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How to make a stunningly successful first career move in Asian banking

business race on a blue track

You’ve got through your first two years at a bank in Asia and are finally no longer considered a graduate-level hire.

You’re now deciding whether to stay with the firm that’s invested time and money in training you, or whether to kick start your first career move as a junior banking professional.

Job searching as a so-called “first-bouncer” can be a perilous affair. You’ve left the cloistered, regimented world of large-scale graduate hiring and are suddenly seeking out random opportunities with a myriad of different recruiters and employers.

Help is at hand. Recruiters in corporate banking, investment banking and the middle office in Asia tell us what the job market is like for juniors right now and give their guidance on how to make your first move a successful one.

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Investment banking

“If you work in a bulge bracket or large Asian regional bank, I would not recommend making a move until your third year. The foundation you build by then sets you up for a better job, but one or two years is barely enough to grasp what is happening,” says Moncef Heddad, CEO of MH Search and Advisory in Hong Kong. “If you work in a smaller platform, moving to a bigger one, where you get exposure to better deal flows and products, is a no-brainer for a junior.”

As we highlighted in April, banks in Hong Kong and Singapore face a shortage of analyst and associate-level talent just as they need more foot soldiers to help them execute deals. “‘Juniorization’ is currently ongoing across many i-banks. The market is hot for junior bankers – they’re getting multiple offers, although the volumes of openings has been higher in the past,” says Heddad.

Junior investment bankers who change companies typically receive a pay rise of about 20% to 30%, while those already in their third year as an analyst may also get an associate title thrown in. But Heddad says money isn’t as important to today’s redundancy-wary first-bouncers in Asia as it was to their more gung-ho predecessors before the financial crisis. “Career progression and stability have become as important, so the more established investment banks are winning the race to attract young talent.”

Young bankers in Asia are advised against making radical career changes. “Most moves are within the same job function and vertical. Because of revenue pressure and zero tolerance for risk on hiring, managers take the safe approach and recruit like-for-like,” explains Heddad.

He advises first-bouncers to approach any job opportunity with the same seriousness as they would an important deal with a client. “A proper KYC and due diligence need to be performed – don’t rush into making a decision. Start by asking the recruiter the right questions: does the bank have funding for the headcount or are they just opportunistically looking? What’s the current set up of the team? You need to know the answers before you even meet the hiring manager.”

Corporate banking

The average tenure for client-facing corporate bankers in Asia before they make their first move is two to three years, according to Gary Lai, managing director, Southeast Asia at recruiters Charterhouse Partnership in Singapore.

Corporate banks in Singapore are hiring junior relationship managers across their four main coverage sectors: small/medium enterprises (SMEs), large local corporates (LLCs), multi-national companies (MNCs) and government-linked companies (GLCs).

Changing your coverage area when you change banks is possible at a junior level, says Lai, adding that the strongest demand is within SMEs. “But if you’re looking to move and cover larger companies, you often need a strong credit background and may have begun your career as a credit analyst.”

Lai says higher compensation amid a competitive job market is the main reason why junior corporate bankers are moving – candidates tend to push for 20% pay increments and achieve between 10% and 15%.

“I’ve seen some first-moves go wrong from the start because candidates have unrealistic expectations relative to the market. Demanding a much higher salary often translates to your employer expecting a much higher productivity level. So don’t overprice yourself – speak to friends at other banks and to seasoned recruiters to understand if you’re being realistic.”

“Your focus in the initial years should be to gain continuous valuable experience. If your current bank is providing such opportunities, you may wish to remain and have a discussion with your boss about your career aspirations.”

Middle office

The buoyant job market in risk and compliance extends right down the ranks. Juniors in these functions – especially those with specialist skills in fraud, due diligence and anti-money laundering – are seeking job moves in “quick succession”, says Kate Harper, associate director, risk and compliance, Asia Pacific, at recruiters Eximius Group in Hong Kong.

“Once an employee has even a year of professional experience, the market is quite hot across regulatory functions,” says Harper. “Businesses are aware of the enormous spend in building their compliance functions and the importance of home-growing talent who, if treated well, will remain loyal.”

While tempting salary increases are on offer in the middle office, Harper has seen some juniors fail in their new jobs because they moved simply for the money. “While you need an increment, if a firm is offering you significantly over the odds it’s possible you won’t be able to deliver on the responsibilities and won’t be given time to develop into the role.”

Because vacancies in risk and compliance are comparatively numerous, professionals often struggle to filter out opportunities that don’t match their long-term career goals. “Having a three to five-year plan and finding out what the responsibilities and environment are really like are key to a successful job hunt,” says Harper. “Focusing on superficial points, such as the brand prestige of the bank or the salary, could lead to continuous job changes or worse, mediocre delivery.”

When you’re in a job interview ask questions to ensure the roles suits your aspirations, but be careful how you phrase them. Don’t, warns Harper, ask: “I’m happy working in ABC regulatory area – can you accommodate my skills in this area?”. Instead ask: “I’ve been successful and exceeded targets in the past in ABC. How does your team create success in this area?”

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