Interview with Peter Seah

Mr Peter Seah joined the Board of Directors of DBS Group Holdings Ltd and DBS Bank Ltd on 16 November 2009 and assumed the role of Chairman on 1 May 2010. Peter is also Chairman of DBS Bank (Hong Kong) Limited, Chairman of Singapore Health Services Pte Ltd and of LaSalle College of the Arts Limited. Additionally, Peter serves on the boards of StarHub Ltd, GIC Private Limited, Level 3 Communications Inc, Asia Mobile Holdings Pte Ltd, Fullerton Financial Holdings Pte Ltd, STT Communications Ltd and Singapore Airlines Limited.

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WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A DIVERSE BOARD?

If you work on the premise that 50 per cent of the population are women, then it really makes a lot of sense to have women on your board. They can give you a woman’s perspective and a lot of insight into how you can do business. I have not found women any less capable or competent or that they contribute any less. In fact, they often give you a fresh point of view and women, by nature, tend to be a lot more meticulous.

They bring a perspective on the likes and dislikes of female customers. And we have a better perspective on how to reach out to children for savings accounts. They make great board members. When you have diversity on the board, it results in more diverse views and opinions.

CAN THE POSITIVE EFFECTS OF DIVERSITY BE MEASURED?

Not really. Things like this should not be measured numerically.

I think it’s more qualitative in that women add value and help develop better strategies for the organisation. You will see richer dialogue and discussion with women on boards. Because of our good experience, we now always insist that we have women on our Board.

DO YOU THINK SOME CHAIRMEN ARE SCARED OF THE DISCUSSION ARISING FROM DIVERSE VIEWS?

I encourage disagreement and independent views. I actually look for board members who are more willing to speak up, to disagree.

One of the advantages of having boards that are more independently-minded and willing to speak up is that you don’t get ‘group think’. If you are a chairman who wants board members that rubber stamp whatever you want to do, I think you’re in the wrong century. Today’s governance doesn’t allow you to do that.

I would be very uncomfortable chairing a board where everybody says “yes, chairman” to whatever I say. In today’s high regulatory risk environment, that is very dangerous. So, for chairmen who want a board that rubberstamps, I would say, better think again.

The chairman reviews decisions, and the decisions and policies come out of collective wisdom. Chairmen must always lead and hopefully help finalise and craft the policy, but only after hearing different views. More heads are better than one, and you want your board members to speak up, to point out things they’re uncomfortable with.

WHAT ARE YOUR CRITERIA WHEN LOOKING FOR BOARD CANDIDATES?

I choose talent first; I choose people for positions based not on gender, religion or race, but on merit, on whoever is the best person for the job. You want different types of people on boards. After all, your customer base, particularly in banking, is made up of people of different gender, religion and so on.

I just had lunch with my colleagues from another company and they mentioned that they have a board vacancy coming up. I gave them a lady’s name and said I think she is a good candidate. Because to me if there are two candidates with equal merit and one is a woman, it’s a natural thing. The question should be, what’s the issue with choosing a woman?

WHY DOES SINGAPORE HAVE A VERY LOW GENDER DIVERSITY RATIO ON BOARDS?

One reason is probably that in Asian culture, we tend to lean towards more male dominance.

Secondly, historically the pool of women who were available for board appointments was rather small. When it comes to the ratio of successful, professional, senior corporate people, men still outnumber women.

It’s easier as a matter of convenience to say that, well, I work on merit and so all I find are men. So I think it’s a combination of availability and long standing cultural bias. Therefore, companies actually need to make the effort to identify women to sit on their boards. The board chairman or the nominating committee or even the shareholders need to take a more proactive approach.

Boards without women don’t necessarily discriminate against them. Maybe they have not made the extra effort and most of the candidates they come across are men. Boards have to actively seek out capable women professionals to take on board seats because they believe having women on boards helps enrich board discussions and gives a better understanding of their audience or customer base. To that extent, I think beyond merit, boards must actually believe in diversity.

“You will see richer dialogue and discussion with women on boards. Because of our good experience, we now always insist that we have women on our Board.”

YOU HAVE OBVIOUSLY BEEN SUCCESSFUL AT THAT. YET YOU’RE MALE, CHINESE, AND PRESUMABLY YOU ALSO HAVE THIS CULTURAL BAGGAGE. HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THIS?

I don’t have such baggage because at home I am surrounded by women. I have a wife and two daughters. As far as I can remember, I’ve never, in choosing somebody either for a management or a board position, looked at the women any differently.

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELECTING BOARD MEMBERS?

If we were going to replace one of our two female Board members, we would probably actively look for female candidates.

We have a nominating committee and Board members are asked for references, and we tap on references from other GLCs [government-linked companies] and Temasek. We also use executive search firms. I think a very good example is our Hong Kong Board, which is not even listed. We went out of our way, including using executive search firms, to search for a woman for our Board. We specifically asked them to search for a female board director because our Hong Kong Board was all male.

We now have women on our Board also in China. We appointed Jeanette Wong to chair DBS Taiwan and we appointed Tan Su Shan to chair DBS Indonesia, because we thought they were the best people to chair the boards. We were under no pressure because those boards are not listed. This is proactive.

ARE THERE MORE CONCRETE, TANGIBLE WAYS TO ENCOURAGE CHAIRMEN TO FORM MORE DIVERSE BOARDS?

I think it’s the duty of every board to ensure that its company does well. Over time, if you begin to see that gender-diverse boards tend to be better at reaching out to customers and engendering a better corporate culture within their organisation, including showing women within the company that they are represented at the highest level, all these should lead companies that don’t have women on their boards to think about: Why not?

To put it very simply, what do they have to lose? What do I have to lose, rather than what do I have to gain, by having women on my board?

If you are looking to fill a board seat, you can have a woman on merit who also gives you the additional perspective of a woman. It has to be a plus. If you insist it’s not important, it’s to your detriment.

SHOULD INVESTORS PLAY A GREATER ROLE IN DEMANDING A MORE DIVERSE BOARD?

Shareholders are increasingly looking at diversity. If you are on a board with no women, they will increasingly write in and ask questions. So, that’s going to bring about change.

WOULD YOU ADVOCATE A QUOTA?

I personally am against a quota. The last thing you want to do is fill a board vacancy with a woman just because she is a woman. You will contribute to a perception that it’s really not a good idea to have women on the board because they are only there to meet a quota.

I want to see every woman on the board stand equally, have the same voice as all other board members, as they deservedly should have, and be respected and have their views respected. You should not trade quality for diversity because then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

That said, in today’s world, particularly in a country like Singapore where the capabilities of men and women have converged in the workplace, we have women in leadership positions in every profession. So, you really have to ask yourself, if it’s not a minus to have a woman on the board, if it’s not a disadvantage, wouldn’t it add to the strength of the company to choose somebody on merit who is also a woman?

If you are not prepared to change and you want to be stuck in your old ways where you think male dominance is the answer to your board, then it’s to your detriment. Diversity is good for boards.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO COMPANIES THAT FIND EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRMS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE?

Maybe for some companies they are too expensive. It varies from company to company. For us it is money well spent because we get them to look for both male and female candidates. But usually with a bit of effort your own board members can find candidates. Our two female candidates on the main Board were not found by executive search – we reached out to them.

You also have to look at the size of the company. For a smaller size company, do you really need to overpower your board with high profile CEOs or managing partners of accounting or law firms? A successful professional in many ways could add value to your board. If your criteria are the same when looking for both men and women for your board, it will be a lot easier to find women.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO CHAIRMEN WHO SAY THERE AREN’T ENOUGH WOMEN CANDIDATES? ARE THOSE CHAIRMEN NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH?

I don’t want to be judgemental. I can only say that if you believe and you see the benefit, the value, of having women on your board, then you will need to proactively start planning for it and start looking around.

This is not something you can resolve in a day or two. So, if you have board members who are going to retire in one or two years’ time, you have to start thinking about it.

SOME COMMENTATORS SAY WOMEN DON’T PROMOTE THEMSELVES WELL ENOUGH AND THEY NEED TO BE OUT THERE MORE. DO YOU AGREE?

Well, I think Asian culture generally doesn’t encourage women to be too upfront. Going out, giving out name cards and being more upfront with your availability for boards may help, but I don’t approach women to join the boards just because they are upfront.

From a rational standpoint, you don’t want the same women sitting on all the boards. You want to expand the pool. It’s important for you to try new names, new people. That’s what nominating committees are for – to identify good candidates, not necessarily proven candidates.

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.