A fair number of companies now use Outward Bound-type courses to train and toughen young executives, but City Telecom (HK) has given that idea a whole new twist. As part of the recruitment process for its "CXO of the Future" management trainee programme - the `X' substitutes for any board-level function, such as financial or information - the company expects candidates to complete a two-day, one-night test that includes hiking and a series of unfamiliar physical and practical challenges.
"The way we see it, you can't pretend to be someone you are not after 36 hours running up and down mountains," says chief financial officer NiQ Lai. "The final interview is at the end of the course. That is when you get the real deal."
Lai is quick to add, though, that current executives don't simply sit back and observe. They are out there running alongside the candidates and sharing, or enduring, the same experiences every step of the way. This exemplifies the company's competitive, committed approach to finding the right people to fill senior roles 15 to 20 years from now. It also helps explain a fast expanding market share and growing reputation in the local telecoms sector.
"This is a very dynamic company and we want candidates to know what they are getting into," Lai says. "The tests are `live' and can change on the spot, but that is what real life and real business are like."
Other steps in the CXO hiring process include language tests, group discussions and presentations. Graduates apply from a wide range of academic disciplines, attracted no doubt by the starting salary of HK$36,000 for management trainees, but more importantly, by the opportunities and career prospects on offer. Emphasising the programme's appeal, this year there were more than 1,100 applicants from 150-plus universities around the world. Two recruits were selected.
"We are predominantly a Chinese company and are not looking for academic geniuses," Lai says. "But business is so much about common sense that we need people who can think quickly, are entrepreneurial and want to make a difference. Each year, we up the ante a little bit."
To ensure all-round development, they are also expected to complete the certified financial analyst (CFA) level one, run a half-marathon and read at least a book a month. They must also re-apply after 18 months for their next job with the company.
Lai notes that high-calibre candidates can join in other roles, since the 3,000-strong company continues to need all kinds of skills.
Zoe Wong, a CXO recruit in 2009 and now assistant manager in the company's business development department, has her sights set on making it to the top.
"Certain skill sets are easy to acquire but for a winning formula, you need to use good judgment and [develop] the right mindset," Wong says. "I'm now learning how to deal with external partners, practise negotiation skills, and leverage the company's advantages. I like challenges and am action-oriented, so this suits my personality."