Changes guided by instinct

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am

WHEN MARIA Leung Ching-yi left the University of Hong Kong in 1987, she was sure about one thing - she had no interest in taking a job in the world of banking and finance.

But the fact that almost 20 years later she is senior vice-president and head of wealth management business, consumer clients for global banking group ABN Amro should come as no surprise.

Ms Leung's philosophy has always been that, when faced with a major decision, you should follow your instincts and never be afraid of changing direction. She also believes that it pays to always reassess your priorities, seek out new challenges and be ready to take the plunge.

On graduation, her own priority was to find a role which offered a certain amount of glamour and excitement. She accepted a position with international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and threw herself into learning the business. The industry was fast paced and demanded a high level of creativity, interpersonal skills and commercial acumen.

After five years there, Ms Leung sensed she was starting to mark time and after considering her options she decided to move to Citibank - not in a finance role, but as one of the marketing team promoting credit card services. Things went well and, in due course, led to the unusual step of a transfer from marketing into the retail banking side of the business.

On the part of the bank, it was both a calculated move and an experiment. No one had previously made such a move, but it was clear to them that Ms Leung's experience in sales and marketing combined with knowledge of the bank's main products would make her ideal for the role. When the possibility was raised, she had doubts but decided to trust her instincts and make the leap.

At first, she found the change to retail banking difficult but she gradually learned the ropes and soon felt happier in the new role. In periods of uncertainty she would reflect on her previous career changes, reminding herself that the first few months were always something of a roller coaster. She knew there would be struggles and low points, but that there would also be high points to compensate.

Looking back now, Ms Leung is sure that her decision to move away from marketing was correct.

'If I hadn't taken the plunge then, I wouldn't be where I am today,' she said.

With Citibank, she spent two years running a local branch before becoming a district sales manager in 2001. Those years taught her how to manage a business, lead a team, deal with every kind of customer and coach her employees. In the process, she also came to understand the pressures frontline staff can face and the importance for a boss to show understanding and patience and to see the best in other people.

Having acquired these new skills, Ms Leung realised it was time to reassess her future and find another direction. This resulted in a move in 2004 to ABN Amro to head its expanding wealth management division.

'Building a business is a challenge,' she said. 'You have to have the back-end support and if there is a gap there it will show in the long term.'

At the start it was necessary to put in place the right infrastructure and at times she had to battle for extra resources. This meant exerting influence in the right way and learning how to make things happen in a different corporate culture.

Now business is growing rapidly and the range of financial products continues to expand. In less than three years, the headcount has tripled and a number of new branches, or preferred banking centres, have opened.

Ms Leung leads a team of 300 and is responsible for everything from marketing and product development to distribution, sales and business planning. At present, she is content in her job and is not considering another big change.

'I am very happy where I am, to be working with like-minded people and to see the business grow,' she said. 'Right now, it is like harvesting the hard work of the past 2? years.'

The job carries a heavy workload, but Ms Leung said the secret was to make decisions quickly, delegate, manage time efficiently, set clear objectives and give unambiguous instructions. What still drives her is the need to achieve.

'If I were to evaluate myself, I think I am achievement-driven more than power-driven,' she said. 'I'm not ambitious, in that I'm not [interested] in climbing the corporate ladder, but I do want to achieve as many things as possible.'

This outlook can be traced back to her school days, when a teacher inspired her to believe she could achieve anything she wanted.

'That's why I always remind myself to encourage people, because everybody has potential,' she said.

'Apart from business achievements, what I find most important is seeing people fulfilling their role and developing to their full potential.'

For this reason, Ms Leung tries to create a supportive environment, allowing staff to achieve at their own pace.

'Some people want to climb the corporate ladder, but others don't; they just want to excel where they are and you have to help them,' she said.

She is also keen to encourage a sensible work-life balance. Recently, this has meant sending staff an e-mail at 5pm every Friday, reminding them to go home to their families, with managers expected to set the example.

But Ms Leung admitted she had not always managed to keep things in balance, sometimes putting in very long office hours.

'Unlike other working women, I don't have kids, so I am free from the challenges faced by working mothers,' she said. Even so, she has firm opinions. 'Work always comes after family, personal life and health, because without [these things] you will never be able to do a good job.'

Tips from Maria Leung

Make changes before they are forced on you.

After making a decision, be prepared to take the plunge.

Reach for the stars and you won't end up disappointed.

People have different priorities. Know your own and work towards them.

A good manager communicates clearly, decides quickly, delegates, empowers staff and gives coaching.