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How I got here… CIMB sustainability chief, Luanne Sieh

How did having a life-long career in financial services land her in sustainability, and what advice does she have for people with no experience in the field?

A challenge seeker, Luanne Sieh has been involved in a number of fields, including financial services and consulting. She has experience in strategy and business transformation in multinational organisations, and only recently pivoted her career into sustainable finance and responsible banking.

Sieh is now head of group sustainability at CIMB, one of Southeast Asia’s leading banking groups and Malaysia’s first bank with a sustainability policy. 

Her last role was running the strategy and transformation programme for CIMB. Before that, she held various senior leadership roles at CIMB’s rival Maybank and insurance broker Willis Towers Watson, and was a founding member of a startup company.  

In this interview with Eco-Business, Sieh talks about her foray into sustainable finance, the importance of matching passion with technical knowledge, and the difficult job of dealing with backlash from non-government organisations (NGOs).

I think most people know deep down inside that sustainability is the right thing to do. They know that we can’t keep doing business as usual indefinitely.

What’s your education background?

I hold a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s Degree in manufacturing engineering at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I also did a diploma in financial management, because I just thought I’d like to ground myself out. Right now, I’m attempting to do a Master’s in sustainability because I don’t have a sustainability background whatsoever, so I’m trying to do that with Harvard Extension School. It’s fully online and really good, if anyone wants to get up to speed.

What prompted you to move into sustainability?

All my life, I’ve been working in banking and consulting in some way. The plan was always to get myself financially stable, and then eventually move on to work in an NGO and do something to contribute and change the world. Then this opportunity came up at my bank.

Career wise I’ve always been in business strategy and transformation. About two years ago, when we were planning for the next five to 10 years for the company, sustainability came up and I put my hand up to volunteer for it. It ended up being one of the five core strategies of the bank. So I was lucky, but I would also like to believe that I had a part to play in making sustainability a part of the long term strategy of the bank.

We put up a job ad for the head of sustainability but after six months, there were no suitable candidates. So I went to the CEO and the head of human resources and said, ‘Hey, let me do this.’ I was hesitant because I didn’t have any sustainability experience. I had interest, but to head up the function for a regional bank is quite a big task and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to deliver. So that’s still yet to be seen.

Who has been your career mentor, and what was the most valuable thing you learned from them?

I think generally career wise, I don’t have a mentor. But I’ve managed to build relationships with people in other banks, and sustainability professionals are very open to sharing and helping. So there are a number of experts that I go to for insights, like people from BNP Paribas, Westpac, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and Standard Chartered.

Maybe this is a factor of me growing up, but I’ve also learnt that there is always something you can take away from everyone, even the most difficult and nasty people. Once you realise that people have certain motivations and insecurities, and you understand where they’re coming from and what they want, that then becomes a starting point of discussion.

What’s your proudest career moment to date?

I’ve only been leading the Sustainability function for a year and a half, since October 2018. I guess, getting to this position is my proudest moment. Very few people get to do what they want. And I think I’m lucky to be in a job where my personal interests and beliefs are aligned with my job. Maybe because I’m relatively new to this, but I think almost everything that I do is cutting edge.

It’s for sure new in many of the countries that we operate in, and we’re in a great position to contribute to the field. For example, we’re one of the founding members of the Principles for Responsible Banking, and we are able speak from the perspective of a developing country bank. A lot of the banks that were involved were already leading banks, but we could play a role and say ‘Oh wait if you do this, then most of the developing country banks won’t be able to participate’. They took into account what we said, so we got to shape the framework.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

I would say that the single hardest thing for me is NGOs picking at us and saying things like ‘CIMB is financing deforestation and this is terrible’. It’s clear that we’re very committed, we’ve put sustainability in our strategy, and we’ve got commitments to get to the top quartile of global banks. And we’re moving really fast in relation to other banks. So just as a reference, when we first started this, we were at the bottom 20 per cent of banks globally. Within about a year and a half, we’re now at about 50th percentile.

There is always something you can take away from everyone, even the most difficult and nasty people.

Although we are moving fast, it’s not an overnight thing, especially given where the industry is. What we do cannot be so entirely different and more demanding than our competing banks, because all the clients will just run away and go to the other banks, then we will lose all leverage, which would be self-defeating. The takeaway is that you can never satisfy everyone. But when crappy news comes out about you are in the media, it’s still quite disheartening. 

What motivates you?

I think sustainability is very much aligned with my personal beliefs and values. I think most people know deep down inside that sustainability is the right thing to do. They know that we can’t keep doing business as usual indefinitely. But the world’s systems today—from economics to politics, to how corporates work to accounting systems—they’re all skewed towards pure profit maximisation. So breaking out of that system is really difficult. For people who have been in profit maximisation for the last 20-30 years, it’s very difficult for them to start thinking differently. So what we’re doing is bringing the discussion to the forefront. Being the catalyst is really motivating, and I just hope that enough people start taking enough action before it’s too late.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone starting out in sustainability?

A lot of people I speak to get into sustainability because they feel strongly about a certain issue. That’s great and needed, but what they don’t realise is that it’s extremely technical and really broad. There are so many different environmental issues and each of them require technical knowledge. You can’t be a good sustainability professional without understanding the details.

Where do you think the main sustainability knowledge gaps are among students now entering the workforce?

Some people coming into the workforce don’t have well-rounded enough experience or knowledge. If you’re going to work in a big corporation like CIMB, you need to be able to understand the broader issues, and understand business, governance, regulations, and P&Ls (profit and loss). A lot of people coming into sustainability in banking don’t realise that about half of it is technical and half of it isn’t. The other half is figuring out what you need to do, how to get stuff done, how to navigate the organisation, and how to convince people—that’s a big part of the job.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you started out in sustainability?

I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, but I find myself doing a lot more business stuff. What I didn’t expect was the fact that now I spend a lot of time pitching for deals and talking to clients. So what might happen is that our corporate bankers or investment bankers come to us and say, ‘Hey, our client wants to see whether we can make this a green bond or a sustainability-linked loan,’ then we go in and talk to our clients and guide them through the process.

If you could start your career again, what’d you do differently?

I don’t think there’s anything that I particularly regret doing or not doing. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing and I really want to see this challenge through. Usually every few years, I do something different, something that I’ve never done before. I jump at new challenges and that’s highly risky. But I told my bosses to leave me alone for now. I want to set this up and get it done right.

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