Student Stories


From UK to China – Tom Stahl


Class of 2014 (Germany)
Pre-MBA: District Manager, General Motors (UK)
Post-MBA: Director - Employee Benefits, MetLife (China)

Why did you decide to leave your job as a District Manager at General Motors and do an MBA?

I knew that without an MBA sooner or later my career would hit a ceiling. I was also at a stage in my life where I desired change, and did not want to remain on the same, predictable path.

At work, several projects in Asia first got me interested in the region. Compared with other emerging markets, Asia has the most opportunities and is the most open to foreigners. So I made the move to explore both my career prospects and business in Asia by doing an MBA here.

2. Why did you choose an MBA in Hong Kong instead of other Asian cities like Singapore or Shanghai?

Hong Kong is centrally located in Asia, with proximity to both China and Southeast Asia. As I was not sure where I wanted to go or what exactly I wanted to do after the MBA, Hong Kong offered me greater flexibility in terms of my future career.

I was also looking for a school with a global reputation that offered a Western education style with an Asian influence. The HKUST MBA was thus the perfect fit for me.

3. Did the HKUST MBA meet your expectations?


The program has met and in many areas exceeded my expectations. I was particularly impressed with the global diversity of students and the quality of the faculty at the program.

In my class, we had 27 nationalities among just about 100 students, making the MBA one of the most global experiences in our lives. Our classmates come from different cultures and career trajectories, offering an extremely interesting mix and diversity in the classroom.

Many of our professors were educated in the U.S. but had substantial experience in Asia, and so were able to share their wisdom and experience from both worlds. Professor Chris Doran was one of my favorites and truly a world-class faculty member. Previously a consultant with McKinsey, he taught us not only how to use strategy models and frameworks for business, but also how to apply these frameworks to our own career when reviewing our competitive advantages and potential value to employers.

4. Can you tell us about your career development after joining HKUST?


During the program, I attended the campus recruitment talk by MetLife. HKUST is one of the only two schools in Asia that MetLife targets for recruitment to its leadership development program in the region.

I was successful in obtaining an internship opportunity in Hong Kong, which was later converted to a full-time job and is rotating me through different functions and countries in Asia. So, the MBA helped me to switch from a marketing role in the automotive industry in Europe to a business development role in the insurance industry in Shanghai.

5. Why do you think MetLife hired you when you had no previous work experience in insurance or in Asia?

For global leadership programs like that offered by MetLife, the recruiters are looking for a long-term hire who will become a future leader in the company. Direct functional experience is less important in this case because the candidate will not be limited to just one role in the first few years.

What is crucial to the company is the candidate’s learning agility, leadership potential, and flexibility in working with different people across different functions, all of which can be greatly improved through the HKUST MBA.

6. How did the MBA help you to overcome the challenges of working in Asia?


As an expatriate, you are prone to being limited to the expatriate setting and network. But an Asian MBA can place Westerners in a much more local setting.

You will interact directly with different Asian cultures and people, giving you much practical insight into how to work with others and operate as a leader in this region.

Through the countless practices with classmates, alumni, faculty members and the many other people you meet during the MBA, you can become an expert networker who can easily connect and communicate with people at all levels. You will learn how to strike up a high-level conversation with senior executives, whether this be in Asia or elsewhere around the globe.

Finally, it would have been much more difficult for me to find a job in Asia without having done an MBA in the region. Companies take big risks when they place a foreigner in a local market. An MBA in Asia gave me important local experience so that recruiters could have more confidence in my suitability for an Asian role.

7. How is your experience working as a foreigner in China? How did you overcome the language or cultural barrier?


There is a definite language and cultural barrier now that I am in Shanghai. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese before the MBA and only picked up some basics during the program.

Now I am training myself to speak a little more Mandarin. In China, learning Mandarin is very important, even though most of us will have to be realistic about it: We won’t be fluent, but we can show that we are making an effort to interact better with the locals.

During the MBA, there were activities like the Japan Trek, organized by the Japan Club, to open people’s eyes to how Asian culture works. Seeing how Japanese executives actually interact with others and then having a Japanese classmate explaining the how and the why to me was an amazing learning experience.

8. What advice would you give to Western candidates who want to work in Asia?

Be humble, flexible and action-oriented. Do not expect things to happen by chance. Learn some Chinese, but be realistic about your expectations. Immerse yourself as deeply as you can and build up a good relationship with your Asian classmates.

In terms of your career, instead of competing with locals for a specific role in local markets, try to apply for jobs at regional headquarters. After you have worked there for a year or two, it will be much easier for you to land a more local role.

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