Sara Roberts is a Managing Director, Head of Talent & Learning at Citi Asia Pacific. She is a senior, strategic Human Resources Executive, specialising in future-focused organisational transformation; leadership and talent development; diverse succession planning; and driving an innovative and agile learning culture and environment. She has extensive experience across many aspects of Human Resource Advisory, operating at a C-Suite level in complex multi-country and cultural environments including Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.
Can you give us a broad overview of your career before you joined Citi?
I’ve spent my entire career of 30+ years in Human Resources in three different industry sectors. I joined International Computers Limited (ICL, now Fujitsu) after graduation, which gave me a great foundation as well as the experience to operate offshore and work in different countries and cultures. From ICL, I joined Allied Domecq as HR Director, initially for Europe then Asia Pacific, based in Hong Kong which gave me the chance to live and work overseas for the first time.
What attracted you to join Citi?
It was at a time when Citi was transforming their HR organisation and wanted people from non-FS organisations and I wanted to be a part of that. The role took me to the US, based in New York. I remember being at a meeting in my first week and it was like being at the United Nations, with very broad cultural diversity, which was a real insight into a very appealing aspect of Citi.
And how was the transition from developing markets to somewhere as established as New York?
It was very interesting. Normally the advice is to change one thing at a time, but I didn’t just move geographically, I also transitioned into Financial Services. I had been in my role for about a month when I was asked to also be the interim HR Head for North America Consumer Bank whilst they completed the hiring process. I did this for about 6 months which was quite a stretch but classic Citi, there are always challenging opportunities if you are prepared to step up!
How did you make your way back to this part of the world?
In my head, I had wanted to work for Citi in the US Headquarters for a couple of years, learn the business and build my network before moving back to Asia, which did happen two years later. When I came back to Hong Kong, I took on the role of Leadership Staffing and Development Manager for our Institutional business followed by various Regional HR Advisor roles before moving back into a franchise wide Talent role. I moved from Hong Kong to Singapore in 2003 just after my third child was born and have been here ever since.
Having worked in many different locations, any advice on how to navigate through the cultural differences?
It’s important to listen, be open and understand the nuances of cultures and be prepared to adjust accordingly. It’s all about being effective in different cultural contexts. You have to be open to learning and different ways of thinking and continue to evolve to become an agile leader.
Can you tell us a bit more about your current role with Citi?
As Head of Talent and L&D for Asia, a core element of the role is making sure that, in alignment with our business strategy, we have the right leaders to take the business into the future. From an L&D perspective it’s about enabling all our employees to reach their full performance capabilities and potential. Most recently, we have been focusing on building digital capabilities, our workforce of the future, through innovative platforms and partnerships. I have a team of about 70 people across the region supporting approximately 60,000 Citi employees.
Have you had a mentor in your career and what value do they bring to you?
I’ve had a number of mentors, role models and influential leaders in my career and one of the great benefits I have gained is perspective, they have made me challenge myself to be the best that I can professionally and personally. My development as a leader has been based on role modelling the best of the leaders I’ve worked with and observed. It’s difficult to draw a line between being a good: boss, mentor, or coach, the best bosses are all those things. Personally, I think it’s a privilege to be a leader and have the responsibility to help bring out the best in the team. At Citi, we have structured mentoring programmes, but ad hoc mentoring also works well when the mentee takes responsibility to drive the agenda, this helps the mentor to focus on what’s most important and impactful.
What factors have helped you the most throughout your career?
Having the right frame of mind, being optimistic, resilient and open to challenges, and having professional and personal goals, that of course adjust over time! Risk-taking has also been an important element and again this can evolve at different career and life stages. I am always prepared to stretch myself and take on different challenges. I have also benefited greatly throughout my career from working with some of the most amazing leaders and colleagues, they have been my inspiration.
How do you balance work and personal life successfully?
There is no magic answer, it’s such a personal decision that you’ve got to find your own equilibrium. For me, it is making sure there is quality time with my family and balancing that with work. It’s not about the number of hours, but the quality and the relationships you want to cultivate with your family and friends. With three kids who have grown up very quickly, my personal experience has been that whilst you are the experienced adult it is still very important to listen and be prepared to adjust. I am very much the subject of reverse mentoring at home!
Does Citi have Women in Leadership or diversity programes?
Yes. Like many organisations, we initially focused on gender diversity, but are now taking a much broader view of inclusion. We have a number of key affinity groups globally that we believe enable us to create an inclusive culture and environment. Our diversity and inclusion agenda is leader-driven with Citi global Operating Committee members leading the work of each affinity group, which includes Women at Citi. When it comes from the top this demonstrates authentic commitment and ownership. In terms of women in leadership programmes, we have global programmes for senior women leaders that our global colleagues facilitate. In Asia Pacific, we complement this with regional and country programmes designed to provide our women talent at critical career stages with the resources and experiences to unlock their full potential.
Have you noticed any differences in terms of how diversity issues are being dealt with in the past and in more current times?
I would say a couple of differences are the evolution from a focus purely on gender to broader inclusion and moving from HR to leader driven accountability.
Have you seen the benefits of this increased diversity and is there anything else you are doing to further drive this change?
The trend is positive in terms of progression and retention rates but there is still more to do. At Citi, we use data to help us determine where we need to focus our efforts on and support this with our most senior leaders driving a clear agenda. Whilst our programmes make a positive contribution to progression and retention, there is no one thing you can do to crack the code, it has to be a multi-faceted approach with a clear aim.
Do you have any advice for leaders trying to improve the diversity of their organisation?
There has got to be authentic leadership from the top alongside clear and focused actions. If you can use data to analyse your current landscape and work out where you want to make changes and where you want to be, do that. Also, focusing consistently on the few things that will make the biggest difference rather than diluting efforts can often have great positive impact.
Is there one factor that really helps organisations make a transition to being more inclusive?
I would say true commitment from the top. Of course, it also requires efforts from the whole organisation in order to drive such a change, but having that commitment would be a great place to start and a strong foundation to build on.
Are there any last points you want to add for aspiring female leaders?
One common theme I’ve noticed is that many of our talented female employees don’t recognise their own potential and end up holding themselves back. One piece of advice is to be confident, take that risk and go for it. The other thing I have learnt is that people are generous with their time, so don’t hesitate to ask for help. Every leader has received help from others at some point, so it’s likely that they’d be willing to do the same for you.