Inspiring Women Leaders

Building Depth and Breath

An interview with Yeo Siew Eng, Independent Director at Venture Corporation and Nam Lee Pressed Metal Industries

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Building Depth and Breath

An interview with Yeo Siew Eng, Independent Director at Venture Corporation and Nam Lee Pressed Metal Industries

As a well-respected former audit partner in a financial services firm, chartered accountant Yeo Siew Eng’s knowledge of financial reporting, enterprise risk management and regulatory requirements for listed companies and some specialised industries stand her in good stead to contribute as a board member. But it may be her less common route of taking executive management roles in commercial organisations for an extended period before returning to professional financial services that gives her added depth of hands-on experience, an unusual blend of insights and the ability to readily switch between executive and non-executive roles.

Siew Eng retired in 2018 as a partner of Deloitte & Touche LLP where she headed the real estate practice of the firm. She led teams in audits of public and private enterprises as well as multinational corporations which involved regional coordination. While the profession pivoted towards more specialisation in the later part of her career, Siew Eng appreciated having the earlier opportunities of involvement in a wide range of industries over the span of her career covering manufacturing, infrastructure, real estate, hospitality, marine, financial, and oil trading sectors.

That resulted in regular investment in researching and an interest in developing competence in any new subject embarked on. The trait stays with her to this day.

“Many changes are imminent and many more unknown changes will come. They may involve technology, science, sustainability, financial markets, regulations and geopolitics. Keeping pace with these developments, as well as staying current in one’s own areas of specialisation, is crucial to relevance.”

“Where there is already an area of deep knowledge and experience, going into other domains that are relevant to board functions or the industry of interest will help to build breadth,” said Siew Eng, who is currently an independent non-executive director of Name Lee Pressed Metal Industries Ltd and Venture Corp Ltd.

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Siew Eng exuded warmth, strength and kindness and was a great mentor to those who worked for her and was always ready to share the spotlight with her team members. Her desire to uplift everyone around her enables her to remain well-respected and loved by our people and clients.

Philip Yuen, CEO of Deloitte SEA and Chair of Deloitte Singapore, describes Siew Eng as “an excellent team player and leader” who had a “relentless pursuit of excellence in everything she did.”

Your career spans a gamut of industries ranging from manufacturing, real estate and infrastructure projects to retail, oil trading and shipping, some of which are in executive management roles. What were the unforgettable lessons learnt and experienced along this journey?

One of the key lessons I’ve learnt is that a positive frame of mind is fundamental to optimal outcomes regardless of circumstances. It influences decisions or actions which can lead to very different trajectories, sometimes with longer term consequences.

Having a directed sense of purpose is particularly helpful in sustaining initiative and creative thinking when there is complexity, as well as unexpected or undesired events. Resilient teams which overcome challenges successfully gain confidence in tackling new challenges, and also develop a camaraderie that makes a good working environment.

Communications and team dynamics is important. I am a firm believer of the power of teams which collaborate, leveraging on each other’s area of expertise and competence and having opportunities to express their ideas. A good leader provides direction or guidance, maintains open-mindedness and focus in different measures under different circumstances.

To be an effective contributor and collaborator, acquiring deep knowledge in a given domain is essential, so too, is broad relevant knowledge. Fast-evolving technologies, innovation and consumer preferences require that we recognise their impact early, and formulate responses that are concurrent, if not pre-emptive. This demands contemporary relearning and reskilling at all levels of management.

Fast-evolving technologies, innovation and consumer preferences require that we recognise their impact early, and formulate responses that are concurrent, if not pre-emptive.

Diversity is here to stay. Delivering enterprise services and products involves a conglomeration of expertise across multiple domains. Engaging people from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, cultures or age groups becomes a necessity for an enterprise to remain competitive. Managing and communicating well in this environment make a difference to the effectiveness of any team or organisation.

You’ve had the opportunity to take on senior management / board roles in a variety of organisations or interact with the boards of publicly listed entities, multi-national companies and family-run enterprises. What challenges and opportunities did you encounter in each of these roles?

I moved from external and internal audit roles to front line executive management roles before becoming an audit partner in a financial services firm. I am grateful to a number of people who put their trust in me and gave me the opportunities to have these rich experiences.

I found the immediacy and direct impact of executive roles fulfilling, and I brought to these roles’ new initiatives and best practices from my areas of expertise. At the same time, I learnt a number of invaluable things from my interactions with directors and management in other disciplines in commercial environments, one of which was a listed group engaged in real estate, hospitality, retail and manufacturing; and the other was a U.S. oil entity.

My other role as audit partner was fast-paced and demanding, and at the same time, very satisfying when services are delivered, client’s queries are responded to in a manner which brings clarity to confounding matters or value to their enterprise performance.

Interacting with board directors and executive management of different backgrounds, nationalities and industries, working with cross functional teams or geographically diverse teams are routine aspects of most engagements. This is more often than not interesting but as any professional service practitioner can attest to, can present the occasional challenges. It is important to invest time in understanding perspectives, and corporate cultures as this facilitates communication and optimal outcomes.

It is important to invest time in understanding perspectives, and corporate cultures as this facilitates communication and optimal outcomes.

I believe that the preceding front-line executive roles gave me some insights and pragmatic understanding in my role as an external financial service provider.

A professional service provider shares certain characteristics with other commercial enterprises. These include responsibility for financial performance metrics, leading and mentoring teams with programs starting from new entrants onwards to potential partners, to build the pipeline for future partners. I am delighted to see that some of the people that I worked with before are now partners.

You currently hold independent directorships at Venture Corporation and Nam Lee Pressed Metal Industries. What, in your view, comprises a successful board culture?

Board culture is built over time. This is a continual process that persists and also evolves when the board composition changes.

Boards work best when there is mutual understanding of roles, and a common desire to optimise performance of the board as a whole and the contribution of each board member. Contextual explanations in discussions can help to bring everyone on board because of diversity in disciplines and experiences.

Trust is a prerequisite to any substantive expression of views. A culture of frank, civil discussions in good faith broadens perspectives and insights and brings to bear the benefits of having a team.

What personal values would you want to pass on to the next generation? Why are they important to you?

I would encourage the next generation to go forth in their pursuits with a positive attitude, courage and enthusiasm. Confidence comes from both learning and experiencing, so seek these out. Diligence and patience in staying the course is helpful in building anything of value or meaning and the same is true for honesty in recognising any wrong decision and moving on when needed.

To be truly successful, one has to have a moral compass and compassion for others. These are meaningful values which withstand the test of time.

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

Developing expertise in a chosen area helps. However, a board provides stewardship and oversight over the enterprise or business as a whole. Acquiring knowledge beyond the area of expertise by going into other domains that are relevant to board functions or the industry of interest will help to build breadth and make one a better board member.

Many changes are imminent and many more unknown changes will come. They may involve technology, science, sustainability, financial markets, regulations and geopolitics. Keeping pace with these developments, as well as staying current in one’s own areas of specialisation, is crucial to relevance. Thus, curiosity and the willingness to engage in continuous learning, formal or informal, are good mindsets to have.

Concrete steps involve identifying learning needs, good learning resources and organisations to join. Networking helps to build better connections, while mentors can play an important role to smooth the path forward. Build and sustain good relationships.

When you look back on your life and career journey, what would you tell your 21-year-old self?

There would be plenty to tell the relatively clueless 21-year-old, but life is about learning from the past, living in the present and looking forward.

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Yeo Siew Eng is currently an Independent Non-Executive Director of both Nam Lee Pressed Metal Industries Limited and Venture Corporation Limited.

She was a partner of Deloitte & Touche LLP, a professional services firm, and headed its Real Estate practice until her retirement in 2018.

Siew Eng graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Accountancy degree. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants and a member of Singapore Institute of Directors.

In between her career in audit services, she was the General Manager – Finance and Corporate Services of Wing Tai Holdings Limited, responsible for treasury, financial reporting, regulatory compliance and investor relations. Prior to this, she had taken on the roles of Internal Audit Manager and Finance Manager in an U.S. oil company.

She led teams in audits of public and private enterprises as well as multinational corporations which involved regional coordination. Her experience spanned the manufacturing, infrastructure, real estate development and investment, hospitality, marine, financial and oil trading sectors.

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.