Thursday, 24 January 2013

Boss Mum

She once thought she had to forgo her career ambitions to start a family. Now IBM chief and mother of four Janet Ang is proof you can have both
By Alicia Wong, TODAY, 19 Jan 2013

It is a somewhat incredible revelation, but Janet Ang stresses that it is no joke: Every time she gave birth (four in all), she got a promotion at work.

“So much so, after my fourth (child), people ask me: ‘So how, are you going to have another one?’” the IBM Singapore boss says, laughing loudly. “I say: ‘I certainly hope after my track record I don’t need to have another child to get promoted!’”

Indeed, the vivacious, straight-talking tech veteran has stamped her mark on the company, rising from a systems engineer post when she joined in 1982 to Managing Director in 2001. After a stint at Lenovo, she was re-appointed MD of IBM Singapore in 2011.

But as we chat over lunch at The St Regis Singapore, it is apparent that Ms Ang — who is 53 but actually “forever 39” — is more than just a career mum. She sits on several boards, including the Singapore Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China. As part of her community involvement, the Catholic keeps her Sundays busy with church work.

At a time when young couples debate the feasibility of work-life balance and the merits of starting a family while building their career, the ambitious Ms Ang stands as a role model for those who want to “have it all”.


The high-flyer — who on Thursday shared her experiences at the National Family Council’s CEO Breakfast Roundtable on embracing families in business — is quick to point out that her journey has not been “a piece of cake”. With an end goal in mind (to be a “good mother, a good wife, a good IBM-er”), one has to be disciplined and make choices, she outlines.

Unexpectedly, one of her earlier choices had been to forego climbing the corporate ladder for her family. Believing she could only “do well in one or the other”, the National University of Singapore business administration graduate had told her boss: “Don’t promote me, I am getting married.”

He laughed it off and congratulated her. Later when she was on honeymoon, a fax came in: She had been promoted from systems engineer to manager.

“I chose marriage — I want to have a family. But fortunately, IBM is enlightened,” she laughs. It then boiled down to making choices, such that her time was used most effectively.


“I don’t hang around with my kids doing nothing, but I don’t miss their important moments in school,” says Ms Ang. She prides herself on having attended her four daughters’ most important concerts and parent-teacher conferences. When she has to miss out on the “not so important” events — as we speak, her youngest daughter is giving a poetry recital in class — she relies on photographs or videos.

“Having more kids will not hold you back. It does mean we have to be more disciplined,” she says. “In those early days, would I be wrong to say I have to sacrifice by not always having my hair tip-top, not going for a manicure, pedicure any time I like?”

Another sacrifice: Sleep. “I thrive on five hours of sleep. Good enough,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to make those choices. When people talk about work-life balance … I don’t think it’s a reasonable thing to expect balance. It’s really (about) effectiveness.”

She adds: “Sometimes, at home, I will say: ‘Okay, come, lets go do this and this and this,’ and they will say: ‘Oh, mum, don’t run IBM at home!’.”


Still, if not for Ms Ang’s stellar time management skills, she may not have even got married. Recounting the long hours she used to put in at the office, Ms Ang asked rhetorically: “How are you going to get married if you don’t have time to ‘pak-tor’ (date)?”

So she made a choice. Regardless of whether she had completed her work, come 6.30pm, she would shut down the computer, pack up and leave for dinner with her then-boyfriend.

What he did not know was that the next morning, Ms Ang would wake up before the crack of dawn and be at work by 5am. After a year of courtship, the couple married in 1989. “I was thinking, gosh he has proposed, I’m getting married, how am I going to do this?”

Thankfully, IBM soon introduced the home terminal programme, which allowed her to install a modem and computer to work at home.


After tying the knot, her husband, Mr Anthony Cheah, played a crucial role in supporting her decision to be a working mum. He gave up his job when Ms Ang received her first international assignment and the family moved to Tokyo in 1998.

“Since then, he has been Mr Mum. So I must say I could not have done this without him. Tony has been super,” she enthuses. “He cooks very well, he likes hotel management, so you can imagine … (he) organised all of us!”

She adds: “One must admit, if my husband had not been supportive, what would have been my choice? I think you know my answer lah.”

Deviating from the traditional family set-up of the man as primary breadwinner came with its challenges.“My eldest daughter, then four or five years old, would ask, ‘Daddy, why are you at home’? So I think it was a little bit uncomfortable for my husband at the time.”

People were also calling her husband “Mr Anthony Ang”. To which she would retort: “Hello, hello, I am Mrs Janet Cheah!” She tried to change her surname but she was already known as Janet Ang professionally. “Then double barrel: Ang-Cheah. Mrs Janet Ang-Cheah (red car, in dialect), no way!” she chortles.

On a slightly more serious note, she adds: “Was my dad or mother-in-law a bit more worried? Definitely.” But they were also supportive, she states.


Ms Ang is also thankful for the support she gets at work. “At every step of the way, the organisation had a part to play,” she says.

“If it did not let me have flexi-time to take off, take my kids to the doctors, or for parent-teacher conferences, would I have chosen to stay with this company? Maybe not.”

And that is exactly the message the MD, who sits on the executive committee of The Employer Alliance, tries to tell companies — that there is a business case for offering family-friendly policies, namely the war for talent.

To attract good employees, companies must be able to support their work-life integration, she stresses. “If a family is broken down, they (the employees) take their problems to work.”

Among IBM’s pro-family initiatives are activities organised for employees’ children and take-the-kids-to-work days. “It’s really an exciting time for HR now,” Ms Ang notes, citing options such as job rotation opportunities to suit employees at different life stages.

Quoting from organisational guru Charles Handy’s The Empty Raincoat, she notes how companies can also tap the growing pool of part-time professionals when employees are on leave.


The key challenge to implementing work-life balance measures is that a “whole systemic change” is needed. Leaders need to “walk the talk”, she says.

This means not asking employees where they are if they are telecommuting; or pulling a face (jokingly or not) when an employee reveals she is pregnant.

To provide employees with flexibility, bosses must move away from a “time-based expectation” of having employees at their desk nine to five, and focus instead on “outcomes”.

At the same time, employees have to be responsible in behaviour and output. “Don’t go AWOL,” instructs Ms Ang. Ultimately, it boils down to mutual trust; a “compact” between manager and employee.

What of smaller firms, where an employee going on leave means more work for everyone else, fuelling potential unhappiness? Sharing what some SMEs have told her, Ms Ang agrees with them on creating an “environment where employees feel part of the family”.

Then, instead of being resentful, they celebrate for one another if, say, a colleague is going to have a baby. Studies show higher rates of productivity if colleagues are friends. “That’s called team building,” she says.


The down-to-earth Ms Ang is, at the same time, a self-confessed optimist — “I always see everything as doable” — and appreciative, stressing repeatedly that she is “blessed”.

An engaging conversationalist who needs little prodding, she expounds on diverse topics, including advice on domestic help (which she believes is “another relationship that has got to be nurtured”).

Asked if there is anything she would have done differently, she takes some time to ponder before concluding: No regrets, but she is still contemplating if she has “put my family traditions all in place”. They are “one way to keep the family together,” says Ms Ang, whose two elder daughters, aged 21 and 18, are now studying in the United States

One of the Cheah family traditions: Every child who turns 12 gets a holiday with her parents. This year, their youngest turns 12 on Valentine’s Day.

Says Mum: “She has decided — somewhere in Scandinavia.”

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