Do not drown the feminine thoughts and what comes naturally to you in order to fight in a man’s world. Instead, play up the femininity, sensitivity and the innate sixth sense that comes with being a woman.
I have to say that I believe females make the best multi-taskers in the world. We somehow have that DNA to make things happen, juggle multiple roles, while looking fabulous at the same time!
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nichol Ng.
Nichol Ng is CEO and MD of X-INC Group. She is co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore (FBSG), a member of YPO (Young Presidents Organization), a global community of business leaders, and President of ONE (Singapore). She is also the mother of four young children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Nichol! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
The elder of two children to a young homemaker mother and businessman father, I started out as a busybody early in my life. From the age of seven, I took on multiple leadership roles in school from being a prefect to cheerleader and playing for the school softball school team.
I cannot talk about my career path without speaking about my family. My late grandfather traveled from China to Singapore on a junk boat in 1939 with his younger daughter, after his first wife passed away. In Singapore, he met my grandmother who bore him nine children — six boys and three girls. My grandfather started a food trading business selling food to roadside hawkers before World War Two. In the late 60s, when hotels started opening in Singapore, my two older uncles started to diversify into western culinary ingredients to escape the corruption that came with serving Chinese hawkers.
My late father, the 8th child, dropped out of school at 15, to help out with the family food distribution business. In the early 80s, he started his own trading business which flourished. He dabbled in everything from movie production to seafood trawling and duty-free shops. My father built a large business empire with 40 companies in 25 countries, raking in USD250 million in the early 90s. With his booming business, he helped to sustain the then smaller food distribution business.
Unfortunately, the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997 saw the empire crumble. I witnessed first-hand my family home being seized by the bank, as my dad and his brother became bankrupt. The only business that they managed to ring fence was the tiny but thriving business that my grandfather started in 1939.
Throughout my university years from 1997, I worked for my own allowance while juggling student leadership roles and completing my degree. Upon graduating in 2000, I scrambled to find a job amidst the burst of the first tech bubble. Thankfully, I was offered a marketing job with the Radio Corporation of Singapore, despite studying economics at university.
In 2002, Asia was hit by SARS and my father, who was then running the food distribution business, asked me to join him. He needed someone to help digitize the business which, at the time, was still run very much on paper and pen. I jumped at the opportunity to work alongside my Dad, secretly harboring a personal agenda to possibly turn it around.
After a few years of learning the ropes, I decided to set up FoodXervices Inc in 2007, to buy over the old company. It was a move that shocked many as the old company was already an established name with 60 years of history in the industry. Rebranding it was a big risk. In fact, the new entity took on such a different new look that people assumed we had been acquired by an American firm. My younger brother joined me in 2008 and we have worked together as a team ever since.
I started out in 2002 as the youngest employee of a team of about 40 employees, with revenue of S$12 million. Today, our group of companies has nearly 200 employees, 500 F&B clients and a revenue of close to S$65 million annually. However, the values that my grandfather instilled are still very much present in the business, eighty years on.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most common mistake that people make, especially when they don’t see me, is that they assume I am male rather than female! My name is spelt uniquely as Nichol, rather than Nicole, and many people assume that the CEO of a company is usually male. This mistake still happens, even today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My funniest mistake has to be my preference for wearing five-inch heels and funky dresses with my bright red hair. I wear heels and dresses even when making deliveries of 18kg tins of oil to the back kitchens, which is often not the most practical choice! Initially, most of the old timers didn’t take me seriously. But the biggest lesson that I learnt early on was no matter how small a fish you are in this big pond, you have to make a bold statement for people to remember you. Many, including my uncles, never thought I would survive the industry. But here I am, 18 years on, still revolutionizing and pushing the boundaries of our age-old industry.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My late maternal grandmother taught me a very simple rule in life, “Always give more than what you take.” Once you can live with that, you will stop comparing how much people give you in return. I think this value has helped me to hone my emotional intelligence, improve my generosity, and be kind to those around me no matter how difficult times are. It is about putting thought into everything that I do and, importantly, putting the needs of others before myself. This has created a more worldly view on how I deal with on my own problems and how we can make life better for others less fortunate.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Juggling family, charity and business leaves me with very little personal space. I take pleasure in the little things such as driving my kids to school, showering them and making breakfast for them. I feel that time with my loved ones helps me to clear my mind.
Another thing that I always do is to ensure I get dressed up, put on some make up and wear something stylish before an important meeting. Even if you don’t win it, you still get to look your chicest!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Just like in a classroom, we learn from a diverse pool of talent; from teachers who specialize in different subjects and our peer group who have strengths in different areas. For a small, diverse nation such as Singapore, especially those born post 1965, we have learnt to respect each other, regardless of race, language or religion. As a company, it is essential that we are able to put differences aside to understand each other. Without demolishing cultural barriers, it would be impossible to come together for the greater good of the company and society in general. Diversity and inclusion in both the workplace and in society helps us to open our eyes to opportunities that we might not see if we only spent time with one group of people from the same race or background.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Within our company, remuneration is not based on either gender, race or nationality. As long we have good employees, everyone that works for X-Inc Group has the opportunity to further their careers with us.
I believe we are here to add value to everyone’s lives, regardless of where they come from or what their educational background is. I believe it is essential to elevate others, to a better place in life. I am therefore always thinking about what can I do to help others, particularly my employees, peer group, friends and family and those I work with in my non-profit roles.
We are often asked in interviews “What if I want to settle down and have a family, will it affect my career?” This is not an issue for us. We are passionately pro-family and actively promote flexi-working hours and telecommuting which has enabled many young parents to juggle both family and career commitments.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
CEO means Chief (do) Everything Officer, Chief EQ (emotional intelligence) Officer and most importantly, Chief Leader. Like it or not, you need to be visionary and aspirational.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There are no ivory towers where we sit on top, day-dreaming daily. The only seats we usually take are the hot seats!
Another myth is that CEOs need to know everything and always need to make the right moves and not make mistakes. The truth is that we do not have all the answers and we are here to learn, just like everyone else. We “Sc*#w Up Too”!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I personally feel there is a real lack of representation of female leaders across the corporate world. If the largest corporations around the world are mostly run by men, with only males on their boards, the decisions made are simply not going to be reflective of society.
Another challenge, which will always be a challenge, is being able to juggle both home and career effectively. Due to the biological makeup of the female, I believe that females are meant to do more when they decide to have children. No one can replace a nursing mum or the birthing process. Women will always be pushed towards being that great mum and it can be difficult at times to know how it is possible to have it all. That being said, I have to say that I believe females make the best multi-taskers in the world. We somehow have that DNA to make things happen, juggle multiple roles, while looking fabulous at the same time!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The exciting thing about my job now is that we function like a startup, despite having an eighty-year old heritage. While we have the experience, heritage and history of surviving three generations, we were also blessed with the opportunity to press the re-start button in 2007 which has allowed me to function both like a founder and CEO. Honestly, it’s never boring!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
More than ever, I believe that optimism, positivity, humility, nimbleness, and creativity are the most important traits to be being a successful CEO. Having a value system and the ability to see beyond one’s self is also exceptionally important. To be a leader, you need to be big hearted to groom future leaders and realize that others may become better than you. I have personally learnt a lot about what it takes to be a good leader from other CEO’s within the YPO network, who have been kind enough to share their wisdom and knowledge with me. Many of them also prioritize social responsibility and try to put others first.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Do not drown the feminine thoughts and what comes naturally to you in order to fight in a man’s world. Instead, play up the femininity, sensitivity and the in-ate sixth sense that comes with being a woman.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Making the world a better place doesn’t just mean you need to put on the cape to save the world. It can be small things such as ensuring those nearest and dearest to you can also learn to create an impact in their own ways. For example, I have supported my children’s Filipino nanny’s mission to send cartons of food to orphans in the mountainous region of her hometown where the children do not even have a decent place to study. The smiles on their faces when they opened the cans of spam was priceless, that’s when you realize that so little can mean so much. I try to teach my children that we should help those around us, regardless of their circumstances.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There is no right or wrong leadership style. Just your own. Embrace the good and the bad with being yourself.
- You don’t have to be the perfect daughter to be the perfect CEO. I spent many years in my early career working with my late father trying to please him only to truly learn that sometimes daddy is also not right.
- By the time you think you are having a burnout, it’s likely you are already having one. I work too much and rest too little, however I still haven’t figured this one out yet!
D) Be a mother earlier. If I had the opportunity, I would have started being a mother slightly earlier on so that I could have had a few more kids. I believe you can have your cake and eat it too!
E) In life, you need to learn to put on some good noise cancelling headphones…sometimes. It is key to filter out the noise and focus on what really matters
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Self-appreciation and self-love. I think this is the most understated trait that we can build in our next generation. We have been groomed to be so critical of ourselves that self-appreciation is truly a dying trait. We need to stop beating ourselves up so much but of course, stay real too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Stated in my answer above. “Give more than what you take…always.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would like to have a coffee with Maye Musk, Elon Musk’s mum. I think it’s amazing that she found a new career at 70. She is true inspiration to me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.