Focus and persistence have paid off for Eric Sim, CFA. After failing important exams in high school, he resolved to apply himself, turning that setback into a pivotal moment that transformed his life. From there, his career trajectory took him from working at his father’s noodle stall to offering corporate finance solutions in a top investment bank.
Not only does Sim hold an MSc degree in finance, but he also earned his CFA charter — a journey that is completed by fewer than one in five candidates.
Sim is the founder of IOL, an organization that works to inspire and train young professionals to be more productive at work and more successful in life. In this interview, Sim discusses his career trajectory and the most important skills for success in the financial industry.
Peter M.J. Gross: You started out as the son of a noodle seller without an advanced degree from a prestigious school. What helped you succeed in your career as an investment banker?
Eric Sim, CFA: Integrity and hard work. Integrity means treating clients fairly, telling them the risks of a product, and managing their expectations as well. I think that has become less and less common in banking. Especially after the financial crisis, clients have lost trust. If they can find someone they can trust, they want to stick with them.
For me it was a bit of luck as well. When I applied for a banking job in 1994, structured products were just becoming popular. I was the first engineer hired by the corporate sales team of DBS bank, and I used my programing skills to calculate swap and option pricing. At that time, we were still using DOS, not Windows. So, I created an executable file that could price FX swaps.
I offered value in ways that were different from my colleagues with business degrees.
How has your career developed since then, and how do you balance its different aspects?
In 2003, I volunteered to give campus recruitment talks, letting human resources know that I was available. After one such talk, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore invited me to give a talk, not on careers with Citibank anymore, but on financial engineering.
It developed from a talk to a lecture, and then I started giving lectures on corporate risk management to MBA and executive MBA classes. From there, I designed a full course, and eventually became an adjunct associate professor of finance at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
I also write for LinkedIn China. I was writing on my own, and they invited me to contribute because they liked my writing. It’s writing for an audience that wants to know about career skills, life skills, and how to find meaning in life.
Over the past three years, you’ve attracted more than two million followers on LinkedIn. What was your strategy for building an audience? What are your followers looking for?
My strategy is to be authentic, and to talk about career skills and life skills. I write in both English and Chinese, which attracts audiences from the East and the West.
My writing explores cultural differences and provides insights into China for Western audiences. I also talk about career skills and getting into banking. So I have attracted a lot of followers who are interested in increasing their own chances of launching a successful career in banking and finance.
What important skills for financial professionals aren’t taught at universities or business schools, and how did you learn them?
I started helping my father at his noodle stall when I was 12, and worked there until I was 22. I came into touch with many customers, which is where I learned the skills that are important for success in the financial industry. I practiced multitasking, reading customer reactions, and being able to pre-empt what the customers wanted.
Multitasking is very important. For me, it meant that my right ear was taking orders. At the same time, my left ear was listening for people ready to pay their bill. And my right eye was looking at the person who hadn’t paid yet, in case he tried to run away. In banking, it’s the same. If you’re speaking to the CFO, your eyes should be on the CEO, and your other ear should be listening for your colleague, in case he wants you to stop and elaborate on a specific point.
Pre-empting or anticipating your customer’s needs delivers a better experience for the customer, but it also manages your time more effectively. When a customer wanted their bill, and the noodles cost $2.50, I wouldn’t just tell them the total. I’d bring $7.50 in change along with me. That way, I’d be prepared if they gave me $3, or $5, or $10 to pay their bill. And that way, I don’t have to walk over to their table twice, which saves time.
Strong time management skills are important?
We want to make sure we spend time on things that have an impact on our lives. For things that don’t matter much, I spend as little time as possible. For example, with toiletries, I usually buy one year’s supply at a time. And none of my business shoes have laces. You can get them on and off faster, and if you travel a lot, you can get through airport security checks faster.
Health and fitness is very key, given that the hours in investment banking are very long. There’s no point in becoming a managing director at the age of 40 if you lose your health doing it.
You founded Institute of Life to help busy professionals acquire useful knowledge. What inspired you to make that decision?
At work, we are not judged by how fast we set up an Excel spreadsheet. We are not judged by how well we know our discounted cash flow modeling. But often we are judged based on how we get along with people, which means teamwork. We are judged on how we handle demanding customers.
But those things are not taught in school.