MS SARA Edmonston gets "the stare" everywhere she goes because at 38, she is impressively young for her position.

In fact, her age can be deceiving in more ways than one. The head of operations (Asia Pacific) and head of global operations centre at The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has 20 years of working experience in the finance sector, thanks to an early start.

Traded studies for work

Growing up in Kent, England, Ms Edmonston began her career right after her A levels, trading her place at Nottingham Trent University for work experience at French bank Paribas.

"The year out was crucial in giving me a clear understanding of what banking operations is all about. I did foreign exchange confirmation - the most basic of entry-level positions in operations - but I met people whom I identified as role models," she says.

"I think internships are so important in helping to set one's career goals. So many people end up in a job without knowing what it really is and then disliking it for what it is."

A year later, she entered university to read her favourite subject, history, while working at the Saudi American Bank during holidays.

"Most of what I know about finance, I could have learnt it on the job, but a university degree reflects a certain level of analytical ability, cultural exposure and credibility," she says.

When she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in humanities in 1991, she accepted a permanent position with the Saudi American Bank.

"It was a conservative start at a small bank. There were only 55 people, but I learnt about organisational skills," she says.

Organised achiever

Today, with some 370 people under her charge, Ms Edmonston's ability to be highly organised proved to be a prized asset.

"In my job now, I shuttle between Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo. Part of my job is managing change management in the organisation, which looks into improving the way we do things.

"Besides technical knowledge of financial products, you need to be very organised," she says.

Despite her rigorous workload, she is doing her dissertation for her part-time Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme offered by Warwick University.

She plans to take Cantonese and Mandarin lessons as soon as she finds time in her new office in Hong Kong, which she was posted to six months ago.

"Doing the MBA was the best decision I've ever made. After years of work experience, putting some theory around how I already do things felt like common sense," she says.

"Coming to Asia, I learnt that I can't do everything myself. Unlike in London, most of my team are not physically in the same location. I have to keep myself in check at the strategic level and then delegate work to the right people for execution."

Taking the initiative to bear challenges plays a big part in her rise to a management position.

Prior to joining RBS, she worked for nine years at UBS on interest rate settlement payment for foreign exchange options and derivatives.

"When UBS merged with Warburg, I requested for a supervisory role in settlement management as I foresaw the need for the new role to be created," she says.

On accepting her first responsibilities at RBS five years ago to re-engineer the fixed income operations department, she also relished in doing "something totally different from what she already knew".

"Operations used to be seen as the support back room where people key in data and press buttons. Today, it is about providing quality direct-client service.

"Also, you can't just take a piece of the pie, sit at your desk and not care about what goes on upstream and downstream.

"To me, managing people is not about controlling people. It's about looking after people, getting them to challenge their work, to find a better way to do things and to deliver ideas with creativity. That's what I like about my job."