LEARNING TO ADAPT AND STAYING AUTHENTIC

David Wong, Deputy Chief Executive at the Bank of China (Hong Kong), shares his personal experiences as a Singaporean leading in a Chinese bank.
The road towards becoming a global leader is a long one and I have learned the value of starting early in this journey. I remember my first overseas assignment as a young Singaporean leading the financial markets trading team at HSBC, Hong Kong. My mentor had encouraged me to make the move and I was keen to fulfil his faith in me by achieving results quickly.

I had built a track record of success in Singapore by adopting a fast-paced and results-oriented approach. This task-focused style – I thought – would also work in Hong Kong. However, I discovered that this management style, which had long served me well, did not work in my new environment.

I sensed resistance and frustration within my team and sought feedback from my mentor. I respected him as a strategic thinker and an Englishman who understood Hong Kong culture well. His advice was simple – “Take the time to know your subordinates socially – not just professionally”. Following his advice made all the difference.

Learn to adapt

I began to understand that I was perceived as a newcomer who had been “parachuted” in from abroad. I also began to realise that some of my team members felt a latent sense of competition between Hong Kong and Singapore, and thus I had to work harder to win over their support.

I had been too focused on achieving the trading desk’s financial goals and did not spend enough time trying to understand the concerns of my team members. My premise was that I had all the solutions and answers and, therefore, I felt there was no need for consultation and exploration of alternative solutions.

As a result of this experience, I now understand the importance of allowing for time to develop shared experiences and demonstrate consistency of behavior. These are critical ingredients in establishing trust between leaders and their teams.

Now I talk less and listen more. I also observe and actively seek feedback from others. I admit that I do not have all the answers to our business challenges, and I constantly reaffirm my faith in my team – that together we can make a big difference. It was a valuable learning experience; a leader must constantly seek feedback and learn to adapt.

Staying authentic

In a globalised world, the ability to understand and adapt to different cultures and markets is increasingly important. Cultural sensitivity is vital in understanding varying customer needs, buying behaviours, risk appetites and business philosophies across different countries.

In recent years, many Chinese companies have begun to invest overseas, especially in resources, like oil, gas and agriculture. As their banker and business partner, we have to follow them to “go overseas” (走出去) in different geographies and industrial sectors in order for them to explore new business opportunities. Hence, it is important for us to develop a global talent pool to cater for international operations that span many borders.

However, while it is important for a global leader to adapt, it is also important to stay authentic and differentiated. I remember that my boss encouraged me from that start not to be completely assimilated (同化) into Chinese culture. He knew that I had experience working in diverse markets like New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo and had a much more direct communication style than most Chinese. It was these differentiators that allowed me to make the biggest contribution to the bank. As a task-oriented Singaporean with international banking experience, I helped drive transformation within the bank, and as a result we now provide financial products and services that are on par with our global competitors.

Indeed, I am told that it is my direct, ‘hands-on’ and ‘lead-from-the-front’ management style that helped win the bank’s first RMB bond mandate from a global European motor company. I am of the opinion that my willingness to drive change – but in a patient manner – has made the biggest difference to our business. I also believe that global leaders must possess both an international mindset as well as local intelligence. Global leaders need to adapt, but stay authentic.

Leadership styles in China and Singapore

The Chinese corporate culture is deeply influenced by Confucianism. The emphasis is on building relationships and trust first, before effective business transactions can take place.

Collective decision-making is one of the common features amongst most Chinese companies. It may take a longer time to discuss and address all relevant issues, but with persistence and patience the chance of successful execution is much higher.

The concept of family and community are also very much in the DNA of the bank. During the financial crisis of 2008, Bank of China (Hong Kong), made the decision to endure the difficulties without any major downsizing. Indeed, it is during such tough times, that it is most critical for families and communities to support each other. The bank’s message of ‘we are all in the same boat’ (同舟共濟、共渡時艱) was well received by employees. And, this solidified employee engagement and loyalty.

In contrast, I feel that the corporate culture in Singapore is more influenced by Western management philosophy and practices. It is direct and very business-focused with a logical decision-making process — the focus is on the issue rather than the person in the process (對事不對人). Striking the right balance between cultural immersion whilst staying true to one’s core values is a fine art.

The key to success lies in building trust and credibility. Trust and respect take time to build, but patience and persistence are essential in the quest to be successful.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

It may surprise some, but Chinese companies are actually very willing to embrace new ideas and approaches. In my experience, Chinese senior management are quite open-minded and receptive to change. Nonetheless, it is important to gain trust from all levels of the organisation. This helps increase the level of buy-in of new ideas.

Having a good idea is not enough — communicating these ideas is of utmost importance. The willingness to take time and effort to outline your approach and expected outcome helps to establish a commitment to a collective goal through teamwork — we frequently emphasise the motto of ’One Bank, One Team’.

The most important thing is that whatever we do is for the ultimate benefit of the bank and our clients.

Change at the right pace

A foundation of trust and respect is built through consistent behavioural interaction with superiors, peers and subordinates on a daily basis. Success is the accumulation of small wins. I have also learned the importance of introducing change at the right pace, while keeping a clear focus on long-term strategic goals.

My advice is to be patient yet prepared to seize the opportunity when the time is right for change. For example, the recent internationalisation of the Renminbi has helped hasten our transformation as an international and fast moving organisation. We have responded quickly to policy and regulatory changes brought about by further liberalisation of the RMB as a trade and investment currency.

Likewise, the needs of our Chinese clients have grown increasingly international and complex. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity to accelerate our development as an international and responsive organisation.

The importance of humility

Another aspect of leadership in the Chinese context is humility and eagerness to learn. This may not be a very common trait in Western culture, but it is a critical asset in the Chinese context.

Being open-minded and showing respect for the opinions of others is a good way to win hearts. Learning, listening, observing and consulting with superiors, peers and subordinates ensures buy-in from others, especially when difficult decisions are to be made. This process is as important as the final outcome.

One of the most vivid examples of my career journey so far was the setting up of an asset management business to cater for our Chinese customers that were growing internationally. Such greenfield projects need buy-in at all levels, from the board to departmental levels, and within a relatively short period of time. From new idea generation to formulation of the business strategy and budgeting, to the execution of the plan, these processes require communication, discussion and engagement of all relevant stakeholders. This could not have happened without the humility and eagerness to learn from the entire team.

Chinese companies are expected to become increasingly global. Yet, there is no set formula for a global leader to succeed in a Chinese organisation. Leading a Chinese business is a learning process that requires embracing change, open-mindedness, appreciating and accepting cultural differences, and adopting international best practices. Yet, one’s own core values should always be retained.

In preparing for the challenging and complex future, it may be helpful to start with a simple and ancient Chinese idiom: ‘Know Yourself and Others (知己知彼) ’. In that way, you can begin to learn how to adapt while staying authentic.

This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 04 (2012).

​DAVID WONG
​David Wong is the Deputy Chief Executive of Bank of China (Hong Kong).