• Laura Hay, Leadership |

Having met many incredible women through my Mind the Gap blog, I’m always fascinated by the paths each travelled to discover their purpose, that is, the spark that led them to the peaks of the financial services industry. But equally, I’m intrigued how they sustained that drive - since pursuing your passion can be an all-encompassing and fatiguing journey - amid many obstacles and competing commitments.

That’s why my conversation with Wong Sze Keed, CEO of AIA Singapore, was so special. In her bubbly and sincere manner, Keed described both how she found her ‘people first’ passion for insurance and how she kept up her momentum, leading the life insurer through the pandemic, juggling her work and personal roles, while also inspiring future female leaders.

Discovering her ‘people first’ purpose

Keed’s noble purpose was germinating from the very start of her career, even though she confided to me that, “I was initially compelled to get a sales job because it was about the money.” In reality though, Keed took an insurance job after university because, “I came from a humble family, and I wanted to give my parents a comfortable retirement after they worked hard to support me and my sisters.”

Immersed in her work as a life insurance sales agent, Keed’s focus on helping others truly took root when she handled her first death claim. She recounts how, “I sold a policy to a couple who became my friends. Not long after, I answered a call from the husband, expecting he had good news about the birth of their child. Instead, he told me his wife had passed on during childbirth, and that he must raise his daughter alone. He asked me to expedite their policy so he could pay his mortgage. I was totally shocked, and I realized this was not just a job but a service that’s so important to impacting people’s lives.”

Reflecting on how that event inspired her to focus on serving clients’ needs, with the insurer and later as a branch manager with a retail bank, Keed notes that, “It’s so important to find a career that fuels your passion and aligns with your own personal values and purpose.”

It also led Keed to AIA Singapore, whose corporate purpose of “helping people live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives” matched her personal mission. But living up to such a mantra wasn’t always easy, particularly when Keed was appointed Chief Executive Officer in July 2020 – just when COVID-19 unleashed uncertainty upon the company’s policyholders, employees and sales force.

“It was quite scary to be part of a leadership change when we had to do everything virtually, and I couldn’t engage with my team or our customers face-to-face in the way that I really liked,” says Keed. “Imagine how awkward it was to have my first meetings on camera. I didn’t know how to do it properly and everyone was just silent.” In fact, she later sought permission to return to the office, “So I could at least see a few colleagues in the corridors or lobby to have some face-to-face interaction.”

Looking back, Keed notes that the virtual workplace that emerged during the pandemic has brought changes, both good and bad: “It was good because it allowed business to carry on as usual, to support our customers, but we also lost that in-person connectivity between people that is so valuable.”

Find the right support, to perform all your parts

Keed notes that today, although much of AIA Singapore’s team is returning to the office, hybrid and individualized work arrangements have become the norm, to provide employees with flexibility to manage work and home commitments.

That approach is important for all employees, including women, since Keed notes that, “We are expected to take on so much, as strong career women, loyal daughters, great mothers, and a wonderful wife who looks after the household. It’s an emotional burden that a lot of women may not be aware of, and they must find the right support to manage it.”

In Keed’s case, she is grateful for her extended family nearby, and access to helper arrangements in Singapore, to help raise her young children while she continued to work.

However, to maintain her purpose-driven pace, Keed emphasizes that, “You really need to take good care of your physical and mental health. That means finding some way to de-stress, whether that’s exercise, music, or meeting a close friend to talk.” She describes how fitness is her main outlet, including three weekly trips to the gym, running and weekend golf with her husband.

And, since the worries of a CEO could easily crowd out all other thoughts, Keed practices mindfulness to be present in each moment, whether she’s having lunch with her girls, or focusing on the most important task in front of her. “It’s not easy, and in my early career days I used to jump on every e-mail before others could respond. I had to learn to calm down and take a few minutes to think before I respond or react.”

To help ‘compartmentalize’ different aspects of her life, and focus on the moment, Keed suggests that you ask a few questions to set priorities: “Ask yourself, ‘Is this so critical that it requires an immediate response, or could I give a better or different answer if I take a bit of time?’” She adds that, when confronted with a seemingly urgent issue, she asks herself, “Ten years from now, when I look back, will this be such a big deal?  Everything can be solved, but we need to stay calm and not be overwhelmed in the moment.”

Be kind to yourself, enroute to your purpose

When I asked Keed for any final advice for female professionals, she urges them to follow their ambitions since, despite lingering social norms, she sees equal opportunity for women and men. She notes proudly that AIA Singapore enables everyone to develop for senior roles, as demonstrated by the fact that today six women occupy the 13-person Executive Committee.

But while seeking their purpose, Keed urges women, “Don’t be too hard on yourselves and don’t be defined by society’s expectations. It’s okay to say, ‘I need help,’ ‘I need time off, or ‘I don’t know the answer,’ because nobody can do the job or everything on their own.”

So, with healthy outlets for mind and body, and her internal compass to keep a thousand ‘to-dos’ in perspective, Keed stays focused on her people first purpose: “I’m continuously learning from other great leaders to try and be at my best. Every day, I ask myself what positive difference can I make for my staff, customers and the company, and I want to motivate other women to push themselves to reach everything they want for themselves and those around us.”

More about Wong Sze Keed: Since July 2020, Sze Keed has been CEO of AIA Singapore, a leading provider of life, health and accident protection as well as savings and investment products. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing and managing AIA’s operations in the market to champion AIA’s brand promise of enabling people to live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives for all Singaporeans. Sze Keed has close to 30 years of experience in the financial services industry in Singapore and has held a broad range of senior management roles in insurance and banking. She first joined AIA Singapore as Chief Partnership Distribution Officer in 2013. She earned a Bachelor of Science, Economics and Math, degree from National University of Singapore.

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