MBA students interview Christine Lam, CEO of Citi China

Elaine and Moi with Christine Lam, CEO of Citi China. (middle)
Left-right: Elaine Leong, MBA 19, Christine Lam, CEO of Citi China, and Moi Liu, MBA 19.

Elaine Leong and Moi Liu—both MBA 19s and roommates at Haas—landed a sit-down interview during winter break with Christine Lam, CEO of Citi China, to talk about the keys to her successful finance career.

Leong wasn’t going into Citi cold; she’d worked as a management associate at Citi in Malaysia before applying to Haas.

At Citi, Leong had rotations in operations, retail, and corporate banking and managed a portfolio of high net-worth clients as her final assignment. “I wouldn’t be at Haas without Citi and the great leaders and mentors that I met there,” she said. “That’s why I value every opportunity to share Citi’s culture with my peers and schoolmates.”

Leong met with Barbara Desoer, MBA 77, and the CEO of Citibank N.A., before applying to the Berkeley MBA program.  It was Desoer who introduced Leong and Liu to Lam, who has been at the fore of her industry for decades and has served in her current role since 2016.

“I’m grateful that Berkeley gave me the platform to learn from leaders such as Christine Lam,” Liu said. “I am inspired by the wisdom she shared, which gave me fresh perspective on developing my own career path.”

Citi established business in Shanghai, China, in 1902. Since then, Citi China has grown to become one of the most global of all foreign banks in China, operating in nearly 100 markets. With both retail and institutional product offerings, the bank operates in 12 cities and has 6,000 employees.

In the early 1990s, Lam spearheaded Citi’s securities services business ventures in the China B-Share market. She’s also served as head of operations and technology for Asia Pacific, country business manager for Citi Consumer Banking in Hong Kong and Macau, and chief of staff to the regional CEO of the Corporate and Investment Bank.

Lam offers some key takeaways from the interview:

Keep an open mind when opportunities present themselves.

Lam began her Citi career as a management associate in the management trainee program. Soon after, she was asked to assume management responsibilities for an operations unit.  She went on to become the youngest member of the new team—assuming leadership responsibilities within a year of joining the firm.

Throughout her career, Lam continued to be open to new challenges, taking on roles in emerging industries, such as when Citi entered the B-shares market. (On the Shanghai Exchange, B-shares trade in U.S. dollars. On the Shenzhen Exchange, B-shares trade in Hong Kong dollars.) Lam said her willingness to try new roles helped her to develop a reputation as open-minded, adventurous, and adaptable. “It became a lot easier for other managers to consider me for assignments where I may not have had prior experience,” she said.

Focus on building transferable skills.

When asked how she transitioned to many new positions, Lam explained that she often looked beyond the job titles and instead considered the skills involved. When moving from operations into retail banking, for example, she noted that about 70 to 80 percent of the skills required for both jobs overlapped, skills such as people management, process management, and risk management. “So when you take a risk of 20 to 30 percent it’s not that bad,” she said.

Understand strengths and shortcomings.

An adventurous spirit has always been a key strength and has played an important role in Lam’s career work choices over the decades.

That said, she said she works on areas within her skill set that need to be developed and asks for help when she needs it.  “I have always sought advice,” she said. “I might have blind spots. Having a group of people who I feel comfortable speaking with has always helped in terms of making my career decisions.”

Attitude is more important than aptitude.

For entry-level positions at Citi, the company prefers an open and positive attitude over a specific body of knowledge, Lam said. “Citi is an institution that is very willing to take risks on people,” she said.

Lam said Citi values attitude over aptitude because “the world is changing so rapidly that the technical knowledge of today may no longer be relevant tomorrow.” More important are willingness and ability to learn, a person’s communications skills, and strategic thinking, she said.  “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have [the knowledge],” she said. “We will teach you.” As a global bank, Citi also looks to hire candidates who can deal across cross-cultures, with a wider perspective of the world.