Lessons in leadership: Highlights from the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
Endowus Insights

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Lessons in leadership: Highlights from the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023

Aug 2023
Mar 2023
Endowus Leadership Forum 2023 panel discussion - International Women's Day

In this month of International Women’s Day, we are proud to have brought to life the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023. The inaugural event gathered top minds from various industries to share their leadership philosophies, career-building tips, and advice on investing in ourselves holistically.

We are recapping the sessions through Endowus Insights. In this article, we feature discussions centred around leadership as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion.

On the keynote panel, titled “Rethinking Finance”, we were joined by these panellists:

  • Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock
  • Sabrina Gan, Head of Southeast Asia and Country Head of Singapore, Fidelity International
  • Dora Seow, CEO, Natixis Investment Managers Singapore
  • Cindy Tan, CEO, GMO Singapore
  • Moderator: Min Axthelm, Director of Investment Research, Endowus

The changemakers session, titled “Business Builders”, featured the following panellists:

  • Angelene Chan, Chairperson, DP Architects
  • Jean Fernandes, CFO, GXS
  • Julia Wei, CEO, Edelman Singapore
  • Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance, Aspire
  • Moderator: Jamie Lee, Head of Financial Planning and Editorial, Endowus

What are your priorities as a leader?

Jean Fernandes, chief financial officer (CFO) of GXS, at the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
Jean Fernandes, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of GXS

As a chief financial officer, Jean is focused on building a culture of accountability. To achieve that, she had to learn about the vastly different performance metrics used in the technology sector, while unlearning what she had picked up from her previous roles.

Building GXS was very different from how it was done at traditional banks, Jean says. The team in a digital bank adopts a very agile approach — for every specific feature, they think about why they’re building it, and go through many rounds of testing and corrections. “You never, at any point of time, had the whole thing mapped out… You will keep correcting and correcting to create the best possible outcomes for customers.”

That was a head-scratcher for Jean, who then had to figure out how best to measure performance at the digital bank — be it the cost of building the features, how to improve productivity, or whether the team was spending the right amount of time on the right features. She spoke to her peers at tech companies and read widely. 

Now, she understands “a whole slew” of metrics, and continues to learn. “For me, changing my mind was absolutely essential.”

Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance, Aspire, at the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance at Aspire

Tarini is keenly aware of the importance of having a clear bond and communication within the company in order to move things forward.

This is because nobody works in silos anymore — everyone, regardless of their department, is in touch with the vision and strategy of the company. The business and governance aspects have to go hand in hand, Tarini says.

“My job is not just to enable a product or to come in and say, ‘yes, we can do it’, or ‘no, we cannot’. It’s about how we can do it.”

Tarini adds: “We want to be disruptors, and we want to be the first ones out there. But there’s no point in doing that if it’s just going to fall flat a little while later because sustainable growth was not talked about.”

Angelene has found that it’s “absolutely necessary” to get total buy-in from the whole office for every initiative to make the change a success.

“Change management is one of the most difficult things to execute in an organisation,” she says.

To start off, the company sets up think tanks and appoints leaders to conduct market research before scoping out the problem. The next steps to secure the buy-in could involve sending the leaders for courses, getting them registered, deepening their knowledge in the relevant areas, and creating experts within the organisation. They may also partner tech companies. “We also created our own software to help our architects make design decisions faster.”

To Angelene, specialisation and diversification are essential to building DP Architects’ branding and keeping up as a global architecture firm.

In terms of diversification, that involves reaching out to the world to service their clients better and expanding globally. “It is in this diversification that we’re able to understand the culture of the place and service our clients well,” Angelene adds.

Why women supporting women matters

In historically male-dominated fields such as finance, women may face barriers or challenges such as glass ceilings when pursuing their careers. While the number of women holding leadership roles at Singapore financial institutions has increased over the years, certainly more can still be done to advance gender equity in the workplace.

Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock, at the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock

Deborah from BlackRock emphasises that it’s important that women support other women and help each other navigate a system that was not set up for them. 

Agreeing, Cindy encourages women to support their female colleagues while making sure they stand up for themselves and have a seat at the table.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are very crucial elements we need across all industries… This is where we need to move forward together,” Cindy says.

Deborah also notes that implementation is crucial when it comes to DEI in companies and making spaces equitable for everyone.

She cites a 2022 study that found women’s DEI efforts were often not recognised or considered in their performance evaluations, even though they were twice as likely to volunteer for such initiatives than men.

“So I would ask my brothers to please help… (Men and women should) lock arms together and make it easier for everybody. The world really doesn’t need another barrier,” Deborah says.

In practising inclusivity, Tarini focuses on her own awareness of the environment she’s in. “Diversity begins at home… That means always teaching myself and being aware of who I’m speaking with, how I need to speak, how they’re understanding what I’m saying, and how I need to understand what they’re saying.”

Being courageous, setting boundaries

(from left) Min Axthelm, Director of Investment Research, Endowus; Sabrina Gan, Head of Southeast Asia and Country Head of Singapore, Fidelity International; Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock -- at the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
(from left) Min Axthelm, Director of Investment Research, Endowus; Sabrina Gan, Head of Southeast Asia and Country Head of Singapore, Fidelity International; and Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock

Another challenge women face lies in the breadth of roles women play and the standards they set for themselves, Sabrina points out. “Being kind to ourselves is really important. Tell yourself that sometimes it’s okay to be a good enough mother and leader.”

Setting boundaries is also key, in terms of protecting your space and the time you need to rest, Sabrina says. “It’s okay to be upfront about what makes you effective, and it starts from the leaders — only then can your team members also be upfront and conscious.”

Dora similarly advises women to have the courage to take breaks to reprioritise and reset. “As long as we serve with purpose… don’t be afraid to be a mother, a wife, or a daughter first. Be unafraid to share these very legitimate priorities you have as a woman. The more you do that while showing that you can still achieve the results, the more it’ll break the bias.”

Being confident as a woman will lend you credibility, and good people will eventually gravitate towards working with you, Dora says.

Leadership tips

To aspiring leaders, Julia advises them to make sure they do not hold people back from being the best they can be. “Be a bridge, not a bottleneck.”

Always connect your team to a better place than they were before — whether it’s through training, micro coaching moments, or helping them eliminate barriers, she says.

“Not being a bottleneck means never stopping them from doing their job the best they can, whether it’s in terms of approvals, bad time management, or taking credit for things you shouldn’t be,” Julia adds.

(from left) Angelene Chan, Chairperson, DP Architects; Julia Wei, CEO, Edelman Singapore; Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance, Aspire -- at the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023
(from left) Angelene Chan, Chairperson, DP Architects; Julia Wei, CEO, Edelman Singapore; and Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance, Aspire

Tarini recommends continuous learning — keep an open mind to learn from your peers, juniors, and seniors, so that you can become a better leader.

She also empowers her team to come out of their shells, take risks, and build their personal brands, Tarini notes.

Angelene says: “Leadership actually need not be lonely at the top.” She encourages leaders to embed themselves at the heart of their teams, fully surround themselves with the people they work with, show them support and care, and be fair and accessible to them.

“If you’re struggling on a problem for more than a few hours, come to me — together, we can solve it a lot faster.”

As someone who has been with her company for more than three decades, Angelene says: “The proudest moment for me would be if I can leave the firm a much better place with stronger leaders than when I entered.”


As part of our community impact initiative, Endowus Empower, we have established a Women & Investing community to empower women with the choice, confidence, and community to kickstart their investment journey and work towards their life goals — with exciting partnerships and engagements to come in the following months.

To explore our curated section of investing articles dedicated to women, follow this link. To get started with Endowus, click here.

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