For Poonam Singh, managing partner for Risk Advisory at Deloitte Canada and Chile, harnessing global, multi-disciplinary expertise to solve complex, varied and topical business issues is the part of her job that gets her up in the morning.
“I absolutely love identifying, tackling and solving client issues,” she says, “and at the same time, knitting together the deep and diverse expertise of our teams.”
Poonam has worked at Deloitte for more than 16 years. In her current role, she sets the strategy and vision for Risk Advisory, one of Deloitte’s key businesses, across Canada and Chile—leading 150 partners and directors and more than 1,400 people, and helping drive the firm’s growth. In her role, Poonam sits on the Canadian Executive team and the Global Executive team for Risk Advisory.
She is also among a group of incredible Women in Risk Advisory being honored at Deloitte, a reflection of her inspiring leadership, litany of accomplishments (both within Deloitte and for clients across sectors), actions to champion gender diversity in the workforce and much more. Through her achievements, mentorship and commitment to inclusion, Poonam has helped elevate the risk profession, as well as opportunities for other women in the field.
A fortuitous career journey
Interestingly, Poonam notes that she entered the risk field somewhat “by accident,” beginning her career in audit. This was quickly followed by years of driving change and transformation within the finance function—both within a Fortune 500 company and through consulting. Shortly after Poonam was hired by Deloitte in an advisory role, a partner suggested she apply her skill set to the then-burgeoning business of risk management… “and the rest is history,” Poonam says.
Since that point, Poonam went on to found Deloitte’s Cost Recovery and Containment practice for the Energy and Resources sector in Calgary, Canada. The practice became a hub to serve global energy companies, helping them maximise value from their contractual commitments and drive performance. Poonam has since served as lead client service partner for large oil and gas companies as well. Today, in her role as managing partner, Poonam sets the vision and strategy to build a “Category of One” business—defining its market, as the foremost (and often only) player—for Deloitte’s Risk Advisory practice across Canada and Chile.
Evolution in the industry
Poonam’s many years of experience have given her perspective into trends and changes within the profession of risk management, a field that used to be driven by the needs of regulators. But now, as Poonam notes, companies must demonstrate responsibility to a wider variety of stakeholders, such as their employees, communities and shareholders, to name a few.
“So the evolution of why you’re doing things and the lens you’re applying, have changed. This also means the types of risks you’re evaluating are constantly evolving as well,” Poonam says.
And in today’s digital, social and highly connected world, companies’ actions and reactions are amplified, the pace of disruption has accelerated and previously disparate risks become more correlated. This necessitates a more collaborative business approach—along with the need to balance ensuring compliance with driving organisational performance and creating differentiated experiences for clients and employees alike, according to Poonam.
“Historically, at Deloitte, we were brought in to interpret and help organisations comply with complex legislation and regulation. But now, it’s more than that,” Poonam explains. “It’s looking at how to use regulatory pressure to drive greater efficiencies and improvements in business processes and operating models. So, the transition from being an adviser or auditor to a partner with our clients, where we are co-investing in solution development, has been an exciting one.”
Day in the life
Today, Poonam spends a good deal of time shaping Deloitte’s agenda and top deals in key sectors such as government, energy, technology, financial services and consumer business. She also advises clients—helping them, for example, “understand what their cyber strategy should be. We look at how to best optimise their use of technology, create efficiencies and elevate strategies even beyond systems reliability—to ensure they’re continuing to improve and evolve on their threat intelligence and existing cyber capabilities.”
Purpose and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) programmes represent other key priorities for clients now, Poonam says, across all markets and sectors.
“We’re helping on multiple fronts,” Poonam explains. “One is around how to better inform regulation that will make a dent but isn’t counter to business. We’re also working with organisations to set strategies around their net zero journeys, and track, measure and monitor performance. The even more exciting part is helping businesses innovate—using the notion of ESG to create transformation within operations and to ground the ESG and corporate strategy agenda into purpose. We then help clients activate their purpose across their business processes, employee engagement and stakeholder management processes.”
And nowadays, when Poonam is crafting strategy, collaborating on solutions, or leading an all-hands call with 2,000+ people, there’s sometimes a cackling baby in the background (usually offscreen)!
Poonam learned she was pregnant with her daughter, her firstborn, in March 2020—making for a stressful first trimester. The global pandemic had just hit and as a leader, she needed to help shift the business to remote work, while helping clients adjust to new workstyles and risks. She was living by herself at the time as well, with her husband working in England.
During her pregnancy and as Poonam transitioned into maternity leave, she felt fortunate to have the support of a talented and cohesive team. “My biggest epiphany was if you have an amazing team that you’ve built, invested in and can trust, it gives you the opportunity to step back—whether it’s for maternity leave, paternity leave, sabbatical, whatever you want to do. It gives you that mental space to do what’s needed, as you have built trust with your team.”
She also notes, “I hope I have the opportunity, in the future, to step in for my own executive team so they can take time off to pursue what matters to them outside of work. I strongly believe in paying it forward.”
In Poonam’s role, taking maternity leave was nearly unprecedented; in large part, her predecessors have been men and leaders who are typically older. But she hopes her taking leave helped legitimatise the process for other current and aspiring female leaders.
Pandemic silver linings
With a 14-month-old at home, Poonam also says she’s undergone an energy shift—making her feel calmer and more inclined to “let the small stuff go,” while being hyper-focussed on priorities. And when her daughter occasionally drops in to coo on calls, people have gotten a window into an additional dimension in her life.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she says. “We never use to show that part of our lives. And now I’m, virtually, in the living rooms and bedrooms of my colleagues, which I’ve never been in before. We’re having real conversations about what’s happening and how best to support each other. I love the fact that we’re becoming more authentic and real about who we are, as people.”
With the pandemic driving a work-from-home environment, Poonam is also grateful to have had more time to spend with her baby and witness milestones.
“Before, I would have been travelling frequently,” Poonam says. “It was a badge of honour to fly to Singapore for an hour-long meeting.”
But COVID has forced businesses to reset processes and expectations—and in many cases, it’s brought positive changes that will persist.
“Now we have the mindset, if we can do it remotely, we should do it remotely—which is a great way to reduce our carbon footprint,” Poonam says. “We’re also very conscious about maintaining more flexibility in the future to enable that effective work-life integration.”
Poonam notes that becoming a mother has also given her another point of connection with other leaders, providing shared experiences that help strengthen relationships.
“It can be very daunting because of the things people bond on,” Poonam says. “I started off in oil and gas, which is very male-dominated. And I’m not from Canada, the country I work in; I was born in India and raised in many countries around the world. There isn’t a huge expat community in Canada—people choose to live and work close to where they grew up. I think people find when you’re different, it can be more difficult to connect with you; you have to work a bit harder.”
“When I was growing up in business, women were sent to golf clinics,” she continues, “so they could learn and level the playing field. I never bought into it. I just thought, humans have to go deeper than golf; people are deeper than that.”
But searching for common ground pays off, Poonam says.
“It can be intimidating to say, ‘I’m not part of this or part of that.’ But I think it’s important to define what you’re passionate about and look for commonalities with peers and clients. I’ll be honest; it takes more effort because you have to get to know people at a deeper level. For me, I’ve always connected with others who like to solve complex things, are dynamic, are interested in learning and seeking better solutions with a human dimension, are passionate about the responsibility aspect of business and have a global perspective.”
In fact, that broad, global outlook is something Poonam recommends—both for strengthening connections and enhancing careers.
“To be successful in business today, for men and women both, I think it’s important to get a global perspective,” she says. “It can give you an outlook that’s more human, more empathetic, more progressive. For me, it made me a better thinker, better professional and better leader, because I can work with a diverse workforce and understand where they’re coming from, what motivates them. When you have to live, establish yourself and do day-to-day activities, like buy groceries, in a country you didn’t grow up in, it makes you resilient and connected and makes you want to go deeper with your relationships.”
Increasing the presence of women in business
Through actions large and small, Poonam is committed to helping more women enter the field of risk. She represents Canada on Deloitte’s global Women in Leadership Council for Risk Advisory, with a goal to accelerate the development of women at all levels and, in particular, drive gender parity among leadership.
And within the practices she manages, Poonam has found that actions such as blinding resumes during the initial screening process have helped promote greater diversity. Her team also works with an executive-level recruiter who focusses specifically on female leadership hires.
“We believe having more women around the table will make us solve complex business problems more innovatively, more creatively,” Poonam says. “We believe it provides greater resilience in our workforce, bringing a combination of empathy, intellect and compassion.”
To promote greater gender diversity, Poonam also encourages female leaders to spend time with younger counterparts and be a visible presence in their fields.
“Role modelling is important, because there’s that sense that what you see is what you can be,” Poonam says. “Oftentimes, you have to find that capacity to realise, even though you don’t see someone like yourself, could you be that for someone else?”
Careers in risk
For women (and men) considering a career in risk, Poonam wants them to know that deep domain expertise isn’t a prerequisite.
“We like to hire for aptitude,” she says. “We’re looking for a great deal of entrepreneurship. So, candidates who are self-starters, take on different projects and are intellectually and pathologically curious.”
While historically, many risk professionals had business or accounting degrees, the risk landscape has significantly broadened over the years.
“The skills are so diverse because the types of problems you’re solving for are diverse,” Poonam shares. “No matter what you studied, are you willing to learn? Are you great with people? Do you want to work in a team environment? Those things are non-negotiable; other areas can be taught.”
A look toward the future
In recent years, the business landscape has changed to be more inclusive of women in traditionally male-dominated fields, Poonam says, noting there’s still more work to be done.
“I remember my first audit committee meeting many years ago; I was the only woman, other than the paralegal taking notes,” she shares. “The moment I stood up from the table, everyone else did too. And it was just awkward.”
“But now,” Poonam continues, “it’s an extraordinary time for women to be in risk and in business. Women can see themselves in not just one woman, but in many, actually. Younger women can see that not only am I no longer the only woman at the table, I’m one of many. And there’s great connectedness among my female peers and colleagues. That’s what I’m harnessing. We’re confident in our own space and our own journeys, complementing each other and supporting each other. And I think that’s really inspiring.”
View Deloitte’s Women in Risk series