It is the end of another long week for Ho Lee Yen, but you would not know it. The CEO of HSBC Life Singapore is a picture of poise and elegance as she gamely follows our photographer’s cues while he experiments with lighting and angles. Ho has had a high-octane start to her leadership role at the insurance arm of the global banking group, clocking up countless late nights since she joined in November 2021.
HSBC Life was in the thick of taking over AXA Singapore, its first major acquisition in 10 years. Within a short time, Ho had to learn the nuts and bolts of a new workplace and a host of new names and faces, all while juggling meetings with the deal’s many advisers as well as the group’s top brass, agents and staff.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life!” she recalls. “But it is really exciting and fulfilling. And I feel honoured to be given the chance to expand the insurance franchise.”
Ho is no stranger to hard work, having gone through the gruelling training needed to qualify as an actuary. However, her journey to the lofty echelons of Singapore’s insurance industry goes beyond diligence. Hers is a story of success built on an appetite for tackling problems and being open to learning and listening. “I’ve always liked problem-solving. The more difficult it is, the more I enjoy it, especially when I manage to solve it,” she says.
From young, Ho has excelled at mathematics. At university, she was one of 12 students in the pioneer batch pursuing Nanyang Technological University’s degree in business specialising in actuarial science. The cohort’s gender balance was fairly even. But only four graduates went on to complete what are said to be the hardest exams in the world, to emerge as fully qualified actuaries. Ho was the only female.
“It requires persistence,” she says of the profession’s demanding path, which typically entails years of studying while holding down a job. “Many women tend to give up, especially after they have kids.”
Her technical skills and tenacity have been a springboard to top jobs, such as head of Great Eastern Life’s Bancassurance Business and chief distribution officer at AIA Singapore. She has also made a mark in areas like marketing and customer solutions.
In 2019, she was named Chief Marketing Officer of the Year by Marketing Magazine. The award is a nod to the people behind some of the best marketing and advertising campaigns in Singapore. Ho was recognised by the judges as an “excellent all-round leader”. What set her apart was her ability to mix art, science and technology to develop marketing innovations that centre on people, and drive repeat business, customer loyalty and profits.
While at AIA, Ho had led first-in-market programmes such as AIA Vitality, a wellness programme that incentivises policy holders to take control of their health. She also spearheaded the insurance giant’s iResource: The App to Rule Them All, which is a pre-sales toolkit for agents that also deliver high-touch experiences to customers.
Being open-minded and curious helped Ho blossom into a business leader. “I started in a very technical role but whenever I was given the opportunity to pivot to something else, I let myself try. I immersed myself in the role and put myself in the position of the people,” she says.
When she was thrust into marketing, Ho rolled up her sleeves to understand why people reacted to certain advertisements or to different visual cues. She did research, asked questions, and listened to customers’ wants. When she was in charge of distribution, she took time to learn what agents and financial advisers needed.
“I try to make use of my left and right brain,” she says. That has helped her become more broad-based and lets her connect the dots whenever something complex comes up. Moreover, if a supervisor or peer pointed out blind spots, she took it as an opportunity to learn. “I get to be a better version of myself.”
Today, as she oversees a company that has bulked up from 200-odd staff to around a thousand, she hopes to empower the people around her to be the best versions of themselves. She also hopes to create an inclusive environment, one which encourages diversity of talent and thought.
“I want to make sure everyone gets a chance,” says Ho. Women, in particular, tend to get stuck in middle management across corporate Singapore, Ho notes, adding that the goal should be to give female talent the right environment to move up. At HSBC, this is being done through programmes that give women in senior roles more visibility and engagement with leaders, mentorship opportunities and training. “I want to inspire more ladies to step up to bigger jobs,” she says.