Interview with Wong Su-Yen

Ms Wong Su-Yen is a non-executive board member of Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd, MediaCorp and NTUC First campus. She also serves as the Independent Non-Executive Chairman of Nera Telecommunications Ltd.

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WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO GET BOARD DIVERSITY RIGHT?

The practical issue is that boards are comprised of a limited number of seats which need to account for a variety of experiences and expertise in order to provide a holistic view of the business. Hence, what is required are individuals who ideally ‘check several boxes’ and can provide a perspective from multiple dimensions. For example, a board might seek candidates with knowledge of the Middle East, logistics, digital disruption and talent management. While all areas of expertise are unlikely to reside in the same individual, equally, a single factor – be it gender or otherwise – is likewise insufficient.

Boards and nominating committees thus need to consider the entire mix of skills and competencies required, and then bring the diversity of candidates to bear. Gender is but one element. Age, cultural background, tenure on the board and experience are all characteristics that should come into play.

HOW SHOULD CHAIRMEN START ON THIS JOURNEY, IF THEY HAVEN’T ALREADY?

The issue is that boards have all too often been formed on the basis of “Who do I know?” as a starting point. An alternative approach is to first ask “What do I need on the board?” and then “How do I fill those gaps?”

A good practice is to start with a competency and experience matrix. The board performance assessment and individual evaluation guidelines under the Code of Corporate Governance are highly relevant here. In addition, a key consideration is to look ahead to how the business may be evolving. What was important two years ago might be different from today or tomorrow. For example, the business might have a strong domestic orientation whereas a key priority moving forward might be to grow overseas. That would necessitate a different profile of experience on the board.

SHOULD THEY USE EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRMS TO SEEK NEW DIRECTORS?

Executive search firms can play a valuable role in increasing the pool of potential candidates. I believe most boards that have undertaken a rigorous process with an executive search partner would have uncovered director candidates that go beyond the board’s personal network.

IS PROGRESS ON GENDER DIVERSITY HAMPERED BY THE FACT THAT MANY DIRECTORS TEND TO STAY ON BOARDS FOR A LONG TIME?

There is merit to continuity and experience on the board. At the same time, there needs to be some degree of churn to ensure fresh perspectives, and also to ensure the board is equipped to meet the evolving needs of the organisation. If the majority of the board has been in place for a long time, that’s an issue. On the other hand, if some directors have a longer tenure while others are newer to the board, that is likely to strike a balance between legacy and new approaches.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF LOW BOARD DIVERSITY ON GOVERNANCE GENERALLY AMONG SINGAPORE COMPANIES?

If we think of governance as the ability to adhere to rules and regulations – in other words, conformance – I feel we are pretty good at that. The question is how do we ensure that boards are equipped to challenge the status quo and drive performance holistically given the pace of change confronting us today? Given that context, how do you create a culture of asking ‘why’ and ‘what if’, in larger organisations and equally in smaller or family-based organisations? Diversity yields differing views and perspectives, and consequently enhances governance where it comes to performance.

The role of the chairman in setting the tone is really important too. A key indicator for me is whether the chairman speaks first or last. This tends to set the stage for whether or not directors feel free to put forth alternative views. An effective chairman needs to facilitate a culture of healthy debate, ensure a balance of perspectives, and avoid dominating the discussion.

ARE THERE ENOUGH WOMEN IN THE PIPELINE TO BE DIRECTORS?

This is an issue that needs to be addressed systemically. In the Singapore context, we have quite a large population of women who are highly educated yet do not remain in the workforce. I do not think this issue will simply take care of itself.

Companies need to put in place mechanisms to retain women in the workforce and enable them to progress to senior leadership roles. This requires thoughtful and deliberate action to address hiring, pay, promotion, development, work-life and leadership practices that may not currently align with the realities of a gender-balanced workforce. There are no shortcuts here. This is the type of hard work it takes to build up more female CEOs and leaders in order to ensure a strong pipeline of director candidates.

Women on the other hand need to be willing to continue developing their careers, and subsequently prepare themselves for board roles. While life ‘at the top’ has its rewards, it is no bed of roses – regardless of profession, irrespective of gender. It can be lonely, the hours are long, and there are trade-offs to be made.

Which leads to the last factor in the equation – the importance of male champions at work and partners at home. A conversation about gender diversity conducted by and for the female population alone is bound to perpetuate the perception that these are women’s problems, not organisation or societal issues.

Similarly, if the caregiving role – be it for children or elderly parents – continues to fall mainly to women; if social supports that allow families to function are not in place; and if social attitudes toward gender roles do not evolve towards a more egalitarian stance; we will continue to see a paucity of women in pinnacle roles and consequently at the board level.

“Every chairman knows that they didn’t start out being on a board with board experience. Everyone had to start somewhere.”

SHOULD WOMEN BE MORE PROACTIVE IN BEING NOMINATED ON BOARDS?

I feel there are many misconceptions held by women (and men) around being nominated on boards. There is a commonly held view that someone is going to show up one day and call on them. My experience is that it does not really work that way. Rather, as with any career, prospective directors need to build up a portfolio of experiences and take a series of steps that move them in that direction.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have had numerous mentoring conversations with individuals who are dead set on being on a board, who say, “I want to be a director”, yet lack an understanding of what it takes. I therefore think there is a need for greater awareness of what makes somebody a compelling candidate for board roles.

To be an effective contributor on the board, most boards will seek a balance of knowledge and soft skills. This of course applies to management roles as well. The top engineer is not necessarily the best candidate to lead the engineering team. As an engineer, there is often a technical solution to a given issue, and domain expertise is paramount. But as one moves into leadership and management roles, knowledge per se is far from adequate.

When making the leap from a management role to the board, the ability to operate at 10,000 feet becomes even more important because now you are a step removed from the business. How then do you stay close to what’s happening in the industry, the market and the organisation to be able to set direction? How do you synthesise the various data points to arrive at a point of view? How do you drive towards consensus? How can you contribute in a meaningful way? It’s important to have the skill and will to manage those dynamics in order to be an effective contributor on the board.

Finally, I would highlight the importance of building a diverse personal network. Again, I find that misconceptions abound. Networking should never be about what you want or need, but about how you can build a relationship and potentially add value to the other person!

Boards and nominating committees do need to overcome the natural tendency to only approach people they know. However, let us not forget that trust and credibility are critical considerations in any board nomination process.

SHOULD MORE EFFORT BE MADE TO TRAIN DIRECTORS?

Absolutely. One can make the argument that the years of experience someone brings to a board are adequate preparation. In some cases that is certainly true, and the intent is not to minimise the significance of that experience. Yet, in many cases, women (and men) who have a notion that they might like to serve on boards really do not have a good sense of what that entails. Which is where additional preparation and training comes in.

Many people who come up through a typical corporate career path assume the natural progression is to go from management to board. Clearly, the experience one gains from a career in management is fundamental to contributing on a board. Yet the roles and requirements are different.

IN WHAT WAY?

In practice, it requires an understanding of corporate governance. For example, understanding listing rules, the Code of Corporate Governance, executive remuneration, shareholder relations and so on. It also requires a strong strategic orientation, and increasingly, a focus on transformation and organisation change.

For someone who hails from a functional background – be it finance, legal, HR, or digital – depth in that specific area of expertise needs to be complemented with an understanding of the broader industry and business context.

For someone who comes from a multinational company background, it is important to appreciate that most multinationals operate via a management structure. So even if you sit on the board of a subsidiary company, that experience often bears little resemblance to being on the board of a listed entity.

I would also make the point that both the ‘what’ as well as ‘how’ are critical. It is important to seek guidance and coaching on the soft skills required to be an effective director. Personally I have learned and continue to seek advice from directors and chairmen who have come before me. I now find myself supporting and enabling others who want to embark on a similar journey.

IT REALLY SOUNDS LIKE BEING A BOARD DIRECTOR IS NOT AN EXTENSION OF YOUR CAREER, BUT AN ENTIRELY NEW ONE.

I tend to think of it as a profession unto itself. I recommend people who are interested in serving on boards to start with a non-profit board for a cause they care about, and investing time in professional development. This will provide a foundational understanding of governance and from there, slowly but surely start building a network. Every chairman knows he or she didn’t start out with board experience. We all have to start somewhere.

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.