Insights from a world of opportunity

Citi’s retiring head of Southeast Asia, Michael Zink, shares key insights he picked up in a 28-year-career that saw him work across the world.

Citi’s retiring head of Southeast Asia, Michael Zink, shares key insights he picked up in a career that saw him work across the world.

My wife Betsy and I have been on a marvellous journey through ten countries across four continents, and, after more than 27 years overseas, we have decided this is the moment to return to the US.  As I retire from Citi, I reflect on lessons from my international career.

Believe in people and your faith will be rewarded

In January 1994, I arrived in Moscow as part of the start-up leadership team that re-established Citi’s presence in the Russian Federation after 77  years. The most strategically important decision we made was to hire only people in their 20s with no banking experience. They were bright, educated, ambitious, and anxious to succeed. The job of training them added to the burden of the handful of experienced bankers, but those young people rose to the challenge and became the core of one of our most successful businesses.  In fact, two of those early hires became country heads for Citi, in Kazakhstan and Vietnam. We expressed belief in them and our faith was rewarded.

Create a leadership team that reflects your employee and client base

Diversity of all sorts is in our interest. We believe a banking license is a privilege, an expression of trust granted by the societies we seek to serve. To bring the best of Citi to the task of earning that trust, in a manner acceptable to each local market, we strive to create leadership teams that reflect the employee base we lead and the client base we serve. Most societies are half male, half female. Our clients are a mixture of local and global companies. Unless our leadership teams have a similar profile, we will lack perspectives necessary for commercial success. In Singapore, we have come close to this goal. Our heads of investment banking, private banking, commercial banking, operations and technology, compliance, and finance are all female and Asian, four Singaporean. Our consumer banking, corporate affairs, legal affairs, and security services heads are also Singaporean. We succeed together, because we have diverse perspectives.

Zink picks up an FA award

Make yourself useful and you will rise

There is a belief that millenials are different. They want to do meaningful work, learn constantly, do many different things. Well, I was born in the 1950s and all that applies to me as well, and to most successful people I know. Some advice for young people - seek to make yourself useful and those other things will follow. Early in my career I was assigned, to run a small branch in Port Gentil, the oil centre for Gabon. (To locate it, find the intersection of the Equator and the coast of West Africa.). I had no experience managing a branch or a team, and I foolishly resisted until the head of Africa called the smart-aleck younger me directly. I told him I knew nothing about running a branch. He agreed... which deepened my confusion.  But there had been trouble at that branch and he needed someone to sort it out... he needed me to make myself useful in solving a problem. So I went, and it was one of the most intense, meaningful experiences of my career. That put me on a new trajectory because I had demonstrated a willingness to take over and sort out a difficult situation. In short, I made myself useful... and people took notice.

Seek mentors but be guided by role models

I have always been ambitious, but about ten years into my career I was trying to work out just how ambitious. All four of our children had been born and we were already working in our fifth country. My biggest concern was balancing career ambitions with my commitment to family, so I asked a very senior person in Citi to point out a role model - someone still happily married to his first spouse, who had thriving children, and who was successful. In the end he came up with one or two. They became my role models, examples that showed it was possible to keep family as True North but also be a successful banker. My only regret is that I never thanked them before they retired. You need mentors to help navigate your career but you need role models to navigate life. Understanding the difference is one of the great insights of corporate life.

The world is fascinating. Embrace it. Have the courage to cross a border, cross a boundary, take a chance. Carpe Diem. I now stand on the threshold of another boundary, voluntarily calling time on a wonderful career because my intellectual curiosity is propelling me onward to the next, unknown chapter. You can do the same. All you need do is listen to yourself... and believe. 

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