As a talent strategist, Elaine Yew’s job is to “work with companies to find great senior leaders and develop them individually and as a team”. If she makes it sound cushy, well, it’s not.
What the senior partner at Egon Zehnder actually does, is advise companies on CEO and C-suite succession planning and development, and guide them on board effectiveness and organisational culture. And if this sounds complex, it’s simply because, as she says, “people are very complex”.
Several traits are essential to excelling in Yew’s field, beginning with the ability to know the type of leadership an organisation requires and being able to assess where a leader needs to grow in order to become better. A constant appetite for learning helps as does a confident personality to engage others and easily put them at ease.
With Covid-19, Yew, who’s also global co-head of leadership advisory practice at Egon Zehnder, says her job has become more interesting. “Leadership during normal circumstances is like canoeing during high tide — you don’t see the rocks below the water and cruise along,” she explains.
“When a crisis hits, however, it’s like low tide and rocks become exposed. To avoid hitting those rocks, one must be adept at judgement. It is during these times that you see how leaders excel — or crumble.”
Indeed, crises require leaders to become even stronger. They must fight the battle on many fronts, from calming others down to fixing problems, all while knowing that circumstances can change and trying to figure out the longer-term game plan.
“As unpredictability increases, so does complexity,” she points out. “A leader needs to be clear-minded and be open to experimentation in order to steer the ship through uncertainty well.”
Yew, who’s part of the 30,000-strong YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) leadership community, didn’t set out to be a talent strategist. She attributes it to serendipity and the opportunities she took as they came her way.
From her time with the Economic Development Board where she helped companies venture into Indochina, to Monitor where she worked with clients throughout Europe on their organisation strategies, and Goldman Sachs where she put theory into practice, each step prepared her for the next.
Oh, and Yew studied Theatre at the University of Kent in the UK. “That’s the rebel part,” she says, then breaks out into laughter. “When I was growing up, students with the grades would do Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.”
“But I loved reading and writing and became interested in theatre. I had no idea then what I wanted to do with what I learnt. I didn’t think I’d necessarily want to eventually work in theatre. I’d figure that out afterwards.”
Her folks were supportive. “My father — he taught at the university and worked in the civil service before taking over the family trading business — encouraged me to pursue my passions,” Yew says. “My mother, who’s a pharmacist, was more pragmatic. She said, well, I could always go into teaching.”