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Eight steps to succeed at a Chinese bank

There is a perception that Chinese Banks are on the march globally. They are certainly appearing on leader boards across international measurements of banking prowess. Good talent likes to align itself to growing, successful organisations – but what’s it actually like to work for a Chinese bank?

I recently spoke with several senior financial services professionals in Hong Kong who have worked in both Western and Chinese banks in Asia. I asked them about the differences between the two, and about what it takes to succeed at a Chinese firm. Here’s what they had to say:

1) Understand and match yourself to the type of bank

Chinese banks fall loosely into three main categories: state-owned, shareholder-owned, and family-dominated. There are important distinctions between the three, so prepare for what to expect.

State-owned banks are likely to have a hierarchical civil-servant approach to the job, with each level of staff carrying out the duties assigned to them from above. Shareholder-owned banks are typically more aggressive – many operate with the key objective of gaining market share at a rate not experienced by most Western banks. Family-dominated Chinese banks can be influenced strongly by their owner, with the board and senior management have less influence on policy and operations than you may be used to at a Western firm.

2) Be humble when dealing up and down

Managing up and down is less publicly confrontational at a Chinese bank than at a Western one. Pointing out a colleague’s failings in a meeting of their peers will lose your respect and trust, while challenging your own manager in public is considered shocking. If you have a disagreement, try to influence people in private.

3) Get your colleagues on side first

Even if you successfully influence senior management to accept your proposals, you will never get them implemented if your peers stonewall you. If you don’t convince your colleagues of the benefit to them before you seek management approval, you risk failure by silent conspiracy.

4) When asked out, go

You should never turn down invitations to dinner, drinks, golf or other events – not if you expect high levels of success.

5) Don’t be too aggressive with change

If you have a master plan to implement change, go step by step rather than all at once as you might do at a Western firm. Give colleagues time to adjust and learn.

6) Understand the hidden influencers

Find out who the real bosses in each department are. At Chinese banks, it’s common for the head to lean on certain key people in their team.

7) Point to other banks

To influence your own organisation to implement your plan, document how other banks are doing similar things already and say you are afraid of being left behind. This will speed up the approval process.

8) Don’t think you will get by with English

Almost all staff in the head office of any Chinese bank are able to speak Chinese. There are very few examples of people who succeed at head office without knowing the language – it’s difficult to influence colleagues when you spend your days waiting for translations. While non-Asian regional offices will occasionally hire local junior staff who don’t speak Chinese, senior people in all locations must be able to communicate with head office in Chinese.

Mark Verrall is the practice director of financial services at search firm MRIC in Hong Kong.

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