Meet Paulus Mok of Citibank

Paulus Mok started his career in banking at HSBC Hong Kong as a trainee with a BA from the University of Hong Kong. In just a few years, Mok was relocated to Canada to take on a more senior role, where he later completed his MBA. He then embarked on a nearly three-decade-long journey with Citibank, where he has held management positions in Canada, China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As the Chairman of Citibank Taiwan Limited since 2017, Mok oversees all of Citi’s business and franchise operations in Taiwan while also focusing on Citi’s commitment to its corporate clients’ expansions and sustainable business practices.

Mok connected virtually with TOPICS editor Julia Bergström to discuss his career journey, the importance of persistence, and what Taiwan’s banking sector can do to accelerate digitalization and improve user experiences. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

What drew you to the banking sector?

I come from Hong Kong, where financial services are one of the key sectors of the economy. While in some countries, the manufacturing/industrial segments may be the key drivers for economic growth, financial services play an important role in enhancing economic and social development.

I was also drawn by the opportunity to learn how companies conduct business and deploy capital and how people manage wealth and spend money. In 28 years, I’ve been through various cycles – from the great financial crisis to Brexit and the emergence of China’s capital market. All these events, along with experiences gained from widely different markets, have taught me more than I thought I’d learn during my career.

Did you have any mentor figures at the beginning of your career? What lessons did they teach you that you still use today?

One of the great advantages of working at Citi is its diverse talent pool, so I’ve met people of all stripes who taught me various lessons. Personally, my mentor figures have always been my bosses, and a few of them gave me some of the best tips that I still use.

Firstly, when you’re doing well, it’s time to be careful not to get too comfortable – you need to think longer term and get out of your comfort zone.

That’s a lesson I used when I decided to move to Korea. I was running Citi China at the time and delivering impressive results – growth, people, business, all aspects looked promising – when, out of the blue, my boss said, “would you consider working in other countries like South Korea?”

He wanted me to think broader and consider working in locations where I wasn’t familiar with the culture and language. Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and consider adventure when you choose your next steps.

The second important lesson I learned was insisting on doing the right thing, not the popular thing, although it may take time to see results. Sometimes you may meet resistance, and you may not see the immediate outcome, but eventually, persistence will pay off and lead you to success – as long as you do the right thing all the time.

What about your own leadership style? What are some essential qualities of a good manager?

I am a firm believer in team collaboration, so I forge partnerships and build trust. When I arrived in Taiwan, I told my team that I wanted to work hand-in-hand with everyone, which meant we needed to trust each other as partners. Once you have established a partnership with your team, you can challenge each other and be transparent about your decisions.

As a manager, you should empower your employees, let them take charge, and help shoulder their burdens. Accountability is also important, especially for leaders, and it goes for both the good and the bad. We can’t only take the glory in good times – we also need to be held accountable when results disappoint us.

As a leader, you need to deal with difficult dialogues and can’t shy away from navigating challenges. You also need to be unafraid to make decisions. There’s no guarantee that you’ll always make the right decision. When you do make the wrong choice, you need to take the consequences without deferring blame and learn to avoid similar mistakes.

You’re a Co-Chair of AmCham’s Banking Committee – what are the main areas the committee focuses on that could improve the banking sector in Taiwan?

Taiwan has solid economic fundamentals, a robust tech sector, and a friendly and democratic society. It certainly has room to go from strong to stronger. A few areas that we could consider further advocating for and investing in include improving user experience, bringing more overseas investors and issuers into the market, and having our peers in financial services and regulators continue to embrace international trends.

Digitalization is one of the key areas where Taiwan has an opportunity to accelerate. We need to be bolder, learn from other markets and international best practices, share with regulators and legislators, and see how we may expedite the digitalization pace for financial services.

To that end, we need a clear agenda and collaboration across segments, for example, on how we can offer more solutions on cross-border financial services and create a better link to the world.

Citi works diligently to implement Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts. What are some of the core ESG focus areas at Citi?

Citi is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, not only within our own firm but also with our partners and clients. To achieve this, we’ve appointed a global Chief Sustainability Officer.

Domestically, Citibank Taiwan published the first validated ESG report two years ago. We also have an ESG taskforce with our partners and ESG workstreams that involve everything from our premises to community work.

One of the key components of our ESG efforts is how we evaluate business opportunities. For this, we use our ESRM, or Environmental Risk Management Framework. When we run into business opportunities, we have to look into our sector-specific requirements and evaluate them according to the framework. We’ve also been working to offer products and services and learn from best practices. For example, we offer ESG-linked foreign exchange transactions that help motivate clients to meet their KPIs.

Citi has also launched an equity benchmark index family focused on ESG so that when our clients put money into their investments, they also contribute to a better world.

When we talk about ESG, a lot of people tend to only think of the environmental aspect, but Citi also focuses heavily on the social aspect. We do affordable financing and have contributed more than NT$72 million to help youngsters equip themselves with skills. We’ve helped over a thousand young people get jobs and internships in Taiwan.

Citi is also proud of our culture of Diversity & Inclusion. More than 70% of Citi’s employees in Taiwan are women, as are 65% of senior-level managers. We work to ensure fair compensation and promotion and set ourselves apart from other financial firms in terms of gender equality.

Citi last year decided to exit from consumer banking services in Taiwan to focus on corporate banking. What does this mean for the future strategy and operations of Citibank Taiwan?

It is a part of the ongoing strategy refresh but doesn’t change Citi’s commitment to Taiwan. We’ve been here for close to 60 years now, constantly developing with our individual and corporate clients. We’ve seen our corporate clients grow from primarily domestic companies to international giants, and we’ve successfully helped many Taiwanese companies and financial services companies to expand and invest in ASEAN, Europe, and North America.

With the strategic refresh, we will further strengthen our focus on helping our institutional sector clients grow and expand to new levels. We will continue to deploy our capital to the right segments and opportunities and expand human and technology resources in key areas like our Securities Services as well as Treasury and Transaction Services. This will provide even more innovative solutions and resiliency services that help our clients achieve their sustainable growth goals. For example, Citi has dedicated Mandarin-speaking people in some major locations outside Taiwan to serve our Taiwanese clients, and this trend will likely continue going forward.

What advice would you give to young professionals looking to build a career in banking?

Never stop learning, and don’t be afraid to do the extra work. If you are looking to build a career, you’ll want as much experience as possible, and you’ll want to learn and maximize your exposure. Launch yourself into different projects, take initiative and make the extra effort. Don’t be afraid to take on difficult assignments – challenge yourself. And when you see room for improvement, whether it’s a good opportunity or a novel way of doing things, share your thoughts and speak up.

Don’t be too narrow in what you’re ready to do or where you’re willing to go. I’ve gained invaluable lessons from my various postings, which also turned out to be valuable experiences for my family. It might not be very comfortable to start with when you go to a new place, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I like to golf and do different activities with my wife – we aim to balance spending time indoors and outdoors. Work-life balance and well-being are important parts of Citi culture. Since moving to Taiwan, we’ve started really enjoying going to hot springs. It’s nice to drive out to a new hot spring area, relax and enjoy delicious food. We always look for opportunities to try new restaurants on the island. Taiwan is truly an amazing place with great food and beautiful scenery, and I can’t wait to explore it more.