International Women’s Day Edition: The ’80s – Ms. Teo Lay Lim

This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.

By Rachel Ho (21A01B) 

As the Chairperson of Accenture, Singapore, Ms Teo is at the forefront of the changing face of employment in the 21st century. In our interview with her, she offers nuanced insight into the mindset and skills necessary to thrive in such dynamism, and how we can begin equipping ourselves now.

  1. Could you give our readers some background on your school life in RJC (e.g. subject combination, CCA)? What were some memorable moments?

I was a national tennis player, having won the national titles for 6 years running, and Mr. Tan Kim Cheng who was then responsible for Tennis in RI was keen for me to be part of RI. At that time, RI was still teaching classroom-style with fixed subject combinations – ‘medicine’ or pure science, ‘engineering’ with double maths, and arts.  I wanted to do a subject combination of Biology, Chemistry, Maths and  Economics, so I had a preference for entering a Junior College. Mr Tan arranged for me to do that combination, so every time my class was doing Physics, I hopped over to a different class to join them for Economics.  That was perhaps the experience I would single out as being the most unique. 

  1. How has your experience in RJC prepared you for the challenges you now face? Conversely, which challenges were more unexpected?

My experience as a Rafflesian was working and being part of a team.  I remember vividly the whole school turning out to support our Rugby matches, and all of the cheers we learnt to cheer our team on.  And of course, being part of a team meant that if the team won the championship, we had a day off the following Monday!

 3. How has your role in Accenture evolved over the past 30 years? How have you been shaped by these changes / adapted to them?

My career at Accenture would be quite typical in the sense that I moved from consultant practitioner and being involved in all of the activities related to delivering a project for a client to being a manager, where I had the responsibility of delivering part of the project and leading a team, to becoming a partner (when we were a partnership) and Managing Director (post-IPO) where I was responsible for building a part of our business and developing my team. 

As Managing Director I moved across different roles, from being a Client Account Lead where I was the most senior person from Accenture who worked with a client to solve their challenges, to leading practices across the Asia Pacific Region in different specialities such as Customer Relationship Management, Analytics and Sustainability to being the Country Managing Director for Singapore and my final role as the Geographic P&L holder for SouthEast Asia.

My career over the last 32 years has shaped me in the following ways:

  • To have the belief that I have the ability to learn anything and to take any role.  This was before Lifelong Learning became an everyday term and a reality for everyone.   
  •  To be versatile and comfortable with change. We changed our organization structure often, and our project-style model meant you worked with different people every few months. I learnt to work with leaders from all around the world and had to adapt and engage to be effective.
  • To believe that success requires us to be holistic in who we are – technical/content excellence alone is not enough. Strong soft skills is also a prerequisite to career progression.
  1. What value or meaning does your work in Accenture hold for you? 

At Accenture, our purpose is ‘To Deliver On The Promise of Technology and Human Ingenuity’. It translates to doing things which are complex, but game-changing for our clients, and life-changing for the individuals in the company, as well as the stakeholders they serve.  So everything we do has impact and societal value.  That is huge and is what keeps me and our 3000 or so employees in Singapore coming to work everyday feeling that what we do is meaningful. 

  1. What are some common misperceptions about leadership? What does good leadership look like to you?

One common misperception about leadership is that you have to know it all, and then you direct people. On the contrary, I believe strong leaders know their strengths, and where they have gaps, and have the confidence to hire the best people they can find which complement them, so that the team is stronger than the individual members.

Leaders who are confident also seek diversity in their teams — people who are different in culture and backgrounds, and who could therefore have different views and perspectives – and strong and confident leaders will have the intellectual curiosity to hear and to understand these different views before making any decisions.  Our success as leaders is totally dependent on the quality of people in our teams, so we cannot hire the best, and then expect them to simply be happy being expected to conform and to do as they are directed.

  1. You’ve mentioned the importance of soft skills in the tech space before, how can one develop and hone such skills? 

I believe it is all mindset-related.  We have to be willing to be always learning, always adapting to new situations and growing in experience and insights through these opportunities.  Because the world around us does not stay constant. 

For example, having critical thinking skills means there could be more than one right answer.  So to be completely binary about one right answer will be a limiting belief.  To grow up in a culture of meritocracy – which in school life may be defined by a GPA score – will again be highly limiting in a corporate setting, where success and potential will be assessed by factors which are less quantifiable. 

The ability to engage and network – without this no one is complete – is about doing so in an authentic way.  I always challenge my people to be ‘interesting people’.  No one wants to do coffee with a boring person, who only speaks to one or two domains.  Today there is no excuse to be “narrow” or boring – there is so much content out there which is easily accessible, and a lot of the time, free.  Review the diversity of reading material, or podcasts, on your own lists and libraries, and challenge yourself to experience different genres and domains just to “broaden” yourself.  These are some ideas.

And finally, I cannot emphasize enough that communications skills are what makes the package of who you are whole.  Communicating – what you say/write, how you say/write – is a skill which requires lifelong mastery.  Communicating also means listening and understanding, reading between the lines and hearing what is said as well as what is not said; it heightens understanding and empathy, and allows for the response to be shaped, and any interaction to be impactful.  Communicating well is the way you make yourself known to others, and is a lifelong learning journey.  Making a good presentation for class is different from making a compelling sales pitch and influencing an audience. Speaking in person, over video conferencing, or from a podium —  all of these require mastery of a broad range of communications skills.  So one never fully graduates from learning this. 

  1. What do you wish you had known as a young rookie joining the workforce?

I wish I had known how valuable being fluent in mother tongue was to our future. After 10 years of learning Mandarin in school, I did not speak or read let alone write in Chinese after I completed my A Level Chinese exams.  In 2006, I landed in Shanghai and spent 2 years there.  After that time, my language ability improved, but I felt it was such a waste. If only I had maintained the language ability required by A levels and started from there in China – I would have achieved new levels of mastery of a language which is so important to the future of all of us living in this part of the world.

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