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"Walk a Day in her shoes" with Celina Chew

By Sirisha Chada

Celina Chew is the President of the Bayer Group in Greater China and the Chairman of Bayer(China) Limited. As President of Bayer Greater China, Celina’s responsibilities include building bridges to China’s local innovation capabilities, including through Bayer’s start-up incubator programs like Gratns4Apps, digital health communities such as STEM4Health and social entrepreneurship initiatives. This coincides with Celina’s deep interest in connections – connecting ideas, connecting people, connecting cultures and connecting the dots. She is also honored to be named in the Forbes China Top 100 Businesswomen in China Lists for 2017 and 2018.

Message from Celina for Her Century community

Sirisha: What inspires you every day? What motivates you?


Celina: Inspiration is a big word. Personally, I think it is used more casually than it is. I believe that true inspiration doesn’t come every day. It is something powerful that moves a person, creates an epiphany or emboldens a decision or change in direction, an “Aha” moment. I prefer the word “motivation”. I do what I do in the hope of contributing to society and individuals. I want to create a positive impact, on both a larger scale – for example, supporting what Bayer can deliver in terms of solutions for society - and a smaller scale, on a more individual level, for example, helping my colleagues at Bayer or other people fulfill their potential and find their purpose. That is what keeps me motivated.

Sirisha: Who are your role models who’ve inspired you?

Celina: I do not seek specific role models in the classic sense of the word. Many people demonstrate exemplary behavior and inspire me. But if I had to choose, I would say that my parents are my greatest role models. I am very lucky to have a stable family background – it keeps me grounded and inspired (here I use the word “inspired” intentionally). My father was a very smart, practical, responsible man with a BIG heart. He was a dreamer, a doer and an entrepreneur. He pursued excellence his whole life with kindness and compassion. He was a role model doctor, a father and my hero. My mum is also a doctor, she started her practice when women in medicine was not very common in Malaysia. She is a very humorous and upright person who values integrity and is very observant and perceptive about the world and people.

Challenges and Leadership

Sirisha: What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in your career and how did you do that?

Celina: People often ask about the biggest challenge or the biggest achievement. I believe that it is the small decisions that one makes every day, not the large ones, that formulates the trajectory of life and builds character.

When I was given the choice to switch from Head of Legal at Bayer Greater China to the management position of Country Group Head for Bayer in the North ASEAN region (Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) in 2011, it was not part of my aspiration. I liked being a lawyer and liked the position and the life I had. In addition, this new role consisted of many things I wasn’t particularly comfortable with, like public speaking, dealing with HR policies, media. The position was challenging in that I had to look after the well-being of, and engage with, many employees and stakeholders from different cultures and languages in an environment I was not familiar with, and I would be doing this outside my area of expertise.

I was hesitant to take on this role until a very good friend said to me, “You must take that role, its everything you are not comfortable with in one role, its perfect! You can face all your demons at the same time and really challenge yourself”.

I found this argument very persuasive. An opportunity like this does not come very often and the charm of facing all my demons in one convenient assignment was very attractive. It turned out that taking that role was a fantastic decision. It gave me confidence in myself and the chance to test my limits. I couldn’t have asked for a better or lovelier organization than the Bayer Thai/ North ASEAN colleagues with whom to transition to management. If I had to pick one “big” moment in my career, this would be one.

Sirisha: Why are there fewer women leaders heading big corporations? Is that changing?

Celina: There are many reasons for this, many articles and opinions on this. One reason may be a pipeline issue. People in senior positions often come through a certain process, have certain experience or background, leadership training and track record. If we are suddenly looking for women to fill a large number of senior positions in 2018 but did not think of developing women leaders 5, 10 or 20 years ago when the groundwork should have been laid, it is not surprising that there may be lack of sufficient numbers of such women now. The women who have these capabilities now may not have the visibility that is often needed to achieve senior positions. This is why it is important for companies and for society to act now, and to really double down on making women more visible, providing women with opportunities to gain the experience and training needed for such roles, and helping people and society to remove the unconscious bias that we have regarding gender roles and capabilities.

Society is still dominated by structures and perceptions that seem to be designed for the men who have traditionally built them. However, the world has changed and will change more, in terms of social norms, technology, demographics, economic power, political power, speed of change, consumer expectations and so on. This will also lead up changes in how we perceive leadership models and what makes a “good leader” or effective leader. This in turn will bring more opportunities and acceptance for women as leaders, not only in terms of “heading big corporations” as you asked, but also as entrepreneurs, political leaders, thought leaders, academics, experts and leaders in many fields. We really need their contributions!

Work-Life Balance

Sirisha: Do you think women can “have it all”? Does work-life balance exist? Is there a way to strike a balance?

Celina: It depends on how you define “success”. Everyone has different aspirations and therefore “having it all” is a subjective issue. It is possible for women to “have it all”. It just depends on what “all” is.

Sometimes, women ask me, “Celina, should I prioritize success or happiness?” I find that a curious question because how are you successful if you are not happy? And if you are happy, why do you think you are not successful? I believe they use “success” to mean career and “happiness” to mean “home” or “personal”. This is not helpful because there is power in words and the way we frame issues can affect our feelings and actions on the topic. It seems that women sometimes allow society or tradition or other external factors to define for them what “success” or “happiness” or “having it all” is for them. This is problematical because we are then trying to live up to someone's version or versions of what life should be. It is important for each woman to define for herself what “having it all” means to her and her situation, rather than trying to achieve an idea or goal that society or tradition or other people impose on her. This may be a more successful, satisfying and sustainable path to balance and happiness.

Sirisha: How can corporations do better to support women “Lean In”?

Celina: The first step is for the company to have a genuine intention and determination to support women. It is also helpful to clarify what “lean in” really means to that corporation and the women, and what the gaps are. This avoids misunderstanding and cross-purposes. The ways in which corporations can do better in this regard depends on the corporation, its culture and needs, the needs and experiences of the women already working there and many other factors.

Engaging and getting input is very important. Ask the women in the corporation for ideas and contributions. It is also important to include not only women in the discussion, but also the rest of the organization. Adopting and sharing best practices from other companies and organizations is also very helpful.

Apart from intention and determination, plus engagement and input, a framework can be helpful to measure progress. That which gets measured gets managed. I recently read an article on the EDGE certification methodology for gender equality which I thought was quite helpful. It has 5 dimensions including (i) equal pay for equal work, (ii) gender balance in recruitment and promotion, (iii) inclusive and appropriate company policies (iv) leadership, development, mentoring and sponsorship, and (v) company culture. There may be other systems or frameworks that suit a particular corporation better. The point is to track progress.

Sirisha: What are the traits that you look for when making hiring decisions?


Celina: Much depends on the situation and what we are hiring for, but at least 3 Cs come to mind: Competency, Character, and Culture. Candidates must be competent for the job they are hired for, not just in technical ability but also in terms of learning agility. They must have the ability to adapt and evolve with changing circumstances. In terms of Character, we are looking for people with an opinion, with strong integrity, who are interested in contributing to a higher purpose and not afraid to be different. Bayer’s employee branding position is “Passion to Innovate, Power to Change” - we want people who are passionate about innovation and making positive change. For Culture, we are looking for open-minded, inclusive, fair, respectful people who pursue excellence in a pragmatic way. They must also be honest and trustworthy. For me and for Bayer, integrity is non-negotiable. Someone who is competent but not honest or trustworthy will not work out well.

Mentoring and Support

Sirisha: Her Century is a mentoring organization; do you believe in the power of mentoring? Can you share your experiences as a mentor and a mentee?

Celina: I very much believe in the power of mentoring. It is very helpful to have a mentor as a sounding board, a sanity check as well as a guide and confidant. Mentors can provide feedback, share their experiences, provide a different perspective and help the mentee to make connections and build networks. Bayer has formal mentoring programs, and we believe it is a good way of fostering leadership and giving colleagues an additional resource to develop and learn.

I have mentored several people both within and outside Bayer and really enjoyed it. It is a great learning experience for me and I very much appreciate the different perspectives that mentees bring. Their questions and perceptions of topics and situations are very enlightening. Sometimes people ask me how to find a suitable mentor. I think it is important to find someone that interests you or has an expertise or experience you are curious about or who you think can help you. This is not necessarily related to seniority or hierarchy. It is important to check that the chemistry is good between mentor and mentee. Without this, mentoring is less effective.

Sirisha: What can women learn from men, in terms of certain traits or characteristics?

Celina: The most useful trait is to be authentic. There are of course many useful behaviors and approaches that you can learn from other people, both men and women. The important thing is to adopt the ones that are authentic to you and suit your situation.

Men do have different behaviors to women, and possibly also different abilities and capabilities. Of course, women can learn from men, in the same way that they can learn from other women and men can learn from women. There are various areas that are generally cited as situations where women can learn from men, for example, pay negotiation or saying yes to new job opportunities without hesitation. However, I think it is not necessary for a woman to adopt exactly the same practices as a man would, unless these suit her. There are many ways of achieving the same or maybe better results with a different approach, perhaps a more “female” approach. The point is to do it and own it. Be authentic, be confident, don’t be hobbled by your own insecurities, and do what you think is best for you in the situation.

Sirisha: What can men do to support women better at the workplace? How can they be a better “Hefor She”?

Celina: Men, as well as women, can support women at the workplace better if they keep an open mind and try to be aware of unconscious bias in the workplace as well as in themselves. Also, taking actions (small or big) to give women opportunities for training, jobs, voicing their opinions, sharing their expertise, building networks, giving presentations and leading projects and teams, is very helpful.

I believe most men are supportive of women in the workplace. I am grateful for the support of many "HeforShe" men in my life and career. Sometimes, it is not that men do not support women but that they do not seem to understand why women still need the additional support in the first place, since their perception is that women already have reasonable, or even equal, opportunities. Empathy is the important in this situation. Some years ago, a young male colleague came to me to ask why there was a need for a gender balance campaign in Bayer since his perception was that women were treated equally in the workplace. I shared with him some stories of unconscious bias, curious comments about women’s abilities, often without malicious intent that still occurred. For examples, questions like - are you sure that a woman would be tough enough to negotiate these contracts? He was surprised that such incidents still occurred.

Many men may still not understand the experiences of many women in the workplace because they have never walked in a woman’s shoes. Empathy would be very helpful to gain better support from men for women in the workplace.

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