Inspiring Women Leaders

Pushing Boundaries, Driving Innovation

An interview with Susan Soh, Head of Asia-Pacific for Schroders and Chair of the Investment Management Association of Singapore

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Pushing Boundaries, Driving Innovation

An interview with Susan Soh, Head of Asia- Pacific for Schroders and Chair of the investment Management Association of Singapore

Already an accomplished financial industry leader with multiple accolades under her belt, Schroders Head of Asia-Pacific Susan Soh is now turning heads for her ability to build technology-forward organisations.

Susan drove a successful digital transformation strategy at Schroders, and as launched a Digital Accelerator Programme as Chair of the Investment Management Association of Singapore (IMAS).

Ask Susan how she does it, and her answer is to adopt an approach that focuses on staying nimble, embracing diversity and empowering people to take risks.

“Agility and continuous enhancement would be the way to go,” she says. “We also need to eliminate the inherent fear of failure, which stifles innovation, and inculcate a continuous learning and growth mindset in our culture. It has to start from the top with leaders setting a good example.”

In 2020, Women in Finance Asia awarded Susan “CEO of the Year,” an accolade she has won a few times over the course of her 30-year career. Having occupied various roles in the financial sector ecosystem, Susan’s vast experience has also enabled her to become Chairperson of the Investment Management Association of Singapore (IMAS) since April 2019 and Council Member of the Institute of Banking & Finance (IBF).

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What are the formative events in your career that have shaped your values and outlook on leadership?

I first started my career in stockbroking, moved into investment banking, and now my roots are grounded in asset management. The different experiences have given me insights into the spectrum of products developed by different players within the financial ecosystem, helping me understand the varying needs of diverse client segments.

Over the course of this journey, I’ve had to manage the impact from major market events such as global financial crises, digital disruption, and of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic. Every key occurrence has required a different management style and response.

During the early trends of digital transformation, I already saw the need for asset managers to reinvent ourselves, so as to stay ahead of evolving client needs. While I have a strong experienced team running the business, I was cognisant of the fact that we had to adapt fast and keep everyone up to speed with evolving technologies. I made it a priority to ensure that the team members regularly upskill themselves to stay relevant, and also to shift their mindsets to transition from a product to a solutions provider.

At the beginning, I met with a lot of resistance, especially as the business has been successful for years and people did not see the need to change. I made a decision to hire new people with digital DNA and infuse a culture of consultative selling. I also personally led a digital transformation team to drive the business towards digital enablement and big data. Today, we are leading the group in digital marketing, client insights analytics, digital client engagement and servicing as well as potentially in digital solutions and content delivery.

On an ongoing basis, I believe that we must continue to invest and nurture our people to keep them relevant. For the organisation – and as a leader – it is very empowering to know that we now have a digitally proficient team with people who are agile in their thinking and will able to thrive in a very dynamic business environment.

On an ongoing basis, I believe that we must continue to invest and nurture our people to keep them relevant.​

When I look back, my foray into the asset management industry was a result of a fortuitous opportunity as I was impacted by a restructuring earlier in my career. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens and that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This is one of my important life lessons as I drew from my past experiences to venture into new opportunities and explore other facets of the financial sector.

I believe future-oriented leaders are able to keep learning, reinventing, pushing boundaries and turn disruptive uncertainties into scalable opportunities.

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Susan acknowledges the need for asset managers to reinvent themselves to stay ahead of evolving client needs. Photo by: Schroders​

You took the lead in driving Schroders’ digital transformation strategy. What were the successes achieved and lessons learned during this process?

I’ve realised that when faced with disruption, we must adapt. The past few years have taught me the importance of being nimble as well as the need for continuous innovation – even if you’re a market leader. In fact, clients expect more from industry leaders.

Market events do not change our purpose – but they can revolutionise the way we do business. Digital disruption has been impacting our value chain, ranging from client engagement to investment decision-making, right down to our operational work processes. Yet for a long time, our industry has preferred to continue with traditional practices such as face-to-face portfolio reviews or onsite client meetings, rather than remote engagement.

Today, the pandemic has forced us to become more digital. We are still, in theory, doing the same jobs we had pre-pandemic, except the mode of engagement and delivery has completely evolved. That said, there are also new opportunities that have emerged from the digital shift.

I believe that value can be created through digital enablement and innovation, and hence, “digital” is at the core of our overall business strategy. However, this is not just in response to the pandemic. We’ve always kept up with evolving digital and data platforms, and we were one of the asset managers who had the technology ready to support remote working when the pandemic first hit.

And you don’t always need to create a big bang – rather, we can start small, prove the value of the initiatives, and develop as we go along. I’d say that agility and continuous enhancement would be the way to go. We also need to eliminate the inherent fear of failure that can stifle innovation, while inculcating a continuous learning and growth mindset in our culture. But it has to start from the top with leaders setting a good example.

We also need to eliminate the inherent fear of failure that can stifle innovation, while inculcating a continuous learning and growth mindset in our culture. But it has to start from the top with leaders setting a good example.

Another factor that drives innovation is a diverse workforce that generates diverse ideas. Diversity is often measured in terms of gender and ethnicity.

You’ve been Chair of the Investment Management Association of Singapore (IMAS) Executive Committee since April 2019. What milestones has IMAS achieved during this period?

IMAS serves to spearhead the development of our industry and practitioners, and it is therefore important that we drive forward-looking initiatives. Since my appointment, I’ve been working closely with IMAS CEO, Carmen Wee, and our executive team to launch a number of key programmes. This includes the pivot to enable various forms of digitalisation, finetuning of risk management frameworks, and working closely with the industry and regulators on Business Continuity Plans prior to the Circuit Breaker period.

The many initiatives we’ve driven over the years have attracted a growing and varied membership base. Apart from asset managers, we also have members from asset owners, fintech companies and regional players. This is a testament to the quality and breadth of work IMAS undertakes.

Against the backdrop of the digital revolution, I worked with the IMAS Secretariat team to launch a Digital Accelerator Programme to identify fintech solutions that can help solve industry members’ pain points. Many of these fintech firms have since joined the IMAS community allowing our members to continually get exposure to them to discover relevant solutions for their businesses.

Our ambition is to continue building on the success of these initiatives, while planning ahead of the curve and exploring cross-industry collaborations. Given overwhelming interest, we directed our focus towards themes of Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) and Sustainability. IMAS co-created the Environmental Risk Guidelines with the Monetary Authority of Singapore for the asset management industry, and also launched the very first e-learning module on Environmental Risk, so as to help the industry keep abreast of changes in this very important space. This closely aligns with my personal objectives to drive sustainability regionally and locally, which I aim to do through my roles in Schroders and IMAS respectively.

It is important for companies to look beyond themselves and their direct clients because they operate in a wider ecosystem encompassing the larger community and the planet. The only way we can grow our businesses is to be adept at managing the external risks relevant to our businesses in order to drive a sustainable future.

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Susan led her organisation to create value through digital enablement and innovation. Photo by: Schroders​

What defines a successful leader? Do you think such qualities have taken on greater importance in light of the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I believe in bringing a positive, collaborative attitude to the workplace every day. One of the high points of my leadership journey has been in my current role leading Schroders in the Asia-Pacific region, which I took on amid the Circuit Breaker in April 2020. It was a real challenge having to run eight countries across Asia-Pacific without the ability to travel to understand the landscape more intimately. I had to rely on digital means to regularly connect with my teams across the different countries. Fortunately, I work with very strong on-the-ground country heads who are able to articulate clear strategies of growth for their respective businesses.

This experience has deepened my belief in embracing diversity of thought and different models of work-life, and as the industry evolves, being open to cross-functional projects where we can learn and continue to upskill.

The pandemic has also highlighted flexible working as a competitive advantage and revealed that there is more to good business than just profits and happy shareholders. Today, besides providing the digital tools to enable effective remote working, it is equally important to consider how we can continue to engage our employees, as well as provide the right challenges to encourage growth. Empathy is valued and leaders are judged on their ability to manage the business, while also taking care of their teams’ well-being from a distance.

As a global active asset manager, the way we direct capital not only shapes the financial returns we achieve for our clients, but also the impact that the companies in which we invest on their behalf might have on society. We have a responsibility to take care of our employees and the communities we operate in.

What issues are high on your agenda when it comes to managing your team and achieving the organisation’s goals?

People and talent are an integral part of business success and key to driving our business towards our goals. In order to grow and support a sustainable and successful business, our people strategy is centred around creating a truly inclusive culture.

One of the numerous things I am happy to have achieved at Schroders Singapore was to groom an internal successor. A good leader must be ready to make way for other talents to step up. Such an approach speaks volumes to our people and shows them that the organisation proactively plans for their career progression. I am therefore very proud of my successor, Lily Choh, and have every confidence that she carries on from here and will do an even better job than me.

On a larger scale, data transparency can help us challenge the status quo and make informed decisions that will contribute towards building a diverse and inclusive environment. To ensure we are on the right path, we continuously assess and measure our progress based on our diversity profile data as well as the gender composition of our workforce and our board.

Industry action is important – information on gender diversity, for example, should fall under mandatory reporting and disclosure for listed companies. Companies should also be required to disclose how the make-up of the various skills and talent of its directors will serve their business plans.

We can only attract and retain the right people by providing them with an environment where they can thrive, and which dovetails with their life’s priorities. In an ever-evolving world, a diverse blend of capabilities with client-centricity at the core is required. Embracing both veterans and new talent will be key to advancing an organisation.

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Susan Soh is Head of Asia Pacific for Schroders. She is also a member of Schroders’ Group Management Committee (GMC).

Susan is responsible for the strategy, management and oversight of Schroders businesses across the Asia Pacific. She holds over 30 years of financial industry experience, spanning across different areas of investment banking before specialising in asset management. Susan currently serves as a Member of the Advisory Board for the Singapore Green Finance Centre, of which Schroders is one of the founding members.

Susan was conferred the Institute of Banking & Finance (IBF) Distinguished Fellow (Fund Management) award in 2015. She currently sits on the Executive Committee of Investment Management Association of Singapore (IMAS), serving as a Vice Chair from November 2016 before her appointment as the Chair from April 2019.

Susan has also been a passionate advocate of raising industry standards and driving professional excellence. She has served as Council Member of IBF since April 2019, was previously a member of the IBF Standards Committee and chaired the IBF Fund Management Working Group from August 2013 to December 2019. In 2021, Susan has been appointed to the Board of Trustee of the Wealth Management Institute as well as Singapore Institute of Technology.

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.