to be happy.

[Sabrina] That’s really important. Do things that makes you happy.

[Sabrina] With the growing skill gap how can female executives stay relevant in tech space?

[Chay Geok] I think tech space is really challenging, it’s evolving every day, innovations is coming out every day. A key thing any leader be female or even male. You must be aware what is happening out in the technology. You must keep up to date in innovation. The likes of Blockchain, you know, the likes of Bitcoin, cryptocurrency.

These are buzzwords but you need to know what is happening, what is the potential impact of what you’re doing. You look out for opportunities, basically, bring innovations into what you’re doing as well.

Is this constant learning, constant innovation that we always need to pay attention to.

[Sabrina] And maybe you can share a bit to our audience where or how we can find those information?

[Chay Geok] Internet. Doctor google is the best.

[Sabrina] That’s true. Just google it.

[Chay Geok] Just google it. Everything what I do on a day to day basis. When I’m free somewhere in a transport somewhere or just with my handphone, I’ll just look at the latest news. And the latest news you can find it from all sources. You can find BBC.

Because I’m from the insurance, I read insurance review, and I read various insurance magazines online basically to find out what are the technology or what is the buzzwords that is happening around the insurance sector as well.

[Sabrina] What drives you to innovate today?

[Chay Geok] It’s simply to thirst for learning for me personally. I don’t like to be known as somebody who doesn’t know what’s happening. And especially if you’re a leader, you want to bring your team or your company to the next level where you have advantage over your next competitor. And you can’t do that if you’re not aware what’s happening out in the greater world or what’s your company doing. So perhaps then your company will stay like it is 50 years ago.

[Sabrina] And Chay Geok how can we attract more females to be interested in STEM while women are traditionally intimidated by it?

[Chay Geok] For adults, looking at going across opportunity I think it’s still possible. But they must have the passion. I think passion is very important especially when it comes to technology.

It’s not a job like accountancy where things doesn’t change for hundreds of years.

Technology changes all the time. So you must have the passion within you to constantly keep up to learn new technology, to read new stuff, this constant learning, some people might find it tired and hence I have friends moving out of the sector even though they are actually computer science trained as well.

And it’s quite common, actually around 50% of my friends are no longer in computer science or related technology roles because they are simply tired of having these push to keep up with technology or keep up with innovations all the time.

[Sabrina] When you’re running a mentoring session or sitting down one on one with a mentee? What are their challenges? Or what are the concerns usually?

[Chay Geok] I would divide this into two types of female candidates, so you have those that much younger they are looking for opportunities, they don’t want to be in a role for too long, they always looking for opportunities where they can grow to the next role, learn about something new. And so for such mentees, you typically always look for opportunities for them to learn something new, so move them around for job rotation, they love to go overseas as well, so overseas connection is important.

Then you have those who are more settled, probably with young family, so they are looking for stability but they are still thirsty for work, for new stuff as well. So this is where we are looking internally, for someone in Singapore, I happen to have a team member who was like that, so she’s a mother of two young kids now. She likes to do stuff, so we are always moving her around projects, but then she’s always Singapore based. So you need to cater accordingly the requirements or needs of your mentees accordingly.

[Sabrina] And it’s wonderful what you’re doing to your mentees because I spoke to a lot of female professionals on my platform and they mentioned sponsorship is a lot more effective to their career.

[Chay Geok] Of course. I had the same experience as well. So one of my mentor when I was in Allianz was actually in Germany. So the company was really good and really supportive so I had trips in Germany to meet up with her, and I follow her for a day when she was in her meetings.

She was in different business line as I was. But it was great fantastic learning especially being in a European environment. How she was conducting her meetings, how she was meeting clients, it was valuable, really valuable experiences.

[Sabrina] Half the Sky is a career platform for woman and it connects woman to better jobs at companies that care. Chay Geok, what do you think companies should do to attract and retain female talent?

[Chay Geok] We need to provide the flexibility especially for growing young mothers, I think it’s really necessary, I think as a whole to be also fair, we always talk about gender equality, we shouldn’t have a pay difference between the male and female for sure.

And a lot of companies like Willis Towers Watson actually has inclusive and diversity programs. So companies can do this to make sure that they remain attractive to ladies which is really 50% of the population. Isn’t it? It’s like half the sky.

[Sabrina] Exactly. No brainer. And Chay Geok, last but not least, what are your thoughts on a platform like half the sky?

[Chay Geok] Oh it’s fantastic. This is the reason why I agreed to this interview.

[Sabrina] Thank you.

[Chay Geok] I think it’s fantastic. You know it’s really ladies helping ladies and this is the least we can do. Giving them opportunity. Helping them to find opportunity.

I’ve known a lot of people who has taken leave to look after their children. And they are looking at coming back to the workforce, and they always find it’s a challenge to come back to the workforce and I think these are the little things we can do to actually help these ladies to join the workforce back.

[Sabrina] It’s a wrap. We’re done thank you so much. You’re amazing.

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