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Executive Education

Leading for Results

Leading with strength and empathy in the STEM world

Patricia Zhao

Deputy Director, GovTech Singapore

I now look inwardly to ask myself what I want, and remind myself of the reason I am striving for certain things. This has helped me reshape my narrative and how I present myself to others.

Patricia Zhao may have amassed over a decade’s worth of experience in the STEM sector, but she is still met with raised eyebrows when she explains her role. “I don’t have an engineering degree, so people wonder if I am qualified to lead,” she matter-of-factly states.

Their doubts do not faze her, and she carries herself with the quiet confidence of someone whose track record can speak for itself.  “I’m quite an executioner and throughout my career, I have consistently met the goals of my organisations. I’m proud to be someone who keeps to my word and delivers,” she says.

Case in point: when the COVID-19 wrecking ball hit, it didn’t matter that Patricia had only been working for a few months as a UX designer for Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), an organisation spearheading the Singapore government's digital transformation.

She leapt headfirst into the digital trenches, burning through weekends and battling distancing regulations, engineering challenges, as well as incredibly tight timelines, to develop SupplyAlly (now known as GovSupply), a digital tool that would allow government agencies to distribute pandemic essentials such as masks, ART kits and TraceTogether tokens.

The experience won her the respect of her peers. It also paved the way for her next successful project: GovWallet, a digital wallet that changed the way financial payouts are distributed to citizens—ultimately bringing Patricia to where she is today, leading four teams of engineers and designers.

The challenges of a woman in STEM

For those who question if women will hit glass ceilings in a male-dominated sector, Patricia’s story stands as an example of how a strong work ethic, built on principles of consistency and hard work, can and will pay off. That said, while she acknowledges that gender has not limited her yet, she also admits that far more needs to be done for women to feel like they belong.

“We need to create a little more room for inclusivity where in group settings, people are mindful of the jokes we make or what examples we use,” she emphasises, explaining that thoughtless words—even if they are not meant maliciously—can make women at any rank feel uncomfortable and belittled.

Changing the conversation is still a work in progress, but having met good bosses, both male and female, who have empowered her growth and adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, Patricia believes that the situation will only improve with time. This is further cemented in her current employment at GovTech, an equal opportunity employer committed to fostering an inclusive workplace that champions diversity regardless of gender or age.

Leading with an open hand

Aligned with GovTech’s belief that diversity is the foundation to innovation, Patricia strives to offer her team the same encouragement and opportunities to reach their full potential. Her approach to management is of the same unassuming nature she has had throughout her career. Rather than pull rank to get the job done, she aims to create a work environment that empowers her team, saying: “I believe in having an open style of communication, so individuals are free to share their valued opinions and I strive to provide the space for respectful discussion.”

Taking insights from Women in (Gov)Tech (WiG) Employee Resource Group (ERG), a community championing diversity and inclusion in GovTech, Patricia proactively reaches out to each member of her team every quarter for a personal check-in.

“It’s important to know more than each person’s name and role — to really get to know them individually. That way, I can identify the right opportunities for them,” she explains. This effort can equate to over 50 meetings each time, but Patricia feels it is essential to actively listen and engage with the team beyond project status and timelines.

Finding the balance between “nice” and “firm”

However, this softer, more collaborative approach posed challenges, particularly when Patricia needed to address non-ideal work performances. She describes the discomfort she felt when individuals questioned their unexpectedly poorer performance ratings: "It was very uncomfortable. I found it difficult to have the conversation and felt nervous each time. In the end, I’d feel bad and want to reframe the situation for them, often questioning my own assessment."

Patricia saw the need to change her perspective on approaching these challenging conversations. Motivated to improve herself, she leveraged GovTech’s training support to enrol in INSEAD’s Leading for Results programme, which turned out to be an asset.

“The programme has given me more awareness. I now provide more consistent feedback to my team and also look inwardly to ask myself what I want, and remind myself of the reason I am striving for certain things. This has helped me reshape my narrative and how I present myself to others,” she explains.

Particularly memorable for her was when participants were divided into pairs: one person was assigned a family problem to talk about, and the other to find out what the issue was. Patricia diligently ran through a few questions, but ultimately held back as she felt it would be rude to probe. "I felt I would be infringing his freedom and boundaries." she recalls. Her partner, however, did not agree. He wanted Patricia to ask more questions. In fact, he felt that because she didn’t, she seemed “unconcerned” about his well-being.

I realised that I always used to think that if it made me feel good, it would make someone else feel good too, but different people have different preferences. It’s better to ask and give them a choice to say yes or no.

Now, Patricia no longer attempts to buffer her words based on what she thinks people “might feel”. Instead, she reminds herself of the purpose of each conversation, and works on objectively laying down the facts. "By not covering up the negative, I can have a genuine conversation with people I want to help grow." she concludes.

Tangible takeaways for the real world

Leading for Results not only changed Patricia’s perception of what leadership means, but also equipped her with valuable tools to write her own narrative. For example, she gained a framework for giving feedback, tips on how body language impacts her communication, and a better understanding of her career orientation.

“The career orientations component made me realise I value freedom a lot — meaning that I can be given a goal, but how I bring the teams together to achieve that goal should be up to me, and I don’t need anyone to micromanage me,” she says. This realisation has inspired her to conduct similar career guidance assessments with her team so she can learn more about what makes them tick and what she can do to help them succeed.

Patricia also believes it was beneficial to network with participants from different industries and countries, many of whom were at the C-suite level. Being relatively new to leadership in comparison, she was intimidated by the calibre of her peers and feared that she would have nothing to offer. But these concerns were quickly dispelled by the dynamism of the classroom discussions.

“There were different personalities and dynamics in each group, and I realised that just because someone is a CEO does not mean the way they make decisions is always right,” says Patricia, adding that it was enlightening to hear different perspectives and realise that she, too, had a lot to contribute. Today, as she continues to push boundaries as a woman in STEM, the confidence gained from such conversations holds her in good stead. 

Her advice for other women in the field? To stand their ground and not be afraid to make their voices heard. 

To be limitless is to go beyond. It means that you do not stop until you have realised your potential and do not stop yourself from doing something until you have tried it.