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Blazing a trail: Shiseido’s first female regional president Nicole Tan on leadership

She might be the first female regional CEO in Shiseido’s history, but breaking the glass ceiling is just one of Nicole Tan's many goals.

Talk about timing. When Nicole Tan, 45, took over the reins of Shiseido Asia-Pacific in October last year, the world was still in the throes of battling COVID-19. “I felt like I was being hot-housed during this period,” Tan shares. “I learnt at an accelerated pace so I can be productive within the shortest time frame possible.”

Three months on, the CEO and president of Shiseido Asia Pacific has comfortably settled into her role and has comprehensive plans for the region. Tan talks with The Peak about leadership, being the first female regional CEO for the Japanese conglomerate, and breaking the glass ceiling.

What are your plans for the brand and the region, especially in a world still gripped by a pandemic?

Over the past year, skincare showed good resilience. Consumers reached for skin solutions to prep, hydrate, and care for their skin when mask wearing became a norm in many countries earlier this year. Our business in APAC also started recovering in Q3 of 2020, and we will look to continue this momentum through 2021.

The pandemic has changed consumers’ buying behaviours, so we are adjusting our strategies to be in line with these evolving expectations and preferences. The year 2020 saw a rapid acceleration in the overall e-commerce and digital space. Our businesses have seen a similar surge across all our markets. We will continue to expand our brands’ presences online and differentiate our product and commercial offers in the digital shopping environment.

We are also looking into alternative channels. For example, in Singapore, we are exploring alternative omni-channel retail concepts, providing differentiated yet integrated experiences from our brands.

In 2021, we are also excited to integrate and launch our latest acquisition Drunk Elephant across the Asia Pacific markets. The brand only uses ingredients that either directly benefit the health of the skin or support the integrity of its formulations. Consumers can mix products together to personalise their own skincare smoothie cocktail. This brand has been a cult secret for a while now!

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Nicole Tan is Shiseido's first female regional president and CEO. She leads the Asia-Pacific region.

Nicole Tan is Shiseido’s first female regional president and CEO. She leads the Asia-Pacific region.

What does leadership mean to you? And what is your leadership mantra?

To me, leadership is about bringing positive influence to the team and allowing members to move directionally towards a common goal. As much as possible, I like to lead by example and show that things can be done before I set my team on particular tasks.

However, I also realise that this is often not possible since I work with teams across different geographies. It is therefore critical to inspire their thinking and get broad alignments while allowing people to do what they need to do.

Delegation and empowerment is how I choose to lead and trust and integrity are the qualities I value best amongst my team members. I am a firm believer that a leader does not need to lead from the front all the time.

Do you feel a lot of pressure being Shiseido’s first female regional CEO?

I think the role is challenging, whether the incumbent is a male or female. However, I am excited to lead the APAC region as we navigate these tumultuous and challenging times.

That the company acknowledged me as the “best person for the job” is a testimony of our commitment to promote greater diversity and equality in the workplace. For that, I felt that I represent the firm stance that the company is taking, and the weight of bringing that to the next level causes the pressure.

I handle pressure head on. To me, it is about getting to work quickly and helping markets and teams understand how we can work together. Within the first two months, I was already deep in conversation with brand and market teams to discuss strategies and plans for this year.

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What else do you think companies can do to increase the percentage of women in leadership or executive positions?

I think executive sponsorship is really material in making this a reality. In 2019, Shiseido Group CEO, Mr Masahiko Uotani was appointed as the Chair of the 30% Club Japan, a global campaign founded in the UK, led by Chairs & CEOS to boost female representation on company boards. This is in line with our sustainability objective of a Respectful Society, which promotes female empowerment and diversity in society and our workplace.

I believe that a woman can succeed in the workplace. However, apart from the usual personal characteristics of hard work, determination and resilience, we also need general good “hygiene factors” at home. These include a supportive family network and an understanding spouse.

I hope that in my role, I can help to raise the general awareness for greater gender equality and partnership in the home environment as well. Through the years, I realise that women often impose our own limits at a subconscious level. More often than not, how women perceive our roles in the home is linked to how we perceive ourselves in the workplace. A spouse who sees you as an equal can help a lot in dispelling some of these uncertainties.