Of Candour, Wit and Amazing Tales

Ms Jennie Chua, CapitaLand Limited’s Chief Corporate Officer, kicked off the inaugural In Conversation with CEOs Series drawing a full house

Issue: Mar 2012

Well-respected Ms Jennie Chua, CapitaLand’s Chief Corporate Officer, kicked off the inaugural series of In Conversation with CEOs with lots of humour, wit and wisdom
Well-respected Ms Jennie Chua, CapitaLand’s Chief Corporate Officer, kicked off the inaugural series of In Conversation with CEOs with lots of humour, wit and wisdom

On Rachel Tan’s first day at work at The Ascott Limited three years ago, she had the chance to meet Ms Jennie Chua, who was then her CEO. “It was quite exciting meeting Ms Chua for the first time. Ms Chua was very friendly, welcoming and smiley, just like she was during the session,” recalled Rachel Jeanette Tan, Customer Relations Manager, The Ascott Limited.

The session that Tan was referring to was the inaugural In Conversation with CEOs series, initiated by CapitaLand’s Organisational Development team under Corporate HR. The series is an opportunity for CapitaLand’s various CEOs to share their wealth of experience, life’s lessons and triumphs with Gen Y employees in an informal setting. Ms Chua is currently CapitaLand Limited’s Chief Corporate Officer and is on the board of directors of 20 public and private organisations such as CapitaMalls Asia Limited, CapitaValue Homes Limited, CapitaLand ILEC Pte. Ltd., The Ascott Limited, Ascott Residence Trust Management Limited and CapitaLand Hope Foundation. She is Chairman of Alexandra Health/Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Community Chest of Singapore, Ms Chua is also a Justice of the Peace and Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to The Slovak Republic.

In 1999 alone, Ms Chua was named Hotelier of the Year, Woman of the Year and Champion of the Arts. For all her contributions to the tourism industry and charity, Ms Chua was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award 2006, Women’s World Excellence Awards 2006 and the Singapore National Day Awards in 1984, 2004 and 2008.

Hence it was not surprising that Ms Chua’s session was greatly over-subscribed. About 60 employees from different SBUs within CapitaLand attended the session and many were turned down due to limited seats.

For two hours, Ms Chua captured the attention and imagination of the audience with her amusing anecdotes, witty comments and keen observations about various topics ranging from discrimination, Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel, which she had become very closely associated with, to reinventing oneself and leaving a legacy.

Using great stories, Ms Chua brought across her observations clearly to the young audience and captured their attention for more than two hours
Using great stories, Ms Chua brought across her observations clearly to the young audience and captured their attention for more than two hours

Get On With It

Ms Chua began her session with a question that she had been asked regularly at media interviews: Is being a woman a disadvantage? For the last 40 years, Ms Chua had consistently answered no.

“Everybody is born with something that can be regarded as a disadvantage,” she explained. “I was born with a disadvantage because I was too short. I wanted to be an air stewardess but could not meet the height requirement. Is that discrimination?”

Ms Chua cautioned against jumping into the conclusion that discrimination is the reason why one did not move ahead in life and falling into one’s self-created glass ceiling. “It’s self-fulfilling because every time you want to do something you wallow in this self-limiting thought. In my career, when someone else got promoted, received a bigger bonus or was offered a bigger office space than me, it was because that person was better than me. So, do not create a glass ceiling when there is none to begin with and get on with it!” she advised.

Being Number Two is Good Enough

Offering another fresh perspective, Ms Chua believed that there is nothing wrong with being Number Two. The culture of perfection in which Singaporeans grew up in - of being Number One - can be misleading. “Perfection is 100 per cent; 80 per cent sometimes can be good enough.”

Ms Chua believed that if a woman tried to achieve 100 per cent or perfection in her roles as wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, career woman and volunteer, she would be burnt out, achieving perfection in nothing. So, without setting the bar too low, Ms Chua advised that achieving an average of 80 per cent in one’s various roles can be good enough.

One cannot mention the Raffles Hotel in Singapore without mentioning Jennie Chua who became its first local general manager
One cannot mention the Raffles Hotel in Singapore without mentioning Jennie Chua who became its first local general manager

Learn From Mistakes, Learn from the Past

As a well-known icon in the hospitality industry, it would be amiss not to mention Raffles Hotel when one meets Jennie Chua. In 1991, she became the first Singaporean general manager of the Raffles and later, its CEO. During her watch, Raffles rose to become an icon in the industry, winning many accolades. Despite the many triumphs, Ms Chua admitted her regret: selling the Raffles Hotel chain without retaining Raffles International, its management company which had stewardship over the Raffles brand.

“Had that happened, the brand of Raffles would have remained in Singapore’s hands,” she recalled. Still, Ms Chua and her team managed to negotiate at the last hour and saved what she identified as the soul of the company. “The soul of the company, I realised, was the 4,000 historical items found within the hotel: the antiques, the key that James Michener, [the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist], sent back to us after staying at the hotel, the books, the paintings, old teaspoons from the 1800s, the 600 carpets, the picture of the man who invented Singapore Sling, his original recipe and the safe in which he kept his mixer. Today, those 4,000 items inside the hotel belong to CapitaLand and are on loan to Raffles Hotel.”

Reinvent Yourself But Don’t Do a Complete Overhaul

While Ms Chua still hopes that Raffles Hotel will ‘return’ to Singapore one day, she has since moved on, constantly reinventing herself to stay relevant in today’s business world. “If we don’t change, we’ll be like milk that has a sell-by date. But even milk is reinvented every 10 years. Now we have long-life milk, low-fat milk, etc. So, even a product like milk reinvents itself to suit the market place. We, as leaders and managers, must reinvent ourselves every 10 years or so,” she said.

Using an example to illustrate her point, Ms Chua explained how she reinvented her management style to adapt to the different stages in her career. When she was working with the Singapore Tourism Board, she would wear western clothes with an oriental touch to promote Singapore as an Asian city that is vibrant, modern, clean and green. Her attire changed to smart business suits when she worked for the Westin Group as its Marketing Director. As General Manager of Raffles Hotel, Ms Chua dressed in cheongsams because the versatility of the traditional dress allowed her to deal with people ranging from the chambermaid to the president of a company without having to go back to change. Finally, her tailored oriental silk pant suits allowed her to travel and move around easily in her capacity as the CEO of Raffles Holdings and Chairman of Raffles International. “Reinventing yourself is about changing your style of management, mode of communication and way of engaging people to suit the changing needs of the business world. Your fundamental beliefs and principles such as integrity, honesty and sense of fair play cannot change to suit the environment,” she advised.

Another tip by Ms Chua - Surround yourself with Smart People and learn from different perspectives
Another tip by Ms Chua - Surround yourself with Smart People and learn from different perspectives

Surround Yourself with Smart People

Ms Chua revealed that she has held on to this principle of surrounding herself with smart people since she started working some 40 years ago. “Do not feel threatened that your younger colleagues are smarter than you. As you move up the corporate ladder, you will find that you will get promoted because you have learnt from the younger people who offer different perspectives. I find it refreshing to hear different perspectives. If you surround yourself with people just like you, it is unlikely you will grow. Clones, by nature, get weaker. If you surround yourself with clones of yourself, you will get weaker and so will the company,” said Ms Chua, drawing a parallel to Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned sheep.

She went on to express her concern that the current Facebook generation encourages this culture of surrounding oneself with like-minded people. She cautioned that the method of communication for this generation could discourage diversity in views.

Leaving a Legacy

In one of her final points, Ms Chua spurred the audience on with the idea of giving back to society, through small and personal ways. To this successful corporate leader, being able to contribute to the greater community is her idea of a lasting legacy. She added that one can leave a legacy by doing things in small ways to help others within the same community.

Ms Chua quoted a story about how an 18-year-old student in Singapore who was abandoned by his own family without warning some 15 years ago. Although he was on a scholarship, she wanted to encourage him by sending a couple of hundred dollars every month anonymously for two and a half years so that he could have some pocket money for an occasional treat like going to the movies or buying a pair of sneakers during his tertiary education.

For Ms Chua, the high point came when she attended the student’s graduation ceremony, again anonymously.

“When I saw the young man walk up the stage to receive his diploma in engineering, the feeling was simply great. So, try it!” said Ms Chua.

Words of Wisdom

Speaking truths with humility and wit, Ms Chua struck a chord with the young audience
Speaking truths with humility and wit, Ms Chua struck a chord with the young audience

Ms Chua clearly struck a chord with the participants. The two-and-a-half hour session seemed to whizz by in minutes because it was so engaging.

Many appreciated the initiative that is aimed at bridging the gap between senior management and junior executives. Management Executive from CapitaLand’s Economics Unit, Johnny Gao, shared, “CapitaLand’s credo [of Building People] was reaffirmed when we make it possible for staff … to gather and learn from one of our own leaders.”

Ho Jack Wei, an analyst who has just joined The Ascott Limited’s Customer Relations department, picked up precious nuggets to start his career with. “[What I learnt from Ms Chua is] that it is important to be confident, accept diverse views and opinions, and know what’s ultimately important in life,” he shared.

“[My most valuable takeaway] was her practical wisdom gleaned from life’s experiences: that it is fine to achieve 80 per cent and not 100 per cent all the time as long as you have time for those that matter,” said Mavis Ng, Vice President, Organisational Excellence and Administration, The Ascott Limited.

Indeed, Ms Chua’s candour, humility and generosity in sharing her wealth of life nuggets, left many in the room feeling truly inspired. After all, they had their conversation with a CEO.

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