A woman breaking the glass ceiling in this day and age might not exactly be novel, but Nicole Tan’s accomplishments are surely impressive. Last year, she was appointed president and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Region for Shiseido Company, which aside from its namesake brand, also includes well-loved skincare and makeup brands such as Drunk Elephant, Cle de Peau Beaute, Nars and Laura Mercier. She is the first regional female chief executive in the organisation’s 149-year history.

And if you’re wondering, the 45-year-old started from the bottom. When looking for a job in the beauty industry some 20 years ago, she began by sending out physical copies of her resume to companies via registered mail – our version of cold e-mails, but with a lot more effort. She landed an entry-level position at a beauty conglomerate, but soon learnt that, contrary to the ads put out, the work behind-the-scenes was hardly ever glamorous.

“People do not realise that you have to work your way up. I remember the days when I was alone in the office packing 200 gift bags by myself. That’s where you start,” she says.

In the real world, our ability to think on our feet and solve problems also have a direct impact on how good we are at our jobs. And critical problem-solving is one of the many skills that Nicole brings to the table.

Tackling challenges

“I realised that I often joined businesses when they were very challenged. In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, I became the head of three brands, but that was when the Korean beauty market tanked. I had to find money to pay the beauty advisers and justify to retailers why they should continue supporting us. It really was about coming up with innovative ways to circumvent the issues,” she says.

Anticipating trends and convincing company stakeholders to fall in line have been some of the other challenges. “Eight years ago, we had to convince foreign beauty companies that BB cream could become the next big thing. It eventually did, but getting there was tough,” she explains. “Even though every beauty brand – whether American, European or Japanese – now has a compact cushion, it was essentially a Korean phenomenon. Convincing senior leaders to adopt and understand some of these trends takes effort, time, perseverance and true belief. There was a lot of number-crunching and regional specific justifications required.

“The industry is very dynamic, and there is always a lot of change. For example, because we now have to wear masks, lip makeup is no longer a focus. Instead, it’s eye makeup, transfer-proof foundation and skincare. It is this dynamism of the industry that has kept me excited,” adds Nicole.

When she took up her role at Shiseido Company last October, she pretty much stepped up to the plate during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. She knew what she was signing up for and, if anything, it is exactly her love for overcoming challenges that keeps her going.

She also loves how the industry is evolving to cater to needs across the spectrum and towards more inclusive thinking. To that end, one of the initiatives Shiseido is currently working on is “Braille nail”, or nail art for the blind. Embedded with artificial intelligence technology and paired with a device that the consumer wears on their body, it can allow them to read the environment they are in.

Shiseido is also known for its Quality Life Center, where those suffering from skin conditions such as vitiligo, pigmentation or discoloration brought about by chemotherapy treatment or childbirth, for example, can receive consultations and recommendations for a special range of makeup products to address their needs.

Doing what it takes

“I never, ever take ‘no’ for an answer at face value. I will keep going back to try until I get the closest semblance to a ‘yes’,” says Nicole.

“I tend to develop a clear vision, but I will not micromanage. I will not tell an employee how to get the job done – I empower them to work on it themselves. I always start from a position of trust, and then align with them to move towards a certain direction. I am demanding, but I am also fair and reasonable.”

Her tenacity and clarity in vision have surely held her in good stead in her climb up the corporate ladder. Add to that, she’s had the fortune of being judged by her merits throughout her career.

“I’ve had bosses that were fair enough to look at the work that I do, and not whether I’m a man or woman. That has been quite important,” she says.

Being a leader who empowers her team and helps them discover their strengths is high on Nicole’s agenda. “As the boss, you cannot think that you know everything – it is important to have the humility to understand that people bring different things to the table,” she says.

“Success is 99 per cent perspiration and one percent inspiration. I think a leader should help people spark the one per cent to make their reasons for the 99 per cent worthwhile. A leader should help their team members find their reasons, and everyone’s reason can be different.”

Set up for success

Leaning into her own strengths have also held her in good stead. “When I first started being a leader, a lot of people said to me, ‘You can’t be too emotional. You need to isolate yourself’. But that’s not true. Having and showing empathy allows a leader to show the human side of yourself. This sense of humanity and being ‘relatable’ provides a leverage to help you connect better with your teams,” she says.

“Women tend to be more collaborative and have more empathy. We are more willing to build relationships, which is a huge advantage. Sometimes, subordinates just need you to understand the difficulties they are going through, and that there are factors beyond their control. When you show understanding, they are more okay working because they know, ‘You are not going to blame everything on me when something doesn’t work out’.”

It helps that she absolutely loves her industry – passion for what you do and your career, according to Nicole, is a stepping stone for success.

“I started my career by looking for an area I love. Going into the beauty industry was intuitive to me as I’ve always gravitated towards it since I was a child. We all have such long roads ahead in our careers, so it’s important to do what you love, and love what you do.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Tan Wei Te
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng
HAIR Ken Chong/Maison Salon, using Shiseido Professional
MAKEUP Julyen Loo, using Nars