When I started my career, one of the many menial jobs in the bank included taking staples out of cheques and ‘throwing out the waste’ (which actually meant sorting cheques into the respective banks they were drawn on – imagine the confusion with this job description!).
Fast forward 30 years and if you believe all you read, fintech will take over banking someday soon. It will turn the industry into one giant app and customer service will be ‘Siri’d’.
While I fully embrace and welcome advances in banking technology – both from the perspective of facilitating faster and more secure transactions, and increasing our ability to identify and limit money laundering – one thing that will never change is that ‘real banking’ is all about people.
This is particularly true in Asia, where I have spent a large part of my banking career. Business and banking in this region – more than in others – are all about relationships.
From my experience as a senior banker, clients in Asia don’t have a relationship with the bank’s internet platform (no matter how much banks spend on their user interfaces) and they don’t have a relationship with their mobile wallet (sorry Apple and Samsung).
They do have a relationship with their personal banker/relationship manager, who understands their needs and is there to support them through the ups and downs. Or they even have a relationship with the person at the contact centre who actually listens to them and helps them.
What does this mean for people looking to start or boost their careers in Asian banking?
It means that ‘people skills’ are just as valuable (if not more so), than the ability to understand ‘techno-speak’ and devise the next best app. Yet surprisingly in Asia people skills are often overlooked by banks and bankers alike.
People skills can be used to work with clients as well as to manage teams within the bank. This is why bankers need to focus on their people skills and leadership skills, and stay abreast of technology and understanding the benefits it can deliver.
But while technology skills are well understood and more quantifiable, people skills are sometimes thought of as being ‘soft and fluffy’ and subjective.
In reality bankers with great people skills are able to relate well to others and are good (active) listeners. They can also read body language, empathise, handle ambiguity, have tough conversations and make hard decisions after balancing all the issues. They are excellent negotiators and communicators, and they engender trust.
To paraphrase, ‘are you born with these people skills or do you need to make them’?
I think we all need to work at our people skills – consciously, structurally and strategically. We need to take every opportunity to develop them, whether that’s via internal bank training programmes, external programmes, or mentorships.
We should also frequently ask our own teams for their feedback. I used to do this at the end of the performance review discussions that I had with my direct reports across Asia. I asked them for their feedback on areas that I needed to improve on – and I actually listened to their answers!
I believe that leaders are made more than they are born. Just the same way that great footballers all have basic natural abilities, their development to greatness takes a massive amount of commitment and hard work.
So, for existing and aspiring bankers in Asia, my suggestion is to focus on developing and honing your people skills in addition to your technology awareness. This will enable you to relate to your clients, lead your teams, and position technology as the key enabler that it is and will continue to be.
Maybe one day we will develop a relationship with our mobile wallets – but until then, ‘power to the people’.
Russell Graham, is a former Singapore-based global head of service and solution delivery at Standard Chartered and is now a partner at Asian transaction banking consultancy SkyTxB.
Image credit: shironosov, iStock, Thinkstock