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Ten killer interview questions that could crush your career

With vacancies for banking roles in Asia awash with candidates, mastering the art of the job interview has never been more important, especially if you are new to the region.

There are bound to be rival candidates who can match you for work experience and academic prowess, so banks in Asia are increasingly testing how you will “fit” into their company culture over the long term.

Here are some of the job interview questions that banks and recruiters in Asia may well ask you; and here’s how to answer them.

1) How important is work-life balance to you?

Working excruciating hours has traditionally been the mark of a good banker in Asia. “While this sentiment is changing and the focus is on greater productivity, banking jobs often still require long hours, so the interviewer wants to test your commitment,” said Gerard Milligan, strategic account director at recruiters Randstad in Singapore. He recommends the following response: “I am committed to putting in quality time and am focused on completing my tasks to the best standard possible in a timely manner. Having said this, I understand there are instances where additional hours will be needed to meet a client deadline or when pitching for new business.”

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2) How many [insert item] are there in [insert Asian city]?

The more junior you are, the more likely you’ll cop this kind of question. “Lateral thinking is important in investment banking and I try to test this with silly, off-the-wall questions, like ‘how many Toyota Corollas there are in Hong Kong,’” said a Hong-Kong based investment banker. “Goodness knows the exact answer, but I’m looking for a logical basis behind their thinking. Some people blurt out an answer without showing me their thought process, while others take it step by step – for example, starting with the driving-age population and going from there.”

3) What sets you apart from your peers in the same market/product area/job function?

Banks in Asia particularly love asking this question to overseas-based interviewees. With fierce competition among budding expats for a limited number of Asian jobs, your answer could potentially stand you out from the crowd. Rather than rattling off your skills and strengths, focus only on your accomplishments – talk about actual success stories at work, said Eunice Ng, director of Hong Kong search firm Avanza Consulting.

4) When do you arrive in [insert Asian city]?

If you don’t have an answer, recruiters may just give you the cold shoulder. “We receive so many CVs from North America and Europe that we only have time to focus on those who tell us when they are visiting Hong Kong to look for work,” said Damian Babis, director of search firm Capital People in Hong Kong. “Travelling here also tells us how serious you are about moving as you’re investing time and money in the process.”

5) How do you evaluate success?

Every employer wants to hire someone who is committed towards achieving goals for their team, but your answer need not revolve around work. “You should also mention personal projects; perhaps being the captain of a rugby team or participating in a social cause,” said Christina Ng, associate director, financial services, at recruitment firm Robert Walters in Singapore. “Employees with such activities are likely to have established interpersonal skills, which aids in better communication among colleagues.”

6) Describe how you overcame a difficult work situation?

It’s a common enough question, but be warned: don’t pick a technical or regulatory problem, focus on how you helped overcome a conflict among team members. Once again, banks want to test your interpersonal skills. “You should give concrete examples that have occurred in your workplaces, followed by a description of what you did to resolve them,” said Ng. “Don’t discuss personal emotions; show that you stayed level-headed. We only want the facts and the solution – these can help predict how you will behave in future difficult situations.”

7) What’s your biggest failing?

Some interviewers love asking two “negative” questions on the trot (like this one and the one above), so have enough “overcoming-adversity” examples in the tank to deal with a double whammy. “People tend to learn the best lessons from their failings, so what I’m looking to hear is a story about a real failing, and then learn how you addressed it,” said Stuart Fox, a former MD at UBS in Asia who now runs Sydney investment boutique Artesian Venture Partners.

8) Who do you know in [insert Asian city]?

It’s a bit of a personal question, but if you’re planning a move to Singapore or Hong Kong, recruiters have a vested interest in asking it. “If you already know about living costs from talking to friends, it lets us talk about salary expectations in the context of Hong Kong cost differentials,” said Marlene Chan, a senior consultant at Capital People. “It also shows the extent of your local support network, which is important when moving to a new country, and it assures the employer that you will stay long enough to make hiring you worthwhile.”

9) How should our portfolio strategy evolve according to the financial landscape?

With financial markets and regulations in flux, employers like to grill candidates on how well they cope with change. Your answer must show that you have researched company strategy, can discuss the impact on the business of important reforms and trends in your sector, and have thought a “few steps beyond” the immediate job scope, said Rachel Liu, an associate director at Profile Search & Selection in Singapore. “Some senior candidates waltz into interviews without adequate preparation because of their ‘I’m so senior, what can stump me?’ mentality, so hiring managers are also testing your attitude towards the role.”

10) What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Risk management is at the top of banks’ agenda, so interviewers are increasingly likely to throw in this question. “It’s not the exact risk level they really care about – they want a better understanding of how you will fit into their organisation,” said Milligan from Randstad. “They want to hear not only what made the situation, project or deal risky, but also what you did to mitigate the risk. They are looking to understand the rationale for your response.”

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