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Leadership Lessons
Dose of adversity can be healthy
Nora Tong
update on Saturday, June 4, 2011
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Joe Ngai, managing partner of McKinsey's Hong Kong office, knew what it was like to be jolted out of one's comfort zone. He left Hong Kong at the age of 15 to continue his studies in the United States. “Oftentimes, you find yourself in a difficult situation. You need to fend for yourself. It was during that period when I learned how to persevere through challenges,” says Ngai. He went on to complete his undergraduate studies at Harvard University and is now a co-leader of McKinsey's insurance and asset management practice in Asia. He says a dose of perseverance is needed for navigating tough times. “The younger generation seems to have a lower *adversity quotient'. They need to understand that things in the real world are anything but easy.” Ngai talks to Nora Tong

What does your job entail?

I make sure our clients are well-served and, internally, I build a firm that attracts talent. I spend about 70 per cent of my time with clients, and the remaining 30 per cent with my team. My work involves a fair amount of travel. I fly between 150,000 miles and 200,000 miles a year. My clients are mainly banks, insurance companies and private equity firms. We also serve conglomerates and government organisations.

Have you always wanted to become a management consultant?

I was undecided for a while. I did a joint MBA-JD programme [at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School] after my undergraduate studies. I was trying to extend my academic career while finding out during internships what different industries were like.

I spent a few years in the IT sector in the US, Hong Kong and the mainland before joining McKinsey in 2002 as an associate.

Since I'm interested in many things, consulting is a good choice because it offers a great deal of exposure to different clients and business problems and allows me to develop a range of skills.

What challenges do you deal with in your consulting work?

Many clients find it hard to change the mindset of people. A lot of companies in Hong Kong have operated in their comfort zone with a particular business model for many years and created a set of entrenched norms and habits that make it difficult for them to develop further. So the challenge lies more in fighting inertia to change than finding technical solutions.

Often, the founders of these companies are brilliant and entrepreneurial. But as the business grows, they don’t have the capacity to handle everything. Bottleneck results as the decision-making process continues to centre on them. Employees need to take accountability for decision making. 

Do Hong Kong and mainland companies face the same problems?

Hong Kong is a very mature economy, and companies here have in the past few years been building and expanding their non-Hong Kong business. Mainland companies, meanwhile, face challenges in finding and keeping quality staff and making a profit. The mainland market is huge, but it is also extremely competitive, and so profitability is an issue.

What do you look for in candidates who want to join McKinsey?

They must have problem-solving skills and intellectual depth. They should be able to analyse a problem and make good judgment. A “can-do” attitude, leadership capability and entrepreneurial spirit matter too.

We don’t look for candidates from a particular discipline. We have physics majors, history majors and engineering majors. We hire people from a variety of backgrounds who bring in different perspectives. Personally, my stint in IT – which allowed me to hone my entrepreneurial skills and creativity – served me well in the consulting business. 

How do you manage young staff?

It is a big challenge to attract and retain young people. While recruitment talks in the past focused on the financial rewards and career paths, we now highlight community services and social responsibility.

These changes may be a headache for some people, but they point to a better society.

You have to recognise that this generation looks for well-rounded development and respond by coming up with concrete ways to engage them.

At McKinsey, our staff can take time off to do volunteer work. They can work at, say, the Red Cross, for half a year, where they are likely to gain invaluable experience and come back with new insights.

How do you juggle work and family responsibilities?

My family is as big a commitment as my work, and I make sure we spend quality time together. It's pointless to be with one another all the time if we can't communicate meaningfully.


Links to community

  • Ngai says that one has to be committed to what one does in order to stay motivated
  • He believes companies and professional associations should encourage collaboration with non-profit groups
  • Ngai is board chairman of Diamond Cab, a social venture that provides transport service for wheelchair users
  • He is also involved with Youth Business Hong Kong, giving seed money and advice to budding entrepreneurs

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