Leading Leadership

Five life lessons for the leaders of tomorrow

Ong Ai Hua,

Group Chairman, Janssen

As one of the first women to take up a senior leadership role within her organisation’s region, Ong Ai Hua, Company Group Chairman, Asia Pacific, the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, shares lessons from her career journey.

It’s as true today as it was when I started, leaders who are prepared to embrace change and evolve themselves and their organisation are the ones destined to succeed.  Business has evolved immensely in the past 27 years. I’ve been working with fundamental shifts in the way we work and organise throughout this time.

Today, more than ever before, leadership is within each of us. We just need to take the right steps with the right mindset – here are the five most valuable lessons I have learnt.

1. Find a tribe of mentors

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I believe it takes a tribe to raise a leader.

Every tribe needs a variety of people with a diversity of skills and perspectives, so the tribe can prosper. We should all consider this when searching for influential mentors who’ll guide our way forward in life.

As a child I was always a problem solver. When I began my career in the sciences there was a serious lack of female business leaders – particularly in science.

Nevertheless, I was determined to follow my passion. I sought out and found role models I knew would guide me towards the decisions that helped me achieve success. My focus was always what each mentor could teach me – never about their gender, background or experience.

This taught me that aspiring leaders should seek a broad, diverse range of mentors to help prepare them for the variety of challenges they’ll face throughout their career.

2. Fail fast – learn faster

As aspiring leaders, we need to give ourselves permission to fail. Be humble to fail fast, then our failure can be smaller and earlier and with faster recovery, the learning we get is speedier and much more pointed and each gem of learning becomes a real-life learning experience.

This reminds me of my father who was an entrepreneur. I saw him fail at various business ventures before finding his ultimate success. This taught him (and me) resilience and gave him the knowledge he needed to succeed.

Often, fear of failure holds us back from pursuing transformative innovation. Through learning from my mentors, I believe the best way to support innovation is by encouraging risk taking and creating an environment where failure is seen as a learning opportunity.

Through our innovation fund at Janssen, we provide our teams with the time and resources necessary to approach each challenge differently. We’re fostering an innovative culture that’s helping improve the health of people across the region.

3. Tackle the bias you can and can’t see

Conscious or unconscious bias is an ongoing challenge for business that is too often unspoken or ignored. This is beginning to change.

Many business leaders now understand that creating a diverse workforce is the key to fostering a true meritocracy. In doing this we not only address our own biases, but build systems that remove the biases we can’t see.

At Johnson & Johnson, we’re taking a two-fold approach – removing unconscious bias from our recruitment processes and using diversity to grow and maintain a true meritocracy in the company.

When I started my career there were roles carved out for men and others for women. Gender was the first deciding factor in every career path. 30 years ago, the first job I applied for was perfumer. When I was not selected to be a perfumer, the reason given to me is because I am a woman. From that point onwards, I decided never to allow any gender biases to determine my road to success.

The more diverse the thinking is inside any business, the greater ability that business will have to create the solutions needed to capitalise on tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.

4. Understand the hearts behind the minds

Overseeing multiple countries, you quickly learn how important it is to build relationships with your teams. To achieve that, leaders must invest in ‘face time’.

Today’s business leaders need to get to know the people behind the professionals. Teams are no longer purely motivated by key performance indicators or performance metrics(an area that is never lacking).

Real motivation is personal. Until you understand that, as a leader, you’re only managing the fringes. If you can get to the hearts of your teams you’re sure to inspire their minds.

It’s also crucial to ensure you invest in your people. High performers crave the opportunity to grow and develop professionally and will reward businesses that are prepared to give them those opportunities.

5. Be fearless and others will follow

As leaders we fear being put outside our comfort zone or appearing like we don’t know everything about everything.  

It’s important to challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone by taking on anew role, a new project, a new job. Be brave enough to ask the frank questions without fear.

Leaders also play a key role in cultivating a safe and supportive environment where employees feel empowered to speak up, challenge the status quo and ask honest questions.

No one should assume they have all the answers or don’t need to ask questions. It’s only through digging deep and really understanding a problem or an opportunity that we’re able to truly challenge ourselves, learn and grow as people and business leaders.

Leadership growth is personal and there is no standard recipe. I hope these tips spark some reflections to guide your own growth.

Ong Ai Hua

Based in her native Singapore, Ai Hua began her career at Johnson & Johnson 28 years ago and has held leadership roles across strategic marketing, sales management, and licensing and acquisition. She is one of the few female leaders in the pharmaceutical industry to date, and her achievement is no easy feat. Ai Hua is now an advocate for female leadership and established Janssen initiatives, such as the Women’s Leadership & Inclusion Employee Resource Group.

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