Ms Aw sharing with students during the session
18th February 2017
Saturday Sharing Session organised by Institute for Engineering Leadership
Daring to ask questions and a spirit of adventure
Aw Kah Peng
With 22 years in the public service at the Economic Development Board and as CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board, it may be hard to believe that Ms Aw Kah Peng is in fact trained as an engineer – she graduated from the National University Singapore in 1990 with a degree in Chemical Engineering. During a sharing session with students, she shared her experiences during her career and as a leader.
Ms Aw’s unusual career path elicited a question on uncertainties in planning for a career. As a student in junior college making decisions for a university course, Ms Aw was not sure what she wanted as she interested in many things, such as music (She plays the piano) and different languages. Her father advised her to be practical, even though she was unsure of what she was getting herself into.
Her career at the Economic Development Board (EDB) came about precisely because of her curious nature. One day while at work at a small laboratory dealing with polymer technologies, there were several Japanese visitors led by an EDB representative. She chatted with them, and several days later received a call from the EDB representative. This eventually led to a job despite that her initial motivation for meeting the representative’s boss was the free lunch, she said in jest.
Giving advice to students on mapping out their career path, she said: “There’s no magic formula, ask questions. Companies know you don’t know anything fresh out of school, and the only thing you can and should do is to talk to people.”
She encouraged students to be curious. She said: “(In my experience) The ones who are curious and engage people, they go far compared to those who sit on a desk in front of a computer.”
A Spirit of Adventure
Ms Aw also encouraged students to have a sense of adventure – “if something sounds interesting, go for it, and if you don’t be prepared to make a change.” It was in this spirit that saw Ms Aw accept overseas postings to Chicago and London during her time in EDB, as well as her move to become CEO of Singapore Tourism Board (STB). She said: “I didn’t know anything about tourism, but I told myself that I would learn.”
Even though she found her time in public service particularly meaningful, she later realised that “while governments can enable, it is companies that create jobs”. She got a call from Shell, not unlike the call she received from EDB as a fresh graduate. Yet it was not the same – “This time it was different, out of school you can pretend you don’t know anything, after 22 years it is a different conversation. You have to be clear about what you’re looking for. For me, it was that I wanted to know how to run a business.”
While only four years into the job at Shell, she is already into her third job, running a business worth about three billion dollars. She said: “I am learning every day how to run a multi-billion-dollar business, (and) the one thing I take from all these years (of experience) is, how do I…inspire them (my team) to do good things.”
She also responded to a question from a student who asked how she would inspire her team, especially when morale is low. She said: “First you must ask yourself if you have the passion, and why you are passionate. Talk to your team about it, but they have to make choices for themselves, you cannot make it for them”. Even though not everyone would stay on, move on with those who do decide to do so.
Ms Aw also shared about learning to ‘read’ people – having an opinion about other people, even if you don’t share with them. Over time, this becomes instinctive and you learn how to best build on the strengths of a team. She shared an anecdote of a colleague she works with remotely and whom she only meets in person a few times a year. Yet when they do meet, they discuss things outside work, sometimes even meeting his family. In doing so, she builds good relations and rapport with her colleagues by getting to know them on a personal level.
Through her long and illustrious career, Ms Aw shared that it was her family who has kept her anchored. She said: “My husband moved with me when I was posted overseas, and every time I moved, he needed to find a new job. Your family, loved ones that will help you to anchor. It’s not a bad thing, they won’t hold you back. There are things you will do for the people around you, who will invite you to think about your choices.”
Finally, she shared what has driven her throughout her career. She said: “After 22 years in public service, the one thing I take away is the mission that creates jobs for my country that drives me. You can keep moving, and every day you’re busy. But the purpose for me is that I’m creating good jobs for my country, (and that has been) very meaningful.”