The willingness – or rather unwillingness – to take career risks is a frequent theme when we talk about the advancement of females into senior leadership. I often hear that, while men embrace risks, women tend to hold themselves back, sometimes for fear of failure.
Anyone who has ever limited themselves because they lacked confidence should chat with Aileen Tan, Chief Human Resources Officer with the Singaporean arm of AIA Group, the largest independent pan-Asian life insurance company. I found myself intrigued during my recent conversation with Aileen. She described herself as “quite driven and ambitious,” and yet she admitted that she had to push herself to accept new risks and learn to move beyond any failures that resulted, on the path to greater success.
Accepting new risks in her path
In her self-effacing manner, Aileen told me that she credits her career ascent to others who took a risk on her, including Patrick Teow, Chief Executive Officer of AIA Singapore. “He took a bet on me because I had zero functional knowledge of insurance,” said Aileen, noting how Patrick has built a supportive workplace at the firm, where today women hold 8 of 13 executive officer positions. She added that, “Each of us is encouraged to take risks to support and nurture up-and-coming talents, male or female.”
However, I think it’s important to recognize that, when such opportunities appeared, Aileen accepted the challenge to test herself and grow her career. For example, years earlier, a superior suggested Aileen take a one-year project role at a technology company’s US headquarters to broaden her experience and gain visibility with top management.
Aileen told me how this role was completely out of her comfort zone, since it required her to relocate and commute home on weekends to her husband and five-year-old daughter. And, they were going to backfill her previous role, so nobody guaranteed her a job after the project. She confessed to me that, “This was a very unusual risk for me to take, since being born and bred in Singapore, I really like to make sure everything will be perfect before I start something new. This opportunity was filled with risks and had zero safety net.
Making the decision
When I asked Aileen how she decided to accept the overseas role, she responded, “I realized I had to go beyond the boundaries and put myself out there if I really wanted to progress in a global company. I also have to thank my very practical and supportive husband who said to me, ‘What will you get out of this? If you want to learn something, then what is the worst that can happen?’”
She added that, “It’s so helpful to have someone you trust to talk with.” As we chatted, it also struck me how, today, Aileen shares this advice with women she mentors at AIA. She explained that, “In Asia, people tend to be really conservative, and while there are many women who want to progress in their careers, I tell them they have to get out of their comfort zone. And sometimes that means going sideways and making a lateral career move or trying different things.”
Learn from failures and move on
Aileen’s story also reminded me that accepting risk means accepting the possibility of failure. For example, Aileen acknowledges that it took her a while to overcome the psychological bruises from an integration project she oversaw years ago that did not go as planned. She noted that, “Honestly, I spent some time wallowing in my defeat, but it taught me some big lessons.”
Aileen listed the learnings she gained from the experience:
1. When you consider taking a new risk, be very thorough in your analysis.
2. If the risk you take results in failure, be very introspective. Instead of blaming other factors, think about what went wrong and what you could have done better. This will help you regain your confidence to take on the next challenge.
I think there’s a strong message in Aileen’s story for anyone who doubts themselves when an opportunity appears. Even an ambitious woman like Aileen had to ‘dig deep’ to nudge herself to the next level. She did so by drawing upon a trusted support network, rationally weighing the pros and cons and learning to rebound from any failure.
It’s not easy leaving your comfort zone, but women in leadership will tell you it’s well worth the risk. And as I meet women in leadership around the world, I realize that Aileen’s story is not uncommon but inspiring to many working women out there who are afraid of leaving their comfort zones to try on more challenging roles, which could deepen their horizons.
More about Aileen Tan: Aileen is Chief Human Resources Officer with AIA Singapore, where she drives the development and execution of that division’s HR strategy to support the company’s business growth, through talent and leadership development, succession planning and organizational and performance management. A firm believer in human capital development, Aileen supports her people to achieve their full potential, just as AIA Singapore strives to “empower Singaporeans to live healthier, longer and better lives.”
Prior to joining AIA in 2017, Aileen served as Vice President, Office of Human Resources at National University of Singapore (NUS), where she successfully centralized and standardized the HR processes, governances and practices. She was also instrumental in initiating the Shared Services Operations for the team to improve efficiency and effectiveness in supporting the organization’s growth. She also held senior management roles in diverse industries in technology and manufacturing in Asia and North America. Aileen holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from National University of Singapore and a Master of Business Administration in Human Resources Management from Cass Business School, University of London.