Six interview questions that could kill your career in one of banking’s hottest sectors

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Private bankers are in high demand and short supply in Asia as the sector expands on the back of the region’s rising wealth.

Private banks, however, are notoriously fussy about hiring client-facing staff – they only want elite bankers who can handle the rigours of dealing with high-net-worth entrepreneurial clients in Asia.

If you're going to a job interview at a private bank in Asia, here are some of the questions you should expect; and here's how you should answer them.

1) Tell me about one particularly unpleasant experience at work

Success in private banking often boils down to how well you get on with clients and colleagues, so expect to be quizzed on your people skills. “This question usually surprises them,” said Marc Van de Walle, global head of wealth products at Bank of Singapore. “I like it when people start by explaining the situation very clearly because this helps me judge how articulate they are when they’re not just running through their CV. Second, it’s important to explain how the situation was resolved as it demonstrates a candidate’s ability to resolve conflicts. Third, it’s important for a candidate to share what they have learnt from the experience.”

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2) Tell me about a time when you had to work with compliance to perform due diligence on a new client

As we reported in July, private banks in Asia are bulking up on compliance professionals as they tackle an increasing regulatory burden. Likewise, front-office folk should expect a compliance question or two. “We want to hear about the process you followed and the outcome, but please do not tell us any confidential information,“ said Denis Miles-Vinall, a former private-banking recruitment manager at Coutts and Merrill Lynch who now runs the The Buckingham Academy, a Hong Kong career consultancy. “In the heyday of the mid-2000s, standard interview questioning was much around AUM, revenue, product penetration, and client relationships. In today's highly-regulated environment, private banks still ask these questions, but there’s now a wider zero-tolerance appetite for bankers with poor track records in compliance and managing risk.”

3) What types of private banking products and services are your clients looking for?

As competition and costly regional expansion squeezes their profit margins, private banks in Asia are increasingly focused on generating revenue via lucrative and innovative new products. If you’ve recently sold anything particularly complex, shout about it as you want to come across as a product allrounder. “Many clients have business interest and shareholdings in companies, so they are now looking at a wide range of products – not just vanilla ones like treasury, equities, fixed income and mutual funds, but capital-market structures and cross-asset advisory, such as hedge funds, private equity and exotic derivative instruments,” said Anita Gerry Sim, practice leader, financial services, at recruiters AYP Asia Group in Singapore.

4) What is the size of your assets under management?

It’s an obvious question, but don’t give a simple answer – add some colour and history, while focusing your answer on your clients, not just their dollars. “Alongside the current numbers, the candidate should quote their AUM and revenues for the past three years, and their client mix,” said Rahul Sen, a former banker, and a director at search firm Sheffield Haworth in Singapore. “Plus the candidate should do their homework about the employer and their style of private banking, so they can speak about their clients' requirements based on the new bank.”

5) Please explain in detail your contribution to the growth of your AUM

Banks want to hire people who have grown their own client portfolio from scratch, not been handed clients by their bank, so they will dig deep when it comes to AUM. “This is a popular question asked to gauge how experienced and successful the private banker is,” said Raja Ahmad Muzamir, manager, banking front office, at recruiters Robert Walters. “Your achievements and track record also help to show how much can you can bring on board to the new establishment.”

6) You’re highly regarded and remunerated in your current role, so why consider moving?

Interviewers love asking this question towards the end to catch out candidates who have spent the rest of the discussion bigging themselves up. They are probing for signs of weakness and insecurity – two traits that are wholly unwelcome in the revenue-focused world of private banking. And they also want to discover whether you are a job hopper who’s liable to leave their ranks before too long. “The only viable answers should all be about opportunity,” said a Singapore-based private banking headhunter who asked not to be named. “For example, a stronger brand, better career development, promotion or relocation.”