Growing Pains - "Navigating Negotiations" with Mei Koon

Mei Ching Koon, Chief Marketing Officer at Squiz chats to CEO Will Fan about navigating negotiations as an Asian female business leader

To celebrate International Womens Month in March 2022, we'd like to bring you a very special edition of our 'Growing Pains' series.

Mei Ching Koon, Chief Marketing Officer at Squiz chats to NewCampus CEO Will Fan about navigating negotiations as an Asian female business leader.

What we covered in the conversation:

  1. Learning from environments of ambitious growth and rapid change
  2. Cultural influences on Asian female leaders
  3. The art of negotiation: overcoming socialization and building confidence
  4. Creating an inclusive culture requires vulnerability and mindfulness
  5. Finding balance through the ebbs and flows of life
  6. Building a future-friendly team involves thinking ahead about everyone’s success
  7. Slowing down in preparation for rapid growth

Transcript

Will: Welcome everyone, thanks for tuning in to our 8th and final session of Growing Pains for 2021. We're building a series of quick firesides with leaders all around Asia sharing their stories, their learnings and insights on developing some of their best people in their journeys as leaders. The goal of these sessions is to really give you bite-sized perspectives on how you can make impact in your team and your organization tomorrow. 

Today's guest: we have Mei Ching Koon. She's the Chief Marketing Officer of Squiz a global tech ? and defines customer experiences for enterprises all around the world. 

Mei, I'm so thrilled to have you with us today. We're going to be discussing a very important topic, which is how can young leaders navigate negotiations in this complex environment? Thanks for joining us today. 

Mei: I'm so happy to be here. Thanks, Will. 

Will: Mei, I think we have some pretty exciting news? Tell us a bit about a recent change in your professional journey. 

Mei: In the spirit of NewCampus announcing new roles, I've just finished up 3 amazing years at Siteminder, a travel tech company. And the 3 years with our IPO, which was such a great journey to be on. 

Now after a lovely 4-week break, I will be starting at Squiz in the Chief Marketing Officer role, so I'm super excited. It's another global company based out of Australia  (which is always fun). We're going through a real transformational journey to hit our next level of growth. I get to build up a team again, take the new product roadmap and just spread the word about Squiz. 

1. Learning from environments of ambitious growth and rapid change

Will: Mei, one thing that I always enjoy about having conversations with you is that you're very reflective in your experiences and your journey with this big, massive turnaround. You've had a lot of exciting opportunities this year, what were some of your personal reflection points as you turn the leaf into 2022? 

Mei: Every opportunity that I've had the privilege to join the companies that I've been with, they've never been on status quo 'maintenance' journeys, they've always been new industries and always in stages of ambitious growth. The last 3 years have been a huge learning experience in terms of humility for me. 

When I entered into the travel tech space, it was a brand new industry at the coalface of COVID when that happened and how it really hit the travel industry. Just realizing how you really have to lean on others, not just your teams who have gone through so much. They're looking to you for leadership when things are unclear and when the outlook could be threatening, particularly in the travel space and what you do as a leader really counts there. But it's also how you collaborate with other teams and how different parts of the world experience different things. 

It's really opened up my mind a lot more to how little I know, how much I need to rely on the people I work with and how I need to change my mind. Often a lot of things changed really quickly for us, and you go on decades of instinct and experience and you think you know it and then you realize, "Actually no I don't, other people know better" or "I'm learning something that's different". So that's been my experience. It's been great. 

2. Cultural influences on Asian female leaders

Will: One thing we we talked a lot about previously Mei, is putting yourself in that position to be a leader. But also, as an Asian female leader, how do you open to more opportunities like that? Tell me a bit about your journey and your philosophy behind 'sending the elevator down'. How can next year really allow you to propel more coaching and mentorship opportunities? 

Mei: We’ve talked in the past about 'rising tides need to lift all boats'. I've been really blessed to have the career I've had. Now it's the opportunities with NewCampus to share what I've learned to more than just 1-1 relationships / mentorships / chats that I've had. What it's taught me is there are stereotypes of what an 'Asian professional' or characteristic is like (even more as an Asian woman and then an Asian woman leader). 

I personally was brought up always thinking that I'm just as good as anybody else. I grew up in Malaysia. My parents lived in the colonial times where you think 'the Western world knows best'. My parents definitely ingrained in me that 'trust in yourself, work hard and you'll just be as good as anybody else'. 

I think those kinds of grounding and foundations helped me just say, "Hey, if I prove myself, if I work harder than everybody else and I stand up and have the confidence to know that I can achieve whatever I can to achieve, then you can actually make it no matter where you are, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter what gender you are". But you need to also do the work behind it. And the decades I've had to learn that I hope to be able to share it now with a wider audience through NewCampus and other things I get involved with. 

3. The art of negotiation: overcoming socialization and building confidence

Will: A significant portion of our learners are women, and 100% of them are people of color. For a very long time (even now) it is looking towards European or Western practices when building the model organization. But that has definitely shifted in the past couple of years when you see new success stories and new leaders emerge. 

Tell me a bit about some of the key lessons that you learned in terms of negotiating and putting your best foot forward. What were some of your inflection points as you evolved your career? 

Mei: That's an interesting one, I really had to reflect on this a little bit to structure my thoughts. Research shows that (whether it's people of color, in this case) men negotiate 4x more often than women.  And women's expectations are generally 30% less than men in terms of the salary level that they're expecting. 

And this comes from a lot of socialization growing up. We're taught to be agreeable, relatives might joke about 'marrying rich' to be secure. Whereas for the son, it might be "work hard and build up your wealth". It's about being polite, it's about 'not causing ripples'. And this starts from a very young age. It could be in jest, but it does actually stick around a little bit as you can see, regardless of cultures. 

But women are generally really strong negotiators at work because we're good at relationship-building, we're good at collaboration, those types of things. We just have to look at negotiations as 'advocating for ourselves' versus asking for something we believe we deserve. But somehow, I don't feel we have the right to demand. I've thought about some of the key steps to consider when we're looking at negotiating for ourselves, whether it's a pay rise or a promotion or a new job. 

One, it's to do your homework and find out what you're actually worth in the market. Now there are salary guides published by recruitment firms out there that are published every year that's publicly available, job posts online, Glass Door. There's also talking to peers in similar roles outside of your company if you have a 'do not discuss pay' policy at work (which some countries do). Often you'll probably be surprised that where you are pegged and what the general benchmark is for that salary, for a similar role to yours in your market. 

The second thing is don't feel you have to 'tick every box' before you put your hand up or ask for a promotion. Men have a tremendous confidence to go for something with a 50% fit. Women, on the other hand, they might be a 90% fit for something, but they'll focus on the 10%, "What else? That's a gap... How do I close that? I'm not sure I'm ready for it yet".  I literally spoke to some really capable high general manager type professionals in the last month who still thought that, which is quite amazing in this day and age. 

So figure out your strengths, gauge your ability to learn and master new areas vs knowing everything right away. Everything changes so much, particularly in technology, especially in the latest industries that we're in at the moment. So if you learned a new skill or an area before in the past, you can do it again. And it's more about having that 'confidence in your ability to learn' rather than being a master already. 

The third thing is, don't stop asking. Some of us think that if you don't get that pay rise or that promotion or that new job the first time, you have to stop asking. You know that once you've tried it once, it didn't happen, it won't happen again. But you have to keep going, ask for feedback as to why you didn't get it the first time and address anything around it and then come back to the discussion 6 months later. If men are asking 4x as often, they're getting a lot of practice, and that's why they're really good at it. 

There's no professional penalty for asking. Sometimes we have the idea (and this can be equally men or women) if you get turned down the first time, you worry about asking a second time / following up because you think that you'll be seen as being too demanding / disagreeable and somehow professionally, you're going to be pegged down a notch. But if you do it professionally, if you do it with respect, if you've got your proof and your case to back it up, it just shows initiative and proactiveness. Those are some of the things I've learned over the years about negotiating. 

4. Creating an inclusive culture requires vulnerability and mindfulness

Will: It's empowering teams and organizations to think in this inclusive manner. I think for yourself and alot of leaders, you might've had a few mentors throughout your journey, you might've had to figure out the hard way. What is the responsibility of a new organization to have this as part of their culture, to have this open, transparent nature? What's your thinking around that as you're rebuilding and redesigning the new organization in your teams? 

Mei: There's lots of stages to this. Any leader or manager that's hiring people starts at the hiring stage and trying to be conscious about skills, capability, but also diversity in approach and in perspectives (not just in gender, but in terms of the way you think). And all things being equal between 2 candidates, there's always an opportunity to look at balancing out the gender mix in the team (all things being equal).

In marketing, for example, trying to hire a guy is quite hard. So I consciously do have to try to see if we can actually (given the person being able to do the role and technical skillsets) think proactively about getting more men in my team. That's one thing you do as managers starting at the hiring stage. 

Once you're in the company, there does have to be a view on bringing the 'whole person' to work. To successfully build a team that's gender-diverse, with diverse perspectives, you have to be aware of the unconscious biases that you do tend to have. Be transparent about that and and be OK to talk about it openly. I think sometimes we don't want to raise, 'how are things at home' or  talk about anything personal because sometimes it can be uncomfortable. Sometimes people just need the door to crack a little bit open and then they can actually talk a little bit about what they may be going through themselves. 

As a leader, you do need to almost start with that vulnerability. You may be talking about something that you're going through or that you're not having and that you're struggling with something and allowing them to kind of talk about it themselves. Once you open that kind of relationship and that culture in the business, it  allows you to get a better understanding of how do you actually help them with that challenge personally so they can do a better job at work, they can thrive at work. 

Some of the things that we should all be conscious of is that no matter what culture you're in (and this is changing) women do take the lion's share of home care. It could be your children, it could be the home. If you don't have kids, it could be elderly parents and just that imbalance at home will impact their ability to to contribute and focus in the workplace. Particularly with COVID, we found that with remote working there was just so much happening in your home life as well. And the men in the relationship should just be conscious of that and lean in a bit more. And this is happening so much more. 

The more that happens, if you're a manager at work, leaning in more at home, being more open about you doing the pickups / you doing the dinner cooking and not being able to take that call,  just normalizing some of that discussion and conversation means that it's OK for them to be open about that. But hopefully other men take the lead on being more supportive on the home front. 

In the workplace, it's interesting because during a meeting / workshop / brainstorm / project, there might not be defined roles, and you need somebody to take the notes / minutes or to set the agenda or do the follow up. If there doesn't tend to be somebody who puts their hand up, quite often you find there'll be a woman putting her hands up saying, “I'll just get it done". When that person has to do that in the meeting, it takes away from their ability to contribute in that meeting. To be part of the discussion fully, to add their perspective and be seen to contribute as well. 

So I think those are the types of unconscious things we have to think about. It's not about anyone giving the hand-out or a leg up to anybody else, but it's kind of everybody leaning in and taking an equal part in what you do in the workplace or at home. 

5. Finding balance through the ebbs and flows of life

Will: You mentioned a lot of really interesting points Mei, and I'd love to dive deeper into how you've been able to find balance both at home and in business. What were some of your key challenges and key positive inflection points? And are you still trying to find that balance now? 

Mei: This is an interesting conversation because sometimes women (particularly this generation), we're so empowered. The saying that 'you can have it all' is part of that discussion and I think it's OK not to want it all, all the time. I've been through my life where I had my first baby, I took a year off. Over that time, I did start a business as well (because I did need that stimulation, so I wouldn't advise that to everybody) but I went back part-time after that and that was OK. I wasn't gunning for a leadership role, I just wanted to keep my foot in the door to make sure that I stayed current. And when my kids were older, that's when I decided to put the pedal on the metal again. 

Your life will go through those ebbs and flows. For me, it was just about keeping my foot in the door and remaining current and keeping myself engaged and occupied in the industry. But how ambitious I wanted to be depended on what I was able to do with my family and what stage they were in. And I think that's OK. In between that (when I've been a working mom pretty much my entire family life) some days you are just a better mother and you're a crap employee and some days you're a sterling professional and you really suck at home and it's OK. The kids forgive you. The manager forgives you. Eventually, it all balances out in the end. So I think we just need to be easier on ourselves a bit. 

6. Building a future-friendly team requires thinking ahead about everyone’s success

Will: I love having that real type of conversation Mei because for most young professionals or mid-career professionals, sometimes they may feel stuck and almost a bit awkward to ask these open and transparent questions. 

When you think about designing the next version of your team as you start to move into a leadership role with squares, what does that look like next year? You talked a bit about finding that balance, helping people in offices succeed in their own pathways, but also at times acknowledging that it's OK that you're not striving to be the top. What is your philosophy and thesis look like in 2022? (Having learned all of this, and with COVID still up in the air)

Mei: I've got some interesting challenges. Our teams are almost fully remote in many cases. The existing team at the moment, some are New Zealand all the way down to Georgia in the States so timezones are interesting. 

I have been speaking to each of them already, just thinking about what is the total mix of the team? Everybody has a role, but people have passions and they've got stronger skills. So I've been trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle of the technical skills, but also the passion that they have so that we are actually quite a diverse sum of our parts. Some of the things I'm consciously thinking about is also what is the team not just look like now? But where can they go? What does the team look like in 12 months? In 24 months? So I actually did that exercise. It was very mind-numbing because you have to work out different scenarios. 

The lessons I've learned from the past is the person that you hire now in the role that you have now (particularly in growth companies) it changes quite quickly 6-12 months later if you're growing the way you should be. What I want to avoid is having them feeling stuck, like they don't think they can succeed in the 2nd iteration of the company / structure, or the roles that we've created don't fit where they want to go next. 

So I'm trying to kind of get that off at the pass and start thinking about that now even before I've joined, so that people do have different pathways they can take. If they want to stay in a technical role and not advance into a leadership role, what are the avenues for you to go laterally or to expand your scope? If you want to be a leader, what will be the next iteration of that? So just something to think about that. 

7. Slowing down in preparation for rapid growth

Will: I love that we're not only discussing as an individual how he or she can think about negotiate that path, but also your responsibility and our responsibilities as leaders to meet them in the middle, but also support them in that journey. 

Mei, last question from my side as we steer towards the end of 2021, what are some final things that you're thinking about that you haven't checked off? I know you have a long 3-4 weeks to reset reflect. What are you thinking about? What are you? You know, what are some outstanding things on your 2021 bucket list? 

Mei: Gosh, this is personal or career wise?

Will: I think they marry up nowadays. 

Mei: First of all, it's really getting myself in a headspace that I am just refreshed again so that I can be ready to charge off in 2022 and be a leader from the get-go that you know the team and the business need. To your point about personal and career life expansion, that's really important. It's been a really hard run the last 2 years. We've run a really fast pace in my last role. Even when I just finished up last Friday, I physically actually became really exhausted on Saturday. I didn't even realize it. So just taking care of my health, mentally and physically, is going to be a really important one. 

And then just being able to do research again in my free time, on the industry. Looking at what's next, reading up on what's going on in different industries from the people side of things, culture, tech, tools. Just using that time to do all that kind of absorption that you just don't have time to do when you're actually in the throes of work. 

Finally, it's just spending time with my kids and my husband. Go away on a holiday somewhere without a lockdown! So those are really priorities for me. 

Will: I love that. At the end of the day, for those listening, it is about finding the balance and knowing when to 'pedal to the metal', but also take that reset period when needed. 

Thank you so much for your time today and for everyone on today's session. Thanks for connecting and hearing the stories from Mei and her journey as a leader. If you want to get in touch, you can find us on LinkedIn or you can reach out to our email hello@newcampus.co. 

Mei, thanks again for your time. I  look forward to working with you closely early next year. You take care of yourself and we'll see you on the other side. Bye for now. 

Mei: Bye. Thanks, everyone. 

Will: Thanks, Mei. 

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