Boss Lady

Five things I learned as a businesswoman in Asia


At the start of my career, I never imagined that things like eating fertilised duck eggs, meeting with threatening officials, or sitting with grieving families after an employee had died, would become part of my job description, but it did, I am certainly glad I did it all! Each challenging and confronting experience in my time in Asia – and further afield – has made me a better leader and broadened my experience beyond my expectations.

I grew up in regional Queensland and studied business in a local University. I had restless feet and so seized every opportunity to take my career global. After time in Europe, I’ve been living in the Philippines and Singapore for six years and I’ve worked in every Asian country, except Laos.

The continent is a wonderful teacher and can help Australians develop and grow as global leaders.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Learn to lead with your heart, not always your head:

    I was pushed to do this many times, especially in the Philippines. Be part of the community and volunteer where your main base of employees live and learn about the people whose lives your work impacts. There are so many opportunities to do this – and its fun! We have great memories of getting to know locals while polishing school floors with coconuts or hand batching concrete to prevent flooding in the back to school year preparation programs. Get your hands dirty –it will make you a better leader.

  2. You’ll be exposed to great business practices:

    Some of the best business people I’ve encountered are in Asia, but I see people frequently underestimate the pace of relationship building. Asian businesspeople play the long game and prefer to build trust before building business.Sotake the time to get to know who you are dealing with. Enjoy the customs, polish your chopstick skills, eat the food you normally wouldn’tand be yourself. Food is such an important part of culture across Asia and sharing food is ‘giving’ and trust building.

  3. Women will inspire you:

    The women I met who own trucking companies in Philippines are the best I’ve met anywhere in the world. Their fleets are clean, their drivers are professional and their business instinct second to none. However there are countrieswhere it’s more difficult for women to do business.  You will need to stand your ground, but also be sensitive to the trust building process. Businesswomen in Asia will want to work with you but they will want you to be authentic, professional and deliver on your commitments.

  4. Take the time to double-check decisions:

    Due to different backgrounds and perceptions, I’ve found over the years we do not always understand decisions the same way. It’s always worth taking the time to ensure you really are on the same page and ask the questions around what is needed to make the decision possible. In Asia, there is a propensity to say ‘yes’ without always being open about the challenges of the ‘yes’.  So the double check is worth it.

  5. Remember why you are here:

    For some reason, people arrive in Asia and immediately take on superiority – often without realising it – because of the wealth disparity. Expatshave the luxury of housekeepers and stay at very nice hotels. But when you make decisions to ‘use’ the labour cost advantages in Asia, be mindful of the workhours involved.  I’ve been shocked to find team members will work 27 hours straight during times of need because they think it’s the right thing to do. Lead properly by showing that work-life balance is important for everyone. Check in with your teams often and ensure their successes are celebrated.  Lead with courage and care to make difficult decisions and stay close to your team as they are being implemented so you can adapt as needed along the way.

Connecting to the local culture and understanding the pace of doing business is key. By doing this, together with my Asian teams, we did amazing things –  implemented anti-bribery and corruption practices in very challenging places, moved the needle on workplace safety and drove real business value by properly understanding and connecting to our customer’s needs.

As the Telstra Business Woman in Asia, it’s my mission to encourage Australasian women to reach for the difficult stretch assignments, get their hands dirty in non-traditional rolesand, most of all, become dynamic leaders that eventually swing the balance of participation by women in senior management.  We can do it!

About Saskia Groen-in't-Woud

Saskia Groen-in't-Woud studied business at a small regional university, then worked her way up from being a small business ownerto Asia COO for international logistics provider Damco, and recently was promoted to Global COO based out of the Netherlands. Saskia brings disciplined attention to driving bottom line performance; from the way the business interprets customer requirements, to how it procures and manages the efficient execution of its services. Her appointment has supported the company’s financial turnaround, from a $300m loss in 2014 to turning a profit from 2016 onwards. In recognition for her achievements, Saskia won 2017-Telstra-Business-Woman-in-Asia.

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