Features | From Pivot Magazine

Risk taker: This CPA continues to embrace challenges

Sun Life EVP and CFO Manjit Singh has moved from banking to insurance by being open to change and asking questions

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Portrait image of Manjit SinghManjit Singh started his career at Price Water House and has grown it in part on a ready eagerness to take risks (Photography by Katherine Holland)

In 2002, Manjit Singh was a 33-year-old executive at TD bank. On a snowy November afternoon, TD’s chief administrative officer knocked on his office door and asked if he would consider relocating to the UK within five weeks to work on a new, high-profile project. It was, to put it mildly, not an easy time to move. Singh and his wife had just had their second child and bought a new home, and he was two-thirds of the way through an MBA program, which he attended on weekends.

“I had to make a difficult choice quickly—stay at a job I enjoyed in a country I was accustomed to and surrounded by family, or jump at a challenge that had to be completed on a very tight timeline, and without a network of familiar colleagues or family by my side,” he says. After thinking it through, he went back to the CAO and said that he would agree to move—but wanted to finish his MBA simultaneously.

To make it work, he flew back and forth between London and Toronto every week, landing on Saturday morning to attend class and have dinner with his family before flying back to the U.K. the same night. “To say it was exhausting is an understatement, but in these situations, the adrenaline and focus keep you going,” he says.

Today, Singh is the EVP and CFO of Sun Life—a major leap from a career spent primarily in the banking industry, from BMO and CIBC to nearly two decades at TD. It’s a big leap, but not an altogether surprising one for a professional who’s built his career in part on a ready eagerness to take risks.

These days, part of Singh’s job is mentoring young professionals through their own career transitions. “I often tell them that one day, you may be asked to take on a challenging assignment that’s not in your career plan, or to relocate on short notice,” he says. “People tend to answer, hypothetically, that they would. But when approached with a tangible opportunity, many will say it’s not the right time in their life. Truthfully, there’s never going to be a ‘right time,’ but the risk is worth it more often than not. My London job led to many more opportunities because others recognized I was willing to take risks.”

He started his career at Price Water House (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) after graduating from the University of Waterloo’s chartered accounting co-op program. Two years later, he joined the Bank of Montreal’s internal audit group in capital markets, kicking off his nearly three-decade career in the banking sector. “A transferable skill set is one of the great benefits of being a CPA. I wasn’t necessarily looking to get into banking specifically, but I was able to make the leap since I had auditing skills, financial acumen and experience managing diverse teams that I could leverage for other opportunities.”

In 1995, Singh was asked to join BMO’s risk management team, where he stayed for a few years. Towards the end of that period, the Dutch-based ABN AMRO bank was aggressively expanding its North American operations—and through a connection, Singh got the chance to help them set up shop in Chicago, and win his first executive position in the process. Shirking convenience, as he would later with the London move, the then 28-year-old Singh packed up his family—having just had his first child—and moved to the U.S. for a year to become ABN AMRO’s associate VP of capital markets audit.

Manjit Singh standing in middle of officeIn March of 2021, Singh said goodbye to the banking sector and became Sun Life’s EVP and CFO (Photography by Katherine Holland)

“It would have been easy to stay at BMO, but I thought to myself: this is a growing company, and getting an executive role at 28 is a big deal. So I leaned in,” he said. “It didn’t work out exactly how I wanted, which is part of taking risks. Something good or bad may happen, but if you don’t take some risk, nothing will happen. There weren’t as many chances to learn in that role as I wanted, but that opened me up to other opportunities.” The next call came from CIBC, where he would spend a couple of years leveraging his technical skills in their policy and advisor groups to help traders structure transactions.

His advice to early career professionals? Don’t rush. “Focus on learning,” he says. “Banking was a brand new industry for me, and I set all my sights on understanding it deeply. The internal auditing route was a good way to do that since I was involved in the details of looking at different parts of the bank.”

In 2001, he joined TD, starting as a VP of strategy for TD Securities before working his way up to EVP of finance—effectively a deputy CFO role. He ended up spending nearly 20 years at the bank, managing a global team of finance professionals and learning an abundance of leadership lessons along the way.

Managing people is the toughest part of my job,” he says. “The technical aspects, while obviously difficult, are a little more contained. But just like in our personal lives—dealing with a friend, neighbour, or child—no two people are alike. My general philosophy has been to be an open listener, and to be as adaptive as possible.”

One of Singh’s early roles was as CFO for TD Securities for Europe and Asia, managing around 600 employees across five offices in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia. In stark contrast to today’s video conferencing-enabled remote environment, most correspondence was done by telephone—a major challenge in and of itself. “You develop good listening skills because you don’t have the benefit of seeing body language. And as a manager of a global team, you also become more attuned to cultural differences.”

Singh found that while some team members were outspoken and outgoing, others were more reserved. “I remember one person, in particular, was too shy to speak at our larger team meetings, even though I knew they had great ideas and perspectives,” he says. In Singh’s one-to-one meetings with this individual, he asked: ‘What’s holding you back?’ The employee responded that speaking up in a meeting wasn’t their style—it wasn’t how they were raised. “I understood and respected their viewpoint and thought—how can I meet this person where they are? I knew there was tremendous value they could offer the team.”

My goal was to allow the employee to shine within their comfort level and be recognized

Over time, in private meetings with that employee, he worked on establishing trust via gentle encouragement. “I would say things like, ‘you have a lot to offer; the team could really benefit from your insights here.’” He also changed tactics, calling on individuals to speak up within smaller team meetings—including the insightful but reticent employee—shifting the dynamics away from more vocal members. “I was able to slowly draw this person out by asking for their opinion. Little by little, I saw a change in their willingness and confidence to speak up. My goal was not to transform them into something they’re not, but to allow them to shine within their comfort level so they could be recognized and rewarded for their contributions.”

Another of his mentees, Ruby Dhillon—the founder of Pink Attitude Evolution, a not-for-profit dedicated to the professional empowerment of South Asian women, and a private banker at RBC Wealth Management—first met Singh at TD more than ten years ago. Together, they built the bank’s South Asian diversity pillar—and through it all, Dhillon says Singh showed a steadfast commitment to mentoring her, no matter how busy his schedule. “He always made time for me and made it clear that he genuinely cares. Manjit is the type of mentor who pays close attention and helps you see your own strength,” she says. “When I founded Pink Attitude in 2015, I was so young. I was like, can I really do this? But he was always available for advice and reassurance. Having that support behind me is a big part of why I was able to help build the organization to the level it’s at today.”

In March of 2021, Singh embarked on his latest major career risk. Leaving the familiar behind once again in pursuit of a fresh challenge, he said goodbye to the banking sector and became Sun Life’s EVP and CFO. “I had been in banking so long, working in different areas of TD in various countries, that I felt like I pretty much knew what there is to know,” he says. “Coming into a new industry where I didn’t know anybody—during Covid, no less—I had to rely on my team and ask them to help me along my learning curve.”

A member of the executive team and leading Sun Life’s finance arm, Singh is responsible for all initiatives around capital, tax, corporate development, investor relations and strategic initiatives. This is all amid the insurance industry’s transition to IFRS17, the new standard for insurance contracts handed down by the International Accounting Standards Board in 2017, which is to take effect at the start of 2023. (The standard is meant to remove inconsistencies between financial statements, making it easier for analysts, investors and other parties to compare contracts and companies).

“It’s one of the biggest transitions the insurance industry has ever gone through, and one that many of my colleagues have been working towards for over a decade,” he says. “And here I am, coming in with 18 months to learn it. But as a leader, you don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to make sure you have a good team around you—and crucially, that you listen to them. Learning a new industry is really about the art of asking good questions.”

It’s also about learning from other great leaders. At TD, Singh was essentially a deputy CFO—but at Sun Life, it’s his official title. That came with a new role as spokesperson; these days, Singh finds himself spending much more time than before communicating with investors. “At TD, I had the good fortune to work with Colleen Johnston, who was the CFO for ten years. Colleen was widely recognized as having among the best investor relations skills in the business. She was a great storyteller and had the uncanny ability to take complicated concepts and simplify them for her audience. So I tried to take some of those lessons that I've learned from her and applied them to my role today.

 “For me, volunteering is about helping to level the playing field.”

Johnston, who worked closely with Singh throughout her 14-year career at TD, says she watched him grow from a talented early-career professional to a seasoned executive with a knack for cultivating the best in his team. “His brand has always been that he’s the hardest working guy in the building,” says Johnston. “And as he climbed the ladder, he learned to cultivate many of his own good qualities in other people. As you climb the management and leadership ladder in finance, you have to retain the ability to roll up your sleeves and do the technical part of the job while simultaneously becoming a true leader. That’s not easy, and he did it beautifully.”

Reflecting on major transitions in the industries he’s worked in, Singh says the CPA profession has evolved significantly since his time as a fledgling auditor at BMO. International financial reporting standards have evolved into a global community, for one thing, which makes it easier for CPAs with a travel bug to apply their skills in new jurisdictions. For another, he says, now that you don’t have to work at a CPA firm to get your required hours, the way people’s careers progress is more diverse than before. “We have a big accredited program at Sun Life, for example, in which a cohort of about 30 students gets quite a different experience than they would at a CPA firm.”

Into 2023 and beyond, Singh says sustainability will continue to be at the forefront of the profession. “We’re going to see more harmonization of standards, and that will continue to evolve into more reporting requirements as stakeholders expect clarity. That naturally folds its way into our profession, since we’re expected to provide independent assurance around various information. I think we’ll see more CPAs getting involved in helping establish standards for sustainability reporting and providing assurance on that.”

When he’s not learning the ins and outs of the insurance industry, Singh dedicates his spare time to volunteering at Ascend Canada, an organization devoted to the career development of Pan-Asian professionals. The organization connects professionals at various stages in their journeys—from students to executives—with mentors who offer guidance and development opportunities.

Singh has been involved with Ascend since its inception [over] ten years ago; in 2019, he became its president. “When I entered the professional landscape, as a Sikh by background, I didn’t see anyone in the senior ranks I could relate to. I also didn’t have anyone in my family circles who was an executive and could help mentor me, or tell me what it takes to achieve that kind of success,” he says. “For me, volunteering at Ascend is about helping to level the playing field. We attempt to increase access to the sort of privilege some people already have via their informal networks.”

As he helps usher in a new generation of finance professionals, Singh sometimes finds inspiration at home—especially in conversation with his two daughters. When he first considered leaving TD to join Sun Life, his daughter, 24 at the time, asked pointed questions about the latter’s diversity and sustainability initiatives. “The new generation is bringing a focused lens to these issues,” he says. “And that made me think—those are good questions. I should ask them too.”


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