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3 qualities (and 2 bonus traits) of top banking and finance execs

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Chi-Won Yoon is a leader in an industry that faces dramatic change. Over 30 years, he focused on developing skills to navigate those changes.

Chi-Won Yoon

Yoon’s career took him from program trading and index arbitrage on Wall Street to serving as Asia Pacific President of UBS AG, overseeing wealth management, investment banking, and global asset management across 13 countries and nearly 8,000 employees. Before his 22-year tenure at UBS, Yoon worked at SBC Warburg, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch.

The MIT Sloan alumnus visited campus recently to talk with MBA and master of finance students. When asked what distinguishes the most successful leaders in banking and finance, Yoon cited three core qualities and two bonus traits that set top executives apart from the pack.

First, the basics, which Yoon said should be table stakes for finance professionals:

  • The ability to learn. “The people at the top are the ones who can learn very quickly,” Yoon said; people who “learn how to learn” as students will find that skill is a competitive advantage in the workforce. As a 60-year-old newly retired from one of the most powerful positions in finance, Yoon is planning a return to MIT to delve more deeply into blockchain, artificial intelligence, and “regtech” (regulatory technology).
  • Adaptability. The industry changes dramatically every two to three years, Yoon said, and those aspiring to leadership need to keep up. “I worked in derivatives for a span of 15-plus years, but every two years my role changed significantly,” he said. “You always need to adapt to market changes.”
  • Resilience. “There were leaders who I thought were extremely good and effective who were just broken by the financial crisis in 2008,” Yoon said. “They were simply unable to bounce back after experiencing such a catastrophic event.” On the other hand, leaders like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon “raise their game to the next level” when they encounter adversity, he said. “It’s an important quality to be able to recover quickly from difficulties and rise to the challenge.”

Truly exceptional leaders hone those traits with two higher-level strategic qualities:

Situational awareness. Yoon said successful leaders possess the ability to make strategic decisions in the heat of the moment. “The best phrase to describe the skill set is ‘situational awareness,’ somebody who can see the broader picture of what’s happening around them, assess where they are and say, ‘Okay, at this point in time, the best course of action for us to take is this way,’” Yoon said. “It’s the skill set of having that awareness and seeing the bigger picture and being able to take decisive action during tumultuous times.”

A responsive management style. Yoon was born in Korea and, thanks to his diplomat dad’s career, lived in Brazil, Indonesia, and Portugal before moving to Massachusetts for college. In his professional life, Yoon spent time in Zurich and London, and worked in New York for 9 years and, for the past 25 years, Hong Kong.

All of which means Yoon became an expert at adapting to different cultures and value systems. “One of the important qualities of a leader is being able to adjust and modulate your own style so that you can connect with people around you,” said Yoon, who is also chair of the Asian Executive Board at MIT Sloan.

One case in point: Wall Street. “The culture there is very aggressive. And that’s a huge plus — they are highly motivated people, and they work extremely hard,” Yoon said. “But I have much more of a consensus-driven, collaborative approach. So the challenge is in managing that tension — staying true to who you are and yet being able to deal with people who have very different working and communication styles.”

The maxim holds true for internal communications as well. “If you have just one [management] approach, it's quite difficult to get through to everyone, especially in a multinational organization,” Yoon said. “You have to learn how to dial your voice up and down, adjust and modulate your style depending on which country you are in so that you are connecting with your audience. Developing a versatile working and communication style is very helpful.”

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