Dato’ Esther Tan
Three Nuggets of Wisdom From A Leader
Seek your own path, be responsible and always work hard
Auditor and former “Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” award winner talks about technology addiction and stress management and shares valuable entrepreneurial advice.
More than 30 years ago, Esther faced a critical moment in her life. Diagnosed with cancer, she underwent chemotherapy after being told she would likely live a further six months. Like many others facing such a tectonic shift, she knew things were irrevocably changing.
The shifting landscape
Her perspective too changed because as she puts it, “it was my happiest moment when I underwent chemotherapy back then. During that period in my life, I had the time and space to reflect on things in general and then on my life specifically. I suddenly realised how blessed I was. Everything around me just took on a different look. The clouds in the sky and their movements became astonishingly beautiful. The grass by the side of the road – it just looked greener. And even traffic jams seemed to tell me that “life is good, life is vibrant”.
With so much positive energy around her and a loving network of support in place after this devastating setback, Esther believed that she could only live her own way. Many people might believe that she is a successful person from the outside but for her, success needed to be defined by how she reached out, how kind she was, how she could help others achieve happiness, how she could share her skills and talent and most of all, how she was blessed by her family, colleagues and friends.
The career path
Beginning her career as an auditor with Grant Thornton in London, Esther later move to Kingston Smith, also in London. She decided to become a tutor at Emile Woolf and Associates for a short period of time, focusing on professional courses before making the decision to come back to Malaysia and moving into the education space with Goon’s Institute over the period 1979 – 1984.
Later, she took the brave step forward to start her own practice, Esther Tan & Co, which then merged into another entity now known as GEP Associates, part of a member firm of an international organisation known as AGN International, headquartered in the UK, boasting 465 offices worldwide.
This is a lady who has worked for the greater part of her life yet who believes wholeheartedly in a balanced lifestyle, in hard work and a total commitment to the position held.
This is a person who believes in doing her best to add value wherever and whenever she can. So no surprises as to the various leadership positions she has come to hold through the years.
In 2008 and 2009, Esther became the first lady Chairperson to lead her international organisation, a position she held for two years and at the Board level for 12 years representing the Asia Pacific region. She still continues to serve in the regional board, headquartered in Hong Kong. She has been auditor for various companies in a range of industries and has a breadth of experience as to the requirements of regulatory bodies and public listed companies. Conducting due diligence and fund raising exercises as a Reporting Accountant for clients is part and parcel of the work she has undertaken. So on hearing that back in 2006, Esther received the “Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” award, under the finance category, from the National Association of Women Enterpreneurs Malaysia, I was curious to see how a successful entrepreneur like her thinks about issues such as work life balance, stress and managing technology, among other things. She was kind enough to share some insights on these topics with us.
More and more today, the conversation has shifted away from work life balance towards work life alignment. Do you agree that this is the case and what do you think you’ve done to date that has helped in achieving alignment?
Esther : In earlier years, our culture was such that we just worked hard and no one really talked about work life balance or alignment. It didn’t even occur to anyone that there was such a thing. The focus was on our job and our need to earn a living. But these days, people are exposed to a much greater degree of stress and consequently, more conscious of work life alignment. Having worked for more than 40 years, I have learned that it is necessary to align myself to doing things I am passionate about, to doing things that I like to do and which I never thought I would have time for. Although I am actively and fully engaged in work even now, there are other activities that I get involved in like singing, dancing and reaching out to those in need of help.
Technology for all the good and convenience it affords, also brings significant disadvantage in terms of being always on and creating addiction in some ways. It is at the end of the day, an enabler, nothing more. What tips can you share as to how you’ve ensured technology is there to help you, not something to be a slave to?
Esther : It is sad, in a way, that technology advancement is necessary for many things in life in order to speed things up or make life easier. Unfortunately, we need to make a conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by technology. It is so pervasive that we can become so completely and unwittingly reliant on it to the extent that we allow it to control our thoughts and decision making processes. Our dependence on what is offered through technology negates our own brain activity and our own exploration – yes, we can become victims of advancement. So I firmly believe that it needs to be instilled in everyone that technology is a tool to be used but we must control how we use it and not become addicted to it.
How do you manage stress – what works for you? How did you discover the things that cause you to get more stressed and what ideas can you share about how to better manage stress?
Esther : Oh yes, the silent killer- STRESS. Very often, we allow ourselves to become stressed. Generally, I try not to allow negative elements to invade my mind. My family members tell me I am strong minded, and on reflection, I guess they’re right. No one can help us if we allow the penetration of negativity to occupy our minds. I faced serious health conditions twice in my life and the doctors were amazed at how fast I recovered. Being very physically active (I sing and dance whenever I can) enables me to de-stress to a large extent. When I do that, I forget everything that has made my day bad. Another activity which I started in my Rotary Club of Pantai Valley and which I am very much vested in, is mentoring financially challenged but above average students during their teenage years. The annual end of year examination results of these students cannot but produce the adrenalin in my body that make me feel good about what I am doing.
A common dilemma people face is to push away the important in favour of the urgent when it comes to critical personal or career decisions. Did you face this often and how did you get through this?
Esther : Luckily for me, I do not have to face such situations often. I am focused in whatever I do, and being a woman, I multitask a lot.
With the modern work environment such that there are no clear lines demarcating work and personal, no whistles to tell you when to get off work and phones/tablets/mobile devices making it ever easier to work anywhere, anytime, how do you make decisions about when work starts and stops?
Esther : I’ve been working for many years and been fortunate to have the opportunity to run my own practice. This allows me a certain degree of flexibility. However, I am also a bit of a workaholic. So, I can be sitting in front of the computer for long periods of time without realising it. My time is also largely determined by my day’s activities and since I am generally a punctual person, this means I ensure I am wherever I need to be, when these things are lined up.
What has been your biggest ‘learning moment’ in your career and why? Please share this story with us.
Esther : I don’t have any particular “biggest learning moments” as you call it. But in my career, I have learned that whatever we do, we cannot do it alone. It is all about team work and synergy. To grow is to share, and in the process, we must care.
Do you think certain industries are much better for work/life balance?
Esther : No, I don’t think so. Everyone seeks their own niche in the workplace. They have to explore things until they reach a point that they feel a certain industry or organisation is right for them. Work life balance is different for each individual and so, how we define and interpret it makes all the difference.
What advice can you share with young women professionals today, who are ambitious, eager and quick to learn?
Esther : The only advice I have is to work hard. Maybe, the younger generation may disagree but I am brought up with the old school of thought which is know your stuff and be passionate about what you do. There is no short cut to success. You can be brilliant but if you do not share your knowledge, you end up miserably alone eventually.
What’s the best entrepreneurial advice you can give?
Esther : I always preach the objectives of the mentoring program I’m involved in. Exercise the five core values which are humility, honesty, self belief, compassion and responsibility. In this case, for the Leadwomen audience and for industry in general, I will emphasise responsibility. Be responsible for everything you do. Be responsible to your boss and to your peers and colleagues. Be responsible to your work and be proud of your job.
Dato’ Esther Tan is an auditor and holds board directorships in two public listed companies, Poh Kong Holdings Berhad and MK Land Holding Berhad. A Fellow Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (FCA), a Member of the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (CA) and a Fellow Member of the Chartered Tax Institute of Malaysia, Esther devotes a lot of personal time to the Rotary Club. An active Rotarian for more than 28 years, Esther is a founding member of the Rotary Club of Titiwangsa and later, the Rotary Club of Pantai Valley. She has served both at club level (being President twice and the first lady President as well as the first lady Assistant Governor in the country) and district level.