In Asia, a Surprising Acceptance of Failure

In search of the next fintech innovation, executives say they need an unusual number of risk-takers with past failures.

During his job interview to become the chief fintech officer with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Sopnendu Mohanty shared a list of his various professional successes. But the executive turned quickly—with no embarrassment—to talk about his failures; he thought it was essential to share them with his potential employers, Singapore’s central bank. “Innovation jobs are filled with failures from many of the experiments you have done along the way," he says. 

Investing in finance technology has grown exponentially worldwide, but nowhere has it grown faster than in the Asia. In 2015, companies there invested $4.3 billion—a nearly 400% increase from just one year before. (Globally, fintech investments jumped more than 75%, to $22.2 billion). But as fintech here booms—and as Singapore and Hong Kong vie to be the next innovation hubs—executives say the battle for talent has taken an interesting turn, with the conservative sector looking for more overt risk-takers. 

In interviews for a new Korn Ferry report, outside experts and industry executives say they're embracing candidates who have a proven record of risk-taking and of stumbling along the way. “Established financial services businesses need to find ways to incorporate an appetite for innovation, experimentation, and risk in their delivery channels without changing their attitudes and practices toward financial risk,” says Nick Evans, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Wholesale, Consumer, and Digital Financial Services practices.  

In the report, “Learning from Failure, to Succeed," Evans and his co-authors Dave Zes, Susanne Blazek, and Signe Spencer spoke with tech and finance executives throughout Asia about their experiences hiring for fintech positions. Each said they actively sought out people comfortable with the concept of failure. True failure, one executive pointed out, is a strong predictor of a person’s ability to pivot with the business, deal with the unexpected, and survive.

Besides the interviews, the report also highlights the traits of the most sought-after entrepreneurs, a career category that many industry experts believe is the good predictor for the startup environment in fintech. These entrepreneurs possess high levels of courage—the ability to embrace tough challenges risks with optimism and confidence and a willingness to champion ideas despite dissent. That risk-taking stance often runs counter to the traditional values of financial services, a culture focused on mitigating risk, predictability, stability, and regulatory compliance.  

That stance, of course, remains entrenched in much of the business. But some firms have adjusted their practices for risk-taking. Heather Carroll Cox, chief technology and digital officer for financial firm USAA, says that instead of fixating on how something fails, the firm tries to focus on testing and learning fast from failures—enabling it to better understand customer behaviors and expectations. “What really matters are the discoveries and learnings that you derive when you do not get something right,” Cox says in the report.

For his part, Mohanty says embracing past trip-ups helped him get the job with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, where he is now tasked with building teams that need to balance innovation with the mission of the central bank. There are certain elements of failure that no one wants to have, he says in the report, particularly failures that result from carelessness. But he says that candidates who have experienced and articulate their failures generally succeed. 

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