Miao Song is the Global Chief Information Officer at Mars Petcare. She is a creative, senior global CIO with more than 20 years’ international experience in IT operations, application support, infrastructure support, strategy and planning, IT management and consulting, including overseas experience working in China, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore, Belgium etc.
If we start at the beginning, why did you choose a degree in Information Management?
30 years ago, in high school, I fell in love with the school’s first early model Apple computer and I was hooked. I later applied to Peking University to study Information Management rather than Computer Science and was one of two girls among 200 people on the course. I loved it. It was important for me to pursue my passion rather than something that might get me a better perceived job or something that people thought I should do instead. There was still the bias back then that women couldn’t do subjects like science or engineering, which of course, is nonsense. Growing up in an environment where both my parents worked (my mother was a doctor who had to work incredibly hard to pursue her dream), I knew anything was possible.
After graduating, you joined Nestlé in China?
Yes. My first official job was working as a software developer for a few months, and I was proud to be the first local IT hire for Nestlé in China. Previously, they had imported talent from Hong Kong, Singapore and even Switzerland to China, but it was always challenging because of the language barrier. I got the opportunity, and worked incredibly hard, studying at the same time to gain my various certifications while I was in the job. I nearly didn’t take the job – all of my classmates were going to Ivy League schools in the US to do their Masters’ Degrees, which was a popular route to take at that time, but I changed my mind and decided I wanted to start my career journey to being a CIO, which actually happened later when I moved from Nestlé to Shell.
What were some of the challenges you faced in that transition into leadership?
At Nestlé, I managed a very small team; we all sat in the same office, which made it easy to communicate. At Shell China, it was very different. I had to adjust my leadership style to be effective because my team were from different backgrounds and geographies. Shell also wanted to develop its international leaders at the time, so I was given an opportunity to rotate my job into the Netherlands where I switched my office environment for a manufacturing one and had to change my leadership style again for a new culture, learning a new language. In manufacturing, there were very few women then, and I was the only Asian woman in 3,000 people on the site and in the leadership team of 15 to 20. It was a challenge, but I got some valuable exposure to new things there and became a much stronger leader, and learnt how to better be my true self. Not many organisations intentionally rotate international leaders like Shell did, so it was an excellent learning experience for me, which I really appreciate now.
And then you moved to Singapore?
Yes, at the end of 2009, they asked me if I wanted to take a new leadership job back in Asia, and as a family we decided to take the opportunity and go for it. As a global strategy position, it can be quite demanding because of the compromise you have to make to speak with people across different time zones while based in Singapore. I had to organise my life flexibly so that I could manage my health and wellbeing while working late, luckily, the organisation was supportive of my schedule. The role gave me excellent exposure to the business, as well as a chance to reflect on where I was at. I had a colleague in Argentina, who I had never met, decided to leave to set up her own business and be her true self. It really made me think about who I wanted to be. I realised that I wanted to be a truly authentic leader rather than someone in the boardroom ordering people around, and that I would only choose to work for organisations where I really wanted to go, or where I could be my true self.
What's been your experience of diversity and inclusion in the different regions you've worked in?
Different locations and organisations tackle it very differently. It can’t just be the icing on the cake, it has to be in the culture of a business. A more diverse and inclusive culture is more innovative and performs better. I think Shell do it very well around the world, and they are in some tough places too. When I was at J&J, I ran a Women in Leadership programme for Asia Pacific, trying to empower female leaders in the tech space because the numbers were lower than we would have liked, and I realised there were definitely problems and challenges depending on location. In China and Singapore, for example, there is a lot of social support so that women can work. But in Japan, it’s not the same, the social support isn’t there. Women almost have to choose between a career or family, and the needle hasn’t really moved over the years. Compare that to my experience in Europe where I had a Swedish team member who was able to take a year off as parental leave, because the policies there enable women to continue their careers. I’ve gotten a lot of comments myself about my husband’s childcare role, which have been disappointing, but fortunately I have a thick skin and they don’t worry me. We worked out a situation that was right for our family that enabled me to prioritise work. When there is a conflict in the work/life balance, it’s very important to have the right support system around you, so we used a variety of after-school care options too, to make it work for us. In the long term, it meant that my daughter grew up strong because she was able to be independent and the whole international experience also shaped her.
What attributes are the things that you're most proud of in your career?
The first would be to make bold decisions. For example, I moved overseas without any hesitation and took that opportunity, I also moved from an office environment to a challenging manufacturing site. Secondly, I’m proud of my ability to work hard. I will always go the extra mile to achieve what I want, like learning Dutch when I didn’t really need to because there were so many ex-pats. Those two things really make me feel like my true self.
How have you overcome the challenges in your career?
There have been plenty of tough moments when I’ve felt nervous or misunderstood, or when my efforts haven’t been recognised. When I reflect on those times to see if I was happy with what I did and remained authentic, I wouldn’t take the responses too seriously. If you take everything like that seriously, you’d be stuck, and if you’re stuck, it’s time to move on. I don’t believe that we need to be stuck in one role for our whole career, there are always other options and opportunities where we can be ourselves and continue our careers.
As a leader, what do you do to foster a diverse and inclusive environment?
My company has excellent programmes and strategies around creating a diversified workforce and being more inclusive in our culture, but the one thing that I found very helpful was when I learned about unconscious bias at J&J. I’ve since had unconscious bias training at Mars Petcare too, and it’s really important. In my own team, I try to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. You can have a diverse team on the surface, but you need to listen to people to make them feel included. It’s not just about the hiring, it’s about then taking it to the next stage and listening to people’s opinions and not judging them. Listen and learn, is my advice.
What advice would you give to women starting out in their tech careers who might want to reach CIO one day?
I would say don’t be scared. There is clearly a challenge for women in tech or STEM-related roles, because the stats show us that even though girls may be interested at a young age, as you move up within an organisation, the number of women drops. Something happens in the middle of their careers and they’re not able to break the glass ceiling and the numbers decrease. If you love it, don’t be scared and don’t give up, also don’t let what others say or even your family situation stand in your way. Secondly, don’t stop learning. Learning agility is really important in tech and you can never stop. You need to take courses, read and learn all the time, otherwise you lose the essence of being a technology person. So many people give up learning because they don’t have the bandwidth to continue, and then they are forever lagging behind.
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