Maggie Zhang, recipient of the 2017 FEM APAC EMMA for her Outstanding Contribution to Global Mobility
When Maggie Zhang of AIG Insurance HK was announced as the recipient of this special award at the APAC EMMAs ceremony in Hong Kong, she was met with well-deserved applause.
Unlike all the other EMMAs which are assessed by a team of independent judges, this award, for the Outstanding Contribution to Global Mobility is in the gift of FEM and this year, we are especially delighted that the recipient was born and raised in the Asia Pacific region.
In many ways, Maggie Zhang can be seen as the embodiment of global mobility because her career is an example of just what mobility can do for a person’s professional and personal development – and in turn – what mobility can do for wider society.
A true Asia Pacific success story
Born in Mainland China, Maggie was educated in Beijing and then began work in Shenzen in southern China. When she moved into the financial sector, Maggie was quickly identified as a person of High Potential (HiPo) and her subsequent developmental assignment to Singapore proved to be a transformative experience.
After several other senior positions at companies such as Standard Chartered Bank, and with an MBA from Fudan University, in 2014 Maggie became Regional HR Lead, North Asia and Head of HR, Hong Kong at AIG Insurance, one of the world’s largest financial companies. Now based in Hong Kong, Maggie has worked hard to ensure that others have similar opportunities to the one that opened her eyes to the wider world.
She is a champion of diversity and inclusion, not just in the workplace, but also because of her work with a charity that currently sponsors 200 children in China to ensure that they progress to a higher level of education than the norm.
The need to nurture talent
At FEM’s APAC Summit this year, Maggie chaired a roundtable on developing Asian talent and took part in the lively closing panel discussion examining the ‘future workplace’. She was a popular and engaging speaker whose expertise and generosity was clear.
CTS: You have worked extensively in China, what are the particular challenges there and how do you think international business should approach them?
MZ: There is a very strict regulatory environment, a huge geographic spread with different regulatory requirement in each of the provinces, and culturally it is also quite different in different provinces.
International firms really need to assess the local talent pool, language availability, regulatory environment, cultural fit and evaluate the ROI before they start the business there. You need to have patience just to breakeven in China, as it will be long-term strategy and very difficult to see an immediate return. Political stability is another element companies need to bear in mind as the regulatory requirement is always linked to the political situation.
CTS: At our APAC Summit in Hong Kong, you led a roundtable discussion about developing Asian talent to become global talent. Why is this topic important to you?
MZ: Ten years ago I was an expat too, and moved from mainland China to Singapore. That was a very important experience in my career as I was on a Developmental Short Term Assignment as a High Potential (HiPo) from Standard Chartered Bank. I benefited a lot from that DSTA experience. That was my first overseas working experience. The person I worked for was from India and from a very different culture to mine, so I had to learn to adapt and see things from other perspectives. It transformed me from a very local HR practitioner to an international HR leader, so I know the value of leveraging DSTA to groom Asian talent to become global talent and I want to share my experience more widely to inspire more companies to do the same for their HiPos too.
Why diversity and inclusion is so important everywhere
CTS: While you have been at AIG, you have also won an award for your work on diversity and inclusion, how have you addressed those issues in your organisation and why?
MZ: We have identified four areas within this topic that need to be addressed:
- Young talent
- Disabled talent
- Female talent
- LGBT talent
They are all important, but female talent in Asia is interesting because we have so many women in the workforce, but they’re rarely seen at senior level. If you look at the financial sector for instance, around 60% of the workforce here is female with 40% male, but when you examine the senior figures, the percentages are reversed, or probably, even more dramatically different. In many Asian cultures it has traditionally been assumed that women will bear more of the domestic responsibility and there’s been no requirement for women to be business leaders, so I think that the way that we can help women to break through the glass ceiling is to give them support and encouragement.
There’s a certain reserve in some Asian cultures too, we are not encouraged to speak up or to put ourselves forward, so this can affect men too. It’s not true of every culture in Asia and if you examine the senior figures of the Top 500 companies in Asia you will see a fair representation of people from India among them, but not so many Chinese or South East Asian people. I think that there are lots of subtle differences too, but that language is a barrier and that because of the Colonial links with Britain, and the widespread use and fluency of English in India, it perhaps makes those links with the West a bit easier there. At AIG I think we also identified LGBT talent as something we should nurture and include because again in many places and particularly in mainland China outside of tier one cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen, it is not really understood or accepted yet.
Varying challenges, now and in the future
CTS: Where in Asia Pacific do you think are the most ‘challenging’ destinations for your assignees and how do you manage the expectations of both the business and the employee?
MZ: Generally speaking, the Greater China area is a relatively easy place to deal with. Japan and South Korea are quite challenging given the cultural differences, language barriers and strong union presence. Some of the South East Asian countries can sometimes be challenging because of security concerns and political instability. In others, it is more about the infrastructure and cultural differences.
CTS: You also took part in the APAC Summit’s closing panel discussion on the ‘future workplace’ – how do you think the workplace will change – and what might that mean for the Asia Pacific region in particular?
MZ: I see the future workplace becoming much more flexible, with virtual teams, and more flexi working, so that working from home will become much more common practice. Although improved and more complex technology may mean that long term assignments are not as common, critical roles with specific skillsets and certain other roles will always require face to face interactions and so it will still be necessary to move people rather than just data. In many ways, the world really is flat now, in that distances seem so much shorter and communications are so much easier. The Asia Pacific Region is always quite open to embracing new technology and adopting new ways of working, and I think local talent is rapidly maturing and will reach more senior levels soon.
CTS: How have expats and assignees changed over the course of your career so far?
MZ: I have seen a decrease in the number of long-term expats over the past 20 years, and where previously, the financial industry had been very liberal in its deployment of expats and offered generous packages, now cost efficiency is a key theme of every business.
CTS: What have been your greatest challenges at AIG? And what do you see as your key achievements so far?
MZ: At AIG we had a relatively big expatriate population a few years ago, so the challenge has been to ensure that they transfer their knowledge and skillset to groom local talent. We have -taken the calculated risk to invest in the future of local talent, which is working well now.
What this EMMA means
CTS: What are the most important qualities of a global mobility professional?
MZ: You must understand the global dynamics and local specifics, have empathy for the expats because moving to a new country is actually a very tough process, keep the balance between the company policy and flexibility without necessarily increasing the total cost, and of course it also requires good leadership that can anticipate and respond to rapid change.
CTS: What does being awarded the FEM APAC EMMA for the Outstanding Contribution to Global Mobility mean to you?
MZ: I feel very honoured by this award and it has encouraged me to contribute even more to the global mobility arena. I especially want to inspire people and show how we can leverage mobility to develop Asian talent into global talent.