How to become a CEO in Hong Kong

By Robert Half 7 June 2019

Making it to the role of chief executive officer (CEO) in a Hong Kong company is one of the ultimate career accomplishments. As the highest ranking executive officer, the CEO sets the strategy, vision and future direction of the business.

It’s a hard job to get – and a hard job to do well – but many ambitious professionals still aspire to reach this lofty and rewarding position. In one of the world’s leading hubs for business and finance, understanding how to become a CEO is considered very valuable career knowledge.

Here’s an overview of the key skills and qualifications they possess, and what steps can be taken to today to start on the right pathway.

What does the CEO do?

The role of the CEO varies according to the unique demands of each business and the structure of its board. Typically, tasks include creating and implementing the vision, mission, and overall direction of the business, and directing and evaluating the work of other executives.

CEOs are also responsible for formulating the strategic plan, being the face of the organisation in business and the media, and keeping everyone working towards the same goals.

Educational background

If you aim to become a CEO, you will require a considerable amount of intelligence, focus, determination, and a flair for business.

In most cases, this starts with a strong educational background. The Robert Half CEO Tracker found that 82% of HSI-listed CEOs* hold an undergraduate degree, while 68% hold a postgraduate degree.

Hong Kong’s CEOs also have diverse educational backgrounds, with the three most popular degrees being:

  • Bachelor of Science (13%)
  • Bachelor of Economics (10%)
  • Bachelor of Arts (6%)

For CEOs who hold postgraduate qualifications:

  • 25% have an MBA
  • 11% have a Masters of Economics
  • 5% have a Masters of Arts

A recent survey by data analytics firm Qlik found that 70% of CEOs in Hong Kong and Singapore hold degrees from Western universities, suggesting there is benefit in studying abroad as a way to learn about foreign cultures and perspectives.

Industry experience

Learning how to become a CEO usually takes more than just a few years. In Hong Kong, you will typically need wide and varied experience in business, plus a proven track record of success.

According to our research, more than half (53%) of HSI-listed CEOs have industry experience in business management. In addition, 24% have industry experience in finance, showing that there is value in understanding the numbers that drive an organisation.

Only 9% of Hong Kong’s CEOs have industry experience in technology. While chief executives don’t necessarily need to hold specific IT skills or qualifications, it is still essential that they understand the transformative impacts of technological disruption and how it can drive innovation in technology, products and business models.

Overseas experience tends to be a very important factor in the journey to becoming CEO in Hong Kong. The Robert Half CEO Tracker found 89% of HSI-listed CEOs have worked overseas, with the most popular places to work being:

  • Mainland China - 64%
  • United States - 10%
  • United Kingdom – 6%
  • Australia - 5%
  • Macau – 3.5%

When it comes to overseas work experience, ‘the more the better’ is a phrase that definitely applies to the CEO role in Hong Kong, which attracts businesses and professionals from all corners of the globe. It’s a great way to improve one’s adaptability, flexibility and communication skills, all of which are qualities that are essential for successful leadership.

How to become a CEO in Hong Kong – what are your chances?

Becoming a Hong Kong CEO calls for confidence, leadership and strong communication skills while being able to motivate and inspire a broad range of employees.

The Robert Half CEO Tracker research found that loyalty can also improve an individual’s chances of getting to the top job – 75% of Hong Kong CEOs were promoted internally, while 18% were recruited externally. Professionals who were hired internally as CEO had spent an average of 15 years of tenure with their current organisation. Either way, it is a position that needs a willingness to adopt fresh ideas, embrace new technologies, and responsibly explore opportunities to achieve sustainable company growth.

Before you decide whether you want to pursue the pathway of a CEO, it’s important to establish your ability to thrive under pressure, juggle multiple demands, grasp new concepts quickly, and recognise potential opportunities that will contribute to a company’s bottom line. You also need to ensure that you make your own case for selection as strong as possible by gaining the required skills and experience.

When it comes knowing how to become a CEO in Hong Kong’s prosperous and fast-changing business environment, the simple fact is that there is no single defined pathway. To achieve the top position in any organisation, each candidate must carve out their own journey to success.

*ABOUT THE RESEARCH - Robert Half has conducted research on CEOs leading companies featured on the Hang Seng Composite LargeCap Index (HSLI), by analysing publicly available sources of information about the HSLI CEOs. The objective is to track trends, including their professional and educational background, industry experience, gender, and length of tenure. The research was conducted between the dates of 20/03/19 and 12/04/19. The LargeCap Index includes 112 companies, representing the top 80% of total market capitalisation of the Hang Seng Composite Index. These companies are the largest listed companies operating in Hong Kong, which include a blend of organisations founded in Hong Kong, Mainland China and overseas.

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