By Pradip Rodrigues
Trying to pencil in a date on the calendar of two very busy senior bankers is no easy feat, but we managed to have Manjit Singh and Jeet Dhillon out to a leisurely lunch at 259 Host in Toronto. We arrange to meet at 12 noon, Manjit strides in first, Jeet Dhillon currently on maternity leave is caught up in traffic and running late.
Manjit is a 20-year banking veteran of which 13 have been spent at increasingly senior positions at TD Bank. Besides being one of the most senior Canadian bankers of South Asian descent, he has been an ardent supporter of diversity in the workplace. He is currently chair of TD’s Visible Minority Committee.
Jeet Dhillon is a Senior Wealth Management Manager who has worked her way up at TD. She’s a very active member of TD’s Visible Minority Committee and is one hell of an event organizer.
On being a foodie
Manjit Singh: I love food, I’d say I’m fairly adventurous, I don’t eat things off the beaten path like snakes. (Laughter) When I travel (which is 25 percent each month ) I love trying the local cuisine. In London and New York, it is possible to have authentic Ethiopian or Moroccan food. I do wind up having meetings over food. Business lunches are often the norm. This week I ate dinner out every night. I think business meetings over lunch is casual, free flowing and relaxed. You end up having better conversations. This will be my first Indian meal all week, I am looking forward to it. (His eyes wander hungrily over the menu)
(The restaurant is beginning to fill up and the aroma of butter chicken and tandoori roti is simply ambrosial.)
What TD does to strengthen diversity
Manjit: We have a Diversity Leadership Council. Diversity goes with the organization culture. It’s important from a business point as well. Canada has an ageing population, you can’t run a business and excel unless you have the right people.
On growing up in Canada
Manjit: I came with my family when I was about 5-years-old. I grew up in Montreal, was a turbaned Sikh then and was a really visible minority back in the 70s when there were very few non-Caucasians. I did feel self conscious, but over time you build self-confidence and it can toughen you up. No racism experiences to report. I took off my turban by Grade 10. The reason I took off the turban had to do with it being laborious, given the sporting activities I was involved with. It didn’t change my values. I think when you move to a new country, the lifestyle changes and makes it more difficult to hold on to some customs. It is easier to have a turban in India, life there is more accommodating to that. Here if you have swimming lessons, have to go to school, you have not time to get it all done.
Do customs and traditions sometimes act as barriers to integration?
Manjit: It’s about being flexible. At TD customs and traditions don’t face barriers, if at all, it would be self-inflicted. Our Visible Minority Committee educates employees about cultures and norms.
Different societies have cultural norms, some kiss on the cheek, others look away. Others have to understand that they aren’t being disrespectful. We encourage people to ask questions and also answer questions about their cultures and traditions.
(Jeet arrives and is happy to see Manjit)
Manjit: Hey Jeet, thanks for coming. How’s the family, how’s motherhood?Jeet: All is great. I will be back at work two days a week and full-time in July (after four months) We just did a lot of traveling with the family, Cuba for the March Break and two days later to Vancouver for a wedding. But I have to congratulate you on your promotion?
Manjit’s new promotion
Manjit: I will be the CFO for US retail business starting June. Our US operations are growing fast, we now have more branches in the US than in Canada.
The waiter comes by to take our order.
Manjit: Lets have the Chaat and the Chicken Kebabs. Do you have the Thali menu?
Jeet: Chaat is good. I like spicy food.
Manjit: Talking about spicy, how was the food in Cuba, I’ve heard mixed reviews.
Jeet: We probably used up all the hot sauce, it was bland. We found the food undercooked. Lots of seafood and lobster, but I am not a seafood person. Ate lots of fruit though.
Manjit: Cuban food in America is very good.
Jeet: Cuban food in Cuba is westernized. Very little local food.
We tuck into the absolutely delicious chaat and take try the delicately spiced Kebab platter which has fish, lamb and chicken.
It’s time to order the main course. Manjit decides on mango chicken and Jeet goes for the chicken tikka masala.
The challenge of keeping fit given the lifestyle
Manjit: Height. (Laughter) It is about getting the balance. I don’t deprive myself, I work out twice a week, mostly on weekends. Between family, work and juggling a busy social calendar it’s a challenge.
Jeet: I go to the gym two or three times a week. There are many client events I have to attend, cocktail hours and lots of mingling. It’s part of the job. I drink occasionally. In the corporate world, these events are important. You have to be proactive, it is easy to stick to a 9-5 routine, but you have to make time.
The food arrives and both Manjit and Jeet get ready to break bread and tuck into what looks like a delectable meal in front of them.
On the crucial skills required in order to advance in the corporate world
Jeet: Technical skills are important, but it’s the ability to take skills you’ve learnt in one area and be able to apply it to another area.
Manjit: I think skills change over time. As a junior in an organization, it’s about individual competence and technical competence. As you get to middle management, managing teams is important and by the time you get to senior management, its about strategy and identifying the next wave of growth, finding out how to make your organization leap ahead of the competition.
Jeet: I’ve have been lucky with my managers, a good manager will try to move you through quickly, not hold you back, and will try to help you along your career path.
Manjit: We have an individual development program and advice staff what they can do to develop their careers, through mentorship and help them focus on the skills they need to build on.
On the challenges faced by new immigrants
Manjit: They often don’t have access to people who’ve been in the corporate world, so you don’t get the nuances, that’s the biggest barrier. There is often a tendency to focus more on technical skills, it’s important in the beginning but you can’t rely on that for your whole career. Later it becomes more about communication leadership and cooperation. Also there is a need to take risks, South Asians often don’t take that risk, they fear failure and are not willing to put themselves out on a limb. When you get more senior that is what people are looking for- they want to see your response in five different situations. It’s a very competitive space.
Jeet: I’ve mentored within the bank and also through TRIAC (Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) I mentored one candidate from India, I found he was too focused on technical skills rather than try to make a link on how to apply his knowledge here. He just wanted to get a job, any job within the company instead of seeing what he was capable of. It didn’t give the right impression, it shows a lack of confidence.
Advice for newcomers
Jeet: I’d say volunteer, expose yourself to the culture here, that’s the gap.
Manjit: Very important (referring to Jeet’s point) Consciously or unconsciously we gravitate toward people we know or like. If you don’t expand your network, chances of succeeding are lower.
Jeet: I grew up in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta where there were just 15 Indian families. I was the only brown kid in school. Being a small community, you had to integrate, I had friends outside the community.
Today there are resources available for immigrants. When my parents came here decades ago, they had to learn English, now unless you make a conscious effort, you don’t need to step out of your shell.
Can people skills be learnt?
Jeet: Depends on upbringing. As a culture, we South Asians are social, growing up we always had visitors, we couldn’t go sit in our rooms, we had to make conversation.
Manjit: (Nodding in agreement as if to say ‘I know all about it’) Play with their kids.
Jeet: Yes, you had to participate and interact with younger and older people. In that sense we should have a natural advantage.
Is pride in one’s culture a double edged sword?
Manjit: Sometimes people think it’s a barrier to be South Asian and hide their customs. To me you shouldn’t have to work so hard to hide who you are. It’s not the 70s, we are so multicultural. My view is you have to know and be who you are. In different environments you have to moderate (differences) to be part of the team where everyone is governed by the same rules.
Jeet: I never had to hide my Indianess. We had rules, there were no high school dances.
Manjit: Yeah yeah, that’s a good one.
Jeet: My parents wouldn’t feel comfortable if I were to go, I was upfront and told my friends it was something I couldn’t do as a culture. On the other hand my parents sent me to Europe on a school trip in Grade 11. At a TD branch I worked at in Calgary, we had a large South Asian clientele. I was the first brown person and everyone would call me over to ask to interpret for their Punjabi-speaking clients. Being fluent in Punjabi helped my career and opened doors. On the other hand in Brampton, I encountered a second-generation Punjabi teller who told any client who spoke in Punjabi she didn’t speak it. Maybe she wasn’t comfortable.
The food is scrumptious and we are all satiated.
On their favourite Indian restaurants in the GTA
Jeet: The Host is good, so is Nirvana in Mississauga. Chettinad restaurant is good. I also like Tandoori Flame, it’s the Indian equivalent of Mandarin and is pretty good.
Manjit: The food here is really good, it’s my first Indian food all week so I’m really enjoying it.
Jeet: I like going out but I love cooking Indian food, I think my butter chicken comes out the best.
Manjit: I cook everything. At family functions, I will be like the sous chef. I do Thai, Indian, Italian, Mexican, its so easy, you have recipes and YouTube videos.
Thoughts on the economy and investments
Jeet: The price of oil is taking a beating from an investment perspective. There is a feeling of slower growth and tapering expectations for clients. We are reducing our equity exposure and taking protectionist measures in terms of our portfolios, that speaks a lot.
Manjit: Housing prices are going up because of low interest rates. People have to make sure they can afford it if rates go up. Rates have been low so long, people have never known another environment. In the early 80’s interest rates were 18 per cent.
On South Asians preferring investment in second properties rather than stocks
Jeet: South Asians are biased toward real assets like gold and property. Stocks, no. My job is to get them to diversify. The more professional investors who are better educated are more open. The more traditional businessmen are into real estate investments. Asians by an large don’t like debt. The primary goal is to pay down debt.
Manjit: It’s generational too. The first generation had no extra money lying around to invest. My parents weren’t into stocks, my kids hopefully will because I teach them about investments.
Jeet: My parents used to invest in GIC deposits where rates were 18 per cent, now they’re so low.
It is time to leave, no we skip the desert, It’s back to office for Manjit, Jeet who is on maternity leave decides to stop by the office and say hello to her colleagues. It has been a delightful afternoon.