Based in Hong Kong, Devadason is in charge of Standard Chartered’s overall sustainability agenda, aimed at building a sustainable business by contributing to economic growth, leading as a responsible company, and investing in the future of communities. He is also a member of the Board of Standard Chartered Bank in Thailand, and Chairman of the Fundraising Committee for the bank’s charity, Seeing is Believing, which is committed to raising $100 million by 2020.
Over the course of his 30-year career at Standard Chartered, Devadason has amassed broad-based management experience in wholesale banking, consumer banking and human resources. He also served as a Country CEO in Japan from 2003 to 2007, and in Thailand from 2008 to 2010.
In his Japan CEO role, Devadason served on the board of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and as Chairman of the Banking Sector Committee of the International Bankers Association.
In Thailand, he steered the management team through an extremely complex economic and political environment, delivering strong results and a refreshed consumer banking strategy. His leadership on employee engagement initiatives led to the bank’s winning the Gallup Great Workplace Award in 2010. During this time he was also Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce Thailand and Second Vice Chairman of the Association of International Banks. Since January 2015, he has served on the board of the San Francisco-based NGO Business for Social Responsibility (BSR.org).
Devadason graduated from the University of Bristol with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics, and has completed several management programs, including courses at INSEAD, Templeton and London Business School.
Boyden: You’ve spent your entire career at Standard Chartered. Is this because you’ve had so many different roles to experience?
Devadason: This is my thirtieth year at Standard Chartered. It surprises me how the time has flown. When I think about my friends and colleagues in other companies that have changed jobs a lot, I wonder if I’ve been too careful with my career. But then I remember the fact that I’ve changed countries nine times. I’ve experienced so many different cultures and jobs.
One of the things I love about being in the same company is that I’ve been able to experience corporate banking, debt recovery, private banking, training, eight years as a CEO, corporate affairs, and now sustainability. Most other companies wouldn’t have that trust to allow you to try something you’ve never done, especially when they’re also interviewing external candidates. But people know my core strengths to be creativity, adaptability and leadership, so they’ve been able to take that risk and allow me to experience very different things.
Boyden: How did you end up running sustainability for the bank?
Devadason: I think it started early on in my CEO phase. I found that as a CEO, you see the big picture, and you’re alert to the culture and to external stakeholder perceptions. The bottom line is fundamental, but you realize that it’s about more than just making a dollar.
Through that I began to understand more about sustainability. In Japan I was approached by a global group called the
Caux Round Table, which is a sustainability think tank, and invited to give a talk about how Standard Chartered approaches sustainability. That galvanized my thinking, enough so that when I was doing my career planning, I envisaged a job. Ten years later I got the role, which has been fantastic.
It gives me a chance to look at why we do business and our whole approach to being a bank that participates in the development of economies and has an impact on societies. I’ve been learning so much. My team is much more experienced, but I’m catching up. This is also another example where I’ve come into a role that I haven’t done before. But absolutely I’m loving the role.
Boyden: Everyone cares somewhat about compensation, but this is also a way to take your experience and give something back. Is that part of the equation for you?
Devadason: I think it is. It’s not just the community engagement or the community investment side. We do a lot of work in that area – the volunteering, the health program and education programs. But I see sustainability as more than charity and philanthropy. I think it’s also about coaching and mentoring our youngsters, graduates, and talent groups to think more deeply about what and why we do what we do.
And I think it is the ability, after a long period of time in the same company, to wrap all of that experience up and give it context and a little bit of purpose. I feel I have the capacity to do that, and I’ve been getting great feedback, particularly from some of our graduates, who are highly motivated in this space. In practical terms, I’ve been a frontline banker, but I try to bring in a sense of how to be a responsible company. I think they get that, and I think I can give value to the company by speaking that language.
Boyden: Earlier you were CEO of Standard Chartered Thailand and CEO of Standard Chartered Japan. What were your favourite parts of those roles?
Devadason: That’s really hard to say. How do you compare Japan with Thailand or Tokyo with Bangkok, or Sydney with Singapore? You have to bring your positivity to wherever you are and find the best of those countries.
As a brand new CEO, Japan was a wonderful place for building my career and learning the responsibilities of being CEO. We did have some regulatory challenges, which happens to many bankers. A great way to really learn about the responsibilities of a CEO is to manage through challenges, to be the calm force in the centre of a storm. This includes managing issues with the media and making sure you effectively explain what is happening to your staff, and from there build a culture and a franchise.
Thailand was a different experience. It was wonderful to come back to a country where I used to run the corporate bank. Thailand is a much bigger franchise for us. I know everyone thinks that Tokyo is huge, but for Standard Chartered the Thailand franchise was materially bigger. I was very external. My wife and I hosted two thousand dinner guests in our home over two and a half years. We ran the place almost like an embassy and reached out to our clients and our branch staff and the boards of our company’s customers. It was a wonderful experience.
In terms of the everyday aspects of being a CEO, I became aware of the responsibility in how you encourage and develop talent, and in how you behave. There is a huge responsibility to instill confidence and calm. I recall one of our CEOs telling me this will be one of the loneliest jobs you’ve ever done. I didn’t understand what he meant until I got more into the role. Then I realized you can’t just unburden yourself to your direct reports. You are sometimes presenting unpopular realities or you are standing your ground or you’re pushing the guys to work harder because it’s needed. Or sometimes you’re asking the team to chill out and relax because you sense the tension building.
Boyden: How does Standard Chartered differ in its approach to sustainability compared to other banks as well as companies outside of banking?
Devadason: Most models of sustainability are grounded in the three Ps: people, planet, profit. When I compare us to the big global banks, I see parallels. But we do some things differently.
One thing is that we’ve got a bold brand promise. ‘Here for growth’ is not a tagline – it’s a public statement of aspiration, about what clients should expect of us. And it’s internal, about what we expect from our people. It has multiple meanings: longevity, commitment to doing the right things, and being a force for good.
We structure sustainability around a couple of key themes. One of them is directly addressing our business, in terms of how we contribute to sustainable economic growth, the environment and social risk management. This is encompassed in our positioning statements, and in the processes we use to decide what we will or won’t do and how we manage dilemmas in dealing with contentious industries. It also has to do with the work we do in the SME and the microfinance space, and how we think about engaging with emerging areas like green bonds, impact investing and social enterprise.
The second theme is being a responsible company. In a sense, that’s a look at the way we manage our support functions and our staff. It’s our approach to our own environmental footprint and to our people, values, diversity, inclusion, governance, and our code of conduct.
The idea is that if you get those two themes in harmony, then you can invest in communities. In this regard we have a somewhat focused approach to supporting a couple of big health agendas, such as our Living with HIV programme and Seeing is Believing charity, which raises money to fund projects to address preventable blindness.
Another aspect of our community investment is our education agenda. We’ve got a volunteering program for financial education for youth and entrepreneurs. We also built a girl’s empowerment programme called Goal, where we use sport to empower girls in disadvantaged communities. We also support them with training around life skills, health and hygiene, human rights, education and financial literacy.
Boyden: Have customers changed plans or locations of projects to meet your sustainability standards? Or do many get turned away or walk away?
Devadason: I think the best way to answer that question, whether the issue is fossil fuels or mining or palm oil or tobacco, is that we have set some standards to which we hold ourselves and our customers to task. Usually they are areas of contention. We turn down business. We had a case recently where we did a review of our fisheries exposure and found three of our eleven clients in Greater China had some shark fin exposure which we were not aware of. We have zero tolerance for the shark fin trade. We confronted those clients, and two of them asked if they could have some time to exit that industry and then continue with us. We said fine. One client wasn’t prepared to drop the business; therefore we mutually agreed to separate.
But with regards to the whole issue of energy, power generation, coal, fossil fuels– it’s complicated in that it’s easy to say there should be no fossil fuel burning and it should be all renewables. But the reality is, looking forward over the next thirty to fifty years, there is always going to be a mix of sources of power generation in that space. What we try to do is push for higher standards on emissions, ultimately to see a reduction in the proportion of fossil fuel- generated power and a greater emphasis on renewables. That doesn’t always attract the respect or appreciation of all the NGOs, but some understand that we’re trying to get the best outcomes from an imperfect solution.
These are complex dilemmas we live with. We’re in emerging markets where there are 1.3 billion people with no access to reliable energy. As the world becomes more urbanized, more people are going to need power to fuel economic growth. It’s very easy coming from the West to say ‘well they should all use solar and wind’. But that isn’t going to provide all the solutions the world needs. So we have to live with this dilemma. All big banks do. I think the better banks are more aware of the dilemma.
Boyden: Are the bank’s standards more stringent vis-à-vis children’s rights?
Devadason: Protection of children’s rights is one issue that we are absolutely clear on. We have a position statement which is robust on the issue and is actually being redrafted to be more wide-ranging on human rights. When we evaluate a deal or a customer, we look at that customer’s supply chain to make sure that when they sign up with us they are aware of our standards and expectations around child rights and human rights. This is a very important position to make clear, particularly since we do business in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where many of these issues are present.
Boyden: In the West it’s not so much where we’re buying from; it’s more about the supply chain.
Devadason: The way we look at banking overseas is to be very aware of supply chain impact. For example, let’s take the textile industry in Bangladesh. It’s far too easy to say it’s a terrible industry, therefore everyone should exit. But then thirty to forty percent, if not more of the Bangladeshi workforce would be out of work. That would be a devastation.
One of things the West needs to sort out is that when you go to Walmart or one of these clothing stores and buy a $25 DVD player or an evening dress for $12.99, do you understand the consequences of a price point that is unrealistic? That is one of the root causes of some of these issues at the grassroots level.
Also, a lot of the local banks don’t have these standards. So when an international bank like Standard Chartered says to a client that unless you meet these standards, we can’t bank with you, it doesn’t work if a local bank then says I don’t care, so we’ll bank with you.
That way nothing improves. I’m keen to see local banks adopt these standards. It’s encouraging that some of the big regulators are starting to understand that ESG [environmental, social and governance] processes should be universally adopted. It’s a positive sign.
Boyden: Turning to talent, what is your approach on hiring?
Devadason: When I look at talent, I don’t always look for one hundred percent experience against a role. I’m often looking for people who bring passion, energy, and positivity to a role. Someone who might bring fresh insight, and people that have a good sense of who they are.
I remember years ago when I was interviewing a frontline banker to support multinationals, I said, “What have you been doing for the last five years?” and he said, “I ran Burger King in Portugal and the business failed after five years.” And I thought what a fantastic thing. He’s learned how to run a business and he’s seen a business fail. He’s going to make a fabulous banker because when he talks to our clients he’s going to be asking all the right questions.
People thought I was nuts for hiring someone that had run a failed hamburger franchise in Portugal for our multinationals in Hong Kong. But it turned out to be a great opportunity. In fact he ended up running our Macau operations. He became the General Manager.
The other thing I look for, particularly with younger people, is bringing your whole self to the job. No longer is it okay just to come to work, do the job and go home. You need to be involved in the work in all aspects. For example, we expect everyone to commit to our communities by participating in volunteering initiatives.
Boyden: What are the areas where you are more likely to take a chance on a hire? And where do you take less risk?
Devadason: I think the way we hire graduates and put them through a year of opportunities before they even get into their ‘real jobs’ lays a very firm foundation for their development. It’s not just getting piles of degrees. If someone who is twenty-six turns up with a degree and an MBA, the MBA doesn’t mean much to me. I feel that if you’ve done an MBA but you’ve never worked, I don’t know what you added to the MBA experience or to other people in the course.
Boyden: Is the bank more aggressive and competitive in hiring in Asia?
Devadason: Competition in Asia is tougher because of the dearth of talent. Kids that have had international education and come back into a local context tend to have a greater opportunity to transcend the local market, so they can go from a foreign bank to a local bank or from a local company to a foreign multinational.
I don’t think we’re any more aggressive in Asia than we are anywhere else. The challenge that we face in Asia is a skills gap, and not enough people for the rate of growth. So there are some competitive pressures. People have the ability to change jobs quite rapidly, so staff turnover is one of the real issues of leadership and running growing businesses in Asia.
Also, it’s hard to say that Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong are developing or emerging markets. They are very advanced markets. It’s not so much an emerging market factor; it’s more about competition for talent and the growth of the industry.
Boyden: Looking back on your own career, do you regret any decisions?
Devadason: When I was nineteen I was going to be a graphic designer. I had a place at one of the London art colleges, and I was about two weeks away from going.
Then I made this late-night decision to instead go to Bristol and study philosophy and economics. Straight from college, I started a role in banking. Looking back I have no regrets. I’ve had a fabulous life and experienced the world and learned some languages and seen things.
We would like to thank Stephen Leung, a Partner of Boyden Greater China, for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.
The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Mr. Devadason