Tell us about how you got into accounting and your journey from Singapore to Australia and back again (via Thailand.)
I was born and grew up in Singapore and moved to Australia for my tertiary education. Post graduating, I started working in Australia and spent most of my career there. I didn’t have a specific path I wanted to go down, Accounting & Finance seemed quite broad, so I did that. I soon realised the impact that strong leadership and mentorship had, and certain people inspired me. Then an opportunity came up to lead a finance function in Thailand for Diageo, which was a priceless experience I couldn’t turn down. It was scary and unfamiliar to start a new role whilst at the same time living in a new country, but amazing going from a developed market like Australia to an emerging market.
There’s a lot more volatility, a lot more political and regulatory changes, a lot more VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity]. I had to anticipate more, plan for contingencies more, and be more linked in to the external environment to stay ahead of the curve. Having grown up in Singapore, I thought culturally it would be easy, but every country in Asia is very different! It taught me to be a lot more self-aware, to be able to flex my style, and to be more perceptive.
You managed quite a diverse team back in Australia but a local team in Thailand. How did it affect your management style?
It was diverse in the sense of nationalities, but everyone had very similar styles. It was more of a direct and open style, whereas in Thailand it was more considered, and you have to listen more. It taught me to be more aware of people and adapt accordingly in order to motivate people differently; a more collaborative approach rather than an empowering approach was needed. The sense of family also extends to the workplace there, so your colleagues become extended family, which is important to understand.
And how did you get to Singapore from there?
It was an opportunity I took again. I’d always worked in very vertical markets and the opportunity in Singapore was to manage multiple markets both emerging and developed within Southeast Asia, looking after established businesses and setting up new businesses, which was very exciting. The team was very mixed and diverse.
Do you think that diversity has ever hindered you or blocked any personal progression?
I believe no, because I don’t let myself think that way. I approach all opportunities from a perspective of merit. Sometimes, when we put self-limiting beliefs in our head, it can present itself as lack of confidence and you end up not going for opportunities. Because I don’t think that way, I don’t think of myself as a different gender or ethnicity, but more a person who is going to go for opportunities, and I’ve also always had the support of both male and female leaders in helping me pursue my progression.
It has been mentioned that sometimes women won’t go for a job if they don’t think they are quite ready, whereas men will whether they are right for it or not. Is that fair?
I think it can be true, but it comes back to limitations in your own head. If you have a self-limiting belief, then you’re naturally going to present yourself that way. It’s really helped me having strong, inspirational female leaders around, that I don’t even think about limitations. They’ve inspired me to think I can do amazing things too.
Both Coty and Diageo are known for being forward thinking and having female leaders and people of different ethnicity in senior roles. Do you think that permeates down?
What is great about Coty is that it goes beyond gender diversity to be broader - diversity and inclusion, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, age, even style. Many organisations tend to hire people in their own likeness, a fixed style, and I think that’s an important factor in the strength of Coty that we are so diverse.
Why is it important for a consumer-focused business to be diverse?
Internally, employees will be a lot more engaged if their values and perspectives are appreciated and listened to, which in turn attracts talent externally. From an external perspective, the customer/client base is diverse, so if you live and breathe diversity and inclusion, that will put you in a better place to serve them. And thirdly, for the stakeholders and partners you work with, people are more aware now, and actively want to work with companies that are diverse and inclusive, so you’re going to have better business partners.
What is your advice to leaders who want to grow a more diverse and inclusive culture?
I think becoming diverse is slightly easier than becoming inclusive. You can plan for being diverse through external recruitment or internal promotions. Becoming inclusive is key and it’s where leaders should put their focus, by listening to people and being more open and perceptive, and encouraging people to be their full selves.
Have you experienced any bias at all in the type of job or leader you’ve joined? And if so, what sort of leader are they?
The leaders you work with always change over time and while you may be attracted to the leader you interview with or join to work with, I try to understand an organisation’s culture instead. I’ve been fortunate to work for organisations with brilliant cultures and that is the main thing you’re going to experience. Cultures that embrace diversity; that invest and commit in people; and how people collaborate there, all add up to an overall culture. That said, I have had very inspirational leaders in my career, most notable one early on who helped me see that I could achieve things and go for opportunities I did not even consider and the other helped me achieve a much bigger leadership impact by breaking through my own internal limitations. In more recent years a female manager now one of my mentors uses a phrase that has resonated and stuck about being “fearlessly expressed”.
What kind of leader are you? What’s your style of leadership?
I’d like to think that my leadership style is one of empowerment. My purpose centres on growth. Growth in myself, growth in my teams and growth in company performance. I really value my teams, my peers and what they bring to the table in terms of values, perspectives and styles. By empowering people, you are creating an environment for them to succeed or fail in a safe environment. I like to help people see what they sometimes don’t see in themselves, to help them unlock something to achieve their highest potential and reach their own personal goals whatever they might be.
As a CFO, you are under pressure to make key business decisions. Is your collaborative style sometimes at odds with the decision-making process for a CFO?
The collaborative style helps your business partner. No leader can achieve goals on their own, it’s a team thing, so I don’t think it’s a hindrance, but it helps understand all the different perspectives and ultimately helps the decision making.
As you’ve become more senior, is it easier or harder to balance your time?
I’ve come to realise that nothing is going to be perfectly balanced. The concept of work/life balance means different things to different people. For some it’s having a clear delineation between work and home. I, however, am very inspired by work and it makes me more fulfilled, which in turn makes me better outside of work. What I’ve learnt to do is work more flexibly, so that I can prioritise what I need to at any point. With seniority I have a lot more autonomy, which makes it easier to do, but it also comes with a lot more responsibility and accountability. I’m very conscious that it means something different to other people, so I’m always respectful of what my team need to achieve their own work/life balance and therefore be engaged and happy.
When you think about diversity; do you think Australia is ahead of the curve in terms of diversity of leadership?
It’s hard to make a direct comparison because I think diversity and inclusion are very different in different environments and organisations. It’s a very broad area, not just about gender or ethnicity and it presents itself very strongly in both Australia and Asia. Within that, every Asian country has its own culture, so diversity and inclusion are maybe on a bigger scale in Asia. In this era of globalisation, you’re bringing together many cultures and expat nationalities here, and it’s about bringing those together, which isn’t as prevalent in Australia.
What would be the next step for you in your career?
My whole career has been around sets of experiences. I haven’t identified any single path. I’m keen on either the traditional listed CFO route or moving into business down the GM path. I focus on breadth in experience, breadth in industry or working in different functional areas. I’m currently partnering with GM’s and driving business strategy, which I’m enjoying.
Do you have any advice for women on how to progress their career?
Remove all self-limiting beliefs you have - you are the master of your own destiny. Secondly, surround yourself with strong mentors and leaders, male or female, internally to your organisation and externally. A support structure like that is very important. Lastly, don’t hold back. You don’t need to conform or be anything other than your authentic self; there is nothing to fear and you should own your seat at the table and express yourself.
When you arrive at a new organisation, how do you go about building the senior networks you need?
Reach out to everyone and find out who they are and what they do and grow your immediate network around you to help you overcome obstacles or seek advice. Then build your network of mentors and leaders over time, through peers, managers, and regional team members. When you uncover a rapport with someone, then you need to drive that relationship and make time with him or her to get the most from it.
Finally, can you tell me about Coty’s Women In Leadership program?
56% of Coty’s workforce is female, 49% of managers are female and leadership positions are 40% women. The main driver behind Women In Leadership is Coty’s mission to Celebrate And Liberate Beauty, which is hugely impactful. We are working on developing diverse and inclusive leaders to strengthen equality of opportunity in the most senior levels of our business. The second element is our social action program We Stand For You, which has a mission to tackle prejudice and discrimination that stops people from being able to express their true selves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Managing Director | Argyll Scott Singapore
With a wealth of experience across a number of sectors within the Southeast Asian market, Tom has successfully built and managed high performing teams. Having gained 10+ years working in London, Singapore and Sydney, Tom specialises om GM and senior accounting, finance and strategy recruitment within Commerce & Industry,