Overly ambitious Asian bankers are being hastily pushed into big new jobs

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Want to boost your banking career, but don’t want to leave your current bank? Clinching a place on a so-called high-potential (hi-po) programme could be your ticket to a fast-track promotion into a leadership role.

Almost all banks in Hong Kong and Singapore are running hi-po courses under different guises as they bid to retain their top performers by pushing them up the ranks – whether they are ready or not. If you think you are ready, here’s what it takes to land a place on one of these programmes.

Know the process

Banks often have different hi-po courses according to seniority – UBS’ Ascent programme, for example, is for associate directors and directors. Most other programmes are typically aimed at younger bankers. “If you want to get selected, you first need to understand the selection criteria – the process is transparent, with your managers working with HR as part of the talent-review cycle,” says an HR director at a global bank in Singapore. “So speak to your line manager in a meeting or as part of your performance review.”

Push for it

Once you know the nuts-and-bolts of how the hi-po scheme works, push to be on it – don’t wait to be chosen. “Ultimately, you have to be proactive to drive your own career, so ask questions and work out what you need to do to be selected,” says the HR directror. “The problem in Asia is most employees are bashful about asking for what they want,” adds Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Corporate Coaching Services in Singapore. “You really have to speak up – make it clear that you want to be on that hi-po.”

Have skills with future significance

If you’re a star performer within a business-as-usual niche, your hi-po dreams could be dashed from the outset. “Employers typically align hi-po programmes directly to business priorities, looking at the capabilities needed to sustain current and future performance,” says Lauren Houghton, a leadership consultant in Singapore and a former APAC head of organisational learning and development at Credit Suisse. “Rather than starting by looking at an individual employee’s high potential, they first identify their most strategically important jobs.”

Act like a leader

“To position yourself to get on a hi-po programme you should have conversations around the leadership competencies that are used in your bank,” says Tony Latimer, says Tony Latimer, a Singapore-based executive coach who works with banks. “Find out what makes someone considered a good leader at one, two and three levels above your current position. Then find opportunities to demonstrate these behaviours.”

Don’t get too fixated on promotion

Hi-po schemes help banks pipeline future leaders and banks measure their success partly on the percentage of participants achieving a significant promotion – 75% is considered good – within 18 months of completion, says Latimer. But it’s best not to tell your manager that your main motivation is to move up the ranks without your current function.

Do it for extra exposure

If you’re asked why you want to go on a hi-po programme, “more exposure to the business” is a good reply. “Your main motivation should be increasing your skills and gaining a broader understanding of the bank beyond your current role,” says the HR director.

Perform well

Smashing your KPIs is the minimum barrier to enter a hi-po programme. “Results do carry weight in the early identification of potential, particularly in sales-driven jobs, but they are only half of the equation,” says Houghton.

Be committed to your bank

You must also show that you’re engaged with your bank’s strategy – that your goals match, says Houghton. “This commitment criteria is less objective than the other two, but behaviours such as ‘showing up’ in front of leaders at crucial meetings and events are important. Does the leadership see that you want to grow your career within their company, going beyond the call of duty to achieve results for them?”

Don’t stress about selection

“These programmes aren’t the be all and end all. Some junior people especially get wrapped up thinking that if they don’t get on a key-talent programme their career will suffer, but in reality only the top 3% to 5% of performers get into them,” explains the HR director. “There are many other opportunities – learning from role models, job rotation, stretch assignments, and exposure through key projects.”

Image credit: NanoStockk, Getty

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