I’m able to more effectively bring across my views… Understanding the difference between the board and management role has helped me ask the right questions at the strategic level, and not go into execution. I know when to stop and not to meddle with management. I believe all of this has given me a lot more competency in the boardroom.
When Huey Tyng Ooi first made the transition to board member, she had over 30 years of experience as an executive, during which time she estimates that she had taken on close to 20 different roles at up to nine different companies, spanning across finance, banking, payment technology and fintech industries.
“I’d say my career had been like multiple 100-metre sprints. I always say yes to new opportunities, because growth attracts me. So I was always in my discomfort zone and sprinting to get up to speed.”
Her can-do attitude brought her to Visa, where she hit her first breakthrough and became the first Singaporean female country head. It also took her to Grab, where intrigued by the ride-hailing start-ups vision, she helmed the set-up of its payment platform, GrabPay. Laughing, she recalls:
“On my first day at work, someone shared that one Grab-year feels like seven elsewhere. As we are expected to accomplish in one year what others take in seven. I was asked to launch GrabPay in three countries within six months, and raise the money required to launch too!”
Crossing the bridge from executive to director
With such diverse experiences and an appetite for challenge, Huey Tyng’s move to board member seemed like a natural step as she would be able to leverage her wealth of expertise to support companies across a variety of different industries.
While leadership was not new to her, she quickly found that there were differences in the skills needed for those in a c-suite career, and those in the boardroom.
“When you're an executive, your work involves directing the execution. But as a board member, it’s more about steering — asking instead of telling. There is an art to asking questions without judging, because you want to ensure the board considers alternative options and are not blindsided.
After spending over 30 years as an executive and leader, my style was more about directing and going into execution. I knew I had to give myself time to better understand what the role of the board is, the difference between a management and a board role, and how I as an individual could improve to become more effective.”
The benefits of peer-learning
“I had a very positive experience with the AMP. It changed the way I look at myself as a leader and this reflected in how I communicate and manage people. I enjoyed the quality of the participants and professors, as well as the richness of the conversations.”
To her delight, the IDP offered a similar experience. With classmates from diverse industries and countries sharing their unique perspectives, classroom discussions were lively and thought-provoking, often making her reconsider her views on certain issues.
“You might think a perspective is the right one, but when you hear from someone sitting next to you, you realise because of the context and their environment, they think differently and there are many different ways to view an issue.
She adds that the experience is similar to being in a board room, where one must remain open and conscious of the different values that other members have. In her experience, this can be especially challenging when ethical dilemmas arise and each member has a different standard to uphold.
“So during the IDP we were able to talk about what to do and how to ensure that we have the emotional courage to bring up the dilemma and speak about it in a way that is non-threatening and non-judgemental.”
Particularly enlightening for Huey Tyng was to see the actual benefits of having diverse perspectives. She recalls one exercise when the class was given a case study to analyse and tasked to make a decision on what to do on their own. They were then divided into groups to discuss the case again and see if their decisions changed.
“We found that a decision made by a diverse and functioning group was always better than a decision made by an individual — even if the individual is an expert — because the different perspectives can help mitigate potential pitfalls.”
Overcoming boardroom biases
Another key takeaway for Huey Tyng was to be mindful about the biases that one may have in a boardroom, such as being swayed by the first piece of information given, or relying on an expert’s opinion.
“I learned to ask questions to get other benchmarks, so the board will be more aware of an anchoring bias… And now, going into a meeting where I might be the expert, I will try to be the last to speak, so that I can hear from everyone else first and mitigate the risk of an overconfidence bias.
I think we have to be very careful so the discussion is conducted in an open and transparent environment where people can share their views. That’s when we can make a better decision.”
Today, Huey Tyng has added two more boards to her profile: Non-profit, Food for the Heart, and insurance provider AIG. The discussions on each board vary tremendously — from growing the next generation of leaders to digitalisation, sustainability and even CEO succession. Through them all, the lessons from the IDP continue to serve her well.
“I’m able to more effectively bring across my views… Understanding the difference between the board and management role has helped me ask the right questions at the strategic level, and not go into execution. I know when to stop and not to meddle with management. I believe all of this has given me a lot more competency in the boardroom.”