14 Jul 2015 12:00:00 AM

Datin Teh Geok Lian

Interview with Datin Teh Geok Lian, CEO-Education Group, Paramount Corporation

After an 11 year career break and four grown children, Datin Teh found herself returning to the workforce where she quickly rose in the ranks to become CEO of KDU Education Group, which spans across the education spectrum from primary to tertiary education.

Leaving the workforce

Datin Teh’s career started a month after her graduation from Yale with an Engineering degree, where she joined Esso as a fresh graduate. Within two years she had her first child and within seven years had four children all under the age of 8.

The oil and gas industry was fast growing and dynamic at that point and although Datin Teh enjoyed her analytical job, she soon felt that it was getting too much to handle.

“At one point I was rushing back to my kids and ended up being stuck in a jam for approximately 4 hours in the commute from KL to PJ”. She recounts that she also felt that she was missing out on her children’s growth period. “They always had questions for me, but I had no time to be around to answer them. There was no google back then!” As a result, she left her position as a Senior Engineer in Esso, 10 years after she first began her career.

Reigniting the Spark

Datin Teh became a full time housewife and was involved in her children’s extracurricular activities-her daughters played badminton at state and national level from a young age- and would follow them around the country as competitions required them to travel. “Before I knew it, so many years had passed and by then I did not think I would ever return to work. The thought of rejection was an immediate turnoff for me to even try applying.”

When her eldest child entered Yale (her alma mater), this proved to be a reflection point for Datin Teh. She recounted memories of ambitions that she had when she was at his age.

Strong encouragement from her family finally pushed her to start seriously considering looking to have a ‘second career’.

There was a moment where I was weeding the garden, passing the time before picking up my children from school, and I asked myself, “what would I be doing this time next week?” The realisation that I would be doing the same activity of weeding the garden actually terrified me.

Datin Teh Geok Lian

Reconnecting with the Workplace

Now having explored the idea of returning to the workforce, Datin Teh realised that she would likely be unable to gain much traction in returning to the Oil and Gas industry where her skillsets were completely outdated. “I had to be realistic about where in the workforce I would be returning to.” She had been doing interviews for prospective Yale applicants for a while after leaving the work force and felt that this could act as a potential avenue for her re-entry back into the workforce. Most of all, she knew she wanted to do something meaningful and found her interest in Education, especially after many years of experience as a customer.

At that point her friend had passed her CV on to the Group CEO of Paramount Bhd whose personal passion was in the education field. After the interview, he offered her the position as his Special Assistant with relation to education. This role expanded quickly to her appointment as CEO of Sri KDU School which had been lacking a head before she took the helm. She was subsequently appointed CEO of the Education division of Paramount group, where she now leads the education entities comprising of KDU University College(KDUUC), KDU College Penang (KDU PG) and the primary and secondary schools (KDUSS).

Advice for Returnees

Datin Teh lives by the principle “Think with the mind of a business person, but feel with the heart of a parent.” For women who are facing the challenge of being out of the workforce for a significant amount of time, she says, “You may not be current, but you are still relevant. Even though your experiences in work might be outdated, that does not mean the skills that you learn outside of a job are not relevant, these are the skills that you need to do well in any job anyway, so leverage upon it.” She lightheartedly relates that she learnt people management skills as a parent, where the only difference is “with kids, there is no year-end appraisal.”

She credits Paramount’s Group CEO (Dato Teo) as someone who she owes these opportunities to as he personally took the time and interest in her application and ultimately gave her the chance to prove herself in her career again.

Re-entering the workforce after 11 years was no easy task, but she encourages women to take on tasks head on, citing her experience of missing the PC revolution resulting in her not even knowing what Powerpoint stood for, and having to relearn all these skills on the job. Being away from the workforce for such an extended period actually made her feel more refreshed as compared to the point where she had left off with her previous job and she dived straight into the tasks at hand with far more interest and enjoyment.