Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Joo-Lee Aw

January 16, 2023 Share this article:

Joo-Lee Aw

This week we feature ardent naturalist, aspiring musician and intrepid traveller Joo-Lee Aw, founder of The People at Work, our partner in Singapore and China.

What was your childhood career dream?

I grew up in Kuching, a small town in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, an area of outstanding natural beauty with 80% of its geography devoted to primary jungle. Being near nature, close to mountains, streams and thick jungle, is an integral part of who and what I am. Growing up, I was an avid reader of books by Joy Adamson (Born Free) and Gerald Durrell (My Family & Other Animals) and loved David Attenborough, so I always thought I would be doing something that involved animals.

Did you do that?

[Laughs] Not at all. I went to Singapore for my pre-university and originally contemplated a career as a biochemist. Eventually, I completed my business studies in the US, where I got my MSc in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BSc in Marketing & Management from the University of Oregon.

What was your first job?

I started out in advertising as an account executive at the global ad agency Leo Burnett and then at KFC and Citibank before adding sales and business development to my resume at Radio Corporation of Singapore (now Mediacorp) and then at Dow Jones International. Deep inside, I knew that one day, I would step out of the corporate world to run my own company.

How did you get into Executive Search?

Even now, I would never have imagined a career in executive search. In 1998, I was persuaded to join a small search firm on the basis that I would learn new things and get huge exposure to industries and people who would be totally new to me. By 2000, a French client I was close to asked me to help them find talent across Asia as they were busy building out their Asia Pacific leadership team. They asked me to set up a company, so I founded The People at Work, and here I am two decades later.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I love helping people realise their potential and seeing themselves and their careers from a different perspective. How and why people think or behave the way they do and what motivates them intrigues me, and I have learnt a lot from their life stories. I also get huge satisfaction from helping clients resolve organisational and business issues, looking at how talent and business go together. The more complex, the more interesting!

What was the best piece of career advice you ever got?

In my early career, I was lucky to meet a boss and mentor who entrusted me with projects and responsibilities which stretched me. He taught me how to work effectively by learning to prioritise the things that matter. Sadly, he passed away at the peak of his career. Whenever things get particularly hectic, I centre myself by thinking through how he would have advised me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

If something is worth doing, then do it very well. Don’t take half-measures. Follow your passion and your heart!

Is there any search assignment that really sticks out for you?

There is one encounter which I remember clearly, during a period of recession. A gentleman came to my office, thankful for a chance to have an interview after being rejected by over 50 companies. He had been retrenched, yet every day he dressed up as if to go to work, not wanting to alarm his family that he was jobless. My meeting with him was the highlight of his day. Up till now, I remind myself that helping people can be as simple as lending a sympathetic ear and being there for someone who needed a kind word.

How do you relax and unwind?

I love nature, the outdoors and music—all in equal measure! I’ve trekked in Malaysia, Nepal, Japan and the USA and would love to plan many, many more hikes to interesting places where nature is untouched. I also recently joined a jazz-funk band, though I am in serious need of more practice! It is still my ambition to set up or join some group involved in wildlife rescue or conservation, which would give me enormous satisfaction.