I interview Ms Mei Lin Low to get her insights on leadership, management, and we discuss diversity and how it helps companies be innovative.
Ms Mei Lin Low is the current Head of Global Theatre Product Marketing at Poly where she covers several territories that include the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, as well as the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Her role is to influence positive outcomes through data, rigor, and collaboration for the wide range of Poly’s product portfolio.
Ms Low definitely understands the importance of diversity as she has to work closely with her various teams that include but are not limited to sales and channel teams so as to develop and implement effective business programmes. Her passion for effective collaboration is what leads to continuous product and business success that helps drives each experience to the next level.
Ms Low is a champion of hybrid working and business transformation that is empowered by video, voice, and collaboration tools. Having spent more than a decade at Poly undertaking both APAC and global roles in marketing, business functions, and market development, I felt that she would be apt for giving her viewpoints on diversity at the workplace, especially since apart from her work at Poly, she has over 15 years in various industries ranging from IT to Education.
Sadie-Jane Nunis (SJN): There is a constant debate that management and leadership are different. What are your thoughts?
Mei Lin Low (MLL): While Management and Leadership are often used interchangeably, these two terms to me are different in terms of their focus, priorities, and ways of working.
For one thing, I believe that effective leadership is centred on having the vision to guide positive change. While there are many definitions of leadership, I find Gary Yukl’s definition to be the most succinct: “Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done, and how to do it.”
I also believe that leaders are those who possess the attributes necessary to inspire, motivate, and encourage their team(s) to act on a shared vision, to better achieve our collective goals and objectives.
On the other hand, the act of management focuses on outcomes; in effect having to deal with things, issues, or people. In my experience, good managers are typically more process-oriented, and are always reassessing existing processes against the resulting outcomes to make sure that the team is progressing as planned.
Having said that, I do not think that you can do without one or the other. Both leadership and management are closely connected, as being an excellent manager is part and parcel of being an excellent leader.
SJN: What is your management or leadership style like?
MLL: “Playing to the team’s strengths” both literally and figuratively, is my preferred style of leadership.
A friend introduced CliftonStrengths (then known as Strengthsfinder) to me many years ago. CliftonStrengths suggests that the most effective people are those who understand their strengths and behaviours.
This a simple concept, but interestingly is also one that is not intuitive for most Asians or Singaporeans, because our upbringing has taught us to focus on overcoming our weaknesses and deficiencies instead.
By looking at my team as a collective—and mapping individual strengths against our deliverables and goals, I am able to empower, motivate, and coach not just that individual, but the rest of the team as well.
For instance, if an individual excels in data and reporting, they could be tasked to own best practices in this area; this provides recognition of top performance. Next, this same individual could then be empowered to impart best practices to other team members; this motivates them to continuously improve, provides exposure to feedback from a broader audience, and gives them a chance to coach team mates so that the group benefits as a whole.
SJN: What strengths should an effective leader have?
MLL: As much as we would like to think so, there is no magic formula to effective leadership. Like the philosophy I shared earlier—every leader has their own strengths. These strengths may work beautifully in their current vocation, but disastrously in another.
I personally stand by three qualities which have served me well since I started working.
First, one must Lead by Example; it is important for leaders to walk the talk. By demonstrating the behaviour that you desire in your team, you are motivating and inspiring your team. This goes a long way in building credibility, trust, and respect among your team members.
Second, is that one must Communicate Effectively and Openly. Our business at Poly is to enable human connections; both communication and collaboration are vital to mutual success. With a team that is distributed across three continents and as many different cultures, the context behind the communication is also important. Let me break this down into three key parts:
- Know your audience: This is my marketing background showing, but it is communication 101 to know who you are speaking to. Your team member’s experience, outlook, capabilities, and of course, strength;
- Communicate “the Why”: Impart the reason, vision, and logic that sits behind team goals, tasks and metrics. Understanding the Why goes a long way in helping get your team behind you; and
- Watch and listen earnestly: Leaders must also be attentive to feedback, both verbal and non-verbal. With video conferencing adoption sky-rocketing as organisations deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now provided access to non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions, which go a long way in engaging team members and building trust, remotely.
Finally, Demonstrate Integrity. Having clear ethics and principles in what is right or wrong, being authentic, and sharing the spotlight by championing your team’s successes, are all important values that will go a long way in effectively leading and managing a team.
SJN: How do you stay motivated?
MLL: Honestly, I am not 100 per cent sure myself! I just know that it is important to me that I work for (and with) great people. At the same time, it is also important that the company I work for is not just about shifting more product. Working at Poly, it really resonates with me that we empower human connections that matter.
Perhaps the clincher in what I feel helps me bring energy and motivation to what I do, is the empowerment I’ve had the privilege to receive. I am probably one of the first global leaders of a US-headquartered company to be based out of Asia/Singapore. To be entrusted with this rare opportunity motivates me. I want to show the company that they made the right decision, and more importantly, to show Asian women (and other Asians) that the world is flat, and that the sky is the limit in what we can achieve.
SJN: How big is your team and how do you manage and motivate your team?
MLL: My team is small, there are just five of us. It is challenging though, as two of us are based in the UK, one is based in the US, and the remaining two (myself included) in Singapore. I mentioned earlier about communication, and the ability to both connect and engage authentically. I do not think I could do as well as I wanted to, if not for technology tools such as video conferencing, video devices, and headsets. Even before the pandemic, every team member was already equipped with the right Poly devices to be seen and heard effectively in a video conference. Technology aside, having a set of solid processes in place is vital to managing a dispersed team; this can come in the form of weekly meetings, and agreed-upon metrics used to track progress.
Admittedly, motivating a dispersed team is more difficult, but I have found success in being a champion for their success. Celebrating the good work done and elevating their achievements to the broader organisation helps to create a virtuous cycle of positive reinforcement, and strong outcomes.
SJN: How diverse is the team that you manage/lead and how diverse is the team at POLY and what are your views on diversity at the workplace?
MLL: My team is as diverse as the countries we live in, as diverse as our accents and our interests! We have a poet, a technology patent-holder, a former flight attendant, someone who’s only ever worked for Poly, and someone who does really well at bringing energy to the team; our “Energizer bunny”, if you will.
More seriously, as a global company, Poly is a truly diverse team where employees work closely with one another, no matter where they are based, thanks to collaborative devices that make it easier to communicate with one another, whether across the globe or across time zones. We firmly believe that work is about what we do, and not where you do it. With many of the team having the flexibility to work either at home, in the office, or anywhere in between, we pretty much epitomise Hybrid Working.
In my role working closely with colleagues all over the world, I have learnt that being aware of cultural diversity, traditions, and even communication styles, can help not just in bringing to life more effective solutions to our customer’s most pressing problems, but provide lessons that can help inform future innovations that we’re working on.
We like to say that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to our customer’s problems. In the same way, it is this diversity that brings out the best in the teams that I have the good fortune to work alongside.
SJN: What are some of the positive outcomes of having a diverse team and what are the benefits of being an organisation that is LGBTQ+ inclusive?
MLL: When people talk about Diversity in the Workplace, I find that they often use demographic diversity as a proxy for diversity of views, ideas, input, paths to success, and such. I feel that it is just as important that all employees have an equal voice within their team and the organisation. Without the equal opportunity to express one’s (diverse) opinion, point of view, or idea—diversity would just be a metric or statistic, not an outcome.
If anything, diversity, and inclusion are vital parts of workplace culture, which can not only benefit employees, but also the business itself. In an age where innovation is going to be crucial to how a company succeeds, having a diverse team does wonders for empowering creativity and innovation. This ensures that no one group has a monopoly on views or decision-making to the detriment of the organisation.
The bottom-line benefits from diversity too; a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19 per cent higher revenues due to innovation. Ultimately, a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion helps to instil confidence and pride in employees as it enhances how they feel towards a company that is both forward-thinking and open-minded. It can also help in attracting talent, especially Millennials, as they tend to be more likely to join a company that is supportive of values such as a diverse workforce.
Of course, I am glad to say that Poly is an organisation that believes in equal opportunity for all.
SJN: How can being more diverse lead to being more innovative?
MLL: Innovation in a technology company is paramount. With a more diverse team, we gain access to more ideas, opinions, and variations in the way we accomplish tasks, communicate; the list goes on. Having our R&D team based in various parts of the world allows us to internalise global user scenarios. At the same time, our engineering team are natives when it comes to developing solutions that cater to customer needs. To those of us in Asia Pacific, we are more keenly aware that decisions which include diverse backgrounds and knowledge have the highest chance of being more locally relevant, and at the same time, more authentic to a global audience.
SJN: Are local companies close-minded about having diverse teams? I still see many local companies sorely lacking female leads. Why do you think this is so?
Also, how far behind are Asian companies, especially Southeast Asian companies with understanding the need to be more inclusive and diverse—be it more females at the top, being LGBTQ+ inclusive?
MLL: I cannot speak for others, but at Poly, we value the authentic self of every individual. I am fortunate to be in a company which embraces differences in ethnicity/race, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, persons with special abilities, or geographic location. We encourage unique perspective, fresh ideas, and approaches that challenge thinking that is stuck in the status quo, regardless of gender.
While South-east Asia in general has many rich and deeply rooted traditions, we are also increasingly seeing more women holding senior positions in the workplace as economies become more developed, and more businesses are participating in the global economy.
SJN: What is your opinion on Singaporean companies being more diverse?
MLL: I feel that Singaporean companies have a leg-up on other Asian countries when it comes to diversity, by virtue of the multi-cultural ethnic demographic that they draw manpower from—Singaporeans. From the earliest childhood experiences of going to the playschool or nursery, to 10-plus years of formal education, followed by compulsory national service and tertiary education—we are shoulder-to-shoulder with individuals from different backgrounds, cultural heritages and physical appearances.
Singapore’s native diversity prepared me well for a global role because I was able to extend the understanding for openness and consideration for other cultures to my role. In the same way, I am pretty sure that many Singaporean companies enjoy success for the same reasons.
SJN: How can more companies, especially those that are family-run businesses better prepare themselves to cope with boardrooms that are more diverse?
MLL: I am reminded of an African proverb that goes like this—““If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Taking the example of family-run businesses, they can achieve a level of success in a fairly short period because of the vision, toil, and single-minded focus of the founder—often a patriarch or matriarch. The rest of the family is often the “supporting cast” to a strong leader, there are no dissenting views. In that sense, if you want to go fast, go alone.
On the other hand, looking at “If you want to go far, go together”, for the business to become an enterprise, you cannot discount the need to expand to other markets. It is important to bring other views into consideration; in essence, to understand other markets’ culture differences, and the values that they bring to the business. With these in mind, you can then forge a common vision together, on where the business should be and go.
Recognition of the value that diverse viewpoints bring, is the best preparation for coping with diversity in the boardroom.
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