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Getting on board with diversity
A DESIRE to grow their presence in Asia while promoting diversity within their ranks is leading more multinational corporations to seek out highly experienced female executives from the region to join their boards.
With more evidence emerging that companies with more diverse boards perform better, investors are pushing companies to increase their board diversity, according to a report by consultancy Spencer Stuart. In the United States, for instance, already half of the S&P 500 directors in the 2017 proxy year are women or minorities, or both.
The report added that directors with global experience continue to be in demand by US-listed companies. Around 29 per cent of new directors in 2017 were found to have global professional experience working in locations such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Mexico, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
Euleen Goh, a director of DBS Group Holdings, is one of a growing number of Asian women being sought by international boards for their qualifications, experience and regional perspective. She is a non-executive board member of energy giant Royal Dutch Shell.
"I have been fortunate to tick several boxes of 'needs' when a company considers the skill matrix required for its board. I am an accountant with experiences internationally and in Asia, and an Asian woman," says Ms Goh, who was chief executive officer of Standard Chartered Bank Singapore from 2001 till her retirement from the bank in 2006.
"That said, once on the board, the requirement must be to contribute equitably, as with any other member of the board. That requires, therefore, that my perspectives are not limited to my gender or my technical skill set, but more broadly towards the collective responsibility of the board with respect to strategy formulation, stewardship and governance. Accordingly, for the board of Shell, I had to read deeply and engage widely to quickly grow my sectoral knowledge in oil and gas while complementing with insights from my range of experiences and technical knowledge."
Jeanette Wong, a DBS executive who sits on the board of French-listed ophthalmic optics company Essilor, agrees that understanding the strategy and specific needs of the organisation and the industry they operate in is key.
"You can't go onto a global board thinking you know it all, so homework is thoroughly necessary including reading past annual reports and analyst reports if it's a public company," says Ms Wong, who oversees DBS Group's Institutional Banking Group. She was the bank's chief financial officer between 2003 and 2008.
She adds: "Spending time with the chairman, CEO and some board directors, asking the pertinent questions helps. The Chair must be open enough to share his views, past issues and challenges to board members. I was invited by Essilor's chairman to attend one of their board meetings before I fully made up my mind and that helped convince me about joining the board."
Increasingly, companies at home and abroad are recognising the benefits of having a diverse organisation and board. In Singapore, DBS and property firm City Developments Limited made it to the 2018 edition of Bloomberg's Gender-Equality Index. The index measures gender equality across internal company statistics, employee policies, external community engagement and gender-conscious product offerings.
Women make up 30 per cent of the DBS group's management committee, which sets the strategy and direction of the bank. Females also account for 40 per cent of the bank's senior management - from senior vice- presidents to managing directors.
At The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), meanwhile, around 25 per cent of the board is currently female. Peter Wong, deputy chairman and chief executive of HSBC, says that the aim is get female board representation to around one-third in the near future and 50 per cent in the longer term.
"In HSBC in Asia, close to 50 per cent of our staff population is female; it is only fitting that they should be well represented on the board. The senior management is actively looking for female board members," he says.
One female board member of HSBC is Quek Bin Hwee, former vice-chairman (markets and industries) of professional services firm PwC Singapore.
Says Mr Wong: "Bin Hwee's professional experiences and connections built up over the years through hard work could not be easily duplicated regardless of gender. This, coupled with her charisma, brings to the board a vast amount of interesting views, and the key is when she speaks, people listen. Her regional connections are valuable assets, especially to HSBC as we want to expand significantly in the Asean region."
Yasmin Aladad Khan, an independent non-executive director at Malaysian-listed telco Digi, believes there has been growing attention on the positive attributes that women bring, not just on corporate boards, but also to senior leadership positions. She is also executive vice-president, commercial, Asia Pacific, and managing director, emerging markets, at DHL Express.
"At Deutsche Post DHL Group, we recognise that one of our greatest strengths lies in the diversity of our people. In DHL Express in the region, the percentage of women leaders in our business has grown from 28 per cent to 32 per cent over the last three years," she says. At Digi, some 43 per cent of the board of directors are women.
With Asia home to more than half the consumers in the world, companies doing business in the region are looking for directors with deep insight into the region. As such, companies from Europe and America looking to expand Asia are likely to appoint a director with relevant regional experience.
"The person they are looking for would probably be someone who has lived and worked in Asia. This person would be able to provide insights into businesses in Asia such as the business environment, the way business is done, regulations both written and unwritten and the business culture," says HSBC's Ms Quek.
"As the markets in Asia, particularly those in China and India open up, there will be a greater demand for board directors from Asia. I believe both men and women who can provide such insights will be considered for directorship."
Meanwhile, Ms Goh believes the trend of rising female representation on boards is a good opportunity to encourage the broader development of women talent in the corporate world.
She says: "This includes encouraging women to step forward for career progression and growth, calling for more diversity in leadership teams, and facilitating policies and processes in companies that will reduce impediments for talent development of women and minorities."