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Young finance professionals in Hong Kong and Singapore overwhelmed by rapid promotions

Young v old

A comparatively high number of finance professionals in Singapore and Hong Kong are struggling with the burden of managing people who are older than them, according to an eFinancialCareers survey. Talent shortages leading to rapid promotions for young employees in Asia are largely to blame.

The survey of 5,000 financial services professionals globally reveals that more than a third of respondents in both Singapore (38%) and in Hong Kong (37%) manage older subordinates – a higher proportion than in the US (26%) or UK (32%).

Banks in Singapore and Hong Kong have been suffering skill shortages in key functions for the past two years, especially in risk, complianceinternal audit and relationship management. As a result of professionals in these and other sought-after sectors frequently changing jobs, banks have had to prematurely promote staff to fill urgent vacancies and use the carrot of promotion to help ensure employees don’t quit.

“Many financial professionals in Hong Kong seem to be promoted earlier rather than later. In order to keep the good people on board, there’s definitely more job-title inflation in Asia than elsewhere,” says Jens Soderlund, managing partner at Hong Kong search firm Sirius Partners.

Recent drives to increase the proportion of local employees at banks in Singapore and Hong Kong, aided in Singapore by tighter new work-visa rules, have made banks more willing to promote younger local employees rather than import experienced foreign talent.

There are also longer-term reasons why a reverse managerial age gap is more common in Asia. Merit-based Western-style promotions have been replacing traditional seniority-based ones over the past decade, says Henry Chamberlain, a Hong Kong management consultant and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. “This means a lot of young employees are being promoted more quickly in Asia if they have in-demand skills like innovation, tech-savviness, speaking multiple languages and collaborating easily with counterparts at non-Asian headquarters.”

In recent years banks in Asia have tried to tackle skill shortages by recruiting more young people via fast-track management-trainee programmes, says Chamberlain. “These trainees are promoted differently and more quickly than others, resulting in younger managers managing older subordinates.”

While the majority of young managers are coping with the task, a significant number (37% in Singapore and 39% in Hong Kong) are finding it difficult to manage people older than them, according to our survey. In the US and UK, the proportions are lower – 26% and 22% respectively.

The fundamental problem, says Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Corporate Coaching Services in Singapore, is that firms in Asia are not giving young managers enough managerial training to cope with the difficulties of dealing with older colleagues. “Too many employers assume these skills will just be picked up on the job.”

“Asian culture as a whole gives a lot of respect to age and experience,” adds James Carss, Asia managing director at Dryden Human Capital in Hong Kong. “Generally both sides prefer an older person to manage a younger person.”

Difficulties also arise because younger managers are often not confident enough to challenge more experienced subordinates, especially if this leads to a loss of face, says Chamberlain. “Asian cultures value relationships and strive for harmony rather than confrontation and assertiveness,” he adds.

Asian survey respondents’ main gripe about managing older subordinates is their reluctant to accept change. “This particularly applies to colleagues who have worked for the bank for a long time and are in their comfort zones,” says Marlene Chan, a managing consultant at search firm Capital People in Hong Kong.

Changes to work practices are at the heart of most generational conflicts, says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre in Singapore. Younger managers tend to push for change because they “know the latest research from a textbook”, whereas older employees typically make decisions based on experience of success and failure, he adds.

“But sometimes older people may not actually be resisting change; they simply ask a lot of questions to ensure that the young manager knows what they are talking about,” says Chamberlain.

Related articles:
Why life isn’t getting any easier for women in banking
Age is more than just a number, especially when it’s over 40
Banks in Singapore and Hong Kong lead way in gender diversity but pay problems persists

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