At Hang Seng Bank, management trainees are graduates from all disciplines - engineering, biochemistry, law or even music.
"What makes a difference is soft skill competencies - those are more difficult to learn," says Louise Lam, Hang Seng Bank's head of human resources (HR).
Although competency lists often seem alike, she says companies do have preferences. "We require a subtle and steady personality. We want [trainees] to be innovative but have tenacity, and have a technically strong image," Lam says, adding that potential staff must also be "dependable, open and connected", and "deploy courageous integrity at all times".
"They should be down-to-earth, prudent in risk-taking but good at dealing with change and have a high energy level. They have to show us that they have integrity," adds Yvonne Chan, the bank's head of HR for corporate and commercial banking.
Hang Seng Bank's management trainee programme receives about 5,000 applications a year, including those from overseas. Candidates must complete an e-application with an online scoring system and aptitude test benchmarked to a "student norm" in Asia. This is followed by a group exercise and an interview. Those who pass will have to grapple with a hypothetical business case study.
"We are not [simply] looking at the answers, but how [applicants] handle the questions, analyse, present their case and defend it," says Lam.
Candidates must indicate whether they prefer retail banking and wealth management, corporate and commercial banking, financial control, or operations management. However, the bank does allow cross-streaming. "If they know the operations well, they can spot more business opportunities," Chan says.
The career path of Katie Lo, RMB business strategy and planning manager for treasury and investment, demonstrates this flexibility.
After learning about trade service, credit risk management and relationship management across the different departments and having undergone structured training, Lo started working in the commercial banking stream. It was not long before the financial crisis hit in 2008. "Many of my customers faced the most difficult situations of their lives. I had to help them, while minimising losses for the bank," Lo says.
She was transferred to the RMB business department when it was set up last year.
Lo says problem-solving and project management skills are crucial. "I had to analyse the problem and come up with solutions before I went to my manager for advice. This sharpened my analytical skills."
The RMB business is the product of several departments and the challenge is to balance the interests of different stakeholders, Lo says. "We have to align [their] interests. You need to have credibility to make a decision [they all accept]," she adds.