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The best career advice from Asian bankers in 2016

Career advice Asian banking

Are you planning to move jobs in Asian banking in 2017 or wondering how to advance your career at your current firm?

We’ve spoken to several senior finance professionals in Hong Kong and Singapore this year who’ve offered their top tips for getting ahead in your career.

Become a sensitive banker

As Asian revenues fall in investment banking and margins tighten in wealth management, front-office staff have had to deal with more disgruntled clients. Jullie Kan, vice chairman of South East Asia private banking at Credit Suisse, says she wants to develop “sensitive” relationship managers who are able to deliver bad news to clients. “We want our bankers to be equipped to have this kind of conversation, in a tough market environment and not just when it’s a bull run. We want them to experience upheaval situations where they understand that it takes a lot more sensitivity when handling a client’s emotions.”

Get a game changer

Most banks dish out mentors to their staff. If you get one, work hard on the relationship as it could benefit you beyond your current firm. “In any banking career two or three people will be your game changers”, says Pascal Lambert, Societe Generale’s head of Southeast Asia and group country head for Singapore. “You may have benefited from their mentorship and they may offer advice which could create opportunities for you to consider.” One of Lambert’s “big career breaks” came when he followed a former colleague and mentor to Bear Stearns in 1993. “I became their first Hong Kong employee and I set up the derivatives team for them there. It was new and exciting.”

Milk your tough times

Is your bank a stressful place to work right now? Perhaps it’s offshoring staff away from Singapore and Hong Kong? You may be able to use this to your advantage. Michael Dargan, Standard Chartered’s Singapore-based CIO of corporate and institutional banking, says he has no regrets about the tough times he faced helping Merrill Lynch with the Asian aspects of its merger with Bank of America. “While it was the hardest experience of my career, it was among the best because it prepared me well for any challenges I faced later.”

Have a “tech bias” even if you’re not a techie

Banking professionals must “be agile and embrace ambiguity”, says James Mendes, head of Asia Pacific recruitment at Citi. “Being agile means having the ability to deal with the rapid pace of technological change in banking. You don’t know what your role will be in five years.” You must also have a “tech bias” in your thinking, he adds. “For example, think about robotics process automation and the digital requirements of the customer. There’s a misconception that technology will end banking jobs. It won’t – it will shift jobs to other parts of the organisation, let people get on with what they’re good at, and create new opportunities for learning and development.”

Career changes take a lot of networking

Finding your dream banking job is difficult in the current employment market in Asia, but if you can get yourself into a large bank, you can eventually work your way into the career change you want. Singapore-based Sean Kang, who now works for consultancy McLagan as a director in wealth management, initially joined Credit Suisse in a business development role. “It wasn’t product structuring, it wasn’t my ideal role. But once you have your foot in the door you must then build up internal networks and a good personal reputation at the bank – so that’s what I did,” says Kang, who later moved into the firm’s structured solutions unit.

You will never know it all 

“Earlier on, when I moved jobs within the firm, one of the biggest challenges was learning to work with my in-built desire to try to ‘know everything’ before changing jobs,” says Sophia Leung, Asia Pacific CIO at J.P. Morgan. “Over time I realised that this was unrealistic and that as a manager, building a strong team around me – with diverse and specialised skills and knowledge – is vital to both the team’s success and my own.”

Look beyond the glamour of a front-office role

Vincent Choo, head of risk at OCBC, was once given a choice of two roles at a previous bank: a senior sales job, or head of Hong Kong market risk. “I chose risk because I thought it would offer better career longevity and because I wanted to remain on the other side of the fence but still be connected with the markets.”

Convert to a specialist tech role

Work in a mundane tech support role? Your bank may be willing to train you up to do something more exciting. China Construction Bank (Asia), for example, is converting generalist IT staff into specialist jobs. “We’re transitioning IT infrastructure guys, for example, into AML and security roles,” says Arthur Wong, head of information technology.  “We usually target younger people for retraining – those who we think are more outgoing and open to change.”

Be honest as a new manager

“On the first morning in charge I wanted to run back into my office and close the door,” says Russell Graham, a former head of service and solution delivery at Standard Chartered, of his initial experiences managing a big team. “So I formed a cross-mentoring society with the other manager and I was honest with my staff – I said ‘I’m new to this, so be open with me and say when you think I’m wrong’.”

Be more light-hearted

Adding an appropriate touch of humour in the office “can help you get through difficult situations with a smile”, says former Deutsche and UBS banker Benjamin Quinlan, now a Hong Kong finance sector consultant and part-time comedian. “It’s not about making a mockery of your work, it’s about enjoying your work more.” Quinlan says his stand-up act has improved his professional skills. “The more shows you do, the better you get at reading the audience. This is an important skill when you’re making a presentation as a banker or delivering a difficult message as a consultant.”


Image credit: stockstudioX, Getty

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