Bastion Insights’ Isabel Zhang was invited to present at Infinity Elite Club’s ‘Asian Women in Leadership: Breaking Through Barriers’ to share her experiences as a female leader in business. Below, Isabel discusses further what’s shaped her into the leader she is today.
What does it mean to be a ‘good leader’?
There are a lot of people managers out there, but they’re not necessarily all good leaders. I like to think that managing is a role that’s given, and being a leader is earnt. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your position is – a global CEO or a junior team member – anyone can lead.
I am a true believer of ‘leading comes from within’. A leader elevates, motivates and brings out the best in people. I’m not sure I see myself as a leader but try my best to support, and bring positive impact to the people around me in this way.
How has your career shaped you into a leader?
Moving across countries, from China to Malaysia to Singapore to Australia, my cross-country career path and personal upbringing has shaped my passion and what I do now. I feel extremely privileged to work with different cultural diversified communities in Australia (and beyond) and be an advocate of cultural understanding in the business context.
However, I found the initial transition difficult – Australia is a melting pot of all different cultures and yet, it is not as diversified as it should be. Australia felt a little insulated at times – how could I use my skills?
I had to work harder and constantly felt I had to prove myself. I often questioned – what would people notice first? My age, culture or gender? But one thing for sure, it was rarely my experience or knowledge. I had to try harder to be noticed and taken seriously. It’s important to find a balance of proving yourself to others, but still staying true to yourself.
At Bastion Collective, I often work closely with different parts of the business; for example, the Bastion China team. I can certainly resonate with the young team, having been both an immigrant and graduate myself. I understand their struggles and the assumptions and misunderstandings they sometimes experience from their Australian colleagues.
Bastion Insights is a flat company, with no hierarchy and no job too big or small for any team member. This structure is so new to a lot of Asians, Chinese in particular. We are taught to stay humble, polite, and not to trust or share your true thoughts to people that you are not close to.
To succeed in the workplace you have to learn to use your voice and challenge ideas constructively. I am a bit of ‘wild horse’ as I’ve always had a very unusual upbring and now I try to teach people from both sides of fences to overcome these deeply ingrained cultural learnings – I am proud to be that ‘bridge’.
Who has inspired or led you?
I grew up in army camps. My father was a General in the military for 35 years and worked 10 years in a commercial financial institution. My childhood was intense; we’d travel a lot and he was very strict. But he’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. He could fight in wars and lead, but at the same time, he would write beautiful literacies, poems, calligraphy, taught himself English in the 1970s. He has never stopped learning and trying to better himself. I grew up watching him earn respect from everyone around him in both military and commercial sectors. We don’t always get along, perhaps because we’re so similar (both very stubborn!) but I’ve always respected him. I don’t define my life by his success, but his integrity and resilience has certainly helped shape my values.
What drives you to be a good leader?
Having seen so much inequality all over the world, I want to stand up for anything unfair. That’s one of the things that I love about Australia, the ‘everyone has a fair go’ attitude. Of course, there’s still a lot of imbalance here, but that kind of attitude makes Australia feels like home.
Cross-Cultural Insights and the work we’re doing here at Bastion Insights isn’t just about Chinese Australians. It’s about understanding all the different cultures that Australia houses. As I continue to learn about our differences I grow more curious about people and their cultures. What connects us? How can I help remove the barriers? The need to understand drives me everyday both professionally and personally. I want to connect people through their differences, after all, we are more similar than we think!
What does success look like to you?
Sleeping in peace. Having good and healthy relationships with friends and loved ones. Inspiring others. Contributing back to my community.
This interview has been edited and condensed.