By Selene Alcock

CEO Of Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam Michele Wee’s Career Trajectory Has Gone From Teenage Model To Model Leader

Michele Wee says, “I think we all just need to chill.” A year into her posting, the highly astute and passionate CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam is forthcoming about her life growing up in a “very typical Singaporean family.” Two minutes into our conversation, I am taken aback at her forthrightness, and the ‘atypical’ nature of her formative years. Michele relays her story with an authentic charm that is part poise, part vulnerability, and for the most part, courage. This is a woman who knows who she is, and how she got here.

Although when growing up her native Singapore was a “very comfortable country where everything works, education is great and there are equal opportunities for females,” her childhood was not privileged. “Mom and dad split very early in my life,” she recounts. “So, I’d say I’m from a broken family, a divorced family, and through that, I did see a lot of the hardships that my mom went through as a single parent. It was a difficult life. I never had playdates, you know. I went to school. I cooked my own lunch or dinners from a very young age.” Yet, not for one minute has Michele allowed this to be her sob story.

Michele got her first job as a model at age 14. She admits she wasn’t really good at it. But with some money in her pocket, she soon set her sights on a tertiary education, with a degree in banking and finance. She adds, “Practical, super practical, because that’s what everybody did.”

But at 17, life threw her another major curve ball; her mother departed to live in the US with her second husband, and simultaneously, her sister left for studies in Australia. In Singapore, she remained distant from her father.

“And so, from the age of 17, I lived on my own. I went to school on my own; I supported myself. So, you can imagine that it was probably more than just school, right? It was the University of Hard Knocks. And it was very different because Singaporeans don’t do that. They live at home till they’re 30 or 40 years old. I mean, yes, it’s Asian culture, right? It’s not Western culture.”

Michele admits that she had no choice. While she gave her blessings to her mother, in that moment she decided, “Ok, that’s fine. I’ll just get on with it.” And it’s a raison d’être that has carried over into her present-day leadership style. A style that is more similar to a kind of parenting – or a guardianship – that proactively supports those who work under her to find their autonomy.

She still laments the bad decisions she made in her formative years, and wishes she’d had better guidance. “I’ve learned from them. You know, I wouldn’t want my kids to go through any of the bad decisions – and for my young team as well. So, I think now I do put a lot of emphasis on coaching as a culture, mentorship, sponsorship, right? Because I don’t see why people need to go through life with all the challenges if you can help them. I’m a big advocate of sharing experiences and being transparent, honest and open.”

It was many years ago, at the time of Michele’s appointment to the position of Global Head of E-Commerce Sales at Standard Chartered, that she had her first unsolicited coaching session. It was not what she expected. When she inquired about her performance, her coach replied, “Frankly, you’re lazy.” He said, “You’re young, you’re female, you’ve got the top job. What are your aspirations? Do you sit down and think about, ‘Do I want this corner office?’ What is it you want in life?”

The session brought two lifechanging realizations for Michele. One, that she was in her comfort zone. And two, the immeasurable value of coaching. Today, as the global sponsor of the bank’s coaching program, she says, “It’s not easy to be a coach or a coachee, but if you can fully embrace it, it can actually make a big impact in your life.”

Eleven years after she joined Standard Chartered, she believes she’s in the right organization—that she fondly calls the ‘human bank’— to effect both deep social and organizational change. As a modern pioneer in the bank’s 118-year history, the new legacy Michele is forging is based on Diversity and Inclusion, opening up the bank to be a ‘super connector’, engaging her Gen Z employees in critical feedback and input, and breaking down outmoded hierarchical structures. As a CEO, she believes we must change how we think about leadership. She’s determined to be the ‘servant leader’; the one who says to her employees, “Ok, tell me what I can do for you? How can I value add?” ‘Courageous’ is the word she uses to describe herself. I prefer ‘fearless’.

As a true champion for Diversity and Inclusion, Michele says it’s not actually about diversity. “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. Ethnic minority, you’re Hanoian, you’re from the South, you’re from the Central area. It doesn’t matter. All we should see is, you know, do we like this person? Are they credible? Are they honest? Are they authentic? Can I trust them to watch my back, and I’ll watch theirs?”

In alignment with the bank’s targets and values, Michele is bringing a renewed vigor to the diversity and inclusion theme. “The female leadership in this organization is already over 40%. So I’ve met the target. Okay, so I’m not going after gender targets per se. But what I am going after is everybody being able to bring their true selves to work.”

After our intensive hour-long session, Michele leans back and breathes a sigh of relief, “I think we all just need to chill, and accept everybody for what they are. Just chill.” Perhaps a small part of Michele is still searching for a missing piece in her childhood. But for now, apart from the incredible work she does for others and her longing for some Singaporean hawker food, she’s completely satisfied with her favorite pastime—hanging out with her kids. “And I don’t care what we do. I just like to hang out with them.” [C]

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