A trailblazer for women in leadership, the first woman CEO of any commercial bank in Malaysia in 1996, transformational leader with over 40 year track record on leading large banking organisations in Malaysia and the region, Yvonne Chia is an inspiration for women of all generations.
Highly feted by industry organisations and media, Chia is currently on the Board of several listed companies in Malaysia as well as Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia School of Economics.
Full of energetic inspiration, her openness and learning values drive her personal and organization success.
Yvonne Chia has been an ardent supporter for workplace gender equality and better representation for women on the boards and in the workforce. In this chat with the Women Icons Network, she reflects on her career, the choices she made and the general state of gender representation in corporate environment.
A lesson you learned on the job that you always remember !
I have learnt that you cannot always get what you aim for because of either timing and the notion “everything happens for a reason.” Or the element of “luck”. There is always an opportunity in adversity or failures even as we re-adjust to move forward.
That personal power is yours, friends and colleagues can assist but it is only you that can empower yourself, by staying the course, and be resilient.
Staying positive and thinking positively makes a lot of difference and time will heal and bring better opportunities. Luck is only useful when you are ready with knowledge to take on the opportunity.
In your opinion how can the industry work collectively to improve the state of Gender Equality @ Workplaces?
I was very clear on the women diversity agenda. I saw it coming way back in 2010 and I took the initiative to propose that women need to be on my bank boards. As a woman leader, I knew that corporates and the community were watching me.
I don’t think formal quotas have proven to be effective. We understand what meritocracy is in this competitive world, no organisation can afford to allow performance to slide just to meet the women agenda. We know we will arrive on the boards with merit and merit alone. Persuasion and having a roadmap to provide opportunities has made the difference and for Malaysia we did well with 26.4% of women on boards for top market cap companies in 2019.
What we need are opportunities via policies and guidelines for women, nurturing the pipeline from mid management to senior management and ultimately to the board.
This can take some 5 to 10 years depending on each organisation. Each HR head, CEO and chairman of the board should make a conscious decision to have a strategy plan on this, like any strategic plan on business targets. Over time this will become a seamless, unconscious process.
The other myth is of masculine bravado i.e. can femininity and power go hand in hand? Breaking the glass ceiling in a man’s world where men dominate the positions of influence and decision making, mean you need to have a certain amount of machismo.
In short, what we need is to let us in with the opportunities as we expand with more women leaders with merit at the top. The mindset beyond the old boys’ network dissipates when women perform well. Women have proved to be good and impactful leaders.
What choices have you faced, if any, that required you to step back and consider?
I had a choice to relocate to San Francisco for my next career move to cover Asia from Head Office .I chose to go home to make an impact in my country, especially when Malaysia and the region was booming and needed a lot of foreign trained talent. I was a top performer in the region and was promised plenty of up mobility and the opportunity to work with the global forward banking fraternity. It was very tempting and not an easy choice. Staying the course where I know I will be counted wherever I go, has moved me to greater heights and a banking woman icon in Malaysia and the region.
Did you face any challenges that you were not prepared to face and how did you tackle it?
A key challenge at the helm of any bank in an emerging country then in mid 1990’s, there were the borderline instances to ignore good practices and betray the bank’s values when under pressure; doing the right thing and staying on the facts and understanding the consequential impact helped in my decisions. The Board was looking up to me as the CEO to be guided with the facts and the risk reward equation. It is the duty of a CEO to work with the right ethics and to guide the Board away from such pressure, fairly reasoned and grounded on facts of the situation on hand.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and more importantly your mind frame while transitioning from graduate school to the corporate world?
I was very clear I was not going into pedagogy as supplementary course with the economics scholarship. I had a life changing experience with a wonderful soul that helped me convert the scholarship and allowed me to leave my bond with the government to join the private sector. I was confident of making an impact where I went. I was lucky to find my passion in banking and learnt on the job after having a good start with a US bank. I worked across the region to immerse in the diversity of better talents and forward thinking people around me.
All this helped me grow my confidence, knowledge and leadership skills and I was able to take on an opportunity to lead a local bank after 15 years with a US bank. It was tough adjusting to a local unstructured environment, but I knew I could add value and make an impact. Within a span of 12 months I was made CEO and since then I was at the helm of several banking organisations for more than 16 years.
As a trailblazer for women in banking, I also accomplished many firsts with leading three major bank acquisitions and many small finance company acquisitions to play my part to shape the consolidation of the Malaysia banking industry post the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and Global Financial Crisis in 2008.
During a period of 15 months in 1998-1999, at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis I had the unique opportunity to head two banks concurrently before they were merged. I had also done greenfield projects with the first ASEAN Bank purchase in a China bank in Chengdu and started two greenfield banks in Vietnam and Cambodia working with the regulators to open up these markets. I built my reputation as someone who strategically sweats what matters, executes well for the right outcomes and for leading teams and sustaining good talent.
Over these years, I built a good network with my extensive travel in the region and with the regulators, government and the business and banking fraternity.
Now I am at the helm as non-executive chair of a foreign bank and several boards of a variety of industry i.e media, software, startup funding, and an NGO for education and development. I see myself evolving and staying relevant with the fast changing technology and the world, learning and giving back in assisting the development of the young and millennial ,channelizing my energies in mentoring, formally and informally, budding young startups, mid-career and C-suite professional across all industries and NGOs. Being a part of this era is exciting and especially I enjoy trying to see from their perspective, the younger crowd for their liberalism, ideas and social media centricity.
*Yvonne Chia was awarded the honorary title of “Datuk” by the King of Malaysia in 2012 for her contributions.