(This article first appeared in the Q3 issue of GlobalTrading magazine.)
With Denny Thomas, COO India, HSBC Global Asset Management
Briefly discuss your career path starting when you decided to pursue finance as a career?
As a law graduate, I started my career two decades ago, moving from a small town in India to Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. Initially, I wanted to make a career with a leading FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods company]. I wasn’t actually keen about financial services or finance as a career, it didn’t seem very exciting.
However, fate intervened and I started as a management trainee with an investment management company and today I am in the 20th year of my career. I am so happy to have gotten that start as I have had so many various roles from compliance, legal, secretarial, risk and control to now a COO.
What has been your experience as a woman in what is an often male-dominated field? Have there been particular challenges (and/or opportunities) along the way?
There is no denying that even today financial services continues to be a male-dominated industry. However, when I reflect on my journey this was never the real challenge for me. I was fortunate to have been in the right place with the right people. For me, the real challenges were (and continue to be) self-inflicted ones like hesitation in putting myself forward, and looking at roles/opportunities and focusing on the things I can’t do rather than the things I can do.
I think this is a very common female trait. Women tend to feel they need to master all the requirements before putting themselves forward. Men are more confident in this area. Fortunately, I have had colleagues and seniors who have believed in me and pushed me forward.
Have any mentors/bosses been most influential for you?
Absolutely! I have had great bosses and mentors who have had a hugely positive influence in my learning and growth. They have equipped me with the right tools and support to succeed, and challenged and pushed me to grow.
Having the right boss can be life-changing, especially as you can’t choose your boss. Your mentor is up to you, so it is worth spending the time and effort to find the right one.
Key areas that my bosses and mentors have influenced me on is how to relate to different kinds of people, developing my emotional intelligence, and showing me how to take risks and become solution-oriented.
Are there notable differences in being a woman in finance at the senior level compared with the junior/middle level?
At the entry or junior level, you focus on understanding and delivering on the job, adapting to the work culture, and figuring out what is the right place for you professionally and personally.
At the middle level, challenges are more around finding career progression opportunities and overcoming the dilemma or guilt of personal/family responsibilities vis-à-vis career aspirations.
At the senior level, the stakes grow much higher — performance benchmarks are steep, and here you are actually operating in a highly male-dominated setup. So you need to be mentally tough and unapologetically work your way through to deliver on your role successfully.
What are the challenges/opportunities for women in finance in Asia compared with other regions of the world?
The challenges in Asia are the grueling hours and a more male-dominated management culture. If you are a woman aspiring to have a career in financial services, you need mental strength and readiness and be unapologetic in overcoming any obstacles from people trying to deter you.
The region has large economies like China, Japan and India. Hong Kong is a major financial services hub with many companies locating their regional headquarters there.
However, all these countries are still a long way off from achieving gender diversity. There is some good work going on to improve women representation in senior and leadership roles, but not enough generally. There is real scope for women to make successful careers in FS and raise their economic contribution and role in the region.
How is HSBC in terms of supporting and encouraging its women employees?
In my 20-year career, HSBC has been my employer for 10 years. This is the longest that I have worked with one organisation. This in itself is testament to how supportive and encouraging HSBC is, not just for women employees, but for employees in general.
HSBC has actively invested in my leadership development and this has helped me immensely. I have seen at the senior-most levels at HSBC, an absolute acceptance of the need to have diversity at all levels and the adverse impact on business if this need is not met.
This acceptance has led to greater levels of awareness which in turn has translated into efforts and actions. For gender diversity, the group has put in a lot of thought and I have seen many policy changes to support women employees from not dropping out and seen targeted programs to identify potential women talent followed by invigorating interventions to help develop their leadership skills.
I also like the way in which HSBC presents its women leaders as role models and arranges regular engagement opportunities with staff. This in my view really helps potential women talent see what the future could look like for them and encourages them to pursue their aspirations with more confidence and faith.
How do you strike a work/life balance?
For me getting the right work-life balance has been an ever-evolving journey. Over time I discovered that it’s a blend of science and art and to be efficient and effective, and it’s an absolute must for me to have control over my time.
Clarity on priorities, meticulous planning, uninterrupted focus, disciplined execution, ability to say no, some self-imposed rules on working hours, blocking self-time, multitasking, delegation and attention to quality rather than quantity have been the key tools for me to get the work-life balance right, and these are non-negotiable.
I tend to work best in the morning and tend to try to get the difficult things out of the way first.
Family is a good de-stresser and I don’t take my work home. Sometimes, if you have a problem, sleep on it, your unconscious mind will figure out the problem and the solution often presents itself the next day.
What is your advice for a young woman considering a career or just starting out in finance?
Challenge the cultural legacies related to the role of men and women in society and in the workplace, as they create barriers for you and give you less time to pursue your career aspirations. Work your way through to knock these barriers down.
Expose yourself to tough problems and crisis situations. Go through the struggles of being able to solve them. Each struggle will give you a sense of growth and the ability to realise your real potential.
Expect more! Expect equal opportunities; expect openness and transparency; expect stretch assignments and challenges; ask for what you want.
Find a sponsor for yourself to support and guide you in your career growth and consciously put in time and effort to build your network.
Most importantly, never give up, be resilient. As someone once said, “When everything feels like an uphill struggle, just think of the view from top.”
What is the future of women in finance? What progress is still needed?
The progress of women in the workforce generally and specifically in financial services has been painfully slow, but the good news is that progress has been steady and has gained some noticeable momentum in the last five years. The future of women is most definitely bright and promising in financial services.
However, a lot needs to be done starting from addressing common issues like inclusion and equality in the workplace, sponsorship and advocacy of women candidates, acceptance of remote/flexible working, and under-representation of women in leadership roles. There needs to be more widespread cultural transformation where organizations don’t just consider gender diversity as ‘the right thing’ to do, but as a strategic advantage and necessity.
Also a lot of thought and targeted effort is required for women at the middle levels, as that’s where a significant drop-out occurs, opening up a significant gap in the gender ratio and making it really difficult to improve the count of women in leadership roles.