HER SEAT AT THE TABLE
Despite having retired in 2006, Euleen Goh, 64, is as busy as ever. The former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Standard Chartered Bank Singapore has her hands full with various board roles in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m blessed to have a great portfolio of roles. The people I work with and meet get me excited and charged up every day. I’m usually tired by day’s end, and that’s probably why I’m able to sleep well,” says Ms Goh.
A trailblazer in more ways than one, she has broken through the glass ceiling by successfully filling top leadership positions in the workplace, and she continues to actively contribute to the accountancy fraternity and the wider community. Ms Goh’s achievements have not gone unnoticed by ISCA, and she was presented with the inaugural Special Recognition Award at the Singapore Accountancy Awards 2018.
FOLLOWING HER INNER COMPASS
“An aptitude for logical thinking and numbers” provided the initial motivation for Ms Goh’s career in accountancy. However, once she became an auditor and started moving from assignment to assignment, she realised that what she enjoyed most about her job was the opportunity to work with other members of the audit engagement team and with clients. This attribute, as it turned out, would prove to be decisive in her career journey.
“I believe there is within each of us an internal compass that furnishes us with a sense of direction in our lives, and guides us to where we want to go. In my case, this is underpinned by my Christian faith, which has served as a foundation for my life. The two wings of the compass, so to speak, represent my adventurous nature and my willingness to work with people.” Ms Goh elaborates, “In today’s complex world, few individuals have the full set of skills necessary to succeed in the workplace on their own. Building a team with complementary skills, and aligning your team around a common purpose, is fundamental to success.”
Never one to shy away from new experiences, Ms Goh eventually left audit for the broader business world. A short stint as Chief Financial Officer of a real estate company was followed by her entry into the banking sector, where she really came into her own. Ms Goh spent 21 years with Standard Chartered Bank – a long period marked by economic ups and downs, with valuable lessons at every turn. She made it to the bank’s top echelons, most notably as Global Head of its Corporate and Institutional Banking Sales division and thereafter, as CEO of its Singapore unit, before her retirement in 2006.
“These roles stretched me significantly, and there were many in the organisation who gave me support and guidance along the way,” says Ms Goh, who was one of the first Singaporean women to hold such high-profile positions in the financial sector, let alone in Standard Chartered Bank. “At every pivot of the company’s journey, I gained experiences and insights which stood me in good stead as the company upskilled its people and gave us many opportunities to grow and progress.”
“The ability to understand and manage financials is an essential skill for leaders of a company. Hence, Chartered Accountants are equipped with a necessary skill for leadership. As ISCA sets a standard valued by the market, ISCA members would also benefit from this halo effect.”
PROMOTING BOARD DIVERSITY
Today, Ms Goh is a highly sought-after board member. She currently holds non-executive directorships (two in the role of chair) in a wide range of organisations, including DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, Singapore Health Services Pte Ltd, leading inflight meal caterer SATS as well as the Singapore Institute of Management. In some cases, she was the first Asian or the first woman to be appointed to these boards.
Board gender diversity is an issue that Ms Goh feels strongly about, and she is happy to dole out advice to female executives with boardroom aspirations. “Be clear about how you see yourself value adding to a company at the board level. Ask yourself, ‘How can I make a difference to the board, not just as a woman but through my strengths?’” she proffers. For example, individuals who have amassed a lot of international work experience could bring this to the fore during board interviews.
She also brings up the tendency among Asians, and Asian women in particular, to be self-effacing and tamp down their leadership ambitions. “Be forward in asking for a board role with all contacts and network for it,” urges Ms Goh. Likewise, she adds, one must be willing to take on new job demands and workplace challenges, even if it may initially seem beyond one’s capabilities.
“If you feel 100% ready for a new job, then the truth is you might be over-skilled for it,” she points out. “It’s better to look for a job where you feel 50% ready, so that you have an opportunity to learn new things and improve your skill set, while also expanding your role. Not all journeys are comfortable; some will be painful. What matters most is that the journey is a worthwhile one, not just for you but for those around you.”
Lastly, Ms Goh underlines the importance of board experience across all types of organisations, including non-listed companies, statutory boards and the nonprofit sector. “If your dream is to join the board of a listed company, that doesn’t mean you should turn down a board position elsewhere; otherwise, you might end up waiting for an opportunity that never comes,” says Ms Goh. “Provided the position is a good fit for you, it’s useful to get some board experience under your belt first. You are bound to learn some lessons about leadership in whatever role you have.”
The good news for Chartered Accountants (CAs) is that they already possess a key trait for board appointments. “The ability to understand and manage financials is an essential skill for leaders of a company. Hence, CAs are equipped with a necessary skill for leadership. As ISCA sets a standard valued by the market, ISCA members would also benefit from this halo effect,” explains Ms Goh. Other skills, such as effective communication and familiarity with business operations, can be acquired along the way by branching out into other functions outside audit and engaging with different groups of stakeholders.
A LIFE FULLY LIVED
Ms Goh’s board responsibilities also extend to the not-for-profit arena. In addition to having sat on the boards of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (her alma mater) and NorthLight School (which caters to students who are less academically inclined), she is also the founding Chairperson of DBS Foundation, the bank’s philanthropic arm. Dedicated to championing social entrepreneurship, DBS Foundation supports social enterprises across Asia through various means, including awarding grants as well as encouraging DBS staff and customers to engage their services at corporate functions.
Her desire to give back to society was largely inspired by a book written by the late Bob Buford, Halftime (first published in 1995). “The book encourages us to take a personal ‘timeout’ after the first half of our lives – to take stock of what we have accomplished so far and to think about how we can create a more significant impact in the second half of our lives. As the book explains, we aren’t all cut out to be Mother Teresa, but we can still make a difference through our own stations in life,” says Ms Goh. “It is incumbent on all of us to help others, especially those most in need, in ways big and small.”
This idea of a life of two halves also ties in with Ms Goh’s long-term outlook on life. “Life is a marathon, not a 100-metre race. The best way to last the distance is by enjoying the journey, rather than just focusing on the outcome,” she advises. “If your target is to get a higher paying job or to become a partner in your firm, that’s great – as long as you have fun and seek diverse experiences along the way. When you wake up feeling excited about the day, and approach every moment as an opportunity to learn and grow, it will take you to places you never imagined.”