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Ping pong allows Hang Seng's CEO to show true personality as woman at top of leading Hong Kong bank

Karen Yeung karen.yeung@scmp.com

Louisa Cheang Wai-wan knows all too well that self-confidence is the top trait of women in power. But for the CEO of Hang Seng Bank, being authentic plays an equally important role in holding together one of Hong Kong's most extensive banking networks.

The reason, she says, is simple: just as she needs to answer to the bank's shareholders, she is also responsible for inspiring a staff of more than 10,000 people.

"It's really important to show your personality out there, otherwise it would be so exhausting when dealing with so many different people," Cheang said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. "I feel I need to be true to myself, and to be able to say and do the things from my heart to my colleagues."

Authenticity may be central to her management style, but Cheang is less forthcoming when discussing her rise to the top in a highly-competitive, male-dominated industry. Instead, the business leader humbly attributes her success to hard work, good fortune and being in the right place at the right time.

Founded in 1933, Hang Seng has built its street cred as the bank for Hongkongers, whether you are a fresh university graduate or a mum and pop store in one of the city's 18 urban districts. But in recent years, it has also gained renown for a corporate culture that has effectively supported women to reach top jobs.

The bank's positioning in the market, in contrast to the corporate focus of its parent company HSBC, may have some bearing. Hang Seng's long-time emphasis on retail services " albeit complemented by commercial business " has helped shape a workforce that embraces hiring women.

Not only are 60 per cent of employees at the company's 280 service outlets and branches women, but 10 of its 15 senior management positions are filled by female executives. Cheang is Hang Seng's third female CEO in a row following Rose Lee Wai-mun and Margaret Leung Ko May-yee.

Cheang is stamping her mark on the position, however, both in terms of hardware and software at the bank. Hang Seng's head office in Central and its branches around the city are being remodelled over the next two years to become open work spaces with the aim of emboldening employees to share ideas and drive innovation.

By incorporating a digital floor, a quiet floor and massage chairs for relaxation, Cheang wants to send a message to millennial staff, who make up 60 per cent of employees, that the company is breaking from its traditional image of being hierarchical institution.

But Cheang is well aware that office changes only yield results when they are complemented with a progressive attitude in recruiting and retaining talent. She said that was underpinned by a commitment to greater gender and age diversity, as well as religious and political inclusivity, which harnessed the strengths of different employees.

She has also emphasised the importance of maternity care and work-at-home arrangements so employees do not feel they have to sacrifice their families and health for their career.

To drive home her message of finding work-life balance, Cheang threw herself into three months of ping pong lessons last year in preparation for a friendly match against the former men's world No 7, Wong Chun-ting, at the bank's table tennis academy.

"I've not even held a paddle ever before. If anything, this only proves how good my trainer was because at least it allowed me to pretend that I was able to play along [with Wong]," Cheang said. "After that I continued taking lessons, and kept playing ping pong. I really like it now, as I do like sports very much."

When not playing the world's best table tennis stars, Cheang is busy grappling with some of the biggest challenges facing the bank industry. One of the most pressing, she said, was closing the gap between rapidly developing technology and its adoption by people, whether it was staff or customers. Rolling out technology because it was the latest "hot item" could be a waste of time and resources, she said.

"I think there is too much technology which can cause businesses to make mistakes," Cheng said. "Some of our customers need a lot of hand holding, as well as our colleagues, so we should really think first about what the customer actually needs."

Three unexpected turns in Cheang's career have helped build a management philosophy that prioritises offering opportunities to employees, while encouraging them to take risks.

The first turning point was in 2007 when her previous employer HSBC moved her from a specialist role leading Asia-Pacific marketing to a generalist position running the region's personal finance services business unit. The new job expanded her responsibilities to include managing bank branches and operations, as well as sales.

Founded in 1933, Hang Seng has built its street cred as the bank for Hongkongers. Photo: K. Y. Cheng alt=Founded in 1933, Hang Seng has built its street cred as the bank for Hongkongers. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

The next turning point was an assignment at HSBC's London headquarters, where she was dropped into a new workplace that was dominated by white men. Cheang described the experience as an "intense training period" that broadened her horizons because it required her to leave her well-established reputation and comfort zone in Hong Kong.

On one occasion she was the only woman at a senior executive meeting, an experience that is now deeply etched in her memory because it drove home something that she has used to guide her career, she said.

"How would you use an Asian female's perspective to convince people that you can add value? This has become a continuous process of self-reflection ... to show how I can stand out with my contribution."

The final, critical turn was becoming CEO of Hang Seng Bank. The new role made her learn to become accountable to shareholders, employees and the community, and ensure they all got value from her work, she said.

"You need to continually encourage yourself to have curiosity to do new things," Cheang said. "We need to make a conscious effort to mitigate the stereotypes of women."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.