The key to success: “AKL” (Always Keep Learning), and other key lessons from 4 high flying Hong Kong Executives
Life can take you along strange, unpredictable routes. It can stretch you, it can squeeze you. It can hang you upside down, and it can tease you. Yet, for these 4 successful Hong Kong-based executives at the top of their game, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
And whilst they followed different paths to success, they had one thing in common: a passion and fond memories for their alma mater, the University of Exeter, one of the Russell Group of universities in England which is ranked in the top 1% of universities globally in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University rankings.
At a recent gathering of university alumni members in Hong Kong, four high-flying executives gave their accounts of how their careers developed since they graduated from the University of Exeter.
Included on the panel of speakers were:
- Susan Kendall, Dispute Resolution partner at global law firm, Baker McKenzie
- Andrew Gordon, Managing Director, Investor & Treasury Services, Royal Bank of Canada
- KK Yung, Senior Environmental Protection Officer for the Hong Kong Government
- Nick Thorpe, Content Director, Telum Media
Giving their industry and career insights to young alumni and up-and-coming students to the university, it was fitting that the event be held at the Hong Kong offices of LinkedIn, settled in the heart of Causeway Bay. Each executive recounted their lives in Exeter and how university life changed them, for life.
Here are the key take-away points from the discussion.
1. “If you want something to happen, you make it happen.”
International law firm partner, Susan Kendall grew up wanting to start a stud farm (to breed horses!). She graduated with a degree in Geography at the University of Exeter. Yet, on returning to England from a working holiday at a property firm in Australia, Susan stopped over in Hong Kong for 3 days with her travel friend. Despite staying in a shabby hostel in Mongkok, she loved every minute of that experience and vowed to return to Hong Kong to live.
Back in England, she tried her hand at accounting but realising that her days as a 'bean counter' were numbered (pun intended), she embarked on a law degree conversion course, and commenced her Articles Clerkship (what is since become known as the ‘Training Contract’) at a local West End London law firm. After working there for 3 years, an opportunity arose to move to Hong Kong. What was originally intended to be a 1 year trip then turned into 27 years living and working in Hong Kong, and still going strong!
Ever since graduating from university, Susan has embraced many changes in her life and career. Having tried her hand working on a farm and in a property company in Australia, she experimented in a career in accounting and finance, before settling into a legal career. Even from then, her legal career has taken various twists and turns. She started out in a general legal practice firm in London. Her first firm in Hong Kong, Fairbairn Catley Low & Kong, gave her the opportunity to specialise in litigation, particularly in trusts disputes. She then moved to international law firm, Baker & McKenzie (as it was then known), followed by a 5 year stint working in-house for Accenture, working on mergers and acquisition deals. She returned to Baker & McKenzie (now Baker McKenzie) to revert to her original passion of litigation, where she continues to work (as a partner) focusing on trusts, cyber crime and employment law disputes. Moreover, she is passionate about mentoring the young professionals who are in the early stages of their career.
2. “Good clients (and good people around you) will always inspire you.”
Andrew Gordon graduated in 1982 with a degree in Economics and Politics, which led him to a career in banking, focusing on investment trusts and funds administration. He had spent 27 years with Bank of New York Mellon (now BNY Mellon) before moving to The Royal Bank of Canada where he is currently the Managing Director for Investor & Treasury Services. His career has taken him to stints abroad, living in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, and now back to Hong Kong. Like Susan Kendall, Andrew originally intended to stay in Hong Kong for 1 year and has ended up for most of his adult life in Asia.
The senior banking executive recounted one occasion in the 1990s when BNY acquired a business from another bank which turned out to have the best sovereign wealth funds in Asia. Working with these clients opened up his eyes to a whole new level of quality and sophisticated clients. Through that process of working with the very best in the industry inspired him to raise his own standards to a whole new level.
Andrew’s key takeaways were:
- Good clients will make you do things properly and on a timely basis.
- Understand and adapt to the local working culture.
- Working in an organisation where collaborative relationships exist is really, really nice.
- It’s always good to have a good sponsor or mentor.
3. “The people in any organisation is critical to that organisation’s success”
KK Yung graduated from the University of Exeter in Biological Sciences in 1980, and has always been passionate about ecology - the study of nature. That passion has guided his career path, working in the environmental space for the Government of Hong Kong SAR over the last 30+ years.
KK was born and raised in Wanchai and ever since he can remember, he has been passionate about Hong Kong, with its mix of Cantonese and English, the diverse physical geography blending in with a vibrant financial industry, dense population and thriving business community.
Despite Exeter initially not being a first choice of university (Edinburgh was!), he received offers from both universities and ended up taking the offer from Exeter, perhaps drawn to the warm summers of Devon and Cornwall as opposed to the cold winds and harsh weather of Scotland. He wasn't disappointed!
Studying at Exeter has left a huge imprint on him, inspired by the lecturers and tutors on his course. It gave KK the confidence to try new things, hence in his career he has explored different departments in the government, continually striving to learn and improve, and impart his knowledge and experience with others (hence he's currently being seconded to the Drainage Department and providing advisory services from an environmental standpoint).
4. "Focus on what you love".
Nick Thorpe studied Geography at Exeter in the early ‘noughties’. He didn't know what to do after graduating, and so joined a firm “doing pitch proposals I didn't understand”. Yet, somehow he fell into something he loved – writing, and so he entered the world of magazine editing. One thing led to another and he transitioned into digital media and eventually, he became a digital content manager.
Nicola Thomas, his tutor at Exeter inspired him when she said, "Focus on what you love".
After several years of working in the editorial scene, on a whim, he and two friends bought a black cab (London taxi) and drove to Mongolia(!) and back. On the reason why he decided to do something so random and quintessentially English, Nick said, "Sometimes, taking time out of your career can give you a fresh perspective on life."
Nick then wrote a blog - "52 new things" (52newthings.co.uk), where he vowed to try something new every week. Firstly they were rather trivial things, like not eating crisps. But his blog went viral online and he became inundated with suggestions to try new things. And that set him on the path to his current career as a Content Manager for a startup media content provider, managing a team of 20 staff.
As a result of this blog, he:
- wrote a charity Christmas song
- walked an alpaca
- wrote the book - "52 new things" which became an online best seller.
A major takeaway that transpired during the Q&A session at the end, was that the key to moving forward and developing is, “Always Keep Learning” (ALK).
- Life doesn’t necessarily deal you the hand you wanted or expected, so always persevere.
- Studying at Exeter has developed the skills to enable you to adapt well in life and your career.
- Do the things you want so you can go write a book!
- YOU make things happen.