Asian leaders perspectives: An interview with Siew Meng Tan, HSBC
Leadership Development

Asian leaders perspectives: An interview with Siew Meng Tan, HSBC

Siew Meng Tan, HSBC’s regional head of global private banking in Asia Pacific, shares her perspective on what makes successful Asian leaders in global environments.
Heidrick & Struggles
Siew Meng Tan
Asian leaders perspectives: An interview with Siew Meng, HSBC image

Siew Meng Tan is the regional head of global private banking in Asia Pacific at HSBC. She has been with HSBC for more than 17 years in various leadership roles that include the Regional Head of Global Trade and Receivables Finance for Asia Pacific, the CEO of HSBC Mauritius, and subsequently CEO of HSBC Thailand. Siew Meng's distinguished career spans over 30 years and has recently been recognized through the Asian Private Banker’s Private Banker of the Year award in 2019.

Heidrick & Struggles: Could you please briefly talk about your background and what you're currently doing?

Siew Meng: I'm a Singaporean. I started with HSBC in our global banking business, running a team in the corporate and institutional banking area. After that I became the head of commercial banking here in Singapore, dealing with the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore; that was when I got the chance to really experience managing a much, much larger team of about 250 people. Next, I had the opportunity to go overseas as the CEO in Mauritius, a place I'd never been to. That two-year stint provided me with great exposure and was followed by a new CEO role in Thailand for two and a half years. I next became the regional head of cross-trade finance (while based in Hong Kong), which was a strategic business unit for HSBC because we started as a trade bank. Then I became the leader for the global private banking business in Asia.

Heidrick & Struggles: If you had to pick four or five words or short phrases to describe how a successful Asian leader in a global environment operates or behaves, what would they be?

Siew Meng: If you are working in a multinational organization or in a global environment, I think it’s very important to be astute and culturally aware. I think you have to be very, very confident, and I say that because, for Asians, we tend to maintain a rather low profile compared to our counterparts from other geographies. So I think you've really got to be very confident in yourself and be able to position yourself well. Most Asians tend to let others speak first, and I think that is part and parcel of the culture that we were brought up in, the way we were raised in our families. But, with time, I think the generations now being educated in universities overseas, are getting better and better [at interacting with their global counterparts]. They understand better that being confident and articulate is key to success in multinationals. And, finally, I would highlight empathy, because as a leader you're interacting with lots of people and your employees are looking up to you, so you must have that power to empathize.

Heidrick & Struggles: How would you describe the differences in the organization and culture between a global environment and a more local or regional environment?

Siew Meng: My first job was with a local bank, DBS, where I spent eight years; that is now more than 30 years ago, and things have changed. In the banking sector, I feel that we are getting more regional and also more global at the same time. Leaders from local and foreign banks are looking for leaders with diverse backgrounds. In the past, local banks tend to have local leaders – nothing wrong with that – but if local leaders have got international experience, they could bring in the richness, diversity and a global macro view into the business. Hence banks nowadays tend to hire leaders with diverse backgrounds to deal with this complex world that we are living in.

Heidrick & Struggles: In the past, there was always this assumption that maybe local banks will want more loyalty and people with tenure, and then maybe multinationals will want more results. Do you think that that has been changing as well?

Siew Meng: I think so. If you look at the local or regional banks, they hire professionals from different backgrounds. At HSBC, there was a period of time when they had foreign leaders running the business. But in the last 10–15 years, the locals have also gone abroad to get international experience. If you want to run the business in any country, I think local leaders will have a slight advantage because they understand the culture, the environment, and the nuances of that environment.

Heidrick & Struggles: What about the locals that have worked predominantly in local organizations? What, in your view, would be the best way to allow them to onboard and adapt quicker when they join a global company?

Siew Meng: When I first stepped up to be the CEO in Mauritius, the bank actually organized a one-month program for me that was similar to a boot camp; I met with different people in the organization, the stakeholders that I’d be working with. It was my first time working abroad—I’d always operated within Singapore, and so this kind of [onboarding] arrangement really helped. And then, I was given a mentor who is an international manager—someone I could really work with and go to.

Heidrick & Struggles: And what was the most challenging difference in leadership or culture that you had to understand and overcome in a global multinational corporation?

Siew Meng: I would say organizational culture. I think that when you are joining the company, you need have an understanding of the organization. You've got to ask yourself if you are going to be able to navigate through the differences in cultures in that organization. You need to really understand yourself, what kind of person you are, know whether or not you have enough experience to be able to navigate one that is really truly global or one that is more American, and you need to have an understanding of which behavior the organization is likely to choose. If you have been successful in doing what you're doing, you would have acquired the necessary leadership qualities, and then it comes down to the ability to really understand the cultural differences.

Heidrick & Struggles: So, even the Western and the Asian parts of it are also nuances that you have to get round.

Siew Meng: Yes. Asia is very diverse—you talk about China, you talk about Thailand, you talk about Singapore—it’s very diverse. Even if you are working in an Asian context for a regional organization, it is very different when you are working with people in these different countries. Personally, I had the privilege of being immersed in Thailand, and only when you live there and work with the local team you understand why people are behaving the way they do. And then you progressively begin to recognize the nuances—for instance, when people say “yes,” you have to ask what they really mean. Do they really mean “yes” or do they actually mean, “I hear you but am not necessarily agreeing with you.”

If you want to get the best out of your diverse workforce, you've got to understand the differences and be able to adjust your style in terms of how you interact with the different types of people.

Heidrick & Struggles: What different perspectives do you bring to the business or the organization as a leader?

Siew Meng: I think that as an Asian leader I need to be able to really explain and really bring up the quality of the talent in this part of the world. Some of them may not be able to really promote themselves as well as somebody in the West, either because of language barriers or upbringing, so I think that my role as an Asian leader is to help bridge this difference and help [leaders] really recognize the capabilities of an individual who may not be very outspoken but who is confident enough to speak, and just give him or her that opportunity. Sometimes people just need a little bit of help, someone to open the gate for them, and then they can just go in and they can really show their full talent.

Heidrick & Struggles: What advice would you give to someone who has taken a senior leadership role to be the most impactful in their role?

Siew Meng: If you have the capability and you're going for a certain role, just be very confident in yourself. Know what you really bring to the table and then continuously look at the people you are working with. There will always be areas that you need to work on to be better. For me, when I started the head of commercial banking role, I had to deal with a lot of SMEs, interacting with them and being more visible in the community, and so I had to step up my ability to interact with the media. I always tell myself that if there's something that I am not comfortable with, I need to do more of it. The more you do something, the more you'll get comfortable with it. I continue to work on my weaknesses because, on a global platform, you really need to compete against the best.

Heidrick & Struggles: Are there any training or resources such as coaching to help you be better or is it just a lot of practice?

Siew Meng: It's a combination of receiving training and applying it—plus, I have worked with various coaches. I had a coach before I left Singapore, when I went on an overseas assignment. And I had another coach who was working with me on my ability to influence, because at the end of the day, at the senior level, you need to bring people along with you. I think that if you want to be able to win over your stakeholders, if you want to achieve a win-win resolution, you need to find a way to be able to influence people. So that's one of the things that I'm still working on today.

Heidrick & Struggles: Are these resources available to the broader leadership team within the bank itself?

Siew Meng: Yes. In fact, at HSBC we use a lot of a coaches, because I think it is very clear that as you reach a more senior level, you can't just depend on the standard training; it’s very important that we leverage coaches to really tailor our learning and to help us in our development areas.

Another example: we also have a female leadership program within HSBC that focuses on supporting our female leaders and I'm one of the sponsors of that program. In that program itself, apart from speaking on leadership topics of interest, we also provide coaching support. So far, the feedback from the participants on coaching is that they find it extremely helpful—mostly because, for somebody to be at their best in the organization, it’s not just about the job. A lot of people are very good at their jobs, but the difference is in the soft skills: how they are really able to navigate through the complexities and also balance the stress that is being thrown at them. And, sometimes, if you hear and understand that [that stress] is something everybody goes through, it's very comforting. It’s very human to say, for example that I'm not the only one having these problems, I'm not the only one feeling stressed about work and not having enough time for my family. And having that confirmation itself gives our female leaders a lot of comfort.

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