Leading by example forms part of the basic philosophy of CCB (Asia) president and executive director Miranda Kwok
In the course of a career which has taken her to the highest levels of Hong Kong’s banking sector, Kwok has learned that an astute balance of patience and perseverance is crucial for achieving success in the long run.
While always dedicated to her profession and clear about her goals, the current president and executive director of China Construction Bank (Asia) realised early on that making it to the top required something more than hard work, ambition and an in-depth understanding of corporate policy, management methods and market conditions.
“Sometimes, it pays to have a bit of patience,” says Kwok, who at one point experienced the frustrations that go with marking time in the same job for nine years. “Luck is part of life, but if you keep doing what you believe in and don’t bail out too early, things can turn in your favour.”
In effect, that happened when, as the result of a 2006 acquisition, she became part of the CCB “family”.
New challenges, wider responsibilities and spearheading a drive for growth provided the chance to prove herself as a leader and to reflect on the importance of continuous learning and taking something of value from each role, encounter or apparent setback.
Having studied social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, with a focus on economics and management studies, Kwok essentially used a process of elimination before deciding to join Bank of America (Hong Kong Branch) as a management trainee in 1984.
“It seemed to me that banking was a very ‘real-life’ thing and, after studying the industry as part of my degree, I could understand how they did business and was interested in learning more,” she says.
Assigned after basic training to the credit marketing department, she specialised for a while in cutting out newspaper articles related to the industry, market and customers before being allowed to deal with clients, who came to include local manufacturers, real estate developers and multinationals.
“As the most junior person in the section, it was tough at first, but you learn to adapt to people and situations and to understand the risk profile of different clients.”
When a reorganisation forced a choice between marketing and credit in 1991, Kwok became head of the credit products team. Though that paved the way to a transfer to Bank of America (Asia) in 1996 as chief credit officer and, nine years later, a move up to chief risk officer, there were nagging concerns.
After each breakthrough came another stage of waiting and wondering about the time-lag between promotions, a feeling compounded by the fact that Bank of America was strong in wholesale operations, but not keen on building a retail presence outside the US.
According to Kwok, they seemed more intent on keeping the bank “small and beautiful”, with good credit quality and decent earnings. That was commendable, but from her point of view, it inevitably meant restricted career openings and a sense that business opportunities were being missed.
“In that long waiting period, my son was quite young and I had family responsibilities, so it was possible to rationalise, but I did still want to move forward,” she says. “I’m not a particularly aggressive person, but I am an achiever who gets satisfaction from doing a bigger job. I always have the motivation to do better, whether that is by making the role more effective or translating my skills to influence the people around me and make them more productive.”
Ultimately, the acquisition by China Construction Bank brought a clear change in direction, marked by a big push for expansion. Since then, for instance, the number of branches in Hong Kong has tripled to nearly 50, and the total headcount has grown from 700 to more than 2,000. In her current role, Kwok oversees retail, commercial and credit card operations, as well as key aspects of marketing, and Information System.
“I found that if you have accumulated the right ‘assets’ along the way, that starts to pay off; the promotions can really speed up,” she says. “In the last few years, I have gone from a risk person to being a business person and have really enjoyed the change. Head office gave a mandate for expansion, but it matched our ambition to do something bigger and better and achieve a larger market share.”
Inevitably, after long familiarity with a more American style of management and leadership, a certain amount of “cultural” adjustment was required to fit in with the ways of a mainland-headquartered organisation. Also, it meant reviving and rapidly improving her Putonghua.
“After the acquisition, I must have spoken more Putonghua in the first three months than I had done in the previous 25 years,” she says. “Taking on a leadership role, I also realised the need to keep an open mind. Understanding grows from mutual respect and being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Of course, you must also show commitment to your job and the betterment of the bank.”
Recent internal meetings concerning the next five-year plan have been an opportunity to take a close look at products, competitors, infrastructure and systems and to decide where action is needed or gaps must be bridged.
“It is always important to have a clear vision in terms of asset size, branch network and profitability and to ensure we are geared to those targets,” Kwok says. “For example, as part of a big head office project, we are currently looking at plans to upgrade IT systems and, at corporate and divisional levels, we are discussing how to provide more services for mainland-based customers in Hong Kong.”
In addition, there is a special focus on cross-border finance, recognising that the bank is ideally placed to lead in this area. A continuing priority is to migrate appropriate technology from the mainland to offer a unified platform to support mobile banking. “As one of CCB’s key ‘overseas’ units, we operate in line with group plans and strategies, but we can always articulate initiatives we believe will add value,” Kwok says.
Subjects for discussion typically include the balance between counter transactions and mobile banking, representation in affluent versus less affluent districts, customer segmentation, and the importance of physical branches in offering advisory services and building client relationships. In terms of personal style, her basic philosophy is to lead by example and “walk the talk”. In doing this, she stresses the importance for managers to articulate ideas clearly, be empathetic, promote teamwork, and take ownership of any task assigned to them.
Seeking to contribute in other ways, Kwok also serves on several official bodies including the Hong Kong Federation of Industries, the Competition Commission, and the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation. This makes it possible to share her experience and explain banking sector perspectives on key issues which have an impact on the wider community.
As far as possible, though, Kwok tries to draw a clear line between work and personal time. When off duty, she aims to read the Bible every day, admits to watching TV for a few laughs or just to unwind, and has recently developed an interest in reading cookery books and experimenting with recipes.
“I don’t necessarily have any talent as a cook, but it is a chance to try something new and challenging.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Walking the talk.