Armed with a world of experience in broadcasting and creative work, Serene Wong applies her insightful expertise in the leading role of APAC MD at Across the Pond Singapore. From starting the Singapore office as the solo executive producer, she grew the agency to become a multi-regional and multidisciplinary team of creatives, strategists and project managers across APAC.
Driving creative strategy and production, client relationships and business growth, Serene and her team have helped tech brands in the region to launch digital-first cross-platform campaigns. Clients include Google, Meta, TikTok, YouTube, Grab and Snap. She has also driven new business opportunities in Greater China, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Japan.
Serene was previously with Sony Pictures Entertainment as Creative Producer before moving on to a senior producer role at NBCUniversal Asia Pacific.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Serene> Back in high school when I was made captain of the basketball team.
Serene Wong, third from right back row, Anglican High School basketball team.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Serene> From watching and observing traits in the leaders I admire and look up to throughout my career. One business director always thanked other teams and showed his appreciation really openly. That taught me the importance of showing gratitude, making your teammates feel seen and sharing your platform so that others can be heard in building genuine relationships and creating a supportive and trusting work environment. Not only was he great at his job, he was, and is very well liked in the company. I was definitely taking notes.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Serene> That it’s during chaotic, uncertain times that people look the most to leaders for guidance. I learnt that through watching great leaders at work steering companies through dark, choppy waters, and out of recessions.
I remember being at a company townhall sometime ago when our GM gathered everyone together and told us to embrace a same-boat mentality, assuring us that no one would be left behind or let go, even as the going got tough. He made a personal guarantee that instilled confidence and trust company-wide in him and his leadership team. People continued to work hard and developed a tight sense of camaraderie.
We weathered that period and true enough, no one was let go and the business was back on track in no time. That was more than 10 years ago, when I was still a wide-eyed junior staff member, but it’s a moment that is so deeply etched and still so fresh in my memory! A lesson on leadership and the power of the same boat mentality. Lead by example. Lead with confidence. Lead with humility. Lead with trust.
LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so, how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?
Serene> It’s not what I set out to chase, for sure. But it came quite naturally to me, keeping an open and curious mind, wanting to learn as quickly as I can from my teammates and coaches. It’s something that likely stems from my competitive sports discipline that advocates teamwork and builds on the leadership character to propel a team towards a common goal. Winning is always the goal, and how you get there is the mark and finesse of a champion mindset.
Netflix, The Last Dance, chronicles the rise of superstar Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Michael Jordan epitomises this championship spirit. You can see what sets him apart from the rest on Netflix’s The Last Dance. Between that mindset and success is practice, practice and more practice with constant application, trial and error, and new iterations until you finally get yourself to the version that best suits you and who you are.
Sure, I can strive to be the best, but I can never quite do it alone. I didn’t start off with a vision board of who I want to be - it was frankly quite an open view. I’m proud and pleased at getting here, having sought out my own role models (Serena and Venus Williams, whose dominance and strength changed the world of tennis) and figured out the type of leader I want to be, at my own pace and on my own terms. Also worth noting: work role models need not always be about business, they can also be people in your life who you admire or look up to. It just so happens that I found mine in the world of sports!
LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?
Serene> It’s important to be a leader and not just a trainer. There are also important differences in style, for instance, between a coach and a mentor. A coach is performance driven, while a mentor is about development. So, while a coach builds on innate strengths in order for an individual to reach his or her full potential, mentorship is around guidance. It is experience-led; involving soft skills which can help us to develop and grow. A blend of leadership styles can be most valuable. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that while the end goals are often the same, leadership approaches can differ.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Serene> Being human as a leader is almost a no-brainer – but putting it into practice can be tough when it comes to balancing what needs to be done with the right dose of empathy. There’s an art to knowing which of my multiple personas to draw on: I could be dishing out tough love one moment then become head cheerleader the next; or take the wheel until I know we’re headed in the right direction, then relinquish it to another teammate while I move to a supportive back-seat role.
Being hyper present in these instances is key - you need to BE in the room, be discerning, read between the lines and lend a hand when asked. You need to KNOW your team. Sometimes, they’ll have the answers and your job is to help them think out loud and figure it out themselves. That’s empowerment at its best – and it comes with a healthy dose of proper guidance, acknowledgement and validation from the leader.
Serene, first on left, with Across the Pond Singapore team
LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Serene> I wouldn’t call it failing but yes, I’ve had multiple setbacks whilst placed in charge. The space between – before it collapses and fails utterly – is where leadership truly matters and needs to come through and become the beacon of light to guide the ship back on course. Sometimes it means asking for help, sometimes it means adjusting and being open to changing the plans mid-way. Sometimes it’s both. It’s a kind of confidence one needs, along with the ability to own the outcome, whatever it may be.
LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
Serene> There needs to be a bit of both. It’s all about the timing – knowing what to say and when to say it. Is this a rallying cry to strengthen team morale? Is this about driving a collective goal for performance? Or is this about working smarter to help with cost savings in a slowing economy? A leader needs to be razor sharp about what the objective is and successfully get the team there. Then celebrate their successes for work well performed and done.
LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor? If so, who were/are they and what have you learnt? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
Serene> I didn’t have what I’d consider a formal mentor. Instead, I watched how other leaders conducted themselves and tailored a set of traits that work for me and match my personality, eventually developing my own style. It’s been great so far but I’m still on a WIP trajectory. I do a lot of self-reflection within my own quiet time and ask my peers and leaders for feedback – something I find to be very helpful in character building and honing my leadership skills.
LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
Serene> This is akin to the case of what do you do in a plane emergency? First, you need to take care of yourself; fit your mask before you help others. When issues that are potentially going to cause stress are bearing down – especially in a year that’s already been tough, prioritising my own mental health first has been super important. I need to be able to function properly, be calm enough and have a clear mind before I can draw out plans or a strategy. That starts with recognising how you feel and what your mental capacity is.
I’m very lucky to have a strong supportive team who communicate openly and collaboratively, which makes navigating the difficult waters and dark clouds a lot easier. Shifting the perspective, a team’s full support can also be the driving force for the leader to lead effectively.
LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
Serene> How do we determine progress on DEI? This will incite very polarised views, especially here in APAC where each region has its own very distinct challenges and very different journeys to surmount. Keeping the conversations alive needs to be always on. At a company level, I find it useful to set our own DEI goals, be it about representation in our work or leading the thought leadership in our industry, keeping it top of mind when we hire and assemble teams. It is - and has become - the core guiding principle of how we work. Besides becoming thought leaders in DEI for our industry, we are also DEI advocates for APAC for our internal teams. I can’t stress enough the importance of having frequent discussions and dialogues to capture true diversity and inclusivity of thoughts, ideas and beliefs that are global and cross-cultural. First, we look at the issues through a global lens, then we apply the nuances to inspect what truly matters and is mission-critical here in APAC.
We are proud to be an all-women team (for now!) for a woman-owned business in APAC and to reap the benefits of being one. We approach this very purposefully and we want to be able to invite conversations about what this means and why it’s important for others. I’m also proud to say we have started working with a local NGO for marginalised women, creating a content series around Women in Tech APAC, working with brilliant diverse partners and partners - many are women directors - and working our way through to what makes a meaningful difference here.
Whilst our work is ongoing and ever evolving, we want to be able to go beyond our active work with women to also make a difference and impact other areas such as accessibility and equity, and also sustainability for all. But first, we need to be the ones to start a conversation and keep it ongoing.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
Serene> Company culture is the driving force and the difference between a good and mediocre company. I believe very much in creating and fostering the right culture that speaks to the purpose of why am I here, working for this company, spending most of my waking hours wanting this to work. It’s important for personal and work values to align for a rewarding career experience. It’s easy when the company embodies it authentically. Live it. Don’t just say it. Though it’s not rocket science, it’s hard to fake authenticity but we have seen it all too many times - and that’s the pitfall I would urge companies to watch out for.
Serene, first on left, with Aaron Hutchinson (Across the Pond, Global MD) and Julie Cohen (Across the Pond, CEO).
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Serene> People. My leadership team, my team and inspiring stories I came across from all possible resources (online, word of mouth, clients, suppliers). I’ve learnt a lot from the good and the less-than-perfect leaders in my career and leadership journey. As long as you keep an open mind, even the worst leader has something worthwhile for you to take a leaf from.