Veronica Lai is the Chief Corporate Officer at StarHub. In her current role, Veronica is responsible for StarHub’s Legal, Corporate Secretariat, Corporate Communications, Regulatory and Sustainability functions.
Why did you choose to pursue law and how did your career progress?
Back when I was in secondary school, I came across the book “The Trials of David Marshall” and was inspired by the sense of justice it portrayed. That was the catalyst that sparked my interest to go down the path in law. After finishing law school, I wanted to start my career at a boutique firm for more personable training. My professor suggested Rajah & Tann. While it was not as big as they are today, it had a good reputation as a litigation outfit with great mentors. I completed my pupillage there and started practice as a litigator. While I liked the challenge of it, I wasn’t sure if acrimonious work was something I wanted to pursue in the long run. I then gave conveyancing a try, but soon realised, that it too was not a suitable long-term career for me. My managing partner, VK Rajah then suggested I gave corporate practice a try, and that was where I finally found a really good fit. The training and insight into three different areas of law gave me a good foundation. After I became a mother, I prioritised a better work-life balance, which led to my decision to move in-house, and thus began my career at StarHub.
Do you think that balance can be achieved today in a private practice firm at mid-level or senior level?
Yes, it can be achieved, but it will depend on a combination of personal choice, the type of work, the support network and in large part, the level of ambition. The in-house role has also changed over the years – if I were to speak to my younger self today, I would tell her that working in-house does not necessarily mean shorter hours. Even at senior-level, negotiations can run till the wee hours of the morning for key transactions – the saving grace for an in-house counsel is that you can turn the drafting work over to your external counsel after the marathon face-to-face negotiation, go home and get some rest!
After joining StarHub, what kept you progressing within the organisation?
Frequent portfolio changes have kept the job interesting and helped me progress. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. StarHub was a start-up when I joined, so the bulk of the work then was helping to set up the infrastructure, which allowed me to grow with the company. I was the in-house Counsel who supported the StarHub-SCV merger when it happened. The IPO came two years later; in fact, my first day on the job as General Counsel was the kick-off meeting for the IPO. After that, we raised funds that enabled us to expand rapidly into data centres, data analytics and cybersecurity. The cherry on top of the role is learning about all the different technologies, which is challenging but also rewarding. Technology is constantly evolving and there is a buzz to be at the forefront of the latest developments.
What is the main factor that helped with your progression and allowed you to keep learning?
Opportunities came because the company grew, but I also had good bosses who gave me space and time to learn as my responsibilities increased and expanded beyond a purely legal role. I was fortunate to engage directly with our Board of Directors because I am also the Company Secretary. It opened the window to the formulation of strategies and the direction for the group. This really helped not only to connect the dots, but also expanded my insights on commercial perspectives. Over the years, my portfolio has grown beyond Legal and Secretariat. Today it covers Corporate Communications, Sustainability and Regulatory, making up an interesting suite of Corporate Services.
Did you actively reach out for these extensions of your portfolio or were they offered to you?
It was a combination. Certain additions like the Regulatory portfolio is a natural increment, because it is similar to the Legal portfolio, albeit with a slightly different lens and stakeholders. Corporate Communications and Sustainability are a completely different kettle of fish though, requiring a brand-new set of skills. I inherited an award-winning team of PR professionals and Sustainability experts, and for a while it was a curious situation of learning on the job, whilst working collaboratively with my new team of subject matter experts. Because of the way my portfolio has expanded, I became, by necessity, a more consultative and open leader. I think we've grown and improved together as a team. I am very proud that today, the StarHub Corporate Services team can support a complex transaction end-to-end seamlessly.
Have you had mentors throughout your career at StarHub and how have they impacted you?
One of my mentors is our first CEO, who is now our chairman. He taught me a lot of the management tools in my toolkit. He also taught me the importance of having the self-confidence to hire the best people, and to empower and rely on the team, while giving them space to grow. I believe a truly good leader is seldom just a subject matter expert but also one who can inspire and bring out the best in the team. Some of my other mentors are board members who come from different industries, so their depth and breadth of knowledge and experience have also been very helpful.
Do you think your gender has ever hindered or blocked your progression?
Yes, but to a large extent, it is self-imposed. StarHub is generally gender-neutral – if you have the ability, capability and ambition, StarHub will give you the opportunities to grow regardless of gender. However, most of my colleagues on the senior leadership team are male, with the majority of them having stay-home spouses to support them. On the other hand, as a working mother, the playing field is not quite level. There is a lot more juggling to do to remain a good mother and hold down a career concurrently. Did I have to take a step back or make some career sacrifices because of my being a mother? For sure. But do I regret my decision? Definitely no. To me, it is a balance that needs to be adroitly managed.
How do you manage that work/life balance?
We moved to be nearer my parents and in-laws when my three boys were growing up and having that stable support network is what gave me the peace of mind to focus on my work. My husband is also very supportive. Being honest and transparent with my bosses on my priorities have also helped to build trust and credibility. My bosses and colleagues know if something was urgent, I would be there and readily contactable. Otherwise, they respected the after-hours and weekends as family time.
Do you think there is a glass ceiling for women within organisations?
It's not easy for a female executive to rise to the very top jobs. Some of that is due to the natural handbrakes of our own makeup and maternal instincts, but the levelling has been improving. I think it might take another one or two generations before we can see even greater levelling, but the push towards greater gender equality is certainly moving in the right direction. There has been definitely better representation at the Board and senior management level, which is encouraging.
What do you think are the benefits of having a diverse team?
Diversity of ideas, age, expertise, experience, geography and gender brings different perspectives. Some people are financially driven by numbers; others can see the softer side; some can see the different stakeholder perspective of public or PR interest; and when we all come together, that's when you have higher quality decision-making.
What are some of StarHub’s effort in promoting diversity or helping women progress?
StarHub’s Sustainability Charter is something that we hold close to our hearts. If a position is open, gender is irrelevant; we only consider expertise, capability and track record. The StarHub Corporate Services team is a good example of an even mix of gender in roles.
What sort of advice would you give to aspiring leaders about work/life balance or taking risks?
When in doubt, give it a shot and try your best. If it turns out well, it would be a good outcome. And if turns out otherwise, do not be afraid to take a step back and say it's not working out, so that the situation can be tweaked or addressed. If you don't even give something a try, you might be doing yourself or the company a disservice.
What sort of advice can you give to other leaders who are struggling with diversity and inclusion?
Embracing the wider cause of diversity and inclusion needs to be driven from the top. For us, it’s on our Board’s agenda and part of our Sustainability policy. Promoting diversity and inclusion cannot be just a sound bite, it needs to be embedded in actionable HR policies so that it becomes a part of the hiring, performance management and promotion processes.
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