Inside the Leader
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Inside the Leader

Being Design Lead at 23, and how it’s okay to not have it all figured out - Chi Ngo

Photo credit: Chi Ngo, Design by Keller Design

Chi Ngo’s journey as a first-time leader was full of challenges because of her age, but she wouldn’t change any of it because it was such a transformative experience for her. I first met Chi Ngo in mid-2016 when I interviewed her for the role of Content Editor at Traveloka Vietnam. She stood out because she was extremely confident, a seasoned TV reporter then who knew her stuff and she was only 23. Later, she was quickly promoted as a Design Lead within months, and led successful, much-raved about creative campaigns all over Vietnam.

This is her leadership journey and her thoughts.

Chi Ngo is a Content Marketer and aspired Digital Researcher based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is a 2019/2020 Chevening Scholar with a Master’s Degree in Digital Culture. Currently, she is a science communicator at The Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, promoting scientific research and fighting misinformation in science.

Hi Chi, thank you for being a part of Inside the Leader. Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you are currently doing?

Chi: I’m a content marketer and aspiring media researcher. I had an unusual career starting with journalism, then content marketing at 2 of the biggest tech unicorns in Asia at the moment. Last year, I took 15 months off to get my Master’s Degree in Digital Culture in the UK as a part of the Chevening scholarship program. Currently, I’m doing Communications for the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, which is doing a lot of meaningful work researching and engaging with the public about Covid-19, so it’s been really exciting.

Oh wow. What did you mean by ‘an unusual career’?

Chi: I think this is something that I’ve realised in the past year, especially after I got the Chevening scholarship and a lot of young people had reached out to me. I am mentoring two young people who are interested in a career in communications, in PR and in marketing. Through this, I realised that some people have a very specific idea of what a career means. Most of them think that it’s a straight line, for example, if you want to be a marketer you have to know from the start. If you want a career in advertising, your first job is in advertising.

“Through this, I realised that some people have a very specific idea of what a career means. Most of them think that it’s a straight line…”

For me, my first job was a TV reporter. From journalism, I jumped to a freelance gig, to Traveloka, a startup gig where I wore many hats. It was a time to explore and I finally settled in this field of creative campaigns. Then when I got my Master’s degree, I realised that there is a little hidden kind of machine and advertising is the little cause that makes that machine run. So my Master’s degree was mostly about exploring the ideological stuff with advertising.

Afterwards, I decided that I didn’t want to work for capitalism anymore because it wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t really beneficial to our society as a whole. It was a lot of greenwashing, a lot of feminist-lashing, a lot of clinging onto social causes to sell stuff. And I didn’t want to do that anymore. So when I think about my career, it, it’s not always clear what I wanted to do next. You can kind of observe that from the past few years of my career. I’ve been doing this for eight years and each job that I had was in a completely different field, so I don’t know if I could call that a very traditional or predictable career. I know that, for example, my dad has been an engineer for 30 years. He has a very traditional career and he expects his children to have very linear careers like that.

Afterwards, I decided that I didn’t want to work for capitalism anymore because … it wasn’t really beneficial to our society as a whole.

So when I talk to young marketers, they do have the expectation that the road is going to be clear, and that it’s always going to make sense. However, I’m just coming to the realisation that it’s not always predictable, as seen with COVID-19.

Having gone through this unusual, non-linear career path, what’s your take on it?

Chi: If you want to grow as a person and intellectually, you have to welcome changes. I think I learnt that in the past year because I was getting a Master’s degree in a pandemic and in a different country. That journey was very transformative in the most and the least expected way. So, I’m kind of coming to the realisation that you have to work with your mental state at that time. You have to work with whatever you learnt intellectually at that time and you have to change your views based on new information.

I think that was the hardest thing to learn because when I first started working I was 20 years old and I thought I knew everything about what I wanted. Maybe I didn’t know all the technical and knowledge stuff yet but I knew what I wanted. And I just realised that, that’s not true at all — you have to change your mind based on new information, new circumstances, new stages in your life, if that makes sense.

Pei Ling: Yes, for sure, and we grow as well, and then meet different people and learn different things.

You left your career at its height to pursue a Master’s degree in the UK. Can you tell us more about it and what was going through your mind when you made that decision?

Chi: I’ve always known that I want to ultimately become a feminist researcher and media professor, so it was a natural decision. I also felt like I was at a point in my career at Traveloka where I did everything I wanted to do and I wanted to leave the position for someone else who could benefit from it, so that felt like a natural decision as well.

How did you come to a point where you felt like you did everything you wanted to do at the company and it felt like a natural decision?

Chi: That’s an interesting question, I think. My situation, in particular, was really interesting because you kind of feel like the company is outgrowing you, and you also feel like you’re outgrowing the company.

“…you kind of feel like the company is outgrowing you, and you also feel like you’re outgrowing the company.”

So Traveloka was a really interesting example, because we were there at such a pivotal point in that company’s development where I think you and I were there at similar stages. You kind of established the (design) team in Malaysia. And I was there when the (design) team in Vietnam was very young, as well so I grew with the company, I grew the team, and I grew, exponentially.

But then in 2019 when I decided to leave, there was a sense that the company was growing at such an exponential rate, that I couldn’t catch up to it. And yet I didn’t want to catch up to it because I wanted different things. I don’t know if that makes sense. That is actually what I felt like at that point. I felt like I learnt everything that I wanted to learn there and if I stayed with that company, I wouldn’t be able to grow in the direction that I wanted to grow. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think you have to be in that particular situation — it’s a very odd feeling of growing with something or somebody, and then learning that that someone wants different things than what I want, and realising that this is not a good fit anymore. I think that’s a very personal decision, as well as a professional decision.

Pei Ling: That makes total sense actually, and you put into words what I felt when I left (my full-time job).

Tell us about your first time being a leader. How was it like, how did you feel initially, and what were some of the lessons you carried with you until today?

Chi: I was promoted to become a Design Lead at Traveloka when I was only 23 years old! At the time, there was a lot of doubt surrounding this decision to promote me, and in hindsight I totally understand why.

Of course, being 23, I didn’t really have a lot in my toolkit except my stubbornness, workaholism and youthful self-assurance. I put a lot of pressure on myself to learn more about leadership and became better and better at it as I practiced. Of course, whenever I made any kind of mistake, I felt like a total fraud — which I now know was just impostor’s syndrome. I was incredibly fortunate as well, being allowed to make mistakes and learn on the job, so it was an incredible opportunity at just the right company.

A “random shrine” that Chi and her team erected at work

Can you tell us more about the doubt surrounding the decision to promote you? Why was that happening?

Chi: Typically, when you’re 23, you’ve only been working for a year. I was an outlier because I started working when I was 20, but nobody knew that. So, in terms of how it looked like, you would understand the sceptics who would say, “Who is she related to?”

So I think that was the feeling not just inside the team and also just the general feeling of ‘why is this person here’, because I didn’t have any chance to show my capabilities. A lot of the team leaders at the time didn’t agree with that decision, mainly because I was young, and presumably inexperienced. I could kind of sense that feeling because there were a lot of backhanded comments in every single exchange that I had with people.

To be honest, when I was promoted, I didn’t think about whether I could do it right. I didn’t think about what people were like, I didn’t think about what people would think about that decision. I just thought: we NEED this, we NEED to be more organised because we were such a mess in terms of how the team was structured, how the team was working, and how we set the team culture. It was just so messy that I felt the need to organise, which is what I do best.

To be honest, when I was promoted, I didn’t think about whether I could do it right. … I just thought: we NEED this, we NEED to be more organised.

So, when I was asked to fill that position, I just thought, oh, finally I can do something about it. I didn’t really think about how this would look. That was a really fortunate thing that I didn’t consider all that stuff, because I was young. Because if I thought about that stuff, I wouldn’t take it. I wouldn’t know. I don’t think I could have dealt with all of that coming into the job. I think the expectations are what weigh you down the most.

I still don’t know if it was the right decision but I knew that I got a lot of stuff done. And I knew that I was able to put together something that help made people’s jobs easier.

You’ve said that you put a lot of pressure on yourself and you felt like a total fraud at that time. How did you overcome it?

Chi: To be honest, I still feel like that sometimes, that I don’t know if I’m doing a good job, I don’t know if people are happy with my performance and with how I’m running things. I think it’s a lot to do with growing up with Asian parents who never tell you if you’re doing a good job. And it’s always: you have to do better, you have to improve, you have to do this and this and this in order to be successful but they never really define what ‘successful’ means.

So you just end up chasing something you don’t know. So I still do put a lot of pressure on myself to do better. Ultimately, I’m just trying every day to be better.

Pei Ling: I like that you described it as a journey and not necessarily something you need to overcome immediately or instantly.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Chi: I think “chill” is the word. I try to let people make their own creative decisions, and I was only there to make sure they completely understood the brief and make content that was on-brief and on-brand. Of course there were times when I disagreed with my team members, but I generally let people take ownership of their creative projects and let our stakeholders and audience decide whether a piece of content was good or not.

Chi won the award for the ‘Most Slack-able Person’ at Traveloka Design team trip to Bali

What do people think of your leadership style, whether you agree with it or not?

Chi: I used to get a lot of (totally valid) criticisms of my leadership style, especially from my manager who thought I wasn’t hard enough on my team, which is true. I still find it really hard to put pressure on my team, especially for the benefit of optics.

I think people often mistake “the grind” for productivity, “hard work” for “good work,” which is fine in some sectors but generally not applicable if you want to work in a creative environment where people feel free to share ideas.

Why do you think it’s hard to put pressure on your own team?

Chi: I think it’s just my general need to be liked by people, so I started to have this desperate need to be a people pleaser. So that’s the first thing but you can’t please your own team and your manager at the same time. Well, sometimes you can. So here’s the thing, our entire culture understands time as money, and understands productivity in terms of time. If you think this project takes eight hours — it will sound much more impressive than ‘this project takes one hour’. But the thing is, if you spent 20 years practising a skill, you can finish a task much faster than somebody who has only done this for six months.

Because our culture translates productivity into hours, there are a lot of issues with how my team managed their time (then). People thought that if my team were not at their desk working on something for nine hours a day, they were not being productive. But we were still churning out work, we were still meeting all the deadlines, we were still producing good quality stuff on time, it’s just that people weren’t spending all day at their desk. So I think in terms of optics, I did get a lot of complaints such as, why is your team showing up to work at 11am, why is your team playing ping pong at 3pm. For me, you can show up whenever you want as long as you’re meeting deadlines — I don’t care where you are.

That was my management style, but compared to other teams, whose job descriptions and whose job requirements were different, how they see the design team is that the design team were for slackers. So that was the optics. I did get a lot complaints like, “What would people think?” I don’t want to do things just for optics. There was an impression that I wasn’t doing what I’m supposed to do, which is keeping time, but my job isn’t keeping time. My job is keeping people, creative, productive, healthy, and happy.

I don’t want to do things just for optics.

It sounds like there was a conflict between not wanting to do things for the sake of optics, and at the same time, you said you were a people pleaser.

Chi: I’m still a people pleaser, but I think I want to please my team more than pleasing people who has nothing to do with me.

So it’s pleasing the right people?

Chi: Yes, please the right people and not bystanders who don’t even work with us.

What has been the single hardest thing for you as a leader and why?

Chi: Not taking things so personally. Because I started so young as a leader, every comment that came at me felt like a personal attack, and I had to try my hardest to prove those people wrong. That mentality actually took a huge toll on my mental health and I was really struggling, especially during my first year of being a team leader.

But then you told me that it was because I was putting my ego first, and that it was not always about me. I was really upset with you at first, because of course I felt like it was a personal attack. But the older I get, the more I resonate with that advice, which makes leadership and work in general a lot less stressful.

On hindsight, would you have done things differently especially about trying to prove people wrong?

Chi: I think it was a product of being a young leader because I didn’t have good role models growing up and I didn’t have any good leader to look up to. So, in my mind, I always thought of a leader as somebody who always knew what to say, who always knew what was the best decision for everybody, who could always see 10 years into the future and then tell me what to do.

Because I had that picture in my mind of ‘this is what a leader is supposed to be’, I wanted to be that person. And in order to be that perfect picture, I had to do all these things and never be wrong and never make any mistakes.

It was just a product of not having any good role models, but then I met you, and then Yunita, Joseph, Vivien — all the good leaders surrounding me and helping me learn what that word actually meant. So it was a really kind of transformative experience when I came into this role with a very idealistic picture in mind.

And then I saw how you did it, I saw how Yunita did it, I saw how Joseph did it, and I was like, “Oh, so this is what it’s supposed to be like, it’s not supposed to be perfect, but it’s supposed to be like this.”

I don’t think I would have done it differently, because it was a good learning experience in order to form how I lead now. I wouldn’t change it but I realise now that because our culture idolises these perfect leaders, we don’t talk about the misgivings and the hard decisions. I mean, who likes talking about the hard decisions right? Because there are no good role models of ‘imperfect, but good leaders’, young leaders feel like they have to be perfect in order to be one.

I realise now that because our culture idolises these perfect leaders, we don’t talk about the misgivings and the hard decisions.

Pei Ling: I think you just summarised why I wanted to do this series of content. How did you feel at that time when I said you were putting your ego first?

Chi: Honestly, I was such a hothead when I was younger. So I remember this specifically, someone at work was being very mean to me. It wasn’t even constructive criticism, the person made a lot of really mean, vindictive comments. All of that made me feel so much rage because I felt like I earned this position, and I felt like the person was clearly in the wrong.

At that time, I just wanted somebody to be on my side, and to say, I was right, and the person was wrong.

And then you said it’s all —

Pei Ling: I’m so sorry.

Chi: *chuckles* I remember when I told you, you just said ‘it was because of your ego’, and I was so angry because I expected you to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you are right and the person is wrong”. I wanted you to say that and you didn’t. I felt like you were blaming me and I was the victim.

Pei Ling: I’m sorry!

Chi: No, and now I know that you’re right, you’re totally right about that. There were always gonna be people who are petty, who use these really mean and vindictive comments to disqualify you in front of others, and it wasn’t productive to say the person is wrong and I’m right, even though I know I’m right. That’s not a very productive approach. But what you said made a really lasting impression on me, mainly because it made me so angry but then afterwards, I was like, “She’s right.” It took me a long time to accept that and change how I view these kind of comments, because it’s not always easy to overcome your ego.

Pei Ling: Definitely.

Chi: You can’t really control what other people say, you can only control what you think. And so it really helped me view this later on. Even though it wasn’t really satisfying when you made that comment, it really made a lasting impression and a lasting change in my life, at least.

You can’t really control what other people say, you can only control what you think.

Pei Ling: I think that says a lot about no matter how we disagree with someone in the past, whether it was me, you or someone else… to just actually take a step back and think about what they say — it might actually mean something to us.

Chi: Honestly, it was only because it was you. If it was anybody else saying that to me, I would be like, “That person’s out of my life!”

Pei Ling: I’m glad I’m not yet!

Chi: *chuckles* Yeah, it was only because it was coming from you and I knew you. I had such a good relationship with you and I knew that you wanted the best for me so I was able to evaluate that comment. But literally if it was anybody else, I would just throw away that relationship, never speaking to that person again.

Pei Ling: Thank you for believing in me as well.

Tell us about a leader/mentor you personally knew who impacted you a lot. What about this person resonated with you or made a huge impression on you?

Chi: I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have so many incredible mentors in my short career, including you, Yunita, and Joseph (who were all at Traveloka). I think what all of you have in common is that you always made time for me (and others in the team) and made us feel heard. You always took the time to talk and understand people’s problems no matter how big or small, and it always made me feel like I had support at work and that my feelings and opinions were valid. I think having that safety allowed me to put myself out there and take more risks, which led to a lot of incredible projects in my career at Traveloka.

What were some of the highest points for you as a leader? You can share in detail in terms of what happened, and why it was a high point for you.

Chi: Traveling with the travel interns were really cool, I got to do what I enjoyed the most which was traveling, taking photos, and mentoring young people.

When I left Traveloka, my team actually hosted a BBQ in Da Lat for me, and I learnt that they had spent the previous few weeks producing a skit to show during my going-away party, and that was really special. I felt really loved.

Chi’s team surprised her with a skit at her farewell trip in Da Lat

What were some of the lowest points for you as a leader? You can share in detail in terms of what happened, and why it was a low point for you.

Chi: When my mentors left. You, Vivien, and Joseph all left the company in the course of a few months, which was a huge shock for me. It was like losing a safety blanket because that support was gone, and I was out to fend for myself.

What are some of the key guiding principles you go by as a leader of your team ?

Chi: Yunita told me this and I’ll never forget it: “Treat people how they want to be treated.” Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, tasks they love and tasks they dread. It’s easy to just throw tasks at people and hope for the best, but once I understand my team and how they work, our projects started flowing more smoothly and everyone was visibly happier.

How do you help your team members to grow? What is the best approach?

Chi: Controversial opinion, but let them make mistakes :) Of course I’ll be there to guide them through the brief, translate stakeholders’ concerns, and give feedback. However, I find that it’s always better to let people own their work and learn from their mistakes rather than micro-manage people. They’ll learn, they’ll grow, and I won’t have to spend as much time on feedback during the next project, or the project after that.

How do you balance between being a ‘friend’ to your team versus being firm as a leader? Or is there a need to do that? What’s your take on the soft versus hard approach?

Chi: I still struggle with this actually, since there’s always going to be a power hierarchy preventing people from being completely transparent with their leaders. I don’t think it’s possible to be a completely objective friend as long as you’re going to be giving people performance reviews once every six months.

Of course you don’t have to be the leader all the time, that would be exhausting for both you and your reports. I think it’s a fine balance between letting people know that they can be themselves at work and maintaining a professional distance which won’t cloud your judgement when you need to do performance reviews.

When a direct report gives you negative feedback, how do you usually respond?

Chi: Listen, take it in, sleep on it, evaluate whether it is valid, then find ways to improve. I’m known to be a hot head so the first half of that sentence isn’t always easy. However, it’s important to self-reflect so that I don’t react solely based on my emotions at the time.

What are some things you believe you can improve as a leader?

Chi: I still need to work on my insecurities and not take things so personally. Now that I have a family and other priorities, making time for people can also be a struggle. But knowing how important those 1-on-1's were to me, I always want to let people know that I can make time for them as well.

What is your take on work-life balance? Some people have swung to saying, ‘If you love your job you never have to work a day in your life’ to ‘The line needs to be drawn clearly’. Your thoughts?

Chi: Here’s something great that I learnt from Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, which is: it doesn’t always have to be 50–50 between work and life (she shared this pearl of wisdom when talking about her partnership with her husband, but I think it applies to other things as well). When work takes 90 percent of your time, life can take a step back. When life demands 90 percent of your time, work can take a step back. You don’t always have to give 100 percent in both places because that’s humanly impossible and unsustainable.

I think knowing when to drop something and when to focus on something is important, and it takes a lot of self-reflection to know what to prioritise at that moment.

How has the pandemic and work-from-home shift impacted you at work?

Chi: I learnt to slow down, which was a valuable lesson. I used to subscribe to this hustle culture where I felt the need to milk every bit of productivity out of my time and energy, which was incredibly unsustainable and toxic, but I couldn’t stop because everyone else was moving on. The pandemic slowed everything and everyone down, and all of the sudden we could forgive the late replies and the mental health days, and I learnt that I didn’t have to feel so stressed out to be productive and reply to everyone the minute I get an email, which is nice.

Lastly, to aspiring or struggling leaders out there, do you have any words of encouragement for them?

Chi: You’ll never know the impact you have on someone! I only learnt this during my final days at my last two companies, but every little kindness matters and people appreciate the time you take to talk and listen to their concerns. Leadership doesn’t have to be “wow” moments and grand gestures, it can be the kindness that you show every day.

Do you know a leader you admire for their leadership from the heart? Fill in this form to nominate someone you know to be featured here, and we’d be happy to speak to them if they fit what we’re looking for.

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Pei Ling Chin

Pei Ling Chin

UX Research Lead @ Axiata Digital. Portfolio: https://peiling.design

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