Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

MetLife Hong Kong CEO Lennard Yong is proud of his success in an industry that helps people

Former banker says fresh talent is needed to ensure city continues to lead the way in Asia

Lennard Yong, chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance (MetLife) of Hong Kong, switched to life insurance to help people in a key industry for the city. He was trained to be an accountant and started his career in banking before making the switch. “I wanted to do something different, a little bit more personal, so I made the move,” he says.

He explains that many people think Hong Kong’s insurance market is now saturated, with most Hongkongers having a number of policies, be it home, health or life insurance. However, he believes the best is yet to come for local insurers.

“I see Hong Kong as the Silicon Valley for insurance; it attracts big brands from around the world and is a leading market in Asia,” he says. “Many countries in the region look up to Hong Kong for changes in regulations and product development. Insurance people cannot find a better place than here to build their career.”

For the past decade, the industry has recorded double-digit growth. Advances in technology and medical research have opened many new areas that require insurance. “I see that as our society becomes more complex and we have to deal with such a high cost of living, people will have a stronger desire to protect their wealth,” Yong says. “This will bring opportunities to the insurance industry for years to come.”

Yong served in a Dutch insurance company for more than a decade before taking up his role in MetLife. “In my previous job, I had the chance to work in Hong Kong and in the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam. The experience there gave me the chance to meet people from a different culture. Then in 2008, I returned to Hong Kong in the midst of the global financial crisis.”

 This was the most challenging, but also the most exciting, time of his career, because it inspired people to put into practice what they had learned about financial and risk management. “People were dealing with real situations. While I don’t wish for that to occur again, I think we have learned a lot,” he says.

The talent supply for the insurance sector agent has been growing healthily over the years, Yong explains, and more insurance agents are earning professional qualifications such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) that add to the professionalism of the industry.

He sees a strong demand for people with skills in marketing and product design to develop high-quality products for insurers. “We do not necessarily recruit talent with educational backgrounds related to insurance. We want people from different walks of life to join us. The key is sharing with them the career opportunities they will have with insurance.”

Yong predicts Hong Kong will remain the leading insurance market in Asia over the next five to 10 years, as long as it continues to develop innovative products and improve on regulations.

“It is always easier to build a career in a growing industry. It is even easier to build a career in an industry that is growing and is something that people need. From the growth we have had over the past decade, I see there is a demand for better insurance products and services,” he says.

Looking back at his 15 years in life insurance, Yong says he was lucky to have a mentor who taught him how to think positively and to communicate to drive change. “He taught me to always think of [the glass] as half-full rather than half-empty,” he says.

Yong believes a leader is someone who inspires staff to do what they believe is right, not what the boss wants. “Leaders need to give staff a reason to follow,” he says. “In the modern workplace, staff won’t do what the boss tells them because he or she is the boss; they want to know why they should do so and why they should support the boss.”

When communicating with staff, Yong says he never simply barks out instructions. Instead, he put himself in their shoes and tries to tell them what good it would do for them. “I think it is common in companies to see a manager talk and talk and nobody wanting to listen. If the manager changes to think from the staff’s point of view, there will be shorter memos, shorter emails and shorter speeches,” he says.

He points to two books that have inspired him: Good to Great by Jim Collins and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. “Good to Great made me realise that what defines the success of a company is a matter of choice. When facing crisis, a company chooses to struggle or to shine. Seven Habits taught me the importance of prioritising challenges,” he says.

Yong sees insurance as a safety net for society. People fall ill, lose their loved ones, and are in need of support. Insurance, therefore, is not just a product – it serves a social good. “Insurance helps people when they are the most vulnerable – people in the industry need to live up to that promise,” he says.