Dato’ Leanne Koh

Executive Director of KPMG Malaysia Dato’ Leanne Koh talks about what it takes to be a woman leading a man’s world

by Sandra Foo

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In today’s corporate world, the opportunities that arise – and sometimes the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time – can make career progression easier for some than it is for others. And when opportunity, luck and talent are all factored in, one can go from nothing to everything in almost no time at all. Unfortunately, success sometimes has a way of going to people’s heads, and making them forget to appreciate all that they have been blessed with.

But such is not the case with Dato’ Leanne Koh.

When we first approached the Executive Director of KPMG in Malaysia about gracing our pages, her immediate response was to express her own concerns about being the right fit for us. Whether from a lack of confidence in the camera (she has a mortal fear of having her photograph taken) or just an extreme aversion to the public eye, Leanne is someone whose rise to the top of the corporate ladder has not made her lose sight of her beginnings, and of the obstacles she faced to get her where she is today.

Leanne’s petite, diminutive figure belies a driven, focused woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Complementing her serious, no-nonsense approach to work is her fun-loving demeanor and candid, self-deprecating humor, which come off as incredibly refreshing and endearing, and makes it clear why someone of her talent and emotional quotient was able to succeed so early in life.

The daughter of a physician and a nurse-turned-homemaker, Leanne grew up in a conventional household, which played a part in her career choices. “I wanted to be a doctor like my father, but my parents told me that being a doctor would require many years of studying, that doctors work long hours, and that ‘you’re going to have difficulty finding a husband’,” she reminisces. “My mother always wanted me to be the kind of accountant who could go home at 3pm so that I could cook rice for my husband!”

In part as an attempt to compromise with her mother and hold up her end of the rice-pot bargain, Leanne studied accounting and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in law and commerce. Her early career began in a law firm, where she worked three years’ worth of long and demanding hours, before she joined KPMG, one of the leading accounting firms in Malaysia. Needless to say, Leanne found her calling in KPMG, as she has been with the firm for the past 14 years, and gone on to become its Executive Director in Malaysia, as well as one of its youngest partners.

Leanne made her professional goals clear early on in her tenure at KPMG: “During my interview for the job, I said very firmly that I would not wait 10 years to make partner – not knowing that it really doesn’t take very long to make partner in an accounting firm.” True to form, she was made partner in only five and a half years, setting the record for the being the youngest and fastest to be promoted in the firm.

“I got promoted every six months, and I think it was largely due to my personality,” Leanne reveals. “I like learning and doing new things. I joined the firm with the stereotypical impression that accounting firms are boring, so I was waiting to be bored, and I told myself I would give myself six months to do something new. So in those first six months, I got to handle the first Islamic bond in the country, and I got to deal with Bank Negara and other regulatory authorities. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had stayed on doing just law.

“It was very interesting, and it was a new area of expertise; I enjoy doing things that nobody has ever done before. Of course, there are obstacles and difficulties along the way, but in the end, there is a great feeling of satisfaction. So I stayed on at KPMG, and I’m very grateful that I did.”

Technical obstacles notwithstanding, Leanne does not discount the challenges that come with being a woman at the top of a ladder mostly crawling with men. “My profession is a very old-fashioned one, and male chauvinism is very much alive, but I was fortunate enough to have a boss who did not subscribe to this unfortunate creed!” she says with a laugh. “He allowed me to do things that I wanted to do, and I used to harass him for more interesting tasks, which he let me try as well. Sadly, I have heard senior accountants telling my junior employees that a family should have only one breadwinner, and that’s the husband. It’s something that will take time to change, because some people are brought up that way, but I just try and work around them.”

In trying to mold herself to this conventional profession, Leanne has found her niche in her approach to her work. “Most accountants prefer tried-and-true methods, while I like trying new methods – going into uncharted waters, if you will – and I think that was also why I got promoted so quickly: I was willing to do the work, and they let me. I have also been very fortunate in that my clients like me.”

This is made clear by Leanne’s hands-on work methods. “I’m usually out seeing my clients. My specialty is in tax planning, and I need to know what the clients’ businesses are, and what their plans are, so that I can work out how they can implement their tax structure in a cost-effective manner. I spend a lot of time with my clients, and that’s one of the better parts of my job: I love talking to older clients because they have all the time in the world to talk to you, and they have a lot of wisdom to share. They are very nice, and I’m very pleased that many of my clients have become my friends,” she shares.

When she is not attending to her clients or facing the drudgery of paperwork, Leanne enjoys simple pleasures like reading and music. “I’ve also started to learn how to pain, although I paint very very badly,” she laughs. “My way of distressing is my Honey at home… Honey is my Labrador Retriever! Some very kind lady found her run over by a car and took her to a vet, and I adopted her. Honey is at home waiting for me every day, and it’s funny when at night I shout, ‘Honey, come in!’ My neighbors must be wondering who the man is. When I adopt another dog I’ll name it Darling; that will be fun!

“I also like to meet my friends after work, and I spend my weekends with my parents at their house. Needless to say, I did not fulfill my mother’s rice-pot dreams; I can’t even cook very well!”

Given all that she has accomplished, the modest Leanne attributes much of it to her mentor, who serves as an advisor to KPMG Malaysia. “As a lawyer, I can draft better than an accountant, so when I first joined KPMG, I was always taken to meetings. I will always remember one meeting I attended with one of my partners and this advisor, at the Ministry of Finance. There were people from the Ministry as well as the Big Four (accounting firms), and everyone was there in their power suits and handing out business cards. And this man in a not-so-nice jacket was just quietly sitting there while the Big Four made their presence felt, but towards the end, a Ministry officer asked him for his opinion. He has a very soft, gentle voice, but everyone in the room just felt silent and listened to him… and everything just went his way.

“After that, I looked at him and thought, That’s who I want to be. I want to be someone who doesn’t open her mouth just for the sake of opening her mouth, but when I do open my mouth, that respect is there and everything makes sense. He is someone I’ve tried very hard to model myself after; he is an incredible man, and he is very ethical, but fortunately he doesn’t preach to me. Looking at the person he is and the values that he instills, I think I owe it all to him.”

Having been Executive Director of KPMG since 2006, Leanne says it has been an incredible experience, although with greater responsibility comes greater obstacles, particularly for a single woman like her. “In a position like this, you have to try and get out of the stereotype that you got to where you are because you’re a woman, or because you’re pretty, or worse, because you have relationships with certain people,” she muses. “Gossip like this does go around, and it can be very nasty. The same thing happened when I was conferred my title: the first responses I got were ‘Who gave it to you?’ ‘Did you pay money for it?’ and ‘If you didn’t pay money for it, who did?’”

Nevertheless, Leanne takes it all in stride. “I just have to try and prove to them that I got to where I am on merit,” she deadpans, “without having to go down the route of being a woman. That’s probably one of the things that I’m a little wary of; when I succeed in something I get SMSes saying things like ‘Woman power!’ And I always text back and tell them, ‘Please don’t say I did it because I’m a woman. Say I did it because I have the same capabilities that a man has!’ Don’t give me a position or a job simply because I’m a woman and you have to fulfill that 30% quota. Equal opportunity does not equal ‘because you are a woman’.”

After such a long career, Leanne still finds her drive and motivation in the people around her. “My mentor has always told me, ‘Don’t be embarrassed. Make sure that whatever it is you do, you won’t be embarrassed when you look back on it many years later!” she says with a laugh. “So I can’t cringe and say, ‘That’s not mine!’ The appreciation I feel for my clients and the satisfaction of a job well done, as well as when I teach my employees something new and I can see on their faces that they are learning, all keep me motivated.”

While her professional relationships are flourishing, Leanne has admitted that she has yet to find that same satisfaction in her personal relationships, even though she remains hopeful. “It’s hard to find the time to sustain a relationship,” she says. “And my career progression also became a bit of a problem; I kept getting promoted, and the higher I went, the more the relationships suffered. Maybe I’m still waiting for someone to sweep me off my feet, but at the moment it looks like someone is going to have to hold a broom to do it!”