An expat banker coaches his team to the top
If there is one principle Maybank (Malaysian Banking Berhad) shows staunch commitment to, it’s developing talent from within. Many of those occupying top positions in its vast global network of over 2,000 branches in 20 countries were advanced from the ranks to where they are today.
Choong Wai Hong, president and CEO of Maybank Philippines, is an example.
Newly minted head of the financial institution’s Philippine operations, Choong, 46, has served in different capacities since he joined Maybank in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 as executive vice president, head of virtual banking (Malaysia), followed by stints as executive vice president, head of wealth and payments (Malaysia), executive vice president, head of high net-worth and affluent banking (Malaysia) and senior executive vice president, head of community financial services (CFS Singapore) and regional head, premier wealth group CFS.
Another strategy Maybank uses to attract the next generation of bankers is offering possibilities of overseas postings. Says Choong, who was assigned to Singapore from 2014 to 2017: “We’ve had Filipinos who were sent to Singapore and Malaysia, while other nationalities have been sent to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. That’s a very attractive employee proposition in a millennial’s point of view. ”
Choong, himself, is no stranger to the expatriate professional life. Based currently in Metro Manila, he was previously in Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and of course, his own country Malaysia, in Petaling Jaya, or “PJ” as the locals call this prosperous city. In between, there were turns pursuing advance and post-graduate studies in Australia and the UK. Prior to Maybank, Choong worked for prestigious firms such as Accenture, DHL Asia-Pacific and Standard Chartered Bank.
Doing one’s research before arriving in a new residence is key to hitting the ground running, whether it means the local banking system and the competitors involved or cross-cultural nuances.
Says Choong: “It presents a clean slate to begin on.
“A new executive has to listen generously. At the end of the day, most people just want to be respected and appreciated. They want to be part of their company’s narrative.”
One on one
Choong’s warm personality is apparent from the very beginning. (BoardRoom Watch was able to immediately engage him in a lively discussion on our favorite Malaysian-Singaporean dishes, and where to find them in Manila.) Tall and slim, he is a man comfortable in his skin, posing for photographer Harvey Tapan with refreshing ease to give us our first CEO portrait on a roof-deck and against the background of a slew of handsome tower blocks.
He says: “The communication lines are important. I think by spending time with people on a more casual basis and showing a genuine interest in them, you can get them to share their story.”
Choong met the team scattered throughout the country, presiding over the first Maybank Philippines’ town hall session for the year with “One Heart, One Beat, One Maybank” as the theme. The program featured highlights of 2017 and the roadmap of 2018. In Metro Manila, Cebu, Davao and Baguio, he exhorted reaching out and engagement among the bank’s employees.
His message followed on Maybank’s brand manifesto printed in their website: “We may live on the same planet but often we’re worlds apart because there are gaps between us. Gaps that keep us from life’s best experiences. Gaps between those who have and those who don’t. Gaps that are formed because of our differences.
“At Maybank, we believe we can cross each of these gaps, because at the bottom of it all, we’re all human. We can work together, learn together and understand each other.
“Which is why together, we can build bridges. The bridges that can unite people at all times from all backgrounds and from all places. The bridges that can carry us across the ups, the downs and the unexpected.”
One of Choong’s passions is coaching, and to prove it, he went for a Newfields Ontological Coach Certification Program. The methodology, which has been described by industry experts as “powerful and effective,” is based on the latest grounded practical understanding of language, moods and conversations for effecting change in behavior and understanding of individuals, teams and organizations.
He explains: “Words play a very important role in the process of change. These days, it’s not so much asking: ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ but rather ‘What is it about this that you’re not comfortable or happy with?’”
“Everyone has different story. Everyone has a different motivation.”
The mentors Choong remembers with great fondness are those bosses, who were willing to let him go to other jobs or opportunities where he would be able to spread his wings and fly higher up the corporate mountain. “I was very fortunate.” They remain his good friends to this day, and he frequently fills them in with updates on his career.
By design or accident, promotions have come Choong’s way about every three years, a fresh chance to learn something new. Somehow, he usually ends up with a post that suits his ever expanding skill set. His wish list of executive positions in Maybank included “being the CEO of a small country,” which in industry terms means heading the bank in an overseas outpost. And in November last year, he assumed the Philippine seat. “It was scary (to have this wish granted), but it was part offered to me and part lobbied for,” he reveals.
When asked to sum up his work experience, Choong says: “I have 22 years of financial experiences services across different functions, covering operations, IT, consulting as well as businesses with profit and loss accountabilities. I have covered capital markets, consumer and commercial banking.
“I have supervised teams of specialists as well as general management teams.” He currently oversees a plantilla of some 1,200 employees.
While Choong’s wife Pek Hoon and kids, Heinrik and Li-Ann, are getting ready to move to Manila, he still commutes regularly to catch up with them. His parents owned a hawker stall in the PJ neighborhood where he and his sister grew up, and that has made him comfortable in the kitchen.
“I helped my mother prepare the food for the day,” he recalls. “I can make mee siam [thin rice vermicelli]and roll the popiah (Fujianese fresh spring rolls).” Pasta alio oglio (pasta in olive oil and garlic from Naples) is another specialty he says is easy to whip up. A pity he doesn’t have much time these days to cook for his children.
“I love the prepping part. It’s the cleaning up that I hate,” he chuckles.
Choong’s tremendously hectic schedule has to be able to accommodate the December overseas trip the Choongs make, together with another family, who are close friends of theirs. They’ve visited places like Hawaii and Florida, where son Heinrik fell in love with the idea of entering the aeronautics field – when they toured the Kennedy Space Center – and not banking. His father is philosophical about the boy’s decision.
Choong is currently reading Hit Refresh by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, which posits the importance of stepping back at different points in one’s career or personal life to reflect and consider the need for a change.
“I’m now on my fifth role in Maybank,” Choong says with a hint of incredulity that his particular revolving door has led to stimulating jobs. “It means there are enough opportunities within the Group to refresh.”
And hopefully, there will be many more to engage this unique and total professional.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN