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Name: Aseem Goyal
Title: Deputy Chief Executive Officer
Organisation: APA Phongsavanh Insurance
As an experienced business leader with 30+ years of extensive hands-on experience, knowledge, and a robust business network across Asia, I work with leaders in building high-performance businesses and teams in Southeast Asia (SEA).
In my current role as Deputy CEO, I bring my passion for building businesses, cultivating leadership and teams, and devising winning client solutions to the forefront. My responsibilities span across multiple domains - from digital, product, and technology to sales, network development, and marketing.
Prior to this, I worked in corporate banking, primarily with two international banks, Standard Chartered & ANZ, taking on diverse leadership roles across multiple geographies. Over the last 3 years, I have devoted my energy to working with startups as an Advisory Board member, advising them on market expansion, product management, customer acquisition and leadership development.
I am also a certified global leadership coach and have always led by example in my business roles. I believe that in order to build successful businesses, a leader first has to build strong, diverse teams and support them in every possible way so that they are successful.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
A leader's biggest challenge is to build teams and engage and motivate them to succeed. Communication is key to this. And, while successful leaders are generally effective communicators, this is one area where I believe we can always do better. During my banking career, I took on roles in diverse markets across Asia, with a mandate to build businesses and/or implement change. And, to top it off, English was not the first language of the teams I was leading. These challenges forced me to constantly focus and improve on my communication skills and, as General Colin Powell said it, try to become a great simplifier.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I worked in Toronto for the first 5 years of my career with the TD Bank, and although I was doing well, I craved for bigger challenges and high energy environments. I looked with envy at the high-octane tiger economies in Asia, and desperately wanted to be part of the growth story.
That’s when opportunity knocked at the door, and I made the best decision of my career.
I came across a job advertisement in The Economist for Corporate Relationship Managers with Standard Chartered Bank in Bangkok. It was a long shot, but I nevertheless applied through the search firm in London. I had never been to Thailand nor had any connections to it.
What happened next and how fast it happened still boggles my mind!
I unexpectedly received a phone call on a Sunday night from the Bangkok office for an initial discussion. This was followed by a series of interviews and a breakfast meeting with the visiting CEO, all in a span of few weeks. Before I could realize, over the next 2 weeks, I had an offer letter in my hand. I signed it quickly, handed in my resignation, and got down to the business of unwinding my life in Toronto.
3 months from the date when I sent in my application, I arrived in Bangkok on a steamy March morning in 1995.
Stepping out of the old Don Muang airport was an eye opener. Hot and humid, noisy, bustling with activity, tuk tuks and motorcycles everywhere - it was certainly different from Toronto. I soon experienced the legendary Bangkok traffic even at 6am. On the way to the hotel, I felt awed at the economic activity - cranes dotting the sky, construction sites everywhere, street food stalls cooking appetizing meals and packed with customers even at an early hour.
After the initial adjustment, 10 years in Bangkok flew by quickly. I grew my client portfolio, which led to leading a team and managing a business and thereafter assumed even bigger responsibilities related to business strategy and transformation. And this led to an exciting, new opportunity for a 5-country regional role covering North Asia out of bustling Shanghai.
I was excited about the move to a new market, China, which was growing at double digits. The role mandate was also challenging - to build capabilities and aggressively grow the business. Two years of successful execution in Shanghai was followed by move to Taipei, where I integrated 2 businesses and teams acquired through M&A. And after another successful stint there, I moved to Hong Kong.
So, I would say, it was the initial career decision moving from Canada, but thereafter taking on challenging roles in markets across Asia. And these diverse experiences in different roles, in different markets, helped me become an effective leader.
Leadership is a work in progress. Given the scale of changes in our world today, leadership is about continuous learning and personal growth.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I am actually not a morning person, so leave myself just enough time to get ready and rush to work. But, once I get to work, I shut myself off from everything. I do not have a fixed schedule about doing things at a certain time and always prioritize team and client issues for my time. Being a good multitasker, and ability to focus, allows me to manage my time efficiently.
I try to go for a run on evenings 2-3 times a week and find it to be the most relaxing. Dinner with family is important part of my day. I normally read and organize for next day before going to sleep.
I like to work long hours on weekdays but have always prioritized weekends for family and personal things.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
I left banking about 3 years ago and focused on applying my 30-year banking experience to help startups and businesses expand in SEA. I also became a certified leadership coach and had the opportunity to work with CEOs on their engagement and people skills.
Over the last few weeks, I have taken on a new challenging business leader role with an insurance company, in yet another new market for me. And this has provided me with an opportunity to once again use my leadership experience, both from my banking career as well as coaching.
And the biggest learning is that leadership is about the people I am responsible for, it is not about me. I have many challenges in front of me in different areas, but it all starts with people. Hire the best people, support them, reward them. Drive the right culture which fosters teamwork and collaboration. Lead by example. If I get all this right, the business challenges will take care of themselves.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I would recommend every leader to read General Colin Powell's leadership primer. Gen Powell shares his leadership experience in the form of 18 lessons, which I can relate to the roles I have done.
There are a few lessons which I have found particularly useful in shaping my leadership style:
- Being responsible means sometimes you might upset people. A leader cannot focus on making everyone happy.
- People bring their problems to a leader because they think you can solve them. The day they stop, is the day you are no longer a leader.
- Organization charts and titles don't mean anything. Don't let the ego get to you.
- Take risks, be an optimist,
- Rule for hiring people
- look for integrity, loyalty, drive to get things done, right attitude.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Leadership does not equate to perfection. Self-awareness is, therefore, very important. Focus on your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses. Be humble enough to admit that you do not know everything and can make mistakes.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
My experience in Vietnam comes to mind.
I was sent to Vietnam as a Business Head to reposition a business. It involved delivering challenging financial and non-financial metrics.
But I soon realized that none of it was possible without first implementing significant cultural change in the team. Change that impacted the daily job of individuals. Which took them out of their comfort zone.
And which bred resistance.
Six months into the role, it was no surprise to me when my engagement score was one of the lowest in the entire global organization.
Success or failure ultimately comes down to the personal traits of a leader, and how they respond to challenges.
I took this feedback from the team constructively. I had detailed discussions with them to understand their comments and why they felt the way they did.
While I was asking them to change, I had to change few things about myself as well.
These honest discussions with the team brought the team closer, and there was better understanding of each other and what we were trying to achieve.
Over the following 12 months, we organized team building, showcased success, rewarded individuals for their effort. The culture changed to mutual respect, open communication, and alignment with business objectives.
12 months later, I was pleasantly surprised to have one of the highest engagement scores in the entire organization (from 48% to 92%)!!