Not only is she in charge of the company’s business in 14 countries, Khan is also one of the key drivers behind the establishment of DHL’s groundbreaking Disaster Recovery Team (DRT), which provides logistics services to governments during natural disasters.
The seeds of this initiative were planted in 2004. Khan was in Phuket for her Christmas vacation when the tsunami struck. Instead of evacuating, she made use of her logistical experience to mobilise resources at the DHL service centre in Phuket and oversaw relief efforts that involved couriers, vans and planes delivering food and supplies, as well as helping the injured.
The following year, DHL established the DRT, which provides logistical services and advice during major disasters, and also trains staff volunteers to facilitate these efforts. The team has since stepped in to assist in various global emergencies, including the recent Nepal earthquake, where they managed the flow of relief supplies at the airport in Kathmandu.
It is this tenacity and clear vision that has led the 57-year-old to success, not just in the field of logistics, which is often seen as a man’s domain, but throughout her career. The high-ranking roles she has held include vice-president of Corporate and Investment Banking at JP Morgan Chase, and chief operating officer of General Electric International, Thailand.
Along the way, this power player has had to deal with speed bumps. She shares one incident where she was to be the first woman to fill a business development role at a company she declined to name. She was asked point blank by a manager how she would be able to provide “value-add to the business”.
She recalls: “When someone asks you something that directly, you get stunned but I composed myself to reply. (The experience) really helped me realise it’s a difficult world out there and made me stronger and more resilient in these kind of situations.”
“She is very clear on her focus and direction. But at the same time, she is not a top-down type of person, but a nurturing leader. She’s always just a phone call away.”
Nurhayati Abdullah, Country Manager, DHL Express Philippines
To be noticed and heard in the boardroom, Khan, who was born in Malaysia and moved to Singapore 12 years ago, has learnt that the key lies in having the right communication techniques.
“You have to be quite tough in how you respond to detractors, be able to communicate sincerely and give feedback clearly,” she says. “Women tend to be less assertive – perhaps they lack self-confidence – and that’s the difference between men and women. Sometimes, we need to encourage women to step up.”
To achieve this, she holds brown-bag lunch sessions with women in the office, where she fields questions they may have about their careers, such as their progression and balancing work and family. Her advice: “Cultivate fitness in all aspects, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually too. When these needs are met, you will be energised and be fit to lead in the workplace.”
She relies on a Jawbone to track her sleeping patterns and to meet her goal of walking 10,000 steps a day. She also practises pilates and steals “me-time” wherever she can, even if it’s just a few hours on a flight where she can watch a movie or simply spend the time regrouping and collecting her thoughts.
Still, at the end of the day, Khan believes it is personal mettle that matters the most in climbing the corporate ladder.
She says: “Today, I would tell people that it does not matter what industry you get into, but your leadership abilities matter. When I joined DHL, I knew nothing about logistics. The reason why they chose me was that I had fire in my belly. To be successful, you have to be able to take on different challenges, have the drive to succeed and to push yourself to be the best that you can be.”