Career development doesn't just depend on you, says Ng Wei Wei, DCEO, UOB Malaysia – it also depends on good bosses who believe in your potential. And that’s why she strives to constantly be a role model to pay it forward. In conversation with Priya Sunil, she delves deep into her learnings from 11 leadership roles in 17 years, including:
- Why she believes you never have to be 100% ready before taking on a new role;
- The one myth she is keen on busting - that all women leaders are "tough iron women"; and
- Why as a people manager, perfection doesn’t pay, but rather slows you down.
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We’ve all heard about the research which shows that men often are confident enough to apply for roles that are outside their current skills; meanwhile, women shy away from applying for roles even within their own skill set if they believe they are not 100% ready for it.
Today, HRO’s Priya Sunil is speaking to someone who’s out here banishing those notions.
Back in 2011, Ng Wei Wei, UOB Malaysia’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer (DCEO), got an offer to lead a key function within a global bank while having no direct domain expertise for the role, which was to helm the Global Trade & Receivables Finance business in Malaysia that has a large Trade operations outfit. At the time, she didn’t think twice before accepting – as the role gave her the opportunities to be reunited with her family (whom she was separated from due to her job posting back then) and to further diversify her skills set in banking.
But looking back, she reflects: “Then I realised - I am a corporate banker. I'm a commercial banker. Yes, I know some things about trade but I am not a trade expert. Yet, I had to run a business of over 300 people, many of whom are trade experts.
“It took some soul searching to tell myself: ‘hold on, you’ve got to believe in your own capabilities and trust your leaders who put you there. If they didn't see something in you, they would not have put you there.’"
And that’s when she learnt that while every new role brings new challenges, sometimes beyond our domain of expertise, the number one thing is for us as a leader is to be humble and learn from the team. “If they have been on the job longer, you can learn from them. At the same time, you do bring something different to the table. Otherwise, you would not have been appointed. You've got to really think through and bring your mindset to a level of - ‘Just do it. You can.'”
And there lies our first leadership lesson of the conversation: “Opportunities don't come around every day. And when they do, we’ve got to seize them. So I take them on without hesitation, having the belief and confidence that I will grow into the job.”
Career development, however, does not just depend on you – it also depends on good bosses who believe in your potential, Ng points out. And that’s why, Ng strives to constantly be a role model and mentor in a bid to pay it forward.
“For a lot of things that I've benefitted from as a professional in my life, I make sure I do it for my people.
By nature, I am someone who likes to get out of my comfort zone and take on new challenges. With that, plus hard work, and bosses who believed in giving me the platform, I was able to move fast in my career, while of course, delivering results in tandem.
In short, if you enjoy what you are doing, the passion will come. And so will the energy.
As DCEO of one of Malaysia’s largest and most profitable foreign banks
With more than 20 years of banking experience, Ng had spent six years at UOB Malaysia until 2006, before moving on to leadership tenures at other global financial institutions across Malaysia and Hong Kong. She then returned to UOB Malaysia in 2019, as Managing Director and Country Head of Wholesale Banking. This well-rounded banking experience has certainly proven useful.
“For one, I'm better able to appreciate and understand the demands and challenges of both the front and support functions in banking, as well as the needs of different customer segments. Hopefully, this will help me make holistic, balanced, and right decisions for the bank, our customers, staff and stakeholders.”
Holding the Deputy CEO position at the largest and most profitable foreign bank in Malaysia is an exciting space indeed, and Ng is geared up to help scale the franchise further in Malaysia, through innovation and digitalisation. Evidently, she believes the banking sector must never stand still.
“What has served us well in yesteryears may not necessarily be the key ingredient of success for tomorrow. So we have got to move with time.
In this role, I have an even larger voice to shape the workforce and grow our business in a sustainable manner for the longer term. That's how I see myself as a leader.
In her first year here, she will be focusing on three priorities, which she notes are key enablers of the bank’s success. The first involves people. “We are a people business, so we need to get the right bench strength in place in order to deliver on our ambition,” she says. This includes hiring in the areas of growth, upskilling the workforce, and succession planning for critical roles.
Second, involves products - getting new product capabilities and platforms rolled out while innovating with market demands. And finally, sharpening of the bank’s customer value propositions.
As an advocate of women leadership
Ng holds women empowerment very close to her heart, and has been an inspiration to many young, aspiring women leaders. She reflects: “In the last 17 years, I have taken on 11 leadership roles. Quite early on in my leadership journey, when I was based in the northern region of Malaysia, a lot of younger women came up to me and asked, ‘how do you balance your personal life and work? You're so energised, how do you do it?’”
This phenomenon continued when Ng moved to Hong Kong, until it struck her – these aspiring women leaders need more role models. “And women, like men, have dreams - we want success, don’t we? So why can't we have it all? Why can’t we balance it all?
This was an “aha” moment for Ng. "It dawned on me and I started asking myself - why am I working? Why do I want to be a leader? Definitely, it’s to perform and deliver for the organisation. But on the personal front, it is about how I can inspire and be a role model for women. Just like the women before me, who paved the way for my role in the workforce, I took it upon myself to do the same for the up-and-coming ones.”
On that note – what does Ng say to all aspiring women leaders who look up to her?
“Never let gender or self-doubt hold you back. Let your capabilities speak for themselves. If you get appointed into a bigger role, it is because of your capabilities, and not because you're a woman. For every job we do, we must approach it with the attitude to do our best and excel.”
There’s another myth Ng is keen on busting – and that is that all women leaders are “tough iron women”.
We are far from it. We are like any regular human being, with responsibilities and concerns like everyone else. We just want to do a good job and be a great leader to everyone.
And that’s exactly what she continues to do. “I'm a big believer of developing people, nurturing leaders, and giving people a platform to realise their potential. I have benefitted from bosses who gave me that opportunity. And I want to do the same.
“If I look at my journey, if I didn't have mentors or people to go to, I don't think I could figure it out myself.”
And it is with this passion that she continues to be a mentor to aspiring leaders (irrespective of gender) in and outside of UOB Malaysia, and prides herself on successfully developing many careers.
As a staunch developer of high-potentials
Taking her role as a career catalyst in her stride, Ng affirms that one of the most important prerequisite qualities of successful leadership is learning agility. “People with high learning agility have what it takes to perform well in challenging conditions. Why? Because they have the ability and the willingness to learn from past experience and apply those lessons well in new situations.”
Second, individuals must have the aspiration and the drive to want to take on bigger roles; and third, strategic thinking and acumen are key – the ability to see the bigger picture and know what needs to be done to move the organisation forward.
From an organisational perspective, what, in her view, does it take to groom high-potentials for leadership roles?
First, she responds, organisations must have a robust process to be able to identify these high-potential leaders, then establish what their capabilities are to assume bigger roles in the organisation. “This includes their readiness level in the context of time horizon - are you looking at the next one-two years or are they ready immediately?”
This capability assessment process is well cemented in UOB Malaysia, where the HR team works to identify competency levels, the learning agility of leaders, their traits, and readiness. It involves training, mentoring, executive coaching, and even internal mobility, all tied together by annual talent review sessions. All these, Ng says, have “served the bank well, to be able to have a robust talent & succession plan and build the next level of future leaders.”
Next in the journey, she adds:
It is very important to put in place a career development plan to prepare these individuals for those roles. Ideally, the plan should include giving them wide exposure to different aspects of the organisation.
"Expand their horizons, and even give them overseas assignments, just like we do at UOB Malaysia.”
Above all, she notes it is very important for organisations to be proactive and initiate open and transparent career conversations with high-potential talent – covering possible career paths, their development plans, and how they are progressing. This, she shares, is important because it gives both parties the platform to check in on whether these plans remain viable and valuable, in order to ensure expectations are aligned.
“Talents will then also know what to expect and how to work towards it. I believe proactive engagement on their careers definitely motivates such talent, and organisations shouldn't shy away from having these dialogues. In fact, if done well, these dialogues will serve as a very powerful, motivational and retention tool.”
Looking back (and ahead): Self-reflection
As we progress in life, we can’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come – and almost always, we would have one piece of advice we wish our younger selves would heed.
“I would have told my younger self, don't aim for perfection. Instead, value the strength and diversity of each team member, and build from there. This was one of my earlier lessons learnt when I started to become a people manager.
Perfection doesn’t pay. It slows you down. You have got to look at harnessing team strength, and build on the diversity of every individual.
In fact, she admits, it is easier to be a perfectionist in an individual contributor role, because you control your outcome. “But when you start to work with people, lead people, whether formally or informally, if you push for perfection, then it means you have failed to understand every individual is different. “
On that poignant note, we conclude the conversation, our minds brimming with new ideas on learning, leadership, life, and more.
Photo / Provided