Getting women to the top

CEOs weigh in on how organisations can groom more women to take up top leadership roles

Should companies be “gender-blind” or adopt proactive policies to cultivate and groom women leaders? That was one burning topic debated during The CEO Panel held on July 12, 2013, at the DBS Auditorium, an event organised by Flexiwerkz and Caliberlink.

The panel of CEOs comprised Yvonne Chia, the first woman to become CEO of a Malaysian bank, and Dr Britta Pfister, Managing Director and Head of Wealth Planning Asia Pacific for the Rothschild Trust Group. They were joined by Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group and Director of The Islamic Bank of Asia and DBS Bank (Hong Kong), and Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings.

Ho believes “diversity strengthens an organisation”, and his company actively grooms and promotes women in leadership. In the hospitality industry, mobility is a crucial factor in career advancement. While men are often willing to relocate, women often hesitate to do so, which results in more men in leadership positions. Thus, proactive policies had to be adopted to identify, train and develop female talent. One Banyan Tree Resort in Thailand is run by a Thai female General Manager, testament to the company’s philosophy in encouraging diversity in leadership.

Chia, on the other hand, expressed her opinion that a company merely had to be “gender-blind” and that meritocracy would ensure capable women rose to the top. Chia talked about the importance of a woman’s self-belief and confidence to grab opportunities that are out there, so as to climb up the corporate ladder. She added that emotional quotient (EQ) and flexibility are requirements for leadership success, which are coincidentally natural strengths of a woman.

Dr Britta shared how she became the first woman promoted to the management level in a male-dominated company, despite the lack of proactive “female-friendly” policies. Instead, it was the management’s recognition that they had to put in serious effort to retain talent, which facilitated more women continuing their careers and rising into leadership positions. Amazingly, three of four management positions in the Wealth Management department of Rothschild Trust Group are held by women today.

Women in leadership today should also have the responsibility to mentor and the next generation of women leaders. Gupta said DBS was in a good position to continue cultivating women leaders, as many women in senior management positions now serve as role models for the younger generation. He also added that workplace flexibility, such as flexi-time, unpaid/sabbatical leave and part-time work, is a key reason as to why a third of DBS’ management comprise of women leaders. Employees are able to continue advancing on a promising career path even after taking a break, as there is no prejudice in opting for flexi-arrangements.

At the end of the fruitful discussion, it was evident that all CEOs believed that promoting gender diversity in the C-suite is important for sustaining leadership and employee diversity in the organisation.

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