Many women climbing the financial services ladder have experienced this scene: Walking into a gathering of peers, clients or employees and being the only female in the room. Quickly, you must find a way to relate to the guys and prove you’re up for whatever challenge you’ve stumbled into.
Winnie Wong, CEO of Hong Kong-based Asia Insurance, often felt the eyes of everyone in the room throughout her career – as the first female president of a historically ‘men’s only’ club, or as a young executive who eagerly accepted messy challenges, including rebuilding books of business and saving jobs when business strategy shifted.
During our recent conversation, Winnie told me how, “Gradually, they started to respect me, and I earned my reputation – so they didn’t look at me as a little girl not knowing anything.”
Winnie explained how she did so by being well-prepared for every room she entered, by focusing on the people-side of her role – especially relationship-building with staff – and adopting a ‘can-do’ attitude, even in the face of challenges no one else would take.
Being prepared, to add value:
Winnie recalled that a former managing director at Swire Pacific Group inspired her to train in the conglomerate’s insurance division. With a laugh, she added: “But he didn’t mention how the top industry positions were very male-dominated. I found myself at functions that were all male. The activities were golfing, drinking and football, and I’m not a big fan of any of those.”
Winnie recounted how, “It was really difficult to communicate well with the top guys, so I talked about topics in which I felt more confident – namely the technical side of the business. I could do a lot of homework and make myself the best-prepared person, and they saw how I could add value.”
She also won over skeptics by demonstrating her willingness to tackle big challenges and succeed: “People were very surprised to see someone my age leading a department, but I was very hard-working, and people recognized this.” For example, several times in her career, Winnie found herself the head of a division that faced cutbacks due to a strategy change made at a distant head office. “It was hard because these were global decisions and you had no choice. I felt the emotions, but I had to walk out of the office, change my face and smile again. You can’t let your people see you are upset.”
Winnie adds that, “In each case, I was told I had to ‘let go’ some of my people if I couldn’t grow the business. So, I focused on winning a lot of new business – learning to present proposals to clients and win RFPs – and I didn’t have to let any of my staff go. I earned quite a lot of respect from the team, my peers and my bosses.”
Taming tough challenges with soft skills:
Reflecting on her accomplishments, Winnie adds jovially that, “You might think I’m a tough lady, but my bosses always wrote on my appraisals that, ‘Winnie is too soft, and she has to be more assertive.’”
In reality, Winnie applied her soft skills to propel each business success. She explained to me how, “Although I love taking on challenges, I know that I cannot fight the war alone, so I need passionate people who are aligned and keen to work with me. I’ve got to share my can-do attitude with my people, so they want to try, and believe there is a chance of success.”
Winnie added that her biggest job satisfaction is seeing her people grow in their career paths: “I spend a lot of time coaching and mentoring them and giving them advice to grow. I never scold my colleagues when they make a mistake. Instead, I guide them, since I want them to learn.”
She maintains that philosophy today as she juggles the roles of managing an established general insurance firm and simultaneously creating a complementary digital arm: “Running a mature business and building something new is very challenging, but my number one concern is the same: I believe that if my people are happy with the company and they are keen to do their best work, then the business will come and the clients will stay.”
Winnie definitely learned how to turn men’s inquisitive stares into respectful nods when she enters a room: By forming relationships, caring for her people, and inspiring them to fight new challenges by her side.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Winnie Wong: Winnie is the CEO of Hong Kong-based Asia Insurance, a leading general insurer that has offered personal, life and commercial services for the past 60 years. Prior to joining Asia Insurance in September 2016, Winnie was CEO of Aon Risk Solutions Hong Kong, part of the global professional services provider of risk, retirement and health solutions.
Over 13 years of service at Aon, Winnie gained extensive experience in insurance and risk management consulting, initially as Director of Global and Risk Managed Accounts, and later as Managing Director of Aon Risk Solutions’ corporate division. Winnie began her career as a Group Management Trainee at the Swire Pacific Group, advancing within the insurance and risk management divisions, before becoming Assistant General Manager at Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Hong Kong. Her extensive industry involvement includes her election as the President of the Hong Kong Insurers Club in 2008 and appointment to the Financial Services Development Council in 2015.