Sylvia Lim (BBA Hons 1993)
It all happened behind her back – the firm decision to nominate her, the entire rigorous selection process by an independent panel from the financial industry, and finally the decision to award her “Outstanding Young Private Banker 2010” at the Private Banking International Wealth Summit. Sylvia Lim (BBA Hons 1993), Director at Standard Chartered’s Private Banking Group, was caught completely off guard by the accolade . But her win would have come as no surprise at all to those familiar with her work and life ethic which have her poised for success.
What drew you to the financial industry?
Actually, going into the financial industry was not a natural choice. It was not something that I knew I would do from day one in Business School. But I knew I liked working with people, I had some strengths in marketing, I liked writing. So I decided to follow my heart. I applied for a job in Public Affairs, which happened to be in a financial institution. But it was the job – not necessarily the organization – which attracted me. Maybe it was a bit of luck, chance or divinity.
And having experienced life in a bank, you liked it?
In my first seven years, I worked in various roles, ranging from PR, to marketing, to product management, and even to advertising manager – these were all aspects that I enjoyed, and they all happened to be within the context of banking. One of my pet projects in 2000 was to develop a debit card from scratch for a local bank. It was successfully launched and the head of Consumer Banking in that bank intuitively knew that I was looking to pursue more challenges in the banking industry, even before I realized it myself. He told me to go into wealth management. But I had zero experience – most people who do that would have progressed to that level through years of experience in retail banking and so on, but I hadn’t. However, I decided to try it, on his advice.
What gave you the impetus to make such a leap?
Well, Napoleon said, “Ability is of no account without opportunity.” You have to seize the opportunity when it does arise. An optimist turns difficulties into opportunities, whereas a pessimist turns opportunities into difficulties. After making the career move, it was not a bed of roses, but I had good mentors, and it was important for me to recognize that role they played in my life. Most were my bosses, but some were my colleagues and associates – these are life teachers. What I learnt was if you have difficulties, you can find answers – more than you imagine – through people. People have a wealth of experiences, advice, and you learn a lot by seeing things through their eyes.
What were some of the vital lessons you learnt?
Never dismiss something just because it’s small or seems insignificant. Some of my clients from Indonesia are not dealing in big brand names or luxury products, but very-basic day-to-day items or small items, like a screw. But they are successful because they do it so well and they are proud of what they do. So you should be glad to do what you do because it’s right for you, not because society puts a brand to it.
You are enjoying success in your “accidental” career. Have you had to make sacrifices?
Business School teaches you that everything has an opportunity cost. So everyone makes sacrifices, and I choose not to tell myself that I made sacrifices. Sure it’s hard being a career mum, managing home and work, juggling career and children, but others make the same sacrifices too. And I’ve had the privilege of being with women who’ve done that successfully and asking them for advice. So the “fringe benefit” of being a career person is to be in contact with all these people who inspire, and who also share their mistakes.
What is your work/life ethic?
Keep life simple. It tends to get complicated, but it can be simple. With technology today, you can take shortcuts. For example, email is as fast as lightning. But there are no shortcuts for some things in life. I still follow hardcore values such as integrity and hard work.
I also believe that if opportunity never knocks, then go and create the door. I would tell any young person today to “follow your passion, find your strength, open your heart to opportunity, and, with hard work, things will just develop”. Do what you really like and success will follow you. I am glad I didn’t begin with the end in mind. Don’t follow the trend, or do what all the others are doing because you won’t find passion or happiness in that.
What do you envision for the future, especially after this award?
I didn’t set out to win awards, and am grateful for this nomination by Standard Chartered, especially to be placed among people I admire and aspire to be like. There is a saying, “If you want to ride the boat, you have to be near the river”. With the pulse of the world in Asia today, and Singapore and Hong Kong as financial centers, we are close to the river. Being in the thick of the action is exciting for me, and this award marks my place in this exciting context. But I hope that at the end of my journey in my career, when I look back, what comes to mind would not just be about work. When you spend so many hours at work, you make friends out of your colleagues, and some of them have become my good friends. So I hope to look back on crises we have overcome, achievements we have pulled off, and things we have celebrated together.