SINGAPORE – When the Covid 19 pandemic hit, most business leaders panicked about completion of tasks and keeping the deadlines. Not Julie Tay. The Singapore-based Senior Vice President and Managing Director of medical devices company Align Technology calmly sailed her way to avoid possible supply chain nightmares. Then, she told her team members to stop worrying about the disruption of their regular work  and instead focus on learning new skills, like coding. 

That’s the leadership style of Tay. She takes pride in how she has contributed to building a business that has grown tremendously from the ground up while ensuring that the employees also get a chance to grow as individuals. And, as she juggles all her responsibilities, she believes that keeping a balance is an unrealistic ideal. Instead, she advocates embracing all the roles. In this freewheeling chat with Women Icons Network, Tay speaks about her passion for the development of her team members as individuals, gender diversity at the workplace and the misplaced societal expectations from women. 

The Beginning 

As a youngster, Julie Tay was passionate about law. Later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She was even considering practising it. However, some events led her to Australia where she took up an MBA course. “I realized that I took to the business world like ‘a fish to water’. I loved it, and there was no looking back for me,” she recalls. 

She says her young self would never have imagined she would grow into a regional leader in a multinational company. “Sometimes, it’s not about knowing what you want to do at an early age. It is important to be able to pivot and embrace new experiences,” she says. Along the way, she picked up skills and had experiences that acted as the building block of her career. 

Pandemic Response 

One of the first experiences and lessons as a working professional came to Tay during her first job in the shipping industry. She saw first hand the true scale of operations and number of shipments going through the ports every day. 

In fact, the calmness with which she handled the Covid 19 crisis for her company, especially in terms of logistics, was all due to skills she learnt at those ports. “My background in shipping gave me the confidence to lead my team in responding to the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, to adapt quickly, and manage potential supply chain risks. In a sense, it feels like my journey in the corporate world has come to a full circle — while I am working in an entirely different industry now, the lessons and skills from my first job have empowered me to be a better leader,” she gushes.

Even during the pre-covid times, she has been passionate about the personal development of her people. “Our employees provide us with a competitive edge, and we continue to invest in the training and development of our team.  We greatly encourage employees to explore job rotations and pick up new skills,” she says. Therefore, when a few of her team members expressed concern about the reduced scope of their roles in the company on a day-to-day basis, she advised them to pick up new skills. This was received very well by the team who were appreciative of the learning curve.

Aligning with Align 

When she first joined Align Technology, which had then started its Asian journey, Tay had to play multiple roles, from human resource person to administrator. In the eight years since, she has overseen one of the biggest milestones of the company – serving one million patients in the Asia Pacific region with their trademark clear aligners Invisalign

Today, the company has expanded to several other Asian countries including China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, India, Vietnam, and Thailand. A journey carefully planned and helmed by Tay. “Align Technology is not only the pioneer in digital orthodontics but is also at the forefront of digital innovation, looking to constantly innovate and develop capabilities to support our doctors and patients. I’m so proud of the team and what we do every day to achieve our purpose of transforming smiles and changing lives,” she says about her work. 

Talking about the work culture at Align Technology, she says, “We view diversity as going beyond gender or race, to encompass different skill sets and beliefs. For instance, we established a Singapore employee group to encourage ground-up initiatives, such as organizing events for charitable causes. Through this, our employees can contribute their ideas to the overall corporate direction.” This democratic work environment has helped ensure inclusion of every good idea irrespective of who thought of it. It also helped in creating better employee morale. 

Work Life Balance 

Though there’s no dearth of talented and capable women in Singapore, but they often lack the opportunities to take on leadership positions, Tay believes. Ask her why she thinks this happens, and she talks about the traditional view of the role women play in the family. “Sometimes, female leaders are challenged to find “a balance” between work and family — an expectation that may not often extend to male leaders,” she points out. 

As a mother of three herself, she doesn’t struggle with this as she thinks that keeping “a balance” is an unrealistic ideal, whether for men or women.  “In my experience, it is not about keeping a balance, but how you embrace all your different roles — as a wife, mother, friend, and corporate leader. At the end of the day, it is about integrating work and family,” she says about managing all her responsibilities. 

She believes that it is important to prioritise the different roles one plays. Tay explains her philosophy by saying, “It is not about always putting work first, or the other way around. Our priorities for each day may be different, depending on the circumstances. If there is an important deadline to meet, then, by all means, spend more time at work. If a loved one is ill, it is reasonable for the family to come first.” Every individual needs to make this choice everyday, she adds. 

Gender Diversity at Workplace 

Although societal expectations from women, especially in traditional societies may be misplaced, Tay believes that Asia is opening up to the idea of women as business leaders. Things have changed a lot over the last couple of decades, she says. “Now, it is not uncommon to see women leaders. For instance, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has gained respect from world leaders and New Zealanders alike. Even in Singapore, we see more female leaders and women in politics,” she asserts. 

She thinks that in order to further this climb of women towards the proverbial glass ceiling, it is not just corporations that need to take action. “Every individual has a role to play. We must give women the first shot and the opportunity to prove themselves. We should also review traditional family models and not inculcate gender stereotypes into our children,” she suggests. While it is not easy to change persistent societal preconceptions, it is important for us to teach our children to see beyond gender, she says. 

“Furthermore, we need to create an environment where women are set up for success. Good childcare systems, for instance, will help more women have the confidence to go forth and advance their careers,” she insists.

A diverse group of leaders with different experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds, bring with them different perspectives, says Tay. She believes that such a team can not only cover each other’s blind spots but also brings a more holistic view of any situation whether it is responding to an issue or improving the corporate environment. 

What Women Must Do 

Even as work on changing the society’s views is on, women themselves must start to dream big and believe they can have it all. “Next, make your presence known. For me, there were many times where I walked into a meeting and realized that I was the only Asian woman in the room. At times like this, be ready to speak your mind and make your voice heard,” Tay advises. 

Another suggestion she made was for ambitious women to volunteer to take on projects that may not be a part of their job description to build up a stand-out profile. “Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can; you never know how the skill set you may gain can help advance your career,” she says. 

The biggest task for any person with big dreams is to think of what they want their personal brand image to be and constantly work towards achieving it. Explaining the importance of this exercise, she said, “You must be clear about your persona and continue to build and reinforce that. This will ensure that when the time comes for you to be a leader, the first thing that people will recall is not your gender, but what you are capable of. ”