Published on 13 Sep 2022

Leadership and the Future of Banking

NBS Knowledge Lab Dean's Distinguished Speaker Series with Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group

In the 2022 edition of the NBS Knowledge Lab Dean's Distinguished Speaker Series held on 25 August 2022, Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group discussed his leadership experiences particularly in rapidly changing business environments and his vision for the future of banking.  

Moderated by Professor Christina Soh, Dean of Nanyang Business School, the hybrid event held at the Nanyang auditorium and online via Zoom attracted the interest of over 1,000 people across 27 countries.

Understanding leadership fundamentals

Beginning with a personal sharing on his development as a leader, Mr Gupta said that leadership is an acquired skill.

Skills can be picked up along the way but it is important for leaders to have a worldview and to seek external stimulus as a leader, since no one can develop perspectives in a vacuum.

 In particular, Mr Gupta shared the four fundamentals of effective leadership:

(1) Develop a strategy and vision – having a point of view and laying a course of action for it;

(2) Ensure alignment – inspiring people to work together under a common vision;

(3) Manage business systems – ensuring the organisation has the capacity to achieve its vision; and

(4) Learn to understand and shape culture – developing the company’s culture based on its ethos.


Changing organisational culture

With regards to undertaking the right moves to impact positive cultural change over the past 10 years, Mr Gupta admitted that he could not have foreseen the success back then.

 But he knew then that the bank needed to fix its customer experience as getting the customer equation right would at the same time change mindset.

Introducing the notion of “culture by design”, Mr Gupta shared how DBS created nudges (such an awards system) to encourage employees towards more entrepreneurial behaviours.

For example, when employees take risks to try out new ways of getting things done better but end up making mistakes, they should not be rebuked or punished.

Although there will always be concerns with employees who are unwilling or unable to change, Mr Gupta did not believe that an older person cannot adapt to changes.

Referring to how smartphones have changed people’s personal lives, he said that if people are willing to make changes in their personal lives, they are capable of making changes in their professional lives, too.

The only reason employees are not able to make changes in their professional lives is due to lack support from the company.

They either get no help or they are conscious of the repercussions of taking risks and making mistakes. To address this, DBS consciously creates conditions for learning, such as setting up hackathons, so that employees can learn from youths in start-up projects.

Naturally, cultural changes also come with structural changes and DBS deals with manpower issues through reskilling. In 2016, the bank worked with the union to discuss how the 1,600 employees that they had to dislocate could be reskilled. Since then, 1,200 people have been relocated and about 1,000 of them have switched to new roles and jobs in the system.

For those who do remain with the organisation, the “change journey” can be exhausting. To keep employees’ energy levels up, Mr Gupta pointed out that people are energised when they think they are winning and so it is useful to concentrate on the small things, such as organising regular parties and building the idea of fun into the bank’s value system.

Becoming a leader of the future

Even as rapid changes take place in the business environment, Mr Gupta said that the fundamentals of leadership are immutable. The expression of leadership style, though, must evolve.

For the longest time, firms have been working with a hierarchical structure but with today’s technology and freely available information, there is no longer a need to lead this way. Instead, firms can be managed horizontally.

In addition, leadership in the future cannot be about making predictions. Instead, it should be about adaptability, being able to respond to constantly changing stimuli, and having the appetite for failure. Leaders would also have to acquire a wide range of knowledge and have the capacity to connect dots.

The 5’I’s

Mr Gupta shared his Five ‘I’s for leadership success: Individual accountability, Initiative, Innovation, Inspiration, and Intent or purpose. He said this management mantra would also benefit students and recent graduates who are taking their first steps in their careers.

Communication skills will be important in the future and individuals should also have clarity about what they want to achieve in life and how that aligns with the company’s vision, he added.  

Mr Gupta reiterated the need for people to take risks because staying in one’s comfort zone would set someone in their ways.  

Of course, risks do not always work out, and this was the case for him when he took a hiatus from his banking career in 2000. He had then decided on a start-up IT business that eventually failed.  

Despite the setback, Mr Gupta felt that the experience helped changed his capacity to take risks because he then took another risk to return to Singapore to lead DBS. “Individuals should have more confidence in themselves and focus less on personal achievement outcomes,” he said.

Technology and sustainability

Addressing the issue of digitalisation and sustainability, Mr Gupta said that technology will power the new sustainable world as it has a major role to play in reimagining all systems in a low carbon-intensive world.

For example, digitalisation helps with the measurement and validation of carbon footprint, provides transparency, and facilitates carbon credit exchanges.

Mr Gupta said he is optimistic about technology’s relationship to banking. While traditional banking has been built around the hub and spoke model due to the need for a central record keeper, the hub is no longer needed with a distributed ledger.

Everybody can now keep track of everything digitally, and this creates possibilities for everybody to operate with one another. For example, stakeholders in trade and finance will no longer need to track ownership transfers through paper movement and blockchain, for example, allows all to have a common line of sight.

While technology may seem like a threat to incumbent banks, Mr Gupta is confident that the winners will be the ones who get the customer experience right.

The future may see a mix of different banking services but technology will be the common tool, and the difference will be about adaptability and the capacity to know how to manage differently. 


Watch the webinar