Episode 8 - How to Lead Like a Legend with Samuel N. Tsien, Adviser to the Board OCBC Bank

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
November 30, 2021 | 25 min
Samuel N. Tsien
Adviser to the Board OCBC Bank

“I think as a CEO, you don't really need to have somebody who's got very deep technical knowledge, but the general knowledge who's able to pull things together is the most important thing.”

Leading is one thing. Leaving a leadership legacy that has a resounding impact on an entire industry is quite another. Sam Tsien, the former CEO of OCBC Bank in Singapore, accomplished the latter. In this episode, we’ll talk with Sam about how he did it, from leading the best-managed bank during the COVID-19 pandemic, to executing a seamless CEO succession plan, to adeptly navigating the Chinese banking market – and ultimately how he created a lasting legacy.

Sam spent 44 years in Asia’s banking sector. Prior to OCBC Bank, he was CEO of China Construction Bank Asia and president and CEO of Bank of America, Asia. Sam’s redefining moment? Early on in his career, he was transferred from Hong Kong to San Francisco where banks had already begun to embrace technology, far more than in Asia. It was in California that he learned to have an open attitude and to adapt to the practices of where he was rather than where he came from. Sam’s a man who knows his market—wherever on the planet that is—and that perspective is part of what enabled him to create a lasting impact on both Asia’s financial services sector and the world’s business leadership community.

From his start of his career as a Bank of America trainee to his roles as CEO of China Construction Bank Asia, president and CEO of Bank of America, Asia, and, lastly, as CEO of OCBC Bank in Singapore, Sam Tsien has spent 44 years in the banking business, much of it as a leader. As Sam enters the next chapter of his life—retirement—he reflects on the career that has left a lasting legacy on both Asia’s financial services sector and the world’s business community. 

We spoke with Sam about his early career experiences in Silicon Valley, how he led the best-managed bank during COVID-19, and executing a seamless CEO succession plan. We’ll also touch on how he significantly expanded OCDB’s business in greater China, and how other companies can better understand the Chinese market. 

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from Sam in this episode (edited for length and clarity):

Sam’s Redefiner Moment: Learning to adapt in Silicon Valley 
My redefining moments would be when I first took on an assignment with Bank of America to work in San Francisco when I was in Hong Kong. I had been educated in California, but I found that working in a new country is quite different from studying there.

I was also moving into a new industry, the high technology industry, and it was quite redefining to me in the sense that I had to have a very open attitude: understanding the culture, reading between the lines, understanding different practices. There is no right or wrong answer—it's a matter of the context that you have to put things in.

On banking today and tomorrow/philosophies and the future of banking
In the US I was pitching corporate finance ideas to major corporations in the higher technology industry, setting up CP backup lines. And then when I came back to Asia in 1992, I was crafting one-year tax loans for less than 3000 US dollars. What a change. But I realized that the fundamentals of banking are indeed the same, whether you extend your credit to a large corporate or to a consumer.

My view is that banking will always exist. However, it is possible that banking will be embedded into a platform of services and the platform of services is driven by technology. But I must say that banks overall are investing quite a bit into technology to prepare themselves for the future. And as a result, banks are not left behind for the technology companies to take over the banking service. Ultimately, banks could be part of the platform economy rather than banks as we see here today.

On dealing with stress
I think there was quite a bit of stress in the work I did, but the way that I de-stress was quite different from some of the people who go out to play golf or drink wine. When I'm in a conversation, I'm deeply involved in that conversation on that topic. And once I move on to another conversation on a different topic, I totally involve myself in that second topic discussion. I think de-stressing is moving from one activity to another activity without lingering on the impacts.

On the CEO succession process and  the first female CEO of a bank in Singapore, Helen Wong
Succession is very important for any company. In my case, I had been looking at succession since I assumed the CEO position: at what it is that we require for an individual to be able to bring the bank to the future world. That meant I had to define what the future world is going to be like. For example, it is going to be more technology oriented. It is going to be more regional oriented. There'll be more competition and there'll be more diversification. When I concluded that these are the things I needed, then we started to look for a successor who had that general knowledge, both internally and externally.

I think as a CEO, you don't really need to have somebody who's got very deep technical knowledge, but the general knowledge who's able to pull things together is the most important thing. And the people relationship is also very important—whether they're able to mobilize people so that they can continue to work with them as I move on and they take over.



Samuel N. Tsien
Adviser to the Board OCBC Bank

Samuel N. Tsien was Group Chief Executive Officer of OCBC Bank between April 2012 and April 2021, and was on the Board of the Bank until his retirement. He was appointed Adviser to the Board of OCBC Bank on 15 April 2021.

During his 9 years as OCBC’s Group CEO, he was also on the boards of all major OCBC Group companies, including Great Eastern Holdings Ltd, Bank of Singapore Ltd. OCBC Bank (Malaysia) Berhad, Wing Hang Bank (China) Ltd, and the Board of Commissioners of PT Bank OCBC NISP Tbk.

He is a Director of Mapletree Investments Pte Ltd and continues to serve on the Board of OCBC Wing Bank Ltd.

Prior to his retirement from OCBC Bank in April 2021, he was concurrently Chairman of the Association of Banks in Singapore, Vice Chairman of the Council of the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF), and Chairman of the Standards Committee of IBF. Appointed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), he was also Chairman of the Steering Committee for Singapore’s SOR and SIBOR transition to SORA. He was a member of the National Jobs Council, the MAS Financial Centre Advisory Panel, the MAS Payments Council.

Mr Tsien joined OCBC Bank in July 2007 as Senior Executive Vice President and Global Head of Business Banking. In 2008, he assumed the position of Global Head, Global Corporate Bank, and was appointed Group CEO in April 2012.

Prior to joining OCBC Bank, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of China Construction Bank (Asia) in 2017, and President and Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America (Asia) from 1995 to 2006 based in Hong Kong. He was also Asia Consumer & Commercial Banking Group Executive of Bank of America Corporation and was on the Board of BankAmerica International Financial Corporation and Bank of America Overseas Corporation, the holding companies of Bank of America's investments and subsidiaries outside of the US.

Between 1992 and 1995, he was Head of Asia Credit Risk Management of Bank of America's commercial and retail banking group in Asia. He was named Senior Vice President of Bank of America Corporation in 1993, and Executive Vice President in 1996. Before returning from the US to Asia in June 1992, he was with Bank of America’s U.S. High Technology group based in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was head of trade and manufacturing finance, ship finance, country credit officer, and head of corporate banking in Hong Kong respectively.

Prior to moving to Singapore in 2007, he was a member of the Hong Kong Banking Advisory Committee, the Insurance Advisory Committee, the Securities and Futures Appeals Tribunal, and a director of the Board of Hong Kong Cyberport Management Company Ltd, a wholly-owned organization established by the Government of Hong Kong to develop information technology infrastructure. He was also Chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers.

Mr. Tsien started his banking career with Bank of America as a management trainee. He was born in Shanghai, China, and raised in Hong Kong. He graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in Economics.

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