In 2014, May Tan became the first female CEO of Standard Charted Bank (Hong Kong) Limited (“SCBHK”) in the bank’s 150-year history. Before retiring in 2017, she founded and championed the bank’s Women’s Network and served as its global sponsor for D&I. Prior to joining SCBHK, she served as the CEO of Cazenove Asia and was the first female partner at Cazenove and Co’s then 175-year history.
Since retiring in 2017, May has focused on board and leadership positions: she currently serves on the Board of CLP Holdings, Manulife Financial and JP Morgan China Income and Growth PLC. She has also served on the HSBC Insurance Board and the Link Asset Management Board. She has been a member of the Advisory Council of the Malaysian Chamber since 2019 and started the Women’s Network at the chamber in 2020.
Over the past 20 years, May has also made significant contributions to Hong Kong through numerous public roles. In 2016, she was the Chairperson of the Hong Kong Association of Banks, and Director of the Hong Kong Interbank Clearing Limited. In the same year, she was a member of the Exchange Fund Advisory Committee Sub-committee on Currency Board Operations of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and a member of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
May is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants. May received two awards from the American Chamber in HK: firstly “Woman Professional of the Year” award in 2015 and “Woman on Board of the Year” in 2020. In 2023, she was named a “Women of Our Time” by the South China Morning Post 2023. May is the co-founder of ACcelerate, a leadership program which was founded with the core purpose of bridging the gap in senior female representation at the C-suite and accelerate the progression of female talent to senior leadership roles. She spoke to IFAC Communications Manager Annie Brinich about her career journey, creating networks of professional support for women, and leading a global financial institution.
Annie Brinich (AB): May, congratulations on recently being named “Woman of Our Time” by the SCMP. Can you tell us about your professional journey? What interests and skills led you to finance and accounting, and later to the C-suite?
May Tan (MT): After graduating from university, I was not sure about my personal career journey. I knew that I had to acquire more workplace skills and joined PWC to train as a chartered accountant. I never looked back as the ICAEW training increased my career options within the financial services industry. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, I started as an equity analyst at Cazenove in London, and progressed rapidly as I discovered my passion in finance and in particular, capital markets. An internal move to Cazenove’s office in Hong Kong in 1984 was pivotal in accelerating my career as the Asian markets were just starting to attract international liquidity looking for growth in Asia. I was promoted to CEO of Cazenove Asia in 1993 and to an equity partner of the London partnership in 1995. I was honoured and proud to be appointed the first female partner of Cazenove &Co (founded in 1823 in London). Over the next 20 years I built up Cazenove’s Asian business into one of the most successful independent investment banks in Asia. In 2009, Standard Chartered Bank acquired Cazenove Asia and I joined the bank, a career move that culminated in my appointment as the first female CEO of Standard Chartered in HK in 2014. In summary, my passion for helping clients, hard work, strategic vision and exciting market conditions collectively contributed to my success and my journey to the C suite and allowing me to break the “glass ceiling” at two notable financial institutions.
AB: In your past and current corporate Board roles, what trends (changes or challenges) do you see in the DE&I space?
MT: There is greater awareness among corporates on the value of diversity on their boards. Research has confirmed that companies with greater diversity on boards perform much better for their stakeholders over the long term. So what is holding companies back from appointing more competent women and other diverse individuals onto their boards?
There are several reasons. Firstly, there needs to be a change in mindset amongst nomination committee members. To encourage change, stock exchanges are now setting DE&I quotas for company boards. Although I do not believe in quotas and tokenism, this move is the most effective way of accelerating change in corporate governance. I also encourage diversity within the nomination committee membership to increase more open discussion on future director appointments.
The second challenge is that due to legacy reasons, the pipeline of board-experienced women is relatively weak. Companies/candidates need to address this through training and be encouraged to join non-profit and subsidiary boards to gain the necessary experience.
My motivation to start ACcelerate, the female leadership program in 2021 was to help bridge the gap in the senior female pipeline in organizations and ultimately corporate boards.
AB: How do you navigate the complexities of DE&I on an international scale within an industry like banking? What are the specific challenges you've encountered, and how did you address them?
MT: Banking is still a male dominated industry, in part due to the intensity and stress and the difficulty of achieving work life balance for a young mother keen to succeed in banking.
When I started in banking in 1984, there were very few female role models and mentors and hence my own personal career expectations were initially muted. I have two children and trying to juggle my career and young family was at times very challenging. There are many female senior bankers who feel that they need to make the choice between family and career. However, it is in the banks’ interest to help retain the female talent given the training and experience sharing that they have invested in their female talent. Female talent also brings a different dimension to banking with the ability to serve different clients better and share different perspectives. Personally, I am fortunate that throughout my career, my husband was able to share in parental responsibilities and advance in his own career.
Overall, I feel we have come a long way over the past four decades and I am encouraged by the positive DE&I trend within banking internationally. I am really pleased that many women are taking up the challenge and succeeding.
AB: You’ve established several women’s networks at organizations you lead or have led. What prompted you to create these networks? What value do they add to organizations?
MT: I am very proud of the networks of women that I have established and particularly pleased that these networks have grown and flourished post my retirement/departure from these organizations.
My motivation in establishing these networks was to increase awareness and encourage cultural mind shifts and acceptance of DE&I within the organizations. These networks are not exclusively for women, and I encourage men to join so they are able to support their female colleagues, spouses and partners. The collective voice of the network can help change organizational policies, e.g., maternity and parental leave entitlement and more importantly, over time, the culture and values of the organization.
Within corporations, these networks provide the opportunity for younger women to meet senior women executives and also seek out peer support. The networking is usually through activities including trainings, social outings, and events with inspirational speakers.
AB: You’ve served as CEO at several institutions. What skills do accountants bring to the role of CEO that people from other professional backgrounds might not have?
MT: The choice of CEOs depends on the needs of organizations and my view is there is no single profession which produces better CEOs. However, personally, I found that my accounting professional training helped me on several fronts. Over the years, my finance training allowed me to interface with sales, production and operations, and hence, as CEO, I had the knowledge enabling me to multitask across different business verticals. An accounting background instinctively helps me to quantify and assess the financial impact of any decisions to the business, which in turn helps me to prioritise tasks and manage my time better. My accounting training also instils a deep sense of risk and regulatory awareness which is vital as the CEO sets the tone in the organization in terms of risk appetite.
Overall, my ICAEW professional training has provided useful skills to help me discharge my roles both as a CEO and Board director.
AB: More inclusive workplaces are a group effort. What can male colleagues do to support women’s ambition in the workplace?
MT: I have encountered male colleagues who mistakenly consider that DE&I policies disadvantage their careers in favor of their female colleagues.
There needs to be a training and communication that a level playing field will benefit everyone in the organization. Male colleagues have daughters and working spouses and partners so, in the long run, it would be beneficial for all workplaces to have effective DE&I policies.
Male colleagues are pivotal in supporting the development of female talent in various capacities (as a manager and/or peer), and this needs to be reflected in their performance appraisal. Male allies who go out of their way to embrace DE&I need to be showcased to reaffirm an inclusive culture.