Inspiring next generation of women executives in financial services

Wednesday, Jan 23, 2019 08:00

Vibha Coburn

Vibha Coburn, Manulife Asia’s chief distribution officer, shares her leadership journey in the traditionally male-dominated insurance sector and how women in finance can make a greater impact.

Please tell us about the highlights in your career journey from being a fresh graduate to your current senior position at Manulife?

The key highlight in my career journey was the ability to work directly with customers while having the privilege of running businesses across multiple markets and cultures in Asia Pacific. My background is in retail banking. The experience and knowledge I’ve gained there is also very relevant to the insurance sector. When you think about financial services, it really boils down to ensuring we understand customers’ needs and provide solutions to meet them. In the same way, for insurance, it is a matter of looking from the customer’s point of view, rather than the product point of view. That’s what sets Manulife apart. In fact, as we develop tools to support our conversations with our customers, we start by understanding our customers’ goals before we suggest products.

Along my career journey I have been inspired by excellent managers. I learnt from them the value of taking time to explain things and allowing people to be empowered. This in turn raises the whole standard of the department, and keeps the team constantly thinking of ways to do things better, be more effective, efficient and work well together.

What inspired you to work in the finance industry, especially insurance?

For me working in insurance is a natural extension to banking and is still working in the finance industry. The insurance sector has great impact on people’s lives and wellbeing. We are in the business of protecting people’s lives, health and livelihoods. In Asia, there is great interest from governments to ensure their people are insured because of the very limited penetration of insurance in emerging markets. Many people in Asia still don’t understand the need for insurance. My desire to work in this sector stems from my passion to work with people, helping them find solutions to meet their financial needs and achieve financial security.

Do you think Asian women have difficulty working globally? Did you find any difficulties? If so, how did you overcome the challenges and achieve success?

At the end of the day, it is really about being adaptable in every sense of the word. You need to be observant, respectful of cultural nuances and actually understand the differences and what that means to how you work in that country. There is a need to be adaptable and authentic in who you are and not second guess yourself but rather be comfortable and proud of who you are.

Women do work differently, but we’re equally effective. We have to be comfortable with that fact but also take the opportunity to communicate this when possible. What is also important is to learn what makes women and men work different, recognise the differences and be open to learn from it.

In the greatly supportive workplace like Manulife Vietnam, talented women all have a chance to move up and break the glass ceiling, conquering the best position to ensure that their voices are heard.

What do you think about the role of women in society today, especially those in finance? What are the biggest challenges for women in finance?

Women are becoming more visible in the workplace, especially in the financial services industry. At Manulife, our top sales agents in Asia are women. Many women also hold leadership roles in our analytics and actuarial departments.

There is a high level of diversity and inclusion in our company in this regard. In my opinion, the most challenging thing women in finance need to overcome is to not be afraid to do things differently as long as you meet the objective effectively. Diversity is about creating different perspectives which makes for a richer workplace and better solutions and approaches to business generally.

Can you maintain a work-life balance while being a successful career woman?

Work-life balance is kind of an oxymoron. That’s because sometimes work takes over and sometimes life takes over. You have to allow it. Sometimes your family obligations take priority - something could happen at work while you’re on holiday and you have to attend to it because that’s more important. It’s about having the confidence to make the right decision when life or work takes over. That’s why it is key to work for an employer who provides flexibility and is output-focused rather than input-oriented.

There was a time when my father underwent a serious operation and I had to miss an important meeting. But I have also missed my daughter’s recital because I had to attend to something at work. It is really a question of striking a balance and making that choice yourself. Having a family is a lovely part of life and it should be celebrated; it is not a reason for men or women to be less committed to work.

How do you suggest women can make their voices heard at work, especially in challenging sectors like finance and insurance?

I have felt this way a few times. One of the things you can do is to find allies in your workplace. Ideally this would include your supervisor. She or he is in the best position to ensure that your voice is heard. Practising having your voice heard is also important – that means thinking about and writing down how best you can deliver a particular message.

Sometimes when your voice is not being heard, it’s almost because people don’t realize that you have something to say. So practise, speak up and people will begin to realise you have a voice and start asking you for ideas. It’s almost like supply-induced demand.

What are the qualities you think women should have to be successful in finance, especially in the insurance industry?

A variety of skills are needed in the finance and insurance industry – everything from technical to functional expertise, sales and marketing to communications to knowledge of running a business. Women are already successful in all these areas in Manulife.

It’s not all about personal qualities, though. You also need the right support, in terms of people and environment. In my case, I was lucky to work for people who focused on my capability rather than my gender, and really supported my career aspirations. And I’ve benefited enormously from working for an organisation like Manulife, which is ambitious and thoughtful in how they support women and their career progression.

Of course, even the most talented women in the most supportive environments face unexpected challenges. These can come from the work front, the family front, or from working differently compared to traditional male approaches. That’s where I think resilience and tenacity come in. You’ve got to back yourself despite the inevitable setbacks. And you’ve got to have the grit to stick with your dreams even when they might feel beyond you. I see many women displaying these traits in organisations like Manulife all the time, and that’s why more and more are moving up and breaking the glass ceiling.

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