Conversations with Eric Sim

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao

From helping his father sell prawn noodles at the hawker centre to scaling the peaks of investment banking as a Managing Director at UBS, Mr Eric Sim unveils networking tips he has picked up, and provides insights on advancing one’s career. Sim founded Institute of Life with the mission of helping young professionals achieve success at work and in life. Among his many achievements, he is a finance professor teaching at top universities around the world and boasts a massive following on LinkedIn. A newly minted author, his book ‘Small Actions’ gained rave reviews, and in May 2022, was nominated for the Business Book Awards in London.

I have a portfolio career — I suppose I have many jobs, but no boss.

My typical day starts at 5:30am with reading and writing. Sometimes I write my LinkedIn posts, while other times I edit my book. I am currently working on editing the Mandarin version of my book, which will be published this October. To be productive throughout the day, I usually exercise during lunch before meeting potential clients to explore business leads and maintain relationships.

In the evening, I teach at universities, speak at conferences, and host LinkedIn live events. I recently spoke at a webinar organised by Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Society India.

My days may also look very different. I recently returned from a two-week trip from Europe, where I attended a business book award dinner in London. Apart from this, I visited IE Business School in Madrid to shoot a video with the School’s dean on the skills students need to be equipped with for the working world. Curious about other cultures, I also swung by Istanbul to learn about Turkish culture and the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Other than being unafraid of failure, mastering public speaking is very important. As a trainer, you should be able to capture the attention of your audience, and tell personal stories that have useful applications. To have interesting personal stories, you need to constantly try new things.

Being able to sell a product and gain trust are also essential. I learned that through my banking career.

Other skills such as photography, video editing, and graphic design also come in handy. As an entrepreneur, I had to do many things on my own until my business reached a certain size.

LinkedIn calls me a Key Opinion Leader. I think it is because my leadership style more closely resembles a coach who provides guidance rather than instructions. I take pride in helping my employees and business partners grow.

The things I teach are based on real-life experiences. If you follow the hashtag #66smallactions on LinkedIn, you will be able to read my students’ and followers’ reviews on how they have taken action after reading my book or attending my classes — I believe many have become better versions of themselves. So, you are not only learning from me, but from my network as well.

Apart from this, I think my students can relate to my background. My father was a hawker who sold prawn noodles for 30 years. I helped him since primary school, till I was in university. My students and followers were happy to know that even without family connections, a strong network, or robust financial resources, it is still possible to achieve success.

When I first left banking and founded IOL, I thought many would find my experience valuable. Truth be told, I was unable to find more than a handful of customers. This was because although I had a great product to offer, my marketing was not up to par. Take Apple for example; as much of a household name as it is today, they still dedicate much effort to advertising. It takes time for people to get to know you and your product. Fortunately, after several years, I have established myself, and now that the business has grown, I have the luxury of choosing who I want to work with.

My initial failure was also a chance to humble myself and remember the hard work that goes into becoming successful. When working for big banks, I was relying on their branding. When I transitioned to becoming the founder of my company, I could only rely on my personal brand to attract business. While it did bruise my ego, it also helped me understand the challenges faced by people who are just starting out in business.

I was trained as an engineer, and lacked social skills. When I joined DBS, I did not do well. After two years, I decided to embark on a fresh start, and pursue my Master’s in Finance in the UK. It was my first time living in the West. This time, I decided to focus on developing my social skills and immersing myself in different cultures. It set the stage for my international banking career.

Of course, the change did not come overnight.

One skill I have picked up to improve my sociability is to know a few restaurants well. This is essential when entertaining friends and clients. The moment you walk into the restaurant, the manager greets you by name and seats you at a good spot. You know exactly what to order because you know the menu so well. When you know your restaurants well, you can focus more on your guests — they immediately feel special, and it creates a warm atmosphere on which you can begin to build a relationship. This will help you build your social capital and grow your network.

A banker is someone who solves their clients’ financial problems. Let us use the example of Elon Musk buying Twitter. If you are a banker involved in this transaction, you would advise him on the price to pay for Twitter, and arrange financing for him. Where do you find $44 billion? What kind of loan is most suitable? What collateral can he pledge for this loan? If you are a mergers & acquisitions (M&A) banker, you need to know the listing rules and advise him of when to disclose his holdings of Twitter’s shares.

This is just one of the many types of bankers. There are others, including corporate and private bankers.

It is the ability to win the trust of customers and bring in business. To do that, I must first understand clients’ needs. Covering international clients is also crucial, because the Singapore market alone is too small.

To treat juniors and support staff (including the tea lady) well, and with respect. It would be very disappointing if people respect your rank, but not your person. A good test is how many people still want to stay in touch with you even after you are no longer MD.

You get to interact with some of the most talented people from around the world as colleagues. In the industry, it is important to be an ‘intra-preneur’. You decide where to travel and who to spend your time with, but you must be able to justify it to your boss at the end of the year with the revenue that you bring in.

Not challenging, as long as you have strong product knowledge and good relationships.

A good boss is someone who trusts you, and you will find that having their trust encourages you to venture outside of your comfort zone. This is great for self-improvement. Without trust, this encouragement is replaced by fear, particularly that of making mistakes. You will stagnate until you eventually become obsolete.

Work-life balance. I actually instead practice work-life integration. I would plan my business and personal trips at the same time for optimisation, so that I could make the most of my time overseas. For instance, I may apply for a day of leave on a business trip to guest lecture at a university that I had previously liaised with.

During my holiday overseas, I made it a point to visit my company’s overseas branches and catch up with colleagues.

I also set aside time for relaxation. Every Monday at 11am I go to the gym, and you should carve out time for yourself very intentionally. Whether your outlet is writing, dancing, or gardening, you must engage in activities to unwind from your stresses. This allows you to return recharged and ready for more intense work.

Not at all. I try to bring my family with me on some of my trips where possible. Apart from this, when I relocated for my career, perhaps every three to four years, we always moved as a family, and I think it is very important to live together as a family.

Studying my Master’s definitely had a big impact on my career, because I began to explore beyond solely academics. Being in the UK afforded me the opportunity to learn more about Western culture and mingle with international students in my cohort.

The culture there is much more expressive, and people are willing to take the initiative to talk to others. This encouraged me to also speak up more, sit at the front of the class, and be unafraid to ask questions.

It really helped me pivot from banking to a portfolio career – I became a professional speaker because of CFA. They have invited me to different places, including Beijing, Bahrain, and Bangalore, to speak on the key skills to being successful. I am glad this helped me establish a global network of CFA charterholders.

To be frank, I did not have many ambitions when I first started out. I just wanted to earn a decent income and raise a family. It would already be a big improvement to simply work in an air-conditioned office, compared to my father who had been a hawker for much of his life. But now, my ambitions are different, and I yearn to do more; I often hold five to seven jobs at any one time. Marketing specialist, book author, career coach, university lecturer, etc.

The publication of my book was a proud moment for me. I failed English and literature in school, and never thought that I would be an author one day. Now, I am working on the Mandarin version of my book for the China market – a great opportunity for me to learn about Chinese business culture as well.

I wanted to help the 22-year-old Erics and Ericas out there — young people without network or resources, just like I was at that age.