Empowering leadership

Serene Ng

12 minute read

Serene Ng was awarded a PhD in Management by the ANU College of Business and Economics (CBE) in 2012. She is currently Chief Operating Officer of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore, previously serving as the Director of NTU’s Office of Administration. Before joining NTU, Serene spent 20 years in finance, international marketing and human resources (HR) leadership roles at Esso, IE Singapore Tyco, Ingersoll Rand and ThyssenKrupp. 

In addition to her work at NTU, Serene continues her research in leadership, with some of her findings recently accepted for publication by the internationally renowned International Journal of Hospitality Management. 

During this interview, Serene discusses why determination and resilience are important to success, the influence leaders assert in workplace, and how her PhD at CBE has prepared her for ‘’pretty much everything’’. 

Q. Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today?

There is no fixed career path in today’s world. Instead, it is important to chart one’s career based on your needs and the opportunities that come your way. Most importantly, be willing to try to do things outside of your comfort zone. 

Unlike my peers, who graduated and headed into the academia, I was headhunted and returned to the commercial sector to take on a regional HR role in a multinational industrial-engineering company. Due to personal circumstances, I later moved from the commercial to the educational sector, working on administrative transformation at NTU. I felt a constant need to reinvent my knowledge, skill sets and competencies for my changing roles. During these periods, I experienced moments of doubt regarding my capabilities, and found having determination and resilience to be so important to overcome those doubts and succeed. 

Staying adventurous and willing to step out of your comfort zone is also key to a successful career. When the opportunity arose for me to take on the Chief Operating Officer role at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, I did not hesitate and saw this as an opportunity for me to grow professionally. 

Q. What leadership insights have you gained during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is difficult to determine which leadership style has proved the most effective in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and pivoting to a new normal, but there have been three main takeaways for me. 

Adopt a “safety first” mindset

When the pandemic started, many of us were unprepared for the disruptions and challenges that were to come. Despite the many unknowns and ever-changing constraints, there was one thing clear in my mind – it was a key priority to keep our faculty, staff and students safe, and we worked relentlessly to keep our campus safe to ensure the wellbeing of our colleagues and students.
Safety management measures such as temperature scanning machines, hand sanitizers and QR codes were used to monitor people’s health, enable good hygiene practices, and track the attendance of staff, students and guests. Business continuity plans were implemented with alternate working arrangements across campuses, while standard operating procedures were developed to do contract tracing for suspected or confirmed cases. We supported our colleagues and students who were overseas to ensure their safe return to Singapore.

Demonstrate empathy 

Beyond our community, we showed our appreciation for healthcare and essential workers. Care packages were delivered to healthcare workers at the hospital and essential workers were provided bento lunch boxes to show our appreciation for their work at the frontline.

Acknowledge and recognise milestones 

We gave out care packages to essential workers and hospital staff during the country’s two month “circuit breaker” and held an appreciation day to thank all our support staff. 2020 was a special year and, despite the restrictive, safe distancing measures that were in place, we were able to organise several events such as virtual charity runs and virtual gala dinners to celebrate our efforts along with the 10-year anniversary of the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine’s establishment.  

As we progressed out of the circuit breaker and into Phase 3 of Singapore’s national pandemic management, we moved to a new normal. Wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and gathering in small groups will continue, becoming part of the new normal for 2021. Given the pandemic is not going away any time soon, it remains important to continuously recognise and celebrate milestones to keep workers’ morale and spirits high.

Q. Can you briefly discuss with us your recent academic project on leadership – Multilevel Effects of Empowering Leadership on Knowledge Hiding? 

When I was completing my PhD, I wanted to undertake leadership research that not only informed theory, but offered pragmatic solutions for the workplace. Abusive supervision is a common phenomenon within the workplace, and it is important to understand the implications these toxic behaviours have on subordinates and other team members. 

While it is widely believed that empowering leadership always translates to positive outcomes within the workplace, our study highlights that, in certain situations, it prompts knowledge hiding by subordinates, or the intentional withholding or concealment of knowledge from others. We also show that, when present, this knowledge hiding impedes organisational growth and effectiveness.

We use surveys of frontline staff in the hospitality sector to provide this important evidence, with our results showing that the effects of empowering leadership behaviours differ based on who they are targeted towards. Moreover, our results suggest that, when tailored to each and every individual worker, empowering leadership makes employees feel psychologically safe to share information, voice concerns and, therefore, less likely to knowledge hide. However, when empowering behaviours are directed at a targeted subset of followers within the team, they can produce relational conflict that, in turn, induces followers’ knowledge hiding.

Taken together, our work highlights the importance of leaders being cautious when exhibiting empowering behaviours within team settings, as they need to adapt and vary their influencing behaviours to suit followers’ attributes. Failure to recognise the differing empowering behaviours may backfire and have unintended results such as relational group conflict.

Q. Could you share some of your CBE student experiences that personally shaped you

My time at CBE was amongst the happiest periods in my life. The camaraderie I forged with will fellow students, many of whom I am still in touch with today, meant there was never a dull moment. I still have fond memories of coffee sessions with my classmates at The Street Theatre and the ‘foodie sessions’ we organised to share our respective culinary capabilities and culture. 

The wisdom, warmth, and humour of staff were also unforgettable. Whether it was informally chatting with them at the end of every research seminar, or their words of kindness when you bumped into them in the corridor, the staff also made my days at CBE memorable. 

Q. How did your PhD at CBE prepare you for your career?

My PhD helped in preparing me for pretty much everything, from understanding how and why people behave in a certain way to the importance of using evidence-based approaches when making decisions. From the CBE experience, I’ve learnt that we do not operate in silos and my work involves influencing various stakeholders to collaborate to drive outcomes. For instance, shortly after graduating from the College, I was Project Director at NTU where I was tasked to implement Workday – an integrated HR system for 10,000 employees. I needed to work with multiple stakeholders to harmonise all HR processes, enable management to make timely strategic workforce decisions and employees to perform HR transactions more efficiently. This was a successful project for me, where I was able to transfer my CBE experience and knowledge into my work.


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