After toughing it out in several male-dominated industries and roles, Geraldine Wong has learnt a few things about having courage and leading with empathy. She brings all those lessons with her to Sephora Malaysia in a fast-evolving retail environment, where digitalisation and transformation take centre stage.
Known as a mixed martial arts and Muay Thai enthusiast, it could be assumed Geraldine embodies a don’t-mess-with-me persona. “Totally not! I’m quite short and not big in size. And I’m friendly and approachable,” she counters. Her daily routine of martial arts training is a testament of her drive, focus and discipline – qualities that have stood her in good stead through her career as a marketer and manager within large global brands.
From Nokia, Microsoft, to UBER Malaysia and now Sephora, Geraldine has used those qualities to defy the norms of gender, cultural and age. Now a seasoned marketer and team leader, she is clear about what it takes to be both. The ability to appreciate and understand people tops her list. “You must be able to communicate, to demonstrate and to influence. Be a good storyteller so you can tell the story that connects people and change their point of view.”
Empathy for good leadership
The trait that makes her a good marketer is also one that makes her an effective leader. Geraldine also possesses a healthy dose of empathy, a quality she insists every leader must have. With empathy comes servitude as an attitude. “I am literally a servant to my team.”
"There are different roles a leader has to play. Today, I am a coach, but tomorrow, I may need to be a leader or mentor"
“There are different roles a leader has to play. Today, I am a coach, but tomorrow, I may need to be a leader or mentor. Other times, a friend, but sometimes, I need to take out the whip and be the boss.” Employing one style of leadership won’t work, she adds, especially with today’s millennial workforce.
To illustrate her point, she recounts a recent young hire who needed help in the beginning. “I was hard on her at the start, even putting a tracker on her to monitor her daily tasks. I had to be a hardcore boss. But she improved significantly, so I switched roles to be more a mentor and coach.”
Another quality she depends on is perseverance. This is something her training in martial arts has gifted her. “My Muay Thai coach always said, ‘don’t be scared Geri’. What he was really saying is, you just have to fight.”
"Young people are strong, smart, and hungry"
Managing a talent gap
Hiring the right candidate is one of the tougher challenges of Geraldine’s job. With the onslaught of technology-driven changes, she grapples with a talent gap that’s not easy to bridge.
“Marketing has become very data-driven, but it is difficult to find people with these skills. The talent we have in Malaysia move to Singapore or other countries where they get better pay,” says Geraldine. To stay on the front foot of recruitment, Geraldine does not depend on the company’s human resource team. “As a leader, you know best what is needed and the team dynamics. You are not looking just for skills but the ability to blend in with your existing team,” she says.
Hiring the right person may be challenging, but retaining them is equally difficult. Geraldine says today’s young workforce is all about growth opportunities and mobility. “They often ask, ‘What’s next for me?’”
“To retain good people, you have to ensure they are constantly looked after, and they feel the company has their interests at heart and will look after their development. Young people are strong, smart, and hungry.”
Despite the fast-moving changes in the industry and in the corporate world, Geraldine remains centred and focused on people, understanding that harnessing the collective strength of her own leadership and that of her team will be key to overcoming challenges.