Back-office professionals looking to leave their jobs for careers that are more interesting, better paid and less vulnerable to offshoring face a challenging task in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Making the move is still possible in certain job functions, however, according to recruiters in the two cities who’ve helped people break out of the back office.
You may not be able to clinch a sales job in banking – as ING’s current Singapore head, Catherine Low, did when she moved away from operations more than 20 years ago – but there are other options for changing your career.
Hiring an unproven external candidate who’s also making a career change is a step too far for most banks. “In Asia, moving from one bank’s back office into another’s middle or front office will never happen,” says Kyle Blockley, managing partner at recruitment firm KS Consulting in Singapore. “The only way the move ever occurs is internally within the bank. People in back-office roles who want to move really need to understand their own limitations.”
A new bank may not hire you, but one of the Big Four consultancies just might, especially if you have build up project-management or business-analysis experience in operations, finance or technology. “Consultancies in Asia are extremely busy in their operations and technology practices,” says Kate Harper, an associate director at recruiters Eximius Group in Hong Kong. While you won’t be dealing with clients right away, the Big Four have a reputation for supporting high-potential employees to transition into client-facing roles.
Not only are fund accountants in demand within their own job function in Asia, their skills are sometimes sought after within the front office. “We placed once recently into a trading-assistant role in a medium-sized hedge fund,” says Blockley from KS Consulting. “I moved a candidate from fund accounting into client services at a custodian firm,” adds Marlene Chan, a managing consultant at search firm Capital People in Hong Kong. “She wanted to avoid offshoring and more importantly wanted a role allowing more interaction with people."
Impressive technical knowledge alone won’t get you out of the back office. Chan’s fund accountant got the job partly because she had “good interpersonal skills” and was fluent in English and Mandarin. “The employer was very concerned with language ability so it wasn't easy to find the right candidate, although there were lots of fund accountants out there.” Blockley adds: “You need the right attitude and personality to make an impact with front office staff. This is the challenge in Singapore – very few back-office candidates have both the skills and personality to make the move.”
For those at banks, the most viable escape route out of the back office in Asia is...into the middle office. Target the compliance team at your current bank, which is likely to be understaffed and overworked. If you’ve developed any of the following skills within operations, Harper from Eximius says they are also in demand in compliance: product knowledge; front-office stakeholder management; client servicing; due diligence (supporting AML and KYC activity); project management; business analysis; operational risk; systems knowledge; trade monitoring; reconciliations; documentation; remittance; and regulatory awareness.
“There are elements of training and development as the responsibilities in operations and compliance functions still differ significantly, but compliance is a skill-short area and we are certainly seeing professionals with relevant academics and positive internal reputations making the move,” says Harper.
Even if you have a host of the above skills, you still need to put in an extra effort if you want your bank to take you seriously as a compliance candidate. Try to secure a place on a compliance–related project, build relationships with senior people in the compliance team, and even attend compliance networking events, advises Harper. Essentially, you should act as though you are “compliance ready”. “If you’re perceived as a high-potential employee, the bank will more than likely support an internal move into compliance.”
As we've pointed to in the past, operational risk roles are in demand but talent is in short supply in Asia. This means back-office staff with relevant experience may be considered for internal transfers. "I know someone who after years of back-office experience in financial-markets operations moved into financial-markets operational risk," says Fong Chua, associate director at recruiters LMA in Singapore. "The move was a successful transition as he was a subject-matter expert in operations who had been dealing regularly with the operational-risk team in terms of ops-loss incident reporting. He had also been coming up with controls in the operations department to prevent, mitigate and reduce operational loss."