At the beginning of 2020, Mia Lim, currently, an Organisational Effectiveness Manager at Philip Morris International, had a plan: to return home to work in the Philippines after spending years in the US. However, the Covid-19 pandemic made quick work of everyone’s plans, including Mia’s. Even though she did return to the Philippines, she was forced to stay at home for an extended period of time.
Despite it all, when one door closes, another one opens, as the saying goes. Here is our profile on how Mia’s return to the Philippines unfolded, how she views her time in the US, as well as the unexpected insights she discovered along the way.
If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere
Straight after graduating from University in the Philippines, Mia packed her bags and moved abroad. Her first destination was Singapore, where she took up a brand management role at Procter & Gamble. After a few years, however, she decided to head back to school to build her capability around change management and people management.
This brought her to New York City in 2013, specifically a Master’s Degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology at New York University. A prestigious degree at a prestigious school aside, another big reason for Mia to move to the Big Apple was due to her deeply held passion: Broadway.
“I really wanted to live in New York. I grew up watching Broadway musicals and I was in love with the idea that I was going to live in the big city. While I later learnt that living in New York was not the same as being a tourist in New York. The reality is very different from the ideal. But I learnt a lot about myself and my capabilities in that period.”
After two years in New York, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband to work for Willis Towers Watson and Deloitte. There, she learnt about the technical aspects of change management, as well as how to work across cultures with diverse groups of people with different skill sets.
Mia and her husband Brett on Killian Court in front of the MIT dome in 2014.
Brett was pursuing his MBA at the time at MIT Sloan, where she would follow suit four years later.
Mia is clear about what lessons she learnt during her time abroad and how they have helped her now that she’s back. “My two years in New York were when I spent the most time networking, meeting with and cold emailing alumni of my programme, and people on LinkedIn. It’s not a fun process. But I really learnt how to put myself out there in uncomfortable positions, because that’s how you grow.”
In many cases, Mia noticed the cultural differences that were shaping her experiences. “I was reaching out to strangers, and that’s not something that I was necessarily trained to do in the Philippines. I don’t think it’s part of our culture. In the US, I really had to put myself out there.”
Finally, she learnt a lot about the art of subtle self-promotion. “In America, there is a lot of value placed on being independent and entrepreneurial. Even though I’m an introvert, that’s something I had to embrace and find mentors to ask for advice and help. This also helped me to learn to use my voice and promote myself and my abilities, which is something that does not come naturally in Asian cultures. Whereas we put a huge emphasis on being humble and not standing out, I had to learn to speak with pride about my background, experience and accomplishments.”
Through the lessons, Mia gained the ability to toggle between both Asian and Western cultures and mentalities, an ability that she sees as an advantage now that she is back in the Philippines. She is now better able to relate to people of different cultures from her own, which in turn has shaped her as an HR professional and as a person.
Mia (second from left) with fellow interns at Google HQ in Mountainview, California, where she did her MBA internship.
An unexpected setback
A mix of personal and professionals reasons made Mia decide to make the move back to the Philippines. “My husband and I had been away from home for a decade already. And there were so many things that were different about the Philippines versus when we left. And I felt that it was time to give back. I still have dreams of one day going into teaching or coaching in the Philippines, and being home will allow me to work towards those dreams.”
Mia returned in March 2020, right before the Philippines imposed its Covid-19 lockdown. What was supposed to be a quick trip home over spring break turned into finishing the semester and her degree online halfway around the world.
In January 2020, even before her flight home, Mia already had a job offer lined up with a local Filipino conglomerate. The plan was to start work thereafter completing her MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston. In May 2020, however, she received an email from her future Line Manager, informing her that the company had to rescind the offer due to the pandemic. “That kind of put me in a panic because it was two weeks before my graduation, and I didn't have any jobs lined up. And that's where Michael Page came in.”
Working with Michael Page
To help her secure a role in the Philippines, Mia was put in touch with Consultants from the Michael Page Philippines office through a mutual friend.“When I first began to speak with Rhiannon [Guilford, Associate Director, Michael Page Philippines], she knew right away, based on my profile, that I was a certain kind of HR practitioner. And she referred me to some interesting roles out of HR, such as strategy and programme management. I appreciated that she and Carla [Lastimosa, Director, Michael Page Philippines] had such a deep understanding of my field and could imagine what else I could do beyond what first comes to mind.”
In the end, it was Michael Page’s extensive regional network and proven relationships with MNCs and other prominent companies in the Philippines that led to Mia choosing to work with us.
“I can’t stress enough how great Carla was in the process. Not only did she set me up with interviews, she also coached me through them and helped with the negotiation process. I think this is what differentiates a good headhunter from a great one. I always felt that she had my back. She wanted what was best for me and for her client and was working hard to marry those two sets of interests.”
Settling in back home
Now, in her role at Philip Morris International, she is responsible for learning and development, diversity and inclusion, as well as talent management — areas that she and the company are deeply invested in. As for getting used to the working culture, she has noticed one big difference between working in the US and in the Philippines.
“Filipinos have a very unique way of relating to each other at work on a personal level. It’s a normal part of getting to know each other to ask quite personal questions about your life outside of work. Initially, it felt a bit intrusive to me, but now it’s just part of it. And I realised that I need to understand these parts of my coworkers to be able to relate to them because they bring their full selves to work.”
Mia (top row, centre) hanging out with fellow Filipinos from the Harvard and MIT communities in 2018.
Advice for other Returnees
When asked about advice for other returnees to make a successful return back, she is clear that reaching out for help when needed and being your own biggest champion is key. “My first piece of advice is to ask for help. I can’t emphasise that enough. Secondly, learn the art of humble self-promotion, because you never know who you might encounter and what those chance meetings might lead to.”
Feeling connected back home
Mia’s decision to return home was overall a positive one, especially from the aspect of being close to family during uncertain times. Additionally, she has found a sense of community.
“People here genuinely care about each other and bring their fullest selves to work every day, even when it’s exhausting and frustrating. People want to look out for each other here, so that’s something that has been so beautiful and has helped me get through the tough times.”
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