Cecelia Zhou, Vice President and General Manager, Trauson at Stryker, was born in China and moved to the United States with her family during her high school years. She relocated to China and Singapore 10 years ago. She has become an experienced leader in the Asia Pacific region and has demonstrated her professional skills in healthcare, M&A, entrepreneurship, venture capital and commercial strategy, working in the life science, medical device and FMCG industries. She joined Stryker six years ago and in 2018 was promoted to her current position as Vice President and General Manager.
RW: You are a recognised M&A expert and have gained international exposure across different disciplines. What have been your initial challenges and what has been your proudest moment?
One of the great challenges has been my recent transition from an operational M&A role to be a VP and GM of a newly acquired business, something that requires a lot of groundwork and management. When I was first offered this opportunity, I knew I had the skill sets to succeed, but wasn’t totally confident about taking it, as it was something I had not done before.
In the first two months I had to balance many different aspects of what was a newly acquired business, from profit margin to cultural fit, and not to mention the fact my team grew from just a few people to more than a thousand.
I remember giving a speech at an annual dinner back in 2018: the floor was silent, and I could see all these questioning faces, probably thinking how will this young leader who’s worked overseas succeed in managing a huge local manufacturing business in China. Two years later, I was back on stage to give another speech and you can’t imagine how happy I was to see the whole audience chanting and clapping.
It’s not just that we have achieved a positive profit margin, it’s that my staff are very proud of the business and treat each other like family. If there’s a moment that crystallises how I feel, it’s that one. I’ve achieved revenue for the business, and I have managed to make a small impact on the people, bringing back their sense of pride and joy, making a cultural shift that will benefit the business in the long term.
RW: You mentioned your initial lack of experience when you were offered this new opportunity. How did you get through, and what have your learned from the experience?
Although many women have the experience and skill sets to take up new challenges, we are typically more cautious about making promises and decisions on things we haven’t done before compared to men. This caution is often interpreted as a lack confidence.
I am fortunate that everyone around me, from top management to our clients, recognise my potential and believe in me. Actually more than 60% of the leadership team in my business now is female and it is an experience I share with them all too. It is important that we have faith in ourselves and step out of our comfort zone to unlock our potential and take charge of our own development.
RW: I understand you have to work long hours and often have to travel on business. Have you ever struggled to balance the demands of your personal and professional life?
I am fortunate to have a very supportive family. We made a decision together as a family to move back to Asia 10 years ago. Our daughter was only two years old back then, but we had committed to stay as a family and wanted this to be not just a new job, but an adventure for the family together. I wouldn’t have relocated if my husband didn’t support this decision.
Finding a work-life balance is easier to say than do. It’s very important to have a supportive family and at the same time to operate in a way that takes your priorities into account. For me, having quality time with my daughter and husband is more important than anything, even though I have to make some trade-offs with other leisure activities. My daughter will soon be 12 years old and I am glad that we have built a very close relationship, it’s all worth it.
RW: From moving to Asia to taking up a business with a staff of more than a thousand, you’ve been making some big leaps. What advice would you give to other women, especially those early in their career?
When I first started my career on Wall Street, I had no idea about what I wanted to pursue in the future. But I never limit my options. I think sometimes we make too many assumptions in life and believe that there’s always “a right path to follow.” To me, the right path is not the one most travelled, but one where I will always find curiosity. I have seen women struggling to follow a set path, with any deviation becoming a stress point. We should take charge of our own lives, whether personal or professional.
There’s wise advice from Elizabeth Gilbert that I agree with: don’t worry about following your passion, follow your curiosity instead. She’s not telling people to ditch their passion, but rather to ease off the pressure and explore something new from time to time, something that will spark your curiosity. Also, don’t just admire others’ success, think about the paddling duck metaphor: successful people may seem effortless, but they are all making a lot a of effort “under the surface”. Try to learn from others about different perspectives, and don’t become discouraged when you encounter difficulties and have to struggle.