Uma Rudd Chia is a successful author, musician, educator, keynote speaker – and Weber Shandwick Singapore’s new Creative Director. In conversation with Hopscotch.work, she shares her insights on creative leadership.
Hopscotch.work is a free to use women’s careers platform focused on matching professional women with forward-thinking organizations through its Job Board, Events and career initiatives. With a community of 75,000+ women, the platform launched in April 2016 in the Middle East, expanding to Asia in 2018, and is currently working with major global brands in tech, communications, finance and cosmetics to generate more opportunities for skilled women.
Tell us about what you do and what work looks like on a daily basis.
I just started a new job to head up the creative department at Weber Shandwick Singapore. Prior to this, I was the creative director at another agency. On a daily basis, I used to be sitting down with the business heads and planners, working to create the right briefs, then sitting with my creative team and coming up with and overseeing campaigns that solve the problem in the brief. I suppose that’s what my days at WS will become eventually, except now I am helping set-up the creative structure and processes.
Every day now is spent meeting and discussing challenges and expectations from the Client Experience teams and VPs that lead the different brands, as well as one-on-ones with my team members (I oversee a team of 10 folks). After that I sit down and plan how I can address what I’ve heard. I’ve been sitting with my project managers and different stakeholders to put educational and process decks in place to help make things smoother, moving forward.
In between that, I also do what I did at my previous agency – look through briefs, discover the challenge or business problem to solve, then work with my team to creatively, or via technology, solve these problems. It’s an eye opener for a lot of people, because most people think WS is just a PR company. But we are a full-service comms company and my job is to demonstrate how we can do that and do it effectively. Yes, we do PR really well. But we also use creativity to solve a lot of business and comms problems.
So, my job every day moving into this new year will be leading my team to educate and demonstrate the full length and breadth of our capacity – first internally and then externally.
What is your family background or current situation and how has this influenced your life today?
My mum is Sri Lankan. My dad is Eurasian. My Husband is Chinese. If you think I’m confusing, think about my kids.
My dad has always been a champion of diversity and a believer that girls and boys are equals and we can achieve anything we set our hearts to do. He always made me feel I was brilliant and could do anything I wanted when I grew up – that was a great source of confidence for me. My husband Colin is the same – he’s one of those rare men who appreciates a smart wife, encourages me, even when at times we have the most frustrating arguments. He says I have an amazing way to argue from creative points that are so left field yet logical.
But, the thing that was a real turning point for me was having a daughter. I worked as a journalist for five years in Malaysia. It was a highly sexist environment where men made inappropriate remarks and felt it was their right and women would just accept it as a way of life. It really bugged me and at times I lashed out, but I was just laughed at. After a while, you learn to ignore and live with it. Then I came to Singapore and worked in advertising – and lo and behold!
Not only was the attitude and behaviour towards women the same, the words used were bolder and more vulgar! A lot of sexism and harassment was masked as humour and normalised. And because it was, I accepted and bought into it. Then I had a daughter, and everything changed. I started walking into meetings and thinking, is this the kind of nonsense my daughter will have to face when she grows up? That was when I learned a powerful lesson – to speak up or call it out respectfully but clearly when someone says or does something inappropriate.
I did it because I decided nothing would change if everyone behaved like it was ok. If I see a problem and say nothing about it, I’m contributing to the problem. And I realised that the second I called out something that was normalised as wrong, it stopped being the norm. People became better behaved when I was in the room. My daughter influenced me and gave me the courage to speak up and stand up for what is right – not just where diversity and gender equality and respect for women was concerned but also where basic right and wrong was concerned.
It made me relook ideas and start the Female Idea Movement because I realised ideas aren’t gender-neutral, they are male or female. Both have their merits and are needed but sadly the parameters of what makes a good idea have been very male-skewed and the rules of what defines creativity are defined by men! It’s time to change that. Women creative leaders need to step up and own this space and create their own rules and parameters of creativity without looking to men for approval.
After all, over 70% of purchases are made by women and in today’s world, even in rural areas women have become equal breadwinners!
How do you keep work and family life balanced? What are your ‘go to’ coping strategies?
My go-to coping strategy doesn’t include coping. I have been raised to give my all at any single point of my life. My mum tells me I’m the most hardworking person she knows. She used to say that of my late dad – so that’s high praise, coming from her. I guess I have a family that prays for me and that helps a lot! I couldn’t possibly sing in a band, write books, give keynote speeches, raise a family, be a good wife and pursue a career in marketing and comms without supernatural help!
Having said that, with the right support I think you can have it all. It won’t be easy, but you can.
For me, work-life balance is achieved by getting what I need to get done daily in a flexible way. I drop my kids off at school every morning. I enjoy that time we spend together. I love my work. I want to do it well. But, I aim to leave at six every day unless there’s a pitch or an urgent deadline that evening. I go home, spend time with my kids and husband, put the kids to bed, and then I continue working. I don’t miss deadlines. And I don’t appreciate laziness or tardiness.
Sometimes, when I’m really busy, I let the kids come to work. They hang out and know mum’s present in their lives! It’s a good thing.
What does women’s empowerment mean to you?
Women’s empowerment is the enabling of women to become all they can be – women supporting and enabling each other, unshackled by manmade rules and confines.
What keeps you moving forward and what threatens to hold you back?
I believe that you have only one life to live. And, you are entrusted with the potential and gifts (I refer to them as a quiver full of arrows) to change the world around you. And, your only precious commodity is time. If you don’t use it, and use it well and to the fullest, you’re an idiot. That drives me to make the most of every second given to me. I always live in the present believing that what I do now and today has an eternal consequence – that people will continue to be blessed (hopefully) by the legacy I’ll be leaving behind.
And, I am setting an example for my children, involving them and talking to them about it – reminding them constantly that they too need to live their lives to the fullest. And hopefully, I’ve demonstrated this through my life and paved a smooth path for them to follow. I want to die with an empty quiver, having shot all the arrows given to me, as far as I possibly can.
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