Interview with Euleen Goh

Ms Euleen Goh was appointed to the Board of Directors of DBS Group Holdings Ltd and DBS Bank Ltd on 1 December 2008. Euleen is a non-executive board member of CapitaLand Limited, SATS Ltd., Singapore Health Services Pte Ltd, Royal Dutch Shell plc and a Trustee of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Endowment Fund and a member of the Board of Trustees of Temasek Trust. She is also the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of her alma mater, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Chairperson of the Board of Governors of NorthLight School.

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WHY IS GENDER DIVERSITY ON BOARDS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Gender-diverse boards have a range of insights and experiences, bringing a wider perspective. Boards with many members who go to the same clubs, work in the same circles, network with each other, read the same books, have the same experiences and share the same information need to reframe their composition.

In today’s complex, uncertain world, it is important that boards have what [the author] Ram Charan calls ‘perceptual acuity’. This is the insight of what’s out there that the boards need to know; what are our competitors doing that we need to lend an ear to; what’s happening in the world that we should think about; what’s coming down the chain that’s going to be disruptive. So, it is necessary to have wide-ranging views and insights that provide a window on what’s happening outside the boardroom. Diversity of board members is very important in the contribution to that factor. Gender diversity is just one factor of it.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF GENDER DIVERSITY SPECIFICALLY?

As the world shifts and talent becomes much more prized and a competing factor, women are gaining a bigger voice in decisionmaking in everyday life. Boards must understand the perspective of women consumers, the talent out there, and the decisions that relationships with women will bring. I think that perspective should feature a lot more in boards today.

Gender diversity brings along with it that diversity of experiences. Half the world’s market is female. If you look at the statistics, they’ll tell you that in Japan 70 per cent of buying decisions for cars are made by women. It’s important to know how women customers think, how they feel and where they’re coming from. Women would be able to understand the decisions other women make.

Unilever had a development team that included women and they understood that it was harder to sell bottles of shampoo to members of lower socio-economic groups in India because they don’t have space in their homes for the bottles. Once they started selling shampoo in sachets, it made a huge difference to their business.

Women have certain traits that are more prominent. The trait of intuition, of people, of relationships is very important. So I think it’s just the whole spectrum of differences of traits of experiences of insights that are very important.

HOW DOES THIS PLAY OUT IN PRACTICE AT DBS?

The women on the DBS executive team are powerful drivers of its success. This doesn’t devalue what men do – the entire team makes it happen. They work well as a team, bringing all their different qualities and melding them into a high-performance team.

IF THERE ARE SO MANY BENEFITS, WHY AREN’T MORE WOMEN ON BOARDS IN SINGAPORE?

I can’t say. One factor is boards tend not to use search firms. They tend to say Singapore is a small market, we know everybody in the market place, and therefore we know that individual would be a good fit, rather than to say, we will do a search of an entire pool to see what names come up. In some instances, casting the net wider is an important step to take.

I think that ladies in the C-suite are a fairly recent phenomenon, so the pool has just started to get bigger. And maybe the turnover on boards is too low to bring in new members. Time will bring about that change – the question is, at what speed. The future looks a lot brighter than the past.

“Too many times the thinking is: ‘We know what’s out there, we know who’s out there. We’ll just appoint the people we know’ rather than ‘let’s take a meaningful look at the wider pool of people and try to bring much more diversity to the board’.”

ARE THERE PRECONCEPTIONS OR IS THE PROCESS OF NOMINATING BOARD MEMBERS THE PROBLEM?

Too many times the thinking is: “We know what’s out there, we know who’s out there. We’ll just appoint the people we know” rather than “let’s take a meaningful look at the wider pool of people and try to bring much more diversity to the board.”

CAN THE BENEFITS OF GENDER DIVERSITY BE QUANTIFIED?

I don’t support this argument. I think there is no single measurement, no silver bullet. Financial performance isn’t the ‘be all’ for a company; it’s not the measure of return, but the growth trajectory.

It’s far more important that boards and chairmen of boards see the value of gender diversity. The broader perspective that it leads to better risk management and risk return makes sense. Measuring how the potential of the people in an organisation is maximised makes sense. A strategy that enables a company to have a longerterm higher-potential future makes sense. All those factors and more show the strength of a board, the strength of a management team and how the board looks at the management team.

So, for the good of our marketplace, I would like to see diversity on all our boards.

SO IT’S ABOUT VALUES, RATHER THAN VALUE?

Investors like to see diversity. They are much more comfortable investing in companies with gender-diverse boards because many international institutional investors recognise the different values that diversity brings.

WHY ARE CHAIRMEN NOT CASTING THE NET WIDER?

Probably because previously, we were in an era when there weren’t enough women who put up their hands and stepped forward. We now have a much larger pool with louder voices wanting to join boards. Not enough boards are prepared to bring on first-time board members unless it’s through personal relationships or for those with the required standing. So networking is very important. Women have to network and put up their hands.

I’ve often advocated to women that it’s worthwhile thinking about which sectors most interest them and what they bring to the table.

It’s also not about saying, “I’m available, bring me on board”. It’s about, “Do I bring international perspectives, do I bring experiences of a certain discipline, do I bring a technical edge of some sort?” Women have to think through that for themselves and then say that for themselves as they put up their hands to ask.

MORE NETWORKING?

I absolutely think so. I know that in London there is a club of FTSE chairmen who get together and mentor senior executives, both in executive roles and for the board. That might be a useful club to start.

SO ARE YOU SAYING THERE’S NO INHERENT CULTURAL OR PERSONAL RESISTANCE ON THE PART OF THE CHAIRMEN?

By and large, as a society we are very proud of our equal opportunities and equal education standards for all, so I don’t think there is any such inhibition. I think it’s just much more opening the window to gender diversity.

DO QUOTAS OR TARGETS NEED TO BE SET?

I speak as a woman who has participated long in the marketplace and I would decline any targets. Because targets lead to tokenism, or the perception of tokenism, and that’s very dangerous. You would get too many people asking themselves whether that appointment was made to meet a target.

We should stick to the same tried and tested principle that Singapore adopts the principle of meritocracy. But we shouldn’t hide behind the shield of meritocracy when we have no diversity. I’m convinced that we can get diversity with meritocracy.

For example, in my previous executive role, when I was looking for diversity in the leadership team, there had to be at least one woman in the slate of candidates. And all things being equal, diversity would be a factor, but meritocracy would take precedence.

Too often, we say yes to meritocracy, but when we look at the slate of candidates, it’s the same old, same old. And that’s why we have to open our eyes and our perspectives to see if we can bring on more diversity, broaden our pool of candidates and look at talent with different eyes.

It’s an anomaly for women to have such low representation in Asia when we have made such a merit out of equal education and equal opportunities for all. And the reality of it is that we have well-qualified women. So, where are they?

INDEED, WHERE ARE THEY? ARE THERE NOT ENOUGH CANDIDATES?

We’ve got a terrific pipeline of women coming through. But when I speak to women I remind them that they should stop complaining if they opt out. It’s their choice. Secondly I remind them there is a confidence gap and they shouldn’t be afraid to step up. And thirdly I remind them that they would do well to ask – we are too self-effacing.

A man would have a game of golf and say, “By the way, I’m retiring next year and I’m looking for board positions” and the word gets around and his name comes up. Women just don’t do that sort of thing. They wait to be asked. Sorry, that’s not the way of the world. So I do remind women that we have a role to play in getting to board seats and not complaining.

IS THIS ALSO HOW YOU BUILT YOUR BOARD CAREER?

My first couple of board appointments, and quite senior ones, came out of the blue. I didn’t ask. But when I looked at my portfolio, I thought that having an appointment on an overseas board would add to my governance experience and my understanding of board roles. The reality is in many developed countries, boards tend to use search firms. So they cast their nets a lot wider. I met the head of a search firm, we had a conversation and I put my name forward for board searches. I knew which countries and sectors I wanted and that led to my first overseas board appointment.

I’ve turned down roles that I’ve felt are not my field or where I have no interest in the sector. That’s just as important. It’s a real grind if I’m not interested in a sector, if I’m not the right fit for the board or the country doesn’t make sense to me. So, understanding fit is very important.

IS IT ENOUGH TO HAVE MANY WOMEN IN YOUR MANAGEMENT TEAM, EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE THEM ON YOUR BOARD?

The board has a different role from the executive team and that has to be understood. What the board brings to the table is the macro picture of what’s happening out there in the world [the perceptual acuity] that the executive team in their daily engagement may not see in terms of the broader perspectives. The development of strategy, the give and take, the guiding and coaching role – that differentiates the board from the executive team and therefore it needs diversity.

For more interviews with board chairmen and directors, please see DAC’s report ‘Speaking with the Boards‘.

Speaking with the Boards‘ is a supplement to DAC’s report ‘Women on Boards: Tackling the Issue‘ launched in October 2016.