Setting the standard

Mark Devadason is global head of corporate affairs with Standard Chartered Bank. And as a former CEO at the corporation, he is deploying sound management principles to the bank’s communications approaches  


mark devadason

Mark Devadason is one of the few corporate CEOs who has made the switch from holding operational control of their business to managing its corporate affairs function. But the former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in both Japan and Thailand has taken the move in his stride as he seeks to cement core business values at the heart of the bank’s global corporate affairs function.

Based in Hong Kong, Devadason believes that he brings to his role an oversight – and vast experience as a business leader – which equips him with a different perspective from the traditional senior public affairs practitioner.

Under his watch are a broad group of units including communications (comprising internal comms, media comms and investor relations), a head office-led sustainability team, and a wide-reaching public affairs organisation.

“I am not new to banking, but I am new to this function. As head of regions, every single corporate affairs team in every county reports in  to me via their country management. Worldwide we have the professional discipline which sets the strategy and then, in-country, we have the teams who deliver these strategies,” he tells PublicAffairsAsia.

With 220 people working in corporate affairs globally, Devadason has over half reporting in to him on a regular basis, giving him a round-the-clock insight to the global challenges confronting corporate affairs, government relations and communications professionals.

Now in his 26th year with Standard Chartered, the one-time graduate trainee who is expected to take on future leadership roles believes his wide range of experience gives him a different perspective. “For most of my time I have worked in wholesale banking, and have spent periods in consumer banking. I also served as group head of training and spent seven years as a CEO in Japan and Thailand. I have the ability to look at the core of our business,” he says.

The parallels

While his role is clearly different today, Devadason believes there are strong parallels. “If you think about what makes a good CEO, they will be passionate about communications and about internal comms. They have to ensure the vision is clearly explained. The CEO is the voice of the company – the first person the media and government will go to.

“All of these elements are actually in the job description of someone working in corporate affairs. What I am doing now is applying these core principles, which are highly correlated with corporate affairs, to ensure that my function is in line with the key drivers of the company’s country strategies. This is particularly so in our sustainability strategy.”

This observation leads Devadason to believe that one of the core principles governing the business is a commitment to operating “sustainably… with a clear commitment to good governance and with a mind to the way we manage our talent with a responsibility to our communities”.

Devadason says the transition from CEO to global CA chief has been “very comfortable” as he tries to apply the lessons developed over 20 years to SCB’s corporate affairs units. “Ultimately, whatever you do, if you observe some basic commitments, such as caring for and developing people, making sure people know what is expected of them and ensuring they are aligned and sharing best practice… if you can do this, you can manage any corporate function.”

To this end, Devadason implores corporate chiefs to examine how their companies fit into the broader social and economic landscapes which surround them. “Business leaders who view their role as simply to sell product will become dinosaurs. These days the expectations within communities – government, regulators or the people – are higher. At Standard Chartered we are a bank and we are proud to be a bank, but we know we need to balance that with the way we do business. That is where the harmony between a good CEO, management and corporate affairs function exists. Collectively they need to be driving the very highest standards of governance. And, now more than ever, they need to lead by example.”

CEO visibility

Devadason believes CEOs have an increased visibility and should leverage this internally and externally to promote good corporate values. “Video is a very important tool for the CEO. But what people do not want to see is a canned speech. They want to get to the personality. I encourage CEOs to speak naturally and to reveal their personality to staff. That can only be done by speaking to general themes.

Helping CEOs to reveal their true character through speeches, blogs, town halls, is a technique we are getting better at. I was filmed playing tennis with my son and walked off the court to talk about work-life balance. Being creative allows you not just to reveal some of your frailties, but also to be seen as authentic and to reveal your true character. This is the mark of good leadership, and good comms teams can help their leaders achieve this.”

However Devadason admits that an over-coached or over-spun CEO can have a negative impact on the broader business. “Personality-led company branding can create challenges. But the difference between a good CEO and a great CEO comes when they can explain the values and the mission of a company in a way that multiple people, if not all, can then in turn articulate and live those values.”

To elaborate on this, Devadason highlights Standard Chartered’s ‘Here for Good’ programme. “What ‘Here for Good’ means is: can a bank do what it must, not what it can? It is all about the spirit versus the letter… and through this we are publicly expressing what we expect from our people. And whether it is Peter Sands at the top of the organisation or CEOs in-country, we are leading with a public statement of private intentions. Shifting from being a good company to a great company involves those values being multiplied across
the organisation.”

To achieve this, Devadason believes it is important for companies to develop narratives – just as presidential hopefuls develop their own personal histories to connect with prospective voters. “We talk about stories a lot in our organisation. We cannot bring ‘Here for Good’ to life without explaining what it means. We develop and tell stories all the time. It’s like painting a picture. If you have a blank wall and paint it blue all you have is a blue wall. But if you keep applying different colours, which are examples, ultimately the picture tells a story.”

Standard Chartered’s story in recent years has been one of year-on-year growth in global revenues and profitability – a position not shared by many of its international competitors.

Says Devadason: “We are proud to be a bank which is doing well. We are very clear that one of our central missions is to continue being a successful financial organisation. But we are clear that we want to do this in a way which is considered to be the right way to behave in the wider community. We do not just want to turn a profit at all expenses. We can never claim we are perfect, there will always be mistakes, but when there are, you are judged by how you respond, how long it takes to apologise, and how genuine you are in that response.”

Community spirit

Recognising that being a good business itself equates to good business, Devadason reflects on his own community as some of the most valuable moments in his career. While he disagrees with moves to make CSR mandatory – “how can you force a company which is making losses and fighting for its survival to do good things?” – he is confident that there is a return on investment, both internally and externally. And while he is dismissive of CSR projects which result in “wealthy bankers flying business class half way around the world so they can paint a school”, he is a strong advocate of corporations assisting with social problems.

“The thing that makes you come back to work and the thing which differentiates one company from another is the balance between your core business and your external engagement. The one thing I am proud of is that our community work is focused. I have been in this company for a long time, but it is only in the last 15 years that we have been focused around focused programmes, such as ‘Seeing is Believing’ and our work on living with HIV.”

To conclude, Devadason returns to core financial arguments. The strongest societies, he suggests, will be achieved when companies develop long-term, successful business strategies which “adapt and change” while keeping people in employment and, in turn, driving economic and social development. But for Standard Chartered, he concludes that commitment in, and of, itself is not enough.

“When we thought about our brand promise, it was at the very moment when the world was hating banks, at the depths of the financial crisis. So for a bank to put out a promise about being ‘here for good’ was not something we did lightly. We were conscious that we raised expectations and once you make that statement you are judged to a higher standard. If we lose sleep over one thing, I would say it is about ensuring that we live up to those standards which we ourselves have set. And it is my function, the corporate affairs function, which has the responsibility to keep communicating that message, internally and externally, to ensure people fully understand just how serious we are about this.”

Mark Devadason was in conversation with PublicAffairsAsia’s Executive Director Craig Hoy

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