UBS Singapore COO on what it takes to succeed as a 20-something banker

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What does it take to stand out as a young banker in Singapore? The resolve to ask your senior colleagues for advice rather than rely on textbooks and spreadsheets is crucial to getting ahead, says Lay-Sie Teo, group operating officer, UBS Singapore, and head of group operating officers, Asia Pacific.

Teo talks to us about the current crop of Singaporean graduates now entering the banking sector – from why more of them should try to work overseas, to why they are better placed to make career decisions than previous generations. She also explains why UBS is running a new course to educate young people about banking careers before they graduate…from high school.

What key advice would you offer to graduates starting work at UBS?

Firstly, come with an open mind. There are so many facets of the finance industry, so you need to be open and proactive in trying different things and experiencing various job responsibilities. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask questions of others to gain knowledge and exposure – this allows you to tap into a wealth of experience which may not be found in books. You will gain a wider perspective on issues and formulate and refine your views. Knowledge is powerful and we encourage our interns and employees to have that intellectual curiosity.

Should more Singaporean graduates try to work in overseas financial centres?

Working overseas definitely gives you an edge. It gives you the opportunity to work with people from different cultures and helps build a global mindset – Singapore has an open economy and we are linked to the world in this digital age. You learn to think on a global scale and to consider varying perspectives better. More importantly, you can understand the operations of the bank on a more macro level. Sometimes we may be too quick to reject an opportunity to work abroad for reasons like lower pay and an unfamiliar culture, but we should also think about all the benefits. My advice would be to keep an open mind to opportunities.

Do graduates in Singapore change jobs too frequently?

The finance industry has to acknowledge that labour mobility is high in Singapore. Professionals are equipped with skill-sets that are very transferrable – they don’t lack career options and can easily change jobs when they see an opportunity. On our end, this makes employee retention all the more crucial. Young professionals now have different needs. Remuneration aside, they’re looking for work that’s challenging and motivating, and they also want career progression and to create an impact on the community.

How do the current crop of Singaporean graduates compare to your generation?

Current graduates are more exposed to the working world through many careers talks and workshops as compared to my generation. As banks are now more active in engaging universities, students have the chance to really learn more about the various job functions in a bank that they might be interested in. And with the surge in using digital and social media, they're able to gain access to a wider range of information, making them more aware. There’s also very intense competition as we are competing with every other industry for talent.

Overall do graduates in Singapore still have a positive perspective on careers in banking?

Singapore rode out the financial crisis quite well. We think that the finance industry will remain as one of the top choices for young people in Singapore due to its very dynamic and challenging nature. In Singapore, the financial industry contributes about 14% to 15% to GDP, so there are a variety of great career opportunities.

Tell us about the ‘UBS Youth Finance Academy’, which you ran in Singapore earlier this year for 50 school students. Why get them interested in banking at that age?

The primary aim is to increase awareness and develop skills around what it takes to work within the financial industry. By giving pre-tertiary students valuable exposure to the depth and breadth of career opportunities available in finance, UBS hopes to spark their interest and encourage them to regard this sector as a potential career option.

Was interest sparked?

Many of the participants have mentioned that their interest in the banking sector has been fuelled after attending the academy. This is especially attributed to the hands-on workshops they attended – like the asset-allocation workshop – along with the interactive sessions they had with UBS senior executives. They had the opportunity to interact and network with various members of our senior management team: the country head of UBS Singapore, the group country operating officer, and the regional chief investment officer and the heads of our businesses, among others. We have created a Facebook group comprising all 50 graduates and our UBS executives as a platform through which we keep in touch, and we constantly update the students with relevant content related to banking and finance.

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