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Driving Deloitte forward

Released at: 08:06, 11/03/2018 Women in Business

Driving Deloitte forward

Photo: VET Magazine

Ms. Ha Thu Thanh from Deloitte Vietnam has played a vital role in the establishment, development and success of Deloitte Vietnam over the past 27 years.

by Duy Anh

An hour and a half discussion is just not long enough to get to know the personality and resilience of the only woman who has ever been a Country Managing Partner at Deloitte, not just in Vietnam but in its network of more than 150 Deloitte member companies around the world. Ms. Ha Thu Thanh, Chairwoman of Deloitte Vietnam, quickly makes people feel at ease with her warm manner. This is why the Deloitte Vietnam staff fondly refer to her as “Madam Thanh” when talking about the woman who has played a vital role in the establishment, development, and success of Deloitte Vietnam over the past 27 years.

Fighting discrimination

Ms. Ha Thu Thanh, Chairwoman of Deloitte VietnamAs one of the first Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) in Vietnam making significant contributions to Deloitte and the auditing profession in the country, Ms. Thanh has extensive professional experience developed and strengthened over her nearly 30 years of work in the auditing, accounting, advisory, and risk advisory fields both locally and internationally through different Deloitte’s exchange programs. She also holds key roles in various social and governmental organizations, speaking and writing articles on leadership, corporate governance, and sustainable development while promoting female entrepreneurship in an Asian culture with a strong patriarchal system.

She considers herself among the first generation of female Vietnamese entrepreneurs, and now represent more than a quarter of all entrepreneurs in a country that remains overwhelmingly male-dominated. Since the Law on Enterprises came into effect 26 years ago, businesses led by women have steadily and sustainably grown in Vietnam. And while most such leaders have overcome extraordinary obstacles to get to the top, their numbers remain small.

Vietnam is by no means short of smart and capable businesswomen. In fact, it outshines many developed economies in Asia in this regard, where gender diversity in company boardrooms has been found to be among the lowest in the world despite recent progress. Deloitte LLP, looking into 7,000 companies in 64 economies, found that women account for 17.6 per cent of board members in Vietnam; more than double the Asian average of 7.8 per cent, with developed nations such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea ranking near the bottom.

But do talented Vietnamese women always receive the recognition they deserve? “We can all think we are discriminated against, from policy barriers, where the retirement age is 55 for women, to the sexist prejudice of the traditional feminine concept, which has its roots in the challenges faced by Vietnamese women during wartime, of balancing caregiving and motherhood roles while actively supporting the war effort,” she told VET .

Despite such hardships, the effectiveness of women leadership is clear in the private sector, where only 5 per cent of 731 listed companies are run by female CEOs but where their combined market cap accounted for around 20 per cent of the total last year. “Female entrepreneurs in Vietnam are hoping that their strengths are recognized, which will allow their supporters to help them with greater access to resources to play a more significant role in the economy,” Ms. Thanh said.

Pursuit of happiness

Against the glass wall of her Ho Chi Minh City office, with a view out on to the statue of Tran Hung Dao and the Saigon River, are three vases standing in a row. The first symbolizes resilience, the second calmness, and the third peace. “I put the dark-colored resilience vase first because, in each of us, there will always be moments when we get confused and short tempered,” she explained. “Resilience helps us overcome those feelings. As such, you can stay calm and positive, and then have a mind at peace.” 

Though these may be common goals for many entrepreneurs, regardless of gender, balancing work and family is much more problematic for female Vietnamese leaders, especially if they must handle their family roles as a traditional homemaker and in the workplace as a modern woman. It’s a constant struggle to keep the business humming along, cook dinner, and just find a few minutes of downtime. “Your priorities shift based on your business cycle or what’s going on in your life, as there are times when you throw yourself into your business and other times when you just need to take a step back and catch your breath,” she said. 

For Ms. Thanh, working 12 or 14 hours a day and sometimes 18 hours means just a couple of hours for her family. “Because I’m super militant about being ‘present’, I make sure I go home with a fresh mind and enjoy time with my grandchildren and my husband rather than worrying about emails coming in,” she said. When she “needs to”, however, she heads to the kitchen and cooks. “My family may notice I’m in something of a mood, and this is how I relieve stress,” she chuckled.  

Sharing has always been a core value at Deloitte Vietnam. The Chairwoman asks her colleagues, especially her female colleagues, multiple times about what is most important to them and what their values are. “Whether it is your parents, your husband, or your children, think about these values every day, carve out your values, and then follow them,” she advises them. “Once we realize that, we can prioritize our work day for maximum productivity by setting clear goals, training and delegating to team members, and setting deadlines and then implementing systems to achieve them.” 

Under her stewardship, Deloitte Vietnam has achieved a host of accomplishments, contributing significantly to the development of the profession and the market and proving itself to be a pioneer in the audit and advisory field in Vietnam. It is now among those with the fastest growth rate among Deloitte Global’s member firms, while at the same time being one of the companies with the highest revenue growth rate among peers in the industry in Vietnam, according to rankings from the Ministry of Finance.

Words of wisdom

With Industry 4.0 knocking at the door, Ms. Thanh believes female Vietnamese entrepreneurs need a “new” leadership style and approach to catch the wave of opportunities and deliver transformational growth, but this doesn’t mean that previous leadership skills are no longer necessary. Quite the contrary: traditional leadership skills such as the ability to effectively lead, manage, and inspire others are now considered a bare minimum. “Digital skills and industrial know-how remain essential, but soft skills are also of paramount importance,” she said. 

She believes it is critical that female leaders prepare their organizations and the support functions for a journey of changing culture and management, which involves breaking with conventional wisdom and includes innovation and knowledge exchange among employees as part of best practice. “Wisdom has two elements: knowledge and experience. Business leaders not only pass on experience but are also required to remain up-to-date with the latest knowledge, of the new standards and rules the world is applying,” she said.

“There are two meaningless days in your life: yesterday, with all things that have already passed, and tomorrow, with everything that has yet to come, so today is everything you have,” she went on. “Learn to love what you have in your hands now before going for some other intangible thing that can easily lead to hopelessness. I tell everyone I meet that what they love to do is not necessarily the same as what they are capable of doing and what they can do.”

Thus, businesswomen should focus on what they can do and are capable of doing, which will eventually enhance their capabilities and make them eventually love it. Not that female entrepreneurs should give up on their dreams, as dreams nurture hope and strength and allow people to overcome the difficulties and achieve their goals. “Dreams, however, must also be realistic, so it is best to live the day, love what you have and dream realistically,” Ms. Thanh believes.

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