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Seven ways to avoid career catastrophe when you start a banking job in Asia

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If you’re a banker moving to Hong Kong or Singapore, you have already overcome a huge hurdle: cost-conscious banks in Asia are increasingly reluctant to hire expensive expats like you in the first place.

But beware the pitfalls ahead: new foreign hires are coming under intense and immediate scrutiny as banks attempt to justify why they haven’t taken on someone local, according to recruiters in Asia.

Your first few weeks on the job therefore matter enormously. Here’s how to make the right impression on your new colleagues.

1. Don’t rush to reform

Trying to shake up the way your team works as soon as you arrive isn’t advisable. “Assume nothing and listen before you adopt any changes. Your first reaction to the way things are done may be ‘I do it differently back home’, but there’s usually a good reason for things being handled in a certain way,” says Marc Van de Walle, global head of products, Bank of Singapore. “You have to realise that your overseas experience might not necessarily be the only answer. So it’s important that you understand why things are done in that manner and thereafter you can bring new ideas to the table if necessary.”

2. Drill down to the differences

“Don’t assume that banking in Asia is the same as banking in Europe or North America; it’s not,” says Mike Jones, a former ANZ and HSBC executive who has worked across Asia and now runs consultancy Connected Analytics. “Attitudes to savings, appetite for risk and preferences for relationships are all potential differences, so you need to understand the cultural drivers that underpin them. By being curious about differences, and showing flexibility and respect, you can build more effective relationships and make a greater contribution.”

3. Avoid public humiliation

Alpha-type expats will need to rein in their love of the public put-down during team meetings. “Most Westerners barely see the tip of the iceberg that is the deep-rooted Asian desire to avoid personal conflict; bear this in mind when communicating,” says Hong Kong-based management consultant Andrew Eagle. Reserve your criticism for one-on-one meetings where it’s less likely your colleague will lose face and lose respect for you.

4. Yes may not mean yes

“There is sometimes a reluctance to say ‘no’ in Asia and to admit you lack the required knowledge or skills. As an expat, it takes time to recognise when this is happening and to learn how to deal with it,” says Nick Lambe, group managing director at recruitment agency Links International in Hong Kong. “Be patient, explain in detail what you require and ask the person to come back to you if they have any questions – maybe by email as this doesn’t lead to such a loss of face.”

5. Beware malicious gossip

As a senior expat, you may find yourself in charge of an existing team in Asia. “Well-meaning colleagues and HR people will often give you quick heads-ups on your team members. But don’t accept these as truth – they are just anecdotal opinions,” says Tony Latimer, a Singapore-based executive coach. “You must start from the premise that anyone who has a job on your team has the potential to perform. You will have different interactions with the team, so you will get different reactions.”

6. Remember you’re in a melting pot

“When you relocate, you need to acknowledge that Asia is a melting pot of cultural diversity – not just of nationalities but also ethnicity,” says Paul Endacott, Asia managing director at recruiters Ambition. “The key to overcoming any cultural sensitivities is to engage in frequent and inclusive communication. What is socially frowned upon by one culture might be accepted by the other, so you need to learn what is important to each person in the team and pick out their preferred approach to communication.”

7. Don’t always favour extroverts

If your new colleagues in Asia don’t come up with on-the-spot answers to your queries, it doesn’t mean they lack good ideas. “The more introverted communication style sometimes found in Asia can generate misunderstandings, especially at meetings, if it’s not respected,” says Kate Reid, an associate director at recruiters Eximius Group in Hong Kong. “Introverted thinkers have a preference to take an issue away, process it, and deliver solutions in a manageable, private forum. By stifling the contribution of these people, expats lose important influencers and create animosity in the team.”


Image credit: AMR Image, Getty

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