Keeping to 'authentic leadership'

newsmaker Motherhood played a part, but Tan Yen Yen, the first female to win the SCS IT Leader of the Year, says integrity and sincerity served her best throughout her career.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor
Tan Yen Yen, IT Leader of the Year

newsmaker SINGAPORE--Because of the need to juggle work and family, women are innately good at time management, says Tan Yen Yen, senior vice president of applications at Oracle Asia-Pacific. The conferment of the IT Leader of the Year accolade by the Singapore Computer Society (SCS) on Friday for her contributions to the country's IT sector, is testament to her success in balancing home and office roles.

Tan, who is also chair of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF), graduated with a degree in Computer Science from the National University of Singapore in 1987, following which she spent three years in a "technical field" writing code at the Systems and Computer Organization in the Ministry of Defense (Mindef).

But being "a pretty outgoing person, sitting behind the desk writing codes" was not something she truly enjoyed. Hence, she made her first foray into sales at a now-defunct Australian software house called CSP. She worked there for another three years doing both sales and pre-sales consulting.

It was in Hewlett-Packard (HP), her third job, that she delved straight into sales--her favorite aspect of IT. She joined in 1993 and spent 18 years with the hardware giant, in what she described as a "roundabout" trip. Within the first five years, she became country channel manager of Singapore. The next eight saw her handling running channels and alliances for Asia-Pacific, followed by the software global business unit for HP South East Asia (SEA) and India. She later returned to the Singapore office and became managing director of HP Singapore, a post she held for five years, until her move to Oracle in July 2010.

Mother to a 14-year-old daughter and three sons aged between eight and 11, Tan said her career progression has only been possible because of the support of her family. During the chat with ZDNet Asia, she also touched on the influence of motherhood on her leadership style, and her two unwavering fundamentals as a mentor--integrity and "authentic" leadership.

Q: Twenty-three years and counting, how do you keep your passion going for the IT business?
There's never a boring moment in the IT field. You must embrace new things, and in IT especially, things move so fast. If you embrace it, you actually enjoy the changes--the new things, new announcements, new mergers, new technologies, and new ways of doing business. Every day brings new stuff in IT, whether it's technology development, client negotiation, team management. One of my philosophies in life is because you tell yourself that you don't know everything, there are always new things for you to learn. To me, that's how I can reinvent myself and also broaden my thinking, and I guess that keeps me going, keeps me motivated to stay in the industry.

I get bored easily. So I'm always looking for the next challenge, the next new thing that motivates me. That's how I managed my team in HP. In my five years as Singapore MD (managing director), I job-rotated the people around because I find that after a while, you need to give fresh challenges for people to keep them motivated…even if it's a lateral move, not a promotion.

Do you have a particular favorite area or aspect in the IT domain?
I actually like the sales aspect of it, that's probably the longest part of my career in the 20-over years. Because every sales call, every sales situation, every bit that goes out there is different--that's the exciting thing. And the adrenaline of winning a deal with your team, you can't describe that.

Being the first-ever female to win the IT Leader of the Year award from the SCS, do you feel that recognition for women's contributions and leadership in IT is long overdue?
Singapore is very unique case with lots of IT companies run by women, like Accenture Managing Director Teo Lay Lim; Microsoft Managing Director Jessica Tan; IBM Managing Director Patricia Yim; and even now, HP Managing Director Kelly Tan. That to me is recognition of women leadership, to be able to run an IT company. In Singapore, I don't think it was by design that we must have women leaders in companies. I'm sure they got to where they are because they'd proven themselves in the company.

Whether the recognition is long overdue is a very interesting case. I didn't realize until Lee Kwok Cheong (SCS' 2011 IT Hall of Fame winner) mentioned to me that I'm the first woman to win the IT Leader of the Year award. Maybe because in the old days there were fewer women in the industry, so you'd have fewer female leaders in the IT industry too.

Also, I think it's very much by choice for many of the women, especially after they have children. Of course the government is trying to advocate productivity, making it attractive for them to come back to the workforce; and I think many women are very capable, can probably go far, whether in the IT industry or not. But it's by choice that these women have decided to come out of the workforce, especially during the early childhood years of their kids. So in some way you miss out on that category of people, and you get less of such workforce in the industry.

Since the start of your career, have you noticed a shift in male-female gender balance in IT landscape of Singapore?
I certainly see more women in the industry today, although it depends on what roles. You may see more women in project management, while you may see more men in sales. In Oracle, actually I see more men in sales. Personally, when I started in HP, it was mostly male salespeople and only a handful of females. When I left HP, there were many more women, so there's more balance between the genders.

In the SiTF, I also get to work with startups and entrepreneurs and we have our own awards to recognize innovation within the industry. It just surprises me each year how many creative, innovative and entrepreneurial young people there are in the industry, which is very comforting, but I seem to see less of women in that area of entrepreneurs and startups. Generally, there seems to be more males among the nominees for IT Youth winners. I definitely hope to see more women coming into this space.

Did the thought of being a full-time mother ever cross your own mind?
It sort of zoomed past! Not really, not at this stage of my life. My husband knows me well enough. I'm pretty much a go-getter, very active. I think it's important that whatever your choices are, you have to be happy doing what you're doing. Not that I won't be happy being a stay-home mother, but put it this way, I'm happy with how things are now, balancing both work and family. Am I strapped for time? Do I wish I had more than 24 hours? Yes, I won't kid myself to say no. But I guess I have the best of both worlds, being with the family and at the same time enjoy doing what I'm doing.

Has being a mother of four children contributed anything to your leadership style?
That's an interesting question. I never think about it in terms of my role as a mother and corporate worker. Definitely the part of patience is very important. In today's generation, it's no longer about parents telling children what to do and to go do it. I have a teenage daughter. So the patience part is really for them to believe that the decision is theirs, not mine. Similarly, at work the culture today is unlike in the old days, when the boss says 1, 2, 3, you do 1, 2, 3. It's lot more a buy-in culture so people feel they're part of the whole decision process. That's probably one aspect I can think of that's similar. Certainly being a mother means I have to learn to juggle my time a lot better, so time management helps me to juggle even more, playing the different roles.

Being a woman leader, I like to think that I bring a sense of collaboration, the nurturing part, especially in the part of team management, and also a sense of empathy into the equation. I guess that's the soft side of things that women leaders bring to the table. I think it does make a difference in terms of really pulling the team together, motivating the team and how you manage the team.

How else has your leadership style changed over the years?
To me, fundamentally there are a few things that you believe in and wouldn't change. Whether you want to succeed in work or in life, the integrity part to me is very big and important. It sort of starts and ends there. You need to know that you have a moral compass that guides you day in day out, and people who work with you. To me, it's as simple as doing what you say and saying what you do with a level of integrity that is visible to people so that people can trust you. I don't think that would ever change, in whichever job I go to.

The other leadership aspect quite fundamental to me and I spend a lot of energy on is the people side of things. Because wherever you go, you may have the best products, best processes in the company, at the end of it how things happens depends on your employees, on the people. I like to use the term authentic leadership. It's about being sincere and authentic. That has always served me well. People can see through you if you're not authentic and if you are authentic, people can also feel that. To me, that's the way I gain trust with the people I work with, whether they're peers or part of my team. These are the fundamentals in terms of leadership that I've always stayed true to and I don't think that has changed.

People must ask: how do you master time management given your work and mother roles?
People always wonder, "Do you sleep?" I'm very active in terms of doing sports during my personal time too. My priority is very simple. My family comes first. I enjoy my work and all that, but everything centers around my family, it's always been. Even before I got married, my family is most important. Family sort of anchors you and makes you grounded, so you know where your focus should be.

I have to be careful when I say this: I always feel that ladies are very good time managers. Maybe because working women are still expected to contribute when you're back home, in terms of making sure the kids do their homework, that they're being nurtured and all that. I think being a wife, a mother, a worker, it's just in us--our nature and our ability to juggle is a lot better. To some extent, people [on the outside] may think I do a better job, but to me, the credit goes to my whole support infrastructure, not myself.

I'm very, very lucky and very, very blessed in terms of the support system that I have at home. I have a very supportive husband who's my cheerleader and always supportive of whatever things I want to do. I have a fairly good infrastructure in the family, my in-laws stay with me, and my sister helps me out sometimes. I also have a domestic helper who's been with the family for 11 years. So I'm very lucky to have the whole support, so that when I'm at work my mind is at peace and I know that the children are well taken care of when I'm not around or when I travel. And I try to involve them in the things I do. I do a lot of triathlon training, and all my four kids do triathlons, so I don't feel guilty having to do one over the other. I involve them and make sure they're part of my life, and it's also good bonding time.

What advice would you give to women who aspire to be like you?
I'm not a deliberate person; I don't say to myself, "Okay, by this year, I need to be the MD of the company." I never started that way in my career. I think it's important to take things as they come, don't plan too much, and whenever there are opportunities out there, be the one to put up your hand and willing to try.

Be open-minded. It's the journey of getting there, not the end itself. The journey is where you should enjoy the process and embrace the new experience. Some people get very hung up, like "Eh, that's not the role I want to do." But I say you've got a long career. Even for me, it's been 23 years, I probably have another 23 years to go, but I'm not sure if I want to work that long (laughs). I mean, I'm still young, right? Even when I'm 60-something, I'm sure I'll still be mentally alert and active.

Also, be passionate in whatever you do. I'm very energized. Whatever you do, put your energy into it. Don't do things half-heartedly, either you're in or you're out. That's always been my philosophy.

Eighteen years with HP. Why the move to Oracle?
Like I said, I'm always looking for the next new challenge. I could have stayed on, I was happy. But I guess my boss plays a big role. To me, it's important to work with people that you enjoy working with. My current boss at Oracle, Steve Au-Yeung, was also my boss for probably the longest time in HP, when I was at the SEA and India software global business unit for six years. Steve and I have a good working relationship. When he posed this opportunity, I went, "Hey, sounds interesting, why not?"

When he told me about the role, in some way, it's different from what I was doing, and it was a regional role. So back to my point that I'm always looking for something new, something different. The other aspect where I was really keen was also the whole area of applications. In HP, I'm probably more exposed to services and solutions but more on the hardware side. I feel that at the end of the day, applications do make a difference to how a company runs its business. To me, that's a very important point that touches the real customer business.

You've been in IT since graduation. Did you ever consider other industries at all?
Actually, I wanted to be a doctor when I was young, when I had bigger dreams then! (Laughs) My mom always told me that I wrote in all my school compositions I wanted to be a doctor. But I guess my results weren't good enough to get me there. And when I started studying biology, it wasn't a subject I really enjoyed, along with the sight of blood. I enjoyed mathematics and science and languages, and eventually I decided to do computer science.

Another aspect I enjoy is executive coaching, life coaching. Not many people know that. I've thought that whether I'm working in IT or not, I want to sort of upskill myself. It could be a second career at some point. That's one area I'm personally interested in.

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