Joy Xu is the Chief Human Resources Officer, Asia Segment & Global Head of Learning & Future of Work at Manulife. She is experienced in strategic HR partnership, leadership & talent management, culture change, transformation, diversity & inclusion, organisation design and change, coaching & advisory, compensation & benefits, and labour relations.
What is one contributing factor that has helped you throughout your career?
It would be growth mindset, an idea I stumbled across when I was young.
When I didn’t get the sufficient grades required to get into the best junior school in China, my teacher advised me to take on vocational training as a kindergarten teacher, until my brother sat me down and encouraged me to continue with my studies. That inspired me and awakened my passion for learning, and the rest was history. After graduating from university in China, I landed a great role at Procter & Gamble which allowed me to work in the US, followed by my role at PepsiCo that saw me go to Dubai and Hong Kong and then ontp Novartis as Global Head of HR for Sandoz in Germany, before returning to Asia for my current role. It has been a wonderful journey and it all started with that one conversation.
I later learnt that this is what growth mindset is about, to not let failures deter you but instead motivate you to keep learning and improving, believing that talent can be developed. That encouraged me to explore different possibilities in my career, across industries and geographies.
Having worked in China, the US, UAE, Germany, and now Hong Kong, have you noticed any differences in terms of culture and how has that affected your management style?
Cultural differences have had a profound impact on my management style, which has evolved over the years. When I first started working in China, I focused more on discipline, execution excellence and having a can-do attitude, which felt like the only way to get things done. Having worked across different cultures, I’ve come to appreciate that there are many ways to get there. That understanding helped shape my leadership style as well, which saw me transform from a functional expert to a global business leader, who drives purpose, delivers impact through collaboration, and empowers those around me to do their best. I’ve also become more balanced in my leadership journey where I’m honest about the things I don’t know. By doing so, I’m seeing the power of people, and it’s been my focus of nurturing them to deliver their best.
You’re in rare company, not many people have such diverse experience, across both geographies and industries.
I think it’s important to look at industry experience as another dimension of diversity; you don’t want everyone to think about things in the same way because innovation only happens when there is diversity of thought. What we need is to recognise that within our industry there will be roles that require deep functional expertise, like actuaries, and there will be roles in which you will need to acquire expertise elsewhere, like digitisation. Through a mixed strategy of buy, borrow and build, you will be able to continuously strengthen your company.
How do you balance long hours with your personal life successfully?
I don’t think there’s a recipe for that, but I do have some tips and advice to share.
First and foremost, you have to be critical about how you manage your energy, not your time. It’s very important to look at what helps you deliver the best impact and manage your energy rather than just working around the clock to get things done. For that, it’s important to look at our mindset, identify what might lead us to a negative zone and learn about how we can pull ourselves out and turn it into positive output.
My second tip would be on super-compensation, which is a sports science theory about how a timely training and recovery cycle helps build up performance levels over time. I think the same concept can be applied to the business world – when we find ourselves working long hours because of the global environment, scheduling recovery time helps ensure your performance output remains high. It’s also important to take breaks throughout the day, even if it’s just for five minutes, to help reset yourself and your mind.
Finally, developing rituals and routines are also important. For me, I always make sure to start my day with my own rituals, whether it is for 5 or 15 minutes, to exercise and meditate. It helps carry me through the day, so I won’t be too exhausted when I see my family at night. It’s important to be mindful to make those transitions happen, so you’ll have the energy for both your family and your career.
Do you believe there's a glass ceiling for women in the workplace, and has it changed?
Over the last decade, there has been a huge movement in women breaking through the glass ceiling, particularly within the political and corporate world, but there’s still more to do here. This year’s IWD theme is #ChooseToChallenge, I like it because it requires women to take greater ownership in challenging the status quo.
With that being said, I do feel women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored. Development programs always tell women to exert their presence and be assertive, but it’s more important to recognise the strength female leadership can bring, through sponsoring them to grow and fulfil their potential. Collaboration is another key attribute in bringing diversity to leadership. Seeing that over 50% of our customer base is female, having female leaders can help make decisions to better serve our customer needs. Therefore, from a leadership development point of view, we’ll have to be more targeted in helping women rise and offering them sponsorship to help them grow.
Do you have a mentor or role model in your career, and have you been a mentor yourself?
Throughout my career, I’ve benefitted tremendously from my mentors and coaches, which I refer to as my board of directors. From the early stages of my career, I’ve had male leaders who would take a chance on me and handpick me for jobs, even when I didn’t have the relevant background. Aside from these male mentors who I look up to, I also have female role models that continue to mentor me today, offering me opportunities and career advice; it’s been helpful to see what’s possible for women in the corporate world, which has truly widened my horizons.
I’m a big fan of mentoring others as well. We have both group and one-on-one mentoring sessions; I also keep in touch with my colleagues from my previous companies to provide them with career advice. Besides the structured mentoring program, we’re also practising reverse mentoring, where the more senior members of staff learn from the younger generations, and it’s been very rewarding for both.
What’s your advice to leaders who want to create a more diverse and inclusive culture?
It all starts with listening. Learn to listen to your people empathetically, don’t just jump into solutions without taking into consideration your people’s views. It’s also important to assume positive intent and try to step away from being judgemental. People from different cultures see things through a different lens, therefore it’s critical to treat others how they want to be treated instead of resorting to judgement based on our traditional ways of thinking. For example, being loud can be seen as a sign of rudeness and lack of respect. There are sayings in Asia like “Silence is Golden” and “The loudest duck gets shot” but the western culture encourages people to speak up. My point is, do not judge people based on what’s on the surface. Invite people with different ideas to come to the table instead. Last but not least, diversify the ways you engage with people, be mindful of how people want to be engaged so they can bring their full self to work.
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