UNTIL RECENTLY, unless you were a male graduate from an Ivy League school or Oxbridge, you might have thought you had little chance of succeeding with the big players in the world of banking and finance. What's more, few of those organisations would have tried to change your mind.
'The opinion on campus in Asia has been that the big banking institutions don't recruit local students and that you have to be male and American to get on,' said Andy Lowe, an independent human resources consultant who has worked with a number of the top investment banks on diversity issues.
Thankfully, both investment and retail banks are recognising that strategic recruitment is less about finding 'people like us' and more about 'leveraging 'talent', regardless of gender, race, education, social standing, family status, physical ability, or sexual orientation.
While ability and academic achievements remain essential requirements, opportunities are no longer limited to a select few. 'These days, banks are trying to attract the best people taken from the broadest talent pool possible, rather than from a very narrow talent pool,' Dr Lowe said.
In consequence, banking and finance organisations are becoming a more attractive option for people from all walks of life, and some of them are being recognised for their efforts to embrace diversity. For example, in 2004, Citigroup was named by Fortune magazine as one of the top 50 companies for minorities in the United States.
Although the biggest changes in the finance industry have been in North America, banks are now seeing diversity as a global priority and are hiring specialists in the field for their local operations.
The business benefits of a diverse workforce include increased creativity and innovation. Moreover, when employees feel valued because of who they are,they are likely to contribute more and stay longer.
For one bank, embracing people from diverse backgrounds is a key factor leading to effective talent management. 'We want to attract the best people and we want the best to rise to the top. The wider you cast the net, the better the chance of catching the top performers,' said Margaret Leung, global co-head of commercial banking at HSBC.
A diverse workforce also helps an organisation to meet the needs of specific customers and build relationships across the globe. 'With operations in 76 countries and territories around the world, HSBC harnesses genuinely local expertise to bring people better financial solutions. After all, we are the world's local bank,' Ms Leung said.
Statistics show that women decide or influence about 80 per cent of all consumer and business goods purchases. Globally, they also have 76 million credit cards - that is 8 million more than men.
'With such high purchasing power, it makes sense to hire more women, who will provide different perspectives on developing products and services,' Ms Leung said.
The drive for diversity has had a clear impact on graduate recruitment. In the last five to seven years, international banks have shifted their focus from traditional talent pools and begun to recruit on regional campuses such as those in Korea, the mainland, Hong Kong and Singapore.
'It is now much easier for local students to get into internships, summer programmes, and part-time work attachment programmes. These give them a chance to get seen, and to evaluate an organisation to see if it is right for them,' Dr Lowe said.
In addition, organisations are developing structured and objective approaches to selection, which ensure that individuals are assessed on what they can bring to an organisation rather than on their background.
'Historically, banks have recruited on gut feel, with a tendency to hire a person who 'looks like me, sounds like me'. Now there is more awareness that selection should be built around competencies,' Dr Lowe explained.
Despite these recent developments, potential applicants might be forgiven for feeling sceptical.
The concept of diversity initially emerged in response to equal opportunities legislation, leading to a worry that diversity programmes are more about filling quotas than embracing talent.
However, instead of thinking of the issue in terms of compliance with the law, companies are now seeing that it has merit.
'When we started focusing on diversity, we were driven by the desire to give equal opportunities. While this is still true, we are now also driven by business needs. We see diversity as a means to improving our performance,' Ms Leung said.
Candidates who are concerned about the sincerity of an organisation's commitment, should look beyond the recruitment process and consider how they embrace diversity within their business operations.
'It is not simply about gender, ethnicity, disability, age, or religion. It is about embracing non-conformity, creating balanced teams and removing barriers to growth or advancement,' Ms Leung added.
To open up the playing field for applicants from all backgrounds, one of the immediate priorities is to ensure that people are able to communicate effectively.
'Some banking executives are unwilling to slow down when communicating with people who are operating in a second language,' Dr Lowe said. 'This can be a big obstacle for local recruits.'
In consequence, organisations are building cross-cultural competency and are training existing staff to evaluate people on their performance rather than the way they communicate. To minimise difficulties, banks will often place graduates on business language programmes soon after they are hired.
Other initiatives include the development of employee-run networks, designed to meet the needs of specific groups of employees, such as women and local recruits.
Networks allow people to share ideas and voice their concerns to the executive team. They also provide an invaluable forum for support and development.
'Networks will often include mentoring programmes to help women or junior locals to navigate the culture of the bank.
'They might also have a speaker programme on career development topics, such as how to present yourself in meetings with senior executives or how to make more of an impact,' Dr Lowe said.
on a personal level
Collaborate: work in co-operation with others, communicate persuasively; emphasise teamwork, diversity and sharing knowledge.
Seek self-awareness: understand your own strengths and weaknesses and the impact of your style on others.
Work as a team: work to build consensus and share credit for a job well done.
Respect: show awareness and respect for individual differences.
Learn flexibility: build your cultural adaptability by seeking out opportunities to work with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.