In this series, I chat with various industry experts on the intricacies of business and discover what advice they can offer to both seasoned and emerging leaders.
For the first video of the Negotiation Unleashed Leadership Series, I sat with Amy Wong, the co-founder and chief operating officer of AQ Talent Lab. Based in Hong Kong, AQ Talent Lab offers a streamlined approach to recruiting with tailored consulting services for both employers and employees. With partners all around the world, Wong is no stranger to conducting business remotely — a skill many have had to develop during the pandemic. During our discussion, she stressed the importance of open team dialogue as the key to business leadership.
How would you define leadership?
There are two parts to leadership: goal-setting and influencing. You want to set your business acumen and then motivate your team so you’re all moving in the same direction. It’s important to know how to gather people from very different backgrounds and skill sets to put together a super team that can achieve business targets.
In the past several years, there has been a push for inclusive leadership within organizations. What’s your opinion on inclusion in the workplace?
Both in a managerial role or a leadership role, you have to make inclusion a point. It’s about making others feel included, but also empowered. You want to make it known that people are not just part of the conversation, but pillars to your company. That’s a huge part of inclusiveness and the one I’m really focused on as a leader.
What’s the biggest challenge a leader like yourself faces in leading a diverse organization?
As a leader or co-founder, the first challenge is finding a partner who shares the same values as you from day one. If you want your company to not only be successful, but a diverse and inclusive work environment then you need to find partners and investors who buy into that dream. The second challenge is determining how you give people a voice within your company. In Asia, a lot of people are used to assuming certain social roles and, for me, it’s about making my company a level playing field for everyone. So you have to set the tone and make people feel comfortable.
Can you give me an example of how you’ve been able to successfully do both within your company?
As a company, we make it a point to hire a lot of local young talent and sometimes we ask them for their opinion right off the bat. They are often uncomfortable and that’s where we come in to reassure them they’re hired because we value their talent. It takes time and a level of trust. But once they voice their opinions, that’s when the magic happens. I’m very aware that I have the obligation to groom employees because ultimately how I set the tone and how I interact with them will shape their work ethic and how they feel about the work environment.
Throughout the pandemic, leaders have had to virtually reinvent the way they do business. What were some of the actions you and your partner had to institute in your organization in order to make it work?
Since we’re a startup, we had a very minimal set up. I was in a co-working space and everybody else we engaged with had to work remotely. So this kind of mobility has been in our DNA since day one. Coming from an institutional background, it wasn’t easy for me. When it comes to work I need face-to-face interactions and rapport. However, I think we’ve learned two things that made it a lot easier. For one, you need to have the right people. Entrepreneurial minds that can bring new ideas and manage their own time. Our particular setting isn’t compatible for someone who needs a lot of guidance.
The second part, especially during the pandemic, is keeping in mind we’re all taking it one step at a time. This means we have to set really clear goals on a daily and weekly basis. And I’m not saying micromanage your team, but have a day where you set goals and then a day you follow up with everyone on their progress. That way everyone knows their tasks and checkpoints.
What do you see as key opportunities for business leaders post-pandemic?
With all these new digital platforms, you can now build trust and really open the dialogue with people who are from a totally different time zone and continent. I’m not going to be able to meet partners or developers face-to-face in Hong Kong anyways, so why not engage with someone in Sri Lanka or the United States, especially from a content production standpoint. I think that will be very interesting post-pandemic. Secondly, training and learning will have a more digital emphasis.
What are some of your concerns for effective leaders post-pandemic?
Trust and rapport are really important in business. So even if you’re in a Zoom meeting, it’s not all about checking off points on the agenda. There has to be a human connection component. And I’m seeing less and less of that. Moving forward as a society, we need to think about how we’re going to build trust and make more of an effort to just be human.
A second concern, at least for me, is mental health. Throughout the pandemic, a lot of people have been thinking about illnesses and deaths; therefore, we have to tune in and pay more attention to mental health. Business aside, we need to work with experts on how to address this and how to pivot to a new workload that is both mentally and physically healthy.
It may seem counterintuitive when you have all these deadlines and pressure from investors, but sometimes you have to press pause and check-in with all members of your team. You want to make sure that your team is on the same page and everyone is happy.
What is one piece of advice you would share with your younger-self?
I would really advise her, and everybody who’s graduating, to dream bigger. Thinking back, I feel like I would have accomplished a lot more if I had been greedier with what I wanted to achieve. So don’t be afraid to ask for more from yourself.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
For my full interview with Amy Wong, head over to my Youtube channel. There you’ll find other leadership interviews as well as countless bite-size videos on all things related to business, negotiation, and learning to thrive both during and after the pandemic.