Rachel Eng of Eng & Co: “Promote Diversity and Inclusion ”

Promote Diversity and Inclusion — at least half of the law graduates are female. I spent a lot of time creating the environment and culture to allow our female talent to thrive. When I left, the female partners make up 58% of the firm. This was largely due to the open communication within the firm about the […]

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Promote Diversity and Inclusion — at least half of the law graduates are female. I spent a lot of time creating the environment and culture to allow our female talent to thrive. When I left, the female partners make up 58% of the firm. This was largely due to the open communication within the firm about the challenges faced by the female talent and the willingness of the firm to support them to work through the challenges.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Eng.

Rachel ENG is the Managing Director of Eng and Co. LLC, a Singapore law firm which is part of the network of member firms of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited. She has close to 28 years of experience as a corporate lawyer.

Prior to this, Rachel was involved in the growth of a leading law firm in Singapore, WongPartnership LLP, over 23 years of her career. She joined as a third year associate and rose to be its Managing Partner in 2010 and then its Deputy Chairman. In 2018, she decided to challenge herself all over and started a new law firm, Eng and Co. LLC, as an independent law firm in Singapore which is part of the PricewaterhouseCoopers network. Notwithstanding the short history of the new firm, it has already achieved some early wins — receiving recognition as one of 5 Singapore firms for the Employers Choice Award by Thomson Reuters’ ALB journal, and a Notable firm ranking for M&A by AsiaLaw.

Rachel is a director of Singapore statutory board, Central Provident Fund Board and a Council Member of the Singapore National Employers Federation. She is also a Singapore country representative on the ASEAN Business Advisory Council and a member of the Appeals Panel of Abu Dhabi Global Market. Rachel was previously part of Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which published a report in 2017 to develop Singapore’s economic strategies and a member of the Corporate Governance Council by the Monetary Authority of Singapore which released the Code of Corporate Governance for listed companies in 2018.

Rachel was one of 25 women in Asia recognised by Forbes Asia as Asia’s Power Businesswomen 2020. She was one of the 10 women honoured in November 2015 by The Peak Magazine in its Power List 2015. Rachel was conferred the prestigious “Woman of the Year 2014” by Her World in October 2014. In the legal industry, she was awarded Law Firm Managing Partner of the Year at Thomson Reuters’ ALB South East Asia Law Awards 2011 and 2013, being the only person who has won this award twice.

Rachel has been recognized as a leading corporate lawyer by numerous independent legal publications.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I am a born and bred Singaporean. I read Law in the National University of Singapore, a local academic university in Singapore and spent my career in corporate legal practice. I married my college sweetheart and have three children. In the course of my legal practice, I travel regularly to various parts of Asia for my client projects, and across Europe, Middle East and the US to my overseas offices and to speak at conferences.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I first started as a rookie lawyer, life at the firm I trained in was harsh and cold. As a junior, my fellow colleagues and I were reprimanded for every minor error we made in our work. Our partners made it clear that we should work late, and they wanted us to work on weekends and public holidays as well. In short, we must not have any life outside the office. Today, such conduct has been redefined in our legal profession as abuse, But more than 25 years ago, senior partners in law firms acted like they owned us.

I felt oppressed and unhappy. I thought to myself — I was in the top firm in the country. How could legal practice be better elsewhere ? But, hard as it was, I could not quit. In Singapore, it took several years to secure a flat built by the government. In my first year of practice, my spouse (then my boyfriend) and I applied for a flat and had paid twenty per cent as down payment. I needed to work to pay for the loan which we took to pay for the down payment.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

As a young lawyer, I wondered how my seniors were able to stay late at work, night after night. One night, I walked into a senior associate’s room and found him reading a magazine. I realized that I have been fooled! Everyone was simply leaving the light on to show the partners that they were still in the office.

This was early 90s. I decided that if I were to manage a law firm one day, I will make sure that it does not have a clock-watching culture. And I did this in the law firm that I subsequently joined and managed.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In the firm that I joined next which I eventually stayed for 23 years, I enjoyed the trust and confidence of the founding partners. When I was expecting my first child 23 years ago, my senior partner offered me the opportunity to set up a home office. They had experimented with a female talent from another department but was excited that they could use someone like myself from a highly demanding corporate M&A department as guinea pig. Today, we will proudly call this proposal a feature of a firm’s D&I programme. But 23 years ago, my firm was already thinking of ways to retain female talents.

I went home to consult my spouse on the idea of setting up a home office, where the firm will set up a desktop computer, telephone line, fax machine (yes, we used fax machines back then!) and a printer in my study. My spouse said that he preferred that I had the flexibility of working from home when needed (eg when our baby was sick) but not to work at home. If I worked at home and our telephone line is listed in the yellow pages, we will not have privacy and there will not be any division between home and office. Eventually, the firm set up all the equipment for me, except the fixed line.

My law firm’s attitude in encouraging me to continue working even when I started a family and thinking of ways to support me in my work was instrumental to my ability to continue to pursue a challenging corporate legal career.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It is not easy to stay on top of the game and not suffer a “burn out”. Therefore, it is important to work for a firm who treasures talent, and who recognises that the talent has another life outside the firm, and is ready to work closely with the talent to find ways to create an environment that the talent can continue to produce the best output.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I worked closely with a colleague who is 5 years my senior. He is both my mentor and sponsor. As service providers, we often have to work according to clients’ timing. During the early 2000s, there was a dot com boom and companies were rushing to list themselves on various stock exchanges. We were expected to work round the clock for days to prepare the legal documents. Recognising that I had to look after my children at home, my colleague will show up at my meetings at night past 11, to take over from me for the “graveyard shift”.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

I think a good company will likely have a good brand or reputation in its industry and carries on a profitable business. I believe a “great” company has to be innately good. A great company is akin to someone who has strong morals and conscience. It treats its employees with care and respect, it practises meritocracy, and manages its stakeholders with integrity and trust.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Maintain Meritocracy — this means that each employee is assessed based on his or her performance, and not based on his or her personal relationship with the bosses. In our firm, recruits join based on merits. This principle enabled me to turn down the pressure from clients to take on their children on board as recruits where they do not meet our minimum standards.

Uphold Values — the firm’s values are tested whenever there are any major incidents. There was great unhappiness when a senior person was asked to leave because he was trying to hit on a junior associate, leading her to be unable to fulfil her work duties, eg taking frequent coffee breaks during office hours and missing deadlines. Several other team members did not support the firm’s decision and threatened to leave but the firm stuck to its stand.

Show Care and generosity to employees — employees spend a huge amount of time at work. Thus, the firm should show care and generosity in return. In the firm, we took the employees on incentive travel trips once every two years. In a funny way, the fact that the trips were free and easy (without mandatory bonding activities) made the employees appreciate it a lot more and achieved a lot more bonding.

Promote Diversity and Inclusion — at least half of the law graduates are female. I spent a lot of time creating the environment and culture to allow our female talent to thrive. When I left, the female partners make up 58% of the firm. This was largely due to the open communication within the firm about the challenges faced by the female talent and the willingness of the firm to support them to work through the challenges.

Communicate common vison and objective — we recognise that every employee is a unique individual and did not seek to change their personality, or their style. However, we focused on achieving a common objective, which is to be a top firm in the country.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Most things have become expensive over the years but telecommunication and travel have become more affordable. This has enabled the middle class to achieve a good standard of living. There is no longer a need to work hard for survival. The extra dollars earned by the business might not reach the employees’ hands and thus, presents little motivation for the employees to drive the business. Against this, businesses will need to present a purpose which the employees can relate to and serve to motivate them. For example, if the company is successful in converting its facility to manufacture surgical masks during Covid, this will go on to prevent many cases of infection. Employees working in such organisation will definitely feel a great sense of purpose and satisfaction, knowing how they have contributed to society.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I have come to realise that people generally fear change. If, however, the business has reached a standstill, the business leader has to take a hard look to assess which of the areas will grow, stagnate or deteriorate in the coming years. For the areas which are showing signs of deterioration, the leader should start finding ways to upskill the team to move into new areas. The business leader has to rally the teams who are still growing to keep up the work while transforming the rest of the organisation. In the short term, there may be a need to restructure the compensation so that those who are working hard to support the entire organisation are well compensated while the rest are going through transformation.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

During an economic downturn, the cost and competition to hire a star employee is lower. Thus, even while going through a difficult economic period, we need to have one eye above the horizon to look out for new areas of growth, or potential talent for hire. Bad times don’t last forever and thus, it is also important to capture the upturn when it comes.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

People management tends to be most underestimated. A successful leader is like a general of an army, who must know the strengths and weaknesses of each of his soliders. In many companies, people management is delegated to the HR department. Some leaders like to generate business for their organisation but find it challenging to speak to their team about their weaknesses. With such disconnect, the leader will not be able to assemble the team with the right attributes to complement him.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

A customer needs to know that we care for them. To increase conversion, we need to increase client stickiness. In order to fully track the relationship, it makes sense to invest in a customer relationship management software to track the engagement and conversations, not only for one team but across all teams.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I believe that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand only if the views of its employees, customers and stakeholders are aligned. In today’s world where everyone’s views, especially adverse views, are transparent, there is no way a company will be able to position its brand as trusted and beloved if there are adverse news on the side about the company. Thus, I believe that happy employees who believe in the brand are the best ambassadors.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Customers recognise that the company has many customers. However, if the company is able to show its care and concern about the customer in a unique and unexpected manner, it will definitely wow the customer.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

As consumers are relying on social media for news and updates, companies will need to be engaged in social media to connect with its customers. However, the company has to ensure that the messages which are put out presents a coherent and authentic story about the company.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

When CEOs and founders start a business, cashflow tends to be tight and therefore they tend to underpay employees. They might want to save costs by hiring less experienced staff when in fact the work demands more senior personnel. They might tolerate poor quality employees for fear of not having enough bodies to do the work.

I feel that companies should be fair to employees and for new setups, they should treat staff with even greater appreciation. I would say that good employees should be well rewarded while poor performers should be counselled out appropriately.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Having had a challenging career, I am personally passionate about supporting the development of female talent. I think if each female talent could go on to mentor 10 young female talent, who in turn goes on to each mentor 10 others, then in time to come, society will hopefully be able to address the talent drain.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow me on my Linkedin.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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