Protect your energy and your mind space. Nothing great can be achieved without having positive mindset and we must be able to keep our positivity in order to enable change. There will always be the “naysayers” and conflict. If we focus on things we cannot change, we will be less likely to be the positive force of change that is required. You have to believe that you can do it.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Cheo.
Michelle Cheo is CEO of Mewah Group, an agricultural-commodities group of companies that has a global presence in over 140 countries. The Mewah Group is headquartered in Singapore, with manufacturing facilities in Malaysia and Indonesia. Michelle is responsible for the formulation and execution of the overall strategy and day-to-day operations of the Group. In 2019, she was awarded the Her Times Women Empowerment Award for Entrepreneurship.
Michelle serves as a Council Member of the 60th Board of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industries (SCCCI). She is an active member of the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO) and currently serves as Chair of the Singapore Chapter. She is also a member of the YPO Asia Pacific Regional Board and Co-Champion of the YPO Women Business Network in the Asia Pacific Region.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
When I started working, my first job was at ExxonMobil, where I served in both Baton Rouge, Louisiana and its new chemical complex in Singapore. It was a very exciting project where we were part of a team, setting up a new chemical complex located on 7 reclaimed islands. Being a part of such a team brings about a sense of fulfillment, when you are able to see a dream manifest itself into reality from the ground up.
This feeling of fulfillment was not only in terms of the tangible structures in place, but also from a holistic view of building a brand-new infrastructure. We had to ensure the plant was fully functional after commissioning, be prepared to solve unforeseen technical hiccups from the use of relatively new technology to simultaneously building the necessary teams, culture and the systems needed.
I joined Mewah as I wanted a more commercial role and I started out in the trading department. From there, I then did a lot of business development which allowed me to ideate, initiate and bring to fruition many projects of various capacities in the business for both the soft and hard infrastructures necessary for our growth as a group. Creating something from ground up and adding value through new innovations is something I truly am proud of and thoroughly enjoy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the main perks of my role as CEO of the Mewah Group, is that I am able to engage, interact and meet with many interesting people who, in their own way are making an impact in their respective fields. And because I have a healthy interest in innovations within the food science sphere, I am always impressed by all the passionate people I meet.
For example, I had the pleasure of meeting a very interesting Italian chap some time ago in America. He had spent a year living on a boat in the middle of the sea for a research project he was conducting on algae for its nutritional benefits and its potential of being a reliable source of energy (a study that many researchers have been looking at, in the world of sustainability). I was intrigued with his knowledge for algae and the passion with which he spoke about it.
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?
Well, I speak mostly conversational mandarin and many of the Chinese terms in the Asia Pacific Region vary from the Chinese terms used in mainland China. While I was on a business trip, I was trying to introduce a friend to a roomful of businessmen and intended to say that he had four daughters. Everyone soon started to laugh and I quickly realized that I had erroneously said he had four mistresses. Unfortunately, the phrase I used for daughters is the same as the colloquial term for mistress!
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?
In my journey so far, I stand on the shoulder of giants and I am blessed to have many contributors to my success. I am very grateful to my parents for where I am today. My upbringing was a typical tiger mum and dad sort of upbringing where there was always constant pressure, never said, but always inferred to try our best, to be useful members of society and to constantly improve myself. My mother realized at a young age that I was very good at Maths and Science, which was why I decided at a young age to study Engineering in School.
I was not aware then that not many women did STEM and I did not grow up with any mental barriers to what I could achieve in life. My father constantly told us to read widely and that there was no use doing well in school without then constantly investing in our personal life-long learning throughout our careers. He is also a very strategic thinker and through him I have learnt how to set boundaries, understand risk-reward ratio’s when studying a business deal and to never give up on my dreams and aspirations.
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?
I spend a lot of time thinking about what is important to me. At the end of the day, the things that matter most are good health, family and friends. Practicing gratefulness and empathy help to balance out the temporal stresses which may occur from day to day. I believe this is a habit that many of us can attain.
We must prepare well before hand for any task set out but it is very important to be able to have a good night’s sleep the night before as well.
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?
It is always easier to have a team that agrees with you where, if you don’t ask the hard questions, then you can move with great speed. The question remains though, if this is the best for the business and whether we reap the best outcomes with this approach, because if not, then everyone loses.
I believe that what works is having a diverse executive team with different perspectives, braving to approach the difficult questions and making us rethink our assumptions to hopefully arrive at solutions and outcomes. However, this can only happen when there is a company culture that respects people with different opinions.
In that aspect, I am lucky to belong to a company that has practiced equality in the number of men and women on their board of directors, not because we were looking for gender equality but each of the board of directors deserved to be there in their own right. We also have an executive team which includes many senior women members who have worked their way up and whose opinions are greatly valued.
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.
In my opinion, the most important thing for any society is social mobility. People do not choose the circumstances that they are born into, but if they have the talent and the willpower, they should be able to have the opportunity to rise above their circumstances. One of the best levelers of this is education. I believe if we mobilize more good schools in less fortunate neighborhoods together with teachers who can inspire people to dream big, then this pool of talent too can rise above their circumstances because they have been given the opportunity to do so.
The beauty that comes with social mobility is the empathy that is cultivated when people explore different perspectives, regardless of religious beliefs, upbringing and even political views. This creates a better understanding of the “US” vs “THEM” approach.
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?
The most important job of the CEO is to be able to paint a vision of where the company is heading towards and mobilizing the team to follow him/her in this direction. Sometimes, it is very difficult for people to see opportunity especially in the face of many potential challenges, but this is a necessary skillset. Often, we may get dragged down by the routine jobs and daily operational challenges but as a CEO, I believe it is my duty to be able to cut through the “business as usual” and to continuously challenge the norm before it shapes complacency. As Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive” and no business will survive indefinitely if it doesn’t evolve in the face of changes in business trends or competition. Therefore, even when something seems to be going well, the CEO must jump in and inspire people to change what or how they are operating to avoid any form of oncoming threat on the near horizon. It is the classic case of trying to get people to change before someone has “moved their cheese”.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think most people think that the CEO has all the power to make things happen. This is not true. A title is just a title. It is the people that make you a leader and we can only lead people based on our ability to convince and inspire them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are many views and traditional perceptions of the responsibilities between male and female, especially in the home front. These views and responsibilities further changes after the birth of children, where there is even more division of labor. This is then backed by societal pressure of being a perfect mother. Having equal division of responsibilities here is imperative, especially when one is juggling dual careers that require extensive travelling. In many cases, the women will often decide to take a slightly less demanding career path or takes a step back altogether, leaving the man as the main breadwinner. Therefore, the female talent pool for senior positions might not be as large of men who have had more years of relevant experience.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
All of us have some level of ability to influence the job and the job takes on the personality of the individual as well. Over time the two become one.
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?
Most people will choose to put in their mind and spirit into something they are passionate about. At the end of the day, we do what we do well when it is driven by passion. Being a CEO is hard work and that does entail many sacrifices that many may not know about.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
In my view, the most important thing is to cultivate positive mindsets. We can only believe in changing things for the better if we believe we have the power to change them. This is how we can maximize our efforts, intellect and nurture our passion.
There are scenarios at work that we can control and yet there are many that we cannot. This can ultimately seem negative. However, there are also many levers which we can use to influence the things that we can control and continuously expanding our sphere of influence. If we only focus on the negative or the small conflicts, we might give up our power of influence even before we can build or create anything.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe women hold up half the sky. I am Deputy Chairlady of World Vision Singapore and by investing in women and children in developing countries; we hope to build skills and capabilities to break the chain of poverty in these countries.
Closer to home, I continue to be passionate about women empowerment and I build platforms for women to connect. I have been involved with the Career Women’s Group at the Singapore Chinese Chambers for more than eight years and it’s a platform by which we organize events to help women entrepreneurs grow their business. As of last year, I have also been building the YPO Women’s Business Network in Asia Pacific with my co-champion. I love entrepreneurship and the YPO WBN has given me a platform to connect with other women entrepreneurs and business owners in the region. I am also a mentor with the Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC) which is a network focused on women who are just starting out in their careers.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Protect your energy and your mind space. Nothing great can be achieved without having positive mindset and we must be able to keep our positivity in order to enable change. There will always be the “naysayers” and conflict. If we focus on things we cannot change, we will be less likely to be the positive force of change that is required. You have to believe that you can do it.
- Keep learning and growing. In order to lead people to where they have not yet been, we have to be constantly learning ourselves. Learning can take place by reading, attending courses or surrounding our-selves with people who are constantly at the top of their game. If we do not invest in ourselves, we will not be able to inspire our team.
- Surround yourself with good people. You will not be able to get there alone. When you have a good team, they help to propel you upwards. I constantly feel blessed working with the people I have around me at work because all of them have great technical skills, tenacity and belief that they can work through any challenge that comes our way. It is only through them and the vision that we collectively have that we can constantly push the company upwards and onwards.
- Hire for a good attitude, teachability and resilience. Technical skills are important but it is only half of what is required. I have been working for close to 20 years and the entire business landscape has changed drastically during this time. Changes have come in ways which we never thought possible but we embrace them and the team has to continuously keep themselves updated with new skills and capabilities. I am grateful to work with people who can adapt to these changes. Unfortunately, I have also met many of who could not.
- You can only implement change at a speed that average people in the organization can accept. Many occasions in my career, I have had to speak about change and how we adapt to these changes, and in many cases not everyone can accept a new idea. This process involves a lot of convincing and leadership skills to bring people to a higher performance level. It is the hardest when it involves a scenario that we do well in but maybe not the best at. I personally realize that speed of change coincides with the speed of acceptance of the average person in the organization. If we push too hard there will be too much resistance, however, if we wait for everyone to accept, then change will never happen.
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.
I spend a lot of my time and energy studying subjects revolving around food technology and efficient ways to bring food to the table. The opportunity to merge technology and business innovations to improve food production is massive. This is the key to minimizing the environmental impacts of a growing human population. Some people estimate that food production is 17% of global carbon footprint; if I could make a dent in this somehow, it would give me a lot of fulfillment.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be the change that you want to see.
I see so many who are unhappy with their work or in their personal lives and by default they keep blame it on their external circumstances and the people around them. With a little introspection, they will be able to determine what the actual source of their unhappiness is and what they can do to make a positive change. I think they would find that there is a lot more they can influence for the positive instead.
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
Jeff Bezos. This is a guy who in his mid-career decided to start his own business. His tenacity is testament to how he has elevated his once small business to the Amazon we know today. I would just love to meet him and understand what keeps him going.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.