How calculated career risks can pay off

As a trained lawyer and actuary, Joyce Au-Yeung’s willingness to embrace the unknown and be flexible about her career identity has led her in exciting and unexpected directions.

As a Law/ Commerce / MBA graduate, Joyce Au-Yeung  (a qualified lawyer and actuary) has been as surprised as anyone to find herself working in healthcare.


Joyce Au-Yeung (LLB'03)

“It was pure accident,” says Hong Kong-based Au-Yeung.  “Like many young, ambitious lawyers and actuaries, I was looking for an opportunity to run a corporate business, but I discovered much more.”

From law to healthcare

Her career in healthcare began following a chance meeting with the “gutsy CEO” of New Zealand company Sovereign Insurance, who offered her the position of Chief Officer Health Business. At the time, she was working for Australia Post as their Corporate Development Manager.

“It was a risky move,” says the now-Regional Head of Health and Distribution Asia Pacific for Zurich Insurance.

I was in my early thirties and I moved to a country I’d never been to before, where I didn’t know anyone.

Even more challenging was that, with little knowledge of the local healthcare industry and almost no experience of leading such a diverse enterprise, the board gave her just two years to turn around a line of business that had been declining for almost a decade.

“I devoted a lot of time to learning about the landscape,” she says. “I visited Financial Advisors across the country, attended morning sales meetings at banks that distributed our products and presented at over 100 advisor roadshows a year.”

Benefits of legal training

To drive sales, Au-Yeung drew on her foundational actuarial and legal training, something she continues to do today when faced with periods of uncertainty.

“I solve problems by going back to first principles. I help my team to break complex goals into achievable building blocks,” she says.

My actuarial background means I can analyse trade-offs, identify issues and make rational commercial decisions.

She also includes legal teams in commercial decision-making.

“Often legal teams get blamed for slowing processes down, but I think it’s because they don’t get brought in early enough.”

While the role wasn’t without its challenges (Au-Yeung discovered New Zealand’s non-hierarchical culture could “strip leaders bare to the soul sometimes”), after three years the business was thriving and it was time for her next challenge.

The next challenge

She moved to Hong Kong in 2016, joining Zurich in June last year, where she is focussed on re-positioning insurance in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Au-Yeung has been given the challenge of creating a new business unit that delivers products, services and experiences to address the unmet healthcare needs of people around Asia Pacific. The business is partnering with doctors and industry leaders in fitness, nutrition, stress management, sleep and chronic disease management.

“As a payer, we have an important role to play in transforming the $US13 trillion healthcare industry. This means providing access to quality care and improving affordability,” she says.

“The prevalence of chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – is increasing around the world. But many of these diseases, which account for tens of millions of deaths each year, are already within our power to treat or cure.

“We are seeing major advances in medicine, data and technology that have the potential to make a real impact on people’s lives. It’s an exciting time to be in healthcare.”

Au-Yeung finds leadership “exhilarating”, reflecting that she has learned a lot about herself, both the good and the bad, throughout her career so far.

When she first joined Australia Post, it was the behest of its CEO, who offered her a generic position without a job description. Not yet 30, she ended up managing high profile acquisitions and joint venture deals designed to transform the business.

Hanging up my boots as an actuary and jumping into an unknown industry without a job description was a bit scary, but I learned that we can all benefit from being flexible and asserting ourselves in different ways across a business.

“I’m grateful for the leaders that have been willing to take a risk on me, and now I try to pay that forward.”

Au-Yeung says she has learned to take a people-first approach to recruiting and building high-performing teams.

“I’ve developed an intuitive radar for potential and I’m known for making unconventional hiring decisions. I love watching people discover their potential and having a diverse range of perspectives in my teams.”

By Catriona May