Have you ever driven in inclement weather and – been so focused on the twists in the road – you were surprised when a sign indicates you’ve reached your destination? That can occur in your career too, when you only see the current challenges, without a clear idea of your end goal, or your estimated time of arrival.
It can happen to anyone, observed Anusha Thavarajah during my recent conversation with the Singapore-based Regional CEO of Allianz Asia Pacific. Anusha told me how, while juggling her early family, education and work obligations in the UK, Malaysia and Hong Kong (SAR), China, the busy actuary was surprised when others tapped her for CFO or CEO roles she wasn’t expecting.
Fortunately, Anusha overcame any doubts and was a quick study in leadership techniques to help bolster her confidence and empower her team-members to thrive.
Conquer challenges, by building a team
Looking back, it’s understandable that Anusha focused on the foreground, rather than the horizon. While completing her actuarial studies in the UK, she took a pension consulting role, relocated for work to Malaysia, married, and moved again, when her spouse received a Hong Kong (SAR), China posting. “It took a bit of time to receive my actuarial qualifications because I was balancing work, study and family after each move,” recounts Anusha. “I finally decided that I must finish my exams before our son was born.”
Things calmed down when Anusha and her spouse moved back to Malaysia, knowing that extended family would help care for their young son while the couple maintained high-paced careers: “If I had stopped working completely, I wouldn’t have been happy, so it was wonderful to have my parents and in-laws nearby to ensure our son was okay.”
But as the dust settled, Anusha was surprised when her superiors nudged her to assume executive roles. “For years, I had just wanted to be Chief Actuary, and I just carried on doing what I did. So, when my boss urged me to become the CFO, I initially rebuffed the offer. Fortunately, she said, ‘Just do it and you’ll figure it out as you go along.’”
And Anusha definitely figured it out, by blending her methodical, actuarial mindset with ‘people smart’ advice from her mentors. “As an actuary, I normally thought that success depends on how much technical knowledge you have, but I realized that success in organizations comes from people. As a leader, I don’t have to know everything. Instead, I need to engage good people, and support them to enjoy what they’re doing, so they can manage the technical details.”
She was also inspired by another executive mentor who advised her that, “If you do the right things, in the right way, with the right people, the results will come.”
This industry leader, Mark Tucker, AIA Group CEO, helped her determine that ‘clarity’ was critical to drive this teamwork, recalls Anusha, “You need a clear vision of what you want to achieve and what each person’s responsibilities and targets are, so I set a target operating model for my team.”
Tucker helped her learn to apply people skills, such as ‘courage’, to be ready to make difficult decisions about people and the business, as well as ‘humanity’, to, “Give your people every opportunity to do better, grow and be successful. It’s about appreciating them, supporting them through difficult times, and bringing out their best.”
Nurturing yourself and others
A nurturing leadership style is important, since even Anusha admits that at times she needed a gentle push to help her advance: “When I became a CEO, the Regional CEO at that time said to me, “We’re not asking you, we’re telling you.’ This was lucky, because if I had thought about it, I probably would have said ‘No.’”
Although Anusha admits to some sleepless nights preparing to manage 2,000 people, she reminded herself that she could apply her target operating model approach and lean on the best people to take care of details she hadn’t yet mastered. “As you get more senior, it’s not about the content, but it’s really about the people, and having the right conversations in a respectful way,” says Anusha. She recalls how she had to find common ground with her new direct reports, including some male country heads who initially resisted direction from their new CEO. “It helped that I was very authentic and honest, and showed them that I wanted to partner with them to help them succeed.”
Over the years, Anusha has also gleaned coaching methods that can help others overcome their own self-doubts, or guide them through difficult career decisions. “As a mentor, you don’t have to give people the answers, but rather ask them the right questions to self-realize what is really bothering them and find the answers themselves,” she explains. “For instance, rather than asking the weighty ‘Why do you feel this way?’ ask someone, ‘What is it that is making you feel this way?’ and ‘How could you work around this?’ I’ve found that, if you ask enough of the right questions – of your mentee or of yourself – you can expand the ‘balloon of doubts’ until it ‘pops’.”
Anusha adds that this problem-solving technique can help anyone conquer ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ It’s even helped her say ‘Yes’ to recent unexpected opportunities. “Three years ago, I learned of an exciting role in Singapore. Even though people said I was crazy to make this move after 16 years in Malaysia, I reassured myself that, ‘If I don’t make this move I never will, so, I’ll just give it my best and if I don’t like it, I’ll deal with it.’”
In light of her happiness with each past career decision, Anusha has clearly found the right balance of logical, strategic thinking with more spontaneous, people-skills. While sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the immediate twists in the road, you can definitely build a ‘dashboard’ of skills to reach your longer-term destination.
More about Anusha Thavarajah: Anusha is Regional Chief Executive Officer of Allianz Asia Pacific in Singapore, where she focuses on driving profitable long-term growth at this leading insurer and asset manager, through people, distribution, digital and the customer. Prior to her appointment to this role in late 2021, Anusha served two years as Allianz’s Regional CEO, Life & Health. In 2015, she began a four-year term as Chief Executive Officer of AIA Malaysia. Over the course of her 30-plus year career in financial services, she has held various senior leadership roles in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Malaysia, and was also the first female President of the Life Insurance Association of Malaysia. Anusha graduated with a First-Class Honours in Mathematics & Statistics from the University of Birmingham, England and is a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries, UK. Anusha also serves as a member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) Financial Centre Advisory Panel which advises the MAS on Singapore's financial sector reforms and strategies.