Conversations with Ji Ching Tang

By Brandon Loy and Daniel Chua

Ji Ching Tang is a transformation leader with a passion for building and transforming enduring brands. She spent a decade in Unilever across different functions, brands, in the region before finally heading the digital strategy for the Unilever B2B Foods category to empower half a million chefs around SEA. She was most recently the Head of Transformation and Growth for Eu Yan Sang, a 142 year old heritage traditional chinese medicine brand where she has been spearheading the company’s pivot from a regional TCM leader into a global natural health and wellness leader. In this interview, she shares more about the highlights and challenges as ‘chief troublemaker’ across different types of organisations, and also offers tips for people interested in getting into the challenging but exciting field of transformation. 

* This interview was conducted in May 2021 and Ji Ching has since moved on to new pursuits. 

Informally, I think of myself as the chief troublemaker. Transformation occurs when there is discomfort in the present as it provides an impetus to change. In a way, I make people experience discomfort in the present, so that they can be more comfortable in the future.

From a business perspective, it is about driving customer centricity, being the voice of the customer. Based on that, my job requires me to decide what are the right customer journeys or business strategies that can be taken to serve them better and to improve our value proposition. In a nutshell, it is essentially about ensuring that the organisation remains future-fit, especially given the dynamic world we live in.

I start the day with an espresso and a 30-minute mutual coaching conversation with my husband!. As we are both in transformation-type roles, we bounce ideas off each other and walk through what the challenges of the day might be. This conversation is very grounding and is key for me. 

After that, my day is filled with back to back meetings, business reviews and project meetings with cross-functional teams as we work with different teams to bring projects together. We give progress updates to the CEO and to the board as well. Essentially, a typical workday of mine often revolves around meeting people, getting ideas together and understanding the different challenges. After the whole slew of meetings, I will then be ready to start working on some of the things that have been talked about.  

I would try to set aside two hours in a week as ‘thinking time’ for myself.  This is when I get a chance to take a strategic pause, balance activities against the larger agenda, or read up on a new topic or trend that I want to learn more about.  In a role like this, it is too easy to get caught up in busywork that comes with coordinating across multiple initiatives and interests, yet a key part of the job is being able to keep the strategic line of sight while keeping a pulse on both the business and external trends. Hence, I find it useful to consciously plan in thinking/learning time so that such non-urgent, but business critical work gets done.  

I never meant to. I accidentally moved into a transformation role when I first joined Unilever as a management trainee. I was in a couple of sales and marketing roles in the first seven years of my career across different teams in global, regional and local markets. 

It just so happened that after returning back to Singapore after I was based in Myanmar as the head of marketing, I began looking at the roles Unilever had in Singapore at that time and saw an opportunity to drive digital strategy for Southeast Asia for the Unilever food solutions business. The technology role was something that I have never done before, and I decided to take up the opportunity as I saw it as a great way for me to expand my skill sets. 

After going into that role, I realised that I really enjoyed being the bridge between business and technology. It also gradually became something that I continue to try and do. Looking back, I would think that my journey into what I am doing now was accidental and never planned. This is also the approach that I have taken throughout my career.

To me, it is about gaining an understanding of our core values and what is of importance to us. In a transformation role where things are changing so rapidly, it is important to have our values to keep us anchored. 

Moreover, given how there are so many new ideas, moral challenges, transitions and things that are happening in today’s business world, I think this soft skill does not apply solely to transformation too. In today’s world, people can get really caught up in the white noise, so it is important for us to know what we stand for at the end of the day. For me, I love and believe in the power of clarity as it helps galvanise and inspire people. I find it helpful to clarify something as it grounds me when things become complicated and messy. 

I also believe in the power of empowering everyone to do something. If there is a way for us to unlock each other’s strengths and know how to use them, then we will see the magic happen. From my job, I have gradually learnt how to work with different people. This is a very critical skill as it teaches us how to bring out the best in every person and allow them to arrive at a certain outcome. That is a key soft skill that I apply no matter where I am.

Having joined Unilever as a management trainee, I went through a short, intense six months to one-year stints aimed at preparing me for my work in the company. During the training, I was expected to deliver things quickly, which trained my adversity quotient. Going into the deep end so early trained me to quickly make sense of a given situation, understand who the stakeholders involved are and put myself in a position to deliver value. 

For example, when I was in charge of the central kitchen strategy for Unilever in Singapore, I had to find ways to influence the members of my task force to drive a common outcome. It was a challenge for me as many of them were more senior than me. Another point for me was working in different countries. Having worked in Jakarta and Yangon, the experience was so different for me as I got to work with people within the country and gain exposure to different cultural frameworks. It is important that young people cultivate a more international mindset through appreciating different cultures.

I don’t think there is necessarily a fixed career path for people to end up in transformation roles. In fact great transformation people I’ve seen are swiss army knife types who may have an area of deep expertise, but also, critically, enough range of experiences across commercial and technical functions. The more ‘convoluted’ your path, probably the more ‘qualified’ you will be as you will find it easier to bridge multiple functional perspectives, which is what transformation is all about. But whatever it is, you will definitely need to be an expert in learning, have a passion for bringing people together collaboratively, and possess the solid inner game needed to be comfortable with doing the unpopular but right thing. 

At the end of the day, what I think is important is not the digital technology itself, but what unique value we as a business can offer to our customers. Once the business model is clear, technology can then be introduced to the equation. 

What a brand cannot outsource, however, are the brand strategy and customer value. These are the most important parts of a business while the rest are merely tools. For instance, when we look at Eu Yan Sang, a brand that has been around for 140 years, the interesting part about digital transformation is that it is going in an omnichannel direction. For example, the company has moved from one with just brick and mortar stores to one with online channels and marketplaces. These new elements change the relationship between the brand and the consumer, thus leading to a lot more innovation in terms of how brands are rethinking their retail store space.

I think one of them was my task to set up the market in Myanmar for the Indo-China region. This was the first of my extended stint outside of Singapore and also my first supervisory role. It was an exhilarating experience as there were a lot of differences in culture and working environments that I had to adapt to. After one and a half years, we managed to double our business. The high point for me was when I was able to set up the team, define the marketing strategy, and set up partnerships with private and public organisations. However, I think the most rewarding part of the work was where I fell in love with building teams, meeting people and coaching people. I think being able to see the people in my team grow made me fall in love with leading teams. This made me realise that no matter the role that I take up in the future, this was going to be the core of it. 

Another highlight of my career was being able to drive the growth strategy for food solutions in Southeast Asia. I really enjoyed working with the movers and shakers of the technology industry, and also had the opportunity to work with both Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and startups. For example, we worked with Grab Kitchen to make it easier for their vendors to respond to trends. Our role at Unilever was to allow the vendors to come up with new menus more simply. For me, that was really fun as we could work with startups while thinking from the perspectives of MNCs at the same time. 

Leading transformation at Eu Yan Sang is definitely another high point. I have always wanted a chance to apply the skills that I’ve learnt in building great brands back at Unilever to help regional brands that are so much a part of our social-cultural fabric. And what a journey it was! As the youngest person on the leadership team there were a lot of cross-generational nuances, and ways of working that I needed to learn and unlearn, sometimes the hard way. Embracing diversity while finding common ground was key, and I worked with different business units to help shape a collective transformation vision for the company despite the local operational differences. To do this, we went back to the founding vision of caring for mankind, interpreted it in today’s terms as making tcm accessible for all. This allowed us to see the need to pivot from a regional TCM leader, into a global natural Health & Wellness leader, based on TCM wisdom. 

Against that strategy, we refreshed the brand and portfolio in HK to be more relevant in daily wellness moments, opened our first integrative clinic in Singapore that combines the best of east and west, and ramped up our omnichannel strategies in both core and new markets to expand our reach to younger consumers. TCM education is a marathon and not a sprint, and for an enduring brand like EYS, accessible content is key. We also put into the pipeline a new digital product that will allow Eu Yan Sang to better speak the language of non-TCM consumers, to help the brand continue to be the torchbearer for the TCM industry, in a modern way.       

I am very bad at setting specific plans for my career. Most of my career moves in the past were unplanned and are basically the result of me saying ‘yes’ to opportunities that come along. I have a litmus test for new opportunity 1. Does it present new, relevant learning opportunities? 2. Does the job scare me? If the answers are yes, I would likely go for it. Things happen on a very accelerated timescale nowadays, so it’s hard to say where I will be in the next 5-10 years. I do know for sure though, that I want to continue to inspire greater businesses, brands and teams, so fully expect the ‘troublemaking’ to continue!