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Be open, unassuming and respect differences. It is so important that everyone feels they have a place in the organization. And there is a clear business case for this – if you are happy, you deliver better results at work.

Sharon Joanne Ooi

Managing Director, Head of Property & Casualty Underwriting Asia Pacific

Swiss Re Asia Pte. Ltd.

An Interview with Ms. Sharon Joanna Ooi

by Ingrid Poh & Aisyah Fuad |  FEBRUARY 2020

"If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like" … Soichiro Honda



How would you describe your leadership style? 

Political, societal and technological landscapes are changing rapidly and I believe that leadership strategies should evolve along with the changes too.


My leadership style used to be more strategic, where I apply a high-level, big picture view. It has now evolved into a coaching style while keeping that strategic view in mind.


Coaching people to make the right decisions will create more sustainable relationships and working culture. This has allowed me to have a lot of engagement with my team, the wider cross-functional teams and with my clients.

What would you say is the most difficult part of implementing a D&I culture?

Achieving the right mindset. You can have targets, correct incentives and measures but if people are resistant because there is an inherent or unconscious bias, it's not going to work. It is really key to have everyone buying into "why" Diversity is important because it has a positive impact on business goals and strategy.


Having said that, implementing appropriate measures are important in the short-to-mid-term. I used to have a different view; that measures such as women leadership quotas may downplay the achievement and legitimacy of successful women. However, I have seen that nothing much really changes without quotas. We need to have them in place to bring about change to the status quo but in the long-run we should always leverage market forces and the external environment. That is where mindset change becomes more important.



Based on statistics, we are aware that many senior management teams are male dominated, how can we improve/increase the representation from women?


We need to think along the value chain of how we recruit talent, such as using technology to ensure that job ads do not contain gender biases in the way they are worded. We must ensure that we have a starting pool that is diverse. In the interview process, we should be aware of how unconscious bias influences the way questions are asked or how the answers are perceived. As an example, my colleagues and I were discussing about a female candidate who used the "we" pronoun a lot in her responses, but it was perceived as being "not confident". Coming from an assessor who champions Diversity & Inclusion, the comment demonstrates how some biases are truly unconscious.


Once we get past the recruitment stage, it is instrumental to apply a similarly conscious mindset in our daily business. Successful women have to support other women in giving them opportunities, recognizing that it is still not a level playing field.


If you are a woman in a leadership role, you must be very clear about how you are going to exercise your role. It is going to be different and that is okay. If you're a mother with young children, as was I before, you may need to establish some ground rules. For instance, in my case, I have articulated how I would like to work and established an understanding with my colleagues that – "dinner time is family time". The opportunities are there – you have to make the best use of the infrastructure that has been created.



Aside from the Gender and Parenting topics, what other areas of Diversity do you feel need more attention?


Sexual orientation and ageism. When someone shares their identity, it is a very personal gesture and indicates trust. There needs to be more awareness on how language is used in conversations which may hinder openness.


On the topic of ageism, it is interesting as there is a lot more attention on the millennial population where policies and strategies are built around them, but there are other age groups who have the spending power and are living longer. We need to ensure a broad age distribution is considered in our policies too.


Be open, unassuming and respect differences. It is so important that everyone feels they have a place in the organization. And there is a clear business case for this – if you are happy, you deliver better results at work.

What would the person you are today say to the person you were on your first day at work?


Go home! Spend more time with your family and loved ones!


There is such a strong correlation between a happy work force with productivity. Having a balance that enables team members to be happier and have more holistic working lifestyle is very important.


Do not be afraid to have work life balance.

What is one interesting fact that we will be surprised to know about you?

Everyone has something interesting to share and I am no exception! For me, I build these huge Lego sets to completely relax. I have built the Millennial Falcon, Hogwarts Castle, which comprise 6 to 7000 pieces each and take about one week to complete on my own.

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