Up to the test
Amy Lo, CEO of wealth management Hong Kong at UBS, says good leaders stand tall when times are tough, writes Sandra Lam.
You know you’re doing something right as a manager when one of your former employees pesters her boss at another company to headhunt you. That’s how, in 1995, Amy Lo got the job as chief of staff at Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC). The move kicked off her almost 20-year career with what is now the financial services company UBS, which formed when SBC merged with the Union Bank of Switzerland in 1998.
“[The referral came] from one of my former team members,” says Lo who, having been appointed UBS’s CEO of wealth management Hong Kong in April this year and chief executive of UBS Hong Kong branch in June, is now responsible for all of the company’s activities in the city. “I was her team head. She said to her boss at the time: ‘You go and find Amy Lo.’ I got a call from Kathryn Shih [the current CEO of wealth management Asia-Pacific] and I remember she said: ‘Promise me you will stay for three years.’ I’ve been here for 19.”
Lo started her career in IT. She worked in the sector for two years after graduating from the University of Hong Kong. “When I served the banks in my IT role, I found it an interesting industry to be in. It really fascinated me and I decided to join the finance industry, with a particular interest in wealth management. Even back in the ’80s, it was a growth industry.”
She worked as Hong Kong team manager at Chase Manhattan for 10 years before moving to SBC. “If it was not for that phone call [from Shih], I probably wouldn’t have moved. I’m not a job-hopper. The transition from Chase to UBS was a milestone because it really got me out of my comfort zone to do something different – to go from front to back, building up the administrative, credit and marketing departments. Throughout that process I learned a lot and it really paved the way for my role now.”
When Lo joined, the company had only 50 or 60 people in Hong Kong. There are now over 900 in the wealth management business and more than 2,300 in total in Hong Kong.
Lo says she is drawn to the thrill of achieving tough targets. “To be able to position ourselves as the leading bank in wealth management and in ultra [high net worth], the numbers need to speak for themselves,” she says. “I’m a very sales-driven kind of person and really enjoy taking the business to new highs. In addition to looking at numbers, it’s how we develop the people [that counts], because they are our biggest assets.”
She says getting the right staff makes it possible to achieve multibillion-dollar sales. “You have to surround yourself with smart people, because what you get from them are inspiration, creativity and different ideas.
“It’s not about title, not about compensation; it’s the recognition you get from your colleagues, to the extent they look up to you as an inspirational leader.”
A firm belief in herself and her staff took her to a new high when she became CEO of wealth management in Hong Kong in April.
On her route to the top, Lo had to endure the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. She says she was never tempted to leave, even with headhunters knocking on her door.
“It was quite a tough time for UBS. [But] I believe the tough times are also when the company needs me most. That’s when I can make a difference – people look up to me and say: ‘You jump, I jump. You walk, I walk. I really go that extra mile because of you and your passion.’”
While passion is contagious, so too is frustration. When Europe and the US were mired in the recession, massive global job cuts in banking and stricter compliance rules sent tremors through the whole industry. Lo, however, thinks these are the times when good leaders stand tall. “One of the characteristics of good leaders is resilience. What really differentiates good and bad leaders is how they lead in the bad times. In tough times, how you lead yourself and your people [is crucial].”
Key to succeeding in such situations, she explains, is optimism. “I have to believe that I can turn it around. Then I share the vision with the team. ‘We can do it and turn that around. We want to be the winning team,’” she says, adding that part of having a winning team is giving them the chance to be successful. “Take people under your wing and help them excel. You can hire externally, but if you cannot retain your own team, it doesn’t help. Because it really takes the whole team to be number one.”
Her approach to her two children, though, is more hands off – she is definitely not a tiger mum, she says. Her son has just finished medical school while her daughter is studying law at university. “They are very much on their own in terms of study. I also gave them lots of freedom when they were young.”
One thing Lo is passionate about, apart from numbers, is philanthropy. “I initiated a girl’s education project in Thailand, working with the UBS Optimus Foundation. How we give back to society is very close to my heart and I do it together with my family, particularly with my daughter – it’s another way of bonding.”
Being involved in a global committee on diversity, she warns of the danger of ignoring it in company policies, “especially in finance, because right now, the clients are getting very diverse, international, demanding and sophisticated. With diverse talents [you will] attract diverse clients”.
The wealth of talent
Amy Lo on ways to get the most from your team.
Boost their ambitions “Help your staff to excel in their careers and make them successful.”
Listen to their ideas “An important element of success is the ability to listen. Usually leaders tend to speak too much because they want to give instruction, but it’s also very powerful what one can do by listening, because that’s where you can get valuable feedback.”
Hang tough under pressure “What really differentiates good and bad leaders is how they lead in the bad times. One of the common characteristics of good leaders is resilience.”
Share your vision “Get the right people on board and do proper delegation. Align the goals you are working towards with a common vision and road map. Delegating will help you strike the right balance.”