With more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry, Claribel Chai, Country Manager, Singapore, Palo Alto Networks, is determined to help meet the security needs of organisations across industry verticals, alongside being a self-confessed foodie in her free time.

In an interview with HRO's Priya Sunil, Chai talks about:

  • Why effective leadership goes beyond just focusing on the numbers,
  • Requirements for fostering a healthy and inclusive work culture, and
  • The work to be done in making a tech sector more diverse & inclusive.

Q You bring with you extensive experience in IT, cybersecurity, and driving business growth. How has this experience shaped the leader you are today?

Effective leadership goes beyond just focusing on the numbers. My experience has taught me that a people-centered approach to leadership can help build happier and more productive teams. It’s a no-brainer; when employees feel appreciated, it puts them in a better position to do their best work.

Caring for your team shows in the small things, like making the effort to celebrate work milestones and birthdays. Having virtual team bonding sessions can also help employees to stay connected with one another.

Especially while we’re in the middle of a pandemic, these gestures can go a long way in helping to boost team morale and making employees feel seen and valued.

Q What are some meaningful lessons you've taken over the course of your career?

Fostering a healthy and inclusive work culture requires a fundamental mindset shift. It is built on mutual respect and understanding for each of our roles in the business. Without that foundation, it is difficult to build a safe environment for employees to build connections, network, and learn.

Taking care of our employees is also essential for the health of the business. We’ve all heard of pandemic-induced burnout. More so than ever, it has become essential for organisations to prioritise the mental well-being of employees and implement initiatives such as flexible working arrangements to facilitate better work-life balance.

Q The tech industry is far from achieving gender parity in the workforce, with the pandemic adding nearly three decades to the amount of time before this is reached. And the problem runs deeper in the cybersecurity scene. Why is this so, and how are you as a business leader tackling this issue in the industry, starting with your workforce?

We’ve seen the tech industry evolve rapidly over the years, with marked progress towards a more inclusive workforce. However, there is more work to be done. Leveling the playing field requires ongoing commitment and not just one-off initiatives. As a leader with the opportunity to build and nurture teams, I am working every day to ensure that competency is fairly recognised and rewarded, regardless of gender.

My personal motto is ‘do what is right’, which extends from the smallest day-to-day interactions to the toughest business negotiations.

I believe that these small steps can create an inclusive work culture that empowers women to grow, and eventually take on more leadership roles in a traditionally male-dominated field like cybersecurity.

I’m proud to be working with an organisation that recognises this and is focusing on building a community where all employees can thrive. Our inclusion initiatives, such as the FLEXWORK programme, also provide the flexibility for employees to balance their needs at work with their needs at home.

Q How closely do you work with your HR head on tackling these?

We work closely with our HR leaders to improve our internal approaches by seeing it as an ongoing process and taking an inside-out look. This also includes building initiatives that foster a culture where our employees can strive to do their best every day. When you have a strong work culture, it translates to better and more authentic interactions and engagements with our customers, partners, family, and friends.

At Palo Alto Networks, leaders regularly organise small group coffee sessions to touch base with employees on the ground. While travelling restrictions have made it trickier to connect in person with some of our colleagues in other regions, we do make it a point to recreate these sessions as best as we can virtually.

Communities such as employee-developed network groups (ENGs) are another way to empower our people to have open and transparent conversations, and to support each other to do their best personally and professionally. The Women’s Employee Network Group, for example, conducts Lean In Circles, where women get to share and learn from each other regarding their professional goals. We also hold sharing sessions where women in leadership positions get to connect with those looking for role models, and guide them in achieving their career goals.

Q In your view, how have I&D and hiring practices evolved over time in the industry?

An inclusive and diverse culture is important to us and vital to the continued growth of our company. I am a firm believer in welcoming people from all backgrounds. While recruiters in the cybersecurity industry often tend to hire based on certifications, technical skills, or educational qualifications, this is slowly changing. We are starting to see more inclusive hiring practices that also factor in qualities such as leadership and interpersonal skills when evaluating candidates.

As an equal-opportunity employer, we have implemented initiatives such as the LEAP programme to attract and build a pipeline of talent. Targeted at early-in-career professionals, the programme is designed to equip candidates with essential knowledge and skills that will set them up for a successful career in cybersecurity. At Palo Alto Networks, we also practise such skills-based hiring, where we look at competency and aptitude rather than focusing on paper qualifications alone. Expanding the talent pool also brings in fresh perspectives, expertise, and problem-solving skills to the table.

Q What advice do you have for young people looking to start a career in the cybersecurity and tech industries?

It is an exciting, fast-paced industry that is constantly evolving. It might be daunting for those who might not have the necessary skills, but I encourage anyone interested in the challenge to take a leap of faith. The roles in cybersecurity and tech are not all technical, there are other jobs such as customer success and customer advocacy that are equally important for business growth.

Keep an open mind, always ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak up when you have ideas and solutions.


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