Back in February, I had the opportunity to spend a wintery few days in Tokyo for the Women Corporate Directors (WCD) Asia Pacific Summit. WCD is the world’s largest membership organisation and community of women corporate board directors, serving a community of directors on more than 8,500 public and private boards. Representing Marsh & McLennan, one of WCD’s Strategic Partners, and as a relatively new board appointee myself, the connections and access to information have been tremendously helpful, so I wanted to share my reflections.
The forum began with dinner and the room buzzed with excitement as over 100 attendees caught up with friends and made new connections. With only a small portion of board positions in Asian economies held by women, trust me when I say how rare and inspiring it is to be in a room full of talented and powerful leaders - women who have ‘made it to the top’. Personally, I try to live by the advice be interested not interesting, especially when networking and there was something very special and welcoming about this group.
Be interested, not interesting...
Here are five lessons I learnt from the speakers, by moderating a panel, and from discussions with my fellow attendees:
- It's time to broaden the definition of ‘working age’
In the session, Womenonomics: 20 Years On, Goldman Sachs’ Kathy Matsui shared her perspective including how economic growth is essentially derived from labour, capital, and productivity. Given the rapidly ageing population in Japan, there are urgent conversations on how to meet labor needs including raising the retirement age, leveraging AI and robotics (which Japan arguably does better than most) and expanding traditional talent pools to include gig workers, part-timers, semi-retirees and of course, women.
The message was clear: embracing diversity, particularly gender diversity, is not only ‘the right thing to do’ but is an economic imperative for Asia. It is well-known that women leave the workforce to have children and struggle to return to work, and some may not even enter the workforce to begin with due to family and cultural commitments. In a recent report by Mercer, Marsh & McLennan Companies Insights, and Tsao Foundation’s International Longevity Centre Singapore, women retire with 17 percent less savings on average compared to men in low-income populations as a result of this caregiver penalty borne by women. This places significant strain on social systems, and impacts community access to wealth since women are often cited as dividing spend in more sustainable ways.
We've seen strong moves by governments across Asia, such as Singapore's newly established Council for Board Diversity, to get more women onto boards and into top jobs, and at Mercer, our clients are increasingly seeking help with navigating the complexities of executive reward, compensation harmonization and job redesign to better attract a wider and often aging talent pool.
At only 37-years-old myself, it was amazing to meet so many ‘semi-retired’ professionals—women with oodles of experience and energy to keep making a difference—so much for my early retirement plans!
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
The next day opened with one of the most impressive, honest, and humble keynotes by Mr Masahiko Uotani, President & Group CEO of Shiseido. Uotani-san is another example of someone who attempted ‘semi-retirement’, a long-time executive who prior to joining Shiseido, served as Chairman of Coca-Cola Japan for five years and worked for Coca-Cola for over 17 years. Post Coca-Cola, Uotani-san took on advisory roles, but he was called personally by the Shiseido’s Chairman and asked to take the helm in 2014 after a few challenging performance years.
As one of Japan’s most well-known brands internationally, there was the sense that changing Shiseido meant changing Japan and Uotani-san wanted to be a part of it. What impressed me the most from the session was his upmost passion for people and the clarity that it was not going to him who led the change, but the entire Shiseido team who, by working together, can and will create the basis to remain vital for the next 100 years. My key takeaway was growth and comfort will NEVER co-exist. Uotani-san urged the audience to remember that leaders must show vulnerability. To hear a successful Japanese businessman admit to staff that he didn’t have all the answers shows how much this region to ready for change.
Growth and comfort will NEVER co-exist
- Improve the consumer trust deficit
The afternoon was spent deep diving into areas like Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) and impact investing. Many companies are proactively trying to improve the ‘trust deficit’ we see around the world and across all major institutions.
As a relatively new investor myself, it was interesting to discuss the ESG criteria used by investors such as the company's impact on climate change or carbon emissions, anti-corruption policies, board member diversity, human rights efforts and community development. Our customers, internal and external, should be able to rely on a company’s and a leader’s word. It is one thing to make promises in relation to ESG but it is quite another to deliver upon them. With diminishing organisational boundaries and social media explosion, leaders must walk the talk and demonstrate personal proactivity when it comes to executing change.
Demonstrate personal proactivity in change
- Technology is here and we MUST keep up
Technology is no longer futuristic; it is already here and helping people every day – I would never have been able to get around Tokyo at night without my trusty friend, Google Maps. Yet there still appears to be a mixed view of digital readiness when we think about staff using technology to supplement their every day job tasks. When I asked the audience to raise their hands if they had recently invested in new skills like coding, design thinking, agile for themselves, only about 2% of hands went up.
With the world of business moving so fast these days, we leaders need to make a conscious effort to keep up with changes and trends. If we want to stay relevant and able to contribute as we move into the category of ‘mature workers’, we too have an obligation to learn, unlearn, and even relearn skills. What often gets in the way is (lack of) time. All of us suffer from this as we drive business-as-usual, oversee transformation initiatives and of course get in the trenches for the occasional fire-fight. Yet it must be done, and it will only be done if your ‘to stop’ list is longer than your ‘to do’ list.
Make sure your ‘to stop’ list is longer than your ‘to do’ list
I was fortunate to moderate this panel, Adapting Technology for Ageing Labour Markets. Sitting on stage with me were three very talented ladies: Ikuko Ebihara, President at Johnson & Johnson K. K. Vision Care Company (Japan); Rana Karadsheh: Regional Industry Director of IFC - Manufacturing, Agribusiness & Services (Singapore); and Jean Moe, CEO of beauty company Dames and former CEO of Danone Corporation (South Korea).
- Marie Kondo your corporate toolbox
At the end of the day, we were left with “if it doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it” thanks to Maggie Hanson-Muse, one of our closing speakers. Think through the tools, systems, processes, case studies, and ideas you have used in the past. Are they still useful in today’s environment, will they be useful in tomorrow’s, and do you benefit from using them?
At the end of the forum, we parted ways as new friends over happy farewells. Not to mention bags full of business cards and Shiseido sample packs. As Marie Kondo said in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “people cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”
As I reflect back on my experience, I feel lucky. The networks and friendships I have built around the region and through groups like WCD offer a wealth of support. Yet it wasn’t only luck that got me to where I am today, nor is it what keeps me going or affords me these opportunities. It is tenacity, ambition, curiosity, and the willingness to say yes even when I’m not at my most confident. And of course, a supportive boss who is happy to sign off travel and expenses :)
Have the tenacity, ambition, curiosity, and the willingness to say yes
About The Author and WCD
Peta Latimer is the CEO of Mercer Singapore and a global business leader with extensive experience across a range of industries and high profile projects. Prior career highlights include: Building a new practice as a Partner at KPMG Singapore; setting up IBM’s Smarter Workforce business in Asia; and leveraging her background in Organizational Psychology to support Diversity and Inclusion and Leadership Development agendas with her clients. She sits on the Board of Governors of the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore, and is a member of WCD.
WCD is a foundation that prides itself on inspiring visionary boards worldwide. Run by financial services expert and not-for-profit stalwart, Susan Keating, WCD is the world’s largest membership organisation and community of women corporate board directors. The community of directors serves on more than 8,500 public and private boards around the world. Set up over the past 18 years, WCD has been instrumental in training women for board service, providing board opportunities, and facilitating introductions to nominating committee chairs around the world.