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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E9: Conversation with Arapat Sangkharat, Maybank Kim Eng Thailand

What does it mean to have a role in transformation, and how can business leaders better prepare, motivate and inspire their employees to fully engage with their work and customers in a post-pandemic new normal?

Hear from Arapat Sangkharat, CEO of Maybank Kim Eng Thailand, in episode nine of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia, as he shares his career journey and learnings across Asia and the United States, what he looks out for in potential employees, and why leaders at the top must embrace the future and move forward to the new.

Don’t miss key takeaways at the end of the podcast, which include why it’s more important to be driven by passion and purpose over financial rewards, the need to take time to be reflective of ourselves and our qualities, and how taking chances allow us to really discover what our optimal career paths are.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.

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Charatsanan Holasutsakul: Hi, I'm Charatsanan Holasutsakul and I'm a manager of the Banking & Financial Services Division at Robert Walters Thailand. And today, I'm your host for this episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters. This episode is part of our leadership interview series, where business leaders, recruitment experts and career growth specialists share their insights on careers, leadership lessons and the latest talent trends. Today, I'm very honoured to have Khun Arapat Sangkharat, Acting CEO & Regional Head of Transformation of Maybank Kim Eng, joining with us. Welcome Khun Arapat, and thank you very much for making time for us.

Arapat Sangkharat: Well, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Charatsanan: Okay. So let's get started. Firstly, congrats Khun Arapat on recently taking on the role of Acting CEO of Maybank Kim Eng. Looking at your career history Khun Arapat, your career spans over 19 years in banking and consulting in brand name banks and consulting firms across Asia and the US. From starting off as a credit risk analyst at Citibank in 1997 to today, where you have been recently appointed as Acting CEO, what has been the most memorable part of your career journey so far?

Arapat: Well, my career - it's been over 20 years and I spent the first eight years in Asia working here. But then I moved to the US. I was there for 10 years, but I think the most memorable part had to be my journey back to the US. I mean, it was memorable because it was truly humbling. You know, I've all done pretty well since I came out of school; didn't have to give my hundred per cent effort to do really well. But I think when I moved to US, the competition was a lot tougher and the standards were a lot higher. I worked for people that I felt were actually smarter than me and the people who worked for me were more talented. So, it took me over many years to really work really really hard to catch up to everyone and get back to where I thought I could be. And of course, some couple of years later I got promoted to senior manager when I was in consulting. So, the humbling experience was probably the most memorable. And having to feel like I fell and I got back up, and then I kept moving. And so that was probably the most memorable part.

Charatsanan: Okay, thank you very much for sharing that. That is a very interesting insight into your career. And for the sake of our listeners and viewers, can you tell us a little bit more about what you do as Acting CEO and Regional Head of Transformation at Maybank Kim Eng currently? And what does the Transformation involve?

Arapat: Okay, well, I thought about that a lot too. What did I do all day, every day of the week, and most of the time it’s sort of trying to keep track of what I'm actually doing and how I am effectively helping to push the company forward.

I listen to a lot of podcasts too, and then watch a lot of YouTube videos, especially of icons of the industry. I think there was an interview where Steve Jobs described his days at work. He said pretty much most days are about just having a bunch of meetings, collaborating with a bunch of people and really solving problems and work with different teams. And when I look back and look at what I do every day, that's how it is. I mean, minus the surprises that happen throughout the day, but for the most part, that's what I do. I'm a pretty hands-on person - I think, as a leader of a company, you can't be at a hundred thousandth foot-level the whole time; you have to work with the people around you, inspire them in the right direction. So a lot of it is really collaborating, co-creating, solving problems together.

I think the second part of the question you asked is about transformation, correct?

Charatsanan: Correct.

Arapat: Well, transformation. It's not an easy thing to do because I mean, by definition, transformation is making change, and transformation means making drastic change, changes in fact. So the work itself is really hard. So transformation, of the way I think about it, it's almost being thrown in a maze and having to find a way out. In transformation, there's no - here's the start line, here's the finish line. It really is a maze. And so a lot of it is thinking what I need to do, but also doing it. It's both thinking strategically and executing the work. But in short really, transformation is different than just doing small change management projects because you're making massive changes across the organisation in terms of work structure it could be, in terms of strategy, in terms of your operation, technology and people - it’s all connected.

And so, doing all at the same time, that's what transformation is all about. There's no set order to doing things. What you do in one area will impact the other. So that's the way of transformation - it's fairly complex, but there are ways to do it.  There’s a madness to how it's done; order to how it's done.

Charatsanan: Okay, and have you always known that you wanted to do organisational transformation, and how does someone end up with a role in transformation?

Arapat: No actually. I actually wanted to be an academic, I wanted to be a college professor.

Charatsanan: Oh, really? Never heard you mentioned that before.

Arapat: I do like teaching a lot. But in terms of transformation, naturally I gravitate towards transformation over time. I mean, I've always been a person who sees things, and I'll look at things and think that it can be improved. And that's sort of something that is in the DNA of anyone in transformation anyways. You know, yes - things are either cup half full or half empty, but at the end of the day, it’s half right?

So there's always some way to figure out how to do it better. And so I gravitate towards doing transformational work in consulting, which required me to work across different areas in the company. And so overtime, it sort of became what I do, which is connecting different parts of the organisation together to make sure that the strategy is coherent with the ways things are being executed and the operations, technology et cetera. So it just came by chance, really.

Charatsanan: And I heard before many times that most of the professionals who are in the transformation or strategy or consulting areas, you need to have the curiosity as well. So do you think that is one of the qualities that is really essential to this role?

Arapat: Absolutely. I mean, intellectual curiosity is the starting point to begin the journey in the sense. If you look at it, we always have to find out what can be done, what can we do better. If we do better, what are we getting out of it? And that desire to learn more, to understand the problem, or to identify a problem - that has to be there.

Charatsanan: Okay. And this is leading to our next question as well. You have started your career during the midst of the financial crisis - Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. And now you have taken your new role as the Acting CEO during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is raging around the world. How are you and your teams seeking to tackle the current pandemic crisis? And are there any organisational and personal actions to be taken or learnt during such crises?

Arapat: Well, to be honest, I came two or three months into the crisis already when I arrived here in Maybank, but I think it is similar to many organisations. Many companies have BCP, business continuity planning. But when it comes to a real crisis, that's really the moment of truth. I mean, what do you do then? So it's all about having hopefully a command center to orchestrate the BCP plan. But also, something I've learnt throughout the whole process - that just like any planning, planning will always be incomplete; there'll always be a white space or a void in the way we plan it out. So, having that command center to prioritise, to identify, to solve problems on a daily basis and to execute very quickly is very important. But that's sort of blocking and tackling off from managing any crisis.

But I think with this crisis in particular, the people aspect of it is really the most critical part because we're talking about impact of people's not only livelihoods but lives. So in a way, this one's very different. So I think in the process of planning and executing, people have had to be sort of top of the priority list; whatever we do it's not about ensuring business continuity but it's ensuring that our staff, our employees are safe. That was the number one priority that we did. And I think in a way, this is really different than other crisis.

And in putting people at the forefront of it, we have to change a lot of our BCP as well - how we tackle it.  But that's during the beginning phase of the COVID crisis. And I think, we're a year into it, and here's another wave of COVID once again. So the next phase we're trying to do is to look beyond the crisis – well, how post-crisis, post-lockdown, whenever that's going to end, how would our business be impacted, how would our people be impacted, how would our customers be impacted? So a lot of work has to be done. It's an ongoing thing; it's not just one day and not just a BAU (Business as Usual) process - it's continuously changing.

Charatsanan: Okay, thank you so much. And beyond tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting challenges, what other major trends do you currently see or foresee in banking & financial services sector? And how are you preparing Maybank Kim Eng for other successes in this new world of the new normal?

Arapat: So, the question around where do we see a future from a financial services perspective - it’s been the same question for many, many years even before the crisis hit. But I think most would agree that when COVID hit, and we are still in a country-wide lockdown and global lockdown really, that has really changed people's behavior. I mean, we talked about Covid being the part where it helped digitised the entire industry. Because customers haven't really transitioned to digital; a lot of them have not. So with COVID here, things are very different now. So the way we engage customer is different today. But even post-pandemic, post-lockdown, it will also be different because people have been in this lockdown mode - things are not face-to-face, they're more digitally savvy, they've been doing it for over a year.

So it’s going to be a very different way to engage with customers. And also, we’ve seen in the US already, if we would look at investment for example, just very narrowly in the investment space, I mean, we see retail investors pulling their ideas together. So it’s the same happening here as well. With people being home, they're looking at ways to make more money for instance, and so, banking or investing from home is now a lot more important part of how they invest.

Charatsanan: Okay, and what are the skillsets that you think banking & financial services professionals would need to succeed after this new normal and pandemic crisis?

Arapat: So I think the skillsets - they have to be more flexible. I think banking have evolved over time obviously. But I think over the last 10 years especially in Asia, even in the US, it's a lot more digital that's one thing. So, as I mentioned earlier, the way customers be engaged, interact with banks are very different from before.

So I think the same formula to get things done will not work. And so I think leaders, we have to really embrace change. They have to recognise that the role is not to maintain the status quo. And I think with a lot of leaders in organisations, you can’t always teach us or an old dog new tricks right they always say. Well, a lot of things going on are actually new. So embracing the change and knowing as well that the key to figuring out the answer to how you want to move forward, it's really about collaborating and getting more out of your organisation, pulling the ideas together. So not all ideas will come from the management level, some ideas will come from all the newbies joining the company. So it's really about working together more.

And we really have to look outside of banking - all industries are being blurred anyways, I mean that's very clear. So having banking knowledge just on its own, without diversity in the way of thinking and knowledge, is not going to help.

Charatsanan: Okay, so being flexible, and also in terms of leadership, you need to have collaborations and be open to ideas from the newer staff as well.

Arapat: Right. And I think I will add one more too.  One of my favorite quotes, I often used even internally in our presentations – there is one from Socrates. And we talked about, if I remembered it correctly, the secret to change is to focus all your energy not on finding the old but building the new. And I think that's very telling. Sometimes the mindset that leaders will have to have - you can’t all look back at the past; you learn from the past but it's time to embrace that things will have to change. And you really have to be the one to lead the way, and get them to be motivated, and inspire the rest of organisation to really move to the new and not focus on the old. And that's harder to do; it's easier said than done that's what I'm saying.

Charatsanan: Okay, so the recent polls from CNBC to Forbes all showed a sizeable number of people across the world quitting or getting ready to leave their jobs in the coming days. And in the financial sector, a recent global Bloomberg news reported that even a 30% pay rise cannot stop junior bankers from leaving to join FinTech and investment firms, especially in Asia. Do you see that this is happening in your part of the world? And how are you and your team approaching this issue of retaining talent, especially in this new normal?

Arapat: Well, I think the answer is simply yes. I mean, obviously it's harder to attract talent these days to financial services, much like in the US. The question that we have to ask here is why are they leaving or why are they preferring to go to fintechs or startups? And I don't think it's only because of the chance to make millions or billions because really only less than 1 per cent of startups will make it anyways. But I think what I've seen is that many younger New Gen millennials, they're also looking to do something more meaningful, and they don't want to keep getting caught up in red tapes and bureaucracies within a large organisation; they want to be with like-minded people, people with a lot more energy, people their age too. So I think that in a way, startups and fintechs et cetera seem more attractive.

But I think from a corporate standpoint, we have to recognise that if we just throw money at them, it's just going to last a month. It won't be permanent anyways. It's just a temporary fix or sweetener. So, if you want to be inspired and want to do more meaningful things, then we really have to ask ourselves, what are we doing today? If the objective of our company is just to make more money, how do we inspire people to stay with us? And I read a lot stories about Elon Musk, SpaceX in this case, if you look at it, it's not just trying to send rockets just for the sake of sending rockets up into space, but his overall vision is about interplanetary species, that's what he wants SpaceX is to be.

So, that's very inspiring. So sometimes I ask my team, what are we actually trying to do here? Are we just trying to make money, is that it or something else? So I think a lot of times, you know being in a company, a bigger company that is not a startup, it already is a unicorn in a way, and if we just transform ourselves to become more meaningful, to have more purposeful work in what we are doing. And then of course, having an environment where it's not so bureaucratic, where it's more open, where we can work together, we're more collaborative. And it can be done, I've seen it before - when I was in US for many years, some of the big firms, they are more collaborative than many small firms in Asia. So obviously, it is doable but again, this sort of thing needs to be led from the top as well.

Charatsanan: Okay, so creating an environment and also having a meaningful purpose for the business.

Arapat: Right. Beyond P and Ls.

Charatsanan: Okay. That's very great.  And when it comes to hiring, what areas are Maybank Kim Eng looking to hire for in the market, and what do you personally look for in potential hires and when promoting talent?

Arapat: Yeah, so we're always hiring. I do a lot of hiring even before I arrived here at Maybank Kim Eng. I have really simple requirements. Number one is be smart - I don't need the rocket scientists, but I do need you to be smart, meaning that I tend to look at people that I call them ‘clean sheet thinker’. They're more structured, but they can work with a lot of ambiguity. The reason that's very important is because things are changing in the market. I mean, a lot of things like business models are being revamped on yearly basis, for example. So it's not that you have one idea that can run for next 10, 20 years anymore. Doesn't work. So smart people, clean sheet thinkers are very important.

I think the second one obviously is people with similar DNA to the kind of people you want to build, which is being hardworking, diligence is very important. Still is and always will be. But they also have to be driven to do something more meaningful. I keep using that word because it's not about money only. Money will always come, but it’s the people who actually want to do something that they're very passionate about, and so passion will always keep people working and they will also enjoy it. In a way that leads into a third one, which is people that take pride in their work.  I mean, people who take pride in their work are usually people that are doing something that's meaningful to them. So that's critical.

And I think the last one really that I often look for in people is those who tend to do a lot of self-reflection. You have to know who they are and what they have yet to achieve, and really what they're good at and not good at. I think that's really important because no one's perfect. And when people do a lot of self-reflection, it means that it’s likely they will continue to improve over time. Because they're always honest about themselves - where the gaps are, where they can improve, they're also going to work at that. And so over time, that's the kind of people you want to keep long-term because they'll keep evolving and becoming a better thinker, worker, colleague et cetera.

Charatsanan: Okay. So for you, first is to always be smart. Also, be passionate and do self-reflection, which will make them improve and evolve themselves. So now we're coming down to the last two questions. Looking back, do you think personal branding is important in one's career? And how have you branded yourself throughout your career?

Arapat: Very important. And the answer is - I didn't really for so many years, for decades I didn't. Even though my mentor told me that when I moved to US, he said, what's your branding Arapat? And I couldn't answer it. And then instead of working at building a branding, I still didn't do it after so many years. But it is very important, but that’s the thing I did before; I just didn't have any branding until he had to help me. So it wasn't really until I moved back to Asia second time around, which was seven years ago, that I recognised that maybe it's time for, since I'm starting over, it's time for me to build my branding. And so I started working harder at it, and should people ask me what am I known for, I have that I guess famous factor. So it is very important. If I had done earlier, it would have been helpful for my career and everything else too but to be honest, I didn't.

Charatsanan: Okay. And do you have an answer to the question now on how would you have branded yourself previously?

Arapat: Okay, sure. So on this, when I moved back here, moved back to Thailand obviously. And Transformation was sort of what everyone was talking about that time. But obviously, transformation soon evolved into digital transformation. And I do a lot of that too. I do a lot of business strategy, process improvement, organisational redesign - all of it is really part of transformation. So that's where I went with it. I wanted to be known in the digital transformation space. So I did try and build that brand not only within the firm where I was working for but also actively within the market – you know, speakers at events and et cetera. So after a while, that's what I became known for. But it didn't happen overnight.

Charatsanan: And that’s actually something that you're really known for - digital transformation. That's why I think that is one of the major contributions to your success and also as a Regional Head of Transformation. Of course, it doesn't come overnight, but I think that is a very successful branding so far that you have done to yourself.

Okay. And I think now we have come to the last question. What key work and life lessons have you learnt over the course of your career? And what has been the key to your own success leading to where you are today?

Arapat: Okay. I think the biggest lesson learnt has to be about passion over money.

I wasn't always like that when I first started my career. I picked to go into financial services because it was paying the best at that time. But it wasn't really my passion to be a banker. And to be honest, that was a mistake. Whenever anyone of us work on something or you're passionate about something you want to work on - you can work on it seven days a week, 24 hours a day, you still will be okay and you won't be tired. You still will be if you're driven by passion. And so I always say, it doesn't matter what the money is, if you're doing something you like, eventually the money will come.

So that was sort of the first thing that I've learnt. So these days I'm stuck in financial services and I'm okay with it now. But again, my passion is to do something more meaningful too, not just being in a company. So that's what I'm doing now. So I'm working on something I’m a little more passionate for. For Maybank Kim Eng, part of it is to democratise investing. I think that's a big deal. It's our social responsibility to make sure that people with lower income have an opportunity to build their wealth as well. So it's a lot more meaningful.

I think the second one too is, as I alluded to earlier, self-reflection. I look at myself a lot too - what I can do to improve. I mean, I try to be honest about myself. I learnt from people around me - people who are better than me in certain things. And I always say that people tend to overstate their abilities. So it's important to do a lot of self-reflection.

And I think the last thing I can think of would be that take chances and just adjust accordingly. It's a long career and if you don't take chances, then you really won't know what you like, what you enjoy, and what makes you really tick in a way. So I have taken a fair amount of chances the last few years, more so than before. And some worked out well, some didn't. But it's still a very great learning experience, and makes my overall career more fulfilling.

Charatsanan: Okay, thank you so much Khun Arapat. I think that is a very good advice to our listeners. The key lessons would be passion over money, self-reflection, and take chances.

And I think we have come to the end of our interview today and thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us. And it was very insightful session and I'm sure we have gained many takeaways on growing, excelling, and transforming ourselves and our organisation.

So thank you so much. And to our listeners and viewers, stay tuned for the next episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential and goodbye.

Arapat: Thank you for having me.

Charatsanan: Thank you.

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