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“I was an MD in Asian banking. Here’s how I made my job bearable”

eric sim

Many of us in banking will work at least five, 10, or 15 years before we retire or move to another sector. And as bankers we will – from time to time – experience burnout, frustration or even pain.

I joined the industry in 1994 at DBS in Singapore and then moved to Standard Chartered, Citi, ANZ and UBS, where I was a Hong Kong-based MD and advised clients across capital markets, FX, and financing.

With 23 years in banking (I left the sector this year to set up a career training company), I’m well aware of the stresses that come with being a banker.

But I also believe that it’s possible to alleviate some of these anxieties and make your work a little more interesting and bearable. Here’s how:

Incorporate your interests into your work

I enjoy photography. When working for Citi, I volunteered to be the photographer for a client offsite event and I immediately became doubly useful – not only did I teach derivatives, I also took photos of the event participants.

Next thing I knew, respective country sales heads at the bank started inviting me to teach derivatives and take pictures at their offsites. It gave me opportunities to travel to destinations like Phuket, Urumqi and Dubai, get to know overseas clients and colleagues, and put my photography skills to good use.

Teaching is my also passion (it’s what I’m doing full-time now). Without being asked, I often conducted classes at the banks I worked for to share my knowledge with other departments. I didn’t get paid or receive praise from my bosses, but I did get a lot of satisfaction from appreciative colleagues.

I’ve been an Apple fan since 2001. Instead of using PowerPoint to present to clients, I used Keynote on my MacBook. The design and animation impressed clients and made my presentations more memorable. I’ve always been an early adopter of Apple products. When clients asked about my new gadgets, it was a great opportunity to build rapport with them.

Think of yourself as CEO of your own consulting company

As a banker I sometimes thought of myself as the CEO of the Eric Sim Consulting Company. I counted Stan Chart, Citi, ANZ and UBS as my customers, not my employers. I thought of my earnings as a consulting fee, not a salary. My company had only one employee – Eric Sim.

When rendering the services of Eric to Citi, I constantly looked out for services that Citi needed. When Citi required Eric to cover Thai clients, I immediately sent him for Thai language classes at my own expense. When Citi used Eric’s services in China, I forced him to memorise the Chinese expressions for hundreds of financial terms – from hedge accounting to cross-currency swaps – in just a week.

As CEO, I wanted to build long-term relationship with customers, so I asked Eric to sometimes accept work not within his job scope, such as organising events and cross-selling other departments’ products. It might have taken him away from his own revenue-generating activities but in the long run, it was good for customer relationships. “Give and take!” I said to him.

Don’t resign, ask for a transfer

Based on the many CVs I’ve seen, I think the average tenure in a banking job is only about three years. Of course, there are people who do the same job in the same bank for 10 years or more, but they’re as rare as black swans these days. Most bankers seem to get bored or frustrated after three years.

But before you think of quitting for another bank, try for an internal transfer. Since you’ve already built some credibility and networks within your bank, you have a good chance of getting one. It will give you the opportunity to develop new skills, whereas a job with another bank requires you to use your old skills just to prove yourself.

When I was at Citi, I got bored or frustrated every two to three years myself, so I talked to my bosses about potential moves to different roles or locations. They were very happy to oblige. I worked in three different jobs in three cities over eight very interesting years.

Bring your own….chair

Most banking jobs these day are deskbound, we spend 10 to 12 hours a day in the office, but the human body is not designed to sit for long hours. Sitting is the new smoking.

To keep our spines healthy, standing up regularly isn’t sufficient – we need a chair that actually fits us properly. Your office chair is most likely oversized because it was designed to fit the biggest and heaviest person in the office.

As a banker, I brought my own chair to each new office I worked in. Work is already stressful enough; we don’t need a bad-fitting chair to make it worse. My favourite chair followed me from Singapore to Shanghai to Hong Kong.

Eric Sim is a former UBS MD who is now the chief trainer at the Institute of Life in Hong Kong and is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Finance at HKUST.

Image credit: Narathip12, Getty

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