Michelle Leung is the Asia Pacific HR Director for Abbott’s medicines business. She joined Abbott in April 2015 in Singapore as a strategic HR business partner with achievements in multiple geographies, diverse industries and life experience from a number of global cities. She has a track record of working closely with talented teams to grow business results and generate energy. What Abbott’s medicines business includes is end-to-end: from development, product supply, manufacturing to sales and marketing, and supporting functions such as finance, regulatory, quality assurance and medical affairs.
Could you give me a bit of a background on your career to date?
I completed university in Australia and began my career selling loan products at a bank. It was evident that sales were not going to be a strength, so I took an opportunity to move into HR (which had been my ambition) and held multiple HR roles with ANZ. Later, ANZ set to embark on establishing a new bank in Cambodia, and having travelled there and been blown away by the people and place, I immediately applied and landed the role. That remains my most challenging role, to help set up a banking organisation with international standards in a country still formulating its banking regulations. A year in, the Head of Asia HR role came up, so I moved to Singapore and later to Hong Kong to grow their North Asia presence. Later, there was an opportunity to transition to FMCG when the financial crisis happened, and I subsequently joined Abbott to relocate again to Singapore.
What is your role at Abbott?
My role is HR Director for Asia Pacific in Abbott’s medicine’s business, where we provide high quality medicines in emerging markets. The focus is on off-patent medicines which we seek to innovate, to make medicines better or easier to take. Our business covers the end to end process of supply chain, manufacturing to marketing and sales of medicine. The role works as a close partner with the leadership team for the region, and the HR teams in each country. My role is without direct reports in Singapore, so my work is more project and strategy based, and requires considerable influencing skills.
Do you change your management style depending on the country or people you're dealing with?
There’s an element of style adjustment depending on the country or the person, but the underlying message is the same because I’ll consistently communicate the same values and priorities. The adaptation is more situational. For instance, coaching a business leader versus delivering a presentation to an unfamiliar audience, or recruiting solicited talent all requires a slightly different approach for each scenario. HR is a support function and my role is very much about influencing and adapting to the people I am interacting with.
Have you had any mentors in your career?
Yes, I’ve had the good fortune to have my career sponsored by senior leaders and supported by external mentors. Having advocates assist my career progression reminds me of how important it is to understand how everyone shines with their own superpower. It’s important to help people find and leverage their superpower, and also raise this to the awareness of others. This is perhaps why I am drawn to issues related to talent management and building a culture.
Do you ever seek their advice on your career as a whole?
I sometimes think that my career should have been better planned. I still have personal effects in a storage unit in Australia because I thought I would be back after a couple of years. My career has come about as a result of taking opportunities that I could see would fit with my ‘career story’. And this is when I would consult with a mentor, to seek input on a ‘career story’ to validate the relevance of a potential next role. Having encouragement from a trusted mentor to take a role in a country outside my home country (of Australia) was highly valuable career advice and whilst emotionally challenging at times, I haven’t looked back since.
Can you remember when diversity first became a topic at any of the companies you've worked for?
In working with different multinationals, gender diversity has always rated high on the senior leadership agenda. Diversity is a topic that leaders consistently show strong support for but needs to be managed subtly to ensure the balance between diversity advocacy and avoiding positive discrimination. My earliest recollection of diversity as an agenda would have been 15 years ago.
What do you think the advantages are of having a diverse team or business?
The research is irrefutable about the importance of diverse thinking from diverse members of a team. Our leadership team is from different cultural backgrounds, with different areas of expertise, at different stages of their career and representing a good gender balance. The different points of view lead to interesting debate and discussion, which is how to gain value.
With diversity in the team, research consistently shows organisations are more successful – in terms of the decisions that are made, the strength of the employment branding, and the financial performance. Our business decisions need to reflect the diversity of our customers, and diversity within our team contributes to this.
Is there any advice you would give to leaders who want to improve diversity in their business?
The most successful leaders I’ve seen get it right with the ability to search every corner of the business to uncover talent. They talk with people, understand their background, their interests and their strengths, and find high potential people wherever they sit in the organisation. Then when opportunities come up, they match the opportunity with that high potential person. The most successful leaders in finding high potential always attract diversity to their team. They constantly talk with a variety of people – whether by formal arrangement or impromptu at a casual event. This helps the flow of internal talent and improves diversity by drawing atypical candidates for roles. What’s also important is for talent to be aware that leaders place value on diversity.
Do any of the different industries you've worked in - FMCG, Banking, Pharma - do better when it comes to diversity?
I reflect on my experience as being organisation specific rather than by sector in terms of being stronger with diversity. Regardless of the industry, there has been a commonality that senior leaders view diversity as being beneficial for customers and the business, and are supportive of improving this. The supporting evidence from research could not be disputed. The best candidates come from diverse backgrounds and they will check the diversity of the senior leadership team, to validate their decision to join the company and the team.
Do you feel that gender has ever hindered you in your career?
I’m not aware that being female has hindered my career, although there have been many an occasion when I would find myself the only user of the ladies’ bathroom – now that’s a luxury! HR roles are often filled by women, so not sure that I would stand out in any way. The companies and the leaders I have worked for have always been supportive of meritocracy. When I have worked hard, delivered what I said I would and on occasion exceeded expectations, career opportunities have presented themselves. I’ve managed to cover a lot of ground in terms of geography, companies and roles so perhaps being female has its advantages!
Has balancing your time gotten easier or worse as you've gotten to a more senior level?
In more senior roles, working hours increase, but having said that there is also more flexibility. My hours are longer now, so I aim to be physically active to stay sane and schedule exercise to make sure this isn’t overlooked. Travel makes exercise and nutrition harder, and timelines are sometimes not negotiable, but there is control over the timing of meetings which helps to manage workday planning. Even when out of the office, we’re all online remotely, so it’s possible to check on project milestones and maintain exchanges even without being in the office. Remote access starts to blur start and finish times for work, and this is further complicated when following a global clock. It becomes my own responsibility to manage my own working hours, and actively prioritise.
What sort of leader or manager do you think you are?
With the last HR team that I directly managed I was fortunate to be surrounded by very talented people, and this is in the context of having high expectations of how the HR function is represented. Without a doubt the biggest reward from managing this team was their progression in their professional development.
As a leader I like to think I work hard for the benefit of the team and also work hard on my own. My inclination is to look for innovation as a path to greater efficiency, productivity and sometimes just to add an element of fun. This might mean trying new processes or technologies, or just introducing new topics to create a higher benchmark and leave people and things a little better than when we first started.
Do you think that collaborative style sometimes hinders things getting done?
A collaborative style gives the best result because this means many people contribute their brainpower. Then there reaches a time when a single decision/recommendation needs to be made. Sometimes the decision can come from a democratic process, and other times just one person needs to decide, it really depends on the circumstances. When faced with a difficult challenge or brainstorming, I’ve found a collaborative style to be helpful especially when the team size is a manageable number, at 6 or less. If I speak with half a dozen people for their input, it’s likely that the result isn’t better than if I had tried to wing it going solo.
Do you have any advice for women to progress in more male-dominated organisations?
At the early stages of your career, regardless of gender, it’s important to understand your own USP (unique selling point) and market a point of differentiation about the value you bring. How you are contributing to the broader business is always more important than your gender.
Do the things that scare you a little, ones that either give you goosebumps or make your heart beat a little faster, because these are signs of getting outside of your comfort zone and offer the opportunities to learn. This advice didn’t occur to me early on in my career, being the only female in the room didn’t really register with me then, so it would also be advice to my younger self.
What else can an organisation do to help foster diversity?
Fostering diversity comes as a result of lots of different things. From an HR perspective, there are processes including recruitment practices, mentoring, learning and development opportunities, networks and rewards that support diversity. But most importantly, the organisation’s culture needs to support and value differences in thinking and ensure people will be heard. Having clear communication about the desired culture and behaviours sets the benchmark and expectation for what is considered acceptable. This mindset of encouraging and appreciating diversity in all parts of the organisation helps a business succeed in the context of a diverse and challenging world.