More Diverse CEOs Leading Through COVID And Beyond

Fatihah Ramzi, DigitalCFO Asia | 3 February 2022

Jiat-Hui Wu

Partner-in-Charge at the Heidrick & Struggles Singapore office and a member of the Financial Services practice

Heidrick & Struggles has recently the annual Route to The Top Report. Examining top leadership appointments at some of the largest publicly listed companies in 24 countries, the report analyses CEO profiles to highlight trends and show how COVID-19 has influenced the selection of leaders.

While companies fought for survival in 2020 and mostly sought leaders with prior experience and proven track records, priorities have changed in 2021. Indeed, we’ve observed recent leadership pipelines include more women and individuals from different backgrounds.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Increasing gender diversity – across APAC, Singapore leads the way with 11% of appointed CEOs being female (surpassing the global average of 6%)
  • More trust in young professionals – while the average age of CEOs is in the mid-fifties, companies in Singapore are not shying away from younger executives, with 36% of appointed CEOs under 45 (global average of 25%)
  • High value on varied experience – individuals with diverse exposure are in demand especially in Singapore where 57% of newly appointed CEOs have cross-border experience and 30% have cross-sector experience

DigitalCFO Asia spoke with Jiat-Hui Wu, Partner-in-Charge at the Heidrick & Struggles Singapore office and a member of the Financial Services practice. Jiat-Hui has led notable financial institutions in Southeast Asia throughout her career and now a Partner at the Singapore Heidrick & Struggles Office, she lends her expertise in leadership consulting and executive search to support organizations in meeting their leadership needs.


Rising Trend Of Leadership Appointments In The Asia Pacific Region

Asia Pacific is a very diverse region, and it is observed that there are differences across markets when it comes to leadership appointments. That said, there are similar trends that are seen across the region. Many businesses are prioritizing diversity in 2021 and it is encouraging to note that leadership appointments in the region reflect this ongoing focus. For corporations in ANZ and Singapore, top executives with cross-border and cross-sector experience are especially valued. Organizations in these markets seek overseas expansion and to effectively serve global clients, it’s clear that homogeneity is not ideal. Having a diverse top team that is representative of the current and future client base will enable organizations to make customer-centric business decisions and drive innovation.

Of course, gender representation remains a pertinent issue with more attention being paid to developing female talent and offering them opportunities for career advancement. With 11% of appointed CEOs being female in Singapore, the city surpasses the global average of 6%. However, there is still room for improvement in countries like China and Hong Kong, where female CEO appointments are at only 2% and 5% respectively. Tenure and generation are also increasingly regarded as key in building diversity. We have discovered in our Route to The Top 2021 report that when it comes to appointing younger CEOs (before turning 45), Singapore is showing positive signs (36%) by being ahead of markets such as ANZ (22%) and China (17%).

It is heartening to see countries like Singapore moving in the right direction on the diversity agenda but there remains more work to be done. For a start, the nine-year limit on independent directors at listed companies in Singapore will give organizations the opportunity to conduct a systematic assessment of future goals and ambitions to determine which skillsets are required to drive the organization forward, and subsequently structure the board composition accordingly. Such an exercise will also allow companies to better identify the next generation of leaders they need.

Major Changes In Financial Services Appointments In Recent Years

Like companies in other industries, firms in financial services have had to adapt and innovate to survive and succeed amidst the ongoing pandemic.

“With business operations and consumer preferences inevitably impacted, financial services have to adapt fast to the widespread shift to digital.”

Jiat-Hui Wu, Partner-in-Charge at Heidrick & Struggles Singapore and a member of the Financial Services practice

Consequently, while tech skills were once a nice-to-have capability for employees, they have since become a non-negotiable for many roles across all levels. Being digitally savvy is now a norm and expertise in areas like AI and data will continue to be high in demand.

To steer organizations in the right direction and drive towards business goals, many firms have added new leadership roles to their workforce while concurrently re-evaluating existing ones to determine if they are still fit for purpose. Between summer 2020 and summer 2021, an internal global study by Heidrick & Struggles discovered that the share of roles financial services firms were seeking to fill rose from 41% to 59%. These new positions encompassed both leadership roles in new businesses, and others in existing businesses that required a new mix of important skills – an example is the chief commercial officer role which combines sales, marketing, and product expertise together.

The financial services industry is fast evolving with new products being launched constantly. Hence, roles cannot remain static, and leaders must stay nimble as new challenges and risks accompany the opportunities. Leaders need to understand the business holistically beyond the top line and market share as we expect risk and compliance issues to arise as firms ramp up innovative products and migrate to a heavily digital environment.

Benefits Of Having A Diverse Executive Leadership

As businesses operate within the VUCA environment, having access to varied skill sets, knowledge, and experience has never been more important. Diversity of thought benefits an organisation by encouraging the consideration of ideas and viewpoints from unique individuals. Instead of falling into traps like groupthink, diverse and inclusive teams are often able to reach better solutions, solve complex problems, and achieve superior business results. With COVID-19 creating new levels of risks and uncertainty, a wealth of perspectives across gender, generation, experience, ethnicities, and more can strengthen an organisation’s resilience to the fluctuating circumstances.

Amidst the ongoing pandemic, boards have also highlighted diversity as a key focus. In Heidrick & Struggles’ Board Monitor Singapore 2021, it was observed that female representation was high on the agenda with a third of new seats being filled by women in 2020 – marking an increase from a quarter in 2019. The progress thus far is promising, and this trend is likely to continue as boards and organizations strive towards creating even more balanced and diverse teams.

Importance Of Female Representation In The Finance Sector

While diversity and inclusion issues are gaining prominence across different industries, female executives in financial services are still the minority. In the 2021 Route to The Top report, only 10% and 9% of appointed CEOs globally in banking and insurance respectively were female. Meanwhile, another analysis of the world’s top fifty asset managers reveals that women make up just 20% of leadership teams, with one-third of them holding a board seat rather than a senior executive position.

There is an alignment that diverse talent will bring unique perspectives to the business and different approaches to problem solving. Just like other industries, having a diverse team will result in a better representation of industry demographics and client base. As aptly articulated by the Chief Digital Strategy Officer at Barclays in Asian leaders interview series, teams should represent the diversity of society because how else would companies be able to understand their customers and deliver the products that meet their needs? In Heidrick & Struggles research, there was evidence to suggest that companies which incorporate inclusion into their strategy tend to see a strong link to their business results over other companies that do not.

Globally and within the region, Heidrick & Struggles have supported several mandates focused on recruiting and developing diversity leaders for top banks. It’s encouraging to see the progress the industry has made in recent years, with many financial services firms becoming more vocal and upfront about the kind of talent they would like to bring onboard.

How Can Younger Generations Lend A Helping Hand In Ensuring Business Continuity?

As the influence of younger consumers continues to grow (the global collective income of millennials is expected to exceed four trillion by 2030, and according to Goldman Sachs Asset Management, they will make up an estimated 75% of the global workforce in 2025), it only makes sense for organizations to welcome younger talent into their fold to secure business continuity and drive future success. Based on the Heidrick & Struggles research and day-to-day conversations with C-suite executives and boards, leadership teams recognize that they should include members of varied ages, allowing them to better relate to and understand their customers.

With an intensifying war for talent, building a steady pipeline of capable leaders will be critical to sustaining business growth and competitiveness. The younger generation will bring with them fresh and innovative ideas which will help organizations evolve. At the same time, they must be willing to commit and accumulate institutional knowledge and experience. If firms can better understand the motivations that drive the younger generations, they will be better able to support them with the appropriate training and mentorship programs, thereby creating a sustainable pipeline of future leaders.


In order to conquer modern day challenges, it is important to inculcate diversity in the workplace especially in leadership positions as employees can benefit from such environments and will likely perform better. Be it gender or age group diversity, business will need both to continue remaining relevant and competitive. As every age group and gender carry with them different insights, experience and ideology, it will not only help with a company’s growth in terms of revenue but as well as public standing. As the world in general becomes more focused on inclusion, people will expect such values to be upheld by the companies they do business with. In essence, if companies seek to persist in the long run, it is critical to diversify its employees.