Inspiring Women Leaders

Staying True and Giving Back

An interview with Ong Ai Hua, Head of Government Affairs and Policy at Johnson & Johnson in the Asia Pacific

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Staying True and Giving Back

An interview with Ong Ai Hua, Head of Government Affairs and Policy at Johnson & Johnson in the Asia Pacific

When life sciences veteran Ong Ai Hua stepped into her first major executive role as a younger highflyer, she was brimming with ideas to do things better.

“You want to do this and that, and you have so many ideas in your head,” she says. “Before I knew it, I was running so far ahead and when I turned back, I felt that there was nobody following.”

Ai Hua, now Johnson & Johnson’s Asia Pacific head of government affairs and policy comes with more than two decades of business leadership experience in the healthcare industry. She has since learned the importance of communicating, motivating and engaging colleagues, while always staying true to her values and principles.

“You will come to a point to know what will stay the same no matter where you go. And that is really about integrity, your values, things that are core to you,” she says.

Always grateful for those who have helped her in her success, Ai Hua has been passionate about paying it forward by becoming a mentor to others. “I feel very blessed by the opportunities that have been given to me at work to grow professionally. I also benefitted heaps from mentors who have helped me, and because of that, I very much want to pass it down to the next generation, especially among women leaders,” she says.

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Ai Hua’s impact is certainly felt by those who have had a chance to journey alongside her. Ellie Xie, Company Group Chair of Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health Asia Pacific, calls Ai Hua a “leader who builds other leaders”.

Ai Hua embraced me when I first joined Johnson & Johnson as a managing director despite she and I working in different business sectors. She would reach out to me and show great interest in helping me to succeed in this company.

Ellie Xie, Company Group Chair of Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health Asia Pacific.

Dr Hsien Hsien Lei, Chief Executive of the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore, recalls being surprised when Ai Hua made time to meet her despite a busy schedule, and being impressed with Ai Hua’s capabilities.

Ai Hua is a role model for aspiring professionals in the healthcare industry,” she says. “In a field as complex as healthcare, Ai Hua has the ability to cut through the noise. She has a deep understanding of issues, asks incisive questions and helps teams develop impactful solutions.

Dr Hsien Hsien Lei, Chief Executive of the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore.

Could you share a little bit about your history?

My first job was in Sony, but I graduated from microbiology and biochemistry. It would make a lot of sense that I would pursue a career in the life sciences or research and development. However, when I graduated in the 1980s, the research and development and life sciences opportunities were not very vibrant in Singapore. Some of my friends continued their studies, many of them did a PhD, but I couldn’t. I needed to work for my family. The next best thing for a bachelor of science in Singapore at that time was to join a management training program, which is what Sony had. At the same time, I was young, adventurous and curious. Since this job could take me to Japan, and I had always wanted to work overseas, I thought, why not? That was how it all started.

I eventually found my way back to the life sciences, and I got the opportunity to take on many pioneering roles in the region and globally. It has been a phenomenal experience taking on regional and global responsibilities.

What was your experience when you began taking on regional and global responsibilities, and what were the key lessons that you've learned along the way?

The first lesson is that you’re operating at a different level of scale and complexity compared to being responsible for Singapore market alone. When you’re leading a large market like China, the complexities are on so many fronts. Every province is different. While policies are rolled out by central government, the execution and interpretation by provincial government can be quite different. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all strategy, but at the same time you need to have them all pointing in a unified direction.

The other big lesson is how to communicate and motivate teams of different cultures. How do you ensure that there’s clarity and yet have the emotional appeal to connect with the team when you’re talking to folks for whom English is not the first language? I have also learnt regardless of culture and language that being authentic is key to open communication.

Finally, as you take on bigger roles, you also need to learn about upward and sideward communications. How to communicate opportunities and challenges clearly and in a balanced way to your headquarters and supervisors who are not based here and get their right support. Investing time in building your network and relationships is as important as getting the job done.

As you grow in your leadership journey, you will realise there are aspects of leadership that stays core to you no matter where you go. These are your values and your purpose, which are personal. In my younger days as a leader, I tended to want to emulate leaders whom I respected and admired, but you soon realise that to be authentic, you have to be comfortable with your own leadership style. As you grow in this journey, you will find your personal values and purpose are core to who you are as a leader.

What are some of those mistakes that you’ve made along the way?

Oh, plenty. When I had my first role as a managing director for Singapore, I felt like I could change the world. There are so many things I want to make this organisation better. You want to do this and that, and you have so many ideas in your head. Before I knew it, I was running so far ahead and when I turned back, I felt that there was nobody following. That was a very important first mistake for me.

As a leader, you need to make sure your team is running in the same direction and pace as you, and you are also behind them supporting them. You can have all the ideas, but you are one person. When the team is excited about these ideas, only then will they generate the momentum to drive change.

We’re living and working in a time of great change. How do you lead an organisation to deal with change?

The pandemic is indeed a challenging time of unprecedented change. In particular in the first year of pandemic, when we have more questions than answers, I needed to lead with empathy. Letting the team know that you are with them, not necessarily providing answers to every question, but to know that we have one another’s back, and we’ll go through this together.

The second thing about leading this change is to come to terms that the conventional models are not going to work. How do you then help the team to adapt and get them the training they need? Learning by doing is also important, but more importantly learn as we go is an essential attitude so we can continue to iterate the business model. Lastly, providing room for people to make mistakes and see failure as opportunities to learn and improve.

As we go into two years of pandemic, I think it’s very important right now to think about how to continue to build team agility and resilience. The pandemic has changed many rules of the game including forcing all of us to be more flexible and more adaptable. Motivating the team to stay flexible and adaptable will be key to building team agility and resilience.

How do we get meaningfully positive impact from companies in a way that doesn't fuel cynicism?

Real impact can only be made through commitment and time. For companies to make meaningful impact, they have to stay on course and continue to contribute to the underserved needs of the society they are most passionate about, whether business is up or down. On top of time and resource commitment, meaningful impact is usually made through close collaborations with other stakeholders.

For example, to reduce maternal mortality in low-income countries, on top of monetary donations, companies also partner with community health centres to educate pregnant mothers, train midwives, and work with telco companies to provide affordable data plans for mothers to use mobile phones to continue learning and receive daily reminders. These are hard work over a prolonged period of time. Companies that stay committed to the cause they believe in, and being involved beyond making monetary donations, will earn respect and recognition from their stakeholders.

You've said that you're driven by the desire to make a difference. What causes matter to you? What difference have you made that means the most to you?

The first job I applied for was actually to be a perfumer. This was in the late 1980s. I went through all the interviews and the company came back and said that we’ve never had women perfumers. I was offered another role instead. This was my first encounter of gender bias in the workplace.

Although I did not have the chance to become a perfumer, I am very blessed by the opportunities that have been given to me at work to grow professionally. One of the early lessons learnt in my journey is not be constrained by what you cannot control.

Throughout my career, I was surrounded by good mentors who guided me and generously shared their experiences with me. I owe my success to many of them. I want to do the same and share my experiences with the next generation, especially among women leaders. There are many paths to pursue as long as you are willing to try and work hard. Most of all, personal and leadership growth is a journey and not a destination. I hope my journey can inspire some of them.

I am a mentor for the Young Women’s Leadership Connection. I also mentor graduate students at the Singapore Management University Lee Kong Chian School of Business, and I recently co-founded Asia Mentors Circle, a not-for-profit initiative to mentor the next generation of leaders in the healthcare space.

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Ong Ai Hua is the Head of Government Affairs & Policy for pharmaceuticals, medical devices and consumer health at Johnson & Johnson in Asia Pacific. She also chairs the Global Community Impact program for J&J in the region. She has worked and lived in the USA, China and Japan.

Ai Hua was the Company Group Chair for Janssen, the Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson Asia Pacific including key markets of Japan and China in 2017-2020. She previously served as President of One J&J Southeast Asia, where she helped pioneer and implement J&J’s first-ever, one-company enterprise business model covering the three segments of business. She also led the MedTech business for J&J Medical China to high growth and pioneered incubator model for market appropriate products.

With a strong passion to make a positive impact in the lives of people and society, Ai Hua has applied her experience and skills to nurture other leaders as a mentor. She is involved in mentorship programmes through the Young Women’s Leadership Connection and the Singapore Management University (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business. She is also a co-founder of the Asia Mentors Circle.

Ai Hua is also a council member of the Singapore Dover Park Hospice and sits on the boards of the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business and DesignSingapore Council.

The Council for Board Diversity (CBD) believes that board diversity catalyses robust governance and responsible stewardship, and is a valuable driver for growth.

Having diversity in the board brings together the diversity of judgement to chart the best course through uncertainty, challenge, opportunities and risks – applicable to both for-profit and non-profit organisations. The mix of knowledge, skills, experience, gender, age and other relevant features is harnessed to devise strategy and manage its execution. Against this backdrop we believe that including women on boards, in particular, adds a powerful lead-in to the other forms of diversity that bring value to the board’s role in the company.

CBD, established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, endeavours to promote a sustained increase in the number of women on boards of listed companies, statutory boards and non-profit organisations as a stepping stone to broader diversity.