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Banking veteran believes in speakING up

Catherine Low's outspokenness has helped her rise to become head of local branch of Dutch bank ING

Catherine Low believes in raising her hand and speaking up.

While she agrees that discrimination against women is a real problem in the finance sector, the banking veteran firmly believes that women should be more proactive in grabbing opportunities.

She said: "Discrimination is real but sometimes I think there's more of a 'sticky floor' syndrome than a 'glass ceiling' syndrome."

The 52-year-old walks the talk.

Her outspokenness is one factor that has helped the mother of two rise from being a bank relationship manager to becoming the head of the local branch of Dutch bank ING.

Ms Low, who is ING Bank's Singapore country manager, is one of the more prominent female banking leaders here.

During an hour-long interview at the ING Bank office at Guoco Tower, she spoke passionately about the importance of voicing one's opinions.


Throughout her 30 years in the finance sector, Ms Catherine Low has not been afraid to speak up when there were things that needed fixing, regardless of whether or not these related to her job scope. She also believes in getting staff to voice their views. ST PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN

EMPOWERING STAFF

Instead of people complaining, 'This doesn't work, this policy is stupid', and expecting senior managers to solve it, now we give them the power to own the responsibility for improving things.

MS CATHERINE LOW, ING Bank's Singapore country manager, on a regional forum called Sounding Board, under which groups of ING middle management staff get together to come up with ideas on how the bank could improve.

Throughout her 30 years in the finance sector, she has not been afraid to speak up when there were things that needed fixing, regardless of whether or not these related to her job scope. In one case, she helped a colleague who had breast cancer to fight for better benefits.

In that case, the breast cancer could be treated without hospitalisation or surgery, she said, but the bank where she worked did not offer insurance to staff to cover non-surgical, non-hospitalisation chemotherapy treatments. "So I spoke up and lobbied and got us insurance to cover such cases."

Ms Low also believes in creating an environment where staff feel free to voice their views.

The irony is that she was once told by some employees that they would like her, as country manager, to lead more discussions on how operations could be improved.

"So they were telling me, 'Catherine, you could do more'," she said with a laugh.

The employees are part of a regional forum called Sounding Board, under which groups of ING middle management staff get together to come up with ideas on how the bank could improve.

The idea behind the programme, Ms Low said, is to allow employees to challenge senior management and think of ideas to address problems and help the company seize opportunities faster.

"Instead of people complaining, 'This doesn't work, this policy is stupid', and expecting senior managers to solve them, now we give them the power to own the responsibility for improving things."

Things have certainly improved for Ms Low, who grew up in modest circumstances and had to give tuition and take on holiday jobs to support herself through university.

She joined the finance sector after graduation. At one point, she found herself juggling her job as a relationship manager at a bank, running a frozen yogurt business, and caring for her two young daughters, who are now 20 and 26.

"I would start work at 7am, end at 10, 11pm and go to my Yogen Fruz shop at Great World City to collect the cash and count the inventory," recalled Ms Low, whose husband also works in finance.

But she ended the business after a while. " I was the most profitable relationship manager at the bank and I'd just had a second baby at the time, so I thought it was all too much," she said.

Ms Low has worked at six banks, including ING, which she joined in 2003 to head the Singapore commodity trade finance team. She was promoted to be the head of the Asia commodity trade finance team, which she led to become a market leader in the business.

In 2012, Ms Low was appointed ING Singapore country manager.

She appreciates the bank's culture of encouraging employees to go beyond their job scopes to speak up, collaborate across departments and find solutions to problems.

Ms Low said bank employees are appraised, for example, on their "stretch ambitions" - things they do outside of their roles.

She said: "It gets people excited because they can be an agent for positive change. A lot of times, people complain that the things they are unhappy about are beyond their control, so they can only grouse about it. But we encourage staff to make things happen."

As an executive committee member and former president of the Financial Women's Association, she has heard her share of stories about gender discrimination in the industry, but she admits she has never experienced it herself.

"Looking back, I think I have been very fortunate. I've always had nice colleagues and good mentors, coaches and sponsors," she said.

Ultimately, she believes that speaking up and being proactive can make a big difference. "I think in most organisations. if you have the will and interest and what it takes to move ahead, you can get it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2018, with the headline 'Banking veteran believes in speakING up'. Print Edition | Subscribe