Mercer Asia’s Lisa Sun knows how to knuckle down and aim high
Getting to the top in business is never easy but, as Lisa Sun has shown, if you have the skills, drive, resilience and an outgoing disposition, not much can stand in your way.
As Asia managing director and partner of consultancy firm Mercer, and country corporate officer for Hong Kong at parent company Marsh & McLennan, Sun now oversees a 370-strong team advising corporate clients on employment-related issues ranging from health insurance and retirement benefits to best workplace practices and career development.
In her eyes, the role is about leading effectively, inspiring colleagues, being flexible in meeting client expectations, and ensuring the firm continues to grow profitably.
Importantly, though, it also means finding the requisite talent to retain market leadership and integrating the contrasting demands of work and family life.
“Managing seven countries in Asia, I know what I need to get done and when I need to do it,” says Sun, who qualified as an actuary and held a series of senior posts in the insurance sector before joining Mercer in late 2013.
“Over the years, the firm has built up a lot of intellectual capital and we are now using more data analytics to understand emerging HR trends and help clients recruit better and stay ahead of the curve.”
In her first job, Sun would get to the office at 6am to study for at least an hour – dedication which ultimately led to achieving a professional fellowship in her mid-20s. “I was very concentrated on my goal, very driven,” she says.
“You need on average 400 hours of study for every professional exam. I did around 600 hours, so there was no social life, no ‘happy hours’ and no parties.”
Even earlier, though, she had already learned some tough lessons about having to work hard and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve your dreams.
Born in China’s Fujian province, Sun and her elder sister were, as teenagers, left in the care of relatives when their parents, a notable mathematician and a gynaecologist, moved to the US in the 1980s “to learn the best from the West”.
The two girls intended to follow soon after. “In those days, Fujian was a very traditional place; there was no equality for women. My father wanted more for us than to just be housewives and bear children. He had the foresight and realised the US was the land of opportunity.”
However, bureaucracy intervened. “Initially, we were ‘held hostage’ to make sure my parents would come back. But Chinese people can be very ingenious, so we were adopted by another family and changed names in order to ‘fall off’ the blacklist.”
Later, having obtained passports, the two would take the bus to Guangzhou every couple of months to line up outside the US Consulate from 2am in all weathers. The goal was to get the elusive 214B “intending for immigration” stamp, and, after three years, through sheer persistence and a little luck, Sun and her sister gained entry to the US.
“I flew to Hong Kong, where I had a distant relative, and then to New York. It was pretty scary for me. I had a little money sewn inside my pants, but my mum picked me up and drove me to Boston where my parents put me in a good public high school in Cambridge.
Her parents placed her in a good public high school in Cambridge near Boston. “In my English class, no one could speak English – there were a lot of international students. But in the maths courses, I was very advanced, telling the teacher when something was wrong, and I was soon on a different track.”
Weekends were often spent helping her mother clean houses in the city’s well-off neighbourhoods. Sun saw that as a filial duty, but all the while was intent on improving her lot in life.
Things had changed markedly by the time the Y2K panic hit in the late 1990s. Companies needed computer-literate interns to reprogram their systems and Sun, then doing a double major in mathematics and computer science at Clark University in Massachusetts, found herself in the right place at the right time.
“Nowadays, people are surprised to learn I am a ‘geek’ by training,” she explains. “But I wanted a ‘hard’ technical background, so going into science was an easy choice.”
When graduating, she opted to join Liberty Mutual Group in Boston and began as an assistant actuary. The decision was based on her father’s advice to work for people who really believe in you, and not simply those promising the most money. “My first manager was very good in terms of teaching technical actuarial concepts,” she recalls. “It is important to build those foundations, understanding models which predict possible losses for insurance companies and the different protection propositions.”
That grounding paved the way to posts with AIG, who convinced her to move back to Asia to fully maximise her potential and, in 2009, to Zurich Insurance Group, with an ever increasing range of regional responsibilities.
“Coming to Asia, I was a trailblazer and able to craft my own role,” she says. “I was very humble, learned about the business, and tried to see the gaps where I could add value when dealing with underwriters and heads of marketing, and in executing product strategy. Every experience was very special for me.”
Nowadays, when not working, Sun likes to write short stories that bring a smile to people’s faces, and has hopes of finding a publisher. Another part-time project and long-term interest is creating materials to teach children – including her eight-year-old son – how to learn maths without any fear of the subject.
“Some kids are more visual in the way they approach things and we have to cater to those needs,” she says.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Sharon Ser’s advice on succeeding in family law.
Lisa Sun’s cracking consulting advice.
Adapt at speed “Globally things are changing so quickly, you have to see where disruption is occurring and understand the implications.”
Think big “My counterparts in Asia need to be part of the global conversation to plug into what’s happening in other parts of the world and anticipate the impact on business.”
Voice the vision “More than ever, my role is to provide inspirational leadership, articulate the purpose of the firm, engage the workforce and ensure better client management.”
Light the way “As the marketplace changes, there are going to be more B2B and B2C opportunities. We have to stay ahead of the curve, guiding customers through uncertainties.”
Embrace difference “Teams and organisations are becoming more diverse, which lets leaders draw on a wider range of skills, backgrounds and perspectives.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Determined to succeed.