S06E012: Dato Judy Cheng-Hopkins, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Malaysia

The mentor has no skin in your game. Whether you succeed or fail, you know, he or she is happy you succeed. But that’s about it. A sponsor has a stake in your success and usually in the best case scenario, the best way I can describe it from my own experience, a sponsor is somebody very senior in the organization.

Judy cheng-hopkins

Who’s got your back? Who’s advocating for you? Chances are, it’s not a mentor but a sponsor.

In today’s episode, my guest and I delve into the distinction between mentors and sponsors. While mentors provide advice, encouragement, and support, they may not be your ticket to the top or the key to fast-tracking your career. You need someone who can champion you, who wholeheartedly believes in your potential and who is willing to advocate on your behalf.

Dato Judy Cheng-Hopkins, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Malaysia

To add a delightful twist, today’s episode was recorded at the residence of Dato Judy Cheng, a remarkable Malaysian woman with a distinguished 36-year career at the United Nations.

Dato Judy was recognized by Forbes magazine in 2011 as one of “The 10 Most Powerful Women at the UN” and received the Westchester County Board of Legislators’ “Prominent Women” Award in 2014.

That somebody that everybody respects, when they mention your name, they throw your hat in the ring. Let’s give her a chance. Let’s bring her in for an interview. That’s all you want. All the magic to your ears is when somebody says, okay, let’s bring her in for an interview, then you’re on your own.

Dato Judy was appointed UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, based in New York, on April 17, 2009, by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Prior to this position, she had a long and successful career spanning over 30 years, encompassing development and humanitarian work in Africa and Asia, including a significant 10-year field assignment in Africa. 

She served as the UN’s Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees from February 2006 to August 2009 and as the Director of the World Food Programme’s Bureau for Asia and Eastern Europe from 1997 to 2000, overseeing major humanitarian operations in North Korea, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Additionally, she spent ten years working with UNDP in Africa, initially in Zambia (1982-1988) and then in Kenya (1988 – 1992). 

It so happened that this decent man came as the big boss, smart and decent. And it so happened that I was able to help change the program to make it really relevant and to get other donors involved. That’s the recipe for success. And, and that’s how I want to be very clear. Don’t go around forcing it but open your eyes. When the opportunity is there, go for it. But you cannot falsely create a sponsor. 

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Dato Judy Cheng-Hopkins since she contributed the epilogue to a book that I co-produced last year, featuring 24 women from Penang. Our paths crossed again this year during an International Women’s Day celebration where she was invited to share leadership strategies for women. After the event, I extended an invitation for her to be a guest on my podcast, knowing that she would soon be returning to New York (as she splits her time between Malaysia and the US).

Dato Judy was born and raised in Penang, where she attended St. George’s Girls’ School. She later received an American Field Service scholarship to study in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Beloit College in 1976 and a master’s degree in Economic Development from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in 1978. She also holds diplomas from l’Universite d’Haute Bretagne in France and Harvard University in the USA.

Throughout her career, she ascended to the upper echelons of the United Nations, serving as Assistant Secretary-General in charge of peace-building after conflict under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Before this role, she held positions such as Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Director of the Asia Bureau and the Balkans at the World Food Programme, and dedicated a decade to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Africa.

During our conversation, Dato Judy and I engaged in a lively and extraordinary discussion about stepping outside one’s comfort zone, breaking through the glass ceiling, making strategic decisions, and becoming someone worthy of sponsorship.

She highly recommended a powerful and practical book, “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which she believes holds the key to nurturing relationships that can truly help individuals become who they are meant to be. (Check out a video of Sylvia Ann Hewlett speaking about this concept at Google.)

While Dato Judy emphasizes that her advice primarily caters to women aspiring to advance within large organizations and corporations, I discovered that the leadership insights she shared are invaluable for everyone, including women entrepreneurs.

If you have enjoyed today’s episode, please review and subscribe to the podcast on your favourite podcast app. Or share this episode with a friend.

Today’s episode is sponsored by Redbox Studio.

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