Dai Shi is the CFO – Group Retirement – Equitable Holdings at AXA US. In this role, Dai is responsible for managing the P&L of Group Retirement; she also acts as a strategic partner and collaborates closely with business heads, advising on the long-term growth strategy of the company.
Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?
I started my career in Financial Services in New York, where I took on different positions in various companies and equipped myself with technical competence and managerial skills. When the US market was going through a crisis, I wanted to expand my horizon and looked into opportunities in emergent markets. Three years after my relocation to Hong Kong, Argyll Scott helped me land my job at AXA Asia’s regional office as a Finance Business Partner to support the Southeast Asia business, and the rest is history.
Can you pinpoint when you first noticed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion around you?
That would be around 2010 when I moved to Asia. It was the time when you started to see titles like Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer which didn’t use to exist. I think this truly showed that corporations were putting an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
Having worked in both Hong Kong and the US, how have the different cultures affected your management style?
Cultural and social conditions play a powerful role in one’s management style which often at times supersede the personalities and preferences of individual managers.
The culture in Hong Kong is more on the traditional side, where leaders are put on pedestals and the staff needs a lot of hand-holding and direction. This calls for a more autocratic management style, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing as it is at times deemed very effective. Americans on the other hand value individuality and space, so my management style evolved into one that empowers. I offer them the tools and knowledge that enable them to become self-directing, then I would check in from time to time to give direction, and coach them only when necessary.
What one factor has helped you the most throughout your career?
Be original and don’t be apologetic about who you are.
How do you balance long hours with your personal life?
Exercise is quite important to me, it helps keep my mind sharp and energy level high, which often leads to higher efficiency and increased productivity. No matter how busy the day is, I always go to the gym. Even if it is just for 10 minutes, I feel a hundred times better.
Having an established team also helps. I find myself working less and delegating more. By empowering my team to make decisions, it takes some weight off my shoulders and allows us to achieve more as a team.
Do you think gender ever hindered your career progression?
I don’t think gender necessarily hinders one’s career progression, but personality does. Speaking from personal experience, when I first began my career in the US, I wasn’t very vocal about my career aspirations nor was I bold enough to challenge the status quo. Then I remembered to be my authentic self and have since progressed through my career to where I am. When you have a voice, you have a chance, and that applies to both men and women.
Does AXA have a female in leadership program or any diversity and inclusion initiatives?
AXA US has a Women’s Tandem sponsorship program which is designed to cultivate and promote female leadership. Under this program, every candidate is matched with an Executive committee member who will act as their sponsor and be personally invested in their career development. Everyone from my class (Class of 2017) is still here and has received some form of career progression or promotion within the company. That is a great testimony to the success of the program.
Any advice to leaders who want to build a more diverse and inclusive environment?
It’s no longer about recognising the importance of diversity and inclusion, but how we can achieve that. There is a lot of talk about dashboards and the mechanics of diversity and inclusion, but I think we should focus on how we can fundamentally change the culture and mindset instead. It’s an ongoing process that is driven by daily activities, how we think and act; therefore, I would suggest putting more emphasis on the human side of things rather than on the mechanics of it.
What advice would you give your younger self in today's world?
Do your due diligence, know the industry and what you are getting into. Talk to as many people as possible, be it friends, parents or college professors, get as much information as you can and form your own opinion. Once you have found your path, go for it. Be bold and take some risks when you’re young, there is nothing to lose but only to gain. And of course, be original and unapologetic about who you are.