Alex Cheung can draw on extensive corporate and commercial experience in his current role as managing director of the institutional banking business for DBS Bank Hong Kong. Before this, he held increasingly senior management positions with other leading financial institutions, including Citibank, OCBC and Rabobank. Cheung’s main responsibility at present is to expand mid-cap and SME business in Hong Kong and the mainland, with the aim of making the bank a top three player in these sectors. To do that, his focus is on building a team capable of meeting the challenge. He talks to Jan Chan.
At what point did you feel your career had really taken off? Fortunately, I’ve always been on the fast track in my career. I think the breakthrough came when I joined Citibank in 1988. I ended up staying with them for eight years, working my way up from senior relationship manager to business head with responsibility in people and strategy. The different roles certainly expanded my capacity and my geographical exposure.
So far, which periods have been the most challenging? Each job has its own challenges and those change as you take on more responsibility. For example, I remember that when I joined OCBC four years ago, it had a relatively small presence in Hong Kong of about 60 people. But over the next three years, I helped it expand to over 180 people by widening market coverage and moving into new areas of business. Achieving that growth from small-scale to a reasonable size was a very good experience and took me to another level in my career.
Of course, my current position comes with its own set of challenges. DBS has a strong market position and customer franchise, but we need to think constantly about what we can improve and what we may need to do differently. In particular, I have to think about how to generate more from the present platform, while at the same time considering ways to expand the franchise. This requires a combination of strategic thinking and implementation skills.
What characterises your style of management? In practice, that means I share my vision and strategic goals with my team and make sure they buy in. I can also be very hands off, given that I have good people as colleagues. In my view, it is important to create a generally happy work environment and allow people to take a proactive role. This helps them understand they are a valuable part of the organisation.
How did you train yourself to be a better leader? I’m not an academic person, but of course I understand the need to know the basic principles of leadership. Overall, though, I prefer learning from real-life experience and from talking to senior and junior people around me, rather than reading up on different management skills. Listening and sharing ideas helps me see how I can do better. Should leaders try to maintain a certain distance? Personally, I don’t think that’s necessary. I mix very well with subordinates and my door is always open to them. From time to time, usually on Friday afternoons, we also have informal get-togethers so that staff at different levels can get to know each other better. What does it take to find the right balance between profits and people? Obviously, both are very important for any bank. We are expected to achieve each year’s business goals and targets, but can only do that by remembering that people are one of our most valuable assets. Our aim is for employees to enjoy what they do, strive to reach their goads and be rewarded. We don’t want them to feel they are just struggling to meet quotas or deadlines all the time. What is the secret to building a successful team? You should understand that individuals have different strengths and skills, and you must be able to match those with appropriate tasks. Achieving this is a matter of taking time to understand each person thoroughly and recognising they all have a role to play. DBS has been through a series of acquisitions in recent years and has hired staff from other international banks.
For that reason, we have team members with diverse backgrounds, each of whom has specific talents to contribute. What are the major challenges now facing the industry? The overall environment is still volatile and regulators are getting more stringent and more conservative. It is definitely not easy for banks. As a result, we must be able to come up innovative products and ensure we strengthen our position in each key market.
What advice do you have for young people interested in the field? A job in banking is a very good starting point for fresh graduates. It gives you a very broad perspective and the training is good, so you will learn a lot. More generally, I advise young people to keep an open mind and take every opportunity to gain more exposure. They should not only think about the short term, but instead develop different perspectives and consider what kind of experiences will stand them in good stead as they go through life.
As an approachable leader, Cheung is always willing to have a happy hour drink with subordinates
Is a people-oriented leader who believes in Douglas McGregor's "Theory Y".