• Perspectives
  • 10 October 2018

Going global: Take advantage of that opportunity to work abroad

I relocated to Hong Kong from Singapore at the start of this year to be the Global Market Head for Greater China and North Asia, and Chief Executive of Bank of Singapore’s Hong Kong branch.

One may think that it would be an easy transition as I was already travelling frequently and was responsible for the bank’s branch in Dubai.
 
Any move overseas and new role is never a walk in the park and I am not afraid to say that I have had my fair share of struggles. This is what I’ve learnt in my journey so far.

Saying yes is never easy

When my boss asked me in 2017 to make the move, I was in the midst of building a new house and my wife was pregnant with our second son. My elder son was barely two years old. Could I really leave my young family behind and live in another country? Would it be fair to uproot them from the comforts of the familiar and security of extended family?

Saying yes also meant relinquishing my role as Global Market Head for Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, Sub-Continent and Middle East, where I had been growing the bank’s business, built good relationships with clients and had a team of staff whom I worked well with. Why rock the boat?

But I knew that the role was an exciting opportunity to help bank grow and deepen the business in one of our core markets and contribute even more to the growth of our business. Hong Kong is now the top city for ultra-high net worth individuals and China has the largest number of private wealth in the region and the second globally. The opportunities are there and I want to be part of the growth story.

For a while, you know almost nothing… and that is ok. Just be willing to learn.

Initially, I knew nothing about the Greater China market.  China alone is a huge market to grasp and understand.

So even before I assumed my new role and moved to Hong Kong, while I was still overseeing my previous markets, I made it a point to travel to various Chinese cities to understand what each is known for and spoke to locals to understand the economic strengths and cultural nuances of each region.

I learned for example, that you have to be mindful where you sit in formal meetings or functions in China - the most senior person had to sit furthest away from, but facing, the door, while the most junior person would sit nearest, with their back facing the door.

On the language front, while I had a basic grasp of Mandarin and Cantonese, I was nowhere close to being able or comfortable in using either in daily or business conversations. I decided to go for the tried and true method of learning – watching Hong Kong dramas and singing along to Mando-pop hits. Today, after months of practice I can deliver a speech in front of a few hundred people fluently in Mandarin and Cantonese, much to the relief and pride of my colleagues in Hong Kong.

It has been steep learning curve but one that I enjoy tremendously.

Don’t be a bulldozer. Communication is key.

You can’t walk into a new role and expect to get universal support from colleagues, even if you are going in as the new person in charge.

I know what is expected of me. I have a vision about where I want to take my team and the bank in Greater China. While I believe in leading from the front, I didn’t want to appear as overly brash.

An outside-in-approach, which is ‘this is how I do it, this is what I know, you follow’ does not work.

As a new leader I knew that I could not skip right over the human aspect of change management. By nature, people are resistant to change. The key is to get your agenda and message out early and consistently, and as much as possible, do it face-to-face.

People need more than just new marching orders. They need to establish trust and rapport with the new person in charge, as well as time to develop new mindsets and a genuine understanding of their role in the transition that is taking place.

It’s also important to be diplomatic and tactful at all times. Being a great leader requires not just great communication on your part, but the ability to listen to the opinion of others too.

I regularly organise informal get-togethers in the office, where I have the chance to get to know and hear from colleagues from all ranks and departments of the organisation. I also bring various teams out for a meal and drinks to meet with everyone on a relaxed and social level.

Embrace the opportunity. Embrace the challenge

To anyone on the fence about taking on an overseas role, I say this: If your company is willing to invest in you and gives you the chance to work abroad and gain international work experience – embrace the opportunity and the challenge.

Remind yourself over and over again - the company offered me this role because they believed in my abilities. The least I can do is to believe in myself too.

You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. You learn, you broaden your horizons. You unlearn, and after coming down and embracing a few lessons, you start growing in humility. You evolve. It may seem like a big step but it will advance you in your career and you will be a step ahead of those who do not.

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