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FEATURE STORYMarch 7, 2023

Lindsay Timarong, Palau: Humble, Hard-working, Idealistic


Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields.

Lindsay Timarong is President and CEO of the Pacific Islands Development Bank, a role she took on in February 2022. The first woman to hold this prestigious position, Lindsay is passionate about serving communities through banking and helping people to achieve their aspirations through banking products designed for their needs. 

What inspired you to work in banking?

I fell into banking and finance by accident. I majored in economics at university and aspired to work at the World Bank or the IMF. When I was growing up, girls weren't given the motivation or inspiration to reach those types of goals. Still, I always thought about how cool it would be to see the world, other civilizations, and other societies and work collectively to improve people's day-to-day lives. 

After university, my first job was at a relatively small community bank, where I started in loan payment processing and then moved up the ranks in loan servicing. I got to experience the ‘behind the scenes’ world of credit and credit documentation, analysis, and underwriting. It ultimately was beneficial in the next journey in my career, which was in banking regulation. I'd lived and worked in the United States for over ten years and decided to return home. There weren't many opportunities in Palau, but I believed the whole intent of going out and getting educated was always to return and help my country. Palau is a relatively young, independent nation, so nation-building was a fascinating concept for me. I worked as a statistician after university at the Palau Statistics Office and fell into the world of banking regulation. The individual that ran the Financial Institutions Commission, the banking regulatory body in Palau, kind of headhunted me after learning I'd majored in economics.

In terms of inspiration for what I do today, it's always about helping others, especially people in my community, and helping as many people as possible for as long as I'm fortunate to serve in my current capacity - my ultimate goal. That's what inspires me every day. 

This year’s UN International Women’s Day theme is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ In your opinion, how can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?

Access to digital technology has provided greater access to financial services and information. I see it as having great potential to narrow gender gaps in women's access to credit and capital. It doesn't take a desktop computer anymore to run a business. Women now sell crafts and other things online through their mobile phones. They can accept payments and transact on their mobile devices. It's just amazing. Digital technology has opened many doorways and pathways for women in business. In my industry, it's great to see because now we have a further reach. It's more than just the main commercial centers. Now we're even seeing outlying areas where there's internet access. That's where we're reaching women heads of the household, especially women who need to augment their salaries to care for families. Seeing and giving them opportunities to access affordable credit and capital is great.

In the various roles you have worked in, how have you seen gender equality evolve in your field?

I've worked in the financial sector for a couple of decades now. It is still male-dominated, especially at the executive and board levels. I'm the first female to hold the top executive position in my organization. It's an incredible honor to have been selected among a number of applicants - all the other applicants were male and older and perhaps even more experienced at that. I have seen more women nominated to our Board of Governors and Board of Directors. 

Still, there could be more of a gender balance on decision-making bodies and policymaking levels. It's nice to see that, at least on the executive side, those boards see the value in giving a woman opportunities. I come with a very different management style, a very different leadership style than you're used to seeing, while they're very numbers oriented. So as long as I perform to those expectations, I can at least start introducing new ways of thinking with more of a gender balance.

What were some of your challenges as a leader, and what did you learn from them?

I only took on the top leadership role in February 2022. One of the challenges I faced as a leader in developing my leadership style was learning how to delegate effectively. That could speak to personality types, but it's about the ability to trust others, recognize team dynamics, and hone other people's skills and strengths. It may be easy for others in a position to lead, but it was something that I had to work on and be comfortable with. It's managing different personalities and not just the people you're tasked to lead but the people to whom you're accountable. 

We talk a lot about delegating downstream. Looking upstream also has unique challenges because it's about education, convincing people to accept what you're trying to do, and buying into your vision. Another challenge for me is the ability to initiate and implement change. Anytime you want to introduce changes in any organization, especially if that organization has existed for many years - the PIDB has been around since 1989, more than 30 years - persuading people to understand that change is a necessary part of innovation, improvement and evolution. That has been a valuable lesson for me in advocating for change without putting people on the spot or offending people. 

I found from learning how to advocate for change that the ‘why’ is the most important element. It's more important than the ‘how,’ ‘what,’ and ‘when’ for change. So I constantly have to figure out, it's been evolving to figure out how best to present the ‘why’ kind of change that I tried to introduce.

What are the key ingredients to succeeding in your profession?

My career has been an incredible mix of luck and tenacity. I have to credit all the people; from the beginning, my parents and family have been incredibly critical in how my character has been molded and refined through life's trials and tribulations. 

I spend long hours at work, even on weekends and holidays, and my husband can attest to that. That reflects my passion for what I do and how meaningful and rewarding I find my work to be. Passion and meaning are the key ingredients to success in life in general, which translates into my work.

Are there any memorable projects or mentors that come to mind throughout your career?

I've been very fortunate to work with some really incredible people who have allowed me to forge and build my character throughout. I can't leave out my mother, and all of her sisters. Those are our very first heroes and mentors. My mother has been the strongest woman I know. She and all of her sisters have been my primary idol in life. Palau is a matriarchal society, so women naturally take on these leadership roles in family clans, the community, and culturally.

I've only had a few career mentors. The first would be the former Executive Commissioner for the Palau Financial Institutions Commission, Semdiu Decherong. I worked with him for more than a decade. He provided a work environment that enabled me to innovate and pursue professional development opportunities that have helped me grow and build confidence. I'm an introvert, and learning to maneuver socially is challenging. He gave me room to exercise self-management and independent thought and pushed me outside my comfort zone. 

Another mentor is the former Palau Minister of Finance, Elbuchel Sadang. He's been a public servant and has served in many private and public sector roles. I started working with him in 2015 when I was appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Palau Sovereign Fund. He's always given me wisdom and advice, reinforcing humility's importance. Humility has such tremendous value in our Pacific Island cultures. The practice and observance of humility in the context of business is a great sign of respect. And that breeds trust. In the world of credit and capital, trust is so important. Humility has gotten me much farther in our community negotiations than education, skills, or background.

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women end up in leadership positions in Palau, and across the Pacific?

There has been a struggle for women to get into leadership positions in my country. The struggle has been for women to come out of being in the ‘behind the scenes,’ leadership-type roles. Culturally, it's always been observed - women are the ones who decide who the chiefs are going to be, and women decide how to divvy up property and assets. 

Leadership for Palauan society, where women are concerned, I don't think is viewed or perceived in the same way as in other places. I've been traveling across the Micronesian region and see different areas gradually improving leadership gender gaps, for instance. Yap State recently had elections and elected the first female to the Yap State Legislature. To see a female in the Yap State Legislature in public office is a big leap. In Kosrae State, the same thing happened; they just elected the first female to a legislative position. I think the challenge is not really like creating those shut doors; it's women having the courage and the conviction to open those doors for themselves.

Having more women in the workforce has always meant working around family responsibilities. In our current office, the youngest member of our team has two very young children, and we've created a little play area for children to be safe and to play, and you can still watch them. The whole motivation behind me to be able to do this in my workplace is because my mother was a lifelong teacher. I would play under my mom's desk at school and just play and watch her work. In terms of leadership, I've always subscribed to wanting to develop myself into the type of leader and manager I would want to emulate.

What advice do you have for Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?

Always seek ways to evolve and improve. Don't ever allow yourself to be stagnant. No matter how menial, every job is a learning opportunity and a stepping stone. Make good impressions, not only on your supervisors or managers but also on the other people you work with. No skill is too insignificant to learn. 

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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