Having spent more than 30 years in varying senior management roles in the competitive financial sector, Ms Jeanette Wong is no stranger to hardship and overcoming challenges in her career. A Board Director at UBS Group AG and Member of the NUS Board of Trustees, Ms Wong sits down with NUS News to share insights on her career, what it takes to stay the course, and her unique experiences as a female leader in a male-dominated industry.
- Tell us a little bit about your professional journey – were you always interested in this particular industry and how did you get into it?
I went into banking after listening to a senior talk about her corporate banking career at the Bank of America. Banking sounded very exciting for a young graduate striking out, and the variety in job scope was quite wide. None of my family members had worked in a bank, but my senior gave the impression of being given lots of opportunities to learn and to her, corporate banking was akin to having a pulse on what’s happening in the economy.
I wanted to start out working in a bank, but Bank of America was not hiring at the time, till after the third year results. I was in my third year (we had the option of not doing honours in our fourth year then) so I started applying for jobs in any bank, hoping someone would grant me an interview at least. An offer came from a French offshore bank (Banque Paribas) and I started in corporate banking. They were actually looking to hire male trainees as they had put up a notice on the NUS board, “only males need apply”, but they did offer me a job (probably for having the guts to apply when they asked for male applicants).
I was lucky and met some great bosses there, but after working for a year or so, with the help of my seniors, I understood the different ‘pecking’ order of banks in Singapore then (e.g. which banks offered good training programmes, which had better reputations, etc). I wasn’t as savvy as some of our graduates today, who are much more aware which banks to target. The French bank was a good place to learn and many of my seniors were very helpful. I realised most of them had trained previously in American banks. I felt then that I should work for an American bank to get a strong grounding in banking.
Citibank offered one of the more reputable core training programmes for a corporate banker and I managed, with the help of one of my senior colleagues, to get an interview with Citi and was offered a job. I entered Citi’s core credit training programme and moved from corporate banking to private banking in Citi. After a couple of years, I met my husband at Citi and wanted to move out. I wanted to continue working for an American bank. From my limited experience, the Americans seemed more meritocratic in their talent management.
It was then that I joined JP Morgan in 1986, which was transforming itself from a corporate bank to an investment bank. JP Morgan would only hire trainees then, but I had four years of experience under my belt. It wasn’t easy to step back again, but I did join them in the Financial Markets area as I wanted to continue working for a US bank. In turn, I entered their training programme in New York to train in financial markets and investment banking, as they were transforming themselves and changing their focus to financial markets.
It was exciting times as everything was new to me but one lesson learnt: never be afraid to take a lower position if you believe there are better opportunities and if the organisation is the right one to join. It felt like I had started all over again but New York was an exciting city and learning about financial markets and financial instruments like swaps and options was equally exciting. I stayed at JP Morgan for over 17 years (from 1986 to 2003), mostly in the Markets area focusing on FX, fixed income and emerging markets, eventually managing the business for JP Morgan in Asia Pacific, and was country head of JP Morgan in Singapore.
I also did my executive MBA while I was running JP Morgan. My sons who were in their early tweens then called my MBA (Mum’s Been Away!) as my husband helped by getting them engaged in all sorts of sports while I studied. By 2003, most of my colleagues had left JP Morgan as it had merged with Chase Manhattan in 2000. I felt I had fewer friends in the organisation, not only in Singapore, but around the world. In 2003, as I was contemplating a job offer to do something different, I had a discussion with an ex-boss and he suggested that I join DBS Bank and offered to speak to the CEO. I wasn’t so confident and thought that I would get caught up in the ‘politics’ of the organisation then.
After some contemplation and knowing that banking is what I was and am comfortable in, I did join DBS in 2003 as Chief Administrative Officer. I told the CEO then that I was interested in HR as I believe getting its talent management right at the bank is extremely important, but was also asked by him to oversee Credit and Risk. After a few months, I was asked to take over the CFO position when the CFO retired, and after 5 years as CFO, I was moved to run a business again, the Institutional Banking Group at DBS. I stayed on at DBS for 16 years and retired from DBS in 2019 after building and growing the institutional bank from a $2 billion to a $6 billion business. That’s my 37 years in banking! Only one industry but different roles.
- What keeps you motivated in your line of work?
It’s not all a bed of roses and sometimes it can be very stressful, but keeping my perspective on what I enjoy about the job keeps me going. I like that my work gives me a perspective on what’s happening in the world and the economy, and through the many different crises in the past few decades, it provides a sense of financial history. Something is always happening in the financial markets and it’s reflected in FX, interest rates, credit or equity markets.
Once I got to a level where I was leading teams, helping people grow and learn was also something that kept me going. I realise that if we can successfully build the business together in a sustainable fashion, more jobs will be created and more people will be able to do well for themselves and their families financially.
- The finance and corporate sector is still largely male-dominated today. Are there particular challenges you have to face in this industry, and if so, how do you overcome them?
It’s true that equal number of women and men enter the workforce at the junior level but many women do not stay the course.
I try to encourage many women in banks to stay the course as often as I can (in my talks and through mentoring). Increasingly, more women today are willing to stay the course but not enough, as society is more forgiving of women who opt out of their careers. Even today, after touting gender diversity for decades, the number of senior women pales in comparison to men. We lament about not having enough women board members but the problem is we do not have enough senior women leadership in many organisations. Staying the course will definitely help.
I would also encourage more women to find opportunities to work, not just in support functions, but also in the frontline business. Business success can speak for women who are reticent about speaking for themselves. I was lucky to have senior mentors and advisors (male and female) and I would encourage women to likewise seek career advice from seniors. I find that many senior male leaders want to support more women, but they may not fully understand the challenges of a working woman as many of their wives don’t work.
Many organisations today recognise that gender diversity is imperative in seeking and retaining the best talent. In addition, I believe that having inclusive HR policies and practices to support working mothers will help ensure that women stay the course. I would also encourage women to seek opportunities to work in a business area and not just gravitate to deemed ‘female’ roles in the organisation.
- How can women advocate for each other, and promote mutual visibility in the workplace? What does supporting your fellow female colleagues look like, based on your experience?
There are just not enough senior women to advocate for each other (even though senior women should advocate for more women talent), but there are enough men in senior positions who recognise the value of gender diversity today, so finding a senior male to advocate for women is actually easier to do.
When I was managing my business, I had more males reporting to me than women, but I tried as much as I could to ensure whenever we reviewed talent succession, there were always a couple of women in that pool of successors. I continue to try to get HR to change their policies to make it friendlier for women to have children and still continue working. We have come a long way, but we still need to have enlightened bosses and colleagues who recognise that time in the office isn’t the only evidence of one’s commitment to an organisation.
- What does it take to build a spirit of support and respect in large and complex organisations; a culture of openness and cooperation, rather than competition?
Understand that success can be shared and it’s not a zero sum game. One should have a spirit of competitiveness. Wanting to do well can spur one on and always strive to do better. But it should never be at the expense of putting down someone else in the organisation.
Also, be authentic and be truthful (i.e. be kind, but honest) in your work environment – this way, you can build a reputation of openness and authenticity, and people will come to trust what you do or what you say. This helps a lot when you are trying to mobilise people to work together.
- Can you share with us what your ambitions were, growing up and after graduation (and is it very different/similar from what you’re doing now)?
Like many young graduates, I wanted to be successful and I wanted to enjoy what I was doing, but I wasn’t sure what success looked like and what I really liked about any job. I think I wasn’t as intense and targeted as some of our young graduates today.
I went into banking but banking jobs are quite varied and there are many different areas in a bank. In my early years, I tried different jobs and different banks. I approached the jobs giving my very best, but also with a lot of self-reflection on what I am good at and what I am not good at. I was lucky with opportunities and good bosses.
As I got more senior, I recognise that helping my area of business do well is how one gets recognition in large organisations and after that, it was always my underlying goal – making sure that there is business success and that it’s sustainable. I recognise too that making the people in my team successful also helps with one’s reputation as a leader.
- What would you say to a young female graduate wanting to pursue a career in a finance or corporate sector?
When you are just starting out, it’s not easy to know what kind of job roles you are good at, what skills are natural to you, what aspects of a job you might enjoy, so spend the early years of your career with some honest self-reflection to understand yourself and your natural capabilities better (although some skills can be learnt over time).
Do not be averse to a variety of job experiences as your first job may not be your ideal job. Having insights to your own strengths and inclinations will come in useful as you contemplate job offers or even promotions, later on. Also, learn to understand what kind of skill sets to look at in people, even as a junior, because having good insights into people will come in useful when you are a senior team leader.
Finally, always keep foremost ethical considerations in every decision you make and in everything you do. This last advice may sound like a given, but there are many situations one can come across in a work environment when the decision to do what is right is not so intuitive.
About the interviewee
Ms Jeanette Wong is a member of the Securities Industry Council and sits on the Boards of UBS Group AG, EssilorLuxottica (France), PSA International Ltd, Jurong Town Corporation and Fullerton Fund Management Company Ltd. She is on the NUS Business School Management Advisory Board, and was appointed to the NUS Board of Trustees on 1 April 2020. Ms Wong’s previous roles included being the Group Executive responsible for the Institutional Banking Group at DBS Bank.
Source: National University of Singapore(HighLights)