'It's about the whole team succeeding together'

The first job Ms Jeanette Wong applied for in 1981 was taken from a university noticeboard. It stated: "Only males need apply." As the job entailed travelling to Indonesia, which was then not as developed, the employer thought it was unsuitable for a
The first job Ms Jeanette Wong applied for in 1981 was taken from a university noticeboard. It stated: "Only males need apply." As the job entailed travelling to Indonesia, which was then not as developed, the employer thought it was unsuitable for a woman. However, Ms Wong fought for the job and got it.PHOTO: DBS

Ms Jeanette Wong, head of institutional banking at DBS in Singapore, talks about her career and what it means to be a good leader

Q What does good leadership mean to you?

A This is a broad question. Get 25 people in a room and they will all define it differently.

To me, good leaders should show they have track records of getting things done, track records of running a successful business and have an ability to leverage different people in their teams. Great leaders are able to distil everything that is going on to the essentials, and they're able to drive people towards the two or three things they need to stay focused on. It's about being able to create clarity in the whole organisation.

They are also able to carry a lot more people along with them - not because they are nice, but because people believe they have it in them to succeed. And great leaders make the people in their organisations feel like they can succeed, too. It's not about the leader himself, it's about the whole team succeeding together.

SENSE OF RESILIENCE

Personally, I'm looking at behaviours to try to assess their resilience and determination to win. How do they behave in setbacks, what do they do to win, how do they leverage their existing resources? So when I'm hiring, I'm really looking for people who show a sense of resilience.

MS JEANETTE WONG, on the type of people she hires

Q How was it for women in the finance industry when you started?

A The first job I applied for was on a noticeboard at the National University of Singapore. It stated: "Only males need apply." This was 1981, can you imagine? It piqued my interest, so I applied. I guess that also piqued the bank's interest, because they asked me in.

Their main concern then was that the job would entail a lot of travelling to Indonesia, visiting plantations and, at that point in time, Indonesia was still quite undeveloped. So they felt it was not the most suitable environment for a woman. I, basically, argued otherwise, and I got the job.

Q How difficult was it to get along in a male-dominated environment?

A Frankly, it's never been an issue. When I moved to the dealing room, the traders asked me to buy them coffee on my first day. But I never took it that it was because I was a woman, but more because I was the youngest trainee in the room. And I was probably better off thinking that way rather than always worrying whether it was because I was a woman, because, after a while, other people got to buy the coffee.

Q So, looking back, you don't feel being a woman was a barrier to getting promoted?

A I think we can be our own worst enemies. We are, sometimes, prone to doubt our ability to do the next job. I fought so hard against that mentality, yet I see it among some of the younger women I mentor. There's a lack of confidence, and I think they also tend to think more about the impact of their job decision on their families, for example, when accepting a job abroad. I don't think men think too hard about it; if they see the opportunity, they just go for it, and they assume their families will follow.

Q Do you think accepting a job abroad is a good way to get promoted?

A Well, I've always worked out of Singapore running regional businesses, and it hasn't harmed my career. But I do encounter many senior executives who believe that getting a good understanding of working in different cultural environments will put you in better stead to take the top jobs. I disagree. It's easy to travel around today. One can still spend a lot of time in China or in India without having to move your whole family there. I don't believe you obtain cultural sensitivity by living in a country for a year or two; ultimately, you have to make the effort to understand the different countries and their cultures. Client interfacing is very important, and working in a different country may help you, but it should not hold you back, either.

Q In your job, you've had to manage through several financial crises. What have you learnt from those experiences?

A The Asian financial crisis (1997-98) was probably the most challenging, and what it really taught me was that you have to be able to take on some hard decisions and not be wedded to your past ones, even if you believe that you may be right. You have to be willing to listen to others and reverse course. Importantly, you need to be able to step outside of the situation and look in. That's really critical.

Q Did you ever doubt yourself during those crises?

A No, it was more that it was really tough-going as it was long-drawn, and that's when you really need to learn to balance and to compartmentalise your work life and your personal life. What's important is not to panic, keep faith in the team and start strategising about how you're going to get the money back, how you're going to keep your bosses and the team in the loop, how you can minimise further risk to the bank. And you need to learn who to trust.

Q How do you hire?

A It's quite difficult to assess people, especially in an interview. People can often try to tell you what they think you want to hear. Personally, I'm looking at behaviours to try to assess their resilience and determination to win. How do they behave in setbacks, what do they do to win, how do they leverage their existing resources? So when I'm hiring, I'm really looking for people who show a sense of resilience. I don't mind if they have failed if they've learnt some lesson and they're able to bounce back. You can't go through life without failing; nobody is perfect, as an individual or as a manager and leader. So it's about learning from your mistake, living for another year.

Q Have you made hiring mistakes?

A Yes, but what's important is how you deal with the mistakes. It may take you two to three months before you realise you've made a mistake and that's when you should act, because if that person is still with you after that, then that mistake is no longer theirs, it's yours. I believe in giving feedback quickly. If it's not working out, you need to spell it out, and give them a chance to improve.

If after a few months it's still not working out, you have to be brutally clear to them that it is not working out. Early on in my career, I was always giving others the benefit of the doubt for probably too long. That's something I've learnt to deal with now.

I try to do it in a friendly manner. I'll tell them "This is how far you're going in this organisation based on what you are doing, so what do you really want to do to take this further?" I think often, in their heart of hearts, they know they are capping out, and they are better off finding other things to do that add more significance to their lives. Moving up the ladder is not something everybody wants to achieve after a certain point in time.

•This interview appeared in the Global Manager column in New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline ''It's about the whole team succeeding together''. Print Edition | Subscribe