'Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves early on in your career,' says Dentsu One's Michelle Ong

As the first female CEO of Dentsu One Malaysia in the agency's 14-year history, Michelle Ong (pictured) is a shrewd go-getter who is relentless in the pursuit of excellence. With more than two decades of experience in advertising, Ong has worked on both the client and agency side, helming roles including CCO at Leo Burnett Group, head of brands at PROTON, MD of McCann Worldgroup Indonesia and GM of McCann Worldgroup Malaysia.

Ong has never seen gender to be of a disadvantage to her in leadership roles. Instead, she is of the view that an individual's capabilities and experience is what makes a good leader, and also strongly believes in diversity. Ong tells A+M about the challenges she faces as both a boss and a woman in the ad industry, and why women should not be afraid to roll up their sleeves in the early years of their career.

A+M: What has been the toughest thing about being a female boss? 

Ong: There are two parts to this and the short of it is that neither has been a walk in the park. I’ll admit, being a woman has posed its own challenges over these years; the constant comparisons with male peers, whether as a woman I’ll be able to hack it over the longer term or if I have that chauvinist killer instinct to make tough decisions that men just assume women lack.

And then of course there is the role of being the boss. I don’t think it really matters in many ways what gender you are, these are tough times and being a leader isn’t easy. But the only way to get through this, is to get through it.
I believe that if I’m a competent leader today, it’s because I know how to manage people and profits.

From the beginning I’ve believed that advertising is as much about creative content as it is about managing a pool of highly intelligent and creative people with egos and eccentricities like no other industry. Does this acute understanding of people come from me being a woman? Maybe in part. But a part I’m not conscious of. It’s just who I am. So I don’t see myself a female boss. And I don’t particularly like the word “boss” either. I see myself as a leader who can inspire people around her to be the best they can be.

A+M: Staff members aren’t always the kindest to opinionated female leaders. How do you deal with this? 

Ong: Opinions are wonderful. They are useful, even necessary, in the creative process to advance ideas. Therefore, I’ve always encouraged my teammates to be open, to be vocal and to have opinions. I’m hoping that they see my strong opinions and their expression as a reason for them to do and be the same; to open up, to be frank and honest and say what’s on their minds.

Sure, sometimes people don’t always agree with the decisions you’ve made but hey, that’s part of being a leader. So to be honest, I haven’t in my life at least encountered a situation where my opinions were rejected because I’m a woman. Sometimes they’ve been fiercely debated simply because they needed to be.

And as I mentioned earlier, not all decisions you make as a leader go down well because they are tough. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman who makes them. You deal with them as empathically as you can.

A+M: What are some of the biggest challenges women on top in the ad/marketing world face?

Ong: I genuinely believe this about everyone; no matter your gender, your age or your ethnicity, your biggest challenge is going to be your own view about work, about life. I don’t think anyone today goes to bed at night not worrying about something or the other. It’s how ambitious minds are geared.

You overcome one challenge and your mind quickly finds another mountain to climb. So I don’t think the challenges I’ve faced are largely all that different from anyone else climbing the corporate ladder. I will readily admit though, the biggest of those challenges for me has been one of balancing work with life; something so many of us are struggling with. We therefore must learn to define our boundaries.

A+M: A tip for ambitious women?

Ong: One simple piece of advice - know your stuff and don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves early on in your career so you build a solid, unassailable foundation.
What you do in your formative years of your career will stand in good stead when you reach leadership positions later.

So if you feed your desire to know new things, to learn new things, that hunger will over time become second nature to you.

A+M: How important is diversity in the workplace? And how do you promote diversity in your organisation?

Ong: This is a loaded question because it goes to the heart of our business. In communication today, diversity is rather critical. It brings with it a myriad of wonderfully different backgrounds and people. It makes everything more colorful, more vibrant, more impactful. The work, the interaction, the business, all blossom. But like many things, it can’t be forced.
For diversity to flourish, it must be a natural outcome of a merit-based hiring policy.

So, we don’t really promote it per se, rather, we get people to understand it and then get them behind it. That’s our practice at DAN. We push ourselves to keep an open mind about gender, about race, about color, about sexual orientation. We look for the right person regardless of who or what they are. And my experience has taught me that the world today is truly diverse when it comes to talent. That talent recognises no such boundaries.

Diversity challenges existing norms, it encourages conversation and catalyses collaboration, impacting bottom lines in a positive way. Diversity just works.

This is part of an International Women’s Day series by A+M, featuring female leaders in the industry and their views on being a female boss.

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