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Initiative MD Kristine Ong: ‘Always hire people who are smarter than you’

Leading a team has become second nature to Kristine Ong (pictured), managing director of Initiative, who has helmed several leadership roles during her career in advertising. Ong has been in her current role for more than three years and was previously with Mindshare. During her time there, she took on the roles of senior partner, partner and general manager.

She tells A+M how female leaders can stay strong when the going gets tough and ways ambitious women can climb the corporate ladder in the advertising world.

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

Ong: For me, the toughest thing is the challenge of constantly reinventing myself. Our business is undergoing major disruption, and to disrupt our business, we must first start with ourselves. We have to unlearn to relearn whilst staying true to the values and principles that we believe in.

Our business has undergone so many changes so the speed at which we pivot ourselves and the business has to accelerate. Male or female, the scene is getting more competitive and we need to have a clear vision of where we’re going.

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

Ong: Very simply put, I’ve never compromised on the values and principles that saw me through my advertising career. You have to believe in what you do as that is the very conviction that will drive you forward. The advertising business demands a lot from its people but never compromise, no matter how tough it gets.

Stay true to your values and principles and be genuine.

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

Ong: My leadership style is that of a nurturer. The advertising industry on the other hand, is in many ways a masculine world. Very often, I have had to juggle between both the masculine and feminine leadership approach to effect the best result. We are in a “people” business and in our business, talents are our greatest asset. My approach is transformational, focusing on effective ways of motivation and individual development. Towards this end, we need to provide a conducive environment based on a strong culture of learning, coaching, being a good listener and empowering our people to be the best at what they do.

A+M: A tip for ambitious women?

Ong: For married women and working mums, it is often said you have to choose between career and family. You really don’t have to. I know many women leaders who have successfully run a household and are still at the top of their game. To me, it boils down to what you want. If you tell yourself you can do it, you will. Women are born master jugglers, and I am surrounded by the best of these talents.

People are your biggest asset. Always hire people who are smarter than you.

We are a team. No one gets to the top without recognising the importance of the people within their team. You are as good as the talents you hire. When they succeed, you succeed. Surround yourself with tremendous talents and you will find yourself challenged and stretched beyond your limit. Embrace the uncomfortable.

Don’t be afraid of losing your job. Love what you do.

Very often, people are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions. You can only realise your true potential and be the best at what you do if you are not afraid. Don’t take the easy way out for short term gains.

A+M: Last year, the #MeToo movement took the world by storm. Do you think the #MeToo movement had an impact in the local adland?

Ong: Harassment of any kind is real in any industry and it comes in many forms including bullying, peer pressure and politics. My advice is to never tolerate harassment of any kind. It is important that we weed out harassment and provide a safe environment for our people to speak up if they are ever caught in an unfortunate situation.

I feel the movement has helped to bring about more awareness and empowered young women and men to speak up. The world is changing for the better, and our youth will no longer tolerate untoward harassment.

A+M: Is sexism and harassment in the ad/marketing industry an issue in markets such as Malaysia?

Ong: At Initiative and IPG Mediabrands, we do not tolerate harassment of any kind. We provide a safe environment for our people to speak up and we keep track of our employee wellbeing via the employee net promoter score.

A+M: Do you see tides changing locally since the emergence of the #MeToo movement?

Ong: I see that people are speaking out more which bodes well for our country. Stricter punishment must be meted out and people have to understand that sexual harassment of any form should not be tolerated. More support systems must be set in place to provide a safe environment for women to speak up, and we are seeing more organisations and even government bodies making strides towards addressing these issues.

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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