Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - William Sung

Today I am a Professional Executive and Business Coach and CEO of my own company Wilosophy, however, I also have nearly twenty years' worth of experience working with HSBC - at one stage as a General Manager I had 9000 people reporting to me!

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What sparked your interest to study a Bachelor of Science, Mathematics and Business and a Master’s of Science, Information Technology at Queen Mary? I enjoyed mathematics and I was pretty good at it, I got an A in my A-Levels (an A* didn’t exist at the time) so it seemed like a natural progression. I liked the mechanics, the statistics and the calculus side, but I wanted to study something else to enhance my employability prospects. Business studies felt like the right choice. In the end, I actually enjoyed Business more than Mathematics because I got exposure to the psychology side of marketing, business planning and business models – all of which I had never experienced before. Originally I joined Queen Mary because that is where the majority of my friends went; I could have gone to Kings or Imperial, however I liked the fact that I could still go home and eat dinner and be part of my family once my classes had ended - I lived in Poplar at the time. After my undergraduate studies, which were about studying, having fun and exploring life and myself, I wasn’t ready to start working, so I opted to study my Masters here instead.

What was it about Queen Mary that made you continue your studies by completing your Masters here? Especially seeing as some undergraduate students complete their Masters at other institutions. Fortunately, I got a scholarship to continue my studies. I lived on campus whilst completing my Masters so I got the full university experience of living away from home. I made some really good friends who I am still in touch with and when I come back to London, they are some of the first few people that I look up!

I got my first job in the November during my Masters, which started at the end of September/early October. My friends and I went to Old Street for a Careers Fair and the only reason I went was because there was a new bar next door that I’d been wanting to try! At the time, the internet had taken over the application process and no one was taking paper CV’s. Only a few companies took my CV, including - HSBC, Enron, Micromuse and Barclays. By the end of November I had three job offers, one of them being a graduate job within HSBC Investment Banking & Markets (GB&M now), which I took after my Dad’s advice as HSBC was an institution in Hong Kong where my Dad grew up. I had to pass my Masters for the contract to be enacted and ironically I felt less pressure knowing that I had a job in my back pocket. This allowed me to enjoy the course and dedicate my final project to Derivatives Trading.

How did you find the experience of a graduate role for your first job? Great. Graduate jobs are in hot demand now; I work with university students in Hong Kong and China and they all want to go into a graduate role because of the exposure. When I ran HSBC Operations in Guangzhou, I re-crafted a management trainee programme which gave graduates the ability to personally taste everything front to back, to meet different people and to experience aspects of the business. My own experience was fantastic; at the time I joined, HSBC was in a merger state as it had just acquired James Capel, the investment firm. The man who hired me told me I got the job because he felt that I was very cheeky as I challenged some of the stuff that they were doing in terms of software development. He took me under his wing; we drank a lot, as was the culture back then, so it felt like a continuation of my student lifestyle. Overall, the people that I worked with allowed me lots of freedom of question and from that I learned so much – asking questions and not feeling stupid for doing so is very important. I felt very at home. I also had the opportunity to work with most people in different departments and to have a say in where I wanted to be placed during my graduate program. If I didn’t go into a graduate programme, I don’t think I would be here today having the ability to talk about my near twenty-year career in Banking!

Can you describe your career path since graduating, up until your current role as CEO of Wilosophy? Specifically, your work in the Greater Bay area. As previously touched upon, when I joined HSBC, it was integrating a new interface and changing the way it ran its foreign exchange platforms. HSBC wanted to create a service at the time which would revolutionise a straight through process for FX trade settlement. This project allowed me to talk to people in New York, France, all over the world – the exposure was massive. I was in Paris every month for about 6 months in 2008, and I also had a stint in New York for several weeks looking to create a golden source of data across the investment bank. As part of our aim to increase our global footprint I helped hire, train and build a team onsite Curitiba, Brazil for a month. To support this monstrous system we decided to continue the build out of a follow-the-sun model with Brazil and Asia.  For this Asia team I then suggested we needed to grow a team in China after our attempt to build a team in Malaysia fell through. I put my hand up to become the regional head in Asia; this exposure taught me more about globalisation, how to build a team, how to hire talent, how to engage with people at a human level, rather than a management, regional level and about managing people and processes remotely.

Alongside all of this, since 2008, I had been coaching individuals and my small teams under the basic GROW model. In 2010-2013, I was running the region for FX and derivatives for investment banking out of Hong Kong. I went to China and took over a team of about 104, running all of HSBC’s investment banking trading and reporting systems across the world – a huge contrast to my regional team of 8 and my London team of 4 (including myself) at the time. This role really tested me, my time management skills, my patience, my emotional intelligence and the need to be immersive in the Chinese culture, which is very different to Hong Kong Chinese culture.  In this role, I had to not only manage my first budget (USD$1.8M), I had to also revert back into rolling my sleeves up to fire-fight and problem solve on a daily basis. In 2015 when I left this role, I left behind a legacy of a team grown to 212 team members, a really successful and happy team who would be able to sustain themselves and continue growing. Some of my best friends were from this role, without them I don't think I could have kept up with the pace of China’s growth.

My next role within HSBC was a General Manager role, but if anything it was a bespoke Chief Operative Officer role looking after commercial, investment and private banking of HSBC’s operations for HSBC & Hang Seng bank for Asia Pacific. This was a huge leap for me as I’d only ever worked in Investment Banking before. It was scary as I didn’t know what I was getting into. Immediately, I went from 212 people reporting to me, to 9000! In this role I was expected to save money rather than make it; my budget was close to USD$300M, and because it was an internal entity operating on foreign soil, I had to ensure I made a profit to cover the tax of China, which was 13% - just so that I could break even. I had HR, Finance, Compliance, Learning, Communications and everything including all the functions of the 4 banks reporting to me. If I’m being honest, on day 1 and for a month, I had imposter syndrome. However, being thrown in at the deep end forced me to learn very quickly. Through my background in Technology, I was able to reinvent and reinject a bit of fresh blood into our operations. When I left, I grew the team to 11,000 because the outsource/service centre business was booming; however, I was also disappointed because I wanted to shrink the team due to developments in automation. During this time however, my career outlook started to change. I started to adopt different methods, leaning on coaching specifically, to help the individuals on the goal driven objectives to reach their potential and the bank’s objectives at a faster rate. I got more involved in the human side of developing people whilst reaping the benefits of praise for being recognised as a good coach. During this period I also benefited by having my own external coach. I remember asking my coach how she became a coach and how I could potentially become one too; this subsequently lead me to realise that my best self was not with HSBC. I loved seeing people develop, this urge to want to help others, this rescuer mentality as I call it, lead me to take a back-flip into uncertainty to go freelance and become a Coach. I wanted to do this for a living instead. Therefore, I used my time at HSBC to settle ‘my affairs’ and follow the steps for certification as a professional coach – today I am a Professional Executive and Business Coach. I count HSBC as my life-giver as they gave me so much to be thankful for and helped me realise that Coaching was what I really wanted to do in life. HSBC and other banks are my clients, as well as Universities, numerous start-ups and SME’s. Starting Wilosophy was the catalyst for my clients, who also include the British Chamber - I run the Chamber in Guangdong developing the Greater Bay Area mission, helped by my background with the Pearl River Delta (PRD) & Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) when at HSBC between 2013 and 2017.

What did you look for when you was hiring people throughout your time at HSBC? Two things. One thing was a gut feeling which comes with time as a manager. The second was whether the person was actually qualified to do the job. When it comes to interviews, students and graduates should be themselves, be confident, be authentic, be curious, be a team player and admit if they don’t know something. I was also always more likely to hire people who did sports, as they tended to be disciplined and have a winning mentality! Swimmers in particular – maybe it was that discipline of rising early and doing 20 laps before breakfast. When selecting candidates, you also have to know if the team is going to like them but ultimately, if you have the skills and experience to help the team and business – that’s the winning formula.

Can you tell me more about your company Wilosophy? The inspiration behind the name is simple - Will’s philosophy. Within 8 months of exiting myself from HSBC I started with nothing; I was in the red for about six months. It was really tough as in reality, I hadn’t done enough homework in terms of understanding how it [the coaching business] all worked. I just enjoyed the coaching process, but was a little naïve about the business aspect. But I turned this into a positive and learnt very quickly how to start a business; finding clients and rebranding myself – which in all honesty was the hardest thing to do. My Mum has only recently found out that I no longer work for HSBC; she still thought I worked in a branch giving out money! She was fiercely proud of my career for HSBC because in a Chinese family, it symbolised status and identity. She still doesn’t understand coaching and in fairness, coaching is a very western business support mechanism; in China many companies are still adapting to this alternative form of people development.

Ultimately, my company aims to help people have independence and choice and to sound cliché, ‘make China great’ again. But why target China specifically I’m asked? Because the education system in China is broken; individuals have little choice in their career direction since when they get to University, more often than not they pick either finance or art and that’s it. And the traditions of the culture are to keep pressing ahead and not let the parents down regardless of whether it’s not something the individual is passionate about. Either that, or choose a subject that makes the most money. Back then it was Finance, these days it is FInTech. Therefore, Wilosophy is about how to give young adults the ability to make a choice independently, to say yes OR no, and to decide how to live their lives through connecting, networking and using coaching as a way to define personal goals. Selfishly I want to join forces with Queen Mary as I feel that it will be a mutually exclusive relationship - Wilosophy will help Queen Mary gain exposure to a massive market and to grow its brand globally. Growing a Queen Mary Chapter in South Chain would be awesome, because maybe I can support those sea-turtles that want to come unstuck in their careers.

What are some of the challenges and rewards you have encountered as CEO of your own company? I had to learn very quickly about managing my emotions when it came to rejection. At first, I used to take it personally. Being an entrepreneur, a businessman, a CEO really forces you to build your emotional intelligence quotient. Before I had everything on a platter but I had to start my company from scratch. I am still growing it. Re-branding my identity from Banker, to Entrepreneur and Coach has been challenging in that people don’t get it – however what I can tell people is that the qualities of my brand working for HSBC, such as ‘integrity, trust, discipline for results and having fun’, are still very much part of my brand today in Wilosophy.

My Dad came over in the late 60s as an immigrant and retired when I was six. My sisters and I learnt very quickly about money; I started working when I was eight, helping build Chinese takeaways in London and Kent serving customers and at the coal face cooking with a wok. Even during university I worked every Friday and Saturday at take-away and chippies until I was 22. I was used to hard graft and I think this is why I have been so persistent when building my own company.

On LinkedIn you state that you first dipped your toes into entrepreneurship by setting up student events – what kind of events did you initiate? My cousin Will was a DJ and together, every Tuesday, we hired out a club called Heaven in Charring Cross Road under our event name ‘Kinetic’ – to keep moving. We ran a Chinese student night for about 9 months, specifically to let Chinese students let loose. Queen Mary allowed me to unconsciously connect to other people; the University gave me a platform to understand how marketing works and how events such as these were put together. That Chinese community spirit has lead me to set up a new company back in London called Bay London, which will look to connect UK-Sino businesses – the company was registered on Boxing Day 2019, so watch this space!

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Constantly have a plan that allows you to believe that you can and that you do want to move onto different roles throughout your career. Network with people that can tell you about a role, but who can also help you learn about the role and introduce you to different people. Advertise yourself on LinkedIn and build yourself a personal brand – this is very important in light of how powerful media is. Also believe in yourself and explore, there is no role that you should turn down because every role is a learning opportunity. Lastly, when you’re in a workplace, do not take things personally; everyone has an opinion and a right to that opinion.

More tailored to current students - don’t stick to your own kind. It is enrichening to be exposed to different cultures. I played football for Queen Mary with the Chinese society and they stuck to themselves which was a pity. Hang out with everyone. You’ll have more stories to tell. Overall, Queen Mary was great in helping me understand people, cultures and backgrounds; when you go into the workplace it is the same.

How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? At the time I didn’t care about Queen Mary in the way that I do now. I took it for granted and due to a mixture of things, my own faults included, I don’t feel like the Queen Mary’s Careers service really helped me out at the time. I guess that’s why I became a Careers Consultant for Shanghai University in 2018, and then Hong Kong University and Chinese University Hong Kong more recently. I am liked by students because of my bluntness; I am critical in a constructive way and I didn’t get this from Queen Mary back then, it was just a quick psychometric assessment and ‘thank you for coming today, next student please’. But in hindsight, I feel because of the work I do with universities now, Queen Mary can help their students and alumni more in order to help them grow. I also feel like I should have cared about my career a bit more as a student and about the University; it's a two-way street. In fairness, Queen Mary has changed so much and I can feel there is so much to offer from career and alumni services here.

I now want to work with the University to shine a light the other way, to show why Queen Mary is a great place to study. I want to advise students who study in the UK and then come back to China to build their careers and the best way to go about this. I would love to use my connections and experience to start an alumni chapter with Queen Mary in South China, specifically in the Greater Bay Area. For I know that living in China is a massive eye opener and when graduates come back they can be a bit lost. I want to be able to support and mentor such graduates.

On LinkedIn, you also state that Queen Mary allowed you to get to know your Chinese roots. In what ways did Queen Mary make this possible? I got involved with the Chinese society who at the time were predominantly from Hong Kong; it gave me the opportunity to spruce up my Cantonese and for me to get back into understanding my ethnic background seeing as my Dad is from Hong Kong. My girlfriend at the time was also from Hong Kong, so learning our mother tongue through this society allowed us to triangulate and integrate in the UK a bit more.

Where has been your favourite place to work and how is it different working where you are now compared to where you grew up and studied? My most fun times were when I first started working in London because I was a blank canvas, open to anything, and the people I worked with were young and vibrant. It was also great to work in the city, then Canary Wharf, then back out to the city again. Hong Kong was probably my least favourite as it is a very challenging place to live and work; it’s really intense but you don’t realise this until you leave as it sucks you in. When I moved to China after, I suddenly felt this pressure and competitiveness dissolve. I think China will be my favourite place to work; the people I have hired have now become my firm friends. China is such a dynamic and growing environment – its 100% not what you read on the news, there is an abundance of opportunities in China, but you need to have an open mind, be empathetic and not force personal values on everything and everyone you meet. Brazil was also special for me as the people showed such amazing hospitality.