Preparing For A Career In Banking

Banking is a tough old world, but Kellee Kam, Managing Director of RHB Capital Berhad speaks to Ng Juan Hann about how to make it in this demanding and challenging career.
Kellee Kam
Managing Director of RHB Capital Berhad
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Kellee Kam knows what it takes to succeed in the arena of banking.

In an eight-year career with RHB, he has taken on increasingly strenuous positions of responsibility, from general manager of Group Finance and Group CFO to his current position of CEO and Managing Director of RHB Capital.

Qualifications

Kam thinks that employers themselves have become more enlightened with regards to qualifications. A law graduate with an MBA and a Master of Arts from the United Kingdom, he believes that employers are now willing to accept a wider range of disciplines compared to when he first joined the workforce in 1998.

He said that your degree is important because ‘it’s a tangible outcome of your attributes…but it’s not the end-all of the selection process’. The process now aims to test the ability of the candidate to grow into the job; for example, the candidate’s social, analytical and communications skills.

When asked about the relevance of qualifications such as economics or banking, he said: ‘If you had a very relevant qualification but you did badly, it’s going to hamper your chances (of getting the job).

‘What’s important is what you’ve done during the period you’ve been in university and through your formative years’ – for example, showing initiative through doing an internship, or other extra-curricular activities that would enhance your career prospects, skills or attributes.

Attributes

Kam believes that ‘skills we (the employer) can teach, we can learn, but as for your own personal attributes and attitude, by the time you come to the workforce, you are who you are’. He said employers spend a lot of time now looking at attributes instead of only skills.

Of these attributes, an ethic of hard work features high on the list. However, hard work without an objective is just spinning your wheels, said Kam. He tells graduates to be ‘mindful of the objectives you’re trying to drive’.

Respect is another, as it shows a level of maturity that is needed for this line of work, an appreciation for the customer, your colleagues, your peers and your team members.

Kam believes that selflessness breeds professionalism, as nothing should stand in the way of discharging your duty to the customer. If faced with the question of putting oneself or the organisation first, he said, ‘as much as possible you should always say, put the organisation first’.

And where all attributes are equal, it’s your level of preparedness that will get you the job. He advises graduates not to take interviews lightly, saying that ‘interviewers can sense when you’re just shopping for a job, versus you wanting to be in there and having prepared for it’.

‘If you believe a life in banking and finance is going to be the life for you, take an interest in reading what’s happening in the economies around the world,’ recommended Kam.

Preparation shows that the graduate truly desires the job, and that in itself is important. According to Kam, the job becomes progressively easier if the graduate actually likes what he or she is doing.

Career Sectors

Kam listed out several areas that graduates could choose to go into. A popular area is investment banking, as ‘everyone wants to be an investment banker, although the reality is it may not be suited for everybody. It depends on your personality’.

In reality, there are several roles within investment banking itself, from the front office people ? who ‘meet clients, spend time with them, understand their issues and bring them the correct solutions’ ? to the back office, the ‘technical guys who craft out all these interesting structures and schemes’.

Ten years ago, Islamic banking was relatively obscure in terms of career opportunities. Today, ‘it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in Malaysia, which means that the demand for Islamic banking skills have hit an all-time high’.

Another area of banking which is still obscure is that of risk management, an area that ‘very few graduates consciously pick’, said Kam. However, bearing in mind the financial crises of 1997 and 2008, risk management ‘has taken a huge leap in terms of being an incredibly viable area to build a very solid career’, Kam believes.

Competition

When it comes to competition, the banking sector is harsh in two ways. The business environment itself is unforgiving and competitor organisations are constantly seeking to outdo each other.

Secondly, there is a large pool of talent vying for a limited number of jobs. Part of this is due to the better-than-average compensation that the banking sector pays. Kam admits that ‘the financial sector generally pays better as a whole’.

But it doesn’t get easier. Kam warned that ‘as you move up the ladder, the opportunities get less and less’. Truly outstanding performers become department level heads within six to eight years, managing 30 to 40 people, and would potentially be running business lines within 15 years.

Asked if this process is results-oriented, Kam said, ‘Yes, always. That’s the only way.’

Kam offers encouragement to determined and hardworking graduates wishing to forge a successful career in the industry.

However, these words of encouragement are tempered with the fact that candidates should be prepared for a significant amount of hard work to achieve those standards of excellence.