Radical change agent

Zheng Wanshi promotes diversity, inclusivity, gender equity, and sustainability in the real estate space

Even Zheng Wanshi admits that her title of group chief strategy and planning officer at Frasers Property is a mouthful. But what does she actually do? Zheng explains: “My work is a lot about connecting the dots by developing a shared understanding within the leadership team and then collaborating with my peers to see how we can implement it.”

On the charity front, Zheng also serves as a member of the investment committee at The National Kidney Foundation Singapore and as an executive committee vice-chair of the Urban Land Institute in Singa- pore. If you think that is a lot on her plate, she is also part of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Singapore’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) executive committee; which she has stepped down since. “I admire the work ULI Singapore and WLI Singapore have done in promoting the advancement and visibility of women leaders in real estate and supporting the development of young women members as leaders,” says Zheng.

If anyone could offer words of advice for women entering the workforce, it should be Zheng. She tells The Edge Singapore at an interview at Frasers Tower that we need more female role models. She wants to focus on female empowerment to showcase more female role models. There’s something for everyone and there’s no stereo-typical form of female leadership.

She adds, “My sister got my eight-year-old daughter a book called Rebel Girls and it features 100 women that advanced science and made history. And it’s her favourite book because she knows how inspiring it is. The idea here is to inspire women coming into the workforce is you got to dream big.”

To find time to juggle her many roles, Zheng doesn’t watch TV. She says, “To most people’s horror, I tell them that I’ve not watched TV for the last 30 years. It’s not because I don’t want to watch it, I would love to but I just don’t have time for it.” Instead, she meditates and does a mixture of yoga, running and weightlifting to de-stress.

Here is more of what she shared with us:

What is your role as group chief strategy & planning officer at Frasers Property?

Firstly, a chief strategist’s role varies from company to company because the industry is quite dependent on the needs of the company. Management consultant and author Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” You might have fully done your analysis but it is about the organisation and the people, and how you develop that.

The last aspect is probably most specific to the nature of the real estate industry, which is about human beings and the built environment. Human centricity is a major focus for us. I’ve got a team that looks at designs with people and humans at the centre. And we work with our businesses as well as our corporate functions on how we can take on human-centric lenses to look at things.

This can range from something like customer experience such as how we look at our workflow processes, with employees as internal customers. It’s putting on that people-centric lens of looking at things. The real estate business is very capital-intensive. Every building or piece of land that we buy is an investment decision itself. And it’s not a small investment decision, given it can range from a hundred million dollars to a billion dollars. Part of what we do is decide which are the markets we should be in and in which asset class.

I also look a lot at the future readiness of the company. We form steering committees to look at a few areas because future readiness is a topic that impacts the whole group.

This year, United Nations seeks to recognise the contributions of women who drive sustainability. Why do you think women can drive such critical changes in the company? How do you promote Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) at your company?

Sustainability is about changing our mindset and what we do. From the World Economic Forum report, women tend to fare better in certain areas of leadership, which are better suited for driving change and stakeholder impact.

What that means is they gather the feedback from female stakeholders, so collective intelligence is the first. Secondly, there is a big focus on accountability. Thirdly, is also just being very stakeholder-minded such as statistics in terms of performance of companies. Countries that have stricter climate change policies tend to have a big- ger representation of female leaders. Look at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and the progressive changes she has made. Statistics also show that companies that do better financially and on the innovation front, tend to have more female leaders.

We have been very much focused on sustainability at Frasers Property. We were the first real estate SGX company to say that we are going to look at net-zero carbon. Although the role I play here is sustainability, ESG is a team sport that needs to happen at every level. It can- not be top-down as people in the organisation need to live and breathe it.

Using innovation, we can turn sustainability into something that resonates with our customers. Last year, we did a series of inclusive spaces which is focused on senior citizens. How do we look at the built space and give seniors a great experience and good quality of life? So this time around, the focus was on intergenerational dialogue.

For the second edition of Inclusive Spaces, we partnered with non-profit organisation Design for Change where we got senior citizens, school children and students of tertiary institutions together to see the lifestyle and the needs and aspirations of senior citizens and come up with suggestions on how to improve them.

To summarise, ESG must be at the end of whatever we are doing to deliver it correctly and that cannot be a topdown thing. We need to infuse it at every level of the corporate culture. Also, what do we do for our community investments? What do we do in our business? So, it needs to fit our purpose as a company.

You have cited your mother as someone who has inspired you. How has your childhood shaped the person you are today?
My mom came from a humble background and hence she’s very frugal. But what struck me as a kid was she was always giving money away to people on the streets. She would buy lunch for the old lady who is collecting paper boxes or give her some money. My parents were pretty hands-off. I was independent from a very young age. I did the household chores and if I don’t iron my own school uniform, I’d have nothing to wear. As a result, I learned that I’ve to be accountable for my actions.

Image by Albert Chua