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The Trailblazer: Tan Su Shan, DBS

Tan Su Shan has worked in some of the biggest banks in the world’s busiest financial centres. Her varied experience has proved crucial in making her voice heard in a male-dominated industry.

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Tan Su Shan has achieved a meteoric rise, from her start as an intern at Rothschild Asset Management in London at the age of 20 to leading institutional banking at DBS Bank in Singapore.

Her career has taken her to London, Tokyo and Hong Kong, working for some of the top names in finance: Barings Bank, Morgan Stanley and Citi. She joined DBS in 2010 to run its wealth management business, taking on an expanded role in 2013 covering consumer banking as well.

“That early exposure to international finance gave me a sense of good leadership and good management,” she tells Asiamoney.

'Wall of disbelief'

Along the way, she has had to push past a number of obstacles – some because of the changing nature of the banking industry, others because of her gender.

She still recalls her first meeting in an Arab country, soon after the Gulf War, when her client’s team was shocked to see her. “There was this wall of disbelief and they couldn’t bring themselves to accept they were taking advice from a female – and a young, Asian female at that,” she says.

Tan decided to take matters into her own hands, realizing that while she couldn’t change the fact she was a woman, she could at least prove her technical ability. She asked the company head to give her a convertible bond arbitrage test to solve, which she did with flying colours, proving she had the relevant skills.

The second half of that meeting went a lot better, she adds. So much so that the company’s boss even called everyone she was supposed to meet during her trip, and vouched for her capabilities.

In a culture not used to dealing with women, you have to show that you’re as good as, if not better than, a man
Tan Su Shan

“In a culture where they are not used to dealing with women, you have to show that you’re as good as, if not better than, a man on technical knowledge to gain their trust,” says Tan.

That’s not all. Tan says you need to adapt to the client base you are dealing with.

“You see the shocked faces and you adapt, you pivot and change your pitch to make them more receptive to what you have to say.”

She says good communication skills were critical when she started her banking career, mainly because bankers had to speak to clients every day on the phone, before emails and chat messages became the norm. As a result, she had to put across her ideas in the most succinct manner because “there were 10 other people trying to call [my] client with a better idea”.

That experience was crucial in navigating the male-dominated culture in banking, she says, especially when she had to travel to places like Japan and Kuwait, where it was unheard of to have a woman in the boardroom.

But when the dynamics around communication changed, Tan was also quick to change course. She says that in the late 1990s, she was talking less to clients and more to their voicemail boxes.

“Trades were being done on machines and sent directly to traders digitally,” she says. “I didn’t know if any of my recommendations were having an effect on my clients’ portfolio.”

That forced her to rethink and take a step back from working in trading – and move into a job in wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

“I’m glad I changed paths, because it opened up a bigger market for me.”

Financial Women’s Association

Her experience means she has taken an active and hands-on role when it comes to developing women leaders. For instance, in 2001 Tan and a group of other women established the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) in Singapore to encourage women in the financial industry. The association now has about 30 financial corporate members and 200 individual members.

Tan says she set up FWA mainly to help women who had left the banking industry – for example, to start a family – to resume their careers once they were ready to get back to work.

She gives two pieces of advice to women at the start of their banking careers. “Don’t just learn about finance, learn about technology,” she says.

“Finance is changing very quickly so gear up for potential disruptions to future-proof your career.”

The other tip? Don’t be afraid to walk. “Don’t hang on to things for too long if it’s not for you,” she says. “Learn to cut your losses and get out.”

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