“If an interviewer at a bank in Hong Kong wants to find out how well you speak Chinese, they won’t ask you ‘how good is your Mandarin?’”, says Vienne Lee, director of language coaching company Business Mandarin. “They’ll just ask a normal question like ‘can you compare Tencent and Alibaba’s business models?’ and see how well you respond in Mandarin.”
Since setting up her company in the late 1990s, Lee has tasked herself with improving the Mandarin skills of some of Hong Kong’s leading bankers at firms such as J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, UBS and BlackRock.
Over the past year, as Western banks have cut jobs in Hong Kong and Chinese firms have increased their hiring, Lee has seen an uptick in unemployed financial professionals seeking assistance with their job searches.
“We’re also working with more bankers who are on gardening leave or are setting up their own hedge funds or family offices,” she says. “We polish their Mandarin communication skills for the finance sector, and coach them about building networks and interviewing.”
But Mandarin isn’t only important when you’re looking for work. Lee, whose firm focuses on financial services and mainly takes on clients at VP level and above, helps bankers perform better on the job.
To rule out people who aren’t fully committed to the rigours of learning Mandarin, she first assesses whether they really need language skills to excel in their roles. “Are you regularly dealing with high-end Chinese clients? How is your asset allocation in the China market? And do you need to talk to senior mainland government officials?”
Lee runs Mandarin group workshops in several areas of financial services – including mergers, listings, private equity and debt capital markets – but she says senior bankers often want one-on-one coaching.
“I recently had an Australian client who was able to complete an opening presentation to 170 people in Chinese – it went extremely well, with applause in all the right places,” she says. “If you can go from nothing to making a speech to a Chinese audience, it also shows your colleagues and clients that you’re committed to doing business in China.”
“Another senior person needed to study Premier Li Keqiang’s debt-equity-swap reform in China. We coached him about terminology of the reforms and about the correct way to discuss them when meeting government representatives,” she adds.
When Hong Kong-based bankers visit China, their market knowledge and how they communicate are just as important as their vocabulary and grammar.
“We research who you’re meeting or might bump into at a conference, so you can memorise who’s who – that’s an important part of success in Chinese finance,” she explains. “We also teach you about trends in the finance sector and important government initiatives like the Five Year Plan.”
Western finance professionals operating in China and living in Hong Kong – whether they are complete beginners or already know some Mandarin – make up about 60% of Lee’s students.
Another 20% are Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers whose written Chinese is good but who want to polish their Mandarin pronunciation. “Thirdly, we teach overseas-born Chinese who speak a bit of basic Mandarin at home, but can’t cut it in the Chinese financial world so need help with terminology in areas like due diligence, modelling and valuation.”
Whatever their background, most bankers find learning Mandarin challenging. “Sometimes they don’t have enough time for classes and revision. And there’s the sheer volume of financial terminology and the difficult tones and grammar,” says Lee.
She also helps Westerners adjust to the different presentation styles they will encounter in China. “For example, they often think it’s necessary to make a joke at the start of a speech and play themselves down,” explains Lee.
“But in China you need to show people you’re the boss – especially if you’re presenting to them for the first time – otherwise they won’t look up to you as a role model. When we’re coaching people, we show them speeches from Chinese business and political leaders,” she adds.
Lee says she always had a “passion” for the Chinese language. After organising financial conferences in 1998 – soon after China assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong – she realised that Mandarin would become increasingly important to banking careers in her city.
“The conferences connected me to more than 1,000 people in the finance sector. And I saw a gap in the market: bankers wanted presentation, pitching and interviewing skills in Mandarin that were tailored to the technical needs of their jobs,” she says. “To secure Chinese deals, you need to understand China – both its language and its culture.”