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Here come the new emperors

Published on Friday, 21 Oct 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Nick Lambe
Managing director
Morgan Mckinley HK

In recent weeks, enough observers claim to have seen the spectral outline of another downturn on the horizon. And with bad news still emanating from the United States and Europe, and even a dip in growth on the mainland, many organisations are planning cautiously for hiring for the rest of the year and into early 2012.

But for Morgan McKinley - a global professional recruitment consultancy - the business of finding square pegs for square holes and round pegs for round holes continues largely unchanged, especially in the banking and finance sector, which constitutes about 60 per cent of its business in Hong Kong, and 60 per cent across Asia Pacific. One enduring challenge throughout the business cycle is succession planning for banking executives. The business of how professional recruitment agencies help banks move from one generation to the next is one of paramount importance to Hong Kong as a financial centre.

"There are three ways to do this. Firstly, we can conduct a confidential search to replace an existing individual. This would generally be a replacement for someone underperforming," says Nick Lambe, managing director of Morgan McKinley Hong Kong. "Alternatively, they may not have the required skill-set or their vision might not concur with the company.

"Secondly, we can hire an individual into a role to prepare [him] for taking on a more senior position - often this is ahead of the post being fully formed or vacated, and can be done up to a year or more in advance, if the job is very senior," Lambe adds.

"This successful candidate may move into a supporting role to prove [himself] before moving up and taking the reins," he adds. "This might be in the same area of the business or be slightly different, for example, moving into another senior strategic role before taking on a position as CEO.

"Thirdly, organisations can `groom' people from within their own businesses, through identifying, developing and retaining talent. Talent management teams within human resources departments of financial institutions play a considerable part in this," Lambe adds.

Meanwhile, a form of evolutionary change is unfolding. Lambe speaks of having met a senior bank executive within a European bank in Hong Kong, and quotes what the banker had said. "In the next seven to 10 years, I don't expect that my kind of position will be available to professionals from overseas anymore. There is a measure of localisation that is gathering pace."

And this, Lambe believes, is a good thing. A new generation of highly qualified and experienced local professionals is set to claim many of the roles in international banking, now occupied by expatriates.

Despite the localisation of the finance sector labour market in Hong Kong, the city was identified - with Singapore and New York - as one of three top destinations for those looking to further their careers with a move abroad, according to a survey by Morgan McKinley of 560 financial services professionals based in London. The accents of London and Estuary England look set to be part of polyglot Hong Kong's finance sector for a while yet.

The popularity of Hong Kong and Singapore as destinations for ambitious professionals on the other side of the world was also highlighted by the 2011 Global Cities Survey by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, which predicts that the two Asian financial capitals will rate fifth and sixth out of the top 20 leading cities in 10 years' time.

"This is good news for the financial centres of Hong Kong and Singapore - both have a lot of very attractive qualities," Lambe explains.

"Within the global financial services market, Hong Kong has a strong tradition of front-office operations. Like Singapore, it has a very open and competitive market, a developing economy and low interest rates. This makes it a hugely appealing location for businesses and also enables the growth of domestic companies. In turn, this attracts more and more highly talented people to take up roles [here]."

Hong Kong's diversity is set to endure, due to it being a place where Western banking professionals choose to work. But it may become harder in coming years. History is on the Asian banker's side, as the current state of the global economy suggests.

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