Money Moves

Survival of the fittest

by Martin Williams

Careers in the insurance industry tough but rewarding

Roger Steel, chief executive officer
Sun Life Hong Kong Limited
Photo: Louis Lam

Opportunities for continuous learning are a clear indication of a company's commitment to staff development. One top-tier insurance multinational is set to offer this.

Sun Life Financial's Hong Kong operation has in place structured career paths for staff and consultants, with the latter requiring ever more knowledge and skills as regulations on financial services become increasingly stringent.

Established in the 1890s, Sun Life was the first life insurer in Hong Kong. At the end of 2005, Sun Life acquired CMG Asia, which had been much more aggressive in the market, and during a relatively short history had grown to employ around 1,700 consultants.

"It was a challenge merging two different cultures but the merger has allowed us to retain the best talent in the industry," remarks Roger Steel, CEO of Sun Life Hong Kong.

He explains, "Sun Life is known for its array of protection solutions while CMG Asia's products were more diverse. The combination has strengthen Sun Life's leading position as a more financial service oriented company. A more comprehensive product portfolio has prompted our staff to develop a much wider skills repertoire so as to satisfy customers' protection and financial needs at different live stages."

According to Mr Steel, Sun Life consultants focus on serving customers to their best ability. "Our unique SOLAR (study of lifestyle, attitude and relationships) research gives us insights into customer needs, markets and future trends. Research findings hep us to develop new products that empower our customers to act with confidence and make the best possible informed decisions," he adds.

Progressive development

"Consultants are expected to give sound advice to customers," says Mr Steel. "For this very reason, our 17-staff Learning & Development Centre oversees agency development and offers mandatory training covering products, regulations, and licensing. We also have a sales development programme."

The company also forged a partnership with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, offering its consultants a dedicated platform for obtaining a diploma in executive financial planning (EFP). Those who completed this are also eligible to apply for an IMBA programme offered by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Sun Life's staff training focus emphasises building skills, and the insurer takes pride in its eight-pronged global career framework. "The training schedule covers a comprehensive range of skills from the most basic to senior executive levels," says Mr Steel, who is member of the company's global talent advisory board that oversees management development.

This is complemented by the array of local programmes for developing technical and supervisor skills, and three global training programmes for honing management acumen. The latter start with "Leading for success", covering topics such as time management for stepping-up managers. "Leading with impact" is the second-tier programme, which teaches more senior level managers the necessary skills to motivate, influence and engage people.

Senior level executives are trained in a "Leading across boundaries" programme that is run in conjunction with Duke University in the US. "The curriculum is akin to that of an MBA programme," says Mr Steel.

Clear sky

Insurance consultants are working extra hard now, given the current weak economic situation. "People are uncertain how to invest — risk aversion is quite high," Mr Steel says. "This year, there has been a swing back to basic insurance products. People have learnt the need to balance between protection and wealth management."

He stresses that professionals in the field must be adept at change especially in the wake of the Lehman Brothers mini-bonds saga. "When recruiting consultants, we look for people that are good with people, numerate, and financially aware," Mr Steel says, "They also need to demonstrate a high level of integrity and moral principles."

He observes that requirements for consultants have also become stringent. "When I first came to Hong Kong 15 years ago, anybody could join the insurance industry," he says. "Nowadays, it's a professional career choice that requires the right qualifications and mindset."

Graduates with a commerce or economics degree are well suited to the job. Mr Steel reveals that there are ample opportunities for bank staff, who might be finding the current market situation especially tough.

"Insurance is success driven," says Mr Steel. "People in the field operate in a performance culture where success or failure is immediately visible. Those who do well are dedicated personnel who have the aptitude to move ahead."

Sun Life's top performing consultants are furnished with a wealth of incentives. These include overseas trips and awards, all helping to ensure good consultant retention levels. Some of Sun Life's top sales people are exceptional mentors and coaches, recruiting and motivating members for their own teams.

Although this is the toughest hours people can remember for many years, Mr Steel is far from despondent. "Our top performers are selling significant volumes," he concludes. "I am optimistic about the future of the industry."

Rise and shine

  • Dedicated consultant development centre oversees support and training needs
  • Overseas trips and awards recognise hard work
  • Opportunities abound for both graduates and experienced bank staff

Taken from Career Times 06 November 2009, p. A13
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