Banker with Heart
She’s turned the world’s attention to Singapore’s banking scene with her outstanding leadership at DBS while selflessly lifting many other female bankers who are now in prominent positions. Arguably our finance industry’s most valuable asset, Tan Su Shan, who oversees more than 2,000 private banking staff across the region, talks to Melissa Gail Sing about powerful leaderships and making more women a part of the equation.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I drop my kids, Talisha and Kai, off at school and then go to work. When my kids were in primary school, they used to start really early so I’d be at work by 7.30am. Now, I am at work by 8.30am. When I was at the office by 7.30am, I used to do my bootcamp, my teaching sessions with my relationship managers from 7.30am to 8.30am, training on products, platforms and asset allocation, and so on. Then we have morning meetings. The typical morning meetings start at 8.30am or 8.45am. And I have a full day with 10 to 12 meetings. I also travel every week, normally around the region. I just got back from Paris and I’m flying off again later today.
You’re one of a growing number of women in a largely male-dominated field. What was it like when you just started out?
In Singapore, there are a lot of women in finance so that whole thing about it being a male-dominated field is less pronounced here. In London and Japan where I worked before, it was more pronounced. In those days, I’d walk into a room full of men and watch them gasp. It happened a few times, particularly in the Middle East where they’re really not expecting a man. Tan Su Shan could be a man’s name and they’d be expecting to see a man. And when I show up, there’s a collective shock horror. So, it’s about helping people adjust and also being able to give them the comfort that, technically, I am as good as any other guy, so don’t think that I come in not knowing my numbers. It’s still very much a shock to some in the UK, Japan and the Middle East, but less so now.
I grew up in a trading room environment where it was all-male and they were saying things to each other, yelling vulgarities at each other and you either join them or you don’t. But I decided that I don’t need to be a vulgarity-hurling dude to be part of the group. I just had to be myself, and be able to laugh and fight back at the boys. They will try to bully you and you have to either laugh at them or bully them back. If they laugh and you laugh it’s fine but if you go off to the loo and cry then it’s not fine so it’s best not to take yourself too seriously and just laugh it off and grow a thick skin.
How has the role of women in society shifted over the years, particularly when it comes to women in power positions like yourself?
I honestly don’t see myself as a woman in a powerful position at all (laughs). I guess I see myself as a servant leader. It’s about serving the people who work in your team and who work with you, not for you. That’s my notion. And I guess, women and men perceive power very differently. I notice that through managing men and women as well. Not that titles are not important for women but the ranking means more for men while women are more likely to put their ego behind for the sake of the team or for the sake of doing the right thing.
Does that put women at a disadvantage when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder?
I think women have to be more vocal about what they want to achieve in their career because not everyone can read their minds. I work with many great women and I’ve seen them grow over the years. One of the great things I’ve seen since we started the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) in 2001 is rotational leadership. It’s something we strongly believe in. So I was president founder but I wouldn’t hold that position for more than two years. There was a string of other presidents after me and all of these women have then gone on to bigger, greater things just as the committee members have. If anything, it served as a platform for budding women leaders to be able to test their leadership skills, test their ability to set an agenda, to set a vision and execute with a team who are not paid by the way. You have to convince them to work with you, by your vision and deliver on what you want to do for the greater good. And that’s normally quite a good way to assess somebody’s leadership skills. So, I’m glad that that’s still going on. In Chinese, we have a saying, qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan. While I am no longer active on the FWA, they’ve done much better things than when I set it up 14 years ago. And that’s exactly why we set it up; for the women who have come and gone with bigger, newer, better things to continue to groom younger women leaders who can then continue to do bigger, better things but not forget to press the elevator downwards and send people up. So the team and I have always been very vocal about renewal of leadership. Part of our agenda is to enable younger women to come in, try and succeed.
What’s the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?
What I love about the young women of today, those in their teens, is that they feel more empowered and perhaps freer than older women did at their age. Meanwhile, the onset of social media has meant that everyone is better able to connect with each other and keep abreast of what’s going on. So, young women are growing up a lot faster than we did. The challenge, as they grow up faster and in this digital age is not to be too influenced by the negative effects of peer pressure and social media. They have to grow thicker skin to deal with all that public scrutiny and criticism.
For the women who are working today, I guess the challenge is the age-old balancing of their lives, work and bringing up children. A lot of women do delay having children because career comes first. And I appreciate that. Then there are the women who have kids then choose to leave their career. To me, that’s an even more difficult decision to make. I have the greatest respect for women who do that because it’s easier to stay on the corporate ladder and it’s much harder to step back. I really salute women who take that path. We’ve hired women who’ve taken time out to be full-time mothers back into the workforce at DBS, because we really believe that’s a worthy cause and we don’t want them to lose out later in life. And my experience has been that when they come back to work for us, they are more committed, they want to prove that they can work hard and they’re so happy to be back in the work environment. You actually get a lot more from them.
The FWA has also served as a platform to keep these women connected to the financial world so that they can network with potential employers, keep up with what’s going on in the markets and so on. That support network both from the company and from having a network for professionals, and having a network of friends who can get you back into the work force is important.
Women have to balance a lot of choices in life, choices about what career path to take, what family arrangements to make, where to live and so on. In the past, we didn’t have that many choices. The downside of that is that many young women do not know what they want to do in life.
Personally, what challenges did you face as you grew in your career?
My biggest challenge is time. I think my personal assistant deserves a medal for being able to juggle my time. She is my boss, really, because there are so many requests for meetings, from internal and external meetings to board meetings and so on. So, my personal challenge today is time. I have to sneak time in to see my kids, my husband, to do charity work and so on.
Would you say that Singapore needs more women at the top?
Obviously DBS is unique in that Piyush (Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group) is surrounded by women heads. We have more women than any other bank or any other financial body does. DBS is a very strong advocate for women leadership. I’m very grateful for that. Being a woman was never an issue; it never came up during interviews.
I’d say that it’d be good to see more women at the top. Other women have to enable it, and other men too. I would encourage more women and men at the top to take on more women mentees.
I was part of the Young Presidents’ Organisation where there are male and female leaders, so members get exposure to different industries and CEOs, and observe different types of leadership. You’ll notice that the perspectives of male and female leaderships can be quite different. And that diversity, when digested and works well together, is very powerful.
If a man and woman go in for a pitch together, they both bring very different approaches to the meeting. You can really win. So, I really believe in the power of diversity. It could be that the woman is more aggressive and the man less so or vice versa, but when you can mix that and the different skills set together, it’s a very powerful thing. So, I encourage a lot of diversity in my teams, not only from a gender perspective but also looking at factors such as culture and ability – having people who are knowledgeable in different areas – and backgrounds. Because when you have a team of very similar individuals, then it’s really not a very strong one.
What’s the most significant barrier to female leadership in Singapore – is it all within us or are there external factors as well?
For a lot of women, it’s that voice in the head, and I’m equally guilty of this. We’re thinking, “Can I really do it?” We often question ourselves. On the other hand, I know a lot of men who go, “Of course I can do it!” So maybe it’s that voice inside your head; it needs to be more affirmative. You have to think, “I think I can do it, and here’s what I need help with…” and then get help and not be afraid to do so.
A lot of women may not do so well at speaking out in public because they may not want to disagree publicly or have their voices heard too loudly. They have to learn that you can actually speak out in this free and open forum without sounding like that toughie in the room. And women have a nice way of disagreeing and doing it nicely as well. That can be an advantage in certain situations. I think that women also laugh at ourselves a lot, we don’t take ourselves too seriously and I think that’s actually not a bad trait to have, especially in tough, tricky negotiations. It’s not all about the ego. I’ve seen many meetings fall aside because there’s too much ego in the room. I tell my staff to put their egos at the door before they come in for an important meeting. And then I laugh. And they laugh back, nervously I guess. But that sets the tone for what could be a tough meeting and hopefully we get to where we need to be. Sometimes women can be too nice but when you are too aware of hurting people’s feelings you may not get the right things done on time because you’re worried about how others may perceive you. When you’re in a management position, you often have to make very tough decisions. These decisions have consequences on people’s lives and sometimes I think actually men and women have an equally hard time when faced with such decisions. How do you deal with that? Face the music. I often believe that dealing with something head on is better than letting it fester, so my style is to just deal with it. Like I said, put your ego at the door and let’s just sort it out, no holds barred. I find that’s the best way but very often I find that it can be a struggle to juggle human compassion with doing the right thing for the business.
What would you say is the hardest decision you’ve had to make throughout your career?
Professionally, I take my work seriously, although I try not to take myself too seriously. So I find it difficult when deciding to leave an organisation as you do leave behind relationships and bonds formed over many years.
What are your weaknesses or fears? Does being open about such things disempower a person?
I hate snakes! But that aside, I’ve long shed my ego, so I’m not scared to go into a room and say I have no idea what you’re talking about. And even if I’m the most senior person in the room, I think it’s better to do that than to pretend you know, and by the end of the meeting you make the wrong decision because you don’t know. So, I believe it’s always important to know what you don’t know; that’s very powerful and it can help you. When you go into a room or a meeting or a situation, you should know what you know and what you don’t know. Ignoring what you don’t know could have dire consequences and lead to wrong decisions being made. Being able to face up to the fact that you don’t know, admitting it and saying, “This is what I don’t know, help me” is not a weakness although it may be perceived as such, because you’d be telling your juniors that they know a lot more than you do. But if it’s true, then they do! I’m not afraid of going into a tech lab and telling my tech colleagues who are in their 20s that I need help. They’ll roll their eyes but that’s fine. Learning allows you to face up to the unknown.
My son and daughter teach me a lot. They were the ones who taught me how to use Instagram and Twitter, and when I finally do post something on Facebook they make such a big deal of it. I just face up to their laughing at me constantly. When I’m at home, they tell me, “You’re not at DBS anymore! Stop giving instructions.” And they laugh at me. There’s really nothing like your kids to keep you on the straight and narrow, tell you off and bring you back down to earth.
Who is the most inspiring woman in your life?
My mum. For her, it was never an issue of balancing children and work. She was always very career oriented and that was how my sister (Tan Sulian, Senior Director at Savills Singapore) and I were brought up. It never crossed our minds not to have a career. It was normal because we grew up in that environment. My mum has made many sacrifices for the family, which is really tough to do. She runs my house and without her I cannot survive. She’s the boss of my support network.
The other woman I have tremendous respect for is the late Margaret Thatcher. I think she was so single minded in pursuing what she thought was right. She became deeply unpopular during England’s conservative years but she didn’t care one bit about popularity. She cared only about doing the right thing. Lee Kuan Yew was the same; he didn’t care about being popular but about doing the right thing always. It’s all about doing what’s right for the country, for the people, your clients or whatever your cause is. I aspire to be like that.
Having had the opportunity to serve as a Nominated Member of Parliament for 21/2 years was a huge privilege and an eye opener. You really get to understand the political process and how this country works. And I now have tremendous respect for the people in the House who sacrifice their careers and their lives to look after the people, and in the process, put themselves out for scrutiny and often unfair public criticism. If you choose the route of politics, that’s what you face. I have tremendous respect for politicians, male and female, who have taken that path.
Is that something you’d like to go back to some day?
No. I am quite happy serving in a different way. At DBS, we do a lot of social work through our corporate social responsibility programme. A lot of the POSB events that I do over weekends are either centred around helping kids to save more money or going to community centres to help older folks learn to manage their finances. A lot of the work we do at the Consumer Bank is about the community. It’s about reaching out to the community and doing the right things for the community. We often do things that don’t or may not necessarily help us make money but it’s the right thing. It could be helping the foreign workers here get access to banking services or bringing baking services to people who are invalids, older or residents of one-bedroom flats. So I think the culture in the bank is one where the people are actually very kind and nice. And they want to do the right thing. There are a lot of people whom I have great respect for and they have been at DBS for the longest time. They probably could have found other opportunities elsewhere but they’ve stayed here because by working at DBS, they know that they can make a far bigger impact on the community.
Apart from your role at DBS, you support charities, advise educational institutions and give leadership talks like one organised by the FWA earlier this year. Why is this important to you?
Winston Churchill once said, “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.” And I think that aptly sums it up. Your life is more fulfilling when you know that you’ve made an impact. To me, making an impact is important, whether in our job, daily life or personal and social life. My husband Chris (social entrepreneur Christopher Wilson) has chosen that route with Social Capital Venture (SCV, a not-for-profit social enterprise) and I go with him and I see how much impact that’s had on the communities in Kampong Chhnang in rural Cambodia. A quarter of a million people now have access to clean water, they don’t die prematurely from diarrhoea, and the child mortality rate has declined. That’s a huge impact and it gives a deep sense of fulfillment to be able to do that and in a sustainable manner too. So, kudos to my husband; I will always support him there. The other work that I am very proud of is what I have done with KK Hospital and we’ve done a lot of work with SCV in Cambodia. I’m on the board of the KK Hospital Health Endowment Fund, which provides financial support to needy patients. The board members and I have a lot of fun doing different things; we divide and conquer. Caroline (Heah) and Douglas (Benjamin) are in charge of the Kidz Horizon Appeal while I am mainly in charge of the kids from overseas. I’ve never encountered a better leadership than that at KK. When we went to Cambodia, the CEO was sweeping the floors in the villages, just doing whatever possible to help out. That’s servant leadership, and real leadership, the best kind. So, this sort of social work brings out the best in people.
The other work I do is education. I now sit on the board at Singapore Management University. I also sit on the boards of my old schools, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School and Hwa Chong, and SJI International. Being active in the education space is important to me. We need people who can take risks and look forward in bringing our young people to where they need to go. We need to be able to take risks and innovate the whole education system. Learning about the digital world, being able to do data analytics, being able to go beyond the old, traditional ways of schooling are very important, especially in the Asian context where our neighbouring countries are changing faster than ever.
As a child, what were your ambitions?
I was very lucky. I was studying at Oxford, had a summer internship and when I was 19, I walked in to the dealing room for the first time and I just fell in love with it. I said, “Oh my god! I’m home, this is where I want to be.” I love the markets and I still do. I’m addicted to the markets. I love the screens and watching things go up and down, news flow and so on. I’m an adrenaline junkie when it comes to the markets and so I like to be able to combine what I love with a job that is fulfilling. I was lucky that at 19, I had found my calling. But like any other kid, I did many other activities when I was younger. I did tap dancing because I thought I’d be a dancer but that didn’t work out. I also learnt to play the piano thinking that would be another calling. I received my diploma but never went into music. But I think, one day, I will play again.
My kids have pursued music; they play multiple instruments and they learnt it all from You Tube. They’ve been teaching me how to play songs the way The Piano Guys do.
What’s the wisest advice anyone has ever given you?
It’s important to have good communication skills. And a lot of our young people have the technical skills set but they don’t do so well in communication. Being able to combine both is crucial because a lot about leadership and work today is about being able to communicate well and succinctly, being able to get the person who’s listening to you to understand exactly what you mean. That’s a skill. Being able to relate to the people in the room and being able to convince them, persuade them to be where you want them to go. It’s a skill. I hope I have that skill of persuasion. One of the skills that my earlier bosses imparted to me was that of clear, succinct communication.
The other advice is from my boss, Piyush, who’s always telling me to articulate a clear vision, to really set a clear strategy and make sure everybody knows where you’re going. Being a good leader is about that. It’s being able to set a clear strategy. That leader has to have their clear vision articulated across the geographies and layers of people, hierarchies of people. You will get the whole firm to go where you want to go. So, being able to have a clear strategy, articulating a vision and being able to communicate at all levels is crucial.
Another great piece of advice: "A Grade A manager hires Grade A people." So surround yourself with people who are smarter and better than you are.
A job like yours does not come without stress. How do you like to unwind?
I do a lot of sport. When I can I steal some time, I’ll run from the office to Gardens by the Bay and do a cheeky turn and come back. I love it! I do that in the evenings when the sun sets and it’s beautiful. I also swim a lot and I do yoga. I am quite disciplined about sports. It centres me, especially doing yoga, and it puts things in perspective. If I have time, I’d probably meditate but I don’t. I went through a bit of a personal crisis in 1995 when I was in Hong Kong and that’s when I learnt to do yoga and meditation, which I found really helped me. Being able to take yourself out of your current situation and to see things as a third party and to be able to not feel too engulfed emotionally and personally in your own personal situation is important.
My husband Chris went through a lot of difficult moments. He fought two wars and in one war situation, had 10 Baluchi soldiers pointing their rifles at his head. He thought he was going to die. When you’re gone through that sort of life-altering experience – he was lucky that he was rescued by helicopters –everything else pales in comparison. So, what makes me happy, really, is being able to spend time with my children and husband as much as I can.
Any unfulfilled ambitions?
Plenty! Mastering a new skill (such as coding) and learning a new language. Also, diving in the Galápagos.
Photography: Eric Seow, assisted by King and Halid
Styling: Desmond Lim, assisted by Joey Tan
Hair and Make-up: Grego, using L'Oréal Professionnel Tecni.Art and Dior
Dress: Hugo Boss
Watch and Earrings: Breguet