Echo Zhao, Country head of Saxo Bank for China, shares with us how she managed to apply work skills at home to allow her both success in business, and in her role as a mother.
Echo Zhao has had a long relationship with Saxo Bank, which began immediately after graduating from Copenhagen Business School in 2005. At this moment, getting a job at Saxo Bank was a big goal of hers: “Obviously as a very famous Danish international financial institution it is everyone’s dream to be part of the bank” explains Echo. After seven rounds of interviews, she finally got an offer and started her dream job.
Geely Holding Group purchased a controlling stake in Saxo Bank in 2018, and in December of 2019 the two groups inked a technological joint venture to provide financial and regulatory technology solutions to financial institutions such as banks and fintech companies in China.
During her time in the company, Echo rose from a sales associate to a country head, and attributes her success to the drive to excel and a lot of hard work (as well as a little bit of luck).
Although making sales calls in a foreign language, Echo was managing to make over 100 calls every day during her first few months, a work ethic which put her Nordic colleagues under quite some pressure. She never hesitates to jump at opportunities, often going the extra mile to do so. At the time, back in 2005, there were only four Chinese nationals working in the company, and they were asked if they would be willing to translate the trading platform into Chinese on top of all their daily tasks. Echo was the only one to raise her hand and the project was completed while still meeting her sales targets.
Such an attitude won her both appreciation and respect and in 2006 she was asked to set up retail operations in Singapore and lead a team of 25 sales associates. In order to develop and scale the business, Echo constantly tried to push the boundaries and explore new options, so much so that whenever coming to the compliance officer with suggestions, he would often begin with “No! But let me hear what you have to say.” However, many of these ideas helped with Saxo Bank’s deep integration with the local market and two years later the team had the top performance in the company.
Echo considers herself lucky as she joined the company at a time when the bank planned to branch out into Asian markets. Aiding this was a transparent, nurturing corporate culture where ideas were expressed freely, and with an importance placed on nurturing young talent.
Looking for new challenges, Echo arrived in Beijing in 2008 to act as Chief Representative Officer for Saxo Bank. Due to the constraining regulatory environment of the times, in 2010 she decided to take a short break to recharge herself professionally and to begin putting her family life in order before returning to Saxo in 2014. “I always had the feeling that at some point I would be back,” she says. After rejoining the company, she has since had a chance to help steer the group to its bright future.
“My friends joke I was a late bloomer. I started thinking about family very late” she says. She managed to achieve it all with a level of efficiency reflected in her work – something that she uses from time to time in her family life.
Consistent with her style, Echo did not fail to surprise people when her son was born. Two hours before his birth, Echo was still in a meeting with various business leaders, among them the founder of Saxo Bank, Kim Furnais. A group of nervous executives rushed her down from the 92nd floor and hailed a taxi to take her to the hospital.
Today Echo manages to balance her career with bringing up three young children. While she claims to be a bad example of work-life balance, she admits that some of her work skills have come in handy when managing her children.
“My daughter came to me and said ‘It’s daddy’s birthday and I want to do him a painting but I don’t know how to do it’, then started crying. I started asking her questions and trying to guide her to think things through. After 20 minutes, I managed to encourage her to come up with the answers herself, which made her so happy.”
“It was the first time I realized how much people appreciate when you show them how to fish rather than just offering them the fish. I started to practice coaching at work and leverage my skills at home to make my life and my kids’ lives easier.” (While she advocates the use of coaching with her kids, she cautions people to never try coaching their spouses!)
“I’m not the perfect mum and I’m still trying to learn but I try to use some business thinking to better manage my family life,” says Echo. While she can’t always find hours to stay with her kids, she can always find a few minutes to spend quality time with them. “That all adds up. What I see is that quality is more important than quantity. So I’m trying to spend quality time with my family and trying to prioritise the important things.” She feels that she is now achieving a better work-life balance and that her family is happy with this change.