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Executive Education

International Directors Programme

Going Beyond the Hard Skills

Rena Chai

Executive Director, Family Business Network Asia

It starts with having a purpose and knowing your values.

For years, Rena Chai has been pursuing a corporate career but had always felt a sense of emptiness despite enjoying great success and rewards.  In her recent years, she started to explore different opportunities from networking and experimenting with different business ideas to find purpose in her career.

There is a saying that you need to lose yourself, before you can find yourself again, and Rena found this saying very true when she left Microsoft where she was heading a regional business unit. Exploring paths and connections that she had never fathomed of before; she took the time to redefine her narrative and in turn it led her to amazing opportunities.

Since June 2023, Rena Chai has been serving as the Executive Director of Family Business Network (FBN) Asia, a private not-for-profit organisation that represents family businesses throughout the region. In her new role, she found the sweet spot that allows her to perfectly utilise her experience in tech while satisfying her ambitions of being an entrepreneur all while contributing to a community of family businesses globally. While her role as director at FBN Asia is relatively new, Rena is no stranger to board matters, having previously reported to the board in her previous roles in Microsoft.

“As part of my job at Microsoft, I had to work closely with the corporate headquarters in building business strategy and plans, reviews and setting and aligning goals and targets. With FBN Asia, however, the challenges are a little different because now I have to work with 15 different directors, all of whom represent different families with different priorities and schedules. 

To complicate matters, these different families do not follow a unified company rhythm. My objective therefore is to try and find a way to get all the different board directors to align on purpose and goals so that we can leverage on our network to deliver better value to our stakeholders.”

To transition to her new role, Rena began looking for suitable training programmes that could provide her with the necessary skills to be an effective board director, from developing short term strategies such as managing stakeholders, to long-term ones such as succession planning. “I knew that I already had all these valuable skillsets that I had built up from working all these years in the corporate sector. So, I wanted to see how I could transfer these skillsets from a business application point of view into a more leadership kind of role.”

Broad Perspectives, Focused Implementation

Having searched through reputable learning institutions, Rena eventually decided on INSEAD’s International Directors Programme (IDP), which she felt offered a very balanced global outlook. This decision was reinforced by INSEAD’s goal of using business as a force for good resonates very well with her personal values as well as aligning with her upcoming role at FBN Asia of sustaining business through generations.

“My criteria for the programme was that it needed to be conducted physically here in Singapore, so my options were automatically narrowed down to INSEAD and another local business school. The choice for me was actually quite easy because while I wanted it to be held Singapore, I also wanted to be able to benefit from a range of international perspectives, which I knew INSEAD could deliver.

I had previously done an Executive MBA at INSEAD in 2018, so I knew that the world-renowned professors possessed a global perspective that was honed not only through research but from actual working interactions with people and companies.”

As was her experience during her EMBA, she also knew that the school’s practical focus would not only help her to gain the requisite knowledge, but also help her to hit the ground running.

“In speaking to friends who had taken similar director training programmes at other institutes, I realised that INSEAD focused a lot more on soft skills and how to effectively apply the concepts into specific boardroom situations. They did this through the use of real-life case studies and applying the learnings through personal boardroom situations every single module. That helped us to really remember the content and put into practice what we had learnt.”

Interactive Learning That’s Real-World Aligned

For Rena, another major plus of the programme was its rich and interactive discussions, which helped her to observe many new angles which she had not previously considered.

“I enjoyed my discussions with the rest of the cohort, which helped me to see different perspectives from a broad mix of people who sat on company boards and served as independent directors. On some of these discussions, we would be broken up into smaller groups, where we would try to apply our learnings towards specific case studies. We found out that even for groups who had been given similar case studies, the answers could vary significantly. When we came back together to discuss as a class, we were able to understand how differing perspectives and backgrounds contributed to each of these different answers.”

What really helped to bridge the transition from theoretical knowledge to practical application for Rena, however, were the simulation exercises that the class was tasked to undergo. 

“By role-playing as directors in different situations, we had the opportunity to really consider the kind of difficult decisions that we might have to one day make as directors. This exercise came in very useful later on when I was trying to implement a board refresh, while forming a nomination committee at the same time. I found myself going back to the scenarios that we had rehearsed at IDP. This helped me to be more cognisant of board dynamics – to balance the tension on the board, whilst also remembering to maintain the values of integrity and accountability.”

In my board meetings, I found myself naturally going back to the frameworks that I had learnt on the programme.

Pushing past your own limits to build value

In redefining herself, Rena found the importance of staying open and not letting her mindset limit her own capabilities. Through understanding her purpose and focusing on maintaining curiosity, she pushed beyond her comfort zone to try out different things and connect with others who can propel her to greater heights. For her, that is the beginning of being truly limitless

Today, more than a year after the programme, Rena continues to benefit strongly as a graduate of the IDP. This comes not only through the knowledge and skills picked up, but also through the connections that she is able to maintain through INSEAD’s Directors Network, where past graduates from the programme are all automatically a part of. 

“I really value this network because I get to enjoy access to a network of directors who represent businesses from all over the world. Even though I work with a lot of family business from across Asia such as Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, and Malaysia, I still want to be able to draw from the experience of network members and classmates from Europe and the rest of the world in dealing with matters such as growing the family network and structuring governance within the family. Often times, its these intangible things that turn out to be the most valuable.