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The emerging talent shortage now sweeping the Asian finance sector

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We’ve been reporting on skill shortages in Asian financial services throughout this year – compliance, risk and relationship management are among the job functions currently suffering from them. But there’s another, more niche, part of the Asian finance sector where the talent base also appears to need urgent development: the C-suite.

Singapore and Hong Kong don’t currently have enough budding leaders to ensure they can continue to thrive as financial centres Share on twitter in the near future, say two academics from the National University of Singapore Business School. Professor Bernard Yeung, the school’s dean, and Professor Joseph Cherian, director of its Centre for Asset Management Research and Investments, are trying to tackle the problem.

Last month they helped NUS Business School launch a new course – Asia Leaders in Financial Institutions – aimed at senior directors, executive vice presidents and managing directors with their eyes on C-level jobs. The programme, which at US$31,030 costs significantly less than an elite MBA, will train these rather senior students in subjects such as change management in turbulent times; enterprise-wide risk avoidance and mitigation; managing and delivering cutting-edge financial technology; and charismatic leadership.

As well as being taught by NUS faculty members, the course features guest contributions from the likes of K. Vaman Kamath, chairman of ICICI Bank, and Masaaki Shirakawa, the former Governor of the Bank of Japan. It kicks off with a five-day stint in Singapore in September next year, followed by sessions in Mumbai, Beijing and New York (of three days each) between December 2015 and April 2016, and a final one in Singapore in June 2016.

We asked Professors Yeung and Cherian why they think Asian financial services needs better leaders.

Why set up this programme?

Professor Bernard Yeung: We both believe that financial and capital markets are the CPU of Asia’s economy and its recent economic renaissance, which makes it crucial that we build future leaders for the industry. We want to create a leadership voice of financial professionals who can help put an Asian signature on the global financial landscape. There’s really no credible, successful programme that does this yet.

Professor Joseph Cherian: There is still a comparative lack of strong senior Asian voices, not just in financial institutions but also within financial regulators. As Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai – and hopefully Mumbai, too – become more successful as financial centres they will need locally-developed leaders who understand Asian cultures and Asian regulatory regimes.

But banks in Asia already run their own leadership-training programmes. Why attend an external course?

JC: I used to work on Wall Street – the training sessions by the banks there were good, but they were naturally inward looking. We want to expose high-flyers to the latest thinking in leadership in finance, no matter where it comes from.

BY: Without this course it would be hard to get exposed to ideas from, for example, five CEOs of top financial institutions all sitting together in one room – plus the networking opportunities in that are huge. If we really want to groom tomorrow’s leaders, we have to have multiple mind-sets across multiple locations feeding into their development, so they’re not just exposed to the leadership culture of a single firm. This programme develops not just individuals to be leaders in financial institutions – it develops a network of leaders with insights and credibility.

What are the unique aspects of financial-sector leadership in Asia?

BY: The talent pool of financial professionals is still thinner in Singapore and Hong Kong than in Western markets like London and New York – and that makes a difference to you as a leader. Talent shortages mean that having the ability to mentor and develop people internally is a more crucial aspect of leadership in Asia. Having the ‘personal touch’ is very important when leaders mentor their staff – in Asia you need to really understand what motivates your employees and treat them with respect. Good leaders in Asia know the importance of aligning their employees’ long-term personal objectives with the company’s objectives.

JC: Differences in the structure of our domestic financial institutions also affect leadership. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that family-owned firms, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds are more important to the financial industry in Asia than they are in the West. These firms have a different business and leadership focus than, for example, the global banks – the former are more long term and less quarter-to-quarter focused. The nature of your clients can be different too – you’re more likely to deal with dominant owners and families. Government relationships with the finance sector are more intertwined in Asia, and you generally need to show the government sufficient deference as a leader. In summary, leadership is more long term and more relationship-driven on a number of levels. In the future I also think Asia will develop more of its own model of financial regulations – strong leadership will become more important in this context too.

How to you actually teach these aspects of Asian leadership?

BY: The course is taught by top-notch academics and successful financial leaders – like CEOs who have led their firm through the financial crisis – who can provide real-life case studies, allowing students to learn through an ‘osmosis of ideas’. Also, participants are expected to complete an on-the-job assignment in finance and a capstone team project. There will be mentors to ascertain successful action-learning. Singapore has an advantage here because it’s the city that best reflects Asia’s diversity – we have so many experts from across the region working here.

JC: We’re also taking the participants to Mumbai, Beijing and New York, where they will meet financial leaders, former and current central bank governors, leading academics and Nobel Prize winners. These sessions will be more like interactive round-table discussions and less like lectures. There will be case studies, simulations, role playing and exercises on financial leadership, and dialogue sessions, site visits, experiential learning and networking with successful leaders.

How will participants fit the course into their busy work schedules?

BY: We’ve spaced out the stints in various cities. But in between, students remain connected with one another and have assignments, for example capstone projects – this is actually good practice for being a CEO, when you have to adjust your work patterns and have to spend more time studying things strategically.

What’s interest been like in the course so far?

BY: It’s just been launched and doesn’t start until September 2015, but we’ve already received a number of enquiries. Mostly I think it will be CEOs recommending senior-level people in their firm to do the course – companies have already shown they’re willing to support the programme. It’s a highly selective course aimed at ‘C-level minus one’ people, and we take people not just from investment banks, but from across the finance sector – from regulators, from pension funds, from the buy-side. Generally, financial institutions would want to expose their group of senior-level people to multiple types of top training programmes in Asia and globally.


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