Today we welcome Alisa Choong, SVP and CIO of Information & Digital Services and Operations at Shell to our CXO of the Future Podcast (“The Three Questions” edition). She joined Shell as Executive Vice President of Technical and Competitive IT in August 2015 and was CIO of Projects and Technology since 2018 until she moved to her current position in January 2019, where she’s responsible for end-user strategy for Shell’s employees and contractors globally. Critical to this role is ensuring the delivery of robust, secure, and reliable IT operations that increase productivity and lay the foundations for Shell’s digital transformation.
Question 1: First Job: What was your first job, and how did it help you build your career?
As you know, my name is Alisa Choong. Even though I’m based in the Netherlands, I’m a Malaysian. And I’ve always been a proud Malaysian. So coming to the Netherlands to work in a global environment brings that there’s a lot of diversity that I have to bring in. There’s a lot of inclusiveness for us to work. I graduated with a Bachelor of Economics majoring in Accounting when I left Monash University in Australia. It is quite amazing at that point in time that most of us in Malaysia, for some reason, got overseas education. I was very lucky. My parents believed in educating a woman. And I got sent for my university degree after I finished high school at Monash University. During that time, even in Melbourne, the environment was different.
But my first job was as a tax consultant, can you believe that? And I was a tax consultant in one of the biggest major forces that is still alive today. And what does it actually tell about how it built me to be who I am later in my career? Our test consultants need to be very detail orientated. I got to really understand the businesses of my clients, their activities, and where they operate, because every country has different tax regimes that allow different benefits and deductions that will ensure that we maximize what is available.
More importantly, being a tax consultant also means that I work with a group of specialists, because I may only know the tax corporate part, but I may not know the sales part. And later, they will introduce a lot of goods and services tracks. So always constantly learning. And the greatest continuous learning that finally made me less of a tax consultant is that in every country, every year, there’s a budget. And that means that you must relearn. It is a continuous learning that was torturous at that time, but it’s something that I will always take with me because it forced me to be curious, and it forced me to learn on an annual basis from that.
So, what did it mean to me later in my career? It set the foundation for excellence. Because everything that you do needs to have excellence, redeem the boundaries that are given to you. You must live with those boundaries. There’s no right or wrong and you do not fight it unnecessarily. It also gave me my love for business; understanding the business strategy, how the company makes money, and how companies sustain themselves to be sustainable. It also allowed me to work in a very highly collaborative global team, listening to different advice, because I’m not the specialist for every country on that. And more importantly, it gave me my love for global working and global challenges in complex organizations. I think that’s how it forged my career.
Extra question: What’s your advice to young women as they marched through their careers and try to establish themselves as leaders?
I think it would have been great to have someone tell me this before: ‘Belief in yourself’. You know, my parents believed in me, my father believed in me. But the worst thing is, I did not believe in myself. Every time a new opportunity came, the first idea was, “No, I’m not ready. I can’t do it”. So that not self-belief is something that holds me back for quite a while. To think that you need to be 100% right and sure before you even open your mouth. That is a very ancient trait that I had to adapt later in my life, because I can never be 100%. And now, even if I got 50% right, I’m really happy. So that is an advice that I would give to any young women who is forging a career. Do your best, celebrate your achievement, but more importantly, believe in yourself. Because when people offer you the opportunity, they actually believe in you. So why are you holding yourself back? At what point did you believe in yourself?
I think a lot of it came when I transferred back to Malaysia, after my life in Australia. I was in a car with the managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we were going to a very important meeting. And he didn’t give me any time to brief him. He gave me in the same car 15 minutes. He was meeting the government officers, meeting CEOs…And he just said, “Give me the crux of what you have done and what I should say”. And I thought, wow, I must be good.
He really believed in me and trusted me to get him ready in 15 minutes in a car. Giving me the voice to give him an alternative opinion in the meeting really struck me when I was in my early 30s. So, it made a lot of difference thereafter.
Question 2: Leadership: What is the most important leadership skill that you have learned over your career, that has a positive impact, and can you explain with an example?
One of the things that always has a bias is that women are not strategic, that women are executors. Somehow, that is still the perception. Especially when you’re doing work that you don’t carry the title for, like strategy or planning…; you know, you can carry other titles, and people think you are the doer. But to me, as a leader, you need to be visionary, because you’re leading a big team. I lead a global team of over 3000. That’s quite awesome, but you need to have a vision. You need to have a roadmap, and more importantly, you need to be able to communicate. For me, that was the major learning. You can’t just tell a vision once. You can’t tell a vision for 30,000 feet and expect that it will go down to every single level. One important thing is making sure that you have different communication channels, and that you communicate differently to different stakeholders so that it touches the heart. For me, that communication is left to right. It basically addresses the needs of people who are doing today’s technical operations, tell them what they’re doing, and how are they setting up a foundation that will lead to the future and the transformation you want to see. Because you cannot ask them to take the jump off the cliff. Now, they don’t want to do that. They want to make sure that they’re safe. I can understand that because I was there once. You must communicate it, so everybody has this great vision. Vision doesn’t drop off the sky. Making the message very specific to different level groups is a major thing that a leader needs to keep in mind.
And to me, the last critical success factor is all about being diverse and inclusive and being equitable. The sharing of different thoughts and opinions. You can only do that when the rubber hits the road. When you go out, you want to see how your vision is being executed. If you have an open environment people will give you feedback, tell you what is doable. What are the challenges, what are the barriers, so that you can make the corrections? But this is only possible if you build an environment where people feel safe to talk and they are recognized for having the courage to tell you the truth. Being diverse, being inclusive is good. And again, sometimes it’s very hard to listen that your brilliant idea is just not working. But you know it in advance so that you don’t know in 24 months, and you can cause correct. Have a vision, communicate. And be patient when you want to drive change on that and create a culture of diversity.
Question 3: Prediction: Do you have a prediction around the core technology and core changes that are happening in the industry that we should all spend more time learning about?
I think everybody knows the biggest topic is Artificial Intelligence. We’re not even at the really innovative stage yet. But already, with this artificial intelligence, we’re at the point of really seeing a lot of challenges. There’s a need for more computing power, there’s a need for speed. So, understanding the trends, and what content computing is going to bring is going to be very important. Most importantly, because decisions are made in a split minute, with the use of AI, bots, and everything. Having a reliable network, having reliable connectivity, that can’t fail. Can you imagine a world without the internet for half a day? I can’t now. I can’t even imagine it. I kind of over imagine walking out from my door, and not having my mobile phone. You know, it’s just so scary on that basis. So, with artificial intelligence and its growth, it also comes with some risks. The whole concept of AI, the faster data processing with great connectivity, comes with some ethical questions. How do you address and really understand that part of it? Because you wouldn’t know in 10 years’ time if the decision that you made with the help of AI might come back and bite you.
And, of course, with the need for more data computing, as I work in an energy company, I’m very worried about climate change. Because the need for more data center that grows at 5x each year means there’s more new global power that needs to be there. And people don’t see that.
Bonus: Is there a certain principle that you live by that you’d like to share as a takeaway for our audience today?
I think as a leader, it took me a while to figure out what it was to be an Asian female technology leader. There are a lot of female energy leaders in the world, but I think the major difference is that I have really adopted an identity because I’m a Malaysian and proud to be a Malaysian. So, it’s hard to actually be adaptable in a global working world and be true to myself and my identity. It may sound like I talk strangely; my sentence construction is different. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not there with the rest of the leaders in the global world. So that is a key learning.
And the second one is, a lot of people ask, what’s your key success factor? I think to me is how do I merge the courage of the West with the tremendous, respectful, and humbleness of the East? You want to be bold, but sometimes it can be conflicting. So, merging the best of the West, which means courage, and also transforming and being very respectful in all your dealings has been one of my critical success factors.
Alisa Choong, SVP and CIO of Information & Digital Services and Operations at Shell to our CXO of the Future Podcast (“The Three Questions” edition). She joined Shell as Executive Vice President of Technical and Competitive IT in August 2015 and was CIO of Projects and Technology since 2018 until she moved to her current position in January 2019, where she’s responsible for end-user strategy for Shell’s employees and contractors globally.
Prior to Shell, Alisa worked for a number of Fortune corporations – PETRONAS, IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, National Bank of Australia, and KPMG.
In her current role as CIO of Projects and Technology, in addition to running a reliable and secure IT operations for the business, her focus is partnering with the senior stakeholders to embed digital into the business strategy, driving pervasive replication to unlock the business value thru a strong IT digital backbone across the global breath where the business has a presence. She is a Malaysian citizen currently on assignment in The Hague, Netherlands.