The best thing that could be said about Piyush Gupta as the choice of CEO for Singapore’s DBS Bank is that they got a man who was within the range of skills and personalities they should have been looking at in the first place.
So, on the face of things, the appointment did assuage the concerns of many observers, analysts, investors and customers as to the criteria the DBS board, under the astute leadership of it’s chairman Koh Boon Hwee of course, had used in selecting its CEO.
But how things will play out will depend on several factors, and I have tried to line out several below.
At the starting block
Quite obviously, in hiring Piyush, DBS went into the same pod to find him as they did when choosing Richard Stanley in the past. So, it must be the same head hunter whose specialization is in poaching from mid-career Citibank people. They were technically from the same ranks, in the same age group and in the same talent pool from which Citi itself stirs its talent pool from time to time.
But in order to assess leaders on an apples-for-apples basis, some very simple, but objective criteria to ascertain if we are talking about leaders on the same starting point would look like this:
i. the size of the assets (both lending and managed assets) they manage in their positions immediately before their new appointment. The ones who manage a larger business would of course be coming with greater credibility than those with experience managing a smaller business.
ii. the complexity of the assets they were managing – range of products, customer sets, geographical reach, degree of difficulty in that market, and so on.
iii. the time they spent in that position. Too little time or too much time is both bad.
iv. the impact they made (in terms of growth of profit or revenue, reduction in risk and others).
v. their age and point in career. Younger is better. Been-there-done-that is over-the-hill and therefore bad.
Based on these five criteria, Richard was obviously not Piyush’s equal. Richard was not responsible for the bottom line of the various businesses in China. He was primarily a point man. If we go back to the assets he was responsible for in the time he spent in Citibank Thailand, they were small and he did not spend enough time to see them grow.
There were more Singaporean senior managers who had been responsible for larger and more complex assets than Richard had. It was for these reasons that I had opposed Richard as Koh Boon Hwee’s choice for CEO. You had to ask, “what was the board doing” appointing someone with less experience than DBS’s own senior managers.
Arguably, Piyush is also further in front than David Connor was when he started as CEO of OCBC Bank in Singapore. David was primarily a corporate banker and the size and complexity of the assets he was responsible for at Citi was much smaller and more straightforward.
Also, Piyush was all about cash management, treasury and trade finance in his formative product years. This area requires a bit of a broader skill set in sales, marketing and client relationships than that which David had when he joined OCBC. Which in turn explains David’s hands-off approach toward OCBC’s primary businesses, managing his managers through the numbers instead of doing the grunt work (my original criticism of him when I first started writing these blogs).
This way of organising our understanding of how these gentlemen stack up against each other also helps to explain David’s affinity to Richard Stanley, when he was CEO of DBS. I call it the “math of sociology” that can explain everything from why people fall in love to specific people and why some can achieve things that others can’t, using the hard numbers that economics or corporate profiles give us.
Essentially, if Richard was a higher achiever than David, then David would not have found it comfortable to treat Richard as a “younger brother” of sorts, which he did by saying all sorts of encouraging things about Richard when he first came in the fraternity of “foreign CEOs of Singapore Inc companies.”
It also helps us understand some of the things Piyush will have to do when he gets into DBS. Just as neither he nor David are retail men, and both these institutions are more than 60% domestic retail, they will be highly dependent on the in-house retail talents to run the shop for them. David was very fortunate to have the likes of YY Chin and then Andrew Lee, both passionate retail men to run the shop for him. Piyush will almost certainly have to replace Rajan Raju with someone who is a real retail talent if he is to make things happen in his shop.
While he ranks ahead of the David’s and the Richards of the world, Piyush ranks behind people like Francis Rozario, who is Singapore’s unsung hero in terms of his ability to take on distressed banks, putting in place the right people and turning them around for Temasek’s profit.
The size of the assets that these two gentlemen were or are responsible for (excluding Piyush’s Australian and other assets that were only recently added on to his Citibank portfolio) may be about the same. But the work that Francis accomplished in being hands on, finding the right people, turning the banks around, and then selling some of them, puts him way ahead in the complexity and the impact categories of the assessment.
It is for this reason that we must not make too much of Piyush’s regional CEO role of a bank that has country and business level CEOs who report to him and are the ones who really carry the weight of the business. Whether he will be able to recreate the same delivery strength at DBS is for him to demonstrate.
I understand that DBS had also shortlisted an Australian candidate, and I would have used this rule-of-thumb sketch to assess that Piyush would have been about that candidate’s equal or less of the preferred choice.
Also, although there are others whom Piyush ranks behind as more credible choices as CEOs for DBS, the thing to note is the fact that we are now discussing men who are well within the range of good choices at the starting block.
What can we expect from Piyush Gupta, the man
I need to state that I cannot remember meeting Piyush Gupta, although strangely enough I do have his name card when he was CEO of Citibank Malaysia in my card box. I am sure he will have the same problem of placing me. But all my friends who also know and have worked with him confirm that he is a decent choice.
My preliminary assessment as such will be based on him as a representative of a genre – the quintessential Indian executive at Citibank and his performance in Malaysia as the one country where he enough time to play out his full range of CEO skills.
As a genre, the large number of Indian professionals who prove their mettle in Citibank is both the result of design as well as that of elimination.
John Reed was the original American who, in the depths of Citibank’s crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sought out young entry level professionals from a whole range of emerging market countries to manage and scale up Citibank’s global growth. It was a policy that benefited Citi considerably, and over the years Citi featured outstanding talent from a wide range of emerging market countries, from Polish to South African to India as well as Singaporeans and Hong Kongers.
The process of elimination applied as some of these emerging markets began to grow themselves and the natives of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines preferred to join domestic banks instead. The Filipinos, who like the Indians, used to represent a large source of talent started going home after the fall of Marcos and so you don’t see them represented very much in Citi today.
Talented Indians, unlike the Filipinos or the Chinese, are represented in a wider range of global corporations today because there is more to be achieved for them in being outside India than in India even in today’s Indian boom, while the talented Chinese has the option of going back to China to participate in China miraculous boom. My Filipino friends who went back to the Philippines after their Citibank days are decidedly fatter, some remarried… life is great at home!
The other cohort of foreigners floating around in large numbers in this region, are the Australians, of course. With a good basic education system but insufficient number of jobs to absorb their young people back home, many are in Singapore and Hong Kong, mostly.
The usually arrogant Indian would want to argue that Indians are also going home these days. But as any head hunter knows, there are still far more Indian professionals looking for work abroad than there are asking to go back to India. The ones who go back to India are usually the ones who have proven their worth in international settings and are returning on expatriate packages.
While Citi proves the Indian banking professional as an outstanding executions man, it does not automatically follow that its Indian professionals are of leadership calibre, unless otherwise proven. They generally operate best in environments where leadership is provided by someone else.
To be sure, there are global examples of Indian nationals of exceptional quality as CEOs. I would rate KV Kamath of ICICI, Aditya Puri of HDFC Bank, ex-Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin, and arguably Rajat Gupta of McKinsey and Company as of world class standards. There are others. If you rank them as 8s and 9s on a scale of 10, people like Koh Boon Hwee will rank as a 2, and I don’t think I would be exaggerating by saying this.
(Incidentally, I consider both Kamath and Aditya good friends. I recently featured Kamath in The Banking Conversation – video interviews I do with leaders of banks I like. Find it on www.thebankingconversation.com, a new initiative that I have been using to strengthen my own understanding of the mechanics of leadership in this industry.)
But it is a grave mistake to assume that Citibank as an institution manufactures Indians of leadership proportions.
In fact, the reverse is more likely true. That the way that so many Indians do well in Citibank is by keeping their noses clean and doing what needs to be done. That makes them great soldiers, great lieutenants even, but not necessarily great generals.
This assessment goes back to the 1990s when Victor Menezes, the outstanding Indian Citibanker worked his way up to the position of vice chairman of the bank. Of course he is venerated within Indian banking circles today as being a leader of exceptional standing, and he was. Under his leadership, Citi achieved off-the-chart process improvement standards that all other industries still refer to today.
But for all his accomplishments, the Americans would have liked him to be more with it, in leadership terms. The writer Amey Stone, in her 2001 book “King of Capital: Sandy Weill and the making of Citigroup”, pointed out that Victor could not bring himself to make hard decisions at the board level during the leadership crisis between Sandy Weill and John Reed.
Unfortunately, we see the same thing with Vikram Pandit, as CEO of Citigroup, which should not be proof of the point, because he was not a career Citi man to begin with. He is without doubt, as Citi’s board likes to remind us, a highly intelligent man. The mission he has, in determining which of Citi’s businesses to keep and which to let go of, is an impossible one for almost any man. It is not a question of ability. It is a question of packaging.
Leadership requires him to set the agenda for others to follow, not become victim to others agenda for him. He ended up becoming a victim to the US media, the FDIC chairman Sheila Bair and even his peer Jamie Dimon’s descriptions of him. Which is so sad, because on the day he leaves, after having held the fort in the worst period of the bank’s history, few are going to thank him for the work he did.
What all of this suggests is that if we assume that what DBS is getting in Piyush is a very good Chief Operating Officer and not necessarily a CEO, we will not be disappointed. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because where DBS is hurting right now is exactly there – in operations.
So much has been said about DBS and by DBS that it does not really matter that for the next year or so, it hunkers down and says very little instead. There are a lot of wounds to heal internally before it is ready to dream again as an institution.
I should also point out that this is also Singapore Inc’s first experience with an Indian-born (as opposed to a Singaporean or Malaysian born Indian) as a CEO of one of their national assets. In this regard, Piyush has had some groundwork laid out before him by an M Ramaswami, who is currently the Chief Operating Officer at the Singapore Exchange and the highest ranking Indian executive at a Singapore Inc organisation.
I was familiar with the head hunting process that landed Ramaswami, originally for the position of head of technology but later as Chief Operating Officer. For all the reticence that Singapore Inc had in hiring Indian rather than Western talent, I am hearing only the best things about Ramaswami and the tight shop he is running at SGX.
I cannot stress enough the fundamental transformation that Ramaswami is bringing into the exchange, and the difference it is going to make in the transformation of the exchange business itself. In many ways, these hard-working, very focused Indian talents are so much more amiable to the Singaporean culture and so much more effective than some of the prickly Westerners they have tried before.
But my prognosis from one encounter with him, as anything other than an operations man, Ramaswami cames across as benign to an outsider like me – I met him at the Association of Banks Annual Dinner this years. He would not have a clue on how to promote himself or make small talk and definitely not talk up his share price. That is not the nature of his job, but also Singapore’s benign corporate culture does not need him to be so.
[I ran into him a second time at SIBOS in Hong Kong in Sept 2009, and he explained to me the various committees he has been active in with SWIFT. I could see how those involvements enhances the international aspect of his knowledge of and standing in the industry. Very few Singaporean senior executives make the pains to build their own careers in this way and this is yet another reason why talent like Ramaswami stand heads and shoulders above the complacent Singaporean who thinks he has talent.]
I am just guessing that all of us who like to see leadership from the front will find Piyush intolerably benign. The ability to tell a story or discuss strategy has its worth, as Jackson Tai showed us in his time as CEO. He kept boasting that the natural price for DBS shares was $28. It made it to $22, I think, at its height and no higher. But it is the job of the CEO to create the fiction for others to work towards.
Piyush does not have the privilege of Ramaswami. Even if his boss, the chairman of DBS, sits on him, the Singaporean public and the analysts and the reporters would want to see him, hear him and blame him for things. This is an area of exposure that nothing at Citi would have prepared him for.
In a sense, we have to contend that whatever shortcomings Piyush has in packaging his agenda for the bank, shall be compensated by Koh Boon Hwee. If they work well, they might just complement each other (what a lovely thought). Having said that, it would be a deep disappointment if he turns out to be a Vikram Pandit or a M Ramaswami, because the analysts and the international media will have him for breakfast.
The perils are real. Some of us remember when a Alex Au was CEO of OCBC before David Connor. He was previously CEO of Hang Seng Bank in Hong Kong and on the face of things a very reasonable candidate for OCBC, although one must contend that it is foolish ab initio to expect that any talent of leadership proportions could arise out of Hang Seng Bank, which surrenders its raison detre to its parent, HSBC. There are some inalienable truths about people and the organisations they come from that we waste time testing.
But this inability to engage (worse: he actually thought he did have the ability) with the media, the analysts and at shareholders meetings, ended up making Alex minced meat. He proposed phases of change for OCBC (I think he called it OCBC 3.0) which was mocked in analyst reports. He finally left the bank, a defeated man.
It is for this reason that Piyush’s distinguished career at Citibank does not as yet impress me – sure, he was global head of strategy for emerging markets at the bank. Clever man, that’s what they say about Vikram Pandit, but they want him out.
The record I have of Piyush Gupta internally in our own research files goes back to 2005 when he was country manager for Malaysia. I recall that the only one time that Citibank won the Excellence in Retail Banking award for Malaysia was in 2003, when it usurped the incumbents by stealing market share of the country’s home mortgage business. A lot of top-of-line marketing initiatives to win that market share.
It never achieved a similar result again in Malaysia. In fact, I remember taking note that Citibank’s printed marketing collaterals and even the quality of its telesales staff for Malaysia were really poor, even by the bank’s own international standards and definitely much lower than HSBC or StanChart in that country.
I can only venture a guess that it confirms Piyush’s hands-off involvement in the consumer part of the business. I am sure Citi Malaysia rakes in a lot of profits from its wealth and institutional businesses, which are his forte. Faced with a similar situation, David Connor of OCBC was very lucky in having good men. Piyush probably had waist height talent in Citibank Malaysia, and he will be walking into DBS where he will have to act quickly to put in bench strength for retail, or otherwise the already eroding asset profitability and market share for retail will slip even further. It is for this reason that quite clearly, Rajan Raju will have to be replaced.
Perhaps what needs to be said most important of all is that Piyush has one important consideration that works in his favour. He is at the right age to chart the rest of his career. He is actually at the tail end of the 40s, but he has already been building bench strength at Citi, pulling away from his peers and being given more complex responsibilities, all of which will stand him in good stead at DBS. So he has a clean slate on which to write to write the story of this next phase in his career.
Still unanswered questions
But we still do not know all of the facts just now, and for the benefit of shareholders and people who have various forms of vested interest in DBS, I have instructed my editorial staff to ask the following questions the next time Koh Boon Hwee features himself at a press conference:
– Is the contract with Piyush a term contract or one without a time limit? If it is a term contract, then obviously Piyush is a stop gap measure. I do not think that Piyush would submit himself to such a contract, if the reason for leaving Citibank was precisely to ensure the long term security of his career, which was not present in Citi with the precarious position that Vikram Pandit is in right now.
– What are the sign-on bonus and the termination clauses of the contract? I think the world has come to a point where we need to know these in advance instead of being surprised when a CEO gets the sack. The terms will also tell us that the nature of the negotiations with Piyush – whether the bank needed him more than he needed them.
– What are his KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)? The answer to this question will tell us if there a focus on the domestic Singaporean business of DBS or is he expected or not expected to go out and look for further acquisitions at any time of his tenure? I do believe that if things work well with Piyush as CEO (COO), Koh Boon Hwee will set the stage for the next onslaught of DBS – the acquisition of OCBC (very likely, but the subject of another discussion).
Koh Boon Hwee will of course try and avoid answering all of the above questions and it will be the job of journalists and analysts to be really rude until he does.
The trouble with Citibank today
Piyush leaving Citi is as much a commentary about Citibank as it is about change at DBS. I was really surprised when Ajay Banga left Citibank, but for a much better job, as global President and COO of MasterCard International – a position that I think he will do really well in as he did as head of international at Citibank.
I have considerable high regard for Ajay, a true leader who could handle all of the 360 degrees of skill sets required to hold his position well. Why Vikram saw it fit to send Ajay out of the New York office, where he desperately needed to hold on to his position, to head Asia Pacific, will always be a mystery. This of course was the reason he lost him. Needless to say, this in turn set a chain reaction that also included the departure of Piyush Gupta and a string of mostly Indian talents, put into their position by a CEO whose own position is currently precarious.
The power play at Citibank’s head office, between the international talents like Ajay and the domestic American talents like Margie Magner and Sallie Krawcheck, was palpable, even from all the way around the world. In my encounters with Margie (2006-7) and Sallie (1999), I thought they were two very forceful women, fully aware of their own rights more than they were aware of their own real skills.
I thought that Krawcheck was probably an excellent researcher (she did make a presentation on Citi’s commitment to shareholder value that I still remember to this day), but for Sandy Weill to make her believe that she could really run a business turned her into a monster. Margie was never interested in and never understood its international business, no matter what the PR people tried to say.
The tragedy in leadership and succession in Singapore Inc The choice of Piyush as CEO of DBS is also a commentary on leadership and transition at Singapore’s government linked companies. A few readers had suggested to me that Peter Seah or Ernest Wong as the more appropriate CEOs for DBS. The readers who suggested this forget that these gentlemen are in their 60s and all set to be grandparents and take a back seat in life. They have been there, done that, as CEOs, they do not need to prove anything anymore. They are not sitting around waiting to be asked to lead the next dance.
I think Peter Seah has done more than his fair share for Singapore Inc. He is incredibly talented and wise (he is also sour whenever he wants to be, but I have found that the way around that is to prod his fragile ego from time to time ;-). He is a great mentor to the various CEOs of Temasek owned banks around the region. He went out of his way to fill in as executive chairman when one of the Temasek owned companies leaders died several years ago (I forget which one, but it is there in the corner of my mind).
Like Peter, there is a full range of highly talented Singaporean ex-bankers who are now retired, offering whatever help they can. My all time favourite ex-DBSer is Tan Soo Nan. I always thought, and still think, that he could have done as well as CEO of DBS as all the foreigners they brought into the bank over the year. Some of these excellent men still help Ho Ching to recee or sit on the boards of banks that Temasek bought or invested in over the years.
Their common characteristic is that they are all now into their late 50s and early 60s. Their other common characteristic is that all of them cut their teeth in banking when they were in their late 20s and early 30s, at a time when Singapore’s economy was growing rapidly and there were just no talent in banking as yet. They are pioneers in the true sense of the word.
Peter Seah always reminisce that he was CEO of Citibank Brunei when he was still in that age range (“You know, I had to retrench staff when I was still 29”, he would remind us sourly). When DBS was set up in 1969, it was a pool of greenhorns, including a much younger S Dhanabalan, who had to learn as they went.
Singapore is lucky in that these greenhorns of the early 1970s are now the statesmen of the 2000s. There is continuity and there is access to wisdom. But the tragedy is that these greenhorns of the 1970s did not go on to build the next generation of leaders from within the fraternity of Singaporean born and bred bankers who cut their teeth in the 1990s.
The cohort of Singaporean bankers who were in their early 30s in the 1990s are now in their late 40s and early 50s – the same age group as Piyush and his friends are today – where are they now? All but dispersed around the world, but not in Singapore.
You may or may not know these names, but KK Tan is CEO of Krung Thai Bank in Thailand, Michael Wei single handedly built the credit card industry standard for all of China from scratch at China Merchants Bank, that irascible Edmund Koh is now CEO of a bank in Taiwan, Wilson Chia just left StanChart, Lee Ah Boon –outstanding COO material by any global standard, who just retired from Citi – the list is a long and tragic one – loved by the international banks, but dismissed in their own country!
The reason is a simple one: Their predecessors, the Peter Seahs, the Ernest Wongs, the Tan Soo Nans, the Dhanabalans of the world may not be actually running banks today, but they are still around, unretired, hale and hearty and still able to work. Unwittingly, they have created an eco-system where their own relevance continues to be preserved by being dismissive about the talent that came after them. They do not do this consciously.
The focus on “foreign talent” is an aberration to this argument. The original intention was to secure talent that Singapore did not have, especially at the very top layers. On this point, I am a big supporter of the appointment of Magnus Bocker, also aged about 48-49, as CEO of Singapore Exchange, because all the experiences in his formative years at OMX is something that no home grown talent could have ever emulated, given the unique development of the exchanges in the Nordic countries that Singapore could not have had in that time. So, we buy that talent.
The aberration is in the fact that the early achievers in Singapore’s banking story, who are the chairmans and board members who steer leadership transition issues today, have used this desire for foreign talent to create new and difficult tasks to keep themselves occupied instead of populating the next layer of local talent and working themselves out of a job. They do this unwittingly.
In fact, a bit of decision science helps explain the unconscious choices people make. If a leader is bed ridden and in his 80s, it is unlikely that any decision to expand a business would come from him. He will make decisions based on his own personal set of circumstances, all of us do. If he is in his 50s or 60s and loves traveling, it is unlikely that he or she would pass up on the opportunity to survey the empire.
Given the choice between a Singaporean candidate and a Western one to lead a Singapore Inc company, the Western one is more desirable because there is a chance he might lead us somewhere new, retaining the role of the guardian board for advice and consultation. Yet, 99% of the time, the foreign CEO turns out to be no more talented than that of those from Singapore. Magnus Bocker is the exception, not the point.
This is one of the reasons I was so opposed to the appointment of Richard Stanley as CEO of DBS also at age 49. What oh what oh what was he adding to the system that the other names I mentioned could not? The only plausible reason is that it gave the Singapore Inc minders something to look after.
Outside of rare situations, it is Singapore that should be the net exporter of CEO level talent around the world because the competition for leadership is high. For that to happen, there should be a critical mass of talent who are on a CEO-leadership-trajectory within the system. If they are going to be eagles, they should be reared as eagles, fed as eagles and fight as eagles, so that even if they leave the coop, they will be eagles. This country is all but dead on this front.
How different were the KK Tan or Michael Wei’s or Lee Ah Boons of the world in their 30s in the 1990s from the Peter Seahs and the Tan Soo Nans in their early 30s in the 1970s? Many of them cut their teeth in retail banking, which arguably requires far more intellectual, operational, marketing and competitive skills than the corporate banking generation that was made in the 1970s ever possessed.
Yet, the worst thing that Edmund Koh ever did was to signal that he was interested in being groomed as a Singaporean CEO. What is wrong with self-promotion? That is the huge difference between someone who is destined to be a functionary COO and someone who will have the guts to own decisions as a CEO, and there is always an indication that tells us if we are dealing with one or the other.
His story is an object lesson to any hone-grown Singaporean talent who shows an interest to be CEO – you will be exactly the person they will ignore. They don’t like ambition. It makes them nervous. Well, bugger it, Edmund is now CEO of a bank in Taiwan, head hunted by a private equity company that makes more of Singaporean talent than Singapore Inc does. Another healthy indication of a leader – they don’t sit around waiting for the system to be nice to them.
This may come across as a very harsh accusation, but that is what succession planning in Singapore’s banking industry has really come to, and we really do need to take a very hard look at ourselves and act to counter them quickly. Otherwise, there will be no year 2020 versions of the Peter Seahs and Ernest Wongs of the world.
Curiously, I do not hear young Singaporean bankers in their 20s excitedly chattering between themselves saying things like, “hey, the chairman says this guy is CEO material” or “hey, the CEO likes him, I think he is destined to greater things.” I hear this kind of chatter in every other country, except Singapore.
There was a very short time when I did see some mentoring – when Foo Mee Har of StanChart was country manager for the bank’s Thailand business – EXACTLY the same position that Piyush was in Malaysia.
She looked up to Euleen Goh as a mentor during that period, and it registered in my mind that Mee Har was being nicely groomed. Today Mee Har is global head of priority banking for StanChart. Not CEO material, but definitely within the cohort that should throw up one.
Strangely enough, Temasek appointed directors have no problems raising the next generation of CEOs in other countries – Bridget Lai at Alliance Bank in Malaysia, and Sebastian Paradez at Danamon in Indonesia – neither were CEOs before. You are cursed if you are a Singaporean in Singapore.
Most recently, my close friend and buddy Harry Sasongko, whom I saw rise quietly from an obscure little bank in Indonesia to become CEO of GE Money Indonesia, recently appointed as CEO of PT Indosat Indonesia, one of Indonesia’s leading telecommunications companies. He is a few years younger than me, and I had the chance to watch him grow into his own.
He is the representation of the young, talented, quiet achievers who are shaping Indonesia today. He is a pride of Indonesia’s education system, that it can actually give rise to professionals like him, in the same way that Singapore’s education system is a mockery for not being able to stand up to the education systems of countries like India which is exporting talent to replace Singaporeans.
The unintended consequence of the lure to get in foreign talent is that, at least in banking, an entire generation of potential local leaders who cut their teeth in the 1990s are now all but lost.
It is worse if you are someone who started your career in banking in the 2000s. You are four generations removed from the pioneers. You are not expected to throw up any geniuses who can surprise them. The young executives from India and Australia who work alonside you have a greater chance of making it big, because they are obviously hungrier and more capable than you are.
I say this mostly in the context of banking. Strangely enough, in several other areas, the process of renewal is in working order – in government, in the professions such as the medical and the legal fraternities. I see this work best in the hotel industry – Singaporeans represent the largest cohort of hotel general managers and CEOs across the Asia Pacific region, precisely because the mechanics of mentoring is well in place and working to groom generation after generation of leaders.
Banking and other large state-owned businesses are where this lack of succession is most adversely demonstrated. For a country whose per capita GDP is already amongst the highest in the world, the only thing left to export is well honed CEO calibre talent.
None of this is Piyush’s fault or Richard Stanley’s fault. Singapore Inc has only itself to blame. While this trend is not a traversity in itself, there is another kind of perverse thinking that goes on in some government circles in Singapore can be nauseating.
In a chat with one government official, I had mentioned that I was a big fan of Magnus Bocker becoming CEO of Singapore Exchange. His reply made me almost fall off my chair. He said, “I hope these foreigners will be able to understand our way of doing things. Singapore Exchange is a national asset … he can’t do everything he likes.”
Sure, Singapore Exchange is a national asset. DBS is a national asset. Temasek is the mother of all national assets – so don’t hire those bloody foreigners! Don’t hire them, then expect them to dance with their hands tied behind their back to music that you decide. No professional of any nationality will allow for their careers to be terrorized in this manner. This blatant hypocrisy in the minds of some key Singapore Inc leaders is shameful and must be hung out for all to see.
So what about Koh Boon Hwee’s own role
There are four things that Koh Boon Hwee has to undertake to do now, but from what I am hearing, he is unlikely to do:
i. Remove the title of Executive from his title of “Executive Chairman” with immediate effect. Now, not tomorrow, not when he feels like it. No reason to get used to it or feel insecure without it!
ii. Stop coming to the office every day. This is a bad habit of several Singapore Inc.’s government appointed chairmans. They get these really embarrassingly large pay checks and so they feel, some of them at the age of 70, to come to the office everyday. They need to be told to relax, that it is okay not to come into the office every day. Koh Boon Hwee’s reason for coming to office everyday is different of course, but the manifestations are the same. He should be persuaded to terrorize someone else – his friends at Mediaring, or his buddies at the golf course. Do not even offer to be of help to the new CEO.
iii. Drop all the measurements he put in place. Koh Boon Hwee’s legacy as interim CEO of DBS was not so much the growth of the business itself, but the number of measurements he put in place so that he could understand the business in his own terms. Concepts like “variances” applies perfectly to the quarter master of Hewlett Packard’s manufacturing inventory, not to the sales targets of a service business like DBS. This is the banking industry, brother, not IT manufacturing in 1980 and some of the measurements he put in place are useless distractions that only he understands.
Also, Piyush is Indian, for goodness sake. He comes from the country where IT companies routinely qualify for the highest Capability Maturity Model (CMM) rating of CMM 5, something that American companies like IBM and yes, Hewlett Packard, struggle with. (Why Indian software companies achieve these qualifications and Indian restaurants still operate in a state of permanent chaos is one of the great ponderables in the history of modern civilisation.)
He also comes from Citibank, the one bank in the world where these measurements have been applied to financial services and translated into measureable value propositions that has contributed to the bottom line of the bank. So, relax and leave it to the Indian man!
iv. Strengthen the composition of the board. If there is something that Koh Boon Hwee can spend more of his time on, it is to reconstitute the DBS board with really relevant people who can help strengthen the franchise. As I have said in a previous posting, the current board is the weakest it has been. If Koh Boon Hwee is the repentant chairman and Piyush turns out to be the outstanding plodder who gets the work done, the board will have a unique opportunity to assert itself, provide the vision thing and set the direction for DBS.
In conclusion, I have been very hard in my assessment of Piyush Gupta as a leader from the Indian professional community for specific reasons, although on balance he does offer a more promising start than Richard Stanley did. I do think that the nominations committee of the DBS board has done well in this instance (although we are not clear if they did this out of desperation rather than tactical choice).
Needless to say, his appointment is causing ripples in the wads of Indian bankers living in Southeast Asia, from Singapore to Bangkok. It is a community that is highly talented and not wanting in self confidence. But it is also a community that can be completely blind-sided and in some cases arrogant and hypocritical to its shortcomings. They need to be told in no uncertain terms that “No, you are not the best in everything, so earn your trust every day.”
Piyush as CEO does not have the option of staying aloof and behaving as if he is a COO, even if Koh Boon Hwee overshadows him. He has to relate to media, to analysts, to the local community – something that as a Citibanker he did not need to do much of, even if protests that it is what he does as country manager in Malaysia. He could hide behind the veneer of a foreign institution then. As CEO of DBS, he will be subject to frontal attack.
In all my criticisms of Koh Boon Hwee or any leader for that matter, I do leave some space for their ability to learn, to mimic and to change. We have to have some faith that we are dealing with highly intelligent men, their only weakness being that their egos get in their way.
I have also discussed Piyush differently than I would have if DBS had chosen a Westerner as a CEO. I did this consciously because the factors that would contribute to making one or the other successful are diametrically different.
For his sake, I do wish him all the success in the world with this job.
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