Not only is she a savvy business women, Claire Chiang, co-founder of Banyan Tree Luxury Hotels and Resorts and current SVP of Business Development; was a Nominated Member of Parliament and went on to be the first lady admitted into the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Razor sharp focus on achieving her goals, she has dexterously navigated the board room and bucked the trend on female hires at management level.

In fact, nearly half of Banyan Tree’s management personnel consists of women. Known to have a strategic focus on Human Capital Development, Claire dismisses the dichotomy between male and female leaders as being artificial.

Banyan Tree’s strategy is simple. They promote and groom talents based on the merit. In fact, one of the quintessential qualities Claire looks out for when identifying and grooming leaders at Banyan Tree is the ability and willingness to learn. This is over and above all other qualities of being efficient and effective.

We were privileged to have been able to peer into the mind of the super achiever who spoke on the panel of CRIB summit 2017 held at Capella from 11 – 12 March 2017.

Popspoken: What is your leadership style? 

Claire Chiang: I was once told that I’m actually quite male. But in the male circle, they think I’m very understanding and emphatic – and female. So I started to do away with all these descriptions and not think too much of leadership belonging to a male or female type.

I look for what the situation needs. If I need to be firm, explicit, clear and assertive – I’ll do that. If I feel I need to be quiet and be a little more understanding, gentle – I’ll do it too. Why do I adopt different leadership styles? It’s addressing the person in front of me and to reach an outcome which I want. There’s no point being the way I am, and only have one style, and not get what I want, and that is being an ineffective leader. An effective leader is someone who knows what repertoire of skill sets to apply to reach the outcome so desired.

An effective leader is someone who knows what repertoire of skill sets to apply to reach the outcome so desired.

I have learnt with age that I have a slew of possibilities and repertoire of choices to apply a leadership skill. If there are words to describe me, I think I’m versatile and adaptive. I have to be flexible and be counseled by the situation in front of me.

I am against dichotomizing male and female leadership. We should be acting as a team, to apply all we have to mobilize our resources to reach the outcome. That is the “team leadership” or “collective leadership” for the purposes of an organization.

Popspoken: Describe some challenges Banyan Tree has faced through the years. 

Claire Chiang: In the hotel industry, we are subjected to macroeconomics through no fault of ours. For example, the Thai baht devaluation in 1997 – when we earned in Baht and borrowed in USD – you can see the kind of crisis that we had. This was followed very quickly by the September 11 attacks in 2001, SARS, subprime crisis and the Bankgkok coup in 2014.

How did we get over this? Through the unity of staff. When they take unpaid leave, cut down on operational costs and initiate cost saving measures. It’s very touching and it helped to keep the company afloat. When good times came, we were able to stay above waters and stabilized. It’s part and parcel of business. Now how do you anchor and find that stamina to persevere, is the lesson to learn.

How you treat your staff and stakeholders is crucial. In situations of crisis they will support you because you have been good to them.

The stakeholder relationship and the ability to hone that relationship is a skill that all CEOs and business leaders should adopt.

Popspoken: People lament that there is a lack of visionary leaders in Singapore right now. Do you agree? 

Claire Chiang: I think you need all kinds of leadership. Leaders who get the big picture. But we don’t need a lot of them because they kill each other, and because there are so many big pictures, they may not agree.

You still need people with big picture, but one key person to make the decision. In addition, you need a whole lot more of do-er leaders, people who implement, execute and to do more than just a checklist of duties.

The middle-level leaders who do their job, with dedication and commitment are very important. There’s also a whole slew of quiet leaders, who are at the desktop, cleaning your data, finding your data in order to help you make that decision to execute. I do not think we just need big picture leaders. We need to create and uphold on organization’s culture where everyone matters. This way, you facilitate the quiet leaders to come forward too.

I have 41 hotels in the chain. I listen to the chief. I listen to my directors out there in the field as they are closer to the ground. If they only listen to me, I would be so isolated. I could be wrong. However, if they only stick to their little corner and don’t see the big picture, they will not be motivated. How to solve that? We bring all the leaders together and have a training session where big pictures, small pictures are all shared and people begin to understand what’s the purpose and what’s the relevance of what they’re doing.

2 years ago we did a puzzle. The puzzle was the size of this wall. Where everyone takes a piece of this puzzle and every department does their piece. They did not know what they’re painting. But when they fit that piece into the big picture, voila, it makes sense. They suddenly realized that their little functional excellence made the end puzzle.

Popspoken: Have you encountered sexism in the workplace? What are your thoughts on this. 

Claire Chiang: Biases, discrimination, stereotypes and unfair practices – they are all over the marketplace. Even the workplace, the way we recruit, the work organization, at home, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. It’s all there.

The flipside of it all is positive discrimination where women are favoured. Where being a women allows you to take on jobs better. For example, because of being a woman you can sell better using your charm. When you think one woman faces discrimination, you can cite 9 other men who feel that they’ve also been discriminated against. So I wouldn’t dichotomize the workplace. As leaders, and as society evolves, and where women gain more marketplace confidence, the merit of their performance that will justify their promotion.

Popspoken: Who do you look towards for inspiration?

Claire Chiang: There is no specific persona I look up to. I have the privilege of many mentors, instructors and friends; who in totality, gave me insights and information that I have composed for my use. If I were to look at a retail, I would get information from people in retail. If I were to look at spas, I’ll look for friends who are in the spa business. They’ve given me more than I have deserved, and have helped me to learn from their history.

The “learning” part of me has helped me in being open minded about all possibilities. In that sense I don’t stick to one role model or one sector? I am a cross-sectorial person. I learn everyday. That comes from my academic background. To think whatever we have learnt, even last month, might just be obsolete by now, especially with the digital age. Information is just so fast paced.

Popspoken: Banyan Tree has expanded into China rapidly. What are your thoughts on the hospitality industry’s future growth in China?  

Claire Chiang: China is a giant and an emerging economic power. Eventually, every top company will be in China. When we first went into China in 2006, nobody heard of Banyan Tree. No one understood what hospitality meant. Service culture is really something they aren’t good at but it’s something we tried to get the Chinese to learn very fast. In coming up with the brand proposition, we focused on creating an enclave of privacy in the upper-end villa structure.

The Chinese initially did not understand this concept. But when we started talking about the way we built as a responsible hotel operator, and the way we support and commit to getting local Chinese employees to learn English, they began to understand. They suddenly saw that tourism is no longer just about checking out good scenic sites. Tourism also provides an economic platform that gives jobs and creates value in a sustainable manner.

Banyan Tree Lijiang

Banyan Tree Lijiang

I recall when we started our first hotel in Lijiang, we taught the Naxi group English and hospitality. When the Chinese saw the quality we brought to the table, it propelled us the next deal and the next deal. We have 15 hotels now, and in the next 5 years, there will be another 10 more. And in my pipeline negotiations, I have another 25 on the way.

My job as a business development hunter is to travel through China for the past 10 years, for at least 3 months in a year. In Chinese, they say I “遊 山 玩 水, 吃喝玩乐, 都是工作” – for me, travel, work, play and family, it’s all rolled into one. That in itself, is a new concept. 

That’s a new concept because China’s emerging middle class is looking towards this. Travelling is no longer from getting from A to B. Travel is about retreats, about finding a place where they can go for spa or travel itineraries where you go to polish your mind. I organize workshops and programs where people learn so when they relive memories of travel, it’s not just a stay but what they do there. For example, we get our guests to understand tea culture, Naxi culture or experiment with herbal gardens together with their children. We are creating content in the hospitality business.

It’s tourism with a difference. It’s about creating travelers’ tales where we “edutain”  them… And that’s where we are going.

The other focus is on wellness in soul and in spirit. This is part of Banyan Tree’s lifestyle program, not just for China but for other parts of the world. Our focus in China is because of the rising expectations of demand but we are also in the rest of the world. We are in Mexico, Cuba and this year we are opening in Greece. As for South-East Asia, we are looking into Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia. The play is global.

Popspoken: What are your thoughts on women in the workplace? How does it differ across all the countries Banyan Tree has businesses in? 

Claire Chiang: In a way, Banyan Tree bucked the trend. We have 30% of women in our company and close to 50% of women at management level. We have 10% of female general managers (in 4 out of the 40 hotels we run), which is rare in this industry.

We have age diversity too, although I don’t think we are doing good enough as the majority of our workers are still under 45. We want to hit 10% of workers that are aged 55 years and above. Aside from that, we employ conscious leadership to spot high potential staff. The lens is broadened not to only look at men, but also to look at the women.

We also have local culture to contend with. Some cultures are against girls working in the hospitality industry as they think it’s dangerous. To get women talent, we must convince their parents that it’s safe, and also convince women there’s career progression in such an industry.

Popspoken: So how much of this bucking of trends is due to your soft power?

Claire Chiang: Being a co-founder and having a husband on the board helps (laughs).

I think women can be influenced by shaping the leadership – we don’t need to talk about power, we can talk about influence.  

For example, in my business unit, I facilitate working engagements between and women, this allows men to feel more comfortable. It’s important to have this engagement so men get used to working with women and vice versa. It’s about balance, creating familiarity and that shared experience to boost the confidence of both sexes. This will help them work together.

Power couple: Claire Chiang and Ho Kwon Ping

Power couple: Claire Chiang and Ho Kwon Ping (Image credit: Straits Times)

Popspoken: Do you have advice for mid-level management women who want to move forward with their careers? 

Claire Chiang: If you want to go ahead you need to be good at what you do. You need to learn to be focused at what you do and you need to be able to communicate the content effectively.

Effectiveness is extremely important for anyone who wants to be a leader. You may want to be a leader doesn’t mean you can be an effective leader. Furthermore, effectiveness must be contextualized in an organization that is filled with a myriad of other hurdles. What’s valued is your ability to navigate those relationships. Where you don’t see yourself as just a woman and have hangups about discrimination, but have an attitude  focused on solving the problem. These are important qualities over and above gender, and these are the same qualities I’ll look for in a man.

Being a woman brings in perspectives and inputs that men may not understand. That’s why it’s so important to have a women’s voice and the male’s voices. Having views from both sexes helps me get a balanced viewpoint and make the right decision about consumer behavior, aspirations and needs.

The annual CRIB summit is run by a team of women entrepreneurs who are part of the CRIB society. Its main aim is to build a community of women and entrepreneurs who support and inspire one another through networking forums and lifestyle events. Annual membership fee is SGD 150 (basic) and SGD 250 (pro).

Featured image credit: CRIB Society