To get to Euleen Goh, you must play email ping pong, first with her secretary and then a corporate communications manager, before finally settling on an appointment. Even then, her staff will prepare you on what to expect from the Standard Chartered (Stanchart) bank CEO—she won’t talk about her personal life, she wants to wear her worn clothes, and she wants to do her own makeup.
So we were pretty sure we knew what to expect when we were ushered into her office at Stanchart—a dragon lady who knew exactly what she wanted, who was academically brilliant and ambitious as a kid.
But 10 minutes into meeting the 51-year-old and out flies our checklist of attributes belonging to the stereotype of the successful woman.
She may be the CEO of one of Singapore’s largest and most prestigious foreign banks with about 3,000 employees in Singapore under her charge. She may be one of only three women to head an international bank in Singapore, the other two being her predecessor Theresa Foo and Citigroup Singapore’s country head, Catherine Weir.
She may also be the first Singaporean to ever head a global Stanchart unit, becoming group head of sales, corporate and institutional banking in 1999. But don’t let her achievements faze you because, as Euleen puts it, “if I could do it, so can you”. You don’t have to be book-smart nor super-ambitious to get to the top, she emphasises, which gives normal women like us hope.
As a child, she never exhibited signs that she would one day be a captain of industry. She was by no means a straight-A student. She did well enough to qualify for university. As a science student, she enjoyed “the logic of maths”. It led to an interest in chartered accountancy at the age of 15, after she read about it in a career magazine. Eventually, she chose the fastest route into the field, via a five-year study-and-work programme that included a one-year stint at Oxford Polytechnic in England.
Apparently, she is a natural-born leader as her stints as captain of the netball team during her secondary school days at Singapore Chinese Girls’ school and captain of the volleyball team during her pre-university days at Raffles Institution indicate. But apart from that, she describes her childhood as being ordinary.
While other CEOs may relate tales of a difficult childhood or burning ambition before the age of 10, Euleen self-deprecatingly claims she was “never driven to be first at everything”.
“I had primary school friends who knew they wanted to be doctors even when they were only seven years old, like Susan Lim, who went on the become the first surgeon in Singapore to perform a liver transplant. But not me,” she says.
So just what is the secret of her success? Her work philosophy is simple—follow your interests and you would have won half the battle. From her days as an auditor, she discovered that she not only loved the logic it required to look through her clients’ accounts, she also enjoyed listening to clients’ stories and chatting with them. She was happy doing something that “suited her strengths” and interests.
“Your career is like a marathon and to keep yourself going, you have to wake up every day thinking that it’s going to be a great day. Once you find the right pathway, you’ll find the journey enjoyable,” she says.
Right now, as chairman of International Enterprise Singapore, she is in charge of a vital part of Singapore’s economy—helping local businesses grow overseas. Whenever our local companies want to expand abroad, IE makes the links. It sounds simple but the job is more challenging than it looks. She connects businesses, they branch out, become profitable, more jobs are created and the Singapore economy booms.
“She’s very hands on,” says IE’s chief executive, Lee Yi Shyan. “I can call her or SMS anytime for advice and she would be most forthcoming.”
Indeed, the one thing you can never accuse Euleen of is being idle. Other CEOs may choose to unwind at five-star resorts during their vacations, but not her. True to her sporty nature, she counts mountain trekking among her hobbies, having done several fairly rigorous routes, like the hike to the Annapurna base camp in the Himalayas and New Zealand’s Milford Track.
“All I ask for is a hot bath and meal. It doesn’t have to be a five-star place,” she states.
Even in Singapore, she finds the space to indulge her love for the outdoors. On Sunday mornings, time permitting, she would wake up at 7am to walk up Bukit Timah hill. On the occasional public holiday, she would walk 13km from MacRitchie Reservoir all the way to the hill.
In fact, being idle is obviously an anathema to Euleen, who lives her life in a “spirit of adventure”. “I’d been an auditor for almost a decade, when I applied for a job in a business sector. I was leaving my comfort zone but, if I hadn’t let go, I wouldn’t have had a chance to explore the bigger world out there.”
It was a world that included becoming a relationship manager in corporate banking in the late 90s, a career move that helped pave her way to becoming CEO. “There are bankers who have the ‘woo’ factor, which refers to their ability to be the life and soul of the party. I was not one of them and I didn’t think I would be good at the party and cocktail circuit,” she recalls.
“But instead of saying I’m not good and I won’t try, I did. I adopted my skills to the environment and I ended up enjoying it enormously because, once again, I got to deal with people.
“Not trying would be a pity, because life is a journey and there’s so much to discover out there. I never know what’s ahead of me, waiting to be explored. That’s the fun bit,” she says with relish.
She may come across as a stern, dignified principal when you first meet her. But stay a while and you’ll realise that she has the art of putting people at ease. Within 10 minutes of meeting our photographer for the first time, they start gabbing about the scenery in China like old friends. With our video producer, she shares her love of biographies.
It’s a skill that has served her well in her 21 years as a banker at Stanchart, a profession she firmly believes is not just about numbers but building relationships with people, be they colleagues or clients.
Her secretary of five years, Juliana Tay, reaffirms our impression of Euleen as a people person. Euleen works 13-hour days, but that doesn’t stop her from meeting her employees who need mentoring or advice. And being a private person, she prefers to listen rather than talk.
“And she’s not showy,” says the 46-year-old. “For instance, when she heard recently that one of our clerical worker’s husband had passed away, she quietly arranged to have the lady’s workload lightened out of compassion. Nothing is beneath her notice.”
She might be the CEO, a post that traditionally comes with its legion of kowtow-ing underlings, but her subordinates show no fear, and sometimes tease her. When she is being made over for our photo shoot, a male employee exclaims: “You look better!” “You mean I didn’t look good before?” Euleen shoots back, mocking indignation as the rest of her co-workers chuckle along.
Euleen, who is single, won’t divulge much about her personal life. “I can only say that life is a series of trade-offs. I’ve had to give up a large amount of my personal time and find the right balance in life. The reward is that you’re doing the right thing for your job. It’s imporant to be comfortable with yourself. Just don’t hanker for something you aren’t.”
KEEPING HER OPTIONS OPEN
Asked if she thinks Singapore men are too intimidated by powerful women to be partners, she answers cautiously. “I can’t tell if it’s tough for single women in positions of power to get married. But I would say that our social norms mean people have the tendency to expect the male to be the breadwinner. But then the world is far more open today.”
For Euleen, her network of support comes from her family and friends from work, church and school. While she has to return to the office most Saturday mornings to work, afternoons are for gatherings with friends over good wine and food. “Married women have a natural support group in their husbands and children. I have my friends,” she reveals.
After she leaves Stanchart on March 6, Euleen will take a year off to travel to places like China and catch up with good friends. She will not say what she plans to do next. “Your guess is as good as mine,” she jokes. Turning serious, she explains: “The corporate world always assumes you must jump from one place to another. Is it so tough to believe that I might actually want a break?”
“I’ll have all the time in the world to travel and not have to come back to a loaded desk. All I can say is that I haven’t signed on the dotted line with anyone—I’m keeping my options open. I don’t know what lies ahead but I can’t wait to find out.” Spoken like a true woman of adventure.