A MEMBER OF the Who’s Who in the Asia Pacific region and named on BusinessWeek’s Top 50 List of the World’s Most Influential Headhunters, Kathryn Yap plays matchmaker to corporate high-flyers and firms looking for their perfect match.
Managing partner of global executive search firm CTPartners, she has placed chief executives, board directors and regional presidents for the biggest and most powerful companies around the region and beyond. But for the 19-year industry veteran, and not to mention, mother of three, the last 12 months has been particularly gratifying — with more firms and investors acknowledging a need for greater board diversity, the number of global boards who have tapped her expertise to search for new members has increased two-fold.
“These assignments have given me a lot of pleasure,” Yap tells us when she greets us in her home-office, the same light-filled, shelf-lined meeting space that is less office and more designer living room in which candidates can comfortably chat over tea, away from prying eyes. In this familiar environ, the tables are turned. The always elegant Yap is interviewee, not interviewer. And yet, the natural orator in her completely owns the room.
As she launches into it, our agenda is set from the get go. “The Asia Pacific region has really exploded in the last seven years, and all these big American and European companies now want Asians on their boards because they lend insights into a very big market,” she says. “I’ll give you an example. If you are a car company and you want to know the views of half the population in Asia, having a woman, from Asia, on your board is important.
“I really enjoy it when I’m able to put senior female executives on boards. Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of that,” she adds, steering the conversation around to gender — specifically the imbalance of women in senior management — an issue she is perhaps uniquely qualified to speak for. As Brian Sullivan, the New York-based Group CEO of CTPartners, effectively her boss, shares with us over email: “She has been very successful in what is typically a man’s world. However, she has never lost her feminism or her nurturing skills developed as a mother.”
For the next few minutes we talk numbers. They roll off her tongue with such fluency that one would assume she has a cheat sheet hidden somewhere. She doesn’t. Twenty one percent — that’s the percentage of women in senior management globally last year, she says quoting the Grant Thornton International Business Report. In Asean, it’s an average of 32 percent with both Thailand and the Philippines leading the way at 39 percent, and Singapore in the bottom half of the grouping at 23 percent (down seven percent from 2011). North America and Europe don’t fair any better with just 18 percent and 24 percent respectively of senior positions held by women, while only in Russia do women come close to holding up half the sky at 46 percent. Research by her firm takes the breakdown one step further to reveal that only 12 of the Fortune Global 500 companies are run by women. The good news at least is that these women — led by Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard, a top 10 firm — run some of the largest and most influential corporations in the world.
Since the binders aren’t actually full of women, I had to ask: Is it due to the proverbial glass ceiling? “No…” she ventures. How about drive, do women want positions of power? “I would think it’s about the same ratio of driven men and driven women,” she answers. So what is it? “If there is any reason at all as to why there are not that many women at the top, it’s because a lot do drop out when they have kids. Some return to the corporate world but find they will have to play catch up.
“It could well be the same reason why there’s more women in senior position in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines: Because they have help from an extended family network and inexpensive domestic help unlike in the US or Europe,” she goes on to explain, a point she also raised in an op-ed for The Business Times in 2011, which cited a Centre for Work-Life Policy study. In her article, she noted: “Ultimately, it is not possible to balance work and family equally — that’s just a fallacy.” Women executives spend their best and most energetic hours at work, only to see their children when they are worn out at the end of the day.
Like many women — Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer springs to mind — this has been Yap’s personal experience, too. “My kids used to say their nanny was Barney the purple dinosaur, because that was what they used to watch all day!” she shares. “But you know what, the funny thing is that at the end of the day, you can be a CEO of a $5 billion company, but when you get together with another career woman, you talk about kids. We talk about family.”
With diversity in the workplace — be it age, ethnicity, background, education and experience in addition to gender — now a hot topic, conventional wisdom even, boards do keep track of, and expect, headhunters like Yap to put forth candidates who bring something different to the table. “I have clients who specifically ask for female candidates,” she tells me. “But I’m very honest with them. I’ll say: ‘Let’s find the best person for the job.’ The last thing I want is to be promoting reverse discrimination, i.e. getting women into power when they may not be the right person for the role. At the end of the day, it is all about the right talent for the right job.”
Great leaders, regardless of gender, must be able to radiate vision and inspire people to greater heights, she says. They must be able to seize opportunities, be able to improvise with what they have and possess the flexibility to make things happen. But ask her to list a few international figures she actually considers great leaders, and she falls surprisingly silent. “There are a lot of successful persons I respect. But whether I like them is a different thing,” she says candidly. She goes on to name just one — Lee Kuan Yew. “He did a great job with a little island like ours.
“I sometimes ask the CEO candidates that I have placed how they became so successful. The humble ones will say it’s about luck. They say, yes I’m smart and do good work, and so have the others, but I have been luckier,” she continues. “For me, humility and kindness are very important, and I think a lot of boards don’t pay enough attention to these two things.” But you can’t take humility to the bank either, she acknowledges. “At the end of the day, we look at how much growth he brought. Did he increase revenue and profitability? Okay, he’s nice too, his people love him, so then it becomes a totality.”
Pausing, she adds: “The problem with my work is that we end up being so critical of a person. If I wasn’t in this line, maybe I’d be less critical.”
THE FACT IS, Yap hasn’t always been in this line. Many who are familiar with her professional successes forget that the 40-something who is fluent in English, French, Thai and Mandarin, as well as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese, is a trained immunologist with a Master of Science in microbiology from Oregon State University. Her career started with vaccine research, not a rolodex. (In fact, had her parents considered artistic pursuits as “useful” professions when she was younger, Yap may well have ended up as a painter or sculptor. But we will get to that later.)
She only got into executive search “by accident” in 1994, when a headhunter who had scouted her for her biotech expertise offered her a job instead. “He said: ‘You seem to know quite a lot of people. Do you want to try search?’” Yap recalls. By then, she had moved out of R&D into a sales position, and was practically living out of a suitcase as head of microfiltration at CUNO Filtration (now acquired by 3M). As her eldest daughter was then only three, she took up the offer. “I wouldn’t have had to travel so much. So I said I’d try it out. I thought if I didn’t like it I could go back to what I was doing,” she says.
At Templar International Consultants and later Russell Reynolds, she found her “calling”. Gifted with instincts, mental prowess, and an innate ability to be direct, firm, and yet empathetic — all at the same time — Yap thrived in helping companies achieve their strategic goals by pairing them with the right talents. That, and the conversations and mental sparring with “interesting, intelligent people”, after years in biotech sales, proved “fun”. Though trained in the life sciences, she took up subject-matter expertise in the fields of technology, media and telecommunications (TMT), boom industries of the 1990s, becoming a practice leader.
“Kathryn over-prepares and over-delivers. This comes from a sense of responsibility to her clients and her partners, and is done with complete self-confidence. As a result, people naturally gravitate to her,” says Sullivan, who recruited Yap as managing partner of CTPartner’s Singapore office and Asia Pacific TMT practice in 2007.
Even Sullivan, regarded as one of the top headhunters in the world, had to exercise finesse and patience and bank on personal touches when he first set out to lure Yap to CTPartners. (As it is so often the case in the search industry, finding a qualified candidate is only half the battle; recruiting them is the other.) As Sullivan once told Upstart Business Journal, for weeks, no matter where he was in the evening, at a meeting or on his way home from work, he would leave Yap voicemail messages. He would ask how she was doing, or quote an article on the tech industry he had read, until finally, he moved her. “She said, ‘My God, I have heard more from you over the last two weeks than I have heard from my boss in the last two years!’” he said. Four weeks later, Yap joined CTPartners.
The following year, in 2008, she was named on BusinessWeek’s Top 50 List of the World’s Most Influential Headhunters (as were Sullivan and three other colleagues). Individual reputation, years of experience, global scope of recruiting practice, accessibility and responsiveness, visibility within client markets and industry recognition were the factors considered in the selection to the list of the world’s top headhunters “who control access to the lion’s share of C-suite succession and leader-replacement searches for the world’s largest corporations,” stated BusinessWeek.
“If there is a difficult client engagement or if we feel we’re not quite sure how to solve a client engagement, we go to Kathryn,” adds Sullivan. But exactly who she has recruited or which firms she has engaged with is “confidential”, says Yap.
A frequent speaker at business and academic forums, Yap is also particularly well-regarded in China where her fluency in Mandarin has earned her countless speaking engagements. She also contributes articles to publications such as Forbes China, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and Singapore’s The Business Times.
A SELF-DESCRIBED “nerd”, or rather “a stylish nerd” as she corrects herself — she is, after all, known for her fashion picks that have evolved over the years from Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto to Lanvin, Armani and Valentino — Yap has always been bookish. An only child whose father was a doctor, and mother a teacher, she played the piano, and like the rest of her St Nicholas Girl’s School and Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institution) classmates, made all the right steps towards a future in medicine. For release then, as she does now, she painted. “Ours was a typical Singaporean family,” she says, “My parents never said, ‘You must be a doctor’, but they did want me to do something useful, and in their minds doing science was maybe more useful than doing humanities.”
While studying in the US, where she graduated with a double major in biology and French from the University of Oregon and a Master’s degree in microbiology from Oregon State University, she took up sculpting, continued to paint and even took part in the occasional exhibition. “I didn’t even tell my mum,” she says. A number of her pieces still hang at home, in the gallery just outside her home-office. One of the most vivid is an oil on canvas of how haemoglobin looks under a microscope.
Still sitting in her home-office, surrounded by framed news articles and magazine features that chronicle her professional self, she tells us the real achievements, the ones she is proudest of, have nothing to do with work. They are her three girls — Isabelle, 21, Nicolette, 19, and Beatrice, 16. “They had very little of me when they were growing up, but they all turned out very well,” she says, beaming. Isabelle graduated from New York University Stern School of Business last year and has started work with the Economic Development Board. Nicolette is studying economics at the University of Michigan, while Beatrice is in secondary four. When the girls were younger, Yap used to take them on bi-annual trips to Chiang Rai in Thailand, where they would visit orphanages and teach English.
“She’s a secretly kind and practical mum who’s full of wisdom. She nags a lot but gives a lot of freedom and encouragement,” says Isabelle, her eldest. “I don’t know why they say ‘secretly kind’. Maybe I look outwardly fierce,” Yap muses in response. If she does (and we’re not saying that she does), it can only be for one reason — Yap strangely seems to think she looks best when she isn’t flashing a toothy grin. Those who know her well do, in fact, describe her as a “durian”. “They say I’m very hard on the outside, but I’m very soft-hearted inside,” she shares with a laugh.
Our chat comes to an end when Beatrice, her youngest, rushes in. “Hi, I’m sorry,” the teenager interrupts. “There’s smoke in the kitchen, I think it’s a fuse.” Although Yap has the crisis averted in a flash, for those quick couple of minutes it was nice to know that however smart, accomplished and put together this headhunter is, she is just like the rest of us — life happens, and there’s smoke to prove it.