Work is Personal
Updated: Jun 18
Joanne Goh has a zen about her. Whatever the situation, you sense that you’re in safe hands with Jo. She loves her work, and is always open for a good conversation over coffee.
Jo is ex-Managing Director of gyro Singapore. Here we talk about her journey in advertising and on building a value-driven organisation.
How did you get started in advertising?
By accident. Coming out of school during the ’98 recession, I found a job selling websites for a local design firm. At that time, I had the warped idea, workwear involved court shoes and skirts. (yes, really!) I would often be late for work because I could barely walk in my shoes.
I then joined the content team at Lycos Asia (a search engine and web portal). I was employee number eight or nine and we grew very quickly to 300 in two years across APAC.
When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the company retrenched 90% of its employees in a single day. My boss at the time, Adrian, prior to the retrenchment exercise, made a round of calls and ensured his entire team had new jobs to go to. Most of us were working again within a week. Adrian very much set the mould for what a great leader looked like – always confident enough to acknowledge he didn’t have all the answers and at the same time, ever ready to back his team-up.
I moved on to earth9.com as a product manager where the team was building what might be termed “pre-Facebook” Facebook and online marketing solutions. Being ahead of our time plus a looming dot-com bust was not a good combination. We eventually had to pivot from being a product business into a digital technology agency. It was a struggle to grow the business during that period. We all rolled up our sleeves and did whatever was needed. I took on marketing for the company and eventually went into sales and account management (the nice thing about being in a small agency is, you get comfortable doing everything). I found my niche in account management, I actually really love being a ‘suit’.
After six-and-a-half years in earth9, it was time to explore working at international agencies. Since then, I’ve had the fortune to work at some of advertising’s most notable names from Leo Burnett to Ogilvy and gyro.
Advertising is demanding, with 80 to 100-hour workweeks not being uncommon. How did you stay engaged?
At one of my jobs, they used to call me the office security guard. I would be the first person in the office and the one who switches off and locks up at night.
What kept me going was and is a sense I’m contributing something. Building the business is part of that, but the most satisfying part for me is being able to help and support my team and see them grow.
From chats with friends and interviews with senior candidates, I realised in advertising, a lot of us reach a specific mid-career crisis moment. The signs are a sense of feeling burnt out and disillusionment, a questioning of why we do what we do. Personally, I experienced this low point of at least three to four times in the last ten years.
About a year back, I realised if I didn’t find a deeper purpose, it would be difficult to keep ongoing. I thought deeply about what work meant to me and why I stayed in advertising for so long despite the punishing hours. I came to the conclusion, work makes me happy when it is personal. Personal in the sense, I take pride in doing a job well but also because I’ve had the privilege of being part of some seriously amazing teams or “work families” where we achieved, laughed and cried together. I felt SAFE and part of something where I could be totally myself, whole and comfortable and valued to contribute. I’ve tried to use this perspective to lens what I do and how I lead.
When did you recognise work is personal?
It was a specific episode. Many years ago, I was working on a difficult and growing account. There were multiple projects with hard and crazy deadlines. I was giving one team member a hard time because I felt he wasn’t driving a project like he needed to. What I didn’t know was that he was going through a hard time personally and one day he took his own life. That shook the whole team up badly. Suddenly the deadlines and tasks were not so urgent after all. I was angry and regretful for a while. Had I known he was going through a difficult patch, I would probably still be firm but also supported him differently.
In hindsight, that tragedy was when I first internalised that work HAS to be personal. You take so much of yourself into work. When we hire people, we take the whole person. If we don’t recognize this, we cannot help each other maximise who we are and our contribution.
We MUST create environments for people to thrive in, where the individual is respected, comfortable to contribute and also held accountable to perform – it’s a fine balance. We need to get the people right. That’s why I’m a firm believer of what Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
What’s your favourite interview question?
It used to be “What’s the worst situation you’ve been through?”
Especially for senior candidates, when I ask this question, I’m looking for situations where you’ve shed blood and have wounds. This question I recently read about would probably work equally well, “What is your greatest fear?” This is deeper than asking about weakness and would help uncover primary motivations.
What are you up to now?
Earlier this year, I decided to quit. In nearly 18 years of work, I had not taken more than a week off between jobs. I had never taken time out to reflect and recharge. I was certain if I continued the way I did, I might accidentally kill myself in the next few years through a combination of work stress and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.
Since stepping out of gyro end of May, I’ve been trying to get simple things right (eat and sleep properly) and travelling. Being un-busy was more difficult than I thought! But it’s been a vital period to just REST and re-charge. It dawned on me, there’s a huge difference between doing and creating and I’m hoping to have a balance of both in the next phase of my work life. I start a new role in content strategy in October and am concurrently building a training and content platform to help specifically communications professionals to find more joy and purpose at work.
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