The WFE's Women Leaders 2020 - Agnes Koh, Chief Risk Officer, Singapore Exchange (SGX)

By: The WFE Focus Team Mar 2020

1. Can you tell us about your work experience journey? Has it been a linear path to reach your current position?

My career path was certainly not linear but I believe my journey has contributed to the success and fulfilment I have achieved in my career.

Being from a middle-class family with a very pragmatic approach to higher learning, pursuing a professional degree that offers greater job assurance after graduation was important. So I trained as an accountant.

After two years as an auditor I realised I didn’t enjoy the nature of the work and that I didn’t want to build a career in the accounting profession, so became an investment trainee officer at the Central Bank, or Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), to manage the central bank’s foreign reserves.

This was an extremely rewarding and exciting experience. Within six months, I had a first-hand experience of major market volatility and herd psychology with 19 October 1987, Black Monday.

Early in my career at MAS I had the opportunity to work on Wall Street for two years. Getting access to and working so closely with financial wizards and policy makers significantly expanded my worldview and understanding of global economic and financial issues.

When I had kids I took an eight-year career break to focus on raising my three children. It was a hugely fulfilling experience with intangible value that can only be measured by the strong bond I have with my grown-up children today. In fact, I believe my time at home with my children honed other, equally important, business qualities, such as my managerial and people skills. I became a better listener and had greater awareness of the importance to adapt our own style to different individuals.

I joined the SGX risk management team in December 2005 and so began my 14-year journey with SGX. Being out of the corporate world for so long, I found the first few months extremely difficult. However, my strong base in financial markets, abundance of curiosity and the willingness to work hard and learn new skills with the help of colleagues boosted my confidence and I quickly settled into my career.

2. Have you worked with any mentors or coaches during your career? And do you mentor or coach anyone at the moment? 

I have not personally worked with mentors or coaches, but I believe in the value of having a mentor or someone who can offer career guidance and advice. Even though we don’t have an official mentor programme at SGX, I am informally mentoring two middle managers. I have also recently signed up as a Financial Women’s Association (FWA) of Singapore Champion. FWA Champions include women in senior leadership positions to champion and support women seeking success on both the professional and personal fronts, who can effect change in their organisations and be firm supporters of Diversity & Inclusion in their workplaces and society at large.

2. Who is your most important role model?

Goh Keng Swee, the second Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore between 1973 and 1984. He was creative, courageous and a brilliant leader with great leadership skills. He was a behind-the scenes architect who had foresight and anticipated the future needs of Singapore. I admire and respect him for the courage to implement out-of-the-box solutions to solve existential issues for Singapore when we gained independence.

4. How did you know you wanted to work for an exchange or CCP? Was this always a career aspiration? 

It wasn’t a deliberate decision to work for an exchange or CCP when I re-joined the workforce in 2005. As SGX was a financial market infrastructure and the only exchange and CCP in Singapore, it had a unique role to play in the economic and financial development of Singapore. It certainly appealed to me that this was not just any financial institution, but one with a purpose beyond just profitability.

On a personal level, because of the multiple stakeholders and the different platforms that SGX operates, it is here that I discovered so much of myself; my innate abilities to learn fast, connect issues and offer targeted risk management solutions for the organisation. The opportunities to make a difference are tremendous and available to anyone. I find this extremely rewarding.

5. What advice would you give to other women who want to develop their careers and gain leadership positions in financial services firms? 

Be clear on your purpose and the role you play in your organisation. Your own career and progression is important, but also consider how you can make a difference to your team and your organisation. If you contribute to the broader success of the business, your efforts will be recognised.

Believe in yourself and never underestimate your abilities. How would you know you can’t do something if you haven’t tried? See every failure as a fantastic and precious learning opportunity – an opportunity that will prepare you well for a more demanding role.