Lessons in leadership: Stare at the landscape before you charge forward

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Booth Distinguished Alumni Swee Chen Goh

Swee Chen Goh is the chairman of Shell Companies in Singapore – the first female chairman in Singapore – where she oversees more than 3,200 employees. Before assuming the chairman position in 2014, Goh held a variety of leadership roles at Shell including chief information officer, vice president of global IT services, and a P&L role running Shell’s lubricants and commercial fuels business for Asia Pacific/Middle East. She has also spent time working for Procter & Gamble, in various countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and IBM in Australia and the USA. Goh graduated from the Executive MBA Program-Asia in 2003, and was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award from Chicago Booth in 2018. As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Executive MBA Program, we have been catching up with alumni around the world to take stock of how the program influenced their careers. We spoke to Goh recently to discuss her approach to leadership.

How do you describe your leadership style?

I always feel responsible for making sure that people are well nurtured and offered the best possible support. It’s not easy. You have to find a way to scale your leadership so that, right through the organization, that culture of people at the center is practiced. Leadership is really about the psyche that you want to drive in the organization and opening their minds to see possibilities.

It’s important to be a leader that your organization can trust and to use transparency.  I lead my first P&L in Shell with more than 1,000 people across Asia and the Middle East. It was a major career move, from running operations to P&L accountability, at a senior level.   At the beginning, whilst I may not have the business knowledge of the situation that others do, I know how to motivate people. You need to find ways to regenerate the purpose and meaning of the work and create the motivation to do more than what your job script says.  We doubled the business in the first five years, exceeding our billion dollar income aspiration.

Emphasizing people produces results.  Leadership is about finding the right person for that particular need and then supporting and nurturing that individual to deliver their best. It’s all about people.

How do you experiment with your leadership style?

I’ve worked with large multi-national companies that are very good at developing key leadership skills. But the business world is so complex. At times, you need to be very decisive and quite a tough leader. At other times, such as during a bruising change, you need to be a consensus builder who is extremely collaborative. We have to recognize that different types of leadership are needed at different stages, horses for courses.

On a personal level, I can become quite single-focused on an end state that I can clearly see. Over the years, I have come to realize that sometimes you have to take a step back and slow things down, and stare at the landscape before you charge forward.

How has your leadership style evolved over time?

The confidence to lead has to develop over time. The learning and development never really stops. It’s good to always feel a certain amount of trepidation as you go into a new role, to encounter new things and push boundaries.  

The advice I give myself is not to overthink. The more you overthink, the more you over analyze, the more it deters you from taking that next step forward.  Confidence coupled with consistency of purpose, matters. The rough patches that you go through – they become great memories.

When I was living and working in Japan, I had my one and a half year old with me and I was expecting another child. My husband had stayed back to work in Malaysia. It was extremely difficult. However, I am glad that we took that decision - looking back, we treasure the memories of working and living in Japan. 

As chairperson in your company, how do you think about the impact you are making in the workplace? What will be your most important legacy?

I always feel my work is not done. What I want to do now in Singapore is bring the pride and relevance back. Shell has over a hundred years in Singapore and it’s a very respected company. I want the people in Singapore to recognize that the company can continue to innovate and bring forth new ideas. I’d like to use my influence to position Singapore as a hotbed of innovation – to show that we create new ways of doing things, we have a talent base that is curious and are pushing boundaries. But my job’s not done – we have an exciting new frontier to shape.

To hear more from Executive MBA alumni about their leadership evolution, please visit our 75th anniversary website.