Leading, Her Way: Christine Chia on Building An Executive Presence
Leading, Her Way is a brand new Leadership Development interview series featuring a line-up of remarkable female leaders in Singapore as they share their thoughts on self-exploration, career development, overcoming failures and work-life alignment.
In the second interview of this series, we feature Ms Christine Chia, Director of Commerce Partnerships for Asia Pacific at Facebook. Her passion to advocate diversity in the technology and banking industries has led her to establish Facebook’s Women in Partnerships and serve as one of two Executive Sponsors for the Facebook Pride@community.
She shares her take on executive presence, the challenges she faced as a young professional, succeeding in a large number of diverse industries, and the importance of staying authentic.
How did your education or early professional experiences prepare you for the career that you have today?
I came from humble beginnings, my dad was an electrical engineer who eventually quit his job and started his own retail business. That was when I realised I was curious, and deeply passionate about the buyer-seller relationship at a personal, small business level.
Majoring in Psychology at University also fed interest in people and interpersonal relationships - which was why I’m so passionate about bringing back those relationships I witnessed, helping out at my dad’s shop and the shopping strip into large scale commerce.
If you look at my CV, you’ll see that I have built varied experiences. I started as a junior suit in a local agency, then went into Financial Services before Facebook. My time in FinServ gave me so many learning opportunities which was great for my appetite for new challenges. I went from Wealth to Banking to Cards, Marketing to Product Management to Business Development.
I wanted to be exposed to global markets and touch different segments across B2B and B2C. This taught me to be grounded with my strengths and passions to love my work and push forward, while staying agile to change, embracing ambiguity and actually thriving in it. The experience also helped me to be a better manager, coach and mentor to others around me.
Tell us about your earliest roles in your career. Did you ever face challenges as a woman on the job, and if so, how did you deal with them?
I graduated from University during the start of the Asian Financial Crisis. It put a dent in my aspirations on getting a job in banking upon graduation. Since that was the industry most affected by the crisis, the closest route to a job in banking was in advertising as a suit. Interestingly enough, the account I was managing was Standard Chartered and I figured it was a great way to learn about banking whilst holding up a job, which paved my way to FinServ.
The first few years of my career introduced me to the challenges women face at work and it was a tough experience to go through. As a junior suit in the agency world with no knowledge of the industry and clients, it was a female client who gave me the first taste of how women can sometimes be the adversary to another. No matter how hard I worked, I was never good enough. To make matters worse, I was verbally abused and bullied in each call. I came out of many meetings and calls in tears, until it dawned upon me that the verbal abuse was unacceptable and I should not have to put up with it.
I wish in those days allyship was a more common practice and people were educated about it. That made me determined to be a support system for those who are unfairly treated at work; I wanted to be an ally.
I also had a few traumatic experiences early in my career. I wish I had found my voice and courage to take action so that it could have prevented harassment of more women in the workplace. I was solicited more than once by leaders, colleagues and clients in the early years of my career.
In many of these experiences, I admittedly didn’t do enough to speak up or call these people out, thus leaving behind a psychological impact on myself and worse, left these perpetrators unpunished, possibly repeating their behavior and harassing other women. It’s a huge regret of mine, which is another reason why I’m so determined to be an ally to more women and the discriminated at the workplace.
"I see executive presence as how you show up as a person - regardless of whether you manage people or not. It is about the ability to influence, to be bold and challenge what’s not right, to be the pillar of stability, to bring people together, to empathise, and also to listen."
In your opinion, what is executive presence and how important is it in building an impactful career?
I feel that the term executive presence means different things to different people, depending on their career life stage, the environment they are in and the leadership they have had exposure to.
I was first exposed to the term ‘executive presence’ more than 10 years ago when I was an individual contributor in American Express. The term was referring to the new development tool used commonly to help junior team members develop skills to elevate their presence with leaders. It was a curriculum many Learning and Development departments latched onto, to help high potential team members sharpen their presentation, speaking and networking skills to allow their work to be presented more effectively. I was one of the benefactors of this curriculum and it has undoubtedly contributed to shaping my confidence and career.
Executive presence carries with it too much connotation of the Type A extrovert, and I disagree with that. While many of the hard skills taught in classroom settings were a great foundation, as a manager and mentor for many, I see executive presence as how you show up as a person - regardless of whether you manage people or not. It is about the ability to influence, to be bold and challenge what’s not right, to be the pillar of stability, to bring people together, to empathise, and also to listen. These are actually attributes of many quiet introverts too.
Essentially, tap into your strengths, build your confidence and bring your authentic self to work. Always consciously reflect on how you show up for the people you support, the peers you work with and the leaders you work for. This is how I have continued to enhance my executive presence, towards how I want to build my brand, one which others will know how to lean on me and how to deliver impact with me at work, and develop strong relationships beyond work.
What are the first steps in developing executive presence and how do you know you’re doing this well?
My first steps were mostly through a series of tests and learning. Through a flywheel effect and similar to how we build products at Facebook, you start with an objective in mind, gather feedback based on your findings, and make the necessary adjustments.
The key here is soliciting feedback at every step of the way. Start with people you trust and are willing to provide actionable feedback, and gradually move to others you may not know as well who are open to sharing quick feedback. This will help you in gathering diverse perspectives on what works and what doesn’t. Remember to thank the person for providing that feedback, so it keeps coming back.
Early in our career, there’s a tendency to feel shame when we hear something negative about ourselves. I wish I could tell my younger self that there is no shame in receiving negative feedback. Only through constructive criticism will you improve and understand yourself better, through diverse lenses.
How did your prior work experience in different industries influence your current role at Facebook in garnering internal and external stakeholder support for spearheading new business ideas?
The biggest benefit cross-industry exposure has given me is the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of people. I anchor heavily on people as I shape my thinking of business and how I influence decision-making. These are some of the key actions I invest in, ahead of any business engagement:
Build relationships: Be approachable, socialise at every opportunity and present yourself with opportunities to learn through conversations. These relationships can come in different levels of depth and they don’t always occur in a physical space. Some of my best advisors, mentors and friends are not in the same country as me. It is hence an investment of time one makes to build and maintain relationships.
Understand other’s goals and motivations: By aligning your goals with those around you and understanding their motivations and challenges, you will be placed in a better position to secure support for the decisions you make and the ideas you wish to bring across. To achieve a productive outcome and build trust, actively listen and empathize with the stakeholders throughout the conversation.
Listen and empathise: This is an area I have consciously worked on because it can sometimes be hard not to hear your own voice and choose to hear others instead. However it is important because most business environments today are highly matrixed and chances are all parties face a variety of challenges. For others to listen, we should also learn to listen and empathise with their needs and challenges. This is critical in building trust.
Going into specifics related to securing buy-ins, I work on the basis of understanding who my key stakeholders are, their priorities and goals, pre-align to allow for direct feedback and ways to address compromises if needed. In order to move forward together, establishing a clear view on the broader objectives for your project is of paramount importance.
Women with strong executive presence are often mistaken to be arrogant. How can we better employ emotional intelligence at the workplace to build trust and relationships?
It is important to know your values, lean on your strengths and most importantly, to be authentic. This builds transparency, and if you’re clear about your strengths, values and are authentic, that builds trust. When you also are a support pillar for others to succeed, that will further build relationships.
How do we balance authenticity with projecting executive presence in a workplace?
My way of projecting executive presence at work is by bringing my authentic self and my true values every day, and not looking at them as separate things. At Facebook, we are a strengths-based company but I also allow my vulnerabilities to show, so the people I work with can complement my weaknesses and allow me to support them in areas where I might complement theirs.
Lastly, in one sentence, what does ‘Leading, Her Way’ mean to you?
Execute with confidence and passion, lead with authenticity and empathy.