Asian Executive Presence: Evonne Ong

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Evonne Ong exudes not only presence but a certain vivacity that is infectious.  Maybe because her presence is not just about herself. She is always genuinely interested in other people’s stories.

She brings with her extensive experience as a trainer-lecturer-facilitator in the pharmaceutical industry. She launched her consultancy ENNOVE two years ago.

Evonne is an avid freediver. It is a form of underwater diving that does not use breathing tanks and relies completely on holding one’s breath until resurfacing. Naturally, she takes a great interest in preserving the ecology of the ocean. She has been serving as the Chief Editor of Ocean Geographic magazine for the last seven years. 

(Since this interview, Evonne has joined Johnson & Johnson as Head of Training for APAC in September 2018. She will continue running pro bono training for charity groups that will empower women and youths, such as YWCA and Halogen, under the ENNOVE brand)

1. What does leadership and being a leader mean to you?

The essence of leadership, to me, is having the ability to influence without authority. People often mistake “leadership” with having “authority”. Authority comes with position/title in an organisation; leadership skills does not necessarily come with authority.

You see it even in social situations within any group settings -- there is usually a leader people look up to and listen to. Having to lead without having authority is a true test of one’s leadership skills because people don’t have to listen to you, they do so because they want to, because they believe in you, because you’ve influenced and inspired them.

Of course, having the ability to influence without authority comes with a whole host of skill sets – that’s another story altogether.

2. What does having a “presence” mean to you?

Presence is a simple word everyone understands, but is hard to put a finger on and define. I think it’s a combination of how you carry yourself, how you speak to others, how you connect with people and the vibes you give off. And no, it’s not the same as charisma. You can have presence without having charisma. Charisma however, comes with presence.

3. Were you aware that you exude presence?

I wasn’t aware initially. But as a training consultant, former regional training manager, lecturer and facilitator, my work demands that I have presence, be it lecturing 200 teenagers (in a polytechnic), training 20 fellow trainers or 60 sales reps, or giving a presentation in the boardroom. I’ve had a few people tell me directly, yes. First time was after a meeting.  

4. How did you build your presence up to now?

It started off unconsciously at first and when I realized the importance of it as I grew in my career It became a conscious effort to hone it. I don’t have a mentor. I would observe and analyse behaviours of people who had great presence, looked for common themes and broke it down into factors. I’m an extreme extrovert and I think that helps since I love being around people and I’m intrinsically curious, and take a genuine interest in people and their stories.

5. What skill did you have to learn on your journey to leadership and building presence?

Great leaders, more often than not, have great presence. If there is one thing I learnt, it’s that it is a combination of multiple skill sets.

You have to have the depth of expertise and breadth of experience, yet remain humble to learn from everyone. Have a growth mindset.

You have to have excellent EQ, understand business and social etiquette across various cultures You have to have great communication skills. Having to tap into global markets and working in/with MNCs required that I communicate and work effectively across different nationalities and cultures.

You have to be able to coach others, give credit where credit is due, respect others as you would like to be respected. You have to be able to influence and inspire others to follow your lead.

Last but not least, if there is one quality I’ve noticed that cuts across the board, it’s this: remaining cool, calm and coherent even under fire. And finally there’s that elusive “vibe” you give off when you walk into a room; some call it confidence but I believe it is more than that and that it can be broken down into several components, and each can be taught.

6. How has having presence helped in your career?

As a trainer-lecturer-facilitator, having presence is essential for me. If you are unable to command attention when you step into a room, you’ve lost your audience. Presence is when you walk into a lecture theatre or classroom full of rowdy teens and the room starts to quiet down as you set up - no words, no shouting required.

7. What was your greatest challenge

My biggest hurdle was my youth and the fact that I look younger than my age. As a trainer, experience and expertise is valued and people often associate that with age.

My first job as a trainer in one of the top pharma companies, I was clearly younger and less experienced than most of those I was training. What I possessed, however, was expertise in pharmacology, clinical experience, a knack for simplifying and explaining complex concepts, and a passion for training.

Experience has to be gained over time – I could not change that overnight. What I could do on my part, was to do my job incredibly well, learn as fast and as much as I can, work on feedback given, and focus on building not just a credible reputation as a trainer but one that eventually got people to say: “Oh, I know a great trainer I can introduce you to!”

My beliefs:

1. Your reputation is your brand and your most valuable asset, and it has to be built over time - there are no short cuts.

2. Do what you love, and you will love what you do. Passion is what will fuel you in tough times; it will also be the balm that soothes the disappointments.

3. Do what you do well, and do well in whatever you do. Hone your skills to become really good at what you do, and aim to do an amazing job every single time. You can be a marketing guru and market yourself/your services brilliantly but if the product you put out is shoddy, you will still gain a bad reputation…..Which brings me back to point #1.

8. What was your moment of greatest achievement so far?

 As a freediver, I compete with myself, constantly pushing myself past the boundaries of my comfort zone, each time discovering I’m actually capable of doing more than I  thought and set new records.

As a trainer, however, I used to limit my training to 20-25 pax because I thought large numbers would dilute the effectiveness of my training. That was, until, I had to conduct a 2-day workshop for 60 pax, for one of the top pharma companies. The logistics in itself was challenging; not to mention crafting exercises that were interesting and interactive enough to keep 60 sales personnel fully engaged, while ensuring all learning objectives were met and "light-bulb moments" secured. But I do love a challenge.

To cut a long story short, the first run went superbly, our client was happy, and I was elated. I had hit a new "record" in training! Pushed beyond my own set boundaries, I realised I was fully capable of handling a much larger group than I thought, and do it exceedingly well.

9. What advice would you give to an executive aspiring to build their presence?

1. Work on developing a higher level of competence in your area of expertise. With competence comes greater confidence.

2. Dress appropriately. Don’t discount first impressions and you never know who you might meet.

3. Work on how you carry yourself.

4. Work on your EQ.

5. Work on your communication skills: writing, speaking and presenting (the latter 2 in particular – these skill sets become more important the higher you go in any organisation).

ABOUT ASIAN EXECUTIVE PRESENCE

The Asian Executive Presence is a movement started by Dean Shams to bring an Asian perspective and voice to the topic of developing Executive Presence. The blog features Asian executives, entrepreneurs and leaders who exude presence. They are either hand picked by Dean or nominated by someone. 

The interviews are meant to gain a deeper understanding of how these individuals think about leadership and build a strong presence. 

You don't have to be a top executive to exude presence. Leadership can be displayed and experienced at any level of the corporate ladder. And the movement celebrates that. 

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