Carrie Seow Interview with Thomas Wai
Talent Conversation with Carrie Seow
Carrie Seow, Chairman of Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support Ltd, takes time out to reflect on Senior Leadership and what it means to her. Read this Talent Conversation to learn more about why she believes anything worth doing is worth doing well, change is constant and you need to be adaptable, and what she believes it takes to be successful in today’s changing marketplace.
Published by Talent Plus
on 01 Apr 2018
1) What position do you hold in your organization today? (work, charity, free-time, etc.)
I qualified as a lawyer and had practiced law and worked as in-house counsel for an aggregate of 30 years. I was in-house counsel at Microsoft for almost 12 years and, after having been there for 10 years and provided consistently good performance, was entitled to a long-service award of either paid leave or cash in lieu. I chose the leave. During that time, I approached a good friend of mine who is a professional volunteer to ask him how I could give back. To cut a long story short, that conversation led to my current position as Director and Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support Limited.
Babes was a program under Beyond Social Services which focused on helping pregnant teenagers in crisis. In order to give the issue of teenage pregnancy greater focus, Babes was spun off into a separate company in May 2013, and began operating independently in August 2013. It is the only organisation in Singapore that is devoted exclusively to holistically supporting pregnant teenagers in crisis. Since its inception, I have been Chairman of its Board of Directors. I’m in my second two-year term now, so will retire as Chairman at the end of this term next year.
Although my role is non-executive, because Babes was and, to a certain extent, still is in ‘start-up’ mode, I have been quite involved in helping to establish good infrastructure in terms of appointing committee members, hiring, developing a performance appraisal process, establishing policies, etc. Our big focus moving forward is letting the public know about us as we’re relatively unknown. It’s important for young people to know where to turn to for help when they need it.
Since I’m not working full time any longer but want to keep my brain exercised, I’m also involved, on ad hoc basis, in other volunteer work as well.
2. What would you consider your greatest success?
I must confess that I’ve never actually reflected on this before. I don’t think about my success or achievements. My father always taught us that Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well and that the most important aspect of any achievement (whether school grades or anything else) is to have tried one’s best. That’s something I’ve always strived for.
I recently finished reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, a very inspiring book by Viktor Frankl who was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. I’d like to share a quote from this book about success:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run – in the long-run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
I think I’ve done good work, given sound legal advice, drafted clear agreements, provided solutions to business problems, been accepted as part of business leadership teams (instead of being considered an obstacle to business, as some in-house legal departments are), but I think I’m most proud of my management, training and mentoring of younger lawyers over my career, not so much in terms of black letter law, but in leading by example, imparting soft skills and instilling important values. Training is a huge time investment. It’s usually faster to do something yourself than to train someone to do it. I believe that you have to really care about a person’s development in order to give them honest and constructive feedback about their performance. I believe every leader should strive to train their younger colleagues so that the leader eventually becomes dispensable!
3. What is the most important thing you have learned in your business?
If you’re talking about business and/or law, it would have to be: Never go into business (regardless of whether or not they are people who are your friends) without making sure that all rights and obligations are clearly understood and agreed! Doing that could and should (hopefully) preclude disagreement and disappointment down the line.
As far as social services are concerned, I think it’s important to hire people who have passion for their work. It’s not easy work and it doesn’t pay that well (although the National Council of Social Services has increased the recommended salaries in an effort to attract more people to the sector) so it’s important to have your heart in the work and to understand and embrace the ethos of the sector.
Generally speaking, I’ve learned that change is the only constant. When I first joined Microsoft from legal practice, I thought I wouldn’t last 6 months because everything was so different – even the use of the English language was different! – and there was so much to learn. I soon learned that it’s always tough at first and, in about a year to 18 months, once you think you’ve ‘got it’, things will change again and you’ll have to start over. So learning to accept and deal with change is vital, especially in this day and age.
4. What do you wish you had known prior to coming into your role?
I wish I had realised much earlier how meaningful and rewarding it is to volunteer, to give of your time and effort without expecting anything in return. I must say that I regret not having started volunteering when I was much younger, and I would encourage everyone to make it a part of their lives as early as possible.
5. What challenges did you feel the least prepared to handle?
In relation to my current role, none I can think of. We are constantly learning, evolving and improving what we do and how we do it. I’ve also had the benefit of really good training and experience over the years.
However, in relation to a previous role, I feel I was least prepared to handle the performance appraisal process! The main performance review would take place once a year, with a mid-year “check-in” and development discussion, as well as monthly 1:1s. If you have more than a few direct reports and provide thoughtful appraisals, it’s very time-consuming (and you have to write your own assessment for your manager’s review). This process was completely alien to me as I had no experience of it in legal practice. Also, it seemed (and still does seem) quite un-Asian to me to have to blow your own trumpet (so to speak) in order for your work to be recognized and rewarded. The process became almost unbearable to me when an appraisal system known as “stack ranking” was introduced, and managers had to rank their employees on a bell curve. This meant that a solid performer might find him/herself with a low rating. In my view, it’s a demotivating and demoralising system which breeds unhealthy competition and a lack of teamwork and collaboration. Thankfully, more and more companies are abandoning this process.
6. What would you want your successor to know if you were mentoring him/her?
There’s so much I would have to say, but here’s a bullet-point, non-exhaustive list:
· Avoid shooting from the hip. Know your stuff. Never forget the basics.
Always be in a position to back up what you say. This will add to your own confidence and will
increase your credibility.
· Say what you mean and mean what you say. Walk the talk, and lead by example. Stick to your
· Listen to understand, not to respond.
· Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something or to ask for help when you need it.
· Under-promise and over-deliver.
· Know your team. Appreciate that people are different, and leverage their strengths.
· Value and encourage teamwork, and help to make others great.
· Make your team members feel appreciated.
· Try your best.
· Life can be unfair and one needs to learn to get over that as quickly as possible.
· Be kind.
· Don’t neglect your family.
7. What did you want to become as a child?
Although my maternal grandfather and my father were both lawyers, I variously wanted to be a doctor, an architect and a marine biologist! Ultimately, my parents said that, as a woman, I needed to study a profession (and I had dropped physics at O level so couldn’t get into the science stream in pre-university), so I reluctantly accepted their recommendation to study law. It turns out to have been the right choice for me.
8. What adjective describes you best?
Complicated? Misunderstood? I have no idea! You’d probably have to ask someone close to me if you want to know.
9. Is there anyone you would like to meet and why?
My paternal grandfather was a banker, tennis player and performer. He died before my parents married. I would have liked to have met him.
I don’t think I want to meet anyone famous. I’d probably be speechless with awe and make a fool of myself. There’s no particular living person I’d like to meet. I enjoy meeting young, talented and passionate people, especially musicians (young and not so young). I’m amazed by the talent of musical prodigies and enjoy feeding off their energy. I also happen to think that musicians do what they really love and don’t consider it “work” in the way that others might but there are so many struggling musicians around, so please support our local musicians!
These Talent Conversations are brought to you by our partner, Talent Plus ®, the leading partner in building and sustaining high-performing cultures through the assessment, development and engagement of talent. Scientifically skilled at helping companies select the very best people for specific job roles and maximize their potential for the growth of the company, we see results including growth in customer satisfaction, increased productivity, reduction in turnover, strengthened employee engagement, sustained excellence and improved profitability. Established in 1989, Talent Plus is an internationally recognized and award-winning management consulting firm with over 400 clients in 20 countries delivering interviews in more than 30 languages. Headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, Talent Plus also has an office in Singapore. Visit us at www.talentplus.com.