Deloitte’s regional lead explains how the WorldClass initiative is shaping the future in Southeast Asia

Written by Annabelle Siena Lim Published on     4 mins read

James Walton shares Deloitte’s approach to improving livelihoods in Southeast Asia and his preferred leadership practices.

In 2017, the multinational accounting and consulting firm Deloitte launched the global WorldClass initiative to reshape the futures of 100 million individuals around the world by 2030. Instead of simply engaging with charities or donations, Deloitte provides greater access to education and better career opportunities.

James Walton, regional client and market lead of Deloitte, has been pioneering the initiative in Southeast Asia, where 5 million individuals who are beneficiaries of the WorldClass initiative reside.

Recently, Oasis spoke to Walton about the development of the WorldClass initiative and his take on leadership.

This interview has been edited and consolidated for clarity and brevity.

Oasis (OS): Tell us how the WorldClass initiative fits within the context of Southeast Asia.

James Walton (JW): Part of the initiative’s goal is to provide better incomes and opportunities to those working in the agricultural industry. While we are on the same path across the globe, our focus in Southeast Asia is on the local circumstances and challenges, the groups that require support, and the areas where we can achieve the maximum impact over the coming year.

In terms of Asia’s rural farming communities, our plans consist of contributing tools, individual coaching, and agricultural inputs to support and improve yields and farmer income. We have also recently started collaborating with Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest cocoa and chocolate producer, to provide sales and marketing training for cocoa farmers in Indonesia.

We are also looking at addressing income gaps in the region’s urban centers. As digitalization becomes the way forward in society, it simultaneously exacerbates the division in access. Last year, for example, everyone in Singapore shifted to working or studying from home due to the pandemic, which has perhaps put underserved groups, communities, and low-income households at an even more significant disadvantage since they might not be able to afford the equipment that they need.

OS: Apart from fitting into Deloitte’s ESG plan, what does “doing good” and “making an impact” mean to you?

JW: To me, it starts with an understanding of the privileges that we have had. Those among us with the means to receive a university education and find a well-paying job should be grateful for our fortunate circumstances.

We believe that if we can uplift societies, it will lead to a better pool of people working for us and our clients in the future. If we train more people in cybersecurity, we will have more consultants available to work in the field, and companies will consequently have better cybersecurity. As a result, our institutions in Singapore and around Southeast Asia will have better protection, which will fundamentally benefit society.

OS: After serving in Deloitte for more than two decades across different regions, what are your best practices in leadership? 

JW: Firstly, I don’t ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. That doesn’t mean I have to roll up my sleeves and do everything on my own. My golden rule is that I will train you, develop you, and give you everything you need to do your job, and if something still goes wrong, that would be my fault. The reason is that I can probably survive the fallout at my level and with my reputation and experience.

On the other hand, a junior in that situation might get hung out to dry and become hindered in their career progression. As long as you have followed what we’ve asked and trained you to do, I will be accountable. If it turns out that you didn’t follow the rules and the process, I will still take the blame, but the conversation I will have with you behind the scenes might be slightly different.

My second thing centers around what I would call “value and impact.” What is the value that each individual brings to the table? Where are they best utilized? Where can they make the maximum amount of impact, both in a day-to-day work process and in the way we work with our communities? When I look at a team member, I think about their skillset and where they can produce the maximum amount of value for both our clients and the rest of our team. It is about understanding the individual and what drives them. The people working in an audit firm all possess different strengths, including problem-solving, analytical, communication, and interpersonal skills. It is crucial to identify their talents.

OS: How has being an avid sports fan helped you in running your programs? 

JW: Sports can be a great icebreaker for a group. Everybody has their particular interests; even those who say they’re not interested in sports may go out jogging. It’s about finding common threads and using them to bring everyone together.

For example, people at all levels of wealth, education, and professions enjoy watching football, which provides an excellent social platform that invites people to discuss their interests. When we run some of these programs, we try to set the contexts in areas that would provide enough entertainment and engagement for people to get involved.

James Walton (far left) played in a netball charity match in 2019. Photo courtesy of Deloitte.
James Walton (far left) played in a netball charity match in 2019. Photo courtesy of Deloitte.

OS: What’s the best piece of advice that you have ever received?

JW: One word: listen. Try to understand the root causes of the problems people are facing. It’s about understanding the other person’s position and the other person’s point of view. And I think this is more important than ever before, because the lack of good listening is currently undermining the hierarchies in our society.

I think that same lens applies to an employee in your team. When an employee is not performing up to standard, it’s better to take the time to understand the reasons behind it with a casual chat with a view of fixing the issue calmly, rather than assuming the worst and immediately going on the offensive.


This interview was produced in partnership with TBN Asia, which seeks to support social enterprises fighting poverty in Southeast Asia.


Annabelle Siena Lim


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