Inspiring Women Leaders

Defying Boundaries, Breaking Barriers

An interview with Lisa Liaw, Board Chair of American Chamber of Commerce Singapore and Director & Financial Controller at American Express

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Defying Boundaries, Breaking Barriers

An interview with Lisa Liaw, Board Chair of American Chamber of Commerce Singapore and Director & Financial Controller at American Express

When Lisa Liaw took over the helm of the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore (“AmCham Singapore”) in the middle of a raging global pandemic in 2020, it was clear that the Covid-19 pandemic demanded a response that defied traditional confines.

Even as the organisation and its members tried to grapple with disruptions to business and communities, the in-person events that formed a highly visible part of AmCham Singapore’s work were facing an existential threat from public health restrictions. But AmCham successfully transitioned its events to virtual or hybrid models, while achieving positive net income for the year.

Lisa, who is Director and Financial Controller for Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines at American Express, shared her approach to navigating uncertain times: “We need to lead with external perspectives and be boundary-less in our scope, identity and skills.” She did such a fine job that she won re-election in 2021.

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While as AmCham chairman, I turned to Lisa, as ExCo member, repeatedly for her perspective, advice, and support on the Chamber’s toughest strategic and governance issues. From critical decisions that affected the chamber’s fiscal fortunes going into the pandemic, to major leadership choices and changes, Lisa’s insightful and clear-eyed counsel struck me as a leader with the skills, intellect, and demeanor to take on more. As chairman, I strongly supported Lisa as my successor to fulfill my most important duty of leaving the organisation stronger than I found it. Her work with the CEO to boldly lead the chamber through the pandemic that posed an existential threat to many organizations, more than exceeded my expectations.”

Dwight Hutchins, Lisa’s predecessor as Chair of AmCham Singapore, said that Lisa was critical to helping guide AmCham Singapore through the pandemic.

Lisa’s willingness and ability to break barriers has produced an impressive résumé. When Lisa won the election to the AmCham Singapore chair in 2020, she was the first woman to do so in more than 10 years. She had already been a Board Governor of AmCham Singapore since 2016. Lisa is also a Council Member of the Singapore Business Federation (“SBF”), and sits on the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, established by the Singapore Ministry of Defence.

Her strong relations with American corporations has helped SBF build new connections and deepen existing partnerships. A strong advocate for Team Singapore, Lisa is focused on uplifting Singapore’s competitiveness in the global value chain. With her dynamic and genuine personality, Lisa is an exemplary leader who is a pleasure to work with, and one we trust to bring about win-win outcomes for all stakeholders.”

Lam Yi Young, Chief Executive Officer of SBF, described Lisa as instrumental to nurturing an ecosystem between Singapore and international companies.

How have you contributed to the broader business community in Singapore?

I believe my most important role is to connect American companies with Singapore’s broader ecosystem, through organisations such as the American Chamber of Commerce, Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and MINDEF ACCORD. The key is to use such assets and strengths in Singapore to share knowledge and best practices. For example, when implementing rapid COVID-19 testing was suggested at the SBF meeting in August 2020, I was able to connect the government with numerous US pharma companies, so all parties could work towards achieving that objective. Today, you can see rapid COVID-19 test kits readily available on supermarket shelves.

Being on MINDEF ACCORD was an eye-opener for me. I realised I had underappreciated the role and significance of National Service for the security of Singapore, given the complex geopolitics of today’s world. National Service (NS) is the backbone of a stable and secure Singapore and is critical for businesses to thrive and operate successfully in the city-state. My contribution is to elevate awareness of the importance of NS to the broader business community through AmCham. I’m pleased to share that AmCham has been accredited with the NS Mark in 2021, and we celebrated Singapore Armed Forces Day on 1 July 2021 for the first time. It was a proud moment for several NS men on the AmCham team. We look forward to incorporating this as an annual celebration.

You’ve worked with local SMEs, MNCs, and government ministries. How has COVID-19 structurally changed our economy and society?

COVID-19 has changed lifestyles and livelihoods drastically, resulting in accelerated digital transformation, supply chain dislocations, as well as other challenges. Digital transformation and creative disruptions with new emerging ways of how we live, work and do business are happening. Connections and e-introductions can be done easily through digital platforms with anyone, anywhere, anytime. I recently attended talks at American Express Singapore by speakers from TikTok, Facebook, and Google about digital marketing. Fast-changing, new ways of connecting with customers are emerging and customers have now become co-creators of Marketing content. This is truly amazing.

The key question every leader should ask themselves and their teams is: what differentiated value and benefit can our organisation bring to customers? This may be more challenging if you’ve been successful or become established in your identity. However, disruptions are always around the corner. We need to lead with external perspectives and be boundary-less in our scope, identity and skills. And through these disruptions, it’s important to build an agile culture, so we can always bounce back and focus on driving outcomes.

What were the highlights in your leadership journey that shaped your outlook and core values?

It’s important to have strong leadership in the organisation, especially in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world we live in. One core value, whether in executive leadership or at board level, is diversity and inclusion. Many global listing rules require companies to show progress on this front, and investors are backing this change. At AmCham, we have women leaders holding both Chairman and CEO roles, while 10 out of 18 Board Governors are women.

Although gender is often the key metric on diversity, it’s not the only one. A research report1 has highlighted five measures of board diversity – age, tenure, industry experience, nationality, and gender. Diversity and inclusion happen when collective interactions of these five characteristics occur.

Interactions of diverse ideas and perspectives, as well as the process of digesting and incorporating them in thoughtful decision-making, is not easy – it is key to discuss opportunities and challenges openly and candidly. Our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance and dissent. However, it’s vital that as leaders, we seek dissenting ideas and opinions to challenge ourselves, before we get challenged by others, including competitors or regulators.

Our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance and dissent. However, it’s vital that as leaders, we seek dissenting ideas and opinions to challenge ourselves, before we get challenged by others, including competitors or regulators.

The report also suggests that directors with different backgrounds and characteristics would offer different perspectives on management’s proposals, thereby allowing a more comprehensive decision-making process to manage risks and preserve/increase the firm’s value. So, at the end of the day, the key focus regarding effectiveness of leadership and the board should be: What are the outcomes and results for stakeholders?

You were elected, first as Board Governor of the AmCham in 2016, and four years later, as its Chair. In 2021, you were endorsed for a second term as AmCham Chair. What was memorable about this journey?

Most of my career journey has been unplanned, each milestone occurred serendipitously. In 2014, during one of my reflective moments, I asked myself what I love most about my work at Amex. I enjoyed the company, my finance career and my colleagues, but I felt I had made the most impact with my contributions to the boards of the Amex subsidiaries – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – that I was on. Corporate governance matters, including legal entity structures, business partnerships and deals, business activities, as well as finance in areas of tax, treasury, and compliance, were of strategic importance to these boards. And these were all areas I wanted to grow and learn more in. So, I enrolled in the INSEAD International Directors Programme, which I thoroughly enjoyed and completed three modules in 2015 to 2016.

Unexpected result from my first board election
Fresh from the course and right about the same time, the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore announced their nomination for the Board of Governors. As an AmCham member, this opportunity immediately resonated with me. After discussing with my INSEAD Professor and Simon Kahn, ex-Country Manager of Amex Singapore (who was also on the AmCham board), I decided to stand for the AmCham board election in 2016, the first board election in my career. It was a daunting experience – my name was included in a slate of candidates, most of whom had grand job titles from prominent US companies. At the Annual General Meeting, I sat at the back of the ballroom at the InterContinental Hotel, expecting not to be elected. So, when my name was read out as one of the selected Board Governors, it was a totally surreal moment.

My experience as the underdog in the AmCham Chair elections
Fast forward to May 2020, when I got the chance to run in the AmCham Chair election. The opportunity came out of the blue a few months before the election process, and again, it was a serendipitous moment. Aspiring to such an esteemed position had never crossed my mind. I sought advice from various Board Governors and had discussions with the then-AmCham Chair, Dwight Hutchins. My leaders at American Express were also all very supportive. At that time, the world was suffering the widespread impact of COVID-19, with work-from-home protocols, global lockdowns, and hospitals at full capacity – it was a surreal point in history.

In the elections, I was both an outsider and an underdog – an Australian Asian born in Kuching, Malaysia, grew up as a migrant in Sydney, and who eventually became a finance professional. My formidable opponent was Steve Okun, past AmCham Chair and an expert on US politics who is regularly featured on media channels. All I could offer the Board of Governors if I got elected was fair leadership and transparency in governance at AmCham. I immediately got to work on my election speech, detailing my plans if elected to the role. I also speed-learnt geopolitics in the region and focused on the role that the US business community should play here in Singapore. As candidates, my opponent and I were different as chalk and cheese – each of us had distinct strengths and leadership styles. When the Board of Governors came back from their deliberations to announce my appointment as AmCham 2020 Chair, it was one of the most memorable, surreal moments in my career.

Leading in a pandemic
In those months in 2021, there was so much happening around the world with unprecedented unknowns in all aspects of our lives and the global economy. Sadly, I was also coming to terms with my mother’s deteriorating health (her oncologist in Sydney had just informed me her days were numbered). I drew strength from being disciplined and focused. What also kept me going was my mother’s pride in the fact that her daughter could become and, indeed, has become, the next AmCham Chair.

AmCham Singapore went on to perform very well in 2020 despite pandemic restrictions. COVID-19 totally shifted our paradigm of hosting in-person events with government officials and business leaders – that year, we had 6,500 attendees for over 180 events, mostly virtual. Through disciplined financial management, we also finished the year with a positive net income. In March 2021, AmCham Singapore hosted the AmChams of Asia-Pacific Business Summit 2021 in a hybrid model of virtual and in-person events, which was hugely successful. Despite many challenges with the pandemic, the AmCham team has remained agile and committed in its cause to bring advocacy, insights and connections to members and the broader community.

What issues are high on your agenda when it comes to managing your team and mentoring your staff?

I would like to think of myself as a finance leader who has evolved to become a strategic and well-rounded business leader, with qualities of fairness and humility that stem from a humble background. Growing up as a migrant and minority in Australia and then becoming an Asian female leader later in life, I’ve learnt the true value of diversity and inclusion.

My advice to aspiring professionals is to nurture a boundary-less career, building diverse experiences across professional expertise, geographies, industries and connections. For my finance team at Amex, I’m grooming them to be robust leaders, with strategic and well-rounded perspectives in both financial and enterprise matters. Last but not least, they must also be good corporate citizens.

What advice would you give those seeking to catalyse the next step in their careers?

What I share here is for anyone who aspires to do more and make a difference:

  • Seize every opportunity you have today in this VUCA world and be exemplary in going above and beyond. I am enormously grateful to American Express and its leaders for tremendous opportunities I have to learn and grow every day.
  • Develop credibility so people can and will count on you. Integrity and doing what is right matters, irrespective of positions and titles. Personality and character speak volumes, as does your performance track record.
  • Maintain focus on doing the right things and keep moving forward. Undoubtedly, you will face setbacks and resistance. I’ve had my fair share of knockdowns, criticisms, name-calling, and biased feedback. Challenges and failures are important opportunities for us to reflect and learn.
  • Flex the ‘leadership’ muscle every day, and at every opportunity. Essentially, leadership is a complex art and science. There is much to do, and plenty of like-minded people to do good with.
1 Kang JK., Kim S. and Oh S. (2019) Board Diversity, Director Dissent and Monitoring Effectiveness
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A member of American Express’s Country Executive Leadership teams for Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, Lisa Liaw’s responsibilities include overseeing legal entity governance, financial accounting and reporting, business deals, as well as operational process improvements. In 2021, she also assumed the finance controller role for Amex Philippines, adding to her existing responsibilities. This effectively broadens her coverage of Amex’s Global Services Network function, which has a 4,000-strong team offering best-in-class customer service to Amex card members. In addition, she was recently appointed in 2022 as Lead to drive AE100 Reframe business strategic initiative.

Lisa was elected for a second term in 2021 as Chairman of American Chamber of Commerce Singapore. She is also a Council Member of the Singapore Business Federation, and sits on the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD), established by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

A Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting graduate from Australia’s University of New South Wales, Lisa is also an accredited INSEAD Certified International Director, Professional Fellow of the Institute of Internal Auditors, and a Fellow Certified Practicing Accountant.

The Council for Board Diversity (CBD) believes that board diversity catalyses robust governance and responsible stewardship, and is a valuable driver for growth.

Having diversity in the board brings together the diversity of judgement to chart the best course through uncertainty, challenge, opportunities and risks – applicable to both for-profit and non-profit organisations. The mix of knowledge, skills, experience, gender, age and other relevant features is harnessed to devise strategy and manage its execution. Against this backdrop we believe that including women on boards, in particular, adds a powerful lead-in to the other forms of diversity that bring value to the board’s role in the company.

CBD, established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, endeavours to promote a sustained increase in the number of women on boards of listed companies, statutory boards and non-profit organisations as a stepping stone to broader diversity.