Graduates / Trainees

Setting the standards

by Charles Mak

Maisie Lam, human resources director, Citibank Global Consumer Group

Running an outstanding training programme is the best way to give young managers a flying start in the competitive world of banking

In every industry, certain companies are looked upon as leaders both in management practices and the type of training they offer. In the field of banking and finance, there is little doubt that Citibank enjoys such a position and this is, in no small part, thanks to their Management Associate Programme. Run in Hong Kong for over 20 years, it has given many young graduates a start in the industry and provided a model that countless organisations have sought to emulate.

An agreed template for the programme is used internationally but is adapted to take account of varying economic conditions and different cultural environments. The key objectives, though, are clear, as Maisie Lam, human resources director of Citibank Global Consumer Group, explains. "We see the ongoing need to strengthen our management team," she says. "The goal is to nurture home-grown talent and also develop professionals in the banking and financial field who can make a contribution to society."

In order to test management associates to the full and meet the needs of the local economy, the programme in Hong Kong is specifically structured to combine four key elements. Classroom training and orientation projects form the backbone and provide an understanding of the industry, but the main focus is on gaining customer experience and leadership skills.

"Besides the basic training, we involve associates in real-life projects to identify business opportunities and ways to improve profits and to get a feel for everything that goes on," Ms Lam explains. "Experience with customers is crucial in understanding day-to-day needs and for an associate's future development." The aim is to give exposure to as many customers and business situations as possible. Associates may get involved in customer focus groups or take part in road shows and promotional activities and this reinforces their presentation and interpersonal skills. Along the way, leadership experience is steadily built up as associates gain in self-confidence and learn how to plan, influence and lead by taking on such duties as organising the company's annual dinner.

Experience with customers is crucial

Worthwhile effort

The programme is by no means easy but is recognised as being well worth the effort. "Associates must obtain internal qualifications and standard industry certifications in investment and ethics," says Ms Lam. "Acquiring these is the short-term goal but what follows in career terms can be far more rewarding."

Qualified mentors are on hand to lend senior management experience and guidance. Each of them has been trained as a mentor and is familiar with the company's resources and network. Their task is to help management associates in analysing and understanding issues which arise from daily operations, but not to give them all the answers.

This ties in with a "buddy system" in which associates are paired with experienced colleagues at one of the branches to learn how to interact with customers. Real situations have to be dealt with and it provides an opportunity to see how to handle both commercial pressures and tight deadlines. "This provides a genuine test," says Ms Lam. "A tight schedule teaches people quickly and brings out the best in them. They are surprised and impressed by their own accomplishments and how much they can achieve when working under pressure."

After the first year, management associates are promoted to assistant manager. Job placement depends very much on past performance, their strengths and the opportunities currently available. And, as Ms Lam points out: "Sometimes we may not place them in positions which maximise their strengths but, in fact, do the exact opposite in order to accelerate skills that have to be improved."

Rotations possible

In a sizable company like Citibank, job rotations are obviously possible and are encouraged. Anyone who has worked more than 15 months in one position is eligible to apply for a move. They are encouraged to consult first with their mentor, supervisor or the human resources department. "Every time someone rotates to a different job, they are actually getting closer to fulfilling their final career aspiration, which is great," says Ms Lam.

This year, thousands of applications are expected for the limited number of positions available. Certain qualities always help candidates score more highly. "As consumer banking is all about teamwork, it is essential to be a team player," Ms Lam advises. "Also, we look for people who are very innovative and able to think out of the box because these qualities help in seizing opportunities and responding to challenges." Analytical and numerical skills are, of course, vital for interpreting financial data, processing business information and plotting future strategy.

As part of the continuing education scheme, a 10-day overseas training programme organised by Asia Pacific Consumer Bank is offered in the second year of employment. In addition, generous tuition allowances are granted to support those who want to further their studies with external courses.

Other companies inevitably see the well-rounded, talented and marketable graduates of the Management Associate Programme as ideal targets for recruitment, but that is not something that worries Ms Lam. "There will always be competition," she says, "and we are proud to be recognised as setting such a high standard."

Characteristics of the Management Associate Programme

  • an international programme adapted, where necessary, to reflect local economic conditions and cultural environment
  • classroom training and orientation projects to provide information about the industry and to prepare for required certification
  • focus on gaining customer experience and leadership skills through handling real business situations
  • senior managers acting as mentors to provide guidance
    a "buddy system" to pair associates with staff in branches
  • opportunities for job rotation and continuing education

Taken from Career Times 16 July 2004
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