There is no silver bullet to become a successful CEO

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Robert Walters’ Executive Leadership Series brings you inspirational stories from fellow executive leaders. In this edition, Anthony Chin, CEO at MJBL, talks about his personal experiences.

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Anthony Chin worked for over two decades in a variety of roles at the Malaysian AmBank Group before taking up the CEO position at MARUHAN Japan Bank Lao (MJBL), the first-ever Japanese commercial bank in Laos. Only two years into this journey he has already been named Best New Banking CEO in consecutive years and has launched an award-winning mobile banking application, all by playing into his own strength and keeping a laser sharp focus. 

  • After working for AmBank for over 22 years, what made you decide to move to a new role as CEO of MJBL?

“When I was younger I always thought I would be an entrepreneur someday. I figured that if I worked two to three years in financial services in order to understand money, two to three years in FMCG in order to understand consumers and marketing, and two to three years in logistics, that in ten years’ time I’d be ready to become an entrepreneur.

But three years turned into five, turned into ten and so on. Eventually I told myself that when I reached the twenty-year mark it would be time to uproot myself and make a change. 

So, when MARUHAN approached me, I immediately considered it a great opportunity. Relocating to a frontier country in a CEO role, there was a big opportunity for me to make a difference, a real chance not only to grow the bank, but also grow it in more sustainable manner, moving to digital and really drive the expansion. To be the architect behind that transformation made it a really exciting opportunity for me.”

  • Which objectives did your prioritise after joining MJBL?

“When I learned I would become CEO I was very excited about relocating and in those two or three months before leaving it was really all about packing and preparations. I never really gave much thought to what I was going to do after I arrived.  But looking back, I think my first ninety days were actually quite structured as I really only had three priorities. 

First: before starting my new position I really wanted to understand what the expectations of me were, and agreeing on those expectations with the shareholders. Even after I was offered the job I kept requesting Zoom calls to understand what success would look like. 

Second: I really made an effort to understand the organisation, the systems, the processes and the people I work with. What were our strengths or lack of strengths? What were colleagues looking for? What was missing? What is our mission? I even brought in five friends to help. One knew a lot about core banking – I brought that person in to help me understand our core banking. One was good at applications – I brought that person in to understand our applications. This allowed me to make a deep-dive into the organisation.

My third priority was about understanding the market and Laos. Understanding what’s the regulatory environment like, what the framework is like, what the people are like. I stayed in a hotel in my first thirty days here –  I hadn’t really relocated yet – and I spent every evening talking to people in the lobby, or meeting people in the market, asking them simple questions such as if they had ever heard of MARUHAN. Those first thirty days gave me so many unfiltered insights, I learned much more than I could have from any report. 

  • Joining a new company as CEO, how do you win the trust of colleagues and peers?

“To start I think you need to be humble and approachable, and try to get to know your colleagues. After you’ve done so, it is important for people to know you are trustworthy. 

Following my first three months at MJBL working with colleagues to create analyses and reviews, gather data and deep dive into the organisation I presented my three-year strategy to the board. Having done so, for the first time in the history of the bank we brought everyone together to discuss what it is we want to achieve. We spent about three days talking about objectives and challenges and helping everybody understand which role they play. Because it is my personal believe that when everybody understands where they fit in, all colleagues want to do a good job.

Now, it is easy to say all these things, but to really gain trust you need proof points. In my first six months we managed to roll out our mobile banking app, a project that had been delayed for a year already. And not only did we roll it out, it also won the International Finance award for best new mobile banking application. When colleagues realise that together you can achieve something which seemed impossible, and that they were part of that journey, that’s when you start to win people’s hearts. 

  • MJBL has its headquarters in Laos, its shareholders and the board are Japanese, you are from Malaysia and there are colleagues from eight different nationalities working at the bank. How do you manage the cultural differences?

“You need to find a common denominator. If you don’t, you will often find there is a tendency to work along cultural lines. 

That is why at MJBL we have three key pillars. We want to be the most trustworthy bank in Laos, we want to be the most digital-savvy bank in Laos and we want to treat people well. When you keep people aligned to the vision of the company they start to transcend cultural lines. These three pillars are not just about developing the business, they also aim to galvanise everyone to work towards one common goal.”

  • Moving to the CEO position, did you have to change certain ways in thinking or working?

“As the CEO the buck stops with me, but I do believe my leadership style and decision-making depend on the situation. 

Take for example last year when we went into lockdown. People couldn’t come to work, but you still need to operate the bank and make sure staff are safe and healthy. In this kind of situation you need to rely on iron fist decision-making. I usually get input, but I don’t debate it and I give very clear directions about what to do.

Then, in a situations where you try to innovate and be creative, you need a lot more contribution and input, and you can take your time in the thinking process. 

Clearly having no ‘upstairs’ makes a CEO position stressful. You don’t want to make a decision whichthat costs a lot of money, ormoney or affects your career. But you get to this position by learning to make small decisions along the way, eventually preparing yourself to make big decisions. The key is building confidence, and I think it is a good idea to surround yourself with people who can mentor you along the way. 

  • Is there a secret to success?

“There is no silver bullet to become a successful CEO. I believe you need to have a genuine desire to design something, to build it, to grow it and to nurture it. You need to have a very clear thought process on what you want to achieve at the end of the day. Because if that is not clear to yourself, than how do you bring an organisation, the board, shareholders and customers along with you?

  • What advice would you give to professionals who aspire to pick up a c-level role?

“To be a good CEO, or at least have a good shot at being a successful CEO, or any c-suite role for that matter, the key point is to understand your own strength. 

There are many courses on how to improve on your weaknesses. But instead of focusing on the negative, I would like to advice people to learn and understand their strengths, and play into those strengths.

Second: you need to have a laser sharp focus on your most important goal. And you need stamina to maintain that focus, and not change strategy two years into a three-year plan. As for me, I have not deviated from my initial plan. I remain to have the same agenda, and focus on those three pillars of most trusted bank, digital first and treating people well.”

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